Thursday, February 15, 2018

On grumbling and God's people and the Installation of Holly as Rector of St. Paul's . . .

     We have a great reading this evening about murmuring and discontent among God’s people from Numbers this evening, so I guess I better ask first if it is ok that I stroll?  Or will strolling as I preach cause a bit too much conflict, too much murmuring?  You all laugh nervously, but Holly and I know better, right?
     Great.  Thank you.  I have not been able to stroll as I preach for over a year.  I miss it.  So I appreciate your willingness to indulge me on this night when you are installing Holly as your rector.  I must confess a bit of nervousness over this particular sermon, so the walking will hopefully keep me focused and energized and coherent.  I found myself engaged in a bit too much sermon prep, truth be told, in the days leading up to this event.  Holly would be the first to tell you that I lean to the cynical side of things in the church.  There’s not a lot I have not done.  Given an unprepared Easter sermon?  Check!  Given an unprepared Christmas Eve sermon?  Check.  Buried someone I did not know?  Check.  Installation?  Nope.
     Realizing that, I reached out some colleagues.  I learned quickly the purpose of these events.  I’m supposed to set Holly up for success in her ministry among you.  I’m supposed to remind you of what is really happening tonight in our liturgy.  And I am supposed to remind Holly that God’s grace is sufficient for the task our Lord has given her and you here at St. Paul’s Evansville.  Oh, and I am supposed to accomplish that easy task not knowing very much about St. Paul’s and in as short amount of time as possible.  It’s ok, you can snort.
     I do appreciate the opportunity to get back to the Midwest.  And in that “we share this in common spirit” it is good to be among the fruit of Jackson Kemper.  It’s tough being a rector when it comes to dealing with people’s memories of golden ages and beloved rectors.  I can only imagine what it must be like to be a bishop following in the tradition of the legendary Bishop Kemper.  No doubt Bishop Jennifer wonders from time to time how bishop Kemper found the time to accomplish half of what he did during his ministry here in what was or what became the diocese of Indianapolis, let alone all the other present-day dioceses in which he labored.  I know I do.  I still find it remarkable that Bishop Kemper built the first altar west of the Mississippi just a couple years later in Davenport, IA, not too far from where I served in Iowa, and on the very grounds where my children attended school.
     As an aside, the story is told among faithful Episcopalians that Jackson Kemper is responsible for keeping tornadoes from striking Davenport.  Because he built that altar there, so the story goes, God has blessed Davenport by protecting it against tornadoes, even though the community is in the heart of tornado alley!  It is tough enough keeping up with the schedule of Bishop Kemper, but now we learn he controls the weather!  No modern bishop will ever measure up!  Add to that the grumblings of scheduling a significant service during the Olympics and during Duke-Carolina basketball, and, well, we can understand why bishops sometimes feel a tad put upon as congregants share their gripes!   If it makes you feel better, bishop, and if God’s people in Numbers are any indication, had you scheduled the installation of Holly on a different night, there still would have been grumbling!  But thank you bishop for entrusting me with this task. 
     I should also tell you that I am not uninformed about OH river city cultures.  I grew up upstream in Huntington, WV.  Like most cities along the OH, the 1937 flood was the EVENT that defined life for its citizens, at least until a terrible plane crash took out our football team and some of the leadership of our city.  Yes, I understand the challenges and fears that old river towns face as a result of how our economics have changed.  And the first parish at which I served was even further upstream, just at the bend around the northern panhandle of WV, in East Liverpool, OH.  East Liverpool was famous for its kilns, and St. Stephen’s was, for much of its first 100+ years of existence, the spiritual center of the community.  So, I may not know St. Paul’s specifically, but I like to think I know some of the fears and challenges which confront you, and I like to think I know why this moment is ordained of God, why Holly has been called to serve among you.
     I have already hinted where I will preach from tonight.  I take seriously Jesus’ instruction that the Old Testament is about Him.  All that Moses wrote, all that the prophets wrote, all that the psalmist/s composed, even the wisdom literature pointed to Him.  If we have problems finding the Gospel in the books of the Old Testament, the fault lies with us, with our discernment or our knowledge.  And let’s face it, the Old Testament served as the foundation or instructional pieces of all that He taught while He dwelt among us.  Besides, as Holly heard over and over in seminary, nearly 2/3’s of Scripture is in the Old Testament.  Any pastor who avoids the OT keeps 2/3’s of God’s revelation from His people.
     Of course, me stating that the Gospel can be found in Numbers may shock my colleagues from around this diocese.  That same professor who encouraged us to preach from the OT also had some funny descriptions of the book of Numbers.  In some ways, Numbers is like that desk or box or table or wherever you keep all your financial statements that might impact your taxes.  I see the nods.  We all have our unique piling . . . err, filing system, right?  We have that place where we keep that stuff so we can find it if we need it.  Sometimes, we wonder if that not what this book was for Moses.  He had all these facts from God that really did not fit in the rest of the Pentateuch, so he wrote this book to get all those facts out there, much as a preacher will wow you with all the research he or she has done during one of those hour long sermons.  I hear laughter.  What, you don’t think that is a uniquely modern practice, do you?
     In truth, Numbers is nicely organized.  It’s really a story about two generations.  The first part of the book is about the decision of the first generation of a freed Israel not to trust God.  The second part of the book is about how the generation born into freedom will trust God.  And so, in that way, this is a perfect place for us to begin the formal relationship of rector and a parish.  Holly is trusting that God truly has led her here.  You members of St. Paul are truly trusting that God has caused your search committee and Vestry to ask her to come and serve among you.  And even Bishop Jennifer is trusting that both sides will trust that God was active in this process of discerning a new rector, particularly when someone reaches out to her in the midst of future conflict.  No doubt she has terrifying stories about what happens when one or both sides of this relationship quit trusting in God.  In many ways, a bishop is more an exorcist than overseer, right?  In a couple years from now, count how many times you reached out to Bishop to compliment Holly’s work among you and contrast that with the number of times you have reached out to Bishop Jennifer to complain.
