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Sermon preached at Christ Church, La Plata & Wayside (in Newburg), MD on January 14, 2018.
2nd Sunday after Epiphany; Year B: 1 Samuel 3:1-20; Ps. 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Cor. 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created; and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

There’s a story about a game warden in a not-too-far-away county who received word that a poacher was shooting deer out of season on his property. The poacher had been up to these shenanigans for some time, but no one had been able to catch him in the act. So, one morning, the game warden decided to sneak up to the man’s property, spy on him, catch him in the act of poaching, and arrest him.

Before dawn, the game warden left his car out by the road, hiked deep into the woods, and quietly made his way into the thick brush just behind the alleged poacher’s cabin. A few minutes went by in the still of that morning before he saw a light come on in the cabin. A few minutes later, the back door opened. The man stepped out into the cold air. He cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted out, “Hey, warden, you want to come in for a hot cup of coffee?” Well, the game warden was dumbfounded. He sat there for a second, but figuring his cover was blown, and seeing there was no sense sitting out there in the cold for the rest of the day, he stood up from his hiding place and said, “Sure. Sounds good.”

The two men went into the cabin and sat down for coffee. After a few moments, the warden looked across the table and said, “I have just one question. How did you know I was out there this morning trying to spy on you?”

The poacher said, “I didn’t, but every morning I open my door and call for you, just in case you might be there.” (PAUSE)

Every morning … every year … every moment … God’s call to follow and to serve comes to us and God awaits a response … just in case we might be listening. We might not hear it. More commonly, we may not recognize it. Even more likely, we may be paying attention to something else, preoccupied with ourselves and our own agendas. But God’s call is nevertheless issued. God’s Word is still sent forth with a persistent urgency and with a gracious frequency that we could never expect.

I wonder how many of us can relate to this story of the call of Samuel. The Word of the Lord, we are told, was rare in those days, but it certainly is persistent – and patient – with young Samuel! Before he has even come to know the LORD or had begun to study God’s Word, like any good temple assistant would, God issues a call not once, not twice, but four times — finally even coming to stand in the room with him — before Samuel rightly discerns how he is being called. And Samuel misinterprets the source of this summons. Instead of responding directly to the LORD, Samuel first runs to his mentor and guardian, Eli, the, blind, aging and — truth be told — ineffective priest, wondering what his master might need. After three of these missed calls, Eli finally figures out that it is the LORD who is calling the boy, and so he gives him the words with which Samuel will respond: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Young Samuel had been left at the temple as a toddler by his mother, Hannah, as a fulfillment of the promise she made to God if God blessed her with a child. She had prayed day and night to conceive, and when she finally did give birth, she named the child Samuel.

I imagine if you were survey the many women and men who are in priestly vocations, who serve as pastors or other rostered leaders serving the church in ministries of Word and Sacrament, you would find that many finally responded to a call after ignoring or misinterpreting it for some time. I know that is true of my own circumstance.

Without going into too much detail, I will tell you that for many years, people I knew and even some I’d only just met would ask me out of the blue if I had a call to Holy Orders. For a long time, I felt my ministry was full enough as a lay person, and I couldn’t see a reason to be ordained. Until my wife’s spiritual director sent her home to me to say I didn’t need an undergraduate degree to go to seminary. That was a longtime defense I had used to defend against the human calls to ordination. With that excuse, a.k.a., obstacle, removed from my path, I became more open to and aware of the Spirit moving through people’s queries as I explored my own sense of call. You might say that they became Elis for me to encourage me to stop to listen for that small, still voice of God … calling me. They also challenged me to say, “Here am I. Speak, for your servant is listening.” I am thankful that God was similarly patient and persistent with me as God was that night with Samuel as he lay in the temple of the LORD.

But this hit-or-miss call-and-response is certainly not limited to pastors and priests. You need look no farther than your own lives and your own paths of discipleship in Jesus’ name to see the same. On the one hand, it may seem that the word of the LORD has been rare, that God’s voice has too often seemed silent or unclear and ambiguous, yet nevertheless you continue to listen and learn and follow. You are here, for example, consistently discovering many ways to respond to God’s call and show forth faithfulness to the Word of God that has found you.

Yes, the grace of God’s call is certainly one of the themes we celebrate as God’s people, as members of the Episcopal Church, and a part of the wider Anglican Communion. God calls all people into God’s service: all ages, all races, all nationalities, all educational levels. This relentless grace is affirmed again and again not only in Scripture (look again at that skeptical Nathanael in our Gospel reading), but also in the lives of all the saints. That’s good for all of us! We are called, despite ourselves!

