Speak, for Your Servant is Listening (Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, 2018)

The audio version of today’s sermon is online here:


The full text of the sermon is below as well. 

A reading from the First Book of Samuel (3:1–20)

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” [Then the Lord said to Samuel, “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.”

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I don’t know if you are familiar with Samuel, before hearing the first lesson for today, this strange story of a boy sleeping at church and hearing the voice of God speak to him. If you read the rest of the book that bears his name, you would know that he becomes the great prophet leader of Israel, the last of the judges we heard so much about at the end of last summer and fall. You’ll discover that God leads him to anoint Saul as the first king over Israel. You’d notice that when Saul’s pride and sin got the best of him, it would be Samuel who came and spoke words of judgment, who took the kingdom from him and anointed David as the new king over Israel.

But before then, before Samuel became a great prophet, before he even slept in the temple with God whispering to him, Samuel was a longing in the heart of his mother, Hannah. For years and years Hannah longed for a child. She went to the temple at Shiloh—the location of the key shrine to Yahweh at that time, and she prayed for God to give her a son. The priest, Eli, was old at this time. His vision wasn’t very good. And, as we read the rest of this story, we’ll learn that his leadership was far from strong. So when he sees Hannah pouring out her heart to God, he assumes that the emotional woman with the fevered whispered words must be drunk. He tells her to go away. Hannah says to Eli that she is not drunk, she was pouring out her soul before the Lord. Eli answered that the Lord would grant her the request.

And, then, nine months later, Samuel was born. When she had prayed for him, she had sworn that if God would give her a son, she would set him before Yahweh as a Nazirite, that is, someone who is entirely devoted to God, who does not drink alcohol nor even cut his hair. Think of the long-haired strong man Samson, if you know his story. He also was a nazirite. Samuel was born, this child she longed for, and Hannah brought him to Shiloh. She gave him back to this foolish priest to be raised in the temple, so he could be close to God.

But things were not much better in the temple while Samuel was growing up there. He was serving under Eli, learning the priestly duties and all, but we are told at the beginning of today’s readings that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Part of that might be because, in the words of this book, “the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests.” When someone was offering a sacrifice, the servants of Eli’s sons would come in and take the best of the meat. Sometime, even before the sacrifice was offered, they would come and take the raw meat for themselves so they could cook it exactly how they wanted. Once more, in the words of this book, “they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.”

Eli’s sons would even sleep with the women who were serving at the temple at Shiloh, a gross and evil misuse of the power of their position as religious leaders for sexual ends… a using of people that defamed the very temple they served. Just as much as in the epistle reading today, that when you use a woman who is in a state of sexual slavery as a prostitute (as is so often the case), there is a cost to the temple you are, the dwelling of God today.

Eli’s sons were not good people.

Eli tried. He tried to get his sons to stop. He told them what they did was evil. But they did not stop. And Eli, for his part, did not ever remove them as priests. He allowed the sin to continue, even if he disapproved of it… he remained silent. This was before the brave and courageous days of #MeToo.

And so a prophet arose, a man of God who came to Eli, who said that Eli’s family would fall from power, that his sons would both die on the same day as a sign that it was God doing this, and that God would raise up a faithful priest in the place of Eli and his family.

And it is after that prophecy of judgment that our own reading for today begins.

So you probably have a sense of why it is that the word of the Lord was rare in those days, why visions were not widespread… because so much of institutional and religious power had become so very corrupt, so very sinful. Eli is so old that he has grown blind—but that is really a physical manifestation of his spiritual blindness, of his willful love for his own sinful sons over the work of God, over the people who came to God and were missed by those sons.

But just because the word of God is rare does not mean that God is not speaking. Remember this, beloved children of God, remember this. Just because you have not hear God speaking for a long time, this does not mean that God is not speaking. It just might mean he’s not currently speaking to you.

I have to wonder, from time to time, with all the hand-wringing that goes on in the church, I have to wonder where God’s voice is today.

