Monday, January 26, 2015

Where is your Nineveh? Who is your Bennie?


     Did you know that today, the third Sunday of Epiphany, is the only day during our three-year lectionary cycle that we read from the book of Jonah?  Chances are, most of everything you know about Jonah comes from Sunday school.  You would think, since Jesus cited Jonah, that the book would figure a bit more prominently in our lectionary.  But maybe some of the themes are a bit difficult for us to struggle with in a simple sermon.  Maybe they are better suited to Bible study classes.  And before I get started, I have to admit I plagiarized the theme of today’s sermon a bit from Bishop John, Archbishop Justin, and Pope Francis.  It made sense as I turned it over in my head, but I sure did not want you all to think I came up with this on my own.

     That being said, we jumped into the narrative of Jonah after he has been vomited onto the land by the fish.  In case you have forgotten the story, Jonah received a call from God to go and preach His coming wrath on the city of Nineveh.  Jonah, naturally, does not want to do as God has instructed.  God usually has to fight with those whom He calls.  Moses argues three times about his suitability to go to Pharaoh.  Jacob has a hip dislocated.  Sarah laughs at God and gets a baby as she nears 100 years old for her scoff.  Poor Jonah wants to avoid Nineveh because he understands God’s character all too well.

     Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire.  It was huge by ANE standards.  And it was the center of power for the superpower of the day.  If Assyria wanted something, they took it, usually at great cost of blood and material wealth to those from whom they took.  Israel, naturally, had been on the receiving end of a couple bloody and humiliating battles.  So Israel hated Assyria.  Hated.  I am far too new here to know our real rivals.  Maybe their attitude is not unlike Vandy’s fans towards Tennessee; maybe their attitude is like Tennessee Titans fans’ toward the Colts; maybe it’s like Brentwood Academy vs. Brentwood High.  Chances are some of you will offer me some suggestions later.  Maybe a good example would be ISIS now.  Bin Laden before his death.  A great example for those of us of a certain age would be the country’s attitude toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  My kids laugh when I tell stories of how judges voted according to blocs in Olympic Figure Skating and Gymnastics.  They used to think I had lost my mind when I talked about nuclear bomb drills where we had to get under our desks at school to protect ourselves.  Nathan used to ask if we understood the physics of nuclear weapons in West Virginia, clearly wondering why in the world we thought a desk would save us.  Then he learned that the drills were practiced country-wide.  The whole country practiced those drills?  I see from the nods of some that you also practiced those drills.  I also see some bemusement on the face of those young like my kids.  It’s true.  We hated the Soviet Union.  President Reagan would pretend he was ordering a full strike on the USSR as a sound check before his radio chat sometimes.  The Soviets would scramble to see if our birds were in the air, and many of us would think it so cool he could strike fear into the heart of the enemy.

     Now, those of you of that age, what if God had commanded you to go to Moscow and preach His judgment and coming wrath?  Would you have done it?  Or would you have argued with God?  And, just to make it seem a bit more realistically, do you think the Muscovites would have listened?  Or do you think you would have found yourself at a Gulag for the mentally ill?

     Jonah does not want to go because he understands the nature and character of God.  In his argument with God, Jonah basically casts Exodus 34:6-7 back into God’s face.  Jonah understands that if he goes and if he preaches faithfully and if Nineveh repents, God will not destroy the great city.  Jonah wants his enemies destroyed; Jonah does not want his enemies spared, especially when it comes to God’s wrath.

     This lesson was driven home to me in my ministry in human trafficking.  I would rather use a shared experience as a sermon illustration and not focus on me, but we do not yet have enough shared experiences.  As I have shared during the interview process and with the youth, I play a game called World of Warcraft.  I am a true veteran.  These words will mean nothing to those who remember the Cold War of which I spoke a moment ago, but the youth will understand all too well.  Back in the days of Vanilla WoW, there were no dual-specs, there were no cheat specs for the talent tree, heck there were 63 talents that needed to be spent “back in the day.”  I had been conned into the game as a holy priest.  My friend had begged me to start playing with him.  I could talk to people online about Jesus and heal people.  That was the real job of a holy priest—we kept everyone else in our groups alive.  Good healers were hard to come by in the game.  It was very much an incarnational ministry.  Holy priests had good power, but it was really only used to heal.  Guess who was the first guy to get targeted by the enemies?  Guess who died first trying to keep allies alive?  The holy priest.  I was very good at the game.  With another priest named Ellyn, we two-healed Naxxramas and the Lich King 10-man raids.  Let those with ears . . .

