Sunday, January 15, 2006

Listening for the Call

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Year B: 2 Epiphany
January 15, 2006

1 Samuel 3: 1-10(11-20)
1 Corinthians 6: 11b-20
John 1: 43-51
Psalm 63: 1-8

Listening for the Call

God is calling us, right here, right now. Today’s readings remind us in very powerful ways to listen very carefully for God’s call. The readings remind us that God is calling all of us, right here in the House of Prayer, right here in Newark, right now in January 2006. But, are we listening for God’s call? And if we aren’t, why not?

In the Old Testament reading we see God calling not the old priest Eli, as we might expect, but instead the young boy, Samuel. Samuel at first has trouble recognizing God’s voice, but with a little help from Eli, Samuel is able to hear God’s message. In the reading from John’s Gospel, Nathaniel at first is skeptical about this Jesus character – he sarcastically asks if anything good can come out of Nazareth – a little backwater town, an unimportant place, certainly not the hometown of the messiah! In both cases, at first Samuel and Nathaniel don’t really understand what’s going on – they don’t recognize God’s call. But, in both cases, with a little help from others, they were open to the possibility that God might be calling them. Nathaniel accepts Philip’s invitation to “Come and see.” Nathaniel’s openness allows him to recognize who Jesus of Nazareth really is – “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” Samuel is also open. He follows Eli’s advice and when he hears God’s call the boy says, “Speak for your servant is listening.”

“Speak, for your servant is listening.” That’s the heart of today’s message. God is at work all around us. Right here, right now. God is speaking directly in our hearts and also through the people around us. But with Samuel do we say, “Speak for your servant is listening”?

Last week some of you may have seen the first episode of the new TV show “The Book of Daniel.” I have mixed feelings about the show – and I’m not sure I can or should recommend it – but it’s certainly “must see TV” for someone in the process of becoming an Episcopal priest. (Kathleen, deacons should probably watch it, too!) Anyway, the show is about a suburban priest (with the historic name Daniel Webster) who has more than his fair share of troubles – he’s addicted to vicodin, his wife is an alcoholic, his brother-in-law stole millions from the church, his daughter is selling drugs, his adopted son is involved with a girl in the congregation – who happens to be the daughter of a wealthy and powerful warden, he lost one son to leukemia and struggles to deal with his other son’s homosexuality, his mother has Alzheimer’s, his father is a retired conservative bishop who does not really approve of his son the liberal priest, and his bishop hangs around the church a lot criticizing Father Webster’s preaching. Other than that not much happened in the first episode!

Oh, and one other thing – Father Webster occasionally sees, and has conversations with, Jesus. Some people have criticized the show for using Jesus in this way, but there was one brief scene between them that worked really well. Webster and Jesus are in a car when the priest asks Jesus,
“Am I chosen?’
Jesus says, “No.”
The priest responds, “Well, why do you talk to me?”
“I talk to everyone,” Jesus says.
The priest says, “Few mention it.”
Jesus says, “Few hear me.”

“I talk to everyone. Few hear me.” Even though this is from just a kind of silly TV show, it rings true, doesn’t it? Maybe in your own life there have been special times when you have really sensed God’s presence or in some way heard God’s voice, heard God’s call. But, most of the time – at least for me and maybe for you too – we assume that God has fallen silent, or would have nothing to say to ordinary people like us. And many of us fill our lives with so much busyness and so much noise that we really aren’t open, we really aren’t available, to hearing God’s call.

Now, as you’d probably guess, because I’m in the process of becoming a priest, the bishop and others, including Pastor Judy, have challenged me to pray and think a lot about what God might be saying to me. Over the past couple of years I’ve had to try to open myself up to God’s call. To really listen. And I’ve been asked to share what I have discovered. Now, although sometimes I get a little tired of talking and writing about it – overall it has been an amazing gift to be challenged to pray and listen – to try to discern what God’s call to me might be.

But since this has been a wonderful journey for me, it makes me sad to think that most people never get this chance – are never given the opportunity to really take time and listen for God’s call. This time to pray and reflect is a gift everyone should have. Because God certainly doesn’t just call people like me, God calls all of us – maybe especially the most unlikely of us. Like Nathaniel in today’s gospel, we are all called to be disciples. Our job is to figure out with God’s help how we will live out our lives as disciples. In big and small ways God is always speaking, always nudging us in the right direction. But, like the TV Jesus says “I talk to everyone, but few hear me.”

