I Heard the Call and Did What Was Right

By Lisa McIndoo

The phone rang loud, right next to his head, but he was so tired that the sound just wove itself into his fitful dream. Thick gray clouds were rolling into the city as his plane landed just a few hours ago and by the time he arrived at his downtown motel to catch a much needed nap, thunder could be heard off to the west, down the bluff, across the river. The muggy constricting air began to cool—then sheets of rain. Somebody said it looked like the heavens opened up and poured the entire Mississippi River on the city. The phone rang again. It was time. He answered the call. 

Over 3,000 people braved the weather running from the street into the Mason Temple—shaking rain from their coats and hurrying to get a seat with a good view of the platform. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the microphone in support of more than 1,300 sanitation workers—garbage men—as they continued a strike to oppose low wages and sub-human treatment sanctioned by the mayor of Memphis, his city council cronies, and perhaps unknowingly, by every white person in Memphis, Tennessee. It was April 3, 1968.

He started to speak and everyone, even the storm, held their breath. “Something is happening in Memphis. Something is happening in our world ….The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion is all around.” He knew that many in the room felt like this was a time in history in which visions had disappeared. They felt like the word of the Lord was rare.

The reading from Samuel today starts in another time in history in which “the word of the Lord was rare” and “visions were not widespread.” Israel was in turmoil. There was trouble in the land and confusion all around. The tribes of Israel were in disarray. The last verse in the book of Judges says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Eli, a priest and judge of Israel had sons that were also in the family business and his boys were definitely doing what was right in their own eyes. They were corrupt and on the take from the people that they were supposed to be serving. 

Enter Samuel in our story: a good, honest, hardworking boy—not from the priestly side of the tracks, though. I imagine the obedient boy Samuel curled up near the Ark of the Covenant in the half-light of God’s lamp casting shadows on the stone walls. A voice calls out and the boy, sleepy and confused, scurries to his master. But it wasn’t Eli that was calling. And Eli, although loosing his vision, hasn’t completely lost his sight of God. He knows that God speaks when and where and to whom it is least expected. So he encourages young Samuel to receive God’s word. I can’t imagine how much courage it would take for that young boy to go back into that dimly lit room with shadows on the wall knowing that the disembodied voice of God was waiting to speak to him. But brave Samuel did return and when God called he answered. This is such a sweet story of a good boy listening to God.  And that is normally where our reading ends in the lectionary.  But we have the option, if we dare, to read on into the darkness of the room with the shadows … into the uncertainty of what sometimes really happens when God calls and you listen.

God’s news to Samuel was troubling. God tells the boy that he’s about to turn the power structure upside down in Israel—overturn the old priestly order of corruption. Samuel is afraid to tell Eli that his sons are condemned in God’s eyes. I can’t blame him. His news might end up being good for some, but right now, it’s just plain bad for others. He musters all his courage and starts telling God’s truth knowing full well it will be uncomfortable. It will create change. It will cause upset in the way things have always been done. It will shine a light on the things that have hidden in the dark. It will put justice first instead of what’s right in a few people’s eyes. It will cause some to stop and do what’s right.

Shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King began speaking, tornado sirens started sounding across the mid south. Strangely, the rain subsided and the room was still with a feeling of oneness as he spoke on …

“If I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?….Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult times ahead….”

He was called to be in Memphis to help tell the story of change. To speak bad news for some people. But good news for others. He was called by something bigger than himself to stop on his road and help this group of men that worked full time in the filth and stench of other people’s garbage and still couldn’t afford to feed their families. He was tired, weary, and although he didn’t start this fight, he knew he had to help end it. His stop in Memphis and the call he answered would end his life the very next day by a bullet from the gun of a white man that didn’t want change. 

The day after Dr. King was shot at the Lorraine Motel, the dean of our very own St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral called a group of local clergy to come right here in this building to talk. Before, many of the white clergy had been hesitant about marching in protest of the strike. But today they heard the call loud and clear. Dean Dimmick took up the processional cross and headed out the church doors—those doors right there—with clergy from all over Memphis—both black and white. Jewish and Christian. Orthodox and Baptist. Today they were called to march to the mayor’s office and deliver the truth: a change was coming. A new system was needed in Memphis because the old one was corrupt and unjust. Two weeks later, half of the white congregation of this Cathedral, displeased with the dean’s support of the strike, left and never came back. The dean preached to an almost empty house for most of the rest of 1968. The truth was bad news for some, good news for others. 

Stopping on the road, hearing a call, telling the truth is not just reserved for Samaritans, great orators, or famous leaders, however. A week ago in Paris during a unity rally, a young Muslim woman was seen marching with a sign that said, "Je suis juif,"—I am Jewish. When asked about why a Muslim was marching with so many Jews, Christians, and others, carrying her sign, she said that not even backlash from fundamental Muslims or misunderstanding from non-Muslims could keep her from standing up for what is right. She said, "It is very important for me because, as you can see, Jews and Muslims shouldn't be enemies, and they should refuse to be enemies.”

Sometimes big truths come from small people. A fifth-grade girl named Anni heard her friend James, who suffered from autism, call out her name in between punches and kicks from a group of older kids behind a stack of floor mats in the gym. She stood between the bullies and James and then she told the truth about her schoolmates to her teacher, her principle, her guidance counselor, and her parents—knowing that this could make things a lot worse before it got better. When asked why she stood up, she said, “I heard James calling me and I had to do what was right.”

Maybe we’ve all felt that tug; that nudge, heard that call. Sometimes we just let it ring knowing that when we pick up, we might have to do something uncomfortable, upset the way things have always been done. Put justice first instead of what’s right in a few people’s eyes. Maybe it’s the man sleeping on the stoop of the church that you walked on the other side of the path to avoid. Or the children that don’t have enough to eat during the summer when school lunches aren’t offered. Maybe it’s the secretary at your office that endures the flirtation of the boss. Or the friends you hear at a party making racist jokes. Maybe it’s God calling. And maybe this time that pulling at your heart, that gnawing at your soul—you just can’t put on hold. It takes courage, no doubt, to open up your ears and your heart and listen to what God is trying to tell you because it may be something that is not easy to hear. And more than that, it may be even harder to talk about. And just like Samuel, Jesus and the motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors that he called, you don’t have to be from the priestly order to take God’s call. You might not have the courage and the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Your truth may not be an earth-shattering truth, or a news-worthy truth, and you might feel your call is so very small, but it is significant to our Lord—a truth that is not easy to tell. Because in truth, our savior is waiting for us on the other end of the line. In truth he calls us to the Father. 

Wake up. Pick up the phone.

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