January 19, 2015 by jmw
When I lived in Buffalo a few years ago I attended Pilgrim St. Luke’s United Church of Christ. The first time I visited the church I intended to remain as unnoticed as possible since I would clearly be the new face in the crowd; but to my chagrin there was an explicit call out for first time visitors during the announcements and I was exposed. At that moment I was given a little welcoming gift that included a coffee mug, and on that mug read the most scandalous words: God is still speaking.
God is still speaking. There is so much packed into that little phrase, so many implications. God is still speaking. To whom? Why? What is God speaking? How is God speaking? How can God’s speech be heard? For some of you that phrase may evoke excitement; for others maybe fear; and perhaps for others an uneasy suspicion. To all of you I say two things: What do you seek? Come and see.
These two lines – one a question, the other an invitation – are the first seven words out of Jesus’s mouth in John’s gospel. Think about how incredible that is: John has carefully written a whole narrative about Jesus and, instead of some lofty theological claims or moral teaching, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are a simple question and invitation: What do you seek? Come and see. In so many profound ways these are the first words that we are meant to hear when listening for a God who is still speaking.
What do you seek? What? A question. A mystery. What? we ask, because we do not know.
Come and see. An invitation. A posture of openness. A posture of curiosity. A posture of wonder.
Today’s readings are quite filled with wonder. It is by no accident that they are therefore also very much about the God who speaks.
In the story of Samuel we explore the experience of a young boy who hear’s the voice of God calling in the night. Despite being a favorite for Sunday school children, this story is quite a profound account of human experience. Samuel hears a voice insisting, calling his name. Truthfully, the text offers no clear indication whether the call heard by Samuel was an audible voice or the whisper of an interior feeling. When read in juxtaposition with today’s Psalm (139), I find myself wondering if God’s voice was for Samuel more a haunting intuition than a literal utterance. What we learn later in the story is that God’s reason for calling Samuel was to communicate a message about justice. We can only wonder if such intuitions about matters of justice are, in fact, the voice of a God who calls to us, a God who is still speaking.
Psalms 139 could rightly be called a Psalm of wonder. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 139:6). “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Where shall I flee your presence?” “You are acquainted with all of my ways.” “You have searched me and known me!” Such thinking is so full of wonder that I cannot grasp it.
Some time ago when The Jeremiah Community was studying our posture of contemplation, we reflected on a quotation from Hans von Balthasar who captures the wonder of Psalm 139. Listen to what he writes (and please forgive the masculine language), “Man is the creature with a mystery in his heart that is bigger than himself. He is built like a tabernacle around a most sacred mystery.” It is in the light of this premise that we strive to become a contemplative community, for that sacred mystery in the depths of our hearts speaks to all of us and calls us to that which is bigger than our selves.
Last but not least, in John’s gospel we meet Nathanael who is a great example of the posture of wonder. When Philip tells Nathanael about the man from Nazareth, Nathanael is suspicious. But when Philip invites him to come and see, Nathanael is willing. Moments later we learn that Nathanael had been ‘under the fig tree.’ This little phrase has a lot of symbolic meaning in it: fig trees provided wonderful shade and were commonly used as a place to study, a place to wonder. I get the impression that Nathanael was a man of wonder, a man who entertained the idea that God is still speaking.
And yet I also have the impression that Nathanael did not exactly know what it was that that he was seeking. Like a confused Samuel who did not know the voice that called in night, I suspect that Nathanael was still uncertain about that which we was seeking. The reason I suspect this is because the breakthrough moment in this story does not come as a result of Nathanael’s own seeking. The revelatory event is not something that Nathanael achieves by his own doing. Rather, Nathanael’s great discovery is that he has been discovered by Jesus. Nathanael does not finally find Jesus; Jesus is the one who finds Nathanael. Likewise, Jesus is the one who had found Philip before him. In fact, John repeats the word found 4 times in this short narrative and I’m convinced that he does so to make a point: the culmination of our wonder and our seeking and our desire for the mystery bigger than ourselves is not finding God, but being found by God. It is like the lover in the Song of Songs who cannot find her lover until she is first found by him.
Philosopher Richard Kearney puts it well when he says, “God… is the other who seeks me out before I seek [God]…” (Kearney, 114) This is certainly a beautiful thought, but how might we experience this to be true? I cannot offer a simple answer, but I would suggest returning to the story of Samuel.
In Samuel we discover the paradoxical nature of listening for the God who is still speaking. Despite his efforts to seek the source of that calling in the night, Samuel is unable to attend to the voice of God by his own seeking. It is only when he learns to cease his doing and be still that Samuel is ready to listen. Indeed, it is only when Samuel is content to remain laying down and let the voice of God find him that he discerns the speaking of God. Samuel’s response reminds me of the words of André Gide in his poem The Fruits of the Earth in which he says [coincidentally] to the character Nathanael: “Let your desire be less expectation than a readiness to receive.” (Andre Gide)
Each week we gather together and, in many ways, we do not know what it is that we seek. Yet each week we come to see, we come to wonder. We do not always know what it is that we seek, but we often gather knowing that we have been sought. This is perhaps most profound when we gather around the sacred mysteries of bread and wine. Today I’d like to invite you to try something. When you’re served the bread or the wine and you hear the words, “The body of Christ…” or “The blood of Christ…” I invite you to respond with the words of Samuel: “Here I am. Speak, for your servant hears.” In saying those words I invite you to be still and know, to let your desire be less an expectation than a readiness to receive whatever God may be speaking, if, in fact, God is still speaking…