Thursday, January 26, 2012

Samuel, MLK and the Power to Listen: Epiphany 2 Year B

A long, long time ago in a land far, far away, there lived a woman, Hannah.  Hannah was barren, unable to have children.  As if this wasn't enough, her barrenness only brought her shame, making her an outcast in her community.  

She had learned, as a small child, that the safest place to go in your suffering was the Temple.  She knew that when you turned to YHWH for help, YHWH would show the way.  She knew that if she was faithful to YHWH, YHWH would be faithful to her.  So, she went to the Temple to pray.  Her prayer is animated and passionate,
"O LORD, if you will look favorably on your servant and grant me a male child, then I will return him to you."  
Her prayer is so intense that the priest of the Temple, Eli, believes Hannah is drunk. She is not drunk.  She is desperate and in her desperation she makes this promise: if YHWH will grant her a son, she will return him in service to the LORD.

YHWH hears Hannah’s prayer and responds.  Hannah bears a son, Samuel.  And, as she promised, she brings him to the temple.  There she finds Eli, the same priest who witnessed her prayer.  Eli becomes the guardian of Samuel, raising him and teaching him the ways of the Temple. 
Now, Eli has two sons, inheritors of his ministry at the Temple.  These two sons, are corrupt, stealing the sacrifices of the penitent.  They are corrupting the Temple, the house of worship and residence of YWHW; they are laughing in the face of God.  Eli tries to intercede.  His sons, though, do not listen.  Meanwhile, Eli grows old and weak, perhaps even in character and faith. 

The word of the LORD, YWHW, seems very far away. 

Have you ever had one of these moments, one of those times when we long for God’s voice to speak?  Sometimes it is in the midst of our deepest grief and loneliness.  Other times we are trying to find our way, looking for the next step or path in life.  Always, we yearn to know we are not alone and that someone will help us find our way.

This is why this story in First Samuel still matters.  It begins with one woman, desperate for God’s intervention.  Slowly, we witness a whole community who no longer hear or see God in their world. This story confirms our faith: God will break the silence; God will speak. 

And so, on an ordinary night, Samuel awakens to a voice calling his name.  It takes three times before Eli realizes what is going on.  We know what happens next for Samuel: the LORD speaks.  

When Samuel says to YHWH, “Speak, for your servant is listening,” what does he expect?  Does he imagine that he will become a great prophet and priest?  Does he hope to hear a vision for the future of Israel? Does he receive a vision he would have imagined?

God tells Samuel that he will destroy Eli for the wickedness of his sons. I can imagine that this is not pleasant for Samuel. Eli is his mentor and guardian; Samuel serves him faithfully.  God asks Samuel to bear a vision that denies and denounces the sacrilege of the temple under Eli’s priesthood. Samuel must decide: faithfulness to God’s message or protecting Eli. One thing is clear, when God speaks to Samuel, Samuel must choose which way to follow: his way or God’ way. 
Thankfully, Eli makes the choice easy: he insists on hearing YHWH’s message. This is a revelation, despite his weakness, of Eli’s faith.  Eli accepts the Word of God and affirms Samuel’s call as a bearer of God’s wisdom. 

This call, to bear God’s wisdom, begins with this story. It follows Samuel the rest of his life. Samuel inherits Eli’s priesthood; only, he becomes greater than Eli. We remember Samuel because he anoints the first two kings of Israel.  He also becomes a vehicle for the Word of God. He travels the land calling Israel to repentance and faithfulness to YHWH.  He offers God’s reconciliation and justice to God’s people. From this moment forward, Samuel becomes a great prophet for his people. 

Not so long ago, in a land very close by, there lived a young man.  This young man witnessed the oppression of his people.  He saw the abuse of the authorities.  And, one day, he accepted the call to demand a different way of life.

I will confess that I do not know how it happened or why. This is what I know: Martin Luther King, Jr. was a lead voice in the Civil Rights movement.  I know that his faith was a primary motivator.  I know that a desire for justice and equality gave him passion to work on behalf of others.  I know that he sought to reconcile us to one another and to God.   I can imagine that he had nights where he yearned for God’s voice, a vision from YHWH. I can imagine that when he heard God’s Word in his life, it was a challenge: a challenge to dive deeper into God’s desire, God’s way of justice and reconciliation. 
I bring our attention to MLK today for two primary reasons.  Tomorrow is the day we remember the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a life worth remembering.  The life of MLK reminds us of our own baptismal covenant: the promise to strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being. And together, the story of Samuel and MLK offer us some reminders about our life of faith and discipleship.
Hannah knows her deep desire is to be a mother.  She answers this desire by offering it back to God, by giving it up. It could not have been easy leaving Samuel with Eli, especially knowing the reputation of his sons. Yet, God's call to be a mother meant a different path, a different way.

