When God Calls Your Name

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

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 15th January 2006

I wonder if in our heart of hearts, when weíre really honest with ourselves, whether we really like these two stories, indeed any call story found in scripture. Scripture is full of them Ė the call of Abraham, Moses, David, Ruth, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deborah, Samuel, Mary, the call of Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael, and the rest of the twelve, even the call of Jesus.† Thereís no way of getting around this fact: the God of the Bible is a calling God.†

But just because itís in the Bible, doesnít mean we like what we read or hear.† I wonder if most of us arenít tempted at times to do what Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) once did.† Jefferson wasnít really a Christian, but a Deist, a religiously-minded, philosophical moralist, who couldnít confess that Jesus was human and divine, questioned the validity of all the miracles, and couldnít accept the notion of a bodily resurrection.† But there was still a lot of valuable stuff in the Bible he believed, especially in the gospels.† He was fascinated, curious about Jesus, but he didnít have faith in him as God, didnít have a relationship with him. He liked Jesusí ethics. †So Jefferson took out a copy of the King James Version and a pair of scissors and went through and cut out all the verses of the gospels he couldnít rationally believe Ė out went all the miracles, the special birth, the claims to deity, and the bodily resurrection.† And all that was left were the teachings, the moral teachings of Jesus Ė that was enough for him.† Itís called the Jefferson Bible.† Thereís a little Jefferson in all of us, even fundamentalists who claim to obey every verse.† When it comes to the Bible there are parts that we simply do not like and quietly ignore (Like the injunction not to eat crabs and how to do so is an abomination before Yahweh, see Leviticus 11:9-12.† Marylanders donít like these verses Ė this is a state full of abomination.† And when we host our annual crab feast, the church is actually fostering abomination!); there are verses that we wish werenít there, like these calls stories.†

Itís easy to distill the core of Jesusí teachings down to a few moral platitudes, demanding as they may be.† Itís much more difficult to hear stories like these, because they suggest that God might actually still be at work in the world.† If God called all these people (ordinary folks, with no training, no credentials), then whoís to say God couldnít call me?† Instead of seeing the purpose of religion and faith and even going to church as simply helpful or useful in a moralistic sense, that is instead of thinking that faith is beneficial simply because it makes our lives better, teaching us how to behave, these call stories tells us something very different is going on.† These call stories tell us that we cannot think of our faith or religious life as a means to our own end or purpose, but that our end or purpose in life is to be placed in service to the ongoing call of God.† These stories are really saying that our lives our not our own, they do not belong to us, and that God (and with it the church) doesnít exist to make us happy or to fulfill our dreams or realize our hopes or meet our often selfish ego-needs or to keep us safe or Ė in some churches Ė to make us rich.† We exist in love to fulfill Godís dreams and help realize Godís hopes and when our lives are aligned with Godís hopes and dreams then we know happiness and a peace that the world cannot give and can never take away.

But in order for us to get to that place the decentering of the ego is required, a jolt to the system, or a major wake-up call, literally, where we are pushed out of the way in order to let God be God; when we stop boasting with Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), ďI did it my way,Ē and find ourselves wanting to say, ďHave thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way.Ē[1]The God of the Bible is a calling God, but also a God that requires a human being willing to listen to what God is saying.† In order to listen, we have to shut up long enough to really hear God speak.† It requires openness and humility so that when listening we might actually find ourselves displaced from the center of our lives.† This is why I wonder how we actually, honestly feel when we hear these stories.† I wonder, dare I even say that I wonder if there isnít a part of us that really doesnít want to be called by God?

Heck, people donít like being called and asked to pledge to the church.† Some get nervous when they get a call from someone on the nominating committee asking them to be a church officer, which is quite literally, a call to serve.† This is how we Presbyterians believe God works; that call from the nominating committee and the vote of the congregation is part of the call of God.† We all know how tough it is serving on the nominating committee any given year.† Thereís sometimes something within that doesnít want the call.† That was true for Moses, he said to God, ďDonít send me, send my brother, Aaron.† Heís a great public speaker.† Heís your man.Ē† When it comes to the call of God, I wonder if we really want it because we know what it will involve, we know thereís a cost involved, and inevitably change Ė and as we know from the characters in the Bible, a lot of pain, disappointment, and conflict because most people are not really open to what God wants for them or the world.†

Why would anyone willingly choose to be called?† Itís not like being in eighth-grade gym class setting up teams for dodge ball, yelling out to the captains, ďChoose me.† Pick me! Choose me!Ē† (I was usually one of the last to be called, but I always too comfort that I wasnít the very last. There was always one or two left after me.)† In fact, most of the people God calls in scripture are not looking to be called, theyíre minding their own business, generally content.† Philip isnít looking for a career change when Jesus says, ďFollow me.Ē† Samuel doesnít cry out to ďChoose me, Yahweh!† Choose me!Ē† In fact, Samuel didnít expect to be called.† Actually, very few expected to hear anything from God.† The text tells us in Samuelís youth the word of Yahweh was rare.† In other words, God had stopped speaking, so there was no expectation of being called.†† And divine visions were not widespread either.† Even Eli, who was a servant of Yahweh, had difficulties discerning what was happening to Samuel, thinking he was just hearing odd voices in his dreams.† Sometimes we get the calls confused.† Sometimes we donít hear the call because we donít expect God to be calling us; but God continues to name us again and again until we hear, until we respond and say, ďSpeak, Yahweh, for your servant is listening.Ē†

