Call and Response
Based on 1Sam 3:1-10, Ps 139, John 1:43-51
I was not without some worship experience. Here I was, entering my third year of seminary, my 53rd year of life…I’d been around the block a few times as it pertained to attending church. Yet I was about to embark on an experience that would transform my way of viewing worship from one of being individual and passive to one of being engaged and communal. You see, I had stepped into the black church and I was about to be introduced to a style and understanding of worship that was very different than I had previously encountered. Here was an opportunity for true immersion, an overwhelming sea of interplay between the congregation, the Pastor, and the Choir/musicians. Church would typically last about 2.5 hours, and would be a blend of raucous singing and dancing, quiet yet fervent prayer, exhortation, all building to the end of the service where the Pastor would stand and deliver the Word that God had given him. By that point in the service, all should be ready to receive it.
Unbeknownst to me, I had fallen head long into the “Call and Response” worship style of the black church. It is a style which seeks to engage the listener vocally in song and through the spoken word to elicit a response to what is being said or sung. It encourages, and feeds off of, the interactions between leader and follower – all the while building a sense of community which is sharing something unique and sacred. It is a style of worship which has developed in the black church over many hundreds of years (at least) and which reflects the state of the lives of most of the church goers – clergy and laity. Church was the one place where blacks could freely gather – spiritual and gospel songs were allowed to be sung during work, comfort could be given to enable the faithful to endure another week of brutality and humiliation. It is also a style of communication that our LORD uses when wanting to get our attention – our full presence and participation. God calls to us in intimate and irresistible ways, because the Almighty created us and knows best how we will respond. Let us go before God now in prayer to prepare ourselves to respond to God’s call…
The reason that God can call to us and get us to respond is because God is our Creator – God knows us intimately. Psalm 139 puts it quite well in verses 13 and 14, “…For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made….” Our LORD knows us so very well that no matter what we do, where we go or what we are to say, it is known by God prior to its happening. Escaping our Creator is not possible because God is our Abba and Amma – our spiritual father and mother. We are “hard wired”, if you will, to be on the same frequency as Adonai – because we are made in the image and likeness of El Shaddai. From our first moments to our last, there is never a time where God is not present with us. We might choose not to seek after God, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t continually seek after us by calling to us and hoping for a response.
Samuel was a young boy when we encounter him in the Hebrew Bible text from today. The house of Israel had fallen into iniquity again and the priest Eli had failed to do his duty within his own family. Samuel, however, had been serving the LORD with great distinction and honor. Thus, because Eli’s physical and spiritual sight were failing, God chose to speak to Samuel. However, the LORD had never before spoken to Samuel, so he assumed that the voice he heard was from his mentor Eli. Because Eli was so lost in his spiritual self and the trials of his sons, it took him until the third visit from his young apprentice to realize that Elohim was speaking. Rightly, Eli tells Samuel to go back and to respond that he was listening if the voice called a fourth time.
God becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus – who is beginning His public ministry by calling disciples. Notice how Jesus/God speaks in the Gospel of John…he simply calls, “Follow me” – and expects a positive response. That’s it – no long winded explanation of who He was or where He came from; no exhaustive citation of his resume. No, just like in the Book of Samuel, God calls directly to us in an imperative that elicits our response. Before Jesus appeared, it had been quite a while (about 400 years) since a prophet had walked among the people – just like it had when God called Samuel. The people of Jesus’ time were primed to hear from God (in this case to hear, see, feel and walk with and learn from God). It is interesting to hear again the sarcastic response of Nathanael to Philip, “…Can anything good come out of Nazareth?…” Philip implores his friend, ”come and see”. Yet, Jesus is not affronted, He takes Nathanael at face value and compliments him on being truthful and without deceit. Jesus’ comment to Nathanael about seeing him under the fig only cements the reality that God sees us and knows us long before we ever come into contact with God.
From the very beginning, God has called to humans looking for a response. In the third chapter of Genesis, the LORD calls out to Adam, “Where are you?” a question that God still uses to this day. God went on to call patriarchs, prophets, kings, surrogate parents – as well as everyday folks like you and me and all the generations before us. God calls to us so that we might come into relationship with God and learn from God how it is we are to love and worship the LORD and love our neighbors – love everyone, like we love ourselves and our own families.
The call of Jesus is the call to follow Him where he will lead us – that is, it is the call to discipleship. Discipleship is that process of deepening our love and understanding for God and for all that God has created. We do this through prayer, Bible study, corporate worship, sharing the sacraments, communing with other believers and through fasting. John Wesley called these activities “means of grace” and taught how the use of all of them could open our lives to the action of God’s Holy Spirit; empowering us to lead lives that were centered in our faith in God. We cannot grow in love for God and not grow equally in love for all of God’s creation. Understanding the wonders of how we are each lovingly made (as in Psalm 139 today), and that our LORD never quits calling out to us, places in us a desire to want to do more for such a gracious Creator.
The more we can do is to walk as fully engaged disciples the path of Christ. When do that, then we come to see the world through different eyes, feel through different hearts, hear differently as well. We see the injustices created by a broken world that are visited on those who society has marginalized. We encounter first-hand despair and suffering, we come to understand that all of creation is in need of our love and our care. We can no longer turn away from the poor among us; those who are suffering ailments of mind, body or spirit; those who are lonely; those who have lost the ability to believe in God and God’s promises; the strangers; those who are imprisoned in physical jails or in jails of addiction or generationally-ingrained behaviors; those people who we look upon as enemies or competitors. Our response to the call of Jesus to these neighbors will require our attention and our sacrifice.
We will need to sacrifice our comfort of not knowing, our thinking that the situation is too big for us to address, our judgmentalism, our complacency that has allowed these things to happen to people who are living lives “but for the grace of God go I”. Our attention to the needs of the world around us will call from us a response to act in a loving and faith-filled manner to ease the burdens of those that we come to love as ourselves. God calls us to relationship with God, and the response to that call is to then go out into our local world and to eradicate those things that are not “of God”. To ensure that all persons have an equitable opportunity to engage fully in our world. To ensure that all have what is necessary to flourish to the extent that they are able. To equip others to live lives that are full, purposeful and meaningful…that is, to live lives like our own. This is the call of God…our response is to echo young Samuel – “speak LORD, for your servants are listening!” Amen and amen!