A little boy keeps hearing his name called, but the only other person in the building keeps insisting he did not call the boy. These days, we might decide the boy is having auditory hallucinations and put him on medication. Fortunately for Samuel—and for us—Eli had another interpretation.
I want to stop for a minute and fill in some of the back story here. I want to remind us of the story of how little Samuel came to be “ministering to the Lord under Eli.” Earlier in the book of Samuel, we hear the story of a woman named Hannah who went to the holy shrine in Shiloh to pray that she be relieved of the ‘shame’ of childlessness, so often pointed out to her by her husband’s other wife. She promised that if God would just let her conceive, she would dedicate that child to the service of the Lord. She prayed so fervently, moving her mouth but not speaking, that this same priest, Eli, jumped to a negative conclusion. He assumed she was drunk, and scolded her for her worthlessness.
Fortunately, Hannah had had enough of people telling her she was worthless, and she stood up to him. When Eli heard what was really going on, he spoke hopeful words of prayer—or prophecy?—and when she returned home she did, indeed, become pregnant and bear a child. Samuel, whose name means “God hears.” That same little boy who keeps hearing his name called in the middle of the night.
But wait—there’s one more important piece of the story that is missing. Eli’s sons were, to use the NRSV’s translation, “scoundrels.” As sons of Eli, the priest, they were expected to become priests themselves, but instead of being reverent, they abused their position. They took the sacrificial offerings for themselves rather than performing the rituals the way there were supposed to. They abused the women who served at the entrance of the shrine. So God pronounces judgment on them by choosing to work through someone else. A little boy who grows up to anoint—and challenge—kings.
A little boy who is helped to understand what was going on by—of all people—Eli. The man whose failures are so well-documented in the first two chapters of the first book of Samuel, but manages to figure it out in time to help Samuel. He helps Samuel hear his call—even though Samuel’s call effectively nullified his own. Eli’s humility is a far more effective testimony to God’s activity in the world than his pride ever could be.
Our Gospel reading echoes this idea of the power of humility over pride. Jesus “decided” to go to Galilee—we aren’t told why he chooses to go to such a…nowhere place. This is the day after he has called the first disciples, Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. Then in this story he ‘finds’ Philip—whatever that is supposed to mean—and Philip is so moved by the encounter with Jesus that he goes and finds Nathanael to share this good news. “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
And how does Nathanael respond? Does he say, “Oh, wow, that’s great! Tell me more about him!” Does he even say, “So what evidence do you have to make these claims about this man?”
No. He goes straight to disdain. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
How many times do we miss the opportunity to experience the presence of God, or encounter Jesus, because of our assumptions, our prejudices against certain places or people or situations? Both Samuel and Nathanael almost miss their opportunity because they couldn’t recognize God—the voice of God, the presence of God—when God was right in front of them.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asks Nathanael. Someone here today might ask, “Can anything good come out of Otisfield? Or Sumner? Or Oxford?” “Or Haiti or any of the other *ahem* countries mentioned in a certain infamous comment this week?
We miss our opportunity to encounter God when we assume or accept that there are places where God can’t be found. When we assume or accept the idea that there are places unworthy of our attention.
Thank God, Philip doesn’t take personal offense at Nathanael’s scorn. He doesn’t start an argument with him. Instead, he responds with an invitation. “Come and see.”
I am part of the diocesan team for the Living Local, Joining God project happening in the Diocese of Maine. One of the things we have observed is that we New England Christians (be they Episcopal or Lutheran or Roman Catholic or Methodist…) have a hard time talking about our faith. We have been taught that faith is private, that we don’t talk about religion in polite company. We keep our Jesus to ourselves. I grew up here, I learned that, too.
But that is not our call as disciples. We are called to proclaim the Good News.
The problem is, we don’t really know how.
So one of my goals for the coming year is to help us learn how to do that. Not to go knocking on doors and asking people if they have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. That model may work in some places (I’m only saying that because I would be contradicting what I’ve already said this morning if I said that ‘never’ works) but I think there are more effective ways of sharing our faith, most of which are grounded in that simple invitation “come and see.” Come and see what difference my faith makes in my life. Come and see how the love of God, shared with me by this community of faith, strengthens and encourages me.
One of the exercises we are trying with hopes of making us all more comfortable with speaking about our faith comes out of the spiritual direction tradition. It is asking one simple question. “Where did you experience the presence of God this week?” or put another way, “Where did you see Jesus?
We have to start by paying attention, being open to the possibility that God might be speaking to us and we just don’t recognize God’s voice. The presence of God will probably not be manifested as a voice in the night calling our name. But we might discover the face of Jesus in a stranger who speaks some truth to us. We might be reminded of the ways in which we are, ourselves, the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit, and be reminded to make choices that glorify God.
So we’re going to practice this for a few minutes. I am going to invite you to reflect on the question and, if you are willing, to offer your experience to the rest of the congregation. I know it is going to be extremely uncomfortable for some of you. No one has to talk. But I do ask all of you to reflect, to seriously examine the past week and try to answer it for yourself even if you can’t answer it out loud in front of other people. I ask you to take this question home and ask it of yourself every day.
So here we go. “Where have you experienced the presence of God this week? Where have you seen Jesus?”
Don’t be surprised if Jesus pops up in the most unexpected places. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Or Haiti? Or Africa? Or Oxford County? To quote Rachel Held Evans, “Only God, Nathanael. Only God…Come and see.”