There is a lectionary based web comic called Agnus Day that I look forward to reading each week. You can often see a copy of it on my office door. It is drawn by the campus pastor of Valparaiso University and each week he takes one of the four readings for that Sunday and creates a dialog between two sheep—a dumb sheep and a smart sheep. Sometimes funny and sometimes serious, it is always worth a read. This week’s was about our Gospel lesson:
Dumb Sheep: Philip seems pretty eager for his brother to meet Jesus
Smart Sheep: Yeah, the people of Israel waited for Centuries for the Messiah’s appearing
Dumb Sheep: Really? I thought a guy like Jesus would be more punctual
Well, although our timing may not always be right, Jesus’ is. He’s always right on time because he knows us so well; knows us before we ever know him and perhaps even better than we know ourselves. All of our texts today speak in some way to how well God knows us and how we come to know him.
First, there is Samuel. I like this guy and, in some small way, I can identify with him. Maybe you can, too. I have almost always been eager to serve, though I’ve not always been able to recognize the voice of the one who was, and is, calling me to serve.
Throughout my childhood, I was active in the church: Sunday school, worship, youth, whatever. Church was part of life. It was just as much a part of the everyday activities as going to school, doing chores, sleeping and eating. It is what life looks like. Even throughout my college years, just like our Lutheran Campus Ministry college students here, I continued to be an active part of the church and taught kindergarten Sunday school each week. As I got older, I felt like there was something more—not something better but something else—I could do. I felt I was being called to do something, but I did not have the words to ask about it. When I inquired as to what else I could do, I was told they really needed me to keep teaching that class.
A few years after graduating from college, I gradually stopped going to church. I wanted to serve and I felt like I was being called to…..something, but I just didn’t know what it was. After a few job changes, I went to see a career counselor who spent hours with me after I spent days taking tests. She listened to me for a very long time and then she asked me, “Rosemary, have you ever considered pursuing ordained ministry?” She might as well have asked me if I’d considered being an astronaut. I laughed at her suggestion. “People need to know everything about God before they become pastors and that’s not me!” I said. I think the truth is God was laughing at me because he knows everything about me.
Some years later, I started going to church again with a friend. We visited a different church practically every Sunday for a year. It was a wonderful experience and I got to worship with so many different kinds of people who prayed, sang, worshiped, praised and cried out to God in so many different ways. At some point along the way, we worshiped at a Lutheran church. It was the first time I had knelt to receive communion. The pastor, a huge man with huge hands who had been a real cowboy before becoming a pastor, looked directly into my eyes, put that bread firmly in my hand and said “This Is the Body Of Christ, Given for YOU.” I believed it like never before. Then, a woman put the small glass of wine in my hands. “The blood of Christ, shed for YOU” she said. I looked at her and suddenly realized, this was the same woman who had been my career counselor years before.
Each Sunday, I was drawn back to that Lutheran church. I began going there every week and eventually joined. One of the other pastors there took me to dinner just before I joined and said, “Rosemary, have you ever considered ordained ministry?” I laughed at her and said, “Pastor Monta, I am not even a part of your church yet!” But I think it was God who was laughing at me because he was already a part of me.
Over time, I became more and more active in church, joining this group or that, teaching classes, and assisting in worship. I always felt drawn, pulled, called to do more, but I was not sure what it was. Eventually, there came an opportunity to participate in a mission trip to El Salvador. We were going to build a school in a very rural community of Lutherans on a mountainside about an hour outside San Salvador. I spent two weeks living there with people of the greatest poverty and the greatest faith I have ever seen. They taught me more about what God looked like and what faith looked like than I could have learned anywhere else. On the last night we were there we had a communion service—the Americans and the Salvadorians together. The words of the Lord’s Prayer said together in English and Spanish must have been what it sounded like at Pentecost. For the very first time I was allowed to assist with communion and to each person I got to say, “The Blood of Christ shed for YOU.” When the last person was served, I wanted to cry because I wanted that line to go on forever. This time when one of the men there asked me, “have you ever thought of being a pastor?” I laughed, but this time it was because I could hear God laughing, too.
Samuel was raised in the church. Literally. More than just being raised to go to worship and live the faithful life, as many of us may have also been taught from an early age to do, he was given to the temple by his mother and literally lived inside the worship space. His mother had not been able to have children and had gone to the temple and cried to God, begging him to please, please give her a child. And God did give her a child, whom she named Samuel. His bed was right outside the room where the Ark of the Covenant that held the Ten Commandments was kept. He slept under the sanctuary lamp, much like this red glass lamp we have here in our sanctuary. You would think that a boy who lived that close to the holiest thing that the world had, at that time, ever seen would surely be able to recognize the voice of God. Yet, when he does hear a voice in the night, he thinks it is Eli, the priest whom he served. Over and over he runs to Eli, thinking the man needed him for a task of some sorts. On his own, he could not figure out what was going on. Eventually, Eli recognizes what is really happening—who is really calling the boy—and helps Samuel to realize it is God who is trying to speak to him and tells him how to respond.
A similar thing happens with Nathaniel. Like Eli with Samuel, it is Philip who brings Nathaniel to Jesus. When his brother first comes to him and says, ‘you’ll never believe who we have met! Jesus, the guy from Nazareth, he’s the one that Moses and the prophets spoke about,’ Nathaniel’s response was similar to what ours might have been. He doubts it. He’s skeptical. Who knows, he might even have laughed at Philip with his sarcastic comment of, “nothing good has ever come out of Nazareth!” But his brother helps him. He says, ‘come and see.’ He, like Eli, helps find the right response and takes him to God. When they are on the way, Jesus sees them approaching and says, “now there is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” When Nathaniel questions him, it is clear that Jesus knew him long before they met. Nathaniel realizes that only the Son of God would know him so well. Only God could know him even before meeting him.
It is the Philips and Elis of the world; our brothers, sisters, friends, mentors and sometimes even strangers who can open our eyes to God’s call. They can help us to say, speak Lord, your servant is listening, They can help us to learn to confess Jesus as our God.
But there is something more here in these texts for today. Perhaps it is even more important than what we’ve already seen. Let’s look back at today’s Psalm for the answer. Over and over in every way possible, the psalmist sings about how God knows every part of him—knows it all before it even happens. One of the verses of this psalm that was omitted in today’s lectionary selection says, “You created my inmost parts. You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Even when we don’t realize it or could not even be aware of it, God is there and knows us. With Samuel, God knew him before Samuel could even recognize the voice of God. God had a plan and a purpose for Samuel from the beginning and kept on calling him, over and over, until he came to know the sound of God’s voice. With Nathaniel, Jesus is clear in that before Nathaniel even heard the name of Jesus, he was known by him. He had a plan for Nathaniel, too. A plan for him to be one of the twelve disciples.
God calls us to go and do and believe all kinds of things. He calls us to many things, from our vocations or jobs to being parents, students, friends and, most of all, his followers. How many times in your own life has this happened? How is that happening now? Can you remember a time when someone was an Eli or Philip for you? It may not have been as fantastic an experience as hearing the voice of God wake you up in the middle of the night or as obvious as waking down the dusty streets of Galilee to meet someone. It might have looked like someone having faith in you and something you wanted to do because they had such faith in God. It might have looked like a friend who listened to you when you were having a difficult time or serious struggle and was, somehow, able to still show you those rays of hope that come only from God.
Sometimes, we are called to be an Eli or a Philip to someone else. Sometimes, we are called to show people where God has shown up in their lives, to help them hear the voice of God. To say to them, “Come and see the Jesus I know” so that we may all say, “speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.”