Epiphany 2, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

Do you remember Abbot and Costello’s routine “Who’s on First?”  “Who’s on First?” is an epically long comedic bit about a disconnected conversation.  Abbott and Costello are talking about a baseball team, but the players’ names are more than a little unhelpful.  The first baseman’s name is Who.  The second baseman is What.  The center fielder’s name is Because.  Abbot is trying to explain all of this Costello, who keeps misunderstanding him and their conversation unravels in a spectacular way.

I don’t know about you, but I go through phases of my life and faith in which I feel more than a little bit like a character in that sketch.  There are times when I just feel slightly off kilter, when I can’t communicate what I want to, when I can’t hear God’s voice clearly, where everything feels a little disjointed.  I’m in one of those phases of my life now where I’ll hand my husband a cup and say, “Could you give this sippy-clock to the baby?”  And my accidental nonsense words often make much more sense than anything politicians or the media are saying. Are rich people corrupt jerks who are taking advantage of the rest of us?  Are poor people lazy slobs who wouldn’t work if they could? Are our economic policies going to destroy our country?  Where is God in all of this?  Do any of the people claiming to speak for God know his heart?  Is Tim Tebow really the closest thing we have to a prophet?

The writer of First Samuel captures this feeling of disconnect beautifully in the wonderful story of the Prophet Samuel’s call.

Samuel was given to Eli to raise by a woman named Hannah.  Her story is another heartbreaking sermon entirely. Eli was raising Samuel in the priesthood in a time where the entire culture felt a little disconnected from God.  The author of 1st Samuel introduces our story with the line:  “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  He paints a picture of a community isolated from their God.  Even Eli’s sons, who are supposed to carry on the line of priesthood, who are supposed to guard and protect the sacred traditions, have taking advantage of women in front of holy religious sites.  They are horrible, profane men.

What happens next is not too far removed from our Abbot and Costello sketch.  Now, it’s comic enough that Samuel keeps thinking the Lord’s voice is Eli’s, but this story gets even more wonderfully disconnected when you realize Sam-u-el in Hebrew means “God has heard” and El-I means “my God”.

When Hebrew speakers read this story they hear this wonderful subtext:

Then the LORD called, “God has heard!  God has heard!” and he said, “Here I am!”   and ran to “my God”, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.”

This confusion is even more pronounced because all the action in the story is happening in the most sacred part of the Temple.  Samuel is literally sleeping at the foot of the Ark of the Covenant, where the Israelites believed God’s presence to rest.  He is so close to God, but even in the holy of holies, God’s word is hard to hear and understand.

But, and it is a big but, remember that our God is not a God of disconnect.  Our God is not a God of chaos.  The very first thing God does in creation is bring order out of chaos.  Even when the line of priests is as terrible as Eli’s sons, God does not abandon his people to chaos.

No, God cuts through all the disconnect and chaos and he speaks directly to the one person capable of hearing him.  Samuel.  Samuel cannot hear God on his own, he needs the help of his mentor who redeems himself mightily by understanding what is happening and encouraging Samuel to listen.

Eli and Samuel might not have expected God to speak.  They may have assumed their disconnected way of life was the way life had to be, but when God did finally reach them, they responded immediately and with great courage.

When Samuel finally told God he was ready to listen, God did not give him an easy word.  He did not say, “Samuel, I just wanted you to know that you’re really special.”  Nope, he told Samuel to tell Eli,

See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.  On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.  Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.

In case you’re wondering, that is not good news.  In fact, Samuel stayed in his room the rest of the night.  You can just imagine him putting off communicating THAT message just a few more minutes!  When he finally showed up at Eli’s door, Eli insisted he tell him the truth and to his credit, Eli took the bad news with dignity.

This moment was a critical moment in Israel’s history.  Samuel is the hinge between the era when Israel was governed  by Judges and when Israel was ruled by Kings.  Samuel anointed both King Saul and King David and was the first big prophet of the era in which God used prophets to communicate his word.  A huge, important chain of events began on this one night with God’s whispered word “Samuel.  Samuel”

Samuel did not have time to prepare.  There was no retreat.  There were no prophet classes that he took in elementary school so he’d be ready for the responsibility.  Eli did not have a corporate downsizing expert come in to gently break the news that his family was fired.

In an instant Samuel and Eli went from people who were as disconnected from God as everyone else, to being center stage on the story of God’s relationship with his people.