     Although I was primarily a healer, I had two significant offensive spells.  Levelling as a holy priest to level 70 was a challenge.  My favorite spell was holy fire.  Basically, I called down a lightning bolt from the sky that hit my target.  It was a rather slow spell because it was rather powerful.  The best part of the spell, from my perspective, was that after the initial damage from the bolt, the target would begin to be damaged by a slow burn.  I would hit them with the bolt and then attack them or heal myself as they continued to be damaged a bit by the fire the bolt had caused.  I know, now you adults are all a little freaked out that your priest thinks the burn after the bolt made for a good spell.  You are going to be a bit more disturbed, though, when your priest began to lament that he did not have that power in real life as he got more and more involved in the fight against human trafficking.

     When I got involved in that ministry, I spent more time trying to convince people that the evil was real than I did suggesting how they could help.  I would sometimes think, in those dark moments of frustration, how cool it would be if God gave me that holy fire in real life.  I had begged for God to use tornados to wipe out particular sites, but He had refused, even though I lived in “Tornado Alley.”  I thought, how seriously would people, but especially the perpetrators, take their sin and evil if God just let me hit a few with a bolt and burn them a bit.  Maybe the idiot “John’s,” who thought they could tell the difference between a sex slave girl who liked sex from those who were doing it for the money, would begin to understand the pain they were causing by the pain they were receiving.  Maybe the pimps, who would be all kinds of threatening if I did a horrific things such as buy their girl a lunch or cup of hot chocolate or coffee, would begin to realize where true power was to be found and feared.  Maybe the looming threat of muscle would reconsider their life’s work if they were forced to endure a supernatural punishment from God.  Maybe the indifferent business owner who closed his or her eyes or the homeowner that cared only about cheap cleaning or gardening would change their attitude as they experienced the shock of the bolt and the pain of the burn.  Yes.  Like Jonah, I wanted my enemies, God’s enemies, punished.

     Jonah, as the reading tells us today, does finally obey God.  He goes and preaches a strange sermon.  It is five words in Hebrew.  “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  It is not exactly the best call to repentance any of us have ever heard, is it?  Can those of us older imagine the Soviet Union repenting back in the 70’s and 80’s with that kind of sermon?  Yet, all of Nineveh hears the words of the prophet and repents.  The king, we are told, is so moved by Jonah’s words that he declares that even the ashes will wear sackcloth and ashes as an outward sign of their inward sorrow.  Can you imagine?  It must have been a rather amusing scene.  I wonder how the animals were fitted with sackcloth?  How did they keep the sackcloth on the animals?  There was no super glue, no duct tape.

     Just as Jonah feared, God relents of His great wrath and decides not to destroy Nineveh.  Even though Jonah does not give the best evangelistic sermon recorded in the Scripture, one cannot argue with the results.  From here, the book goes on to teach us, as God teaches Jonah, about the love and mercy and power of God.  In the end, Jonah and we are reminded that we have no right to demand or to expect of God that He treat our enemies any less merciful that He treated each one of us.  All of us were created by Him; all of us are loved by Him.  All He demands of us is that we repent of our sins.  It is a lesson taught over and over in Scripture.  What separated the Gibeonites from the other ites in the Promised Land?  What really separates David from Saul?  Why is Jesus so mad at the Pharisees and Priests?  Why does He emphasize that we need to love our enemies?  Even evil people sometimes do good to those who do good to them.  God’s character, though, is revealed in our attitudes and actions towards our enemies.

     That lesson was driven home to me in an “aha” moment of my own.  As I said, I had it all figured out how God would best be glorified.  The Holy Fire would strike fear into His enemies.  They would all see and repent.  Better still, the rest of the world would notice and begin to take God seriously.  It was a good plan, an ok thought, right?  I see nods of assents.  The problem was that I had not internalized the lesson taught to Jonah and us.

     I received a call one day about some girls walking the streets downtown.  This was actually unusual.  So I headed downtown to see what was happening.  Sure enough, there were three or four ladies offering themselves from money not too far from our bridge and ballpark.  I struck up conversations with a couple ladies, asking if they wanted out.  As I was chatting with them, a man came up to drive his girls away from me.  If I was not buying them, I was wasting their time and costing him money.  Every now and then you will hear I do something really stupid and crazy that really works out.  This was one of those.

