Homily for Sunday, January 14, 2018
Second Sunday After the Epiphany
1 Samuel 3:1–20
Though the homily this morning isn’t about bicycles, in just a minute I want to talk about bicycles, in particular about Gregory Crichlow, the owner of the Chocolate Spokes bike shop in the Five Points neighborhood in Denver. But I don’t want to begin there. Rather, I’d like to begin with three works of art. The three works are pictured in the order of service.
The first is Michelangelo’s Moses, an immense marble sculpture that is part of the tomb of Pope Julius II in the Church of St. Peter in Chains, in Rome. Michelangelo’s Moses has been described by many a critic. Perhaps the most famous description comes not from an art critic, but from Sigmund Freud, who discerned multiple psychological states within Moses:
We have seen how many of those who have felt the influence of this statue have been impelled to interpret it as representing Moses agitated by the spectacle of his people fallen from grace and dancing round an idol. But this interpretation had to be given up…. Such a conception… fail[s] to harmonize with the design of making this figure…
As our eyes travel down it the figure exhibits three distinct emotional strata. The lines of the face reflect the feelings which have won the ascendancy; the middle of the figure shows the traces of suppressed movement; and the foot still retains the attitude of the projected action. It is as though the controlling influence had proceeded downwards from above.
Another famous depiction of a prophet, Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, likewise is said to depict a turbid emotional state. Here are the Rijksmuseum’s notes for Jeremiah:
Downcast, the prophet Jeremiah leans his tired head on his hand. He mourns the burning city of Jerusalem (left background), the destruction of which he had predicted. The most important part of the depiction—the figure of Jeremiah—is painted with great precision, while his surroundings are barely worked out. Rembrandt used powerful contrasts of light and shadow to heighten the drama of the scene.
Lastly, the sculptor Auguste Rodin himself had the following to say about the model who stood for Rodin’s bronze, “John the Baptist Preaching” (a cast of which can be seen at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia):
As soon as I saw [the Italian peasant who came to offer his services as a model], I was filled with admiration; this rough, hairy man expressed violence in his bearing… yet also [a] mystical character… I immediately thought of Saint John the Baptist… a man of nature, a visionary, a believer, a precursor who came to announce one greater than himself.
All three depictions of these prophets presume that one of the qualities necessary to be a prophet is a rich emotional life, the ability to carry—even to be burdened by—multiple, intense emotions. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century rabbi, in his work The Prophets, echoes the intensity of these artists’ interpretations and spoke of prophets bearing the “divine pathos”; that is, they manifest the emotions of God toward God’s people. Prophets in this tradition are intense, brooding figures, who have a message that they must speak lest—as Jeremiah says of himself—they have “something like a burning fire shut up in [their] bones” (Jeremiah 20:9).
It is against the backdrop of these intense, brooding old men that today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures offers the story of a prophet who is yet a boy. Yet a boy, Samuel helps us to see a fuller picture, not only of what it might be like to be a prophet, but also of what it might feel like when God calls us.
Getting back to bicycles and the Chocolate Spokes bicycle shop in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver: Owner Greg Crichlow was an architect who worked just around the corner from the shop, which was formerly vacant and used by addicts to shoot up. Crichlow quit his job, bought the building, and opened up shop. Within a few months, his shop became crowded. In an award-winning short film about the shop (which you can Google and find online), Crichlow tells how he got into bicycling:
When I think about my experience as a kid, [bicycling] is about freedom… As soon as you get a bike, your boundary expands a little bit, because you can go further… When you think about it, you’re always in a convertible. Everything is always flowing through your body. You hear the sounds, you smell the smells, you feel the temperature change. Your direction is just different, you know.
Being a prophet is about freedom. Prophets may appear intense and brooding. They may feel as though they are bearing a burden. They may indeed manifest the “divine pathos.” But ultimately, being a prophet—like riding a bicycle—is about freedom. Because—always!—to follow the call of God is freedom. Amos may have had fond memories of being a “dresser of sycamore figs,” but heeding God’s call, his boundaries expanded a little bit; he could “go further.” Jonah may have run away from Nineveh, but his call, when you think about it, must have been like always being in a convertible, “everything… always flowing through [his] body.” Samuel may have been tasked with not letting “a single word fall to the ground,” yet Samuel’s call was probably, in a way, not dissimilar to riding a bicycle: “[He could] hear the sounds, [he could] smell the smells, [he could] feel the temperature change. [His] direction was just different, you know.” The Prophets’ freedom was not a “freedom” that meant “I can do whatever I want whenever I want,” but it was the kind of freedom we experience whenever we live by God’s call. For we were created to live in unity with God, in whose service we find perfect freedom.
The same voice that spoke to Samuel in the night, the same voice that spoke to Jeremiah, that spoke through John the Baptist or to Philip and Nathanael when they were first called to be disciples, that same voice yet speaks to us. Jesus calls us to follow, to serve, and to love. And always answering God’s call is freedom: “Your boundaries expand a little bit, because you can go further….” It’s like being “in a convertible. Everything… always flowing through our body. You hear the sounds, you smell the smells, you feel the temperature change.” Because when God calls and we follow, “[Our] direction is just different, you know.”