The Rev. Leslie Barnes Scoopmire
This morning I had a decision to make: should we go ahead with in-person worship, or should we go online? The bitter cold outside and the safety of everyone was my overriding concern—but then I feared that if I decided to call off in-person worship, some people would not get the message. Even if I tried to call people, I was afraid some would not get the call—or take the call, if they didn’t recognize my number.
Then I laughed to myself, because the theme of calling runs all through our scripture choices this morning. In this season of Epiphany, we are drawn through our readings to see how God was manifest in the life of Christ to both Jew and Gentile alike. But this week, and actually next week, we are led to a deeper consideration: how are WE manifestly known, treasured, and called into partnership by God? This, too, is a vital question that the season of Epiphany calls us to explore.
First of all, our readings encourage us to consider WHO God calls into partnership. It can be someone who is so young that they do not even KNOW God’s voice, as with the child Samuel. We see throughout scripture that God knows us better than we know ourselves—and loves us intimately because of and sometimes in spite of that knowledge.
The portion of Psalm 139 that we read this morning reminds us of exactly that—that because God created each of us, God knows us to our very core. And as beautiful as the verses we hear today are, the part that is omitted is even more precious:
6 Where can I go then from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
7 If I climb up to heaven, you were there;
If I make the grave my bed, you were there also.
8 If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
9 Even there your hand will lead me
And your right hand hold me fast.
Even the reading from 1 Corinthians, which normally I would not want to touch with a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole, supports the day’s theme by reminding us that what we do in front of others as self-professed Christians not only affects the Church, but reflects back upon what the world thinks about Jesus. We are, as St. Francis and many other saints insisted, the only Christ, most people will see. Part of our call as Christians is to exemplify the life for others that Jesus embodied with every single breath.
In our gospel, we again see a call narrative: the calling of Philip and Nathanael as disciples of Jesus. John’s gospel is the only one that lists Nathanael as one of the apostles. The other gospels mention Bartholomew in Nathanael’s place, so some scholars wonder if they are not the same person. It certainly is common that people in the Bible have multiple names: Abram-Abraham; Jacob- Israel; Simon-Peter; Saul-Paul, just off the top of my head. So it’s possible.
Nathanael at first fails to understand who Jesus is, just as the boy Samuel misunderstood who was calling him and speaking to him. Yet Jesus tells Nathanael that he had “seen” Nathanael under a fig tree, and this causes Nathanael to believe that Jesus DOES have the special powers that the Messiah would have. Just as in our psalm, we have Jesus as the Son of God claiming to know a person intimately, even though he and Nathanael had never met. Once again, we see God through Jesus reaching out to us and seeking us, knowing us even better than we know ourselves. The image of the ladder reinforces that our relationship with God is a two-way street. God calls to us, but we can choose to respond or not.
One of the reminders we have here in all of our readings is that whatever we hear or know about God comes first from God. Without God’s initiative, we would know nothing about God. Our own reason alone will not lead us to that understanding—in fact, depending on reason alone can lead us in exactly the opposite direction if we believe that reason works in opposition to faith (an incorrect assumption, but nevertheless the point holds).
Of course, fitting with the theme of Epiphany, this reading is about various people having a sudden understanding or revelation of who exactly Jesus is. But there’s another, important discovery being made here. In each of this week’s readings, God calls out to us as much as we recognize God.
We are assured in each of our readings today that God knows us, better than we know ourselves. And in knowing us, God sees in us our potential to share in God’s work of reconciliation and redemption.
The great Jewish teacher and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a wonderful book after a lifetime of study. It was called God in Search of Man. The title was meant to startle us by the order of the words—it wasn’t “Man in Search of God.” Instead, Rabbi Heschel pointed out that throughout scripture, it is always God that seeks us—and too often, it is US who hide, or run away, or evade, or stop up our ears or our hearts. And when we do that, we inevitable]y come unmoored. We lose our way. We make compromise and prevaricate against doing what is right in favor of doing what is easy. We stop listening for God’s call to us to use our lives to God’s glory. And that is the start of the slide toward evils both small and great.
The 20th century, after all, with its terrible cataclysms that rocked the world, including the Holocaust as the most glittering example of the dangers of humanity’s technological prowess operating free of ethical or moral constraints, led to an actual movement called the “God is Dead” movement in some intellectual circles.
Sometimes bad things just happen. But more often, bad things happen, and they happen because of choices that have been made by humans and human societies. The most dangerous examples throughout history occur when people are convinced that they themselves cannot make a difference and blind themselves to the consequences of their inactivity. When we see suffering or danger, but we convince ourselves there is nothing we can do, we acclimate ourselves rather than exercising the agency God has given us. Rather than asking “Where is God?” when trials or cataclysms happen all around us, what would happen if we instead asked ourselves, “Where are we?”
Always, always, there’s a reminder that in our journey through life, the biggest obstacle most of us have to overcome is ourselves. Our fears. Our doubts. Our lack of faith in both God and in ourselves, especially when it comes to making a real difference in the world.Epiphany reminds us that God realized that being WITH us was not enough. God came into this world as Jesus and became ONE of us in God’s search for us. When we couldn’t hear God’s voice calling us in nature or in history or in law or in scripture, God became one of us, in the hopes that we would hear the voice of God calling us into relationship. Relationship with God, and each other, in order that we would make a real difference in the world. In order to truly be children and disciples of God.
We may believe we are not worthy of being called by God—that’s completely normal. We may think what good we might try to do doesn’t matter. But that’s exactly the opposite of why God became incarnate in Jesus and came to show us the way to live.
When God calls to us, God empowers us to step into our status as beloved children of God. Where we once believed ourselves powerless, or disconnected, we are changed. The overall call we hear from God as God’s children is to a new identity with new possibilities, a new understanding of ourselves. That new understanding is predicated upon God’s knowledge of and love for us, asking us to open up our eyes to have an epiphany in our understanding of ourselves as well as of our understanding of God. When Jesus calls to us, we are really being called to see ourselves in a new light, in a new way.
Epiphany is not just about Jesus being recognized as the Messiah and the Son of God. It is also about people throughout history who have listened to and heard the call of God to a life of love, compassion, reconciliation, and healing. It’s a time when we are called to remember that Jesus’s call to US is not to be simply spectators, but to BE members of a Beloved Community that encompasses all people and all of creation—to be people who work for the common good, having faith that God sees us, knows, us, and makes us partners in this world-changing work, even if we simply do so one small action or kindness at a time.
And how each and every one of us are being called by God in every moment is a vital question to ask ourselves during this weekend in which we celebrate the life and calling of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate his life as a catalyst for equality at a time when most of this country accepted the separation and oppression of others based on the color of their skin. But especially as Christians, we must NEVER forget that every single thing the Rev. Dr. King did was not just as a civil rights leader, but as a person whose life was directed and formed by his faith in God and by his response to God’s calling to him. And that is why, at the start of his leading others to fight for the freedom and equality of all people, Dr. King grounded his leadership in prayer.
How is God calling you, and us, right now to embody the life of Christ in our lives, in our choices, in our common life together here at St. Martin’s? Let us hear and share this prayer of the Rev. Dr. King’s:O God, our gracious heavenly Father,
We thank thee for the inspiration of Jesus the Christ,
who came to this world to show us the way.
And grant that we will see in that life
the fact that we are made for that
which is high and noble and good.
Help us to live in line with that high calling, that great destiny.
In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.(1)
Citation: Prayer from “Thou, Dear God:” Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits (King Legacy Book 6), p. 63.