Eli is a priest of YHWH.  He was a man of deep faith.  Surely he never imagined that his own sons would betray this faith.  Despite this reality, he still seeks the ways and wisdom of God.  It could not have been easy to hear those words of YHWH.  And still, because Eli is faithful, his path is a different way than what he imagined or expected. 
Samuel is a boy, faithful to Eli and the Temple.  He may be seeking God's way in his life; and, he might have imagined that God would call him as the great priest of Israel.  After hearing the word of the LORD, he sits up all night seeking to understand God's word, God's way. It could not have been easy and it was a different path, a different  way, than he imagined.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is an African-American boy growing up in white-ruled Alabama. Surely, he yearned for a different way, a different life. He must’ve imagined that there was a leader who would show the way. It could not have been easy to realize he was that leader, the one to lead the way.

These stories remind us that God’s call in our lives, God’s vision is radically different from our own.  They remind us that God’s motivation is faithfulness and justice.  If we ask to hear God’s voice in our lives, then we must be ready to give up our own lives, our way.   If we seek to follow God’s way, then we will find ourselves following a different way. This way bears God’s wisdom in the world offering reconciliation, justice and faith that God still speaks. 

May God make us ready to listen.

God Still Speaks: The Baptism of Our Lord

On Monday evening, I stopped by a friends’ house to chat on my way home. As you know, there had been a few snow flurries throughout the day, but nothing to get excited about.  I stood to leave and looked out the window: snow covered the streets. It was spectacular: impressive because it happened so quickly; astonishing because it was so unexpected; magnificent because of its sheer beauty. As I drove home, I felt overwhelmed by joy and awe. And once I was home, I stood at the window and watched as the snow covered the earth.

The next morning came very early. Tuesday was the first day back to school for our children and none of us
was ready. I am not a morning person. Neither is our daughter. School mornings are always a shock, especially the first morning after a week and a half of sleeping in.  Needless to say, I was not very awake as we left the house.  As we walked to the car, I heard, “Wow.  Mama, look at the sky.” It was absolutely gorgeous. The sky was awesome: red, pink and orange ripples of clouds and sunlight: the perfect way to wake up and prepare for the day.

Friday night we celebrated the Epiphany. A group of us gathered for Eucharist and dinner. I directed the service primarily towards the children, stopping to explain what we were doing and why.  You can imagine
that there was a lot of activity: children standing on pews and lots of talking. We came to the moment
of the prayers.  I asked everyone to hold hands, think of their prayers, and then for quiet.  Slowly, a few folks named their prayer; otherwise, it was quiet. And it was striking.  The energy emanating from the
children became fully directed in prayer: the presence of God was palpable.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light…”  
These words are stunning. To imagine that simply by the voice of God light came into being, shattering the
darkness. Can you imagine? 

They invite us to consider the very act of creation.  For some, this is the description of how it all really happened.  For others, it is a false myth created to explain what is beyond our knowing.  For others, the
truth is somewhere in the middle, a combination of Genesis and the Big Bang Theory. Whichever it may be, this image, God’s voice calling creation into being is the cornerstone of our faith.  

The story of creation is the basis of our belief in God.  This first act, separating light from dark, day from night, establishes order, time and history.  It declares God’s dominion over time and history. The story of creation is the first revelation of our dependence on and our bond with God.

Mark’s Gospel does not begin with stories of Jesus’ birth. There are no angelic visits, no shepherds, no kings.  Instead, Mark begins with John the Baptist. 

Now, this is the second time we’ve heard this story in about a month.  During the season of Advent, the story sets the stage for Jesus’ arrival and ends just before the baptism.  Today, though, the story continues. 
Jesus arrives at the River Jordan to be baptized by John,
“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”   
The image is stunning: Jesus rises from the water, the heavens tear open, the Spirit descends and God speaks. 

Who needs angels, shepherds and kings when you have God’s own voice claiming Jesus as the beloved?  This revelation, Jesus is God’s Son, is the point of the story. Some theological scholars argue over the actual baptism, wondering why Jesus needed baptism.  This, though, is not the question Mark seeks to answer.  This moment in scripture is one of the few revelations of God’s whole self at once: God, Son and Spirit all present. Mark uses Jesus’ baptism to fully establish who Jesus is: Jesus is One with God, Jesus is God’s Son. 

Jesus’ divinity is one-half of our belief in Christ; the other half is his humanity.  Together, Jesus’ humanity and divinity make our dependence on and bond with God real.   All the stories of Advent and Christmas establish that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son.  Epiphany is the revelation of Christ to the world beginning with the visit of the three kings.  

This season of the Church Year is seven weeks, making it one of the longest, and is part of Ordinary Time.  The length and quality of the season is important. Seven weeks is just long enough to make us complacent,
forgetful.  It is just long enough to make Jesus’ divinity seem normal, ordinary.  We might hear these stories and not even blink an eye, thinking, “Oh yeah.  I know this one. It’s about that leper Jesus healed.” Yet each story, each moment, is stunning.  This is God wearing our skin, walking in our midst, bearing God’s kingdom into the world. 

