The father of the modern motor car is, of course, Henry Ford. Because it was Ford who worked out how to make them cheaply enough so that every worker – including his own – could aspire to own one. And Ford's invention was the production line, a method of manufacturing that broke the car-making process down into a chain of simple steps and divided the workforce up into a line of piece-workers each of whom performed one simple task on the vehicle chassis before moving it along to the next. Ford's method meant thousands of identical vehicles pouring out of his factories in a steady stream, and at the same time replaced expert craftsmen with assembly line workers. Ford invented not just the mass-produced motor vehicle, but also created the market for them. The mass production idea caught on, nowadays everything is mass-produced, from fast food to computers, and it is the job of the advertising industry to persuade us that we like what is being served up.
It's ironic, of course, that 100 years down the track the mass production line is failing at that original inspired purpose. Three years ago the government bailed out the Aussie car manufacturing industry to the tune of $6billion – that's about $100,000 for every person that it employs – and last week had to throw another $5billion at it. An industry that can't stand on its own feet but can't be allowed to fail - because the one thing it has succeeded at marvellously is convincing us all we can't live without its products, even though we're apparently not prepared to pay full price for them.
Which brings me to psalm 139 which most Old Testament experts classify as a creation psalm. The creation, that is, not of stars and planets but of you and me. This work of creation is definitely not an assembly-line job but God's slow and ongoing work of fashioning us and bringing us into the fullness of our own identity, revealing the mystery of us and surrounding us with love. The psalm reminds us that the growth of every human person is a sacred narrative, and as a never-to-be-repeated word of God, of immeasurable worth.
The first and second readings are call narratives – stories about how Samuel and Philip and Nathaniel hear God's call and respond to it. Stories that remind us that God's voice is heard by each of us differently, in the unique circumstances of our everyday lives. The young Samuel at first fails to recognise God's call – even though he is a priest in training this is a time when the priesthood has fallen into disrepute and corruption. The old ways that Eli represents are failing and God's voice is no longer heard. If you read earlier in the story you learn how even the gifts that are brought to the temple are misappropriated and the people are treated shamefully by the priests, Eli's sons. It's a story about renewal and hope that particularly challenges those who aspire to lead God's people – the young Samuel alone can hear God's voice – but the old priest against whom God's judgement is pronounced is the one whose holiness and faithfulness alone can guide the young prophet in recognising and responding to it. There's something in this story that challenges both the older generation of leaders who must learn to relinquish control to those who hear God's word afresh for a new generation – and the younger generation of church leaders who need to listen carefully to the traditions nurtured by their predecessors. And the story of Nathaniel reminds us in a witty exchange of our own prejudices and the stereotypes that so often blind us – 'what?' says Nathaniel dismissively, 'A prophet from Nazareth?' 'Well', Jesus says, razor-sharp. 'A descendent of the arch-deceiver Jacob' – remember, the one whose name was changed to Israel? – 'a descendent of Jacob who at least says exactly what's on his mind'. Our stereotypes are what limit our ability to see clearly either who we are or who anybody else is. And yet God's call on our lives cuts through all that. Nathaniel, at least, rises above his prejudices, but he wants to know – 'how do you know me that well?' Or more literally, 'where do you know me?' – because in the ancient world, where a person belongs tells you who they most truly are. But in God's scheme of things, who you are and who you are called to be is not limited by the accidents of birth or circumstance, but revealed and made possible by God's creating and choosing of you.
Psalm 139 is of course the answer to Nathaniel's question, and maybe the answer to our own question as well, when we fail to see the uniqueness and the integrity not only of other people but all too often even of our own selves – for example when we behave as though the mystery and joy of human existence is an assembly line of consumer choices. We are known by the one who creates us, and whose resonance with the deepest currents of our lives is also a call to become what we are created for.
Most of us know at times the sense of just not measuring up. The sense of frustration and bewilderment that comes when we see our most cherished hopes and the things that we have worked for coming to nothing or slipping away from us. The sense of compromise when we find ourselves settling for less - and being less - than we had dreamed. And this psalm reminds us – not that we don't measure up – but that we do – that you are part of God's good creation, wonderfully created and growing into the fullness of your own God-given identity, and that you are loved beyond your own self-doubt and self-blame, beyond even your own ability to turn away from God's love. It tells us that – no matter how old or how grown up you think we are – that you are not yet complete, that you are a work in progress and that what you are becoming is known only to God. It tells us that no matter how lost you feel, God knows where you are and that in ways you can't fathom you are in God's protective care. That no matter how worthless you feel, you are a unique work of God, that your worth comes from God's valuing and God's care of you. You are not mass-produced.
The psalmist speaks of taking refuge in darkness, and so reminds us that our own lives are hidden from us. Not only our future but much of our everyday life – our motivations, the sources of our deepest desires and fears, our prejudices, our decision-making – psychologists tell us we are unconscious of most of what drives us – but the darkness of human life is not fearful because it is known and inhabited by the God who created us in love. How our lives are unfolding and where our lives are headed is not fearful, because our unfolding and becoming is the direction in which God is still creating us and we can trust that God's purposes for our lives are good.
We are all called, I think, and the voice that calls us comes out of our personal darkness – the part of our lives that is hidden from us. And we respond like Samuel – perhaps perceiving the call but not knowing what it means or where it comes from, needing the counsel of others to discern whether the voice we hear is that of God or some echo of our own repressed desire or fear. Or like Nathaniel – closing down the invitation because we know better, because it comes in a form that doesn't fit our preconceptions, and needing the wisdom of others to gently challenge us and dislodge us from our certainties. But we are all called, and what we are called to is growth. To grow into who we most truly are, to become more authentically and more graciously ourselves. Don't think you are too old to have to grow – that is a particularly limiting and false stereotype! Don't think you have already heard the voice and responded to all it has to say – because if that is what you think then you most assuredly haven't! Don't think you've never heard that voice, that it speaks to other people perhaps, but not to you – because that could be true only if you had not been created and shaped by divine love.
We are all called, as Samuel was, to the prophetic role of hearing and speaking the truth, and of role of interpreting and honouring the past faithfulness of God's people as a way of discerning the ways in which God might be leading us into the future. We are all called, as Nathaniel was, to put aside our own preconceptions of what is or isn't possible and follow the one who reliably shows us God's knowledge of us. Our sense of being called grows from understanding the uniqueness of who we are formed to be, and the ways in which we still need to grow into that. To live faithfully is to allow our sense of being called to shape our actions and our choices in our everyday life. And fundamentally, to be God's people is to listen together, actively and with expectation, for God's calling.