     I explained that I was a priest, in case the green shirt and collar around my neck was not obvious, and proceeding to ask the pimp to let me speak with the girls and talk them out of the life.  We had a back and forth and my words about having a bishop for a boss who would bust my butt if I did not do my job resonated with him, but he needed to make money.  So I asked if he and I could talk.  Yes, when I first related this story to my bishop he had very much the same intake of breath as y’all.  He suggested a bar, and we spent a few hours over the next several days getting to know one another.  For those that want the longer account, you can check him out on my blog.  His name was Bennie.

     I learned that Bennie was the product of a broken home.  His dad was never around.  His mom lost to a drug addiction and lost her kids.  Bennie grew up in about a half dozen foster homes.  Some foster homes are wonderful, but some only want the check generated by the state to take care of the kids.  Bennie claimed all his foster homes were the latter.  He learned rather quickly he could run away and they would not chase, not even file a police report, so long as the checks appeared in the mailbox.  Benny began to equate his intrinsic value, and the intrinsic value of all human beings with money.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Bennie grew up idolizing the pimp culture made famous in Chicago.  He wanted the money, the fame, and the respect that came from the lifestyle.  The idea that God loved him was a joke.  The idea that God would forgive him was ludicrous.  Don’t hate the playa; hate the game, Preacher.  I didn’t make the rules, I just win by them.

     I wish I was sharing this story with an ending worthy of Nineveh.  Jonah did a far better job than I.  There was no conversion moment for Bennie.  There was no repentance.  When he left town for his next stop, he intended to continue in his business.  He predicted he would continue to be hassled by cops.  He predicted he would continue to run afoul of gangs and other pimps when he set up shop in new locales.  He predicted that he would likely die long before he got old and before he could enjoy all the money he was making.  That was his life.  That was the deck stacked against.  My role in Bennie’s life, it seems, was one of sowing, and I pray even to this day that Bennie meets his Jonah, that Bennie repents and causes all heaven to rejoice.  I trust that other members of the Kingdom of God have followed where I sowed and have watered and manured.  And, if Bennie still refuses, I know it was not because he did not know.

     You see, sitting there on the stool one evening, as I listened to Bennie’s story, I realized how fortunate I had been.  Yes, mom and dad had divorced, twice, but both were active in my life.  Both took seriously their responsibilities to raise their kids to know right from wrong, to know that God loved us.  How many Bennie were not so fortunate?  How many places are like Nineveh and still have not heard God’s word?  Forgive him, Lord, he does not know what he is doing rang clearly in my ears.  Over and over as I listened to his story, I realized so much of Bennie’s foundation was missing.  He had simply filled the holes as best he knew how, equating bling and cash with respect and fear with love.  It is a wretched existence.  What’s worse, he expects a violent end.  Yet it was my job to remind this lost child of God that he could choose a different path, a more challenging path, that led to eternal life and love.  How I wish for Bennie’s sake I would have reached him.  Oh, I know, the idea of a priest and a pimp having a drink talking God and sociology and psychiatry and business is proof enough that God still does amazing things in our lives and in the world today.  But how much better would it be to tell you how he repented, freed his girls, and works to reach other pimps today?  But neither I nor you nor Bennie nor the people of Nineveh would have any hope had not God reach down into all our lives.

     At convention this week, Bishop John and Bishop Dabney reminded us all present that our primary responsibility, by virtue of our oaths taken at baptism, is to introduce people of the world to this person, Jesus.  We don’t proclaim a special knowledge like the Gnostics, we don’t have weird formulas, we don’t revere theology like some faiths, God is not some impersonal force moving inexorably through history.  We remind people, ourselves included, that we are reconciled to God through the work and person, Jesus Christ.  Jonah was right.  God is forgiving and merciful and slow to anger.  We know that best through His Son our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth.  In this season of the Church we call Epiphany, we remind ourselves that God manifested Himself in Christ that the whole world, the entire world, would turn, serve God, and glorify Him!  God, through Christ, is inviting everyone we meet into a reconciled relationship with Him.  It is an amazing story, a wonderful story—one truthfully not fit for mouths or ears like mine.  Yet that is the very responsibility He has placed on each one of us through our baptisms into His death and into His Resurrection.  The problem, of course, is that we are too much like Jonah.  We like to think we deserve God’s grace and that others do not.  And so we hoard our relationship with Him, and, in so doing, allow that others might be condemned.  The youth describe it as the “Brentwood bubble,” but we adults know it extends far beyond the city limits of Brentwood.

