GOSPEL John 1:43-51
In John’s gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins with the call of disciples, who then bring others to Jesus. Philip’s friend Nathanael moves from skepticism to faith when he accepts the invitation to “Come and see.”
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Let me set the scene here: It’s the week before Christmas in the Steelers locker room. The organization is stressing, their first-string quarterback is injured, and their second-string quarterback hasn’t been getting the job done. What are they going to do? They ponder, until they realize there is only one who stands a chance at saving their season. That’s right, Mason Rudolph, the third string, the one who hasn’t started in 2 years, the back-up to the back-up. It seems risky, but maybe it will pay off, all they can do is hope. So they go to Rudolph, saying “alright Mason, you’re being called up!” And Rudolph’s response: “No thanks, I’m good!”
Wait what? Can you imagine if Mason Rudolph had said no? No to the opportunity to help his team, no to a second chance as the quarterback, no to being called upon? I’m not sure we would be going home to a football game today. Spoiler alert: it’s okay, he actually said yes!
Today’s readings are all about being called. In the gospel, Philip and Nathanael are called to be Jesus’ disciples, to leave behind the life they knew and follow him. In the Old Testament, Samuel is called to be the next priest of the temple. Eli is called to help and guide Samuel. All of these calls are for quite monumental tasks, and the Samuel story especially shows us that responding to God’s call isn’t always simple and straight forward. God calls out to Samuel three different times, but Samuel doesn’t understand. He needs the help of Eli who has the knowledge and experience to understand what is happening.
So too, in that moment Eli realizes his own calling. Eli was a priest and judge of Israel, a leader. His two sons were set to follow in their father’s footsteps, but Eli didn’t do the best job as a father. He failed in that call. His sons were corrupt and abusive, so God decided that they would not inherit their father’s job. Instead, with God’s calling of Samuel, Eli gets another call to guide, teach, and prepare Samuel.
And Samuel was only a child when he was called. A little boy was told he would grow to be a king maker. That had to be a least a little alarming! I’m sure he was thinking, “why me? Am I really worthy enough for this task?”
But, Samuel is supported as he grows, and by the time he reaches adulthood… he also fails as a father. And he has to tell the Israelites how awful their behavior is. He recognizes Saul as the first Israelite king… only to have Saul disobey God’s commandments. He goes to tell Jesse that the new king would be one of his sons… only to have each and every one of the first 16 sons fail to please God. It had to be exasperating! His life was so hard! But he followed God’s call for his life. Here came son number 17, a scrawny little child, no older than Samuel was when God first called him. And through these two small, unexpected children, God began the line of David, king of the Israelites, ancestor to the savior of the world!
Perhaps that’s why we run from our own calls sometimes. We’re afraid to fail. I know I ran! I first felt my call to ministry when I was in high school, but I ignored it because I thought there was no way I could do what pastors do. I went on to become a speech-language pathologist, and truly believed that was my call. But it didn’t take very long to realize that I was not where I was supposed to be. It took a lot of introspection, a lot of listening to others, and a lot of speaking to friends, family, and those I trust. Just as Eli and Samuel had to listen and speak to each other in order to understand their calls. It is by these tools of human speaking and hearing that God’s light breaks into the world. And the even more beautiful part was that I learned so much about myself and the world because of that “failed” first call that I don’t think I would be standing here today if I hadn’t experienced all that first! In failure comes growth.
See, God does have a call for each of us, each unique, each a different path, or career, or way of living, or way of serving. Some are called to be teachers, some pastors, some construction workers, and some government officials. In our communities, there are those who run the food pantry, those who volunteer at the animal shelter, those who pick up that piece of litter on the sidewalk, those who sit on church council, and those who participate in advocacy groups. Some who always can make you laugh, and you find consistent joy with, those who are good listeners and a shoulder to cry on, and those who seek justice with and for the poor and marginalized. Some of these actions may seem big and others small, easier or harder, or just downright scary, but there’s one thing they all have in common. See, each of these are actions that demonstrate God’s goodness for each other and our community.
It takes courage to accept what it is God is calling us to do, to lean into the unknown, to risk failure or disappointment. We say it’s too risky or I don’t think I’m the one you really want God. Sounds pretty similar to what Samuel and Eli were feeling. And yet, God gave each of them second chances, second calls, remained with them through each failure. And great things came out of these second chances, especially because they were able to learn and grow from their first attempts.
So here we are four weeks after that 100% historically authentic event in the Steelers locker room. And here’s the thing: Mason Rudolph did fail the first time he was called to start for the Steelers. He spent the next two years uncertain of what would happen next. He could have left the team when he became a free agent. But then came his second call. And look how it’s all turned out since then, with Rudolph leading the Steelers to three unexpected victories and an almost miraculous playoff appearance. He answered the call!
Of course, the game has been moved to tomorrow, but at this point in the sermon I was going to let you know this sermon is a bit on the short side today. I just wanted to make sure you had plenty of time to get home and prepare for the game. You’re welcome!
All jokes aside, I’m not too closely comparing playing football to loving God and loving your neighbor, but Mason Rudolph’s story is a good and timely lesson in showing up for whatever it is we are each called to do and growing from our past experiences. We absolutely will experience failures, but the good news is God doesn’t cut or bench us when we make a mistake or flat-out fail a call. We get to try again and again and again. That is the good news.
Seminarian Lindsie Struth