With thanksgiving for God’s Spirit which is always present, whether we know it or not, let us begin this time of reflection with heartfelt prayer:
We have come to see to you, O God,
to experience your presence
surrounding us in this community of faith.
We hope to feel the warmth of your love
in the smiles of children, in the sweetness of song,
revealed in sacred story and in the earnestness of prayer.
We come desiring to know you,
not only with our minds, but with our whole self.
Open us that we might understand your wisdom
and guide us in your ways of love and understanding.
In Jesus’ name we gather and offer ourselves
in your service. Amen
This morning’s scripture stories contain many wonderful themes to reflect upon. The stories from 1 Samuel and John are “Call Stories” which are rich with detail and metaphor. In 1 Samuel, a young boy, Samuel, experiences a call from God which he does not understand at first but with the help of his mentor, Eli, he recognizes God’s call and he responds. In the gospel passage, Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael. Philip heeds the call quickly but Nathanael is skeptical. Philip invites Nathanael to meet Jesus and Nathanael experiences Jesus as knowing him in a profound and mystical way.
Call and response is the overarching theme of these two stories but the sub-theme which caught my attention this week is that of seeing and listening with the heart of faith rather than with the regular senses. 1 Samuel notes at the beginning of today’s passage, “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out…” A person reading this passage today might think that Eli was merely blind in a physical sense however Eli’s contemporaries would have known that with corruption and scandal dogging his family, Eli’s time as a prophet had past and it was time for him to pave the way for a new prophet. And so, Eli, with his failing spiritual vision, helps Samuel to see God’s call, to listen carefully and to respond with faith. The gospel story also has the invitation to see with faith. Philip says to Nathanael, come and see, then Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him under a fig tree (a symbol for Israel) and that Nathanael will see heaven opened if he responds to his call.
Each of these stories speak about vision, or lack of vision, and offer the invitation to respond to God’s call and see for ourselves; to see with the eyes of faith.
God calls people in many and varied ways. God speaks to us in sometimes mysterious and wondrous ways and sometimes in ways that are so ordinary that we might miss, like Samuel at first, that it is God calling us. God’s spirit often works through the words and actions of ordinary people in simple and yet extraordinary ways that enable us to fulfill our calling as people of faith.
I offer, as an example of seeing and listening with the heart of faith, the life of Helen Keller and the faithful persistence of her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Helen Keller was born a normal healthy child in 1880. When Helen was 18 months old an illness left her completely blind and deaf. Helen was trapped in a world of silent darkness with little understanding of the world around her and no way to communicate with others or have others communicate with her. Helen’s parents loved her and did the best they could for her but she was like a wild animal trapped in the body of a small child. When Helen was nearly seven years old, a 20 year old graduate from the Perkins School for the Blind, named Annie Sullivan, came to live with the Kellers and became Helen’s teacher. In what was an amazing testament to the power of love and the stubborn and persistent faith of Annie Sullivan, Helen began to learn sign language through the sense of touch as Annie painstakingly repeated signed letters on Helen’s open palm. Through constant and determined work Helen gradually began to connect the words she was learning with objects and then with feelings and relationships. Later when Helen learned to read books in Braille a whole new world of understanding and knowledge opened up to her. As long as she lived, Annie was Helen’s constant companion assisting Helen in every aspect of her life including a university education, career as a writer, advocate and lecturer.
I believe that Annie Sullivan was the embodiment of the persistent and steadfast love of God, that reached out again and again, calling Helen to a rich and abundant life of faith and hope.
I’ll share just a few of Helen Keller’s quotes which reveal some of her beliefs and understanding of God:
• “It’s wonderful to climb the liquid mountains of the sky. Behind me
and before me is God and I have no fears.”
- “Once I knew only darkness and stillness…my life was without past or future…but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.”
- “Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”
• “What I am looking for is not out there, it is in me.”
My own call story is unremarkable in many ways. My awareness of God’s call for me as an individual took many years to fully recognize and took many others who affirmed my gifts and call to ministry. But, there was one experience which jolted me into actively discerning my call to paid accountable ministry. Everything was going along nicely, in my life, when I began to feel restless. It was a restlessness of the soul which I did not understand. I was happily married and had two daughters whom I adored. I was working part time and was busy with church, community and family. Life was good. But, this inner restlessness would not go away so I decided that I needed some time away to figure out what was going on. I looked around for options and was drawn to a weekend for women at Naramata Centre. It was the long weekend in May 1993. There is much I could say about that weekend but it was one particular experience that stands out as a turning point in my life. One afternoon I walked out of the building where we’d been meeting, into the bright sunshine, and as I walked alone across the courtyard a thought popped into my mind. The thought made no sense to me at all. It was simply, “You should become a diaconal minister.” This was not something I had ever considered and I was so surprised that I immediately stopped dead in my tracks and said out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding!” I was about to dismiss this thought as quickly as it had come to mind when I wondered if I shouldn’t check it out just in case God was trying to tell me something. I really didn’t think that was the case but I thought at least if I went through the motions of checking it out then I could put it to rest with a clear conscience. The rest, as they say, is history. After a lengthy and thorough discernment process I began my formal theological education. During the course of my studies, someone asked me why I had decided to become a minister. “Because God is persistent”, was my immediate answer. The person who asked the question thought I was kidding but I assured her that I had tried to ignore God’s call for as long as I could but that God was more persistent than I was. And, in God’s constant and persistent presence I found the strength and courage to venture away from my comfortable and known life into an unknown future with faith, hope and trust.
Some questions that I’ve pondered this week are:
As individuals and as a community of faith, how do we understand our call to ministry? How is God calling us as people of faith? In what ways do we hear, see, recognize and respond to God’s call? And, knowing ourselves to be loved and blessed by God, we can also ask ourselves, How can we be God’s presence to others as individuals and as a community of faith? Like Eli, in Samuel’s story, and Annie Sullivan in the life of Helen Keller, what are the ways in which our persistent faith and hope is known to others? Are we persistent in our faith even when the obstacles are great and we feel discouraged? And, in what ways does our community of faith reflect the presence of God in our lives?
These are questions not to be answered lightly but pondered at length. I leave these questions with you to think about and we’ll have opportunities in the months and years to come to explore these and other questions and to discern where, and how, God is calling us to go as a community of faith in the present and into the future.
I’ll close with my favourite quote from Helen Keller which is both an affirmation and a blessing:
“I believe that God is in me
as the sun is in the colour
and fragrance of a flower,
the Light in my darkness,
the Voice in my silence.”
May it be so for each of us, this day and always.