     You see, until we internalize the lesson God gave to and through Jonah, we have missed a large portion of our own relationship with God.  Until we grasp that lesson fully, we are but babes in our faith.  When our Lord hung on that Cross and breathed His last breaths and said, “Forgive them, Father.  They do not know what they are doing,” He was speaking of you and of me.  Before we grasped at His saving hand, we were like the Ninevites and Bennies of the world, not aware we were loved and not aware we needed a Savior.  And, what’s worse, when we begin that walk with Him, we forget that He calls us to go to the Nineveh’s and Bennie’s of the world, proclaiming His Good News of great joy and hope.

     In November at the conference, we got a note from Justin and Francis via their emissary David.  Both were pleased with our work and the attention we were paying to survivors and victims of human trafficking.  Then came the however.  Justin and Francis reminded us that if the Church is only working to serve those in need, if the Church is only working to draw in those on the margins, if the Church is only serving the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the lepers, She is only fulfilling part of Her calling.  The Lord calls His Bride, the Church, to call the world to repentance and a reconciled relationship with Him through Christ.  If we feed the working poor but do not call owners to pay living wages, we have missed an important part of our calling.  If we work hard to free and care for slaves but do not call those who use them and those who own them to repentance, we have missed a large chunk of our calling.  If we labor tirelessly to provide those victimized by sin but do not call those who sin and victimize into relationship with the Lord Jesus, we have failed to embrace the full mission given us.  Weighty words, are they not?  Not nearly so weighty, I believe, as that Cross He bore for all our sakes, even though we were at enmity with Him.

     Brothers and sisters, where and who are the Nineveh’s of your lives?  Who are the Bennie’s of your life?  Who are the people that you would loathe to escape the wrath of God?  Chances are, when I was talking about the rivalry between Vandy fans and UT fans, between Colts fans and Titan fans, between the US and USSR so many years ago, people began popping into your head.  My guess is that the Holy Spirit has reminded you this day of those foreigners, those others, those black sheep in your family, those co-workers, those bosses, those employees, maybe even that priest that you think does not deserve God’s grace like you.  Brothers and sisters, I am here to remind you that God calls you every bit to manifest His love and His glory to those who drive you nuts or who do evil in His sight, that His kingdom might grow yet again.  Our Collect today picks up on that calling every bit as much as does our reading from Jonah.  Give us grace, O Lord, . . . to proclaim to all people the Good News of His salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of His marvelous works.  Chances are, your life will be the best sermon they ever hear.  It has been given to you to proclaim tidings of Jesus, redemption, and release!  What kind of sermon will you give them?  Will it be one of humility and empathy, understanding in all truth that you were not worthy of such grace?  Will it be one that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, calls entire cities to repentance and into right relationship with our Lord?  Will it simply remind you, day in and day out, that you were once every bit at enmity with God but now, thanks to His mercy and His grace, prepared for that Wedding Feast prepared from the beginning of time for all those who have chosen to follow Him?

Peace,

Brian

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Speak, Lord, for Your servants are listening . . .


     In my short time among you, I have made a couple interesting and surprising discoveries.  There are a number of professional theologians in our midst, which poses a challenge because now I have to prove to them I know my stuff.  All who have quizzed me have been very kind, but they want to make sure their pastor knows his stuff.  Another discovery has been the Southern patience is not existent in a few quarters.  Part of what no doubt informs my sermon this week has been the “rush” by some to see where I am going to take Advent.  When I mention that I am not trying to take Advent anywhere and that the process of discernment can sometimes be lengthy, I have been on the receiving end of a few almost northeastern huffs.  It is all good.  I realize that some of you were ready to “get to work” a long time ago, that this period of transition has dragged on and on and on.  It is ok.  God is still in control.  This week’s readings, however, might inform us all a bit how the process works.