We see articles and essays on a regular basis noting the declining levels of participation in institutional religion across the board, the rise of those who may believe in God but don’t find church terribly important or helpful. Even congregations like ours, which have seen so many wonderful things, which has seen a growth in giving over the past eight years, have still seen a persistent decline in weekly Sunday attendance.

If you think about it, if a decade ago people attended church every other week, and now they attend about once a month, those people are still members, but your average Sunday attendance has just been cut in half. When people go from weekly to monthly, it gets cut by 75%. There are metrics and numbers all around, and people worry and worry about whether or not the church as we know it will survive the next generation.

My own guess on that score, by the way? It will not.

The church as we know it will not survive.

Because for far too long the church as we know it, Christianity in Western European civilization has been wedded to power and control, to being important, to being the place people should go to if they want to be respectable. The church has loved that power it has wielded over people. Just listen to an Episcopalian talk about how many presidents, how many Supreme Court justices, have been members of the Episcopal Church and you get a sense of just how attracted our own tradition has been to its self-importance, to its supposed power.

Don’t get me wrong, our church has done some wonderful things over the years. Some members of our church did a pretty great job in the civil rights movement. One of our seminarians, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, became a martyr for civil rights. But let’s be clear, as Episcopalians we were largely playing catch-up to other (black, often) denominations. And let’s be clear that there were plenty of white Episcopalians who weren’t opposed to civil rights, but thought the whole thing should move a bit more slowly, that you shouldn’t upset people.

Sure, we ordained women in the late seventies, but still today, women clergy are still paid far less then male clergy and are less likely to be considered for jobs as rectors of large churches or diocesan bishops.

And, true, we are a church that has made a stance of inclusion toward LGBTQ Christians, but we did that was through the method of power—by ordaining a bishop—not by changing our marriage rites, not be ensuring every LGBTQ Christian held a prayer book which said their relationship was just as valid as a straight marriage. We didn’t do it that way.

And we do talk quite a talk about inclusion and welcome in the Episcopal Church, but as one of my best friends, a chair of a department of philosophy, priest, a canon at a cathedral, a partnered gay man and Republican likes to say, “It’s easier to be a gay man in a room full of Republicans than it is to be a Republican in a room full of Episcopalians.”

We like to insist in the Episcopal Church that we are prophetic, but often we are just liberal people talking to other liberal people who think the same way. And let me be clear—as a liberal Democrat—preaching liberal politics does not make us prophetic. Far too often it is just pandering to what people want to hear. Being prophetic is speaking the word of God in a way that upends the world and people’s lives.

It seems, at times, that though opinions may abound, the Word of the Lord is very rare. Visions are not widespread.

But that doesn’t mean that God is not speaking. It just means that perhaps God is speaking to other people than you and me. We recline in our comfortable churches and small children run in, and tell us that they heard something. Oh that’s cute, we say, and tell them to go back and play. Like Eli, we tell them to go back to sleep.

The house of Eli in this text, make no mistake, the house of Eli will fall. It will fall because God needs a priestly people who will invite God’s children into deep relationship with their creator and each other. And parts of the Episcopal Church may fail… because God needs a priestly people who will invite God’s children into deep relationship with their creator and each other…. and he needs that just as much today as he did in Samuel’s time.

Though it had been a long time since Eli had hear God speak, did you notice that Eli was the one who recognized what was happening to Samuel? And when he did, Eli didn’t rush into the temple to hear the voice of God for himself. Instead, he told Samuel what to do so you can hear God speak to you—even though it had been a very long time since he’d heard that voice, since he’d been open to that voice.

And when Samuel tells Eli what he heard, that God was going to punish Eli’s house, Eli didn’t get angry. He didn’t demand his place be kept secure. He didn’t insist that his parents built and served in this temple, he’d been here a very long time and so he could have his way. No, he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

I do believe God is speaking to Christianity in America. I do believe God is speaking to the Episcopal Church. God is speaking here at St. John’s. It just may be that God is not speaking to the people you and I usually listen to.

