Salt Spring Island United Church January 18, 2015.
Rev. J. Clark Saunders I Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51
Called by Name It’s one of those stories I heard in Sunday school that left a deep impression – partly, I suppose because I was a boy and the story was about a boy who might have been my own age. The boy’s name was Samuel. He was apprenticed to a priest named Eli. In the story I was told, young Samuel hears a voice in the night calling his name. So he gets up and runs to Eli’s room and says, “Here I am, for you called me.” And Eli says he didn’t call him and that he should go back and lie down again. This happens three times – that’s the way it usually works in these stories – before Eli finally figures out that it is God who is calling the boy. Next time he hears his name called, Eli says, he should answer, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And that is what Samuel does.
We’ve entered the part of the Christian year that takes us from Christmas to Easter. It’s a time when we focus on the life and ministry of Jesus, and every year, before we get very far into that, we hear one or more of the gospel accounts of the call of the first disciples, the people who are going to help Jesus with his work. Today it was the version that John’s gospel gives us that we heard in our scripture readings. But it’s the story about God’s call that we heard in the Hebrew scriptures, the story about young Samuel, that I decided to start with. Because it’s a story that suggests some significant things about the call of God.
“I have heard you calling in the night.” We’ll be singing those words in a hymn in a few minutes. Well, the way the story tells it, it sounds as if Samuel literally heard God calling in the night. And I suppose there must be people who have experiences that are as vivid and unmistakable as that. But as a boy, I knew that I hadn’t had that kind of experience. So it was good to be told by my Sunday school teacher that a sense of call (or calling) could come in other ways – through an impulse, through a growing interest or concern or passion about something, through a feeling about the kind of life we were meant to live. And that sense can come suddenly or slowly over time.
And another thing – something I noticed particularly on my most recent reading of it this past week – is the crucial role that Eli plays in the story. I considered giving this sermon the title, “Can I say Who’s Calling?” Well, Samuel thought it was Eli who was calling. But he was wrong. It was Eli who finally figured out that this call, this attempt to make contact, was coming from God.
Now to me, that detail is about discernment. How can we know that an idea that comes to us is a godly one, or that something we think we should do has God’s endorsement? Well, we can never know for sure, of course, but it is helpful to have wise and experienced people around with whom we can test that idea or that impulse. We need other hearts and minds to help us discern whether we’re on the right track. And I’ll come back to that.
But the next thing that I get from the Samuel story is the idea of a response. You know there is a kind of singing, common especially in African and African-American music, known as “Call-and-Response.” One voice sings a line, and everybody else responds. And the song is not complete without that answer.
Now it may be that sometimes God calls and we don’t answer. Maybe we don’t realize that it’s God who is calling because we don’t have call display. Or maybe God calls when we’re out and leaves a message which we pick up later. (Think about that now.) But in our Old Testament story, God does get an answer. Even before Samuel has been helped to discern who is calling, he says to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.” Samuel was ready, eager even, to answer whoever is calling. And once he has been told who the caller is he says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
It is the response that completes the circuit, that makes the connection. And, if I can bring our gospel lesson into it at this point, the response – like the call itself -- can take various forms. Sometimes Jesus’ call, Jesus’ invitation to those who have expressed an interest in him and his way takes the form of the words, “Come and see.”
In John’s gospel, the first disciples are not called from their fishing boats at the Sea of Galilee (as they are in Matthew, Mark and Luke). In the version we find here they are already disciples of John the Baptist. Just before today’s reading begins John points out Jesus as the one he has been preparing them for, and so a couple of them (one is later identified as Andrew) go up to Jesus and ask him where he is staying. Now, it’s obvious that they are interested in more than checking out his accommodations, because when Jesus says, “Come and see,” they go with him and spend a few hours talking about important stuff. The words “Come and see” are an invitation to explore some important things with him. The response of the potential disciples to that call is expressed in a willingness to have that conversation, in an eagerness to learn, in an openness to the wisdom Jesus has to share and to his words about what is really important in life. And it seems to me that when we express that kind of openness and willingness we are responding to the call of God.
But in the passage we heard today Jesus decides to go to Galilee where he encounters a man named Philip. He calls Philip. But his call to Philip takes a different form from his call to the first two disciples. To Philip he says not “Come and see”, but “Follow me.” What does he mean? It’s the same words that the other gospels have Jesus saying to the fishermen. Its literal meaning may be, “Come and walk behind me.” But figuratively we could say it means, “Walk in my footsteps. Follow my way. Follow my example. Live according to the way I show you.” If the words, “Come and see” are an invitation to thought and discussion and conversation and understanding, “Follow me,” sounds like a summons to action.
What are we to make of this difference? Well, it seems to me that they are a reminder that we don’t all get the same call. We are individuals with different personalities, different life experience, different talents and gifts. And for me that truth is underscored by the way the call is issued to each particular person. In the story from the Hebrew scriptures, God calls Samuel by name. God has a particular role in mind for him. And in the passage from John, Jesus says one thing to Andrew and something different to Philip. And later still, after Philip tells his friend Nathanael about Jesus, Jesus sees Nathanael coming toward him and starts talking to him as if he already knows all about him.
We’re all individuals, and God knows that. God calls us by name. God’s call – like God’s care for us -- is personal, tailored to the things that make each one of us unique.
And yet, although I think it’s important for us, as Christians, to uphold the value of the individual (including ourselves), it’s also important that we do that without becoming individualistic. Do you understand the distinction I’m trying to make? We do not live in isolation. We are not entirely self-sufficient. God does not intend it to be “all about me”. We are individuals, but we are inter-dependent. We are individuals, but we live in community and we need that community.
I’ve already mentioned the way young Samuel needed Eli in order to discern the fact that it was God who was trying to reach him. And we all need other people to help us to discern the way God wants us to go. And it is our need of the variety of individual gifts and concerns that others have to offer that brings us together as a community of faith and enables that community to thrive and flourish.
Some of us may feel that we have been called to “come and see”. We are drawn to opportunities to explore faith and discuss theology and toss around ideas, to be challenged in our understanding, to read books and watch films and talk about them. And some of us may think that everybody ought to engage in these things, and we can become frustrated when they don’t.
Then others of us may respond to the call that says “Follow me”. We put our energy into actions and activities that are designed to make this a more just world, as we believe God would have us do. And we are disappointed when others choose to put their efforts into other things.
But God’s call is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. We need people devoting themselves to a whole range of thought and action if we are to be the community of faith that I believe God wants us to be.
I remember someone once dismissing a fellow member of his church as a “bean counter”. Well, believe me, the church needs bean counters. God may well call some people to use their talent for counting beans in the service of the Christian community! Which reminds me that this is a time of year when the Nominating Committee is at its most active. Ask them if their task would be easier if we were all alike. I’m pretty sure they would say, “No.” We need a variety of people with a variety of talents and interests and competencies and approaches and personalities if we are to experience our full potential as a faithful community.
That is just one expression of the truth that God both calls us as individuals – calls us by name – and calls us into a community in which we offer our gifts and appreciate the gifts of others, a fellowship in which we share one another’s joys and bear one another’s burdens, a congregation in which we witness to one another and to the world around us about the reality of God’s living presence in God’s creation.