     Turn in your order of worship, if you want to follow along, to the reading on Numbers.  I’m going to guess, in good Episcopal fashion, that few of us present know the stories of Numbers, so we are not helped to figure out the context by all the skipped verses.  In many ways, this story serves as some wonderful grist for the mill for professional and armchair theologians.  The people are grumbling . . . again.  The people have complained that Moses should have left them in Egypt because it was better to live in Egypt as slaves than to die during the hardship of a march.  The people have complained that the on-coming chariots will no doubt destroy them, when their backs were against the sea, because Egypt’s army was too powerful.  The people have complained because they lacked food to eat.  The people have complained because they were thirsty.  Because they were hot.  Because Moses was the one leading them.  Because they did not know how to live in communion with a righteous, holy God.  And in the verses right before our reading tonight, they complained because they were sick and tired of manna.  At least in Egypt, the fleshpots were full.  Now, all they eat is the food of angels, ugh!  I mean, it tastes like something made from olive oil, and they have to eat it every day.  In short, the complaining and grumbling about which we read tonight is not new for the people of God.
     Prior to our reading tonight, though, God has met the needs of Israel in a patient fashion.  God held the chariots at bay while Israel crossed the sea on dry land and then used the sea to destroy Egypt’s chariots when they followed after.  God gave the people manna every day but the Sabbath, for food to eat.  God cause water to flow to water not just the people but even the animals.  God even agreed with the people’s request that He send His instructions through Moses rather than making them hear His instructions from His voice.  Yet our reading tonight follows God’s wrath literally burning against Israel.  At the beginning of the chapter, the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, so He sent a consuming fire that burned those on the outskirts of the camp.  The people ask Moses to intercede, and he does, and the fire died down.
     Why does God respond with fire and consume some?  It does not say that the fire consumed only the lead complainers, so we are left to wonder whether those impacted were even part of the problem.  And, to make you a bit more uncomfortable tonight, to give you what I like to term a spiritual wedgie, why is God mad about this complaining?  What makes it different?  Some scholars may point to the “it was within the hearing of the Lord” as the rationale behind the angry judgment, but tell me, when is our complaining or praise never within the hearing of God?
     Now, this griping about a lack of meat has caused God to become exceedingly angry.  At the beginning of the chapter, their complaining only causes God’s anger to be aroused, as if from a slumber, and fire destroys those on the outskirts of the camp.  What will happen if He is exceedingly angry?
     Moses, of course, knows he will bear the brunt of the pastoral care.  God is furious with the people, so Moses is going to get to hear all about that.  But whatever happens to the people will require a lot of pastoral care.  Guess who gets to do all that?
     Moses seems to think a good offense is the best defense.  He asks God why God has brought this trouble on His faithful servant.  Moses did not ask for this job; God called to him from the burning bush.  Moses did not like speaking in front of people; God sent Aaron with him as a mouthpiece.  Moses did not father these people, and he sure did not ask to be put in charge of carrying them, as a nurse carries an infant.  Moses goes on and says to God that if He is going to continue to treat him this way, he would rather die.  Can you imagine making that offer to God?
     Moses rightly understands that the burden of the people is too much.  Moses cannot feed them.  Moses cannot water the people and their animals.  In truth, Moses cannot really protect them from their enemies.  Oh, he can direct the men in their fighting, but there is no guarantee that they will win.  There is no indication that Moses is really a military genius.  Amazingly, miraculously, God agrees.  He instructs Moses to gather 70 of the elders known to Moses as leaders and to bring them to the Tabernacle.  There, at that meeting, God will take some of His Spirit that is on Moses and give it to them.  As a result, they will be able to share in the burdens of leading the people. 
     Now, this is not to say that God’s anger is abated entirely.  In fact, we skip the parts where God teaches us to be careful what we ask for in case He decides to give it to us.  God instructs Moses to tell the people to consecrate themselves because He is going to give them what they ask for.  He will give them what they ask for in such quantities that they will begin to loathe it.  They will eat meat not for one day, or two days, or a week, but a whole month.  Imagine going to your favorite restaurant every day for a month.  Think you would still like it?  God promises them they will be sick of meat, a delicacy in the Ancient Near East, by the time the month is over.
     Moses, understandably, doubts God.  Yes, Moses has witnessed the plagues that attacked the Egyptian gods in their bailiwicks.  Yes, Moses has witnessed God parting the Sea and using it to destroy the chariots of the super power Egypt.  Yes, Moses has witnessed God providing manna and water.  Meat?  There is simply no way.  Moses says he is among 600,000 men on foot.  If Moses was using “men” in lieu of “person,” feeding 600,000 people meat every day for a month would see nigh impossible.  If Moses means there are only 600,000 men on foot--besides old men, women, and children—then meat will need to be provided for over 2 million individuals!  Think of how many hog lots or cattle farms or chicken barns or fish pulled from the Ohio River would be required to feed 2 million people!  Who would not doubt?  Who would not question God?
     God, of course, asks Moses if His arm is too short.  And He promises Moses that he will see whether what He promises Moses will come true!
     Moses does as he is instructed—that’s often a good thing for us all, but especially clergy, those set apart, ordained, for the people by God.  Moses brings the elders to the Tent of Meeting, and God took some of the power of the Spirit that was on Moses and put it on the 70 elders.  The elders all prophesied, though they did not ever do that again.  This was to confirm for the people that the elders had been set aside by God to help share the burdens of them. 
     Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a couple elders named Eldad and Medad do not make it to the Tent of Meeting.  We are not told why they do not make it.  Since God does not seem to be mad at them and does not think that Moses has wrongly discerned that they are, in fact, elders among the people, I am one to argue that they were likely held up for legitimate or holy reasons.  Of course, their delay makes no difference.  Even away from the Tent and about other business, God’s Spirit rests upon them, and they prophesy like the other 68. 
     Joshua of Nun, who will later take the mantle of Moses and lead God’s people across the Jordan into the Promised Land, reports this event to Moses and tells him to stop them.  Again, we do not know Joshua’s motivation.  Was he a guy who really liked to follow the Constitution & Canons to the letter?  Was he a high Anglo-Catholic who preferred a certain order to things?  Was he afraid that Moses was somehow diminished in the sight of the people?  We don’t know.  Scripture makes no comment on the motivation of Joshua.  Moses treats Joshua’s statement as one of concern for his honor or position.  “Are you jealous for my sake?”—suggesting that he thinks something has been taken from Moses that genuinely belongs to Moses.  Moses responds that he wishes that all of God’s people were prophets and that His Spirit was on every one of them.
     So, why is this a great reading for tonight?  If I did my job praying over the reading and discerning a message from Him to us tonight, even though I am not intimately familiar with this parish or diocese, I think there are a couple important Gospel lessons, for you as the people of St. Paul’s, for Holly your chosen rector, and maybe even for my colleagues in this diocese and Bishop Jennifer.  First, and the low fruit, conflict is something in the Church that cannot be avoided on this side of the grave.  The problem with churches is that they are made up of human beings.  The people who sit in the pews are human beings.  The people who serve on Vestries and other committees are human beings.  The people who wear collars reminding them they are slaves to the Lord are human beings.  The men and women who wear pointy hats are human beings.  And the people who visit us or seek us out from time to time are human beings.  That means we sin.  That means we make mistakes.  That means we fail to love the Lord our God with everything and our neighbor as ourselves, way more often than we think they should.
     Notice I said “they.”  We sin for good reasons.  I was tired and so my patience was running thin.  He or she said something mean first, and I just responded.  If he or she would just get with the program, things would go much faster, smoother, or gloriously.  We have tremendous patience with our own failings, but we are quick to be riled up against the others in our life, especially those in the Church.  We give little thought to the consequences of what we say or how we act, even though our Lord Christ laid it out there that we would sin against each other in Matthew 18.  He reminded us that we should never be a stumbling block to others seeking Him, that we are to be seeking the wandering or lost sheep, and that we are required to show mercy at all times as a manifestation, to use that Epiphany term, of the heart and character of our Father in heaven.  And then, when we realize we were a stumbling block, that we really were not interested in seeking His other sheep, when we realized that we were being unmerciful, he taught us how to solve our conflict.  And all of that was in red letters.  Yet how often do we fail? 
     I do not know St. Paul’s well, but I know parishes well.  Right now, you are basking in the relief, the excitement, the joy of a newly called rector.  If your search process dragged on a bit, you may have struggled with that “what’s wrong with us?” attitude for a time.  Perhaps you answered the search profile questions the way you thought you should rather than the way you really think.  No doubt part of your call of Holly was based in part in her 26 years of youth pastoring.  If anyone can teach you how to reach young families, and what Episcopal parish does not want to reach young families—in their profile, it’s Holly.  But how many of you will listen to a woman who has more than a quarter century of experience and expertise in doing just that?  Do you even want young families?  Do you think kids are noisy?  Do you think young families are too poor to be meaningful givers to the annual budget?  Are you envious of the resources spent on youth, in terms of finances and staff hours and office supplies and maybe groceries, because it takes away from those resources that should be spent on you?  I see the squirming.  I know that hits hard in some quarters.  My hope is that, in the future, when those disputes inevitably arise, you will remember this reading even if you do not remember this sermon, that each one of you will remind yourselves that conflict is either rooted in sin or a failure to discern the will of God.  And if you find yourself in conflict, work to solve it among yourselves.  If you have an issue with Holly, go to Holly.  If you have an issue with a member of the Vestry, go to that member.  If you have an issue with another congregant, go to that congregant.  In truth, reconciliation, true reconciliation is one of the greatest counter-cultural manifestations we have to offer the world right now, a world that is divided along racial and ethnic lines, a world that is divided along political party lines, a world that is divided along socio-economic lines, and even a world that is divided about “good manners.”
     For my brothers and sisters in a collar, for those of us who are slaves, douloi christoi, but especially for Holly, our reading from Numbers ought to bring us great comfort.  All of us who wear these collars do so with fear and trepidation.  It takes, I dunno—mental illness, to offer oneself to the Church and the discernment process.  Then, as we make our way through discernment committees, Commissions on Ministry, bishops, and seminaries and just begin to think we have a handle on what’s expected of us and to feel that maybe we can do this, we find ourselves serving God’s grumbling, murmuring people!  The people who were most excited at our initial arrival were often the first to turn on us.  The people in whom we invest the most of our time are the most ungrateful.  We seldom find ourselves ever asked to celebrate the great blessings of life with our congregants.  We find ourselves, instead, asked to help them find God in the midst of pain, of suffering, and death.  Where was God in the midst of my spouse’s cancer and death?  If God is good, why am I suffering?  If God wants abundance for me, why don’t I have money for food, for my meds, for my utilities, or to fix my car?  And then others have the temerity to ask why we are tired, why we are unhappy or depressed, or anything other than the happy go luck men and women they think we should be.  And woe to the one who expresses any doubt to a bishop or to those whom we serve.  We are supposed to have all the answers, and because of our “special” set apartedness, we are immune to the vagaries of life.
     And who really needs time for sermon prep, anyway?  We should know this stuff cold!