     Though I was sorely tempted to turn to Corinthians and talk a bit about pornography in light of Paul’s letter today, I think the lesson from Samuel will be more beneficial to us as individuals and as a community gathered in Christ’s name here in Nashville.  For those of you who do not know the story, the child Samuel is the product of a lot of prayer.  Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was considered barren.  She prayed to God to open up her womb.  So desperate was she to have a child that she pledged her firstborn son to God.  God heard her prayer.  His answer to her prayer provoked what many consider to be the Magnificat of the Old Testament.  More amazingly, she kept her vow.  When the child, Samuel, had been weaned, she took him to the priests, where he became a permanent acolyte.  Those of you sitting in the corner might give thanks that you only serve as acolytes an hour or so every six weeks!  Poor Samuel was on call 24/7/365!

     It turns out, of course, that the priest to whom Samuel was given was not a very good dad.  Why do I say that?  Eli had two sons who had decided to ignore the torah and take for themselves the choicest meats.  Priests prior to the Exile had more in common with butchers than with what I do today.  Every time people came with an offering of an animal, it was their job to slaughter the animal and offer it to God for those making the offering.  One of the perks of the job was that the priests got to take some of the meat and other offerings and use them to support themselves.  They could trade the meat for other items, or they could enjoy a nice steak when they were done working.  God had warned Eli that his sons were committing evil in His sight.  In fact, God told Eli they were blaspheming Him.  Eli gave the weak fatherly response, “Boys, you better stop.  God is going to lose patience with you, and then you will be sorry” response.  Those of you who have studied the torah know the punishment for blaspheme: death.  Those of us who are mothers or fathers can well understand a father’s unwillingness to kill a child, no matter bad the child has been.  But this is a priest who was supposed to be teaching his sons how to worship and how to serve the Living God.  As a father, he had failed his sons miserably.  Rather than nipping their selfish attitude in the bud at an early age, say Samuel’s age, Eli had chosen to ignore or put up with their attitudes.  Not only did they have no respect for their dad, they had no fear or respect for the Lord.  That showed in their dealings with the people.

     That is part of your background information for today.  Notice also the description of the time and of Eli.  The word of The Lord was rare in those days, and Eli’s eyesight was growing dim.  Samuel is in his sleeping area when he hears the voice he supposes is Eli’s three times.  Each time he runs into Eli’s quarters to see what the old priest needs.  Each time, Eli tells young Samuel that he has not called him.  Now, Eli may be old and going blind, but he is not stupid.  Eli instructs the boy that the Lord is speaking.  He tells young Samuel that, “if God speaks again, lie there and say ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.’”  Samuel does as the old priest instructs.  For the first time in the young boy’s life, the word of the Lord comes to him.  God tells Samuel that what he is about to do will make the ears of anyone who hears it tingle.  Such may sound a bit silly to our ears, but it was a signal to Israel that God was about to do something significant.

     Curiously, this first word given to Samuel is not one that seems likely to blow the socks off of Israel.  Heck, it does not seem to truly reach Eli.  I have already explained some of the background.  Eli’s family is being punished because the sons have blasphemed God and because Eli has done nothing about it.  To Eli’s credit, he realizes that God is correct in His judgment.  To His discredit, He seems rather blasé about accepting the punishment.  There is no attempt to repent, no attempt to turn from his ways that have led to this point.

     We are told by the writer that Samuel was known from the far north and far south of Israel as a prophet of God.  In fact, God let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.  Can you imagine the honor and awesome responsibility?  Samuel will be responsible for speaking God’s words of judgment and mercy to the people of Israel.  From humble beginnings to that kind of relationship with God and with Israel.  Now you know another reason why we speak of God who can do more than we can ask or imagine!

     For the theologians among us, the passage lends itself to a nice three-point paper.  First, we are reminded that God’s word is sure and true, no matter what it is that He says or causes to be written.  We might like to think that things are written in stone when they are really important, but only those things promised by God are eternal and dependable.  The second lesson for the theologians among us this morning is the nature of the individual call.  Each and every single individual must give an answer to God’s call on his or her life.  No exception.  Even the “not today” is an answer in the negative.  Eli got the same message once before from God.  He chose to ignore it and its implications.  Now, God’s patience has worn thin.  He is about to act as He promised.  Lastly, God’s word is always transforming and shaping us to be the sons or daughters He would have us be.  Put in simple language, one cannot encounter the Living God and remain the same.  He is so utterly “other” that we would never be able to apprehend Him were He not unwilling to reveal Himself to us.

