And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
One of my favorite books is Tattoos on the Heart. The author is Fr. Gregory Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles to provide a whole lot of life-giving opportunities to gang-involved youth. The book is inspiring and poignant, and so funny in parts it makes you laugh out loud. One of those parts—at least for me—is when Fr. Boyle—whom everyone calls “G”—meets with a young man for an initial intake conversation. It’s just the two of them in G’s simple office and he starts out by asking the young man:
“How old are you?”
The guy answers: “Me?”
“Well, yes, you,” answers G. There’s no one else there.
“Oh, I’m eighteen.”
Then G asks: “Do you have a driver’s license?”
This story of Fr. Boyle trying to start a conversation with this particular homeboy reminds me of today’s story of God trying to start a conversation with Samuel. The difference is that that Samuel knows someone is talking to him, but he doesn’t know who.
Both stories—the one from Tattoos on the Heart and the one from Samuel—capture a thread running through all of our lessons today: We don’t always understand the implications of being in relationship with God, a relationship spelled out so beautifully in Psalm 139. You trace my journeys and my resting places/and are acquainted with all my ways…You yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Nathanael is a good example of someone who doesn’t entirely understand how God is speaking to him, or what it all means. Nathanael is completely captivated by Jesus’ having recognized him from an earlier encounter under a fig tree. There’s more too it than that, Jesus says.
And there’s a lot more I could say about Jesus and Nathanael from this morning’s gospel, but then I would just be avoiding the reading we just heard from the Letter to the Corinthians.
We enter a conversation already in progress, between the good people of Corinth and the Apostle Paul, in which Paul has some choice words for his readers:
The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body, he writes. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shun fornication! Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you….you are not your own.
These were not popular sentiments at the time of Paul’s writing, and I’m guessing they’re not popular sentiments now.
The city of Corinth was known as a licentious place, a bustling seaport full of people trading in money and power. In the city there was a temple dedicated to Asclepius, the ancient Greek God of healing and medicine. But the Corinthian version of this temple had a reputation for functioning more like the spa at an exclusive country club than a temple, and people who frequented it were used to having their own way in style and comfort, meeting their bodily needs at the expense of slaves and prostitutes.
Many of the Christians in Corinth understood that being Christian meant that they could continue to do whatever they pleased with their bodies, because all that mattered was their spirit. Their soul belonged to God, while their body belonged to them, to do with whatever they wished. Right? By no means! Our bodies are members of Christ, and are not our own. Our bodies belong to God because our whole self belongs to God. Remember the psalm? You yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb
For centuries, we have assumed that basically our identity as sexual beings, with physical bodies, is something that we should split off, separate from our lives with God. What Paul says here is that as people who strive to live in union with God with our whole selves—which is the only way to be in union with God—our sexuality is as important as any other aspect of who we are, more important even. The moral teaching here is not about the evils of sex, but rather that our sexual ethics must reflect our relationship with God. The word translated in this passage as body is soma, which actually means the whole self, body and soul. The body is not something we have, but something we are. This is why the Body of Christ is such a rich and multilayered metaphor. When we separate body and soul, we often don’t care for our bodies in the same way as when we see ourselves as body and spirit, body and soul.
When Paul writes about the evils of fornication, and uses the example of union with a prostituted woman, he is not calling her evil, but rather saying that physical relationships that do not include a whole, spiritual union, take us away from relationship with God.
We were bought with a price, Paul says, and God dwells within us. God is present in all of our encounters, not just the ones that we might think are appropriately holy. In order to be the body of Christ, the church, we need to think of all of our relationships as spiritual union, and shun relationships to which we cannot bring our whole selves.
All of our relationships? Really?
I had an experience the other day, a minor thing that I hope helps to illustrate what I’m talking about. I was driving around on the West side where I always get lost, looking for an Office Depot. By the time I found it, I was tired and hungry and disappointed that they didn’t have everything I wanted. I was checking out, paying for the things I did find, and I was really not nice to the guy behind the counter. I know some priests who I just know are nice all the time and I really wish I were one of them.
Then suddenly, in the last 30 or 40 seconds of our transaction, by some miracle of God’s grace I saw myself from the perspective of the guy behind the counter, I thought a little bit about his job, and I thought: I can do better than this. I made eye contact, I smiled, I thanked him for his help, and I told him to have a great day. I’m not saying this to point out how great I am, but because later when I was reflecting on this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I kept thinking about that guy at Office Depot and how, as brief as it was, I had a relationship with him, and I needed to bring my whole self to that relationship. Not just my credit card and my crabbiness. When I was able to make that little shift, I could feel for a moment that the Holy Spirit was indeed dwelling within me, just like the Good Book says.
Samuel said “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Sometimes I think we are more like the young man in Tattoos of the Heart who says “who, me?” We don’t think that we are candidates for God’s grace, for hope, for union with the Holy. But we are. We are the ones God speaks to. We are the ones God wants. Each one of us, with all of our whole selves.