     And for those of us with families, it’s a bit harder.  Balancing family responsibilities and church responsibilities is tricky.  At first, the congregation is thrilled about the new acolytes and the new member of the Men’s Club or the ECW.  But then the family and the church responsibilities come into conflict.  Pastoral emergencies happen during games, recitals, and date night.  Children get sick during important committee meetings.  Spouses may travel for jobs leaving us short-handed as we transport everyone everywhere and still try and fulfill our church responsibilities.  Some kids may rather read than acolyte; some spouses may rather sing in the choir.  Once those expectations are unmet, conflict ensues.  Unfortunately for us, often that anger and conflict is directed at our families, causing us to wonder why we accepted this call, why we bother to pour ourselves out so much.
     The great news is that Moses felt like this, too!  If Moses felt like a failure in his ministry, we should not be too surprised at our own feelings of unworth.  If God’s people failed to listen to Moses, he of the glowing face from the shekinah of God, why should we expect them to listen to us, none of us seem to be glowing, without arguing and complaining?  If God’s people accused Moses of leading them into the wilderness to die, even though they had incredible miracles and signs of God’s presence like the parting of a sea or a theophany near Sinai, why should we expect them to listen to us unquestioningly, without grumbling, when are signs are, by comparison, a little more mundane?  The value of Moses’ ministry was determined by God, just as God assigns the value of our ministries.  He is the One who values our retrieval of a lost sheep.  He is the One who values our ability to manifest His mercy.  He is the One who values our work, whether the parish has grown to meet our expectations.
     And, although I joked a bit earlier about Bishop Jennifer’s vaunted task in following a bishop like Jackson Kemper, she knows it was a joke with an edge.  As much as we expect of our deacons and priests, we expect more of our bishops, our overseers!  What worse for her and every other bishop, on top of getting to hear all the loud grumbling, either through phone calls, e-mails, letters, or coffee hour visitations, they have to listen to us clergy second guess everything and whine about how our congregations treat us.  I have met few bishops and archbishops who do not long for the “simpler” cares of parish life.  I have even met a bishop or two who would like to use the straight end of the staff to club some sense into their flock!
     But what goes on tonight is an extension of Bishop Jennifer’s ministry among you.  In reality, what relates us to other parishes, dioceses, and provinces is the ministry of Bishop Jennifer.  To do that work, she needs someone she can trust working here.  In a few moments she will give Holly sacramental authority and a share in her ministry here at St. Paul’s.  She will instruct Holly to feed this flock, to baptize others into this flock, and to heal those in this flock in Christ’s name.  She will charge Holly to study the Scriptures and to pray constantly, that this parish might participate in the wider ministry of the diocese and even the national church.  She will even remind Holly that God’s grace is long enough for her, that He will accomplish all that He purposes during Holly’s time with you, if Holly is faithful and obedient to Him.
     And make no mistake, Holly, you will need that encouragement in the months and years ahead.  In some ways, you have been well-prepared for everything you will encounter at St. Paul’s, and not just through your time at Advent.  It does not mean that activities here will not hurt; it does not mean that activities here will not conflict your heart.  That preparation does not mean you won’t doubt yourself or need to howl at the moon.  It means only that you well know the strength and provision of God’s arm, and that He will see you through those events just as He did during your time at Advent, at St. George’s, at Trinity, and everywhere else you have served Him.
     I have painted a bleak picture, I think, as I look around at some faces.  Perhaps I have afflicted the comfortable a bit too much this night.  Perhaps I am bringing too much to mind the conflict Holly and I have experienced in her last ministry.  I certainly wanted you all to be able to look back on this night and say you were warned, and not just because Holly is a self-described “Agent of Change.”  No, I really wanted to prepare you all for the possibilities and challenges that lay ahead and to inoculate you against the dangers and pitfalls that will seek to distract and even trap you.  You see, all of us gathered here share one important distinction from Moses in our passage.  Each of us gathered here who have been baptized into Christ’s death and Resurrection now live in an environment about which Moses and the other Old Testament saints could only dream.  By virtue of our baptism, brothers and sisters, that Spirit for which Moses longed to be present in all of God’s people rests on you and on Holly and on Jennifer.  Whatever is necessary for this parish to glorify God in Evansville, in the diocese of Indianapolis, and maybe even in this country, is already here or on its way (think Eldad and Medad!).  You need only to discern your calling and those gifts.  The rest, as they say, is up to Him. 
     And that, my brothers and sisters, may be the best new of all tonight!  Our vocations, our callings, are from Him.  The same God who rescued Israel, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead, calls you to serve Him.  No matter your failings, no matter your inadequacies, no matter your sins so long as you repent of them, He calls you.  And just as He used an obedient Moses to glorify Himself in Egypt and among His people, He will use each one of you and the ministry of St. Paul’s to glorify Himself and His Son who is in you!  It is that Spirit resting on each of us that makes it possible for us to hear God’s Word in our lives.  It is that Spirit resting in us that causes that bread and wine to be changed into our Lord’s Body and Blood, that bestows upon us all the benefits of His passion.  It is that Spirit resting in us that allows us truly to do the work that He has given us to do, in unity, constancy, and peace, as we like to say in our liturgy.  It is that Spirit resting in us that reminds us, often over the cacophony of the world and the whispers of God’s enemy, that we are truly forgiven and truly loved by our Father in heaven.  It is that Spirit resting in us that reminds us that we are called to put aside our differences and live as a people reflective, however imperfectly, of a God in Three Persons living in perfect unity, that all might be drawn into His saving embrace and the joys of His eternal presence!  We might, like Moses before us, balk at the thought that these things can be accomplished in us; but we now know, through the work and person of Jesus Christ our Lord, that the reach and strength of our Lord’s arm is sufficient for all that He purposes!