But if we can let go of our  need for control, if we can let go of our love for having things our own way… if we can let go of our addiction to being told we are right about our self-righteous indignation that we feel at the last bit of foolishness on the news… if we can let go of all of this, and instead come here, to the house of the Lord and be still and listen… If we can listen… God’s voice will invite us to be something new. God’s voice will invite us to be what the world needs today.

God’s voice will invite you to be what the world needs today.

And sometimes, if we listen, it won’t be God who speaks to us, but it will be the person we least expect who says something that nudges right into our heart. It will be the person we least expect who walks up to us in the church and says, “You know what, I’ve been wondering about something.” It could be a child, it could be one of the teenagers making promises before us today in just a few moments, it could be someone who exists across the political aisle, it could be the person at church who drives us bonkers, it could be someone who comes into our church because they are hungry and then speaks a word of God to us if we will listen… it could even be someone who doesn’t speak English, but who senses a calling and will share that calling with us, if we will listen.

No matter who the person is through whom God is speaking to us, through whom God is speaking to you, it is our job, our responsibility when this happens, to be willing to say—no matter the message God brings, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Amen.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Going Home in Advent (Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, 2017)

A reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah (64:1–9)

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence–

as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil–

to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,

no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.

You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.

But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;

for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In 1943, our country was in what would become the final years of World War II. As many of you know, this was the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming between 50 million and 85 million lives. From 1939 to 1941, Germany conquered or otherwise took over much of Europe and in 1941, Japan quickly conquered most of the western Pacific. The tide of the war turned in 1942 with a series of strategic losses which continued into a full-scale retreat by Axis forces in 1943. There was a sense among Americans that the war truly was winnable, but service members who were deployed didn’t know how much longer it would take. They didn’t know how much longer they would be in harm’s way, how much longer they would be far from home.

It was during this year that Bing Crosby released what went on to become one of his best-known recordings, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” It quickly became the most requested song at USO shows around the world. The longing for home expressed in the song still resonates today with anyone who longs to be home, particularly for the holidays, whether or not the home you long for even exists anymore.

This longing to go home is actually the dominant image behind the reading for today from the Hebrew Bible, from Isaiah 40. Whereas the first half of the book of Isaiah announced judgment upon a people who had allowed sin and injustice to reign in their country, this chapter marks the beginning of the second half of the book. In this second half of the book, the prophet now proclaims God’s comfort to those exiles who have languished for decades in Babylon. The prophet cries out for a highway to be made in the wilderness, for valleys to be lifted and mountains brought low so that the path can be as straight as possible, so that God’s people may return home. “Here is your God,” the prophet exclaims. He says that God will gather the exiles like lambs into his arms and gently carry them back to their home.

And yet, underneath this nostalgic longing for home, there is a profound theological shift happening among God’s people in exile. In Scriptural writings before the exile, the people of Israel are what is known as a “henotheistic” people. That is, they are not true monotheists (believing only in one God), rather, as henotheists they believe that their God, Yahweh, is the God of their own people, their own nation and tribe. As henotheists, they believed that any success they had as a country—in particular, any military success—was because their God was stronger and more powerful than the gods of the nations around them.

The Chaldees Destroy the Brazen Sea, Artist: Tissot, Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York

The exile, however, destroyed the foundations of their henotheism. It appeared that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their people was vanquished by the gods of the Babylonians. And so, in the time of exile, they began reconsidering what it meant to believe in God, how their belief in God related to the destruction of their country, how it related to the nations of the rest of the earth.

First, the prophets begin to understand God’s dominion as truly extending over all the earth. So they insist that God is still present with them, far from home, in the land of their exile. God will bring them home.

But even more, they start believing that their God is not greater than the gods of other nations. Instead, they start to become monotheists, believing that their God truly is the only God… and that this God is the God of all people and all nations.

