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!”