1 Samuel 3:1-20

John 1:43-51

The lectionary doesn’t require us to read that whole passage from 1 Samuel, just the “call” story itself. It’s the  story of a young boy in the temple hearing from God for the first time. When we read on, we saw that Samuel wasn’t hearing anything good. He was called to carry a word of destruction to Eli’s priestly house, as punishment for their misbehavior. That’s a hard call for Samuel to hear: he’s called to prophesy against his mentor, because the religious establishment was misbehaving.

I’m struck by Eli’s insistence on hearing what God had to say to Samuel. He knew what was coming, and he tried to be faithful in the face of it. He knew he was in the wrong: his sons exploited their position as priests, and he didn’t stop them even though he was responsible for their behavior. (Eli lived in a world of punishment, where bad behavior had to be repaid, and he seemed rather comforted in knowing that God had pronounced judgment against him.) Eli’s faith was far from perfect, but he acknowledged God’s justice. He put his faith in God ahead of preserving or defending himself.

I like Eli for the same reason Jesus likes Nathanael. Jesus says he finds “nothing false in him,” because Nathanael calls it like he sees it. Picture it: you’re here in Virginia waiting for the Messiah, and your brother tells you he’s found him: The Messiah is a prophet from Tower. Your first response is, “what good has ever come from Tower?” Really? The Messiah comes, and you’re bothered by his hometown? I at least wouldn’t say that out loud – I’m too polite to say that sort of thing – but I have to admit I’d think it. The falsehood Jesus doesn’t find in Nathanael is right there, in my politeness.

There is no falsehood in Nathanael. He gets right to the point. Maybe that’s not a great pastoral skill, but it’s true and faithful in its own way. I enjoy that because I don’t have that gift. My gift for listening charitably is also true, of course, but in a different way. Still, I have a soft spot for people like Nathanael, who try to speak the truth even when it’s offensive, who are willing to be wrong for the sake of truth.

He was wrong, of course. Something great did come out of Nazareth, because God does marvelous things in the least of places. Nathanael’s honesty showed in his willingness to be wrong, like Eli’s willingness to be corrected, because the truth is greater than we are.

Nathanael reminds me of another bluntly honest commentator from not quite so long ago, Dennis Miller. He sure was not polite, and he was definitely straightforward. His “rants” always ended with the tag line, ” that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.” That’s defensive and sarcastic, but it’s also true. There’s a basic kind of honesty in speaking frankly, and in acknowledging that things might be seen differently by different people. We really might be wrong. In fact, Dennis Miller changed his tune after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His politics (or at least the way he presented them) shifted – he decided he had been wrong!

He was right to do that, whether or not we agree with his politics. We have to be ready to change our minds, because we all might be wrong, even about the big stuff. Certainly, we all can admit we’re wrong on some level abt the “little” stuff, the practical decision-making that gets us through life.

A friend pointed me to a great dialogue where bloggers Tyler Cowen and Will Wilkinson discuss the probability that our views are wrong. Tyler Cowen’s claim is that we usually give our opinions 90-100% odds of being right, but that 60/40 is  usually more realistic. Imagine if we actively acknowledged that our beliefs were fairly likely to be wrong: what would that change in our church and community life? It’s so hard to imagine, let alone admit, that we’re wrong. Our whole sense of self is tied up in being right, being justified in what we do. That’s what makes Eli’s confession so powerful: “God will do as he sees fit.” “Yes, I’m wrong.” We know how hard that is to say!

The chance that we’re wrong attacks our ego. It challenges our sense of self, and we naturally try to defend ourselves from this attack. Jesus doesn’t call us to a path of defensiveness, he calls Nathanael and Philip to “follow me” through death and into new life. He calls us to a path of letting go. We must die to our old self in order to become what God makes us, because we belong to God, not to ourselves. My correctness – my reputation, my self-righteousness – those are mine. They’re me. But Christ calls for than my own “me.”

We’re called to give ourselves up in many ways. We may be called to devote our gifts to the service of God in our church, another organization, or our families. We might be called to relinquish skills that once defined us so we can go back to school, change jobs, or learn to be retired. Maybe we’re called right now to recover a self and a set of priorities we denied for many yrs, in favor of a different form of service to God or something else. Or, as if it were this simple, we might be called to take the focus off ourself by making a new commitment to pray for others.

All of these changes threaten our sense of self. Any commitment to others threatens us and calls out our falsehood. It’s false to think that we can be our own people, so we’re here in this church to be for each other and for all of God’s people. Being for each other means to share our resources, our energy, even our will with each other: we give ourselves up to find ourselves here.

Our annual meeting is happening immediately after worship today, so this is a time to review the life of our church last year and anticipate the year to come. It’s a time to decide together where we’ll go next. We don’t each decide that. The annual report doesn’t have to meet everyone’s approval. It can’t – there are too many of us. If the church belonged to any one of us, we’d do things differently, so thank God no one of us is in charge. Instead, none of us decides – all of us decide – not on our will, but on how to follow God’s will. I pray that we can manage to be wrong in the right ways. I pray that we can be bold but free from ego, ready to answer whenever and however Christ invites us to come and follow.

Amen.

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