We are not in Advent any more, but this passage might as well be paired with the Gospel of Mark’s admonition to “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

God is just as connected to his people of faith today as he was in Samuel’s day.  We may feel disjointed and confused and disconnected.  We may see signs of God’s leaders up to all sorts of bad behavior.  We may believe the church is dying.  But I am here to tell you that God is still God.  God is still making order out of chaos.  God still speaks, even if the word of the Lord is rare in these days, even if visions are not widespread.

Beware, keep alert, because you might, like Samuel, hear God whispering your name some dark night.  You might roll over and tell your roommate to keep it down, but that will not stop God.

Beware, keep alert, because God may be trying to speak to you through someone else.  Like Eli, it might be your job to help someone interpret what they are hearing.  It might be your job to listen humbly while someone tells you how royally you have wrecked your life.

Beware, keep alert, because God might be starting something new with you.  God might want to use you to break the world’s disconnect.  God might want to use you to remind people that God demands justice and mercy and love.  God might be calling you to use your prophetic voice against all that is broken in this world.

And if you are overwhelmed by the chaos of your own life, turn off the television and the white noise machine.  Put down the newspaper and your iPhone.  Tuck yourself into bed a little early tonight and wait in the dark and the silence.  Listen for the sound of your own name, being called by the God that created you, knows you, and has big plans for your life.

Amen.

Proper 28, Year A, 2008

We have reached the end of Ordinary Time.

Sounds pretty dramatic, huh?  The new church year begins on the first day of Advent, which this year is November 30th.  Next week, we celebrate Christ the King day.  So, for all intents and purposes, today we celebrate the last day of the church lectionary year.  While we’ve spent all of Ordinary time following the Old Testament through the stories of Genesis, Exodus and then briefly Deuteronomy and Joshua, after today, the narrative thread ends and the lectionary hops around a bit throughout Advent, Christmas and Easter.  We’ll pick back up with the Old Testament narrative in the books of I and II Samuel-but not until next June.

When last we left the Israelites, they were being led into Canaan by Joshua and a bloody series of battles ensued.

So, what happened next?  What did the Israelites do when they woke up and realized they were actually in the Promised Land?  How are sort-of faithful people who reluctantly followed God into new places now supposed to govern themselves?  For that matter, what does it mean for us sort-of faithful Christians to be governed?

At first pass, the book of Judges may not seem to address these questions.  Judges is a weird, weird book.  It is filled with stories that seem more appropriate for a comic book than a book in the Bible.  There’s the story of Jael, the woman who drives a tent peg through Sisera’s head.  There’s the story of King Eglon, a fat man who gets stabbed while on the toilet.  And of course, the story of Samson who stupidly reveals the secret to his super strength to his devious girlfriend, Delilah.

Our reading today is about Deborah, one of the more sane characters in Judges.  She is a prophetess and a judge, hence the title of the book.  Judges in those days are not judges in the sense that we think of now.  Judges were charismatic leaders who led tribes throughout Israel.  They could adjudicate disputes, but they also could act as military leaders, as Deborah does.

The important thing to note here is that Israel has divided into tribes.  For awhile, Israel was able to function as one people, descendants of Abraham, but now the twelve tribes of Israel have spread out over the land they have been given and each is governed by their own tribal leader.

So, now the tribes are not only fighting with indigenous peoples, this division leads to a terrible civil war in which thousands of people die and the tribe of Benjamin is nearly wiped out.

That’s right, the tribes of Israel start fighting each other!

The author of the book of Judges fully acknowledges the sorry state of Israel by starting nearly every new story with, “In those days, when there was no king in Israel. . .”, as if the lack of a king was to blame for this terrible behavior.

Now, we’ll get further into this issue of kings when we study I and II Samuel next summer, but the problem is God doesn’t think a king is that great of an idea.  Eventually, after the civil war, the Israelites start clamoring for a king so they can be like other nations around them.  They go to Samuel, the prophet at the time, and demand he give them a king.  His feelings get hurt, but God reassures him that they aren’t rejecting Samuel, they are rejecting God as their king.  God tells Samuel to warn them about the consequences of having a king.  Now, these are not punishments handed down by God, these are just the natural consequences of a government led by kings.  Samuel warns the Israelites,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you:  . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyard and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.  He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle, and donkeys and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.  And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

Now, if you go back to our reading today, you’ll see that Deborah was called into action when a local king was threatening the Israelites with nine hundred chariots of iron.  That was incredible, incredible technology.  The Israelites were a nomadic people.  They had weaponry, sure, but chariots made out of iron?  No way.  The sight of such a thing must have been terrifying.  The chariots were the iron-age equivalent of jet planes or tanks.  The Israelites just had no recourse against such technology.  And how were Hazorites able to have 900 iron chariots?  They had a king.