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Monday, January 15, 2018

Do your ears tingle?

     Before I get started on where I felt led to preach to Advent this week, I need to address the low fruit that most other Christians will be hearing this week.  I share it not to be critical of other pastors—we each need to be preaching where we feel God is leading us in our congregations--, but I do think there will be the opportunity for us, members of the Church, to begin to reshape the dialogue regarding our political leaders.  I am, of course, referring to the fact that a wide array of pastors today will be preaching on the President’s comments regarding other countries.  It makes sense.  Nathanael sets that all up for us to go there by wondering whether anything good can come out of Nazareth.  Every colleague with whom I spoke or wrote this week intended to preach on it this morning.  That was not really a question.  The real question in their minds was whether they could say shithole countries from the pulpit and not cause heart attacks and shock in the pews.  Everyone agreed I could say it and not surprise any Adventers—I chose to take that as a compliment, as we know each other pretty well now--, but they struggled with how people would respond to earthy language being used by the preacher and quoting a President.  I guess none of them ever had to deal with LBJ’s language or the subject matter under President Clinton. . . . but that’s sermon for another time.
     I do recognize that many Christians are struggling with our current President, and I think rightfully so.  We have this strange habit of trying to select a President as “God’s choice,” and then we feel this incredible urge to defend everything they do as being done “in the name of God.”  I think I have made it pretty clear to you that we do not find our moral center in DC.  We find our moral center in the work and person of Jesus Christ.  Sometimes, when speaking of moral behavior and politicians in the same breath, I wonder if we are all on a foolish quest like Diogenes’s quest to find a wise man in the world when we seek moral behavior coupled with our elected officials.  And that is a question, I think, you can begin to ask around the water cooler, the coffee pot, the break room, or wherever these conversations will come up this week.  People vote for candidates that best align with their values.  But do we really think we have elected new messiahs?  New moral centers?  Should we really be shocked that our politicians say and do things that disappoint us?  Should we really defend them when they do and say those things that are morally offensive or against God’s revelation?  Maybe, if we really want moral politicians, we should hold them accountable and quit sending them back in light of such failings.  In time, they might take our concerns seriously, realizing we will vote them out, rather than simply pandering to us as if we are mindless and spineless idiots.
     Enough of that, though.  As I have said, that sermon comes up a lot in conversations around here.  Some years ago, I was in a conversation with a woman by the name of Benedicta Ward.  I had gone to Wycliffe Hall for some seminary work, and my bishop had strongly encouraged me to take her class on Medieval Mysticism.  Although parts of the class really bothered my ordered and sensible Western mind, some of her insights come back to me at the strangest times.  If her name sounds familiar to you, it should be.  As far as I know, she is still THE expert on the desert fathers, especially in Anglican circles.  I suppose some our Roman friends may claim others with a different pedigree, but Sister Benedicta takes a back seat to no one.
     We were chatting one day over the challenges of pastoring a church.  Benedicta was encouraging us ordinands to be mindful of God’s work in our people, in our parishes, and in the world.  She warned us we would have an incredible duty, but none were no more important than pointing out God’s work or presence in our daily life and work.
     By way of that, she shared a story.  I’ve never bothered to look it up, truth be told, but it captures a sentiment here in the West.  During the days of the desert fathers, younger monks would travel out to the stone pillars and other locations where the older monks, hermits really, lived in prayer and study.  For some time, a group of these younger monks would go and sit at the feet, somewhat literally, of a man named Abba Felix, Daddy Felix.  Daddy Felix was renowned for his wisdom, insight, and grace—think of a less famous Antony.  Anyway, the younger monks went to him for a period of years.  And never did Daddy Felix speak. 
     Finally, after some years of this, Daddy Felix asked the men if they had come for a word from God.  I can only imagine the mix of relief and frustration at the question.  Those poor guys trekked out into the heat of the desert, sat waiting on this guy to speak, only to leave after some days or weeks because Daddy Felix did not speak.
     The men all answered hungrily that such was the purpose of their pilgrimages to him, to hear the wisdom of God from his mouth.  Daddy Felix taught them unnecessarily that God used to give the hermits words, and the words would inspire the youthful monks to excited action and vocation.  But now God did not give the old men words, because the young men all turned a deaf ear to the very words of God.  They heard and did nothing in light of what they heard.
     Benedicta warned us that such was the attitude of many today.  Both doubters and members of our churches would doubt that God spoke to, let alone acted in, the world today.  Our job, she continued, was to remind people that God really was at work in the world.  Our job was to figure out where God was at work and point it out to the members of our churches, so that they, in turn, might see Him in their daily life and work and join in that wonderful kingdom work to which He calls each of us.  Our job, she said, was to inspire people to realize that God wants them to work with Him.
     You might wonder what Benedicta’s comments have to do with our readings today.  I was drawn to our reading in Samuel today for my sermon, and it was finally confirmed a bit for me yesterday as I gathered with some men from around the diocese for breakfast.  For those unaware of what is happening in the story today, there is a lot of background that sets the stage.  The time is the time of the Judges, when everyone did as he or she saw fit.  God is not speaking much because few are listening, not even the clergy.
     In fact, one of the aspects of the story that may make us uncomfortable is God’s judgement on Eli and his sons.  We learn earlier that Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, have been stealing from and blaspheming God, when they go about their sacramental duties at the sanctuary in Shiloh.  They are priests like their father because they are descended of the tribe of Levi.  What was their crime?  We are told that the two men would take the part of the sacrifice that was meant to be given to God and give it to themselves.  Even when the people ask them about it, they refuse to be corrected.  Worse, Eli does nothing about it when the people complain to him about their theft.