Yet, itís easy for such a response to sound like a wonderfully pious statement, a touching religious sentiment.† Are we willing to say that? Do we want to?† Itís like singing the hymn, ďHere, I am Lord,Ē half-heartedly.† We have to be very careful here, do we really want to say, ďHere I am, send meĒ?† Are you willing to go where God sends you?† Thereís always a risk when it comes to listening to Yahweh, because if you listen to Yahweh speak you will never be the same again and thereís no turning back.

But, how do we know when God is calling?[2]† Thatís the billion dollar question.† Let me say first, the call of God is not only a call to so-called religious work or the professional ministry.† Samuelís call had widespread social and political dimensions to it, so did Jesusí ministry and that of his followers.[3]† The call can be to all kinds of work, from giving an afternoon a week to sit with a lonely elderly person to beginning a Bible study, or taking up serious prayer, or going on a mission trip to the Gulf Coast or Guatemala.† Years ago, I once hear the Presbyterian minister, Thomas Tewell, preach on call.† He was serving at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan at the time.† He offered three aspects or experiences that characterize a call from Yahweh:† Godís call is always disruptive and always demanding.† Iíll tell you the third in a minute.

Iíve already touched upon these dimensions of Godís call.† It is disruptive Ė it breaks into our comfortable, secure lives and catches us off-guard.† It might even disturb us and make us nervous.† Itís usually not something you carefully plan to take place.† Itís been said if you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.† Godís call rocks the boat, makes us uneasy.† It could ask us to give up our professional dreams, it has little respect for your five-year or ten-year career plan or how you might wish to spend your retirement or golden years.† Itís not what you expect.† It is disruptive.

Godís call is demanding.† All our insecurities and self-doubts might rise to the surface, thinking, ďSend someone else.† Iím not qualified.Ē† It is demanding in the sense in that it requires something of us, there is a cost, something to give up in order to take up something new.† The call stretches us, takes us out of our comfort zones.† In this way the call is usually bigger than yourself, usually encompasses more than yourself.† Itís challenging.† It doesnít keep you where you are, but calls you to go or grow or move or lose or give up or die in order to rise up and live.† It wants to change you and take you somewhere new.† This is why Iím not sure weíre really up to the call.

But we need to remember that Godís call to us is by name, which leads to the third and perhaps most important aspect of the call.† Godís call is always particular, it is always personal, and it isnít generic, but addressed to us individually.† The call is meant for you and only you (this doesnít mean only you can do what God is asking you to do, that would lead to ego-inflation, which isnít pretty).† But it is given for your sake.† Thatís why in addition to being disruptive and demanding, Godís call is always delivering.† It might not seem that way at the beginning, but it is really out of love that we are being called.† Godís not calling to make our life difficult (which it might) or to irk us or tick us off, but to summon us in love.†† Itís supposed to be good news.† If the idea of being called sounds first like bad news, well then maybe that says more about us than about God. Maybe that says how entrenched and comfortable we are with life as it is instead of life as it should be or can be.† It says something about what has to be given up or cast aside in order to follow where Jesus is leading.†

But remember, the one who is calling us loves us more than we could ever love ourselves and knows us better than we know ourselves and really knows whatís best for us.† Nathanael is so struck by the fact that Jesus already knows him, knows him through and through, and knows whatís best for him, that heís willing to follow, even though he has no idea what kind of adventure heís about to undertake.† If you think that was cool, Jesus says, that I know you, you will see heaven open over me and discover the hope that I bring to the world, heavenís messengers are speaking through me, follow me and youíll see.

Godís call is delivering Ė it is for your liberation, your freedom, your salvation, your healing, and through you, the liberation and salvation and freedom of the world.† The call comes to us by name, asking us to do something only we can do, to go some place only we can go, to risk becoming someone only we can become, in order to give us what we need and what the world needs.†

Is God calling you?† Iím pretty sure of it.† What is God calling you to do or become?† I canít tell you, but we can discover that together in community; thatís what the church is for.† But do you really want to be called?† Only you can answer and only you can do whatís required:† listen, and then, if you can get the words out, risk saying,† ďSpeak, Yahweh, for your servant is listening,Ē and then listen.


[1] Hymn by this title, written by Adelaide A. Pollard (1862-1934); music by George C. Stebbins (1846-1945) to the tune ADELAIDE.

[2] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:† ďCalls are all around us. We are never bereft of calls. But sometimes we just have to be poised and alert and aware in all directions to listen and to perceive them.Ē† David Spangler, The Call (1996).

[3] Walter Brueggeman, Interpretation:† First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990(pp.24-27.