The psalmist sings 
“The voice of the LORD is a powerful voice; the voice of the LORD is a voice of splendor…The voice of the LORD splits the flames of fire; the voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness…” 
The common thread in our scriptures today is the voice of God. The voice of God calls creation into being and declares it good.  The voice of God thunders across creation causing creation to stand in awe and worship.  The voice of God declares Jesus the Son of God.  For centuries, the people of God have stood in awe. We might ask ourselves today: does God still speak? 

When do we hear the voice of God in our world and our lives?  From creation, to Jesus’ Baptism, to the
rising sun, and the energy of children, God continues to speak.  The Psalm reminds us that we witness the voice of God in creation. Epiphany is the season to notice, to witness God’s voice manifested in our world and our lives.  For indeed, God is still awesome; God still speaks.

The Messiah Comes: Christmas 2011

Merry Christmas! 

What a joyful night: a night to be here together and share the story of Christ’s birth! It is a story we all know well: a young woman and a long journey; a baby born in a stable and his strange visitors. Tonight we come together to tell the story once more and celebrate how it changes us and our world.  Can you imagine? 

Joseph and Mary have already faced many challenges: an unexpected pregnancy overshadowing their engagement. Now, at the whim of the Emperor, they must travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem: a long journey crossing over rugged terrain. Surely Joseph stressed over money and details: where to stay, how to travel and, of course, Mary and the baby. And Mary’s frustration as she packed food and necessities for the long journey: (throwing her hands in the air, looking to heaven) “why now?!?” Imagine their worries and frustrations?  How did they keep faithful hearts amidst the obstacles and complications? Can you imagine?

The city of Bethlehem with its noisy crowds, the stench of animals, and littered streets; generations of family gathered together, perhaps some for the first time.  Imagine the look on the innkeeper’s face as he listens to Joseph’s story?  Surely there were others who had come in the same way: pregnant wife, little money to pay and, perhaps, more children.  What kindness led them to the stable (more like a cave) where animals were kept? As Mary’s labor progresses who was there to help?  Was Mary alone as Joseph went in search of a midwife? Had he prepared for this added expense?  What kindness led them to the midwife who would deliver THIS child? Imagine the chaos, the smell of animals and the feel of damp, cold walls. Imagine the joy as they heard the first cry, kissed his soft cheek and cradled him in their arms: the Emperor’s decree and crowded Bethlehem forgotten for one blessed moment. 

Imagine.  The stars shine bright, the fire crackles and the shepherds talk quietly of the Emperor’s decree. Did they deliberately ignore the demand to be registered?  Were they on their way to another city?  Or, perhaps, the decree was not intended for them: wandering shepherds and their witless sheep. Nonetheless, they are unhindered by the hustle and bustle of the city. They sit around the fire lost in their own world. This same sky breaks open revealing the glory of the Lord: interrupting and disrupting the serenity of the shepherds. Surely they imagined the threat of jackals. This, though, was unlike anything they expected or could imagine. Imagine the chaos: sheep and shepherds running amuck. Into this racket, the angel speaks: 
“Do not be afraid; for see— I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord…” 
And as the angels gather around them, the shepherds, awestruck and enraptured, are sent out: on their own journey. No longer unnoticed, they too travel to Bethlehem to visit this new born child. 

Did they bring their sheep with them? Were they surprised to find Mary, Joseph and Jesus just as the angel told them? How did Mary and Joseph welcome these smelly shepherds.  And as the shepherds story unfolds, how did everyone’s heart change? Imagine the joy of the shepherds as the reality sunk in. The words of the angels confirmed. God’s ancient promises fulfilled. 

Amidst Emperor’s decrees, crowded streets and ordinary work, the Messiah has come. Imagine. The Messiah has come. Tonight God disrupts and interrupts our world. The angel comes to us and says:
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord…” 
We have heard the news and we have come to see him: lying in a manger, just as we have been told. God has come to live among us, to visit our lives and guide us on our way. Our world has broken open and revealed the glory of the Lord. Amidst our worries and frustrations, the Messiah comes. Amidst the crowded streets and noisy crowds, the Messiah comes. Amidst the unnoticed and forgotten, the Messiah comes. 

May our hearts swell with joy; our voices sing with the Angels and tell the story: the Messiah comes.

It's been awhile...

I know...I know...It's been awhile...I've missed this spot; I've missed writing and posting: I've missed sharing my thoughts and ideas.  Funny thing.  I have been writing.  Over the next few days, I'll post some sermons.  I've also written a few posts - in my head.  It's probably time to get some of these on "paper."  All of this is to say...thank you for reading, for coming back and please keep coming back: I promise there will be new stuff in this space soon...

Peace be with you,