A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on January 15, 2012
Christ Church Andover
January 15, 2012
Epiphany 2, Year B
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be always acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.
Speak, for your servant is listening.
On the first morning of camp every week up at the Barbara C. Harris Camp (which is our diocesan camp in Greenfield, New Hampshire), when gathered for worship after breakfast, I would offer the ‘first day of camp’ homily. I would preach on welcoming each other, getting to know new people—but my favorite topic that day would become Barbara C. Harris herself. Bishop Harris was consecrated a bishop in the Diocese of Massachusetts in 1989. She was not only the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the entire Anglican Communion, but in the heart of the race tensions in Boston and across the United States, she was also the first African American woman to be bishop.
And she wasn’t typical bishop material. She had not gone to one of the traditional seminaries in the Episcopal Church; she was ordained later in life than most priests of that time; she was outspoken and employed a searing wit which could make others around her nervous; she was black; she was decidedly liberal; she was divorced. At the time that she was consecrated bishop, none of these attributes recommended her for the job. In fact, all of these things would have, for all intents and purposes, denied her entrance into the life of the church. At her consecration, death threats were made against her, and it was suggested that she wear a bullet proof vest underneath her vestments (she did not). Several of the vested members of the processional were policemen, and she was told directly by priests and laity alike that her consecration would bring ruin on the church.
Bishop Harris has since said that she never set out to be a bishop. But, she continued, it seemed that that was where God needed her most. She had been called. How could she say no?
A life lived in the Holy Spirit, one given over to God and offered freely to be led and brought into the places where God’s word and work is sorely needed, is never an easy one. It depends on two things, both of which we are often reluctant to offer. First, it depends on us listening for God’s call to us—our slowing down and willingness to discern the still, small voice of God among all the other voices which clamber for our attention. It is in the words of the boy Samuel in the House of the Lord saying quietly in the dark, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ It means that finding God’s voice as opposed to the voices of our ego or prevailing cultural norms is a spiritual practice in itself, one which even the prophet Eli was having trouble engaging in. Second, it depends on us heeding that voice. Of relinquishing control, and offering up ourselves, our souls and bodies as a means of restoring God’s grace to a broken, hurting world. Which really means, we are sent to bring tough love to those who least want to hear it.
As part of our Sunday readings over the past few weeks, we have heard over and over again how God has called various people to take the reins in God’s mission. We have watched as Anna and Mary said yes to angels telling them that their lives were no longer their own—that they were not only messengers, but the very vessels in which would contain God and God’s prophets. We hear of the simple manger, the shepherds and wandering magi putting all on the line to offer reverence to God among us. God’s mission, we keep seeing (if not realizing) has been put in the hands of one weak and marginalized person after another. None of the characters in scripture believed that they were a likely candidate for an encounter with the Holy One. Not one of them saw themselves as a potential harbinger of the Good News—and my gut says that they were probably happy to be that way. It was easier; it was safer. While we talk about the love of God in gentle tones, the reality for all people we meet in scripture, including all those we read about today—was quite different. God did not come gently. God arrived unexpectedly. God arrived to the least likely able to take on, or wish to take on, entering into God’s work. It was to the child, Samuel; to the mocker, Nathanael. Never was there a typical encounter between God and a human.
While we are happy to read these stories in the Bible of our strong forefathers and mothers, who so bravely said ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’, how often do we say those words in our quiet prayers ourselves? If we truly believe that God still works through us and within us, then we too are to be open to being used by God, to listen to what God is calling us to do, being sent to where God needs us most. Not just the ‘better’ people in the room. Not the very-religious, or the radicals or the hippies or the folks who have most time on their hands. Us. Each one of us. Each one of our imperfect, fallible selves will be called by God. The way it will happen will differ—the way our lives will be changed will not look the same as the person sitting next to you. The call may come as a shock or gradual realization, but it will become clearer over time, or by the wise counsel of a friend they will be able to see it for you, as Eli did for Samuel— that it is the call of God.
I think of Samuel, lying by himself in the large, dark temple, hearing his name being called by God. Such intimacy! Such terror! I think of him running to Eli, offering his services to the elderly priest, only to be told that he was in error. Then hearing that call again, and it being denied again. And the final call, and suddenly the realization that it did not come from a human; it was not coming from a rational, carefully planned, goal-oriented person—it was coming from God. Someone with sense might not have answered back, but Samuel’s faith—in God or in Eli, it doesn’t matter—let him say those fateful words: Speak for your servant is listening.
When we listen to God, discern that call, it takes away all sense of control that we pretend to have. It is the most visceral reminder that we are, just as Paul writes to the Corinthians, God’s own. We are God’s, and being God’s, are freed to live in a way which can reflect that love, that relationship. It means that our morals stem not just from wanting to do good, but being harbingers of radical love in the world; dispellers of fear and shame; that we can name the evils and sins of the world around us in an attempt to, at the very least, err on the side of mercy and justice. It means, that our lives are not just to be used for ourselves—they are to be used wholly to reflect the loving God we worship here today.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day tomorrow, I looked up his mountaintop sermon from the night before he was assassinated. He says this on April 3, 1968: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.” King not only cites Moses—yet another imperfect human who listened to God’s call and was transformed—but seems to be keenly aware of the freedom which God’s call allows us. “I just want to do God’s will.” Speak, for your servant is listening. How many of our modern day prophets have heard that voice calling in the night; have discerned that it was not coming from themselves, but from God; and who have said in response to that both intimate and terrifying call as Samuel did, “Here I am”? Even more, how many of us have done that?
In this season of Epiphany, we read and pray about God continually revealing Godself to us in all sorts of ways—God’s adoption of us through baptism last week, and now God’s calling of us today. Just as Jesus knew Nathanael before they had even spoken, God knows us and calls us anyways—warts and hesitancy and all. Our response can only be to listen quietly, and then when that call comes, to offer what is most precious to us, but ultimately not ours—our lives and our hearts. Only when we put it all on the line will we begin to know what true freedom is. We look to the saints and those who have gone before to see how they have responded to God’s call to work through us—but to believe that that only happened ‘back then’ or to others is to limit God’s power. Who are we to say that we are not Samuels? That we cannot find the courage of Barbara Harris to break boundaries no one had dared to touch? That at some point, we may have to stand on the side of right, rather than easy, as Dr. King did. We started those journeys last week in our baptism—we said yes to God then. May we continue to say yes to God when we are called in the night, brought out of any safety zone and drenched in a life which continually looks to God as its source.
Glory to God, who working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).