     I suppose the modern equivalent scandal would be if I reached into the offering plate as I was praying for God to accept these offerings and increase them as He did the loaves and fishes, and took out the $100 bills in the plates.  How would you all respond?  Some would rightfully quit giving, no?  Some of you might ask me what I was doing?  Some might raise the question with the Vestry or the bishop.  Now, pretend I am a jerk about being questioned.  How would that shape the community?  What would be its impact on us?  Now you know why God is mad at Eli and the sons.  Now you know why the judgment, which may seem harsh to our ears lacking context, is just.  And, truthfully, we should not be too surprised.  God continually warns us clergy not to lead others away from Him.  It’s better a millstone around our necks and all that!  Who knew He meant what He said, right?
     It’s in that kind of environment that Samuel is serving.  Of course, Samuel has a bit of a backstory, too.  A couple chapters earlier, we learn that Hannah is childless.  Unfortunately for her, that caused people to judge her.  Their judgments were confirmed by the fact that Elkanah had fathered children on his other wife, Peninnah.  In a culture that valued offspring, we can easily imagine the tension caused by one wife producing children and the other unable to conceive.  That tension was exacerbated by the fact that Elkanah preferred Hannah to Peninnah.  In any event, one day Hannah goes to Shiloh to worship.  She prays to God that He will give her a child and swears, if He does, she will consecrate that child to Him.
     God, of course, takes vows seriously, even if most of us don’t.  In due course, Hannah conceives Samuel.  Once the child is weaned, she turns him over to the Levites, Eli in particular.  Imagine what Hannah must have gone through.  You ladies, what would it take for you to bear a child, nurse that infant, and then upon weaning that child, hand him over to God?  Samuel for Hannah was vindication.  He was that visible sign that she was not forsaken by God.  And she had to turn Him over in accordance with her vow.  Talk about serious faith!  In many ways, Hannah is a pre-cursor to Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Upon learning that she is pregnant, Hannah proclaims the Magnificat of the Old Testament.  Much like Mary’s wonderful song, Hannah reminds us that God lifts up those who seek Him and cuts down the proud and haughty. 
     That all serves as background to our reading today.  Samuel is some years older, the rabbinical tradition seems to think he is about twelve when God speaks to him.  Much will be made of Eli’s blindness being as spiritual as it is physical.  Be careful about drawing such conclusions.  Does Eli fail as a father and senior priest to his sons?  Without a doubt!  But it is that same Eli who recognizes that God is speaking to Samuel in a day and age when God was mostly silent to His people.  It is Eli who counsels Samuel how to interact with God.  Eli even recognizes the uncomfortable word that Samuel has been given.  He has to drag the prophesy of God out of the young boy who is afraid to speak a harsh word against the priest and his family.  And it is Eli whose humility accepts that the Lord’s judgment is just, even though that judgment will cut off his family.  Eli is far more complex a character than many preachers would have us believe.
     All of that is great background, but where I was called this week was the tingling ears.  In a day and age where God is silent, how does God perceive that His new words will be heard?  In typical prophesy, God announces before He does something that He is about to do it!  But before He does it, He tells the acolyte-becoming-prophet that all who hear of what He is about to do will have both ears tingle.  How do we respond when we see or hear of God at work in the world around us?  Do not our ears tingle?  Do we not share in a rush of excitement or adrenaline?  Are we not nearly overcome either by the sheer scope of what God has accomplished or the fact that He uses normal people like you and me to accomplish His will on earth?
     I was reminded of the truth of God’s statement yesterday, as if I really needed a reminder.  I did want confirmation this week that I was preaching where He called me to preach, but I certainly did not feel I needed to be reminded of the truth of His words.  Yet here I was, ears tingling, heart rushing, and giving thanks to God for both His incredible work and His willingness to use faithful men.
     I had been invited to gather with some laymen in the diocese over breakfast.  It was a combination saintly and depraved meeting.  Our work was intended to be holy, but the location had been chosen to cause some anxiety in the life of another.  I share that to remind you that the men of this diocese, whether lay or ordained, are complex human beings, just like Eli or Peter or whoever you want to name.  During a lull in the conversation, I asked these men what they thought of Advent.  It was then that I felt a real kinship with Eli.  There was way too much hemming and hawing.  Nobody wanted to answer my question truthfully.  Y’all have great parking and are easy to get to.  Great, they think we are the church with sufficient parking and good roads.  Those are nice traits I suppose, heck, Holly† will share with you parking concerns she experienced over Christmas, if you ask.  Is parking and road access Gospel?  No.  I didn’t think so either.
     Y’all throw great parties!  Everyone loves it when you host events like the Advent laymen gathering or the upcoming Vestry Day with the bishop.  Now, fellowship is important.  We would all agree it serves the Gospel.  And, we are quintessentially Episcopalian.  As those of other denominations have noticed during recent funerals and gatherings, we seem to put the whiskey into “Whiskepalians,” or at least the wine.
     There were other suggestions made, but none struck me as particularly Gospel.  One guy’s church was known for their working with immigrants.  Another’s church was known for their support of homeless ministry.  Yet another’s was praised for their work in minority communities.  The adjectives used to describe Advent, though, were more milktoast, lukewarm.  And these were evaluations shared by men coming out into the snow and cold on an early Saturday morning.  None were new to me.  None were surprising or shocking or even evil.  Many had been shared with me during the laymen’s gathering in December.  They were just “meh.”
     For my part, I shared the difficulty I had had trying to help us discern a corporate ministry.  We chatted some about whether a priest should make a church do particular ministries.  Like some of you, some floated the idea of me making you work on the new Underground Railroad.  Then one of the gentlemen began to speak of his own problems with discernment.