     Of course, the non-theologians among us now are trying hard to stay awake.  Most of us gathered today are not here to hear a three-point paper.  Most of us want to know why this passage should be considered important to us, why we should read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest this story.  These theological fine points really only encourage nap time for those of us not inclined, do they not?  We want answers to the “then what?” questions coursing through our heads.  Why is the story of Samuel important to you and to me?

     Two of our readings today speak to the idea that we are called by God.  Both the passage from Samuel and the passage from John speak to the idea that you and I are called by God.  It is an amazing thing, is it not, to think that the Creator of the heavens and the earth knows you by name, knew you before you were knitted together in your mother’s womb?  One of Karen and my early fights was about that nature of God’s immanence.  She would pray before taking tests or writing papers.  I always figured God had bigger things to worry about: you know, nudging asteroids out of earth’s orbit, Middle East peace, and things like that.  Like some of you today, I had forgotten some of these stories of call.  God calls to individuals by name.  Whether their names are Abraham or Moses or Mary or Martha, God knows them all by name, just as He knows each one of us gathered here and each one of those gathered at churches around this city and even those who chose to ignore His call on their lives this day.  Every.  Single.  One.

     I chose to focus on the idea of a call because a few people have started to get impatient with me.  Collectively, you have all spent a great deal of time between rectors.  A few of you wondered whether Advent would ever call another one.  Now that I am here, there is a desire is some quarters to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  I get it.  I understand it.  And truth be told, were I on the other side of this collar, I would probably be you.  The problem is that we need to spend some serious time figuring out God’s call on our lives, both individually and as a parish.  In the meantime, we get to spend some time getting to know one another.  When Dale and Dick visited this past August, and then when I meant with the Vestry in September, I was told I made my leadership style sound like luck.  As I said to them, I say to you, it was not luck.  It was my job, and the job of the parishes and the vestries, to figure out God’s call on our collective lives.  As the one who sits in the office, I get to hear the different stories.  Someone who sits back right at 8am might not even know the name of someone who sits front row left at 10:30am.  Neither of them may or may not know someone who comes on Wednesday at noon.  That is parish ministry.  But I get to hear the stories.  I get to hear the struggles, the crises, the blessings, the excitements, and the wonders.  If I am doing my job, I begin to hear God’s voice in all of yours.  Even then, though, we are not done.  I share with the Vestry, the Vestry considers and discerns.  If they agree, we take it to the parish.  The parish either recognizes that I and the Vestry have done our jobs, or they refuse.  It is a slow deliberate process.  But our readings today remind us that it is happening.  Just as surely as God will raise us from the dead on the Last Day, He has declared He has a plan or two for each one of us.

     So, how do we go about figuring out God’s plan for us?  Where do we meet God and give Him a chance to say while we are listening?  It seems to me there are three practices that give us a chance to hear Him.  First, where do we meet God each and every day?  In the Scriptures.  As good little Episcopalians, I know each and every one of you is reading Scripture daily, aren’t you?  Wait, why is there squirming?  We have a daily lectionary.  Heck, we have apps that do that work for us now.  Have none of us ever been reminded that we should take time to read a bit of Scripture every day in our life?  I am teasing you all a bit, but it is a tease with an edge.  If you really want to hear God speak to you, the Scriptures are a great place to start.  As you read, you will come across stories that make you feel uncomfortable, that speak directly to your current struggles, and you will read how God helped your spiritual ancestors through their own struggles.  Sound familiar?  And how many of us have been taught that we can just randomly open our Bibles and start reading?  I see some nods.  It is amazing how often one can do that and open to the exact spot that speaks to one’s issues or problems.

     And, lest you think I am crazy, why do you think we worship the way we do.  We start with the Liturgy of the Word and then proceed to the Liturgy of the Sacrament.  Why do we arrange our services that way?  Each time we gather, we have two chances to meet Jesus.  The Scriptures are read, a preacher preaches and teaches on them, and then we celebrate Communion.  If Jesus was true and certain when He claimed that all the Scriptures were about Him, every time we read Scripture we are giving ourselves a chance to meet Him, too hear Him, to be formed and transformed by Him!  That, brothers and sisters is why we read the Bible.  That, brothers and sisters, is why Christians study the Scriptures in depth.  They want to know Jesus better!  Not win at Jeopardy or Trivia Crack.

