Call and Response

January 14, 2018
I Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20); John 1:43-51; Psalm 139

Call. It is a word that I used to dread, especially in seminary. It was expected that we understood our call, that we could explain our call. I wasn’t even sure what “call” meant. All I knew was that I was interested in feminist theology, and worship should be more creative and participatory. I hoped, rather naively, that seminary would be the place where I could learn these things.

Since seminary, I have heard the call: children crying in the night; the cat meowing in the morning; robocalls; emergency calls. “Call” has also come to have a more spiritual meaning for me though it still makes me squirm. “Being called” is mysterious, dynamic, personal, communal. Some people have definitive moments when they feel or hear or sense a call. Others have a gradual awakening. Do some people not hear a call at all?

Samuel hears a call. Samuel is a miracle child, the son of Hannah who despaired of ever having a child. She prayed fervently and promised that if she got pregnant she would give her son to God. Eventually Hannah and Elkanah have a son and when he is weaned, they bring Samuel, and a sacrifice, to the temple. They turn their beloved son over to Eli, the priest, who will train and instruct Samuel in God’s ways. Every year Hannah comes to the temple for the yearly sacrifice, bringing a new linen garment for her beloved Samuel. (Hannah and Elkanah have five more children after Samuel.)

Eli, the priest, has two sons of his own who are older than Samuel. Somehow, growing up in the temple these two learned disrespect – for their father, the tradition, women, and God. When Eli confronts them about their despicable behavior, they refuse to listen. The text says, “God had other plans to bring about their deaths.” Surely Hannah doesn’t know she is leaving her miracle child to be mentored by Eli in the midst this ugly and tragic family situation.

Not only is Eli’s family a mess, the text says that “In those days, the voice of YHWH was rarely heard – prophesy was uncommon.” So Samuel is raised in the temple, learning the customs and traditions and does not encounter God. He sleeps in the temple, near the Ark of the Covenant, and the word of God is not revealed to him – until that night when Samuel hears a voice calling him. It is such an unusual and unexpected occurrence that he believes it must be the nearly blind Eli calling to him. Running around in the dark, trying to understand what he is hearing, Samuel almost misses the “call.”

When Jesus calls his disciples it is not some mysterious disembodied voice; he is just a man, walking on the road, meeting people. Andrew had been a follower of John the Baptist but when Jesus walks by John points to Jesus and says, “There, there goes the Lamb of God.” Andrew goes to tell his brother Simon and they both become followers. The next day Jesus meets Andrew and Simon’s neighbor, Philip, and Philip goes to call Nathanael.

Though Simon responds to Jesus through his brother Andrew, this kind of third hand call does not impress Nathanael. His response is impatient, and disrespectful: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Or in the vernacular of the president this week, “Can anything good come out of that (expletive) country?” Philip’s simple response to Nathanael is the same that Jesus used with Andrew and Simon, “Come and see.”

Surprisingly, Nathanael goes along with Philip to see Jesus. Because he’s Jesus, he somehow  knows how crass Nathanael is about Nazareth as a hometown, and yet Jesus does not reject Nathanael. Nathanael may have been lazily sitting under a fig tree, but Jesus sees something in him. Jesus walks right up and speaks to Nathanael, who is at once flabbergasted, embarrassed, amazed and convinced.

When I tell the story this way, with Jesus from an “expletive” country, I am not sure what to make of it. For sure it means that we must remember that Jesus is not from Norway or Germany or the US. If we too follow Jesus, well then, we must stand with Jesus and all the others who come from denigrated countries.

Jesus knows Nathanael is a disrespectful, foul-mouthed mess. And forgive me, but I find myself hoping that Jesus will build a wall, please Jesus, build a wall, to keep that one out. Jesus, please be clear: there are some people who are in and some people, for whom there are not enough adjectives of awful, who will be kept out.