     Those of you who know Rich can ask him at convention next week, but Rich shared how God put it on his heart.  Rich lives in Pulaski and had a heart for some years that he needed to work on feeding the hungry.  Friends at church, friends in the community, business leaders he did not know—everyone told him the hungry people were in Nashville, that’s where the help and kitchens are.  This went on for three or four years.  Eventually, though, Rich was connected with another man who ran a feeding ministry and the rest, as they say, was history, or rather His story.  Rich was given the opportunity to buy food at a deep discount through a ministry.  Naturally, he struggled how he would ever raise money to feed the hungry week in and week out, how he would ever get volunteers to help distribute, how he would get the word out that food was available, and all those other pesky little details.   The end of the story?  Rich shared that last week they fed 154 families in a community that was convinced there was no hunger.  Rich went on to share that the ministry, which started with a $100 gift from a gentleman who owned a jewelry store, has over $7000 in its account right now.  Rich went on to share that nearly every church in Pulaski was now involved.  It was not an Episcopal ministry but rather a Church ministry, in the best sense of the word.  And Rich went on to share he was resigning as the leader to let someone with better organizational skills take the reigns!  Guys asked Rich if he felt sad to be giving up “his” ministry.  Rich was absolutely appalled at the idea.  The ministry needs better organization, and that’s not his particular strength.  Besides, as he has continued to pray and seek God’s will, he’s discovered a new calling, he thinks.  Now he thinks he is called to minister to the homeless in Pulaski.  And Rich laughed a big old belly laugh when guys asked him about the need.  Everything is the same as when he discerned there were hungry people in Pulaski.  The same people tell him they don’t exist.  The same fears crop up in his mind.  Now, though, he has the feeding ministry upon which to look back.  This time, he is determined to get to work doing God’s will a bit quicker!
     Do your ears tingle?
     I share this story not as a “look at me” but as a reminder of how God can work when we do what He places on our hearts and how it shapes my advice and guidance to you.  As most of you know, I was in WV last week for a couple days visiting my mother.  I started receiving some calls from TN politicians.  Now, I am the first to confess a high level of cynicism toward politicians.  Many have earned that cynicism as far as I am concerned.  I have no doubt that each of these politicians was reaching out to me to convince me to tell you to vote for them.  But, they were calling me and, unfortunately for them, they were asking questions.  Now, I will be meeting with some members of the state legislature to discuss the financial needs in all aspects of human trafficking, not just law enforcement.  And this is not Brian nagging them.  This is them calling me.  Why?
     One legislator shared that that a parishioner had shared my work with him as a result of one of his position papers.  Two shared that constituents had contacted them over the Cyntoia Brown case, and they wanted to assure me that the Parole Board and Governor were taking the case seriously before they launched into their questions.  Another had engaged one of those three I had engaged about budget priorities.  What was happening, you may ask?  There is an effort to increase funding for the TBI to fight human trafficking.  That’s awesome, right?  Who can’t get behind that?  Of course, when they asked me what I thought and my support for that, I asked an important question.  What are we doing for those caring for survivors?  You see, ringing in my head as I spoke with these politicians was the difficulty facing those who care for survivors.  In my conversations about Cyntoia with Derri Smith at EndSLaveryTN, I learned that her services provided were up 471% in 2017!  That’s awesome, right?!  That means law enforcement are finding and freeing more minors.  Guess what the state contribution toward EndSlaveryTN’s work went up last year to reflect that 471% increase in their workload?  0!  Nada!  Not a single penny!
     Why is this important to you?  As you know, I have been trying to collect different methodologies of treatment and the associated costs for the RC and Anglican Task force to be able to give that information to Christian doctors, Christian sociologists, Christian psychiatrists, and any other field involved in the care of survivors so that we can evaluate what works well, what does not work so well, and how our priorities should be aligned before we start raising significant funds for an endowment to fund shelters and survivors care for those who have been enslaved among us.  To put it in English, we need that information to be able to justify to folks the associated expenses and to develop a business plan.  That all needs to happen before any joint worship service can happen!  You all know the frustrations and stonewalls I have experienced collecting that information.  Now, through no real work of my own, those who run survivor care are approaching me about their needs!  I’ve been given studies that demonstrate how the money spent on survivor care in the months and years right after freedom pales in comparison to the money needed to be spent later in their life if they do not receive proper care in those early months—a modern version of the ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure parable.  I’ve learned quickly how we trail other states, such as NC, in providing money for survivor care.  In short, I have received a wonderful and quick education on how things happen in TN, where the system needs some tweaking—as far as care providers are concerned--, and where we really need to focus our efforts to be that example for the country.  Whether we like it or not, the rest of the country watches TN in this fight.  Our laws are duplicated.  Maybe we should lead in a visionary way—maybe we should make sure our increases in the funding of law enforcement are tied to increases in survivor care.
     Even better, we live in a country bitterly divided over politics.  Republicans and Democrats refuse to compromise right now.  Interestingly, I have been approached by members of both parties.  Better still, each side has spoken about what the other side would demand or expect to get support for such a bill.  We should expect our tax dollars not to be wasted.  There should be some accountability; there should be some reflection in how we fight this evil.  Similarly, we cannot just arrest the bad guys and free the survivors and let them fend for themselves.  A compassionate society, a politician truly motivated by their Christian faith, must tend to the needs of the weak and marginalized in society.
     Do your ears tingle at the possibilities?
     The last example may well seem counter-intuitive to you.  Sean Root shared a ministry that Good Shepherd has been doing in partnership with Brentwood Methodist.  Some years ago, Brentwood Methodist discovered that there were children in the Brentwood school system who were at risk for going hungry when school was not in session.  I know, I know.  The men were surprised to hear this, too.  Brentwood has a well-earned reputation for its bubble.  To those living outside of Brentwood, we appear second only to the Promised Land!
