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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 14, 2018

 Called by Name

1 Samuel 3:1-19; John 1:43-51

            “The word of the Lord was rare in those days,” 1 Samuel tells us, “there was no frequent vision.”  I suspect you could say that in any age, perhaps in our age.  But it was surely true at the time that the boy Samuel comes on the scene.  The priest Eli is now old, he is nearly blind, and we are told by Samuel that his sons have gone wild, out of control.  The nation was in crisis.  At the end of the period of the Book of Judges, the book ends with the observation that “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.”  No surprise, Israel was in utter chaos, and in desperate need for God to do something new, something different.

            A woman named Hannah was barren.  Like so many other women in the Old Testament, we learn through her that it is often out of barrenness that God chooses to do something different, something utterly new and fresh.  Hannah is weeping deep in the night, begging God for a child.  Indeed, she strikes a bargain with God.  She says, “If you give me a child, I will dedicate him – give him back – to you.”  God answers her prayer, and gives her a son.  She names her son Samuel, which means “asked of the Lord” or “borrowed from the Lord.”  (The Hebrew is a little obscure.)  To her credit, Hannah keeps her promise, and when Samuel comes of age, she sends the young boy to live with the old priest Eli.  Samuel, we are told, “grows both in stature and in favor with the Lord and the people” under old Eli’s tutelage.

            One night while Samuel was sound asleep, he hears a voice: “Samuel, Samuel!”  He assumes that it must be Eli calling him, for who else would be capable of calling him in the dark of the night?  He goes to Eli, and Eli says, “I did not call you, go lie down again.”  The same thing repeats itself again.  “Samuel, Samuel!”  “Here I am!”  He runs to Eli, and Eli says, “I did not call you, go lie down again.”  And a third time this calling in the night repeats itself, and it suddenly dawns upon Eli that this is no human voice that is calling Samuel.  Eli says, “Go lie down, and if you hear your name being called again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant listens.”  Of course, Samuel does just this, and God speaks to Samuel a fresh word.

            There is so much in this passage that speaks to us about this God who not only creates us, but also calls those whom God creates!  First, note that God almost always chooses to speak a word to us by way of other people, often people in the community of faith.  That is to say, God most often mediates the Divine word through other people.  Without the older, wiser Eli, Samuel might never have figured out that it was the Lord God calling him by name in the dark of the night.  The same is true in our Gospel lesson this morning.  Nathaniel hears about Jesus from Philip.  Philip speaks of Jesus as “the Son of Joseph of Nazareth.”  Nathaniel asks, rather cynically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  And Philip says, “Come, and see.”  Without Philip, Nathaniel might never have figured out that it was indeed Jesus from Nazareth, who was none other than the One who came from God as the Messiah, or the Christ.

            I have a favorite theologian from my seminary days, whose book I return to again and again.  I can tell you it is only one hundred and ten pages long.  It is an art to write a good, short book!  The book is written by H. Richard Niebuhr, called, The Meaning of Revelation.  Niebuhr does not mean the meaning of the Book of Revelation.  He means: How does God make Himself known to us; how is God revealed to us?  One of the observations he makes I have never forgotten.  He said, “Christian faith is always triadic” – that is, it is always mediated to us by other people.  There is always a triangle with the Christian God, not by accident, also the Triune or Trinitarian God, but we come to know Jesus through other people.  There is a social dimension to the Gospel that is right at the heart of it.  You cannot be Christian on your own.  It takes other people.  Think of your own stories.  Who could tell their own life story, and especially the story of your faith, without talking about other people who made Jesus more real, more vital, more viable to you?

            Parker Palmer is a Quaker saint of our own day.  He wrote a book about ten years ago called, Let Your Life Speak.  In the Quaker tradition they have this thing called a “clearness committee.”  This is a group of trusted, wise colleagues that you bring together to listen to you, to give you clarity when you are not sure about what God might be calling you to do.  Parker Palmer had been asked to be the president of a Quaker college, and he gathered a “clearness committee.”  He admits he did so more really to brag to them about this great job opportunity he was about to take, rather than to discern God’s will for his life. 

            But Palmer is sitting down and talking to them, and finally, one of them breaks through with a question: “What would you like most about being President of this college?”  Palmer writes, “The simplicity of the question loosed me from my head and lowered me into my heart.”  “Well, I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t like.  I wouldn’t like giving up the life of teaching and research and writing.  I wouldn’t like giving up my summer vacations.  I wouldn’t like the politics of the presidency.  I know I’m not going to like having to be kind to people I don’t even respect, just because they have a lot of money.  And I surely am not going to like having to wear a coat and tie to work every day.”  Once again, rather gently, his friend said, “Let me remind you, I didn’t ask you what you wouldn’t like, I asked you what you would like about being president.”  He said, “I’m working my way to that answer.”  “I would not like never knowing who your real friends are, and who just wants access to the President.”  “What would you like most?”, his friend repeated.  There was a painful silence in the room, and finally Palmer said, “Well, I guess I would like most getting my picture in the paper with the word president attached to my name.”

