Chaplain Mel Baars
January 15, 2012
I am sure many of you have seen this optical illusion before. The first time I saw it, I couldn’t, for the life of me, see the young and beautiful woman. All I could see what the old woman and her big nose. As soon as the picture flashed on the screen, I fixated on her and nothing that I did helped me see the picture any differently. After a while, people started giving me tips. “Look at the nose of the old woman… that’s really the young woman’s jaw line, “ or “The old lady’s mouth is really the necklace of the young woman.” I still couldn’t see it. By the end, there were about five guys, standing around, trying to help me refocus beyond my inital response the picture. I can’t remember how long it took me to see from the other perspective once my mind had set itself on the image of an old woman instead of a young one.
Things are rarely what they appear to be at first glance, or at least they are far more complex than any surface reading we might make. More often than not, we tend to rely on our assumptions, about a person, about a situation, about something coming in the future, therefore neglecting to leave a space for the person, the situation, the coming future to actually unfold. We think we know all that we really need to know about whatever it is, and so we move forward, reacting and responding, based on our assuming regardless of whether or not we have gotten it right. If my life is any indication, this is not the best way to conduct business. People are hurt and relationships are damaged, often unnecessarily. When we react based on pure assumption, we often miss the boat entirely. If we fixate on what we want something or someone to be instead of making space for them to be simply who they are, we are dooming them and us for failure. Inevitably, too, we are deeply disappointed, perhaps even angry that they didn’t turn out to be who we thought they were. It is a vicious cycle and all because we jumped too soon and set our hearts about our feelings and our opinion before even giving it a fair chance.
In a way, our scripture lessons for this week both address this idea of assumption based decision making. In our Old Testament passage we have little Samuel, an inexperienced boy, to whom God calls. When Samuel hears his name called, he says, “Here I am,” running to find his mentor Eli, who he believes has called him. Eli has no idea what Samuel is going on about and tells him to take a chill pill, lie back down and go to sleep. As soon as Samuel lays down, the voice calls again, “Samuel,” So Samuel runs back to Eli. “Here I am,” he says, out of breath because of this up and down and running around. Once again, Eli tells Samuel he has not called him and that he should go back and lie down. I am sure at this point Samuel is very confused. He keeps hearing a voice call his name, but when he goes to the person that he assumes has called out, he is wrong.
As the passage says, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” There was really no option in his frame of reference for this voice to belong to God. He didn’t know God on this level. Instead, he knew Eli and it was only Eli who was there with him in the Temple. He just assumed that Eli would be the one calling out. It happens again a third time. God calls out and Samuel runs to Eli saying, “I’m here. I’m here.” Samuel can’t seem to move beyond his fixation that it is Eli who is calling him instead of being open to something else, someone more. His assumptions almost cause him to miss God altogether, and in mistaking God’s call, miss an opportunity to serve God.
Our gospel story is even more obvious when it comes to the problem of making assumptions. Jesus is in the process of calling the disciples. Jesus has gotten to Philip and convinced him to follow and now Philip has set out to be a recruiter. When Philip shares with Nathanael about “the one” whom Moses and the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth, Nathanael quips, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was an unremarkable town, so how could anything significant come from there. It was an unexpected site for the origins of the savior of the world, to say the least. Clearly Nathanael has made his decision about the Jesus and his potential for greatness before even laying eyes on him. To believe that this Jesus as Messiah was anything more than rumor gone amuck might have been a mistake. But, in the story, something very surprising takes place. Nathanael goes from assuming the worst to recognizing the best of what a human life could be—God with us, inncarnate, in the flesh.
The curious thing about Nathanael’s 180 degree turn is that it doesn’t seem to be promted by anything particular. It is hard to say what is it that changes his mind. Jesus doesn’t do anything of note. All he does is address Nathanael honestly, voicing the potential of his heart in such a way that Nathanael can’t resist. Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deciet.” Wait a minute, Nathanael is thinking and he responds, “But when is it that you got to know me?” How would this stranger have any idea what is in his heart, what kind of character that he is made of? Jesus’ explaination... “I saw you under the fig tree.” Ok, this is really bizarre. What is significant about the fig tree. How could this illuminate some special characteristic located deep within Nathanael? Well, of course, we know the answer is that it couldn’t. It wouldn’t have mattered it Nathanael was standing under a fig tree or an apple tree or next to a cactus or in the middle of the Camp Sabalu-Harrison DFAC. But, I think the psalmist puts it well, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”
An encounter with God changes everything for Nathanael just like it changes everything for us. The thing about Jesus is that he sees us, each one of us, exactly how we are. I feel a little silly mentioning one of Superman’s special powers, but it is like Jesus has something of x-ray vision of the heart. When he examines us, nothing can be hidden, not even our deepest, darkest secrets or hurts which we have so carefully buried. Jesus sees it all, our desires, our hopes, our doubts and our fears and our limitations, the ways that we love which remain unseen as well as the ways we harbor our hate. Even our potential is percieved.
The amazing thing that we learn from these stories is that when God calls us, whether we are young like Samuel, not even able to understand God’s voice, or more seasoned like Nathanael and quick to question Good News and voice our suspicion about God, when God calls us, God invites us to see and grow beyond our assumptions. God makes a space where we have not been able to do so. God invites us to maximize our potential, all the while shepherding us back into the fold when we have strayed. God invites us to be more than we are, to do more than we thought we could ever do, to serve beyond our reach and to love even those who have brought us pain or harm. But, this is not on our own accord, through our own efforts alone, but with God as our partner along the way. God invites us and then promises to be with us as our continual source of strength. Not just for a moment, here and there, but instead, in every moment, today, tomorrow, forever.
When God calls us to come and follow, when God extends an invitation of grace, this is just the beginning of our journey of faith. Recognizing that it is God’s voice who is calling and not some other voice, and then responding to this call, to the truth of what God is offering marks the beginning of a lifelong relationship. It is a journey of discipleship where we are constantly learning and growing into the potential that we have been created to be. The more we learn about who Jesus is and what he has come to do in the world, the more we are able to understand what it means to truly follow him, what it means to live as he lived and love as he loved.
This is why we gather, even when we are few, because on this journey, we learn faithfulness from one another, as we read these holy texts, as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, as we sit with one another in laughter or in tears. We practice our discipleship both when we answer the call and then when we remain willing to continue on this path, even when it gets hard, even when we can no longer hear God’s voice at all. We might assume, based on some of our relationships with others, maybe relationships with family members or friends that have gone terribly wrong, that in difficulty or silence, God has left us. But that is the difference with God and us. We may be wayward. We may have a propensity to run to the next shinny thing or give up once we assume that all has been lost. We may easily lose our way, but not God. God’s steadfastness is unlike anything we have ever known or even imagined possible. So that even those of us who assume the worst, might come to know the fullness of life in him. This is the Good News.
The voice of God is calling. May we hear. May we follow. Amen