Call and Response

A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

January 14 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51


Today Samuel hears “a voice.”  Samuel is a young boy, and he is taking care of the elderly Eli, who sleeps in the next room, so Samuel gets up to check on Eli. The all-night candle is still burning, which means it’s not dawn yet…  

In the author’s humorous account, Samuel mistakes God’s voice for Eli’s three times.  The first time this happens, Samuel says, “Here I am,” but Eli says, “I did not call you, go back to sleep.” The second time this happens, Eli calls Samuel “My son.”  “My son,” he says, “Go back and lie down.” The third time the Lord calls, Eli figures out what’s going on, and he tells Samuel, “Go lie down.  If you are called again, say “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And this is what Samuel does.

Does Samuel know whose voice he answers to?  Likely not, for as the Scripture notes, Samuel had no knowledge of the Lord, hence his confusion.  Samuel, used to serving Eli, simply transfers his service from Eli to a voice he’s never heard before.

In fact, the phrase “Here I am” that Samuel uses to answer Eli is the same “Here I am” that Abraham used to answer the divine call he heard, first when told to sacrifice his son (Gen 22) and later when told not to (Gen 22:11);  This is the same “Here I am” that Moses used to answer the voice in the burning bush (Ex 3:4); and the same “Here I am” that Isaiah used to answer the voice he heard in his vision, after an angel had held a live coal to his lips, to remove his guilt and atone for his sin, so that Isaiah would be able to prophesy.  Like Isaiah, when Samuel heard the voice of the Lord calling him, he became a prophet.

The phrase, “Here I am,” used in each of these instances, is the servant’s answer to the call of the Lord. When we are asked to talk about our call, we are asked two things:  where were you when you heard the voice of the Lord, and how did you respond.  Then we wrestle with the questions, “What does that mean,” and “How do I know that’s real?”

Even if the voice itself is disembodied, the person who is called is not:  the person being called is a being-in-the-world, riveted by attention to a particular experience of the world which the voice shifts, as Samuel’s attention was shifted, from Eli towards a rare vision of the not yet disclosed, which Samuel nonetheless gave himself over to.

This call and response redirects us; the object of our attention in the world is changed and the world reconstitutes itself; when Samuel serves the Lord rather than Eli, he is the same but not the same person as before, because the world that is present to his consciousness – his attention –  has likewise been changed.

This is what happens to Nathaniel.  He was under a fig tree when Philip found him, and took him to see Jesus.  Jesus, the rabbi who was and is the voice of the Lord, expressed himself as a person – enfleshed –  speaks, and when Nathaniel hears him speak, his life changes immediately; Nathaniel follows Jesus, and becomes a disciple, a servant of God.

The world that is present to Nathaniel’s consciousness – his attention –  is very much changed: “under a fig tree” appears in Hebrew Scriptures as a symbol for home and prosperity, as in 1 Kings, where we read, “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.”  Nathaniel will give up this safety, and (as we say) step out in faith, and as Jesus says, he will see “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

And not only Nathaniel, but all the disciples of Jesus, for Jesus speaks of Nathaniel in the plural. Discipleship, call and response, follows a pattern: redirection of intentionality from what was once its object to a dissimilar object. For instance, from anxiety to care; or from safety and prosperity to the unknown.

We can, by observing this redirection, gain insight into two related phenomena that we tend to talk about in abstract terms:  repentance and perfection, two aspects of our experience that really aren’t abstract at all.  Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:1, “As a prisoner for the Lord… I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”  The church, as it is pictured in the Acts and Epistles, equips Christ’s people “for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph 4:12).  We do not mature in our infancy; we become mature by consciously redirecting our attention, the “turn” of repentance, from anger, greed, and self-interest, towards humility, gentleness, and patience, “bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2-3).

In Paul’s opening words to the Corinthians, in his first letter to them, he describes himself as “called to be an apostle,” then goes on to describe the church as those who are “called to be holy, to gather with all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The word holy conveys the idea of being set apart, but its achievement is always in being sent, for service into the community. Our vocation as members of the church takes its name from its Latin root, vocatio, “a calling.”

Over time, our response to God grows and matures. It is a process, not an event. Paul writes to the Corinthians that “I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it” (1 Corinthians 3:2). We go to school to learn about human nature. Later on, we will have a holy nature. In the in-between, all along the pathways, we will be listening for God’s call and answering, as only we can do, individually, united in body and Spirit.

All too often, we place self-interest above the good of the community. When we repent, we reject the objects and aim of the individual self, and we intentionally direct our desires and ideas along different pathways.  God calls us to a holy freedom, shaping and informing us in love and mystery, here, in our being in the world, and where we will yet be, as we answer to rare voices, and follow new desires.  And all the people said, Amen.



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