And so Israel wanted a king, too.  Not just because kings were exciting, but because militarily they were unable to compete with other kingdoms.

So, the Israelites ignore Samuel and insist that God give them a king and he does.  And some kings were wonderful and some kings were terrible and the Israelites did just as bad of a job of being faithful to God, their true King, as they always did.

For the first few hundred years of the Christian Church, early Christians broke from this idea that the religious group is also the political group.  After all, they were powerless, even persecuted while the Roman government wielded its incredible power.  However, after Constantine’s conversion, once again, the idea that God chooses kings to rule over his people came into power.

Now, of course, with the world wide spread of Christianity, you have Christians under as many different kinds of governments as you can imagine.  There are Christians under dictatorships, democracies, communist rule, even socialist rule in oppressed countries like. . .Sweden.

The rhetoric in THIS country about whether or not we are a Christian nation has been particularly strong this last year.  There are faithful Christians who believe we risk God’s wrath if we don’t elect conservative Christian leaders to government who will end abortion, post the Ten Commandments everywhere, eliminate sex education and reinstate prayer in school.

But, as it turns out, the founders of our Country were not attempting to make a Christian government.  God is not mentioned once in the Constitution and religion is mentioned only twice.  Once in the sixth article, which reads, “but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Secondly, in the First Amendment which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

And this is good news not only for American atheists, Muslims, Hindus or Jews, but for Christians, too.  When Israel finally elects a king, they do not become more holy and obedient to God.  Instead, they shift their loyalty to the king.  The God we serve does not need to be represented in government in order to govern our hearts.

God does judge societies, but throughout the Bible those societies are judged on how well they worship God, take care of orphans, widows, the poor, immigrants and whether or not they have just policies.  We can do all those things as individuals and as church communities within a secular government. Occasionally we manage to do them through our government as well.  We feed the poor school lunches.  We give widows Social Security payments.  We maintain justice as best as we can.  And of course our government is not perfect at this, but that leaves room for those of us in the church to pick up the slack-whether through ministries we already do-like Disciples’ Kitchen and Bread Fund-but also ministries we haven’t even dreamed about yet.  Who knows, maybe one day God will call Emmanuel to start a ministry for migrant workers or open an orphanage or teach financial management to those who struggle.

My point is, as participants in a democracy, we are called to keep our government full of integrity, justice and ethics, yet we can still fully live out our Christian duty within the confines of a secular government.  Our fealty to God is not hampered by the Constitution.  In fact, our fealty is protected by the Constitution, which many Christians in other nations cannot say about their own countries.

So, in short, American democracy gives us the best of both worlds.  We have more iron chariots than can possibly be good for us, yet total freedom to worship and serve our God.

Thanks be to God.

Epiphany 2, Year B, 2006

Lord: Sarah  

Sarah:  (Look around confused)

Lord:  (more insistently) Sarah!

Sarah:  Yes, Lord?

Lord:  You misunderstood me.  I didn’t say you should become a priest.  I said you should marry Jason Priestly.  You know, the actor from Beverly Hills 90210? 

Sarah:  (Confused look on her face)  Well, it’s a little late now. . .and I think Jason Priestly is married. . .do you mind if I just keep being a priest?

Lord:  (Sigh)  Fine.

Sarah:  Okay, well, then I’m going to go ahead and preach. . .

Hearing the call of God is a confusing, complicated process.  It would be nice if God would shout from the heavens and tell us exactly what we should do with our lives.  However, God seems to prefer to reveal our call to us slowly and quietly, so that we truly have to search our heart, mind and spirit.

Today’s reading from the Old Testament is about the call of Samuel.  Samuel’s mother was a woman named Hannah.  She was one of two wives of a loving husband and was barren for many years.  One day, she went to the temple where the priest, Eli, presided.  She wept and prayed so hard her lips moved.  Eli, not being the most compassionate priest on the planet, thought she was drunk and told her to move along.  Nice, huh?

So, Hannah goes home, soon gets pregnant and is so thankful that she not only names her son Shem-uel-name of God-she also vows to give her baby to the temple, so he can serve God all his life. 

In the meantime, Eli’s sons, who were supposed to take over for him, were incredibly corrupt, stealing from the offerings brought to the table, strong-arming people who came to pray.  As you can imagine, God was NOT happy about this.

So, this brings us to today’s reading.  Samuel is an apprentice at the Temple and while sleeping, hears a voice calling him.  He assumes it is Eli speaking and goes to him.  Eventually Eli realizes what is going on and helps Samuel figure out that God is trying to speak to Samuel.  So, Samuel tells God he is listening, and God gives Samuel a terrible message to give to Eli, telling Eli how Eli’s family’s dynasty will end because his sons have been so corrupt. 

