A Wake-up Call

Jan 14, 2018 by

Sermon for January 14, 2018            Paula Papky for MacNeill Baptist Church

1 Samuel 3:1-20                   Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18                   John 1:43-51

I want to begin my sermon today by talking about knitting.  At MacNeill we seem to have a dozen or more people who are passionate about knitting.  I suspect that if we were given a choice between knitting and God it would be a hard one.  Some might say we have a cult here.  On occasion, alone or with others, we knitters make the pilgrimage down Highway 99, to the Shrine of St. Mary – Saint Mary Maxim, I mean, in Paris.  There we worship among the skeins of worsted, aran, fingering, baby cashmerino, bulky.  We return home with treasures and with dreams and visions of what we will make.

So, were the ears of knitters tingling when we read Psalm 139?  I know mine were.  The Psalmist declares to God, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.”  Wow!  I have a new name to put on my list of names for the Divine.  As well as Healing One, Compassionate One, All-seeing One, Listening One, we have  Knitting One.  This is the One who does not cast us off forever; the One who clothes us in colour; the One who searches out and mends dropped stitches; the One who makes something of nothing – or almost nothing.    “You formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb,” writes the Psalmist.  Great metaphor.

I was feeling so chuffed at this discovery of the Divine Feminine in Psalm 139, that I went searching in the Samuel story and in the Gospel story for human women and was at first disappointed with today’s texts.  First we have the story of young Samuel who, in a vision, receives a call from God.  He was sleeping in the Temple at the time, so it was a wake-up call figuratively and literally.  Samuel would go on to play an important role in the life of Israel.  It was he who would anoint Saul as Israel’s first king.  After Saul fell out of God’s favour, Samuel anointed David, Israel’s greatest king.  So, this is a great story but – no women to be found in today’s section of it.

Maybe if we turn to today’s Gospel reading we’ll find women’s stories.  The story picks up where last week’s story of Jesus’ baptism left off.  You may recall that John had received a call from God to be a witness to the Messiah who was coming.  He was dipping people in water, baptizing them to make them ready for the Coming.  Jesus had come to be baptized and at that moment, as Jesus came up from the water, John had a vision.  He saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Jesus.  That  event drew from John’s mouth the testimony that, “ This Jesus is the Son of God.”  Wonderful story.  But no women here either.

That was last week’s lesson.  Now we turn to today’s Gospel lesson.  You may have noticed that the story of Jesus calling his first disciples is different in John than it is in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  In those three, Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee and calls fishermen, Andrew and Simon, and James and John.  But as John tells the story, Jesus attracted Andrew and Simon while they were following another teacher, John the Baptizer.  That John – I call him John B to distinguish him from John the gospel writer – pointed to Jesus, who was walking by, and said of him, “Here is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!”  He was giving Jesus a very high honour status.  In fact, the highest in that age of astrology in which the Ram or Lamb was at the very top of the Zodiac, a cosmic figure, this Lamb.  Andrew and Simon didn’t need to hear any more.  They immediately began to follow Jesus.

The next day Jesus is back in Galilee, looking for more disciples and finding Philip, who then brings Nathaniel into the group.  Perhaps Jesus was on the lookout for people who, like himself, were critical of their society; one might say these four were ripe for the picking.  It is Nathaniel who, right away, calls Jesus “Rabbi”, meaning “Teacher”.  And it is he who, like John the Baptizer, understands Jesus to be the Son of God, even calling Jesus the King of Israel.

Well, another great story from Scripture.  And yet, another story in which the actors on that ancient stage are all men.  But I can be stubborn in these matters and so I started searching in the shadows, looking to see who’s standing in the wings.  And who do I find but the mothers of these three important men:  Hannah, mother of Samuel; Elizabeth, mother of John B; and Mary, mother of Jesus.  It is, after all, because these three women were called by God to play unusual roles in the story of salvation that we even have these three men, their sons.  I think these women add crucial insights into what those called by God – even ourselves – are called to do and be.  And I’m always interested in that question of what we are to do with our one wild and precious life, as the poet, Mary Oliver, puts it.

You remember Hannah, of course.  Her husband, Elkanah, had two wives and the one he loved the most over the years had not conceived.  The other wife had no trouble popping out babies and so she was held in high regard by family and neighbours.  But for Hannah and other women like her in that culture, there was only shame for her barrenness.

