Who are YOU? (And how do you know?)
WHO are YOU? The caterpillar asked.
WHO are YOU?
The same question is on the back of the door upstairs in the front room right now, followed by three others: who is God? What is call? And finally, what is GOD CALLing YOU to do?
These four questions are on the back of that door as a reminder to the five of us who meet weekly in that room for discernment group. In that group we explore a whole lot of questions - the others in the group can tell you that at the beginning of the year I gave them an entire sheet of address label stickers that each had a different discernment question. But that’s a lot of questions to manage all at once, so as we try to sort out what it is that God is calling each person to do right now and in their future vocation, there is a sign on the door to remind us that really, it all boils down to four questions:
Who are you?
Who is God?
What is call?
What is God calling you to do?
Of course, to say “it all comes down to just a few questions” makes it sound a lot simpler than it is when the first two questions are “who are you?” And “who is God?”
Those questions are the work of a lifetime. No two of us are just alike. No two of us see or hear God in quite the same way. No two of us have the same exact call placed on our life.
That’s one reason why we did unconscious bias training in with our values work last semester as we started our large group year of discernment, right? To remind us that we all have blind spots, we none of us see or hear God perfectly, and yet there are things we can do to see and hear God more fully by muddling through it all together.
It helps to know that we are not alone in this: not in this place, and not in the great tradition of people to whom God speaks. We stand as part of a great cloud of witnesses, all of whom needed help to follow God better. Mary had Elizabeth. Moses had Aaron. Samuel had Eli.
Sometimes, the voice of God needs to sound like a voice we already know how to trust.
Eli was Samuel’s mentor, his teacher, his father for all intents and purposes, since Samuel was given to Eli to raise at the temple when he was just a tiny boy. Eli was the one to whom the country, and Samuel, looked to know what was right, what was good, what was true. Eli was given Samuel to raise as his own son, to train in the way of the Lord. Eli is the one who Samuel trusts. It is Eli who points Samuel to God when God calls again and again, and Samuel cannot distinguish between the voice of God and the voice of his mentor.
How upside down it must have felt to Samuel, then - how crushing - that the first message he heard from God was not “You are my beloved” but these lines we have here. Their poetry in the NRSV dulls the impact a little bit, but here they are as the Message paraphrases it:
Listen carefully. I’m getting ready to do something in Israel that is going to shake everyone up and get their attention. The time has come for me to bring down on Eli’s family everything I warned him of, every last word of it. I’m letting him know that the time’s up. I’m bringing judgment on his family for good. He knew what was going on, that his sons were desecrating God’s name and God’s place, and he did nothing to stop them. This is my sentence on the family of Eli: The evil of Eli’s family can never be wiped out by sacrifice or offering.
I wonder who Samuel thought God was in those next few hours, as he sat with the message he didn’t want to tell Eli. I wonder who Samuel thought he was now. I wonder what Samuel thought of Eli in the wake of God saying “I’m done waiting for Eli to do something about what he knows is happening.”
WHO are YOU?
“I - I hardly know, sir, just at present - at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
It is not hard to sympathize with Alice, or with Samuel. It doesn’t take a lot, lately, to feel like the world has gone upside down, or like we have been changed to the wrong size, or like nobody means what we think they ought to mean when they say words that seem like they should be clear. Questions like “who are you? Who is God? What is God calling you to do?” Seem like they ought to be reasonably clear. They are short, they are to the point, and how much more basic can it get? And yet, every time we think we have found the answer, something upsets the apple cart.
Maybe that’s why it can be so hard to know for sure how we ought to answer.
So I find it helpful that Scripture gives us a couple of places to start on these questions of who are we, and who is God. Scripture doesn’t give us the full map. We still have to do the lifetime of work to discern what we as individuals and as communities are being called into next. But there are some basic pieces that don’t change.
Moses and Isaiah and Samuel and the communities Paul wrote to and saints throughout time have asked these same questions. And God gives Moses an answer. And God gives Isaiah an answer. And God gives the disciples an answer. And God gives the Corinthians an answer. And God has given us a repository of answers, so that when we need to ask again and again and again “God, who are you, and who am I, and what are we doing here?” God does not give up on us but shows us and tells us again and again:
I know you by name, and I will make my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you my name.
Let us make humankind in our image; and in the image of God they were created, male and female and all in the image of God.
I have called you by name, and you are mine.
Before you were born I knew you and loved you and called you my own
A young woman will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’
When you did these things for the least of these my siblings, you did it for me.
You are my beloved; in you I am well pleased.
You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.
Now you are the body of Christ.
The image of God, the voice of God, the glimmering, grasping sense of the barest glimpse of the back of the presence of God, is in the people of God gathered together. And the more fully gathered, the more fully shown and seen and felt. And in the presence of God, among the people of God gathered together, we are reminded who we are at our core.
Samuel needs Eli. Mary needs Elizabeth. We need each other.
Because things really are hard. The world really is broken. But God really is God, and God really can be found, because God has given us one another. We belong to each other. And so while we cannot see God’s fullness, we can say to one another “Now you are God’s beloved”
And when we do, we find that it is enough for today. So let us say to one another today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow:
WHO are YOU? You are God’s beloved, in whom God is well pleased.
WHO is GOD? The one who loves you this fiercely, the one who will not wait forever for God’s people to be told that they are beloved.
What is God calling us to do? Let’s find out.