However, if the only thing we note about God’s call to discipleship and service is its relentlessness, its gracious, repetitive invitation, then I fear we’d better watch out! If the only thing we choose emphasize about Jesus’ summons to hear the Word is its radical insistence and urgency to have us on board, then we’ve got another think coming. In fact, that’s essentially what Jesus tells Nathanael, who is bewildered and a little excited upon his call to ministry once Jesus locates him under the fig tree. ‘You have another think coming, Nathaniel!’ Jesus says as Nathaniel bursts out with his new-found confession of faith. That is, “You will see greater things than these.” And as the gospel plays out, he will. We will too, to be sure. Believe it or not, we will see much greater things than the unique ways in which we are being summoned to service to God’s kingdom.

Because as edifying as it is to find out that God has somehow spoken directly to each of us—in the words of Scripture, in the counsel and prayer of friends or mentors, for example—the point of Jesus’ kingdom is not about us and those unique calls. No matter how wonderful it is to discover that our set of gifts may align with a certain mission or ministry, it is important to remember that we are not the primary emphasis of God’s vision. God’s primary focus and emphasis is Jesus … yes, that one from Nazareth. God does not call us so that we may be the focus of God’s ministry, but so that we may be involved in some way in what God’s Word is doing in the world. God’s call is not only about hearing God’s word and discerning that God has claimed us, but it is also about bearing that word…and bearing God’s Word can be painful and uncomfortable and awkward.

That is precisely what Samuel discovers once he finally responds and reports to the right person that night in the temple. The set of words that Samuel must declare on God’s behalf is not a cheery, bright, pleasing pronouncement. In fact, Samuel must stand up the next morning and pronounce a harsh condemnation on Eli’s entire family. Scripture says that after Samuel heard God’s word, he lay there until morning. I bet he did! I can imagine all kinds of things were racing through his head. I suspect he didn’t get a wink of sleep now that he was faced with the prospect of launching into a call that would begin with such conflict. How was he going to tell his own guardian and mentor — the one who had raised him and that had now directed him to the LORD’s service — that God had told him their days were numbered?

For young Samuel, hearing God’s call and now bearing his word involved speaking truth to power. For him, that power was the corrupt priests in the family of Eli who had cheated and led astray hundreds of people. For some, that power might be the brokers of a financial system that empowers the wealthy and overlooks the needs of the poor. For others, those powers might be or the leaders of a system that discriminates based on race or ethnic group.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” for example, did not just make our ears tingle because of its inspiring rhetoric that motivated the masses. It spoke a profound truth to powers of prejudice and racial privilege in this country that was dangerous for those in authority and hard for some to hear.

But the powers to which the people of God bear the truth don’t need to be so grand-scale. For some, the powers of injustice could be bullies in the work place or a peer group that pressures others into cheating or doing drugs. It could be the influences of a culture that idolizes sexual gratification and profits from the objectification of the body. Here at Christ Church, I hope you find yourselves startled with joy by the vision and energy when your new rector arrives on the scene.

When it comes to hearing God’s word and responding to the call, Dr. King and other servants knew what young Samuel had to learn so quickly that evening as he lay awake: that the call to service is just the beginning. In a sense, get over it and move on. We have another think coming — indeed, the world has another think coming! We have a word to bear to the world, as difficult to share and as out of touch as it may be.

Yet we cannot forget that the One who bids us to follow, the One who sustains us in this perilous journey, is also the one who showed not just with words, but with his very life how to speak truth and compassion and justice to the powers of sin and death and decay. The One who did not let any of Samuel’s words “fall to the ground” is also the one who will lift the Word made flesh so that the whole world will be drawn to him. It is the One who is there in Galilee, strolling along the roads extending the invitation to disciples skeptical and eager alike. It is the One who, in his suffering, opens his arm in forgiveness and love so that we may learn to embrace greater things than selfishness and our own desires. It is the One who there, rising from the tomb, walking right out into a world that is dead and deaf to the possibility of new life and wondrous new beginnings.

And God is here, now, always speaking from that font and from this Altar, speaking in the words of Scripture and the words of selfless friends.

Again, and again, God steps out into the cold morning of the world, cupping hands to God’s mouth, to call us in…
Come, friend, and have a cup of coffee.
Come, most beloved ones, receive this bread and drink from this cup.
Come, see greater things.
Come and see.