Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sermon for Second Sunday after the Epiphany

(Sermon 1/18/09, 1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, John 1:43-51)

New Beginnings: Hide & Seek

Sometimes people say that they’re the kind of person who just can’t say no. People ask them to do something, to perform some task, do some favor, sign up for some responsibility, and though the person asked really doesn’t want to, they find themselves unable to say no. I can relate to this. I understand how easy it is to become overwhelmed by tasks and responsibilities and how easy it is to feel the pressure to say yes to something that we really would rather not do, that we don’t have the time, the energy, the passion required to do. It’s hard to set boundaries for ourselves, to set limits, and find balance, in a world that increasingly wants us to be constantly available to do, do, do. That’s a real issue for us to consider.

And yet, on the other hand, I’m afraid that sometimes we can use our working-on-saying-no to escape from saying yes when we’re too afraid of what we’re being asked to do, or not ready to give so much, or not ready to step out on faith, or not ready to answer a calling. I can think of times in my life when I said no to something not really because I had too much on my plate already, but because of some deeper excuse I wasn’t ready to name out loud: Fear, doubt, pride, wanting to be in control. We can surely think of times when we said yes to something when we really wanted to say no. But can you think of times when you said no but should have said yes?

You may have seen ads for or seen the recent Jim Carrey movie called “Yes Man.” The movie is actually based on a book by author Danny Wallace, same title, which describes Wallace’s actual real-life attempts at becoming a person who says yes to new opportunities, yes to crazy propositions, yes to experiences and happenings he’d otherwise rather refuse. Wallace talks about how transformed his life is when he starts to say yes instead of no. What if we said yes? Of course, there’s always a need for balance, for discretion, for good judgment. We can’t really say yes to everything that’s asked of us, or our lives will be like Jim Carrey movies, and I don’t think we want that!

But still, there’s one way in which we should always say yes, and never say no, at least as far as I can figure out, and that’s when it comes to responding to God’s call, God’s requests, God’s plans for our lives. We should say yes to God, in every situation, in every context, in every circumstance. As far as I can tell, as far as I can understand, God’s plan always is better than our own plan. Sometimes our plans are the same, but where God’s plan varies from our own plan, the smartest thing we can do is say yes to God’s plans. Still, sometimes, I think we respond to God as if God is someone who’s asked us for one favor too many, one demand too great on our schedule, one thing that pushes us too far. What happens if we say no to God? And what happens when we say yes? And why wouldn’t we say yes? If God is God, why say no to God? How can we dare? As loving as forgiving and full of grace as God is, still, how can we refuse the very God who creates us, the God who is the source of all life, anything? How can we say no to God? The only way I can explain our behavior is by guessing that some of us still don’t believe that God is calling us. Otherwise, how could we say no, if we really believed God was calling us?

Today we read two stories of call. First, in the Old Testament, we hear about the boy Samuel being called by God. Samuel is called to become a prophet in Israel. But when God calls, Samuel, still a child here, is confused about the voice he is hearing. Samuel was being raised in the temple, under the supervision of a man named Eli. We read that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” a sentiment we perhaps would like to apply sometimes to our current-day situation. One night Samuel is lying down in the temple and hears God’s call: “Samuel, Samuel.” He think the voice is Eli, so he runs to him and says, “Here I am!” Eli says he did not call the boy, so he goes back to bed. This exchange repeats two more times, and Eli realizes God is calling the child. Eli directs Samuel to answer God next time Samuel is called. So God calls again, and Samuel responds, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” So begins Samuel’s life as a prophet to Israel and an eventual mentor to the first Kings of Israel, Saul and David.

When God calls Samuel, he’s not sure what is happening. He’s young and confused, and Eli is a source of guidance for him in responding to God’s call. I think we can sometimes find ourselves in the same situations. Perhaps we do feel we’re being called. Perhaps we know God is asking something of us. But maybe we can’t clarify what that is yet. Maybe we don’t know how to talk to God and figure it out. In this story, Eli’s role is indispensable. He is a mentor, and he helps Samuel understand his call. In my own life, I have had formally-named and informal mentors throughout my journey who have helped me answer a call to ministry. Without these voices of encouragement, I’m not sure what might have happened differently for me. Who in your life can you hear as a mentor? And who can you be a mentor to? I think often we over look our own power of influence. You may be the voice someone needs to hear – the voice that helps someone understand how God is using them.

