January 14, 2018
Second Sunday after Epiphany
1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
“Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.”
(Daniel L. Schutte, Here I Am, Lord, 1981)
Last week, we celebrated the baptism of Jesus, and Rod guided us as we reflected on Jesus’ baptism as a moment of renewal in the life of God’s people. Rod also guided us as we reflected on our own baptism, which is a major turning point in our spiritual lives, the beginning of our commitment to follow Christ, and the beginning of our ministry as his disciples. Today’s first reading and gospel passage are all about the call of God. The epistle reading is about some of the consequences of accepting that call, in terms of a life of personal holiness. All the readings give us an opportunity to reflect more about our response and our life of discipleship. And I think the words of this song refrain are a model or paradigm of responding to God’s call.
Let’s start with the call of Samuel.
Samuel was the child of Hannah, who believed herself barren in a culture that defined women by childbearing. She prayed to God for a child so earnestly that the old priest, Eli, thought she was drunk. She eventually became pregnant, and when Samuel was born, dedicated him to God’s service. Samuel’s life of service begins with his mother. Who are the people who mentored you into discipleship? Probably parents, perhaps a friend, a teacher, a youth group leader, a camp counsellor, a pastor. The Dean of Divinity when I studied theology used to say, “Faith is not taught; it’s caught.” All of us are here today because of the relationships that have nurtured us and brought us to a place where we are able to hear God’s call and respond.
We meet Samuel today as a young child, just at the beginning of his training under Eli. He comes on the scene at a tumultuous time in Israel’s history and at a low point in Israel’s life as the chosen people of God. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Worship continues; sacrifices are offered at the shrine in Shiloh, but there is no life, no effect. No word. No vision. No revelation. Samuel sleeps in the sanctuary; Eli sleeps in his own room. It is dusk but not dark; the lamp has not yet gone out. The long twilit evenings have prepared Samuel to hear God, even though he didn’t know it. Three times, the child hears a voice calling him by name, “Samuel! Samuel!” He doesn’t yet know the Lord; God’s word has not yet been revealed to him. Naturally, he assumes it is Eli calling him. Three times, the boy gets up and runs to see what Eli wants. Twice, the old priest tells him, “I didn’t call you; lie down again.” It sounds an awful lot like me sending my children back to bed when they were little!
Eli is old. He can no longer see well. Yet he is still serving God. Discipleship doesn’t end when our capabilities fade; it simply changes. It takes three times before Eli “gets it”, but he finally perceives that it is God calling, and he instructs Samuel what to say. Even though “the word of the Lord is rare”, it is Eli’s experience and knowledge, combined with Samuel’s place near the ark – the symbol of God’s presence – that lay the groundwork for Samuel to respond. As a child, did you ever sense you were touched by the finger of God? Did you ever feel connected to something beyond yourself? What relationships and what experiences opened you to God’s presence at work in you? As an older person, have you ever been an Eli for someone else? You’ve been serving God.
“Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.”
“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And the message Samuel hears is severe. God pronounces judgement on the house of Eli, whose sons have corrupted the worship of God into a personal scam, taking sacrifices meant for the shrine for their own use. Eli doesn’t escape judgement either, because he knew and didn’t stop his sons’ blasphemy. When God speaks, it’s not always sweetness and light, and “night” is not always just physical darkness. The call to discipleship sometimes means speaking out against situations that are wrong and behaviour that is unacceptable. The recent “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” hashtags that have both expressed and propelled a movement to call out sexual assault and serial sexual predators are examples of the prophetic call to justice and an end to silencing victims of abuse.
In the morning, Samuel is afraid to tell Eli what he heard. He is a child thrust into the adult world. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, and I can’t escape the irony of this particular President signing the proclamation at this point in American history. King’s was a Samuel call, one he accepted with fear and hesitation. In his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, King describes the turning point in his leadership for civil rights. Mentally and spiritually exhausted, with his courage nearly gone, he wondered how he could go forward when he had nothing left to give. He feared that, if he stood before people in his state of weakness, they too would falter and give up. He describes going to God in prayer and saying, “I can’t do this.” And then, he says, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, ‘Stand up for justice; stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” (King, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958).
As Samuel grows up, God acts faithfully, letting “none of his words fall to the ground”. Because of God’s constancy, all Israel comes to know that Samuel is a trustworthy prophet. This call is the beginning of his long career, culminating in the crowning of Israel’s first king, the removal of power from that king, and God’s favour coming to rest instead on David and his house. The fact that God does what God had promised confirms Samuel’s status as a prophet who speaks the word from God.
