The lectionary also weaves Scripture together. Intentionally and unintentionally, our readings connect God’s Word across time and space. Sometimes these connections can feel inauthentic. Other times, the readings flow together so beautifully they are themselves an Epiphany: a revelation of God’s self to us. Today’s readings are, mostly, a great example of when the lectionary works. “The Calling of Samuel,” Psalm 139, and “the calling of Nathanial” reveal God’s knowledge of us. Today’s readings remind us who and whose we are: beloved children of God in need of and participants in God’s healing mercy.
We begin with Samuel. If you do not know his story, I commend to you the historical books of the Hebrew Scriptures. They tell the story of God’s activity amidst the faithful and broken people of God. Samuel is the son of Hannah. He is the result of Hannah’s desperate prayer and promise to God: weeping at the altar, she begs God for a son promising to set him apart for the Lord. She prays so fervently that Eli, the priest, believes she is drunk and admonishes her. She is not drunk; she is faithful. And God gives her a son, Samuel.
Samuel is the apprentice of Eli, the priest of Israel. Eli is a complicated man. While faithful to God, his household is corrupt; specifically, his sons are scoundrels (1 Samuel 1: 12). They abuse the people’s sacrifices and the people. While Eli confronts their behavior, he is unable to change them. God, though, is sovereign. God calls Samuel to bring Eli’s ministry to a close and begin a new era for Israel. And Eli recognizes God’s word and accepts Samuel’s priesthood. Samuel is a bearer of hope amidst a dull sighted priest and abused people.
My hope is that we catch the significance of this story. Hannah’s desire for a son gives birth, literally and metaphorically, to God’s reconciling work in Israel. Eli, while dull in sight, recognizes God’s voice. And even while his leadership is flawed, his family corrupt, God is at work. Samuel’s ministry becomes a vehicle for God to act on behalf of Israel. This all happens over a span of many years. God’s activity is a mystery, only partially visible to us. God’s sight on each person reveals God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of corruption and failure. Hannah, Eli, and Samuel all recognize their dependence on God and desire for God’s mercy. God will do what God will do. And their intimate relationships with God, the revelation of their deep desires, God’s knowledge of their broken lives, makes them participants in God’s activity in the world.
“O Lord, you have searched me out and known me...” these are some of the most famous verses of our psalms. Psalm 139 is used to help us remember that we are beloved children of God. We do not read the whole psalm today, for good reason. The psalm takes a sharp turn towards punishment for those who do evil. If we read the whole psalm, we remember that God does, indeed, know all of our thoughts: even those that seek the destruction of our enemies. Psalm 139 describes our experience of knowing and being known by God. It is a reminder that we are not alone, even in our isolation. God is with us. God knows us, even the parts of us that seek judgement on our enemies, the parts we try to hide.
“Where did you get to know me…” Nathanial asks. Does Jesus speaks some truth about the core of who Nathanial is: how he knows himself or how he knows God? The exchange between Jesus and Nathanial in our Gospel today indicates that something has happened: Jesus knows Nathanial. Something happened beneath that fig tree that revealed Nathanial in an intimate way to Christ. Christ is not afraid of this knowledge. Instead, Jesus’ knowledge of Nathanial leads to a revelation of Christ, the living, incarnate Word of God. This intimate exchange between them makes Nathanial a witness to God’s activity in the world.
It is the knowing that weaves these three texts together. God knows Hannah, Eli, Nathanial. God knows the psalmist. This knowledge imbues trust in the people. Hannah offers her deepest desire. Eli accepts God’s judgement of his family. Nathanial follows Christ. Each one recognizes their dependence on God’s knowledge of them.
Being known by God leads each one to become necessary participants in God’s healing work. Hannah devotes her son to God. Eli makes way for Samuel’s ministry to grow. Samuel becomes the prophet to bring healing to a broken Israel. The psalmist offers the worst part of themselves, trusting God will show them how to live. Nathanial becomes a witness to Christ. Each one bound to God by the offering of their whole selves and transformed by God’s mercy. Each one a bearer of God’s healing Word to the world.
Have we ever felt this: God knows us and we know God? Perhaps we are like Hannah: kneeling before God, pouring out her soul. Perhaps it is how Eli feels hearing God’s witness of his corrupt family. Maybe it is the feeling Samuel had when he said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening…” Maybe we wonder how Christ knows us, like Nathanial we ask: “Where did you get to know me...”
One of the most faithful women I have ever known was blind and confined to a wheel chair. She often wondered what her ministry was, wondering how she was a witness to Christ. When we prayed together, she asked for God’s wisdom in her life. She depended on God to show her the way. And she prayed for us: her church, community, and nation. Her prayers were important and necessary. With her prayers, she drew all of us closer to God, inviting God’s will into her life and ours. Even when she could no longer leave her room, God knew her and she knew God. Her relationship with God invited God’s life into the world.
Martin Luther King Jr was a complicated man. He was a pastor, a husband and father, and a Civil rights leader. The FBI called him dangerous as he confronted those in power. He demanded equal rights for those who were oppressed, undervalued, and the most vulnerable. He is an inspiration to me. I believe MLK knew who and whose he was. He put his full trust in Christ’s love and grace. He was not perfect. And, his dependence on God is palpable. Again and again, he returned in prayer and worship to the One who made him. His relationship with Christ encouraged him to keep offering himself to God’s healing work.
When I remember that God knows me, I’m a little uncomfortable. There are parts of myself I’d like to hide. And then I remember: God confronts the truth of my self with healing grace and mercy. A vulnerable, intimate relationship with God is transformative.
We are known by God: all desires known, no secrets hid. We must acknowledge this dependence we have on God to fully know us and show us our way. This intimate relationship opens us to God’s activity in our lives and world. We are made ready to move closer to who God made us to be: active participants in God’s healing work in the world.
I did not set out today to directly address the anxiety and division in our nation. Yet, this anxiety and division lays on my heart. I am saddened by the brokenness of humanity exposed by our violence. I am anxious for our safety. I am ready for divisions to cease and for our isolation to end. And I believe we have hope that violence and pandemic are not the end of our story. My hope is that we will seek God’s way instead of our own. The Scriptures, especially those today, even Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, compel us to seek God’s way first. We are, each one of us, beloved children of God. We must be vulnerable to God’s transformative mercy and grace, for us and our neighbors. If we seek God with our whole selves, we will be bearers of mercy and grace to the world. We must depend and seek God’s way more than our own. It is the only way to heal creation.
I’ll end with a prayer from Dr. King. The Lord be with you:
Thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.