To Eli’s credit, he does not get angry with Samuel, but realizes that he should raise Samuel as an honest, ethical priest.

Samuel’s call story is a wonderful model for us, because Samuel could not discern his call himself.  He needed the help of the community to discern his call.  Without Eli’s perception, he would have no idea God wanted to speak with him.

All of us have a call-something we were designed to do.  A call can be described as our deepest passions meeting up with the needs of the world around us.  The author of a book called Listening Hearts writes,

A call may come as a gradual dawning of God’s purpose for our lives.  It can involve an accelerating sense of inner direction.  It can emerge through a dawning feeling that we need to do a specific thing.  On occasion, it can burst forth as a sudden awareness of a path God would have us take.  Call may be emphatic and unmistakable, or it may be obscure and subtle.*

We often think of a call in religious terms-a call to the priesthood or to a monastery-but a call can take as many forms as there are people.  You can have a call to a particular work within the church:  youth group, ministering to the homebound, evangelizing, hospitality, but you can also have a call to secular work-a call to the theater, to law, to medicine, to interior design, to fatherhood, to motherhood, to writing. 

A call can be lived out through a paying job, or it can be something you pursue in your free time.  Many calls are not particularly lucrative, so-this may come as a shock to you-some people have jobs that don’t fulfill their deepest passions, but do pay the bills.  That is a perfectly honorable way to live. 

There are two major glitches in life that can throw us off course from living out our call:

First:  What if we don’t know our call?

Second:  What if we know our call but can’t satisfy it?

In the first instance, if we don’t know our call, we need to heed Eli’s advice:  Say a prayer to God, “Here I am.”  Let God know that you are paying attention, ready to listen.  So often, we tell God what we want or what our worries are, and we don’t leave space for God to respond to us. 

Next, journal about your deepest passions.  What moves you, what excites you? 

Third, talk to your friends and family.  Often, those around us can see our gifts far earlier than we can.  When I trepidatiously announced my desire to pursue ordination, my father and a priest friend both said a more eloquent version of, “Duh.” 

Finally, pay attention.  Although God does not often speak in a booming voice from above, he can speak through the world around us.  If you start looking for needs in the world around you, soon you will find a place where you can serve. 

The second case, being unable to satisfy one’s call, is much more challenging.  I have two friends, both of whom feel a strong call to motherhood. Unfortunately, both are single women.  One of them followed her call, and after a year of prayer and discernment adopted a baby girl from China.  This has been a wonderful experience, but is loaded with the challenges that come with being a single parent. 

The other friend feels strongly that for her, the call is to marriage and motherhood.  She does not feel a particular call to a profession and as you all know, you can’t just make marriage happen.  For her, the last few years have been a real struggle as she has earnestly tried to seek a call, and prayed to be released from this desire to be a mother. In the meantime, she is pursuing a masters degree in a field she thinks she won’t hate, has moved closer to her nephew, and has adopted a dog to nurture.  She invests in friendships, her home and in her church, but the gnawing desire of her call never truly leaves her. 

Many artists and writers also struggle with unsatisfied call, because it is so difficult to support oneself in those fields. 

Unfortunately, I have no easy solution for this problem.  However, I think the icon of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, can be a helpful one for us.  Hannah’s barrenness represents not only the inability to have a child, but also the inability to complete any creative act.  Hannah, who was barren for so many years, did the only thing we can do when we are absolutely stuck and hopeless.  The author of 1 Samuel describes Hannah as “speaking in her heart” when she prayed to God.  She prayed, honestly and passionately.  She wept and pleaded.  Hannah did not suffer in silence, repressing her desires-she began a conversation with God.  Hannah is an icon of hope because her prayers were answered.  She also presents a challenge for us, because once her prayers were answered, she immediately gave Samuel back to God. 

Hannah reminds us that, although a call feels intensely personal, ultimately a call is about lining up our lives with the divine. And, although living one’s call can feel incredibly satisfying, there is always an element of sacrifice when we live the life God intends for us. 

Hannah could not have known the consequences of returning Samuel to the temple, but God would go on to use Samuel as one of the most respected prophets in the history of Israel.  He oversaw the first King of Israel, Saul and was instrumental in recruiting David, after Saul displeased God.  

In pursuing her desire to have a child, Hannah blessed all of Israel.  Just imagine what might happen in this community if we all followed our calls.

Amen.

 


* Farnham, Gill, McLean and Ward, Listening Hearts, Morehouse Publishing:  Harrisburg, PA (1991), p. 7.