“I will go, Lord, if you lead me.” Today’s gospel reading is also about call, although the word isn’t mentioned. Andrew and another unnamed disciple of John the Baptist have already begun to follow Jesus. Having heard John identify Jesus as the Lamb of God, they leave John behind and trail after Jesus. Jesus notices, and turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?” They reply, “Where are you staying?” and Jesus invites them, “Come and see.” Andrew goes and finds his brother Simon and says, “Simon, we’ve found him! We’ve found the Messiah!” He brings his brother to Jesus, who renames him Peter, and so the new community of disciples begins to take shape.
Now Jesus sets out for Galilee. He notices Philip. Is it a coincidence that Philip is from the same town as Andrew and Peter? I don’t think so. Andrew and Peter may have told him about meeting Jesus, so this Jesus might not have been a complete unknown to Philip. Philip obviously accepts Jesus’s invitation to follow, because the first thing he does is find his friend Nathanael. We can see the parallels: Andrew finds Peter; Philip finds Nathanael. Andrew tells Peter, “We’ve found him,” and Philip tells Nathanael the same thing. All of them respond to the invitation, “Come and see.” That’s how disciples are made, by invitation. In the simple turning aside from life as it was to follow Jesus, we see the pattern of what “call” means. I’m reminded of Catherine setting off for camp at Anglican Island for the first time at the age of ten, not knowing a soul. She tried very hard to get her two best friends to go with her, but neither family were involved with church and the friends declined. Catherine fell in love with the island, with the staff, and with the canoeing and out-tripping part of camp life especially. When she came home she didn’t talk to her friends about God or Jesus or the chapel or bible studies. She talked about the fabulous time she’d had and said, “You have to come too!” The result was that one of her friends did go with her the next year and ended up seeking baptism because of what she experienced at camp. God calls all humanity to “come and see” – to leave behind old assumptions of what’s important and to find in Jesus the meeting place between heaven and earth, the point of contact between God and humanity. That is our primary, baptismal call.
There is a sacrificial element to discipleship that we should not forget or gloss over. John called Jesus the Lamb of God. His hearers would have connected this immediately with the sacrifices of the Temple and especially with the Passover lamb. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship. Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters faced bayonets, fire hoses, Billy clubs and vicious dogs to stand up for the right. King paid for his discipleship with his life. Catherine risked humiliation and rejection from kids whose friendship she valued to give the invitation “come and see”. What kind of sacrifice, what identification with the Lamb of God might we be called on to make in our day, when addiction, income disparity, denial of science, abuse of power and plain vulgarity rule the news?
Call and response. First, there has to be an invitation. God calls, but often it’s through another person. Remember what I said at the beginning? Faith is not taught; it’s caught. Even when it seems like “the voice in the night”, events and relationships have been preparing us to hear and, more importantly, to listen.
“I will hold your people in my heart.” That is the work of a disciple – to hold in our hearts the world that God made, that God loves, and that God wants to make whole. Last week, one of my best friends officiated at the funeral service in Victoria for two little girls murdered by their father in a custody dispute. Somehow, she had to find words to speak into a situation where there are no words, to bring healing and hope. Last week, people died in mudslides that swept down hills made bare by fires that we’ve been told will probably get worse as climate change progresses. Last week, just as we might have thought things couldn’t get worse, they did, as the self-styled “stable genius” spoke aloud his vile and racist thoughts. It’s tempting for disciples to want to give up in the face of such grief, anguish, confusion, anger, and helplessness. It’s tempting to give up hope. It’s tempting to turn away from the word from God that must speak into the hard realities of our lives. It’s at these times that we need to stop and listen, listen for that voice of reassurance, and believe that God will do what God has promised. How can we believe that God will be faithful? Because God knows us – knows us intimately, through and through. The Psalmist says, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me…you discern my thoughts from afar…you are acquainted with all my ways.” There is no place we can go where God is not present. Nathanael asks Jesus, “How did you know me?” As God knows us, so “all Israel knew that Samuel was a trusted prophet.” We have confidence in God because God knows us better than we know ourselves. And then, all we have to do is hold God’s people in our hearts and trust that the way will be made clear for God to act through us.
Like Samuel, like Andrew and Peter and Philip and Nathanael, each of us has a call to be a disciple, and together we have a call to be the Body of Christ in this part of God’s world. They weren’t any different from us – fishermen, tradespeople, a little boy. All of them said yes. The way we live into our call may change as our circumstances change, as we grow, as we age, as we acquire wisdom, and finally as we reach the end of our journey. But the basic call remains the same throughout our lives, to be attentive and responsive to the word from God. “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
“Hear I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.” Amen.