Maybe one of the reasons we don’t listen is because we assume that God wouldn’t have much to say to ordinary people like us. These past few months I’ve gotten to know this place and I know it’s filled with good and kind people. We go about our lives, doing the best we can. But, we’re not famous – we’re plain folks. We’re ordinary people, right? What in the world would God have to say to us?

Yet the readings from Samuel and John tell us that it is precisely ordinary people like us that God calls out to. The big-shot priest Eli doesn’t hear God at all. Instead it is a boy, Samuel, who receives the message from God. Just a boy! Just a child! What does he know? Yet, he knows enough to open himself to God’s presence and to listen for God’s voice. In the gospel, Nathaniel seems to be just an ordinary person sitting under a fig tree. Although at first he dismisses Jesus, this ordinary person is able to open himself up to Philip’s invitation and to “come and see” the messiah.

And, of course, we have Jesus himself. God chooses to come into the world, to reveal God’s self, in someone born in Nazareth – a sleepy little backwater town. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Yet in this humble carpenter God reveals who God really is - and in Jesus God calls us to be who we really are. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Today, I suppose some would ask – Can anything good come out of Newark? Can anything good come out of Jersey City? If we pay attention to God’s call to us, we know the answer to those questions. God is calling us, right here in this House of Prayer – right here in Newark – right here in the shadow of Route 280. God is calling us right here, right now. Do we say “Speak, for your servant is listening?”

Maybe another reason why we don’t listen is we struggle with prayer, especially when we pray on our own. I love praying with all of you, especially in the Circle of Prayer. But on my own it can be a challenge. Lots of times, when I try to pray I get distracted thinking about all the things I need to get done. I get distracted by the TV or checking my email for the tenth time that day. And I get frustrated when prayer doesn’t feel productive – when I don’t hear God’s call. It feels like I’m wasting precious time.

That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the spirituality group we’ll be starting in a couple of weeks. I’m hoping on Sundays before church we can take some time to pray together – to try different types of prayer and to share with each other how we hear God’s call to us. I’m looking forward to setting aside this special time together to pray, reflect and share. I’m looking forward to hearing God speak through everyone in the group. You’ll be hearing more about this. Everyone’s welcome and I hope you’ll join us.

When we forget that God is calling us right here, right now, or when we get frustrated as we struggle to pray, fortunately the Church gives us the examples of lots of role models, saints, who overcame their own challenges through prayer. Tomorrow the entire nation pauses to remember one of those saints – Martin Luther King, Jr. Nearly forty years after his assassination, I suppose Dr. King is most remembered for his non-violent civil rights actions – especially the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. He’s remembered for his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the “I Have a Dream Speech.” But, unfortunately, I don’t think he is much remembered as the man of prayer that he really was. It’s forgotten or overlooked that the Gospel and prayer was the foundation of Dr. King’s life and actions. One of the best biographies of Dr. King devotes only half a page to his prayer life and never even mentions God. And this book is over a thousand pages long! But, like Samuel and Nathaniel, Martin Luther King faithfully opened himself up to God’s call – and it was his sense of God’s presence that supported him through his work – that made his work more than just a dream.

During the Montgomery boycott, Dr. King and his family received numerous death threats. After one frightening late night telephone threat, Dr. King got up and nervously heated up a pot of coffee. He put his head in his hands, bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud, “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers, I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment, Martin King felt the presence of God like he never had before. He remembered that it seemed like a voice said to him, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.”

His fear left him and Dr. King carried on his work, assured to the end of God’s presence and support. God doesn’t promise that there won’t be suffering – but God does promise God’s presence through it all. Like Samuel and Nathaniel, Dr. King listened for God’s call. And in the unlikely place of Montgomery, Alabama, he heard God and felt God’s presence. As we start a new year and as we remember Dr. King – and Samuel and Nathaniel - let’s open our hearts and ears to God. Right here in Newark. Right here in this House of Prayer. Like Samuel, let’s say to God, “Speak for your servant is listening.”