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,