You know, the Martins have been pretty fortunate in the employment department. Both John and I have had the opportunity to serve in good parishes through the years, and both of our sons found decent jobs fairly quickly after they graduated from college. The biggest blip in that good fortune was a number of years ago when our son David lost his job. He had been in the airline catering business in one capacity or another over the 15 years since he graduated from college, and he had mostly loved it. But as the airline industry got deeper and deeper into a financial hole, the food on flights from one place to another went from something travelers could complain about to virtually nonexistent, and David’s job was lost to the major restructuring happening in all parts of the industry. So he began applying for jobs, though not necessarily in food service, that might utilize the management skills he’d honed over the last decade and a half. Since he lived, and still does, on the west coast, John and I are very grateful for how well he stays in touch about what’s going on and when. He was very good in those difficult days about letting us know when he had an interview coming up and telling us how it went after the fact.
I couldn’t help but remember David’s job search as I read the psalm for today. The psalmist exults about how thoroughly he’s known by God, from the time that he was being knit together in his mother’s womb and everywhere he’s been since, to the thoughts he has and the words he will utter. Basically he’s acknowledging that God knows him even better than he knows himself. The reason my son David and his job search comes to mind is that in interview after interview he had, at most, an hour or maybe two to give a potential employer the information he or she needed to decide whether he was right for the job…or at least whether he merited another interview. You know, it’s a pretty daunting task to have to present yourself, both what you’re capable of doing and the sort of human being you are, to a complete stranger in such a short time. I find it a comfort to know that the One who made me…and David and you… knows us inside out regardless of how difficult it is for us to let others know us sometimes.
In the collect for today we ask God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the light of the world, to illumine us by hearing the Word and participating in and receiving the Sacraments. We ask this in order that we might shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory so that he may be known, worshiped and obeyed by everyone. In other words, the job description for those of us who would be followers of Jesus is to be people who are illuminated, filled with divine light…and translucent so that light can shine in and through us for all to see and be touched by. It’s a beautiful prayer. It’s a high calling. It’s a demanding job description.
It’s a demanding job description, like what was required of the boy Samuel. Samuel’s birth was an answer to the prayer of his mother Hannah. In gratitude, she dedicated him to God’s service and placed him in the care and nurture of the old priest Eli from the time he was weaned. Now even if we allow for the fact that children back then were nursed for much longer than they’re likely to be in our hurry-up culture, Samuel was still a very small child when he was turned over to Eli. The story in scripture gives us no precise sense of time passing, but when Samuel was a number of years older…perhaps late childhood or early adolescence, he had the experience of being called by God that we hear about this morning. In the wisdom that comes with experience, Eli finally recognizes that God is calling Samuel and tells him what to say if the Lord calls him again. It’s clear, to me at least, that a tender and caring relationship existed between the boy and the, by now, very old man. So what a troubling first encounter with God for the young boy. What a weight of knowledge about what would happen to Eli and his house to lie with through the rest of that long night. Samuel’s ministry began between a rock and a hard place, between the God he barely knew and the old man who he surely loved and trusted. And he would find himself in the same position over and over again during the years to come. Samuel was both illuminated by his encounter with God and transparent with curious Eli when morning came about what God had said to him.
And then there’s the wonderful call story of Philip and Nathanael in the gospel for today. I never fail to be moved by the profound simplicity of Jesus repeatedly saying to people, “Follow me,” and having them simply drop everything and do just that. It happened often enough that the story of Philip and Nathanael offers a thought-provoking contrast. After seeking out and finding Nathanael, Philip says, “The waiting’s over. We’ve found the messiah! And guess what, he’s from Nazareth.” And Nathanael…who probably could not have gotten a job with the tourist bureau in Nazareth responded with a very skeptical, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip gave the only reply that makes sense in the face of skepticism, “Come judge for yourself.” And here I have to confess that there’s at least one line for which I prefer the older translations. Jesus sees them coming and says within Nathanael’s hearing, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Jesus understood that with Nathanael what you saw was what you got. Jesus discerned that Nathanael might not yet be illuminated about who Jesus was, but he sure was transparent about what he was thinking.
It’s a beautiful prayer we pray this day, seeking both illumination and transparency for the sake of the gospel. But in reality, the living out of our shared vocation to be bearers of the good news is demanding. It sometimes puts us between the God we would love and the people we do love. It sometimes requires us to be honest when we’d rather be kind, to risk wrath or hurt when all we want is for others to like us.
It’s a beautiful prayer we pray this day, seeking both illumination and transparency for the sake of the gospel. And the reality is that we’re never fully equipped for the job. It’s a life-long apprenticeship which has plenty of room for our questions and skepticism as long as they don’t deteriorate into cynicism; an apprenticeship which is always stretching us in ways that challenge and, perhaps, even unnerve us; an apprenticeship which seeks to nurture in us the often costly twin graces of openness and honesty.
In the face of the demands and our unreadiness, it’s awfully easy to respond, “I can’t do that!” But the God who knows us better than we know ourselves says, “Come and see; come and see just how much you and I are able to do together.”