     Anyway, a Methodist brother or sister began experimenting with how best to meet the need.  The final result was something they call “fuel bags.”  Yes, you heard me right, fuel as in gasoline or propane or food.  Members of the church began collecting items that could be bundled in bags and sent home with at-risk kids.  Things like canned soup, granola bars, fruit—those kinds of non-perishables.
     Distribution was, of course, an issue.  How were they to get the fuel bags into the hands of those who needed them?  Residents around here often live a pretend life that everything is great, that there are no issues.  We have spoken of this struggle as our neighborhood shifted from marijuana and alcohol to opioids.  Too many families are stretched beyond their means.  Too many families in our midst are an illness or firing/downsizing away from losing everything.  Children, as we all know because we were once one, are even more loathsome to admit things are hard, that things are not great.  Kids just want to fit in with the herd.  Through trial and error, the church learned that teachers were in the best position to know.  Better still, those same teachers were willing not only to share the names of their students who needed help, but to get the help to the kids in ways that kept other kids from knowing!  Now, Brentwood Methodist has partnered with a bunch of Brentwood schools and Brentwood churches to make sure, as much as possible, that no kid in the school system goes hungry over the weekend.  That’s not to say that there are not still issues.  Some items sent home get sold, reportedly to help cover the cost of drugs or alcohol.  But the end result is an ecumenical effort by the Church to make sure no children in our midst go hungry over the weekend!
     Do your ears tingle?
     I could go on and on.  Many of you have seen the movie, All Saints, based on the experience of All Saints, Smyrna.  What was a struggling church trying to figure its way out of deep divisions is now the subject of a movie.  What was a congregation that gave serious thoughts to closing its doors is now the beneficiary of Paramount’s movie needs.  What was a diocese that struggled with its budget and support of a mission is now a beneficiary of Paramount’s movie needs.  Paramount paid for all new altar linens and vestments in all colors for All Saints Smyrna; Paramount paid for the Parish Hall in the Cathedral to be painted entirely!  And a movie was made of the struggles, the real struggles, of a parish and diocese in their attempt to serve God by serving an immigrant community in Tennessee, at a time when such efforts are the subject of much political diatribe.  Some of you have participated in the historic worship with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters here in Nashville.  Later this week we will gather as a diocese to conduct our business and to hear more stories of God at work in our lives.  In less than a month we will celebrate the life and work of Bishop Quintard and those Adventers who came before us. 
     Do your ears tingle?
     I famously argue with Jim Martin now over a lake in Chad.  It is no secret that Jim struggles with the starvation that is resulting from that lake drying up.  How can God let Christians and others die such painful deaths, if He truly loves them?  If God is real and powerful, why does He not provide food and water?  In my discussions with Jim I’ve often wondered why he is so hung up on Chad.  Chad is not a place that many of us, especially Jim, are clamoring to visit.  It’s not like Jim is as taken with Chad as he is with a tropical island when it’s cold and snowy in Nashville.  Yet it weighs on him.  And Jim hates this, understandably, but maybe Jim is to be the hands and feet or the head for organizing the feeding and watering of Chad; Maybe Jim is called to be the Rich of Chad.  Jim thinks the need is too great and his failings too big.  And then his idiot priest asks that great question, “you mean like fighting organized crime in slavery?”  You all laugh, but that is often the way God works.  He woos.  He whispers.  He burdens our heart.  And all He really requires of us is a willingness to go or do where or what He wants. 
     One of the great privileges of being a priest for God, as Benedicta taught me long ago, is the opportunity to remind His people that God is at work amongst them, that God is, indeed, doing the things that make our ears tingle; that God is still working out His plan of salvation for all of us.  The world we live in, brothers and sisters, is not much different from that of Eli and Samuel.  Each of us know far too many people who do things their own way, who care not for the counsel and instruction of God.  How many “clergy” function like Hophni and Phineas, creating a comfortable life for themselves on the backs and sweat of those whom they are supposed to be serving?  How many leaders, business, political, or otherwise, do we know who engage in nepotism, who fail to hold their family members to the same accountability as they hold others?  And how hungry is the world to know that this not the best that there is, that there is meaning and justice and love?
     Brothers and sisters, each one of us, by virtue of our baptism, has a ministry or has several ministry opportunities not unlike Samuel.  So often, God is speaking to us, giving us eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to feel what He feels, and far too often we do not recognize His call or even try our best to hang up on Him.  And all He asks is that we listen and obey.  And once we commit to obey, once we say to God, speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening, then begins the real adventure, then begins the journey and story that makes the ears of others tingle!  We may not be tasked with anointing a king or two, as was Samuel before us.  We may not be tasked with leading His people a la Moses or David or some other hero or heroine you admire in Scripture.  But all of His callings are significant; all of His callings are important.  He used the obedience of a young girl to birth his Savior.  He used the obedience of countless saints to set His people free.  He has used the obedience of saints to remind those on the margins, those forgotten by the world, that He loves them deeply.  Best of all, brothers and sisters, He relishes in turning the wisdom and power of the world upside down.  When He accomplishes great things through our obedience, the obedience of those who are too old, too weak, too unsophisticated to understand how things really work, the world is stunned.  Those who hear have tingling ears.  And for a brief time, maybe only for a moment or for a second, they wonder at how whatever things came to be.  For a brief time, they are even open to the possibility that God is real, that God loves them dearly, and that He truly only wants what’s best for them.
     Brothers and sisters, where is He calling you?  What has He put on your hearts?  What would He have you do to glorify Him in your life?  Why not ask Him to speak as you listen, and then hang on for the most incredible journey of your life?!  Make no mistake, that journey will be challenging, it will be cross-bearing, but it will end in His glorification in your life, and your sharing in that glory, too.  That is His promise to all who choose to manifest His love in the world!

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†