a sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B]
1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51
It seems about once a week I misplace my cell phone. I’m sure many of you are not surprised. I’m a bit attached to it, and I walk around with the thing either in my hand or in my pocket, and it’s within an arm’s length if I’m sitting down somewhere. Typically when this happens I retrace my steps and find it pretty quickly, but after last Thursday’s staff meeting I was not having any luck. I had no idea where it was. Beth, our volunteer coordinator, was in the office, and as Beth is always ready and willing to help anyone with anything, she jumped up and said, “Why don’t I call your phone you listen for it to ring.”
And I said, “Beth, that’s a great idea, but, first of all, the church is large and I’ve been several places this afternoon and, second of all, I’ve put it on ‘vibrate.’”
Before I could answer she had already dialed my number and was standing there, waiting for it to ring somewhere. She said, “Maybe if you’re really quiet you can hear it vibrate.” So for the next several minutes, Beth stood in the office, repeatedly calling my cell phone number while I tiptoed around the church, standing in different places, and trying to strain my ears to hear that “vvvvvvvvt” sound. I stood in my office. Nothing. Then I went and stood for a while in the Commons. Nothing. Then I started to walk down the hall, listening, concentrating. Finally, after a few minutes, I heard a distant, muffled, but familiar cell phone ring. As it turns out, the ringer was not on vibrate. There, locked in the locked and darkened chapel, lying on the top of a chair that had been scooted underneath the table, was my phone. And when I picked it up, it said I had missed three calls already. All of them were from Beth. I answered it and now I know I should have said, “Speak, Beth, for your servant is listening.”
Just as young Samuel learned when he was lying down in his darkened chapel years ago, serving the priest Eli, the call of the Lord can take several times to get through. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, Scripture tells us, which is a small but important detail slipped into the story. Experiences with God were rare for Samuel and his people, which meant they were not accustomed to hearing or discerning how God was moving and speaking in their time. Apparently even priests and people who slept in the temple of the Lord were not quick on the receiving end. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, which meant God called Samuel four times before he finally responded.
And even when he responded he needed the help of Eli, his mentor, to perceive it and discern it. Kind of like I needed to have Beth’s help to locate my phone, hearing and responding were not things Samuel could do in isolation, with no one else around him to mediate and articulate what the call meant. What’s more, the story tells us Samuel didn’t even yet know the Lord. That is, Samuel hadn’t had a chance to develop his own relationship with God and come to understand God’s character. Too young, perhaps, or too inexperienced, Samuel was not the kind of person who most would expect to be getting direct communication from God. But that’s often how God works: choose the unexpected, the overlooked. He’s essentially just the acolyte, and yet Samuel is told he can respond, just like anyone else, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
The call of the Lord is not always easy to hear and pick up on, and so often we are deaf or clueless to it because we’ve essentially put the ringer on vibrate and walked away. Maybe we don’t want it to disturb us. Maybe we’ve got preconceived notions about how God calls people and what it might feel like when his Word comes. Somehow we get in our heads that knowing and hearing God has to feel a certain way, or such an experience can only happen to certain kinds of people.
In our confirmation classes each year we always take time to address questions about God and faith and the church that the confirmands themselves have. We then attempt to build those questions into the curriculum by answering them together as a group. This year one of the questions that confirmand submitted led to a very fundamental faith conversation and at least three said on the test it was the most important thing they learned all semester.
The person asked, “I’ve never had a God moment. How or why do you believe?” Responding to that question required some deep-thinking on my own part, and as we talked about it in the group, we realized that knowing God is going to feel and look a bit different to everyone. Some experience faith more in their heart as an emotional sensation of closeness with a higher power while for others is it more based in the brain or in their thinking, as they come to a deeper and gradual understanding of something they understand to be true about God. Both are valid experiences with the Word of the Lord, but to say that having faith means having one common standardized experience limits the way God speaks and calls his people.