This is a profound theological shift. And so, in our reading for today, when God’s glory is revealed it is not just for the exiled people of Judah. Instead, the prophet says that all people will see this glory together. And as Isaiah continues in the rest of the book, it becomes clear that it is not just the people of Judah who will be rescued. Instead, the comfort that Isaiah imagines is a comfort that will be for all people and all nations. For Isaiah, it is not just the people of Judah who are going home. Rather, all people will find their home in God.

It’s rather a remarkable idea, as the Jewish people begin even to see their Babylonian oppressors as God’s people. As they see them as a people not to be destroyed, but instead as a people who are also in need of the salvation of God. As the prophetic voice develops during the exile, the people begin to believe that all are welcomed in. They believe that all celebrate together in communion with the one God.

And though most Christians probably don’t know what henotheism is, I think it’s very likely a rampant issue in our congregations and in our lives. I think that we often functionally act as though God is primarily our God. So we think of God as the God of our people, of those who look and think and believe like us.

We must be henotheists, at times. How else could Christians believe in the defeat and destruction of another people? How else could Christians believe that their own interests are what is most important? How else could Christians in America live our comfortable lives without concern for those in other parts of the world who are suffering under oppression and violence? How else could we focus so much on keeping our home safe, leaving those who flee violence and poverty to fend for themselves? How else could we think they are not our job to take care of?

But if we believe our God is the God of all people, then that means every human being who lives in this world is indeed our concern. It means that when there are people in the world who are suffering under oppression and violence, we must remember that they are also created in God’s image, and that God calls us to lift their oppression, to bring peace to their violent lives. If God is the God of all people, we can never advocate for political policies that benefit ourselves at the expense of those who struggle, we can never believe that our own happiness and comfort is what is most important. If we believe God is the God of all people, we can never hope for the defeat and destruction of any people—including our enemies. Rather, we are invited to long with Isaiah for the day when our enemies are also enfolded with us in the love of our God.

One of the dangers with this time of year is the way our Christmas nostalgia, our longing for home and things familiar and beloved, can narrow our understanding of the world. It can sometimes happen that in this season, as we look to family and friends, we begin to assume that they are what is most important. Our vision and concern narrow down to those who are close to us and our nostalgia makes us long for what is past… often forgetting that the comfort that is past was often built at the expense of others.

This is why, in the Season of Advent, we are invited to more than mere nostalgia. Instead, we are invited, quite frankly, to repent.

As the collect for today says, we pray that God will give us grace to heed the warnings of the prophets and to forsake our sins.

We’re reminded of the story of John the Baptist, of his call to the people to come down to the river and make themselves new in the water, to pass through the water once more to become a renewed people of God, to turn from their sins.

The Season of Advent seeks to enlarge our vision, to push us not just to look back at what was comfortable and happy but instead to look forward, to look to Christ’s return at the end of days and, in the words of the epistle reading, to ask whether we truly are people who are living lives of holiness and godliness, people who are striving for peace.

Are you a person of holiness and godliness? Are you striving to be a peacemaker in your life?

It’s interesting, the word at the beginning of this reading, “comfort,” is one we generally think as being about making us feel better, bringing solace and hope to our pain. The English word actually comes from the Latin confortare which means “to strengthen.” And the actual Hebrew word used here, nachmu, comes from the root nacham, which means—at its most primitive level—to sigh or breathe strongly. It is usually used in ways that mean be sorry, to repent, and regret. In the piel form of the word, the form used in this reading, it means to comfort but that deeper meaning still lies behind it. The comfort God brings us in the Season of Advent is one that should make us breathe deeply, turning from our sins, evoking our own compassion for all people.

So breathe deeply, people of God. In this holy season, ask how you need to change your own life, the way you talk and think and act, so that God’s comfort and peace can be enlarged. Repent of the ways you have put your own comfort ahead of others. Run your fingers through the baptismal water and be made new. Come to the altar and receive the body and blood of a Lord who did not just die for you, but one who chose to be broken so all people could come home.

We did this, we the religious. Jesus Christ was broken by the religious who simply didn’t want everyone to have a home.

Be nourished by this broken Christ. Be nourished and changed.

Because everyone should have a home. Amen.

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.