But that is not how John tells the story. Jesus invites Nathanael to be a follower, to be part of the group, even though he has doubts and is irreverent. And Nathanael says yes to the call, proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God, the leader of Israel. The gospel writer reinforces Nathanael’s affirmative response to Jesus’ call by using “code” to tell us that Nathanael is definitely in. The fig tree represents Israel, and the angels going up and down the ladder that Jesus says Nathanael will see? These remind us of Jacob’s dream of angels and a ladder. Nathanael and Jacob, both have their issues but they are still God’s people. In my self-righteousness, it is good for me to remember that God calls all kinds of people. And all kinds of people respond. And some – do not.

These stories of Samuel and Nathanael hearing God’s call follow quickly on the Christmas season when we tell a story that celebrates God coming among us as a baby human, helpless and needing constant care. These and other biblical stories show us that there are precious few limits to the ways we can encounter God. Macrina Wiederkehr says it this way:

          Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary.
          There are burning bushes all around you.
          Every tree is full of angels.
          Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb.

“Hidden beauty in the crumb.” It is such a personal experience, we want to treasure it, hold it close. Do we dare speak it aloud? As ordinary as crumbs, yet do we have the language we need to describe the experience of God? How can you describe the indescribable? Does description cheapen the experience? Is it better to honor the mystery by keeping it hidden? Do we dare keep it to ourselves?

If a personal call is complicated, it is even trickier to try and hear the call of God as a group, to a group. This might be where “spiritual but not religious” comes from. I am not always sure what is meant when someone says, ‘I am spiritual but not religious.”  Maybe they mean: “I want to have a personal spiritual experience, I do have personal spiritual experiences but I don’t trust religious institutions. They are too cumbersome, and hypocritical and duplicitous and prescriptive and…”

As Anabaptists, we consider community an important part of how we hear God, it is essential for us. It’s a balancing act but we try to hold spiritual and religious experiences together. We value the personal and communal. And it is complicated.

Last summer at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, 1000 people tried to listen for the voice of God as we talked with each other at the Future Church Summit. Now a writing group of five is working to clarify what was heard; and a “reference council” of seven will work with them. This is being called the Journey Forward. It is easy for me to get all Nathanael, cynical and skeptical, about this kind of listening for God’s call. But I want to trust the process and the people. I know the mystery of listening as an individual and then coming together as a group and discovering that you have a lot of shared thoughts. Is that how God calls – whatever God is?

Allegheny Conference has been trying to hear God’s call for some years now. As a congregation, we have experienced first hand what it means to be part of a larger group when there is disagreement about how God speaks and what God says, and how to live it out. Thank you for your witness to the power of hearing God’s call to individuals and the power of hearing God’s call to this congregation. Thank you for standing with each other even when much of the larger church did not understand our call from God. Next weekend the Allegheny Conference Leadership Council will have a retreat to listen to each other and to God as they look toward the future. Our own LeAnne Zook is moderator-elect of the conference and now has a prominent role, listening and leading. Please keep Allegheny Conference leadership in prayer as they discern God’s call.

At the congregational level, the pastorate is leading discussions about our life together, currently and in the future. This is not driven by a crisis or some perceived negative event; it is part of a periodic evaluation, trying to listen for God’s voice in all our voices. You are all invited to participate, to share your experiences of God in our midst, and how you would like to see the congregation move forward together.

On this Martin Luther King Jr weekend, it is important to remember that God’s call comes to us not only as a voice in the night and in Jesus and in small beauty around us. God’s voice also comes to us in the voices of people who suffer and live with injustice.

  • God is heard in the voices of women who have been harassed and assaulted.
  • God is heard in the voices of children who have been ignored and abused.
  • God is heard in the voices of parents who have lost children to senseless violence.
  • God is heard in the voices of families who fear being torn apart by  the games and gains of politicians.
  • God is heard in the voices of those who have lost livelihoods and homes in hurricanes, fires and mudslides.
  • God is heard in the voices of people and creatures and the earth that live with seemingly endless war, in Syria, Israel/Palestine, Congo, Ukraine.

So many voices clamor for our attention. Here in the heart of the empire, it is important to slow down and listen carefully for the still, small voice. It takes practice, to listen beyond and through the noise. It takes practice to ground yourself and tune in with yourself, to align yourself with God – whatever God is. Let’s take a few minutes in silence to listen, to breathe deeply. Practice opening yourself to hear God’s call. I wonder what the response will be.