In the gospel lesson, we read about the call of two of the disciples, Philip and Nathanael. Jesus simply walks up to Philip and says, “follow me.” Philip apparently agrees, and gets up to find his brother Nathanael, announcing to him that they’ve found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Nathanael is a skeptic, a little sarcastic. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth wasn’t known for its goodness or for great heroes. Philip responds, “Come and see.” So Nathanael agrees, and just on seeing Jesus is convinced. When Jesus tells Nathanael he knows all about him without having been told anything, Nathanael is committed. But Jesus challenges him: “Do you believe because I told you these few things? I’ll show you things greater than this.” And with this exchange, Nathanael, like Philip, becomes a follower of Jesus. Maybe you are more like Nathanael than you are like Samuel. Maybe you need proof. Maybe you aren’t easily convinced, and need some hard evidence before you’ll be convinced God is talking to you. God is willing to do what it takes when God calls you.

The Bible is a collection of stories of people who are called. But why are they called? It isn’t for their goodness, their faithfulness, their devout and spiritual lives, I can tell you that much. Where in the Bible is someone chosen for a task because of their goodness? Because they are so special, or devoted, or righteous? King David, a hero of the faith, uses his power as king to seduce a married woman, and when he realizes she’s pregnant, he has her husband killed in battle. Jacob, who becomes the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, gets his role by tricking his blind and aged father into a blessing. Moses, who leads the people out of slavery into the promised land, is called by God just after murdering an Egyptian man and fleeing the scene of the crime. Paul is chosen to lead the early church after spending years of his life as a rabbi hunting down and persecuting followers of Jesus. Even Mary, mother of baby Jesus, does nothing that we know of that is special or particularly righteous that earns her God’s favor.

So how does God choose us for special purposes? Why were these people chosen for God’s plans? Why does God choose Samuel and Philip and Nathanael? I can find, throughout the scriptures, only one thing that those called and chosen by God have in common. One thing unites all of them, Samuel, Nathanael, and all the rest. It is so simple, it is staring us in the face. When God calls, they answer, and they say yes. That’s it. That’s all that sets them apart. Sometimes, like Samuel, they get confused about who is calling at first, and need clarification. Sometimes, like Nathanael, they are skeptical at first. Sometimes, like Moses, they complain and whine until God makes adjustments and they finally agree. Sometimes, like King David, they agree but continue to make lots of mistakes, leading sometimes sinful lives. Sometimes, like Philip, they just get up and go. But eventually, they say yes, and trust that God will enable them to do what God asks them to do.

Friends, we are already chosen by God. You are chosen. How can we believe ourselves to be anything but chosen? Do you remember the psalm we heard today? “For it was you, God, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made – that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” You are already chosen. What God would make you with so much care, if not because God had plans and hopes and dreams and responsibilities and challenges for you? You are created, and so you are chosen. You are a child of God, and so you are chosen.

What makes a difference is whether or not we will respond. What makes a difference is whether we say yes or no to God. But we are already chosen. If you don’t believe that, I encourage you to read Psalm 139 again and again until it sinks in. If you don’t believe that, I urge you to talk to someone you trust, and ask them what they think about God’s plans for you. If you don’t believe that, I ask you to read the scriptures and just try and find someone who was so perfect and gifted that God had to call them. And then find all the people who did God’s work who also screwed up a lot, made mistakes, committed sins. And tell me which list is longer.

Responding to a call from God isn’t always easy. You might have trouble understanding or hearing or figuring out your call. That’s ok. Your life is a journey – you can figure it out over time, with help, with prayer, with practice. But do respond. Do answer God, because you are chosen. And when it comes to answering God, I pray that your answer is always yes.

Amen.

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