Monday, January 16, 2012

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

It’s a day I’ll never forget.

It was an October afternoon back in 2005, and I was sitting in my office at Church of the Incarnation in West Point, MS. The phone rang, and when I answered the voice on the other end said, “Hi Bryan. This is David Luckett.” Now, for those of you don’t know, David was the interim dean of this Cathedral at that time, and he was someone I knew had had a rich history of ministry in this diocese, a priest whose experience and character command respect. But I didn’t really know David, so I had no idea what in the world he was doing calling me. With a bit of cautiousness in my voice, I responded, “Oh, hi David. What’s going on?” To which he replied very succinctly and directly: “We’re looking for a canon priest for the Cathedral. When can you be here?

With just a handful of words from a man I hardly knew, my life was turned upside down. In an instant, everything changed. And looking back at that time and at the years since, I can honestly say that David’s phone call that day was more than just a phone call. It was a call from God to serve as a priest in a new place. And while that call initially scared the dickens out of me, I am so grateful that I said “yes” in response.

Wouldn’t it be great if God’s call to us was as clear and distinct as a phone call? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could always know with reasonable assurance, if not 100% certainty, exactly what God wants us to do with our time and talents at any given moment in our lives?

I’ll bet that most of the time, we don’t hear God’s voice the way I did in that phone call from David Luckett. Or take this morning’s Old Testament reading, in which the young boy Samuel very clearly hears the voice of God, but even then he has no idea that it’s actually God reaching out to him. In an almost comical scene, he keeps waking up Eli, mistakenly thinking that it’s the old priest summoning him. And even Eli is slow on the draw. It takes three times before it finally dawns on Eli that it’s actually God speaking to the boy. Only then can Eli provide guidance for Samuel, instructing the boy to open himself to God with words that could serve as a prayer: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9).

There are several things about this story that we do well to note as we seek to hear God’s word in our lives. For starters, it’s no accident that Samuel hears God speaking when it’s late at night and the day is done. God rarely shouts at us. Instead, God’s is often a still, small voice in the midst of a world filled with noise, chaos, and confusion. So, in the words of an old prayer, it’s when “the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over” that we can most clearly discern God speaking in our hearts, inviting us to seek His face.

This has tremendous practical implications for we who live in the age of continuous and instant Internet and smart phone access. It’s perhaps no understatement to say that many of us are addicted to text messaging, web surfing, and Facebook status updating. And I say that as someone who loves to check out what all of y’all are up to on Facebook. I am watching you!

The technology is not bad or evil, but if we’re not careful it can distract and insulate us from the things of the Spirit. If we want to cultivate a deeper sense of God’s presence in our lives – if we yearn to have a clearer sense of just what God wants with us – we simply have to make time and space for it. It doesn’t happen all by itself. We have to turn off the TV’s, the computers, the phones, and the iPods, entering into stillness and silence, opening our hearts and minds to God.

“Be still, and know that I am God” we read in the Psalms. It’s not easy to be still. It’s hard work to enter into silence. It may push some of us beyond our comfort zones, and that can be scary. But that’s the place to begin. And over time, we may just discover that our discomfort with silence and stillness gives way to a deepening sense of peace, security, and God’s abiding presence.

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

What if, in the silence of our hearts, we hear something in response to that petition? How do we know it’s really God’s voice and not just our own desires and aspirations that we’re hearing?

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). That’s good counsel from the first epistle of John. For the truth is that we are not our own best guides.

Is what we think we’re hearing from God consistent with Holy Scripture, God’s Word Written? Is it consistent with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, God’s Word Incarnate? Answering those two questions is critically important! But even then we can deceive ourselves into believing we’ve heard God’s voice when we really haven’t. We can be masters of self-deception.

And so, like Samuel, we need someone like Eli to help keep us on track when it comes to discerning whether or not we’re really hearing God’s Word. A spiritual director, a clergy person, or just a good friend – someone we can trust, someone we can confide in, and someone who is not only compassionate but also willing to offer honest feedback and to hold us accountable – we need such people in our lives. Sometimes they can see things we can’t. And sometimes they can hear the still, small voice of God when we’re listening to some other voice.

Of course, we can never rule out the possibility that – like a life-changing phone call on an otherwise ordinary afternoon – God’s call can come out of the blue at an unexpected time and in an unexpected way. The God revealed to us in Holy Scripture is a God of surprises. God has a way of catching us off guard, coaxing or at times even pushing us into places and among people we’d never expect. If we find ourselves in such a place and it scares the dickens out of us – well, it could be God telling us something. But even then, we do well to test the spirits.

The bottom line is there’s no fool-proof way to insure that we’ve really heard God’s voice or that what we think we know of God’s will is, in fact, God’s will. As finite and fallible beings, we cannot claim absolute certainty. Thomas Merton put it well: “ … the fact that I think I am following [God’s] will does not mean that I am actually doing so.” But Merton is also right to add: “But I believe that the desire to please [God] does in fact please [God].” And the words we sang in today’s Sequence Hymn remain true: “Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea, day by day his clear voice soundeth, saying, ‘Christian, follow me.’”

By bracketing out the noise of our busy lives, entering into stillness and silence, testing the spirits, and remaining open to surprises, our task is to listen so that we can really hear the clear voice of Jesus calling us. For in our Baptisms, our Lord claims our lives and our loyalties for Kingdom work. Whether as lay or as ordained persons, each of us has a unique calling and a special place in that work. May God give us the grace to hear that call that we may give our hearts completely in service to the One who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

1 comment:

Apis Melliflora said...

Our youth did a sermon on this very topic a few years back. It is a message that warrants revisiting regularly: how to be still & listen.