Sometimes I worry that the church defines having faith solely in terms of one or the other, that if you go on a mission trip or a youth event and don’t feel the same way others say they’re feeling then you are missing God’s call. Something one person might label as a “God moment” may not even move the needle for someone else. The important part to remember (if there is one important part), is to stay open to possibilities, to be ready to walk around and concentrate on listening, to be willing to be surprised and to wonder. It also means remaining in community with Elis and Beths, those who have experience hearing and listening and discerning what God is up to.
And that brings us to Philip and Nathaniel under the fig tree. Jesus’ ministry begins in Galilee, a place where many people might have said the word of the Lord was rare. A relatively far-off place, Galilee was a land where different cultures and languages and customs intersected. That is, it was not thoroughly Jewish, not all that sophisticated. It was quite rural, and many towns were too small to have a synagogue. Places like Nazareth and Bethsaida were especially off the beaten path, not regions where one would expect God to be particularly vocal. Yet this is the area where Jesus begins to meet and find followers. It’s good to keep in mind, probably now more than ever, that the face of God’s Son often first appears in the places we’ve written off, the areas we think are beyond or beneath us.
Wherever it breaks in—Galilee, Henrico County, Hanover County—Jesus’ ministry and call is issued with the most simple and open-ended of invitations. “Follow me,” is what he first says to Philip. “Come and see” is another one that Jesus uses over and over, and it’s that one that Philip himself uses when he finds his friend Nathaniel. Would Philip and Nathaniel have described their encounter with Jesus as a God moment? Perhaps so. Nathaniel certainly has his socks blown off by his encounter with Jesus and calls him Rabbi and Son of God and the King of Israel. And Philip, who sounds more like the head-faith type, is excited that Jesus lines up with what they’ve expected from the law and the prophets. In both cases the more important part is that they’re open to a further relationship, even when Nathaniel is initially throws shade on where Jesus is from.
So often I believe we want and expect the call of Jesus to be “Do this and you’ll get that.” We look for clear parameters, definite boundaries, a spreadsheet of what this will entail and where it will end, kind of like some version of the Field of Dreams theology—“Build this one thing and this will automatically happen.” And, to be honest, occasionally the Word does operate like that. But Jesus more often says “Come and see.” It is an invitation to stay engaged, to be gradually let in on something, to hang on and see where it leads.
And we can notice that God is still calling people into encounters with his Son Jesus. The Word of God is not rare anymore. It is walking around, it is ringing off the hook, it is wide open like a book. It has people serving on Saturday mornings handing out food from our narthex, it has thirty youth showing up on a snow day to play games and hang out with friends in Price Hall. It has called four people within the past five years to discern a call to seminary, and has sent one to South Africa to serve as a Young Adult in Global Mission. It comes to numerous people who volunteer their time through agencies like GraceInside prison ministry, Lutheran Family Services, and Crossover Ministries, the local faith-based medical clinic that offers aid to the underserved populations in our area. And the word of God rings and rings and rings in each home and workplace, calling us to respond in kindness and gentleness in moments of conflict and misunderstanding.
I think one of the challenges in the life of discipleship is to be more of a Philip and a bit less of a Nathaniel. It is to position ourselves in terms of what might be rather than what definitely can’t be. It is to keep doors open to another encounter with Jesus rather than shut them. It is to run along the way rather than stay seated under the fig tree. It is to remain open to God’s gracious calling and issue it to others rather than to say it’s over and issue judgment that’s premature. Because, truth be told, any judgment we make about someone or their faith in God this side of the resurrection of the dead is going to be premature. No one’s story is finished. No one should be written off. God calls again and again. And God uses us, again and again, to bring people to Jesus.
And, truth be told (again), God’s Word knows how to deal with rejection. It gets rejected over and over again, thrown out of the synagogues, spat upon and laughed at. It is mocked, considered unmodern and opposed to science. You know, it has even been nailed to a cross and left there to suffocate and bleed out.
And, come on. We know by now what it does when that happens. Risen, the living Word of Christ still finds a way to come to us, opening heavens of possibilities, beckoning us to follow, to give it a listen. Ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing—“vvvvvvvt!”—it is ready to show us even greater things than these.
And if you, like I, still having trouble hearing it, finding it, knowing where it might be or even what you’re looking for…head or heart…go see Beth…or someone like her. They’ll hook you up!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.