     And, in those cases where the preaching is bad, we are still not done for the day.  When we gather as a worshipping community, we expect to meet Jesus in the Sacrament.  All of us are good little Episcopalians/Anglicans, right?  We know that it is in the Sacrament when the veil between this world and the next is at its tissue thinnest.  We cannot explain it, but we expect to consume His Flesh and His Blood and remind ourselves that we are in Him every bit as He is in us.  This, of course, serves as our second way we meet and hear God in our lives.  You may come to the rail to partake of the Eucharist, but never be too surprised if you find yourself like Samuel, hearing a voice, hearing The Voice with a call on your life.

     Lastly, and I fear our attention to this way of hearing God is as lacking as the first one I mentioned, we meet God in prayer.  I know.  We think of prayer as personal nagging time or personal bargaining time with God.  Please, God, heal me.  Please, God, fix my boss.  Please, God, I need a new car.  Please, God, tell my long-winded pastor to shut up.  God, if you will give me a winning lottery ticket, I will split it with You.  God, if you give me an A on this test I promise I will never miss another Sunday.  You are chuckling because it sounds ridiculous.  But how many of us do just that?  And how many of us are in too big a rush to create a few minutes of silence that we might hear His still, small whisper in our lives?

     In addition to our normal Collect today, you all heard me pray the Collect for Martin Luther King’s feast day.  I know the feast day is moved tomorrow because we celebrate the Confession of St. Peter tomorrow, but the rest of the country will celebrate MLK’s day as scheduled.  There is much to admire about St. Martin.  He displayed a courage that this country sorely needed.  And while I do not think we are done yet in every nook and cranny of this great land, I dare say we have probably come farther faster than St. Martin would have ever expected.  And we have done this despite the efforts by evil to silence his voice.  There is much written about St. Martin and I trust a few of us will even watch the movie.  But where do you think it was that St. Martin found his courage and will to do the work that God had given him to do?

     If you read some of his memoirs and diary, you might be surprised to learn that St. Martin was fortified by prayer.  I was struck once by how he responded to the first of several death threats he received in pursuit of God’s call on his life.  St. Martin said that he did the only thing he knew he could do when he got those first threats: he prayed.  His prayer was probably not unlike our Lord’s in Gethsemane, asking God to take this from him.  He said, though, that as he prayed, this incredible peace descended upon him.  As a student of the Bible, snippets of Scripture and pictures in his mind of scenes popped into his head.  And he realized that God was truly with him in this effort.  He had nothing to fear because the Lord was with him.

     St. Martin did not quite write in the exact words of “the peace that passes all understanding” or “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” but can you not hear the hallowed echoes?  Can you not understand a bit differently this morning what those words mean when we say them?  And look at the result.  Eventually, evil tried to silence the prophetic voice of St. Martin.  An assassin’s bullet tried to dull the roar of “Free at last.”  But because God was truly with him, because He knew himself called and beloved of God, St. Martin could speak and lead with a fearlessness that inspired a generation.  As with Samuel today, St. Martins’s words did not fall to the ground, even though his life was seemingly taken from him.  You see.  St. Martin gave his life unreservedly to God.  Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.  And God used Martin’s faithfulness to effect great change in our country and our world.  Martin’s voice might have been silenced that day in Memphis, but the Word of the One whom Martin followed continues even to this day.

     Brothers and sisters, we have spent some deep time in discussion this morning.  If I have done my job you have been chewing on some meat rather than being spoon-fed gruel.  Our lessons, though, spoke directly to a question many of us share: Does God have a call on my life?  Does God care about me?  The Lord has promised through His well beloved Son that He has great plans for you and for me, far more amazing plans than any of us could ask or imagine.  Even more amazingly, He gives us each the opportunity to accept or to reject those plans.  Poor Eli could not bring himself to follow the path the Lord set before Him.  Thankfully, and mercifully, though, we have the stories of those who did to remind us.  Look at what God wrought through faithful obedience.  He took an unexpected boy from a barren woman and made him a prophet and a king-anointer!  He took a man sitting under a fig tree who thought nothing good could come from Nazareth and made him and Apostle.  He took a black man born in the capital of the South in 1929 and turned him into a prophet and leader who is now celebrated like Washington and Lincoln and others who shaped our beloved land.  What can our Lord not do with you or with Advent, if only we mean and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!”

Peace,

Brian