Sunday, January 14, 2018

Jesus calling. Are you listening?

Readings: 1 Sam 3:3b-10.19; Ps 40:2.4-10; 1 Cor 6:13c-15a.17-20; John 1:35-42

"Vocation" and "discernment" are two words that as Catholics we say/hear and write/read a lot. We also use "community" quite a bit. But in advanced Western societies, where the atomic individual reigns supreme, we invoke "community" as more of an aspiration than a lived reality. I think this is true, too, for vocation and discernment as well as for vocational discernment. Since we just entered Ordinary Time for the first time this liturgical year, it bears noting that during Ordinary Time our lectionary readings from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel readings are harmonized. In our reading from 1 Samuel this week, the Church provides us with a great parallel to the seminal pericope from St. John's Gospel, which provides us with a paradigm for discipleship because it includes evangelization, making Jesus's followers missionary disciples.

Hearing God's call (vocation from Latin vocare= "to call") requires discernment. Discernment is nothing other than being able to hear and heed God's voice. We live in noisy times. Even when it comes to those who claim to speak in some way for God, we are barraged with a cacophony of voices, which sometimes consist of someone generalizing from his/her own experience. Being able to hear God is something we have to learn, just like the young Samuel did. Notice that it is not until the end of the episode in our first reading that we learn what God said to the young man Samuel each time he fell asleep. What did God say? He said, "Samuel, Samuel" (1 Sam 3:10). This explains why, in the narrative, Samuel keeps going to his formator, his mentor, Eli, upon being awakened. He thought Eli was calling him. The final time Samuel fell asleep, knowing that it was not Eli who was summoning him, was when he discerned it was the voice of the LORD. Once he recognized the voice of the LORD, the young prophet-in-training said, "Speak, for your servant is listening" (1 Sam 3:10).

In my preaching, I often make the distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing, on this view, is simply a matter of sound waves vibrating your sensitive aural apparatus. Listening means attending carefully to what someone else is saying. While it is possible to hear without shutting up, it is impossible to listen without doing so. We listen to God in silence. In prayer, we need to spend at least as much time listening as we do speaking. The more we pray, the more time we spend in silence. As the wise old spiritual axiom states it: God's first language is silence.

I am convinced that God speaks to each one of us practically all the time and in a variety of ways. Like the young Samuel, however, we are often unable to recognize the Lord's voice. The reason for our inability to recognize the Master's voice is because we are not in the habit of listening, of shutting up. One major reason for this was spelled out very well by the late Karl Rahner towards the beginning of his little book simply entitled On Prayer: we let the important be overcome by urgent. Nothing is more important than listening for and then to the voice of the Lord. In an interview near the end of his life, when asked which of his many works he liked the best, without hesitation, Rahner pointed to his "little book on prayer." Jokes about Rahner's incomprehensibility abound, one even made his brother Otto, who was also a Jesuit scholar (a Church historian). This book is Rahner at his most is accessible. What he liked about his little book on prayer is that he felt it was a good synthesis of his theology. It was Rahner who observed: "In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all."

Vocation de Saint Jean et de Saint André, by James Tissot, 1886-1894

One's vocation, or call, no matter what it is, is to build up the Body of Christ. This is to say, to build up a community, which is nothing other than building up the kingdom of God, ushering in God's reign, becoming the people of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit. The kingdom of God, as Jesus taught us when compared to how the world typically works, is an upside down, or inverted, reality. Hence, being a Christian will always entail being counter-cultural.

To give some idea of what being counter-cultural means, I point you to an article by Douglas Campbell, which provides a very good overview of St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, the letter from which our second reading for today is taken. The article is featured in The Christian Century: "Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to a community in the middle of a culture war." In it Campbell describes how Christianity is counter-cultural, which has nothing to do with changing with the times:
Paul’s ethic of Christian love was deeply countercultural and highly demanding. Homogeneous and idealized communities mask how tough it is to practice this kindness and consideration across social divisions where it needs to bridge and heal and not merely to fit into a group that already gets along quite well
In short, it is necessary for the Body of Christ to include everyone, especially people from places that far too many of Christians deem to be shitholes. At least in the United States, we run the risk of making the Church almost exclusively bourgeois. This is true, too, in Western Europe. This is something theologian Johan Baptist Metz addressed more than thirty years ago in his book The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Post-Bourgeois World. It's this perhaps more than anything that has led to the Church's decline in age of late capitalism during which more and more wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and the bourgeois is shrinking dramatically.

In our Gospel today, John and Andrew listened, not once, but twice. First, they listened to the one they had been following, the one whose disciples they were- John the Baptist, who, upon seeing Jesus, proclaimed: "Behold, the Lamb of God" (John 1:36). As a result, they set off after Jesus. Noticing them following him, the Lord asked them the most human of all questions, "What are you looking for?" They asked him where was staying. They heeded his call, "Come, and you will see." They listened a second time.

Notice the inspired author does not describe "where" Jesus led them in geographical terms. He merely wrote: "So they went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day" (John 1:39). You see, Jesus is the who, what, why, where, and when. Or as the old hymn puts it: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. What Jesus gives those who follow him is nothing other than himself. By giving us himself body, blood, soul and divinity, he allows us to share in divine life, the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This life, as we read elsewhere in the Johannine corpus, is love (1 John 4:8.16). By its nature, love is profuse, that is, turned toward the other, not kept to one's self.

I don't think it's overly simplistic to say there is only one Christian vocation: to follow Christ. In baptism, Jesus bid each of us, "Come, and you will see." He reissued this call in confirmation. Like the young Samuel, in baptism and confirmation, God called you by name. Jesus calls you to follow him in each Eucharist and then sends you forth to heed his call. Every specific vocation, whether you're married or single, whether you're a priest and/or a vowed religious, even (gasp!) a deacon, is about heeding Jesus's call. I think it's important for clerics, of which I am one, to remind ourselves as we vest to serve Christ and his people in liturgical celebrations that the alb, over which our stoles dalmatics, chasubles, copes, etc. go, are baptismal garments. Without baptism, without having heard and responded to Christ's call, the rest of it is impossible.

It's still early in the new year, but it's already late enough to begin waning on your New Year's resolutions. Our resolution each year, each Advent, each Lent, each Sunday should be to hear, listen to, and heed Christ's call. Once you have experienced Jesus, it is impossible not to tell others about him, to extend the same invitation Andrew extended to his brother Simon.

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