            These were seasoned Quakers, “and they didn’t laugh,” Palmer said, “even though they knew what I said was utterly laughable.  They simply listened in painful silence, knowing that my very soul was on the line.”  Until finally one of them broke the silence, and said, “You know, Parker, I can think of easier ways for you to get your picture in the newspaper.”  He realized that, through this community, it was not God that was calling him to be a college president; it was his flattered ego. 

            We do well, all of us, to listen carefully, reverently, humbly and lovingly to the things that people who care about us, people who love us, have to speak into our lives.  I have learned through the years, what I know in your best moments, you have learned as well: God often chooses to speak a word to us through other people God has placed in our lives as gifts to us.

            Secondly, note that Samuel in this passage is just a boy, but please know that he will grow up to be an imperfect man.  Just as Eli, as an old man, discovered that his kids had gone wild and were not honoring him, exactly the same thing would happen to Samuel.  There is a reason for that.  God speaks through imperfect people like Eli, in order to call imperfect people, like Samuel.  And God speaks to them anyway.  Indeed, God speaks to us and calls us all, not only in light of our abilities and our gifts, but also in light of our limitations and our weaknesses, our brokenness and our hurts.  The Bible is so utterly clear and truthful about we human beings.  All of us are created in the image of God; we bear a God-given dignity.  And all of us are fallen and broken, sinful, in need of God’s care and God’s healing and God’s grace.  All of us!

            May 1, 2016 was a Sunday morning.  I was honored, and way in over my head, preaching that morning to the Memorial Church at Harvard University.  That night we had tickets to see the Yankees play the Red Sox – and God is a God of grace – David Price, from Vanderbilt University was pitching that night!  Alex Rodriguez was still playing – not a beloved figure in Boston, Massachusetts.  A-Rod comes to the plate, and folks around us, with loud Boston accents, start screaming, “Cheata, cheata, cheata!”  (They were not speaking of the animal that lives in Africa, but the fact that he was a steroid guy!)  Then these folks from New York turn around and say to the loud fans who were calling Alex Rodriguez a cheater, “Tom Brady’s a cheata, too!”  They started screaming words that you do not normally hear in churches, at least, on Sunday morning.  I turned to Connie amused, and I said, “Welcome to Boston, Massachusetts.”  But I thought to myself: “All of us are cheaters, not just Tom Brady and Alex Rodriguez.”  The Bible is so clear about this: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  I was reminded again that people who live in glass houses – which would be all of us – should be very careful about throwing stones.

            We all have limits, we are all fallen and wounded and broken.  And God calls us anyway, because God calls imperfect people to do the work that we have been created to fulfill.  “Samuel” means “asked of the Lord” or “borrowed from God,” because Samuel was a gift from God to Hannah, who prayed out of her own barrenness, to be relieved by the gift of this child.  But all of us at one time or another, have been the answer to somebody else’s prayers.  If only our mother’s.  Yet we are, all of us, imperfect.  And God calls us anyway, because the God of the Bible loves sinful, broken, imperfect people.  If God did not, God could not call anyone to do His work or to be His people.  God does not love the sin in our life, but God loves we folk who are sinners.

            I love how the hymn puts it: “Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.”  A huge part of coming to know God involves both learning who we are and who we are not.  We often come to know God more deeply by laying aside our false selves, and finally putting on our true selves.  I love the bit of Rabbinical wisdom that comes from the ancient wise sage, the Rabbi from Russia named Rabbi Zusya.  He wrote: “In the coming world, God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’  God will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’“ 

            Which brings me to the final word I have to offer.  God calls, “Samuel, Samuel!” just as God called, “Moses, Moses!” out of the burning bush.  Just as Gabriel, the angel of God, the next best thing, called, “Mary, do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”  God’s call is always personal.  God calls each of us by name.  This, clearly, among many other things, is one of the most important messages of the sacrament of Baptism.  God calls us, and God calls all of us, by name. 

            I know how deeply that I love my own children and grandchildren.  I do not know if I could love them more.  (I know I could love them more wisely and better, but I do not know if I could love them any more than I do!)  How much more does God love us?!  I love the way Augustine put it: “God loves each one of us, as if there were only one of us.”  Nathaniel was so surprised when Jesus said, “Come see an Israelite in whom there is no deceit or no guile.”  He said, “Where did you come to know me?”  Do not think for a moment that God does not know you intimately, completely, deeply and truly.  And knowing you, God still loves you, and still calls you to use your life to give glory to God.  Paul put it this way in writing to the Romans: “For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  The God who knows you is worth knowing personally, intimately, lovingly. 

            So here is my question this morning: Will you listen, really listen, and let this God speak into your life?  Can you be still, quiet, put aside the phone and every other distraction, and with Samuel, can you say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant listens”?  There is so much noise in our world, so much static, so much data, a river of information every day containing maybe a trickle of wisdom.  We need to learn to listen, to hear the One who truly knows us and truly loves us, and ceaselessly is calling us to respond.

            Parker Palmer writes more.  He says in his book: “The soul – your soul and mine – is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy.  If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods shouting for this creature to come out.  But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods, and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting to see may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye, we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”

            Don’t you get it?  God is calling ceaselessly, relentlessly, lovingly calling, wanting our attention, wanting us to be all we were created to be.  “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me.  Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, come home all you who are weary, come home, come home to Me.”


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