One day Hannah went to the Temple at Shiloh where old Eli was priest, he and his two dissolute sons, who appeared to be unlikely candidates for the priestly life.  At that Temple,  before old Eli, Hannah prayed with all her heart that God would give her a child.  So loud were her cries and pleadings that Eli chastised her for being drunk.  But when he heard her story he believed her prayer to be genuine.  He himself prayed that God would grant her petition.  And after a year, Hannah gave birth to a son and called him Samuel.  Morever, Hannah perceived that her calling by God to birth Samuel required of her a gift in return:  when the boy would be weaned, she promised, she would give him to God’s service at the Temple.  I remember hearing this story when I was a child and feeling that it was a rather sad story.  But Hannah sings a song that describes her experience of God’s call to be joyful.  She sings, “My heart exults in the Lord, by whom the bows of the might are broken and the feeble are given strength; the hungry, fed; the poor, enriched; the needy lifted from the ash pit and placed on thrones. “

Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?  Well, of course!  It sounds like Mary’s song that we heard on the fourth Sunday of Advent.  They’re definitely similar.  Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.”  She too understands her high calling to bear a son through whom the proud will be cast down, the lowly raised up; the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent empty away.  It is through these women, their shame turned to joy, that the people of God, including us today, recognize their own calling to bind up the broken-hearted, to honour those who have nothing.  So, great story.  And yet it is really the sons, Samuel and Jesus, who steal the show, while the women go back to the shadows.

There is a third woman, waiting in the wings for us to notice her.  Elizabeth receives a Divine wake-up call, too.  In her old age, she is told, she will conceive and bear her only child, a son, to be called John.  Elizabeth doesn’t jump with joy and sing a song to find herself pregnant at her age, 80-something.  The neighbours are scandalized.  Her husband is so unbelieving that God takes away his voice.  He gets no say in the proceedings.  He doesn’t get to compose and sing a song as Hannah and Mary do.  He has to sit silently in the wings while Elizabeth experiences the swollen belly and the leaping in her womb of the baby when the pregnant Mary comes to visit.  Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women and blessed be the fruit of your womb!”  You can’t help catching some of their excitement as these three women perceive and imagine the Divine plan for the world in the priest, Samuel; the prophet, John; and the savior, Jesus.

And so we the stories today of not only three but six people called by God that they might make a meaningful change in their own time and place and even in our time and place, generations later.  Every time we read these stories we receive our own wake-up call.  And it’s not the sort of call where we can just hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.  There’s an urgency to this call.

Maybe like Elizabeth we feel we’re too old to make a difference.  MacNeill’s been here at the corner of King and Cline for nearly ninety years, after all.  And yet our Scriptures contain stories of old people who never thought God would call them.  They’re too old, they’re done with life, are pretty much “past it” we say.  And yet the old are called:  Sarah and Abraham, Elizabeth, Naomi, Anna, and blind old Simeon.  And the call comes to those who, like Mary of Galilee, like Samuel, feel at first that they are too young.  But there’s no age limit to this awakening.  An important part of the response to God’s wake-up call is to trust, as Mary did, that, “with God, nothing is impossible.”  To be faithful is to be open to that call at any age and to deeply ponder where God is leading us and how we are to act.

I can’t help wondering if John the Baptizer and Jesus learned from their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, what’s important in life:  how to see deeply into the lives of the poor, the excluded, the broken soldiers returning from war, the refugee fleeing the burning city, the prisoner, the captive.  John and Jesus, like all boys in that ancient time, would have spent their first 11 or 12 years in the company of women, hearing stories and songs, forming bonds.  Even Samuel, given to the temple as a young child, still had a bond with his mother, Hannah, over the years.  Every year she would make him a priestly garment and take it to him when she and her husband went to make their offering.  And it was believed that this son, the first-born, had opened Hannah’s womb, for she went on to conceive 3 more sons and 2 daughters.  All of her children would have known the song she sang and her vision of a God who transforms the world, the One who both brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly.

These stories are our wake-up call to share that work in a Spirit-led community.  Sometimes we contribute to physical work, building houses and schools, digging wells, planting trees.  And sometimes it is unseen work, the powerful work of restoring people’s hope, opening eyes and ears, making communities safe.  And our response to the Divine wake-up call?  It is to say, “Here I am; send me.”

Hymn:  I The Lord Of Sea And Sky

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