“How many more times?”
A Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-20 & John 1:43-51
Read them here: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=61
“How many more times until we come home?”
When I was a child my parents had a whistle. It was a unique whistle. It was not a standard coach’s whistle with the little ball inside, but it was a solid brass whistle a family heirloom from World War I. It was a cylinder long in shape, probably about four or five inches, about the circumference of a penny. It had a leather strap on it, and was hung on a hook near the back door in the kitchen. When it was time for me to come home (I still lived in an age where I could go out and play in the neighborhood) one of my parents would take the whistle and simple blow it twice, “Tweet. Tweet.” This was the signal to come home, because dinner was on the table.
Since his whistle was unique, it also made a unique noise – a higher pitched, louder tweet than a regular whistle. As long as I was within its radius, whether I was down the street, or around at the park behind the creek, there was no mistaking it. The question was, how many times would it take for me to hear it and come home?
There were times when I simply did not hear it. I was engrossed in what I was doing – oblivious to the whistle calling me home. There were times, when I chose to ignore it – because I didn’t want to come home and thought I knew better. But more often than not, it was my friends who heard it – because they knew it’s sound too, and they would tell me, “Geoff, it is time to go home.”
These stories today have a lot to do with whistle blowing – the whistle that calls us home. Sometimes we hear that whistle and coming running home. But often we are too busy to hear it, or we ignore it, or we need someone else to point it out to us so that we listen, and get home in time for dinner.
Take this story about Nathaniel (John 1:43-51). In the verses prior Jesus mets Peter and Andrew and called them to “follow me.” They dropped what they were doing when they heard the whistle blow and they followed him. The same thing happened when the whistle blew and Philip heard it. He saw Nathaniel, and he pointed it out to him – “We’ve found the one we’ve been looking for,” he saide. The whistle they had been waiting to hear now made its unique sound, and Peter, Andrew and Philip came running. Nathaniel was not so sure. He didn’t hear the whistle at first. Philip pointed it out to him with some of the best words in the Bible, “Come and see.” He didn’t hit him over the head with it – he invited him to listen for himself. When Jesus approached Nathaniel, he heard the whistle blow when Jesus told him, “You will see greater works than these.”
Then there is Samuel and Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-20). Samuel was apprenticed to Eli, who was the prophet of the Lord. In the middle of the night God called out to Samuel, “Samuel! Samuel!” The whistle blew and he heard it, but he thought it was his master, and came running, “What can I do for you Eli?” Eli, waking up, still groggy I am sure, sent the boy back to bed, since it wasn’t he that called him to come. It happened again, “Samuel!” God called, and Samuel ran once again to his master who sent him back to bed. A third time God called and this time Eli, sensing it might be God calling the boy told him, “The next time this happens – reply, ‘Yes, Lord, your servant is listening.’” Maybe that was good insight. Maybe he just wanted a good night’s sleep!
God did call again. Another time? Many times? Who knows? But Samuel heard the whistle blowing. “Yes, Lord, your servant is listening.” Samuel heard his call home. That he would be the prophet of the Lord. But he also heard a different kind of whistle blowing; one of judgment against Eli. You see Eli had two sons, who we are told are blasphemers. In the previous chapter we are told that they also are corrupt, and God blew the whistle on them; the whistle that calls us on our stuff. God also blew the whistle on Eli, who did nothing about it; and he got called on his stuff too. We know what this feels like. When people call us on our stuff. In the morning Samuel was the one to tell Eli. Maybe Eli was oblivious. Maybe he was just too busy. Maybe he chose to ignore it. But it took Samuel to call him on his stuff, to blow the whistle, just as it took Eli to point the whistle out to Samuel too.
The whistle blows for us too. In both of these ways, the same whistle blows. Calling us on our stuff and calling us home. How many times until we hear it? How many times until we come home?
There was a YouTube Video that went viral this past week by a man named Jeff Bethke. It sparked interest I think because of its title, “Why I hate religion, but I love Jesus.” It is worth taking the four minutes to watch it for yourself. (You can watch it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY). Bethke comes from an Evangelical background and in this video does what I am sure according to that tradition he believes is blowing the whistle: Calling the church out on its stuff, and calling us home. While the video has a high production value, he speaks in kind of poetic rap format while words flash across the screen. When someone sent the link to me and I watched it I didn’t think too much of it, it wasn’t anything I had not really heard before. What I found most interesting was people’s reactions to it. Friends and colleagues of mine started taking sides of what was becoming a debate.
On the one side there were those who joined in Bethke’s critique. People started standing in line to chime in that the church had a bunch of stuff it needed the whistle to be blown on: corruption, abuses, things done and left undone – that have taken away from the central message of our lives called to follow Christ because we are either oblivious, or too busy, or we choose to ignore them. There is much to repent of, to be sure.
And then there were those on the other side that said, “Hold on just a minute.” You can’t separate Jesus from the church or Christ from Christianity. And religion which is a set of beliefs, practices and a perspective on the world is certainly different from institutions like the church that have ways of teaching and forming people into those beliefs, practices and perspectives. And the argument went that we need those things – those whistles – to call us home or we wander around on our own.
We are people who hear the whistle blowing. It calls us on our stuff, and it calls us home. We don’t have to pick one over the other because quite frankly we need a whistle that both call us on our stuff so we don’t grow arrogant or snide and one calls us home so we don’t despair or feel abandoned. How many times will it take?
God’s promise is – he will blow the whistle as many times as it takes.
Think about each of the people in these Bible stories. For Peter and Andrew and Philip, all it takes it once. They hear the whistle blowing and they come and join Christ in the world. Maybe you are like that. Maybe you know somebody who is like that. They inspire us by a certain faith in an uncertain world. Maybe you are more like Nathaniel – you want to follow, but you are just not sure. You need another whistle, given by another, a nudge to get off your seat, an invitation to come and see. Maybe it takes twice when you hear the whistle blows. Maybe you are more like Samuel – hearing the whistle blow but you just are not sure what it means. It takes many times, many reminders three at least or maybe more, but you are open to the possibility of what it might mean to “see greater things than these” and when you hear that whistle it excites you.
But I suspect most of us (including myself) are the most like Eli. People who are trying to do the right thing, trying to be helpful, trying to model what it means to be faithful to other people but we get caught up in things, we get busy, we tune out, we try to ignore our own faults and hope they go away rather than deal with them, and when the whistle blows we get called out on all of our stuff, and we realize we are late for dinner.
But the whistle still calls for you and me to come home.
When the whistle blows we are reminded that the community has gathered. That we have come on a morning like this one to sing, to pray, to hear God’s word that both calls us out on our sin and brokenness and reminds us that in Christ we have the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting. We are reminded when the whistle blows that we were claimed first at the font, and we are welcome at the Lord’s table. We are reminded that when the whistle blows, we are never outside of the radius of God’s grace and mercy.
The whistle is blowing and Christ hope you doesn’t want your dinner to get cold.
Stop for a moment and pause, to take a deep breath, to point out that calling to others in your neighborhood. The community has gathered. How many times will it blow? As many times as it takes. Amen