January 17, 2021 The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 17, 2021
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: I Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

From the First Book of Samuel, “Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something’”… I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Well over a year ago, I shared with our Adult Christian Education class some of my learnings that I grasped during my Sabbatical pilgrimage to Assisi. Now, I know we’ve all slept since then. So, let me restate that one of the more poignant learnings was the realization that for every beginning there is always an ending and, in turn, for every ending there is always a beginning. The task for me and my fellow pilgrims was to discern what it is that God desires for me, for us, to let go of, what ending is in sight, and therefore, what new thing might God be calling me, calling us to behold and to embrace.

     Those words came to mind while meditating on this week’s scripture lessons. See, I really thought that today’s sermon would be about Jesus calling the disciples to ministry, about those words, “Come and see” or from first Corinthians where St. Paul, in answer to his many questions to the church, affirms what Christ calls his followers to beand how to live in this world. Those are great sermon topics. But, the more and more I said my prayers, I was drawn to our first reading from First Samuel. And after a while I figured that this sermon would be about answering God’s to ministry; about each of saying, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Again, another great sermon topic. But no, I eventually realized that the Holy Spirit desires to say something deeper and more timely this morning. See, as I crafted this sermon state capitals across the nation were preparing for an onslaught of protests and potentially violent acts of civil unrest in the days leading up to Wednesday’s inaugural events – an event also threatened with violence. I kept asking what is it Lord that you are saying to us in this historical passage about God’s call and how often we don’t recognize it at first? Well, this story is about much more than God’s call.

    History tells us that at the time this story took place, the nation of Israel was at a crossroads: a loose federation of various tribes constantly threatened by the armies of neighboring nations, Israel was at risk because her religious leadership – most notably under the high priest, Eli, was totally corrupt and self-serving, and as a whole, her people were equally as corrupt having forgotten their covenant promises to uphold the dignity of every human being and to be a light to the nations of the world about how to live in a life-giving relationship with God and with neighbor. No, the majority of the people, just like their leaders, focused on their own needs and goals; they forgot their commitment to serve the poor, the ill, the alien, the lonely. No wonder, our reading from Samuel opens saying that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days and visions few” and far between.  

    It is into this setting that Samuel has an incredible experience of God. Now right off the bat, even though the word of the Lord was rare in those days, we need to realize that, nevertheless; God was still present. In fact this entire chapter affirms that God was and is consistently present throughout human history. And in being present, God acts: Samuel hears God call him not once, but three times, and call him by name, “Samuel, Samuel!” Now, let’s be honest, if any of us heard God call our name like that it would be a thrilling experience, a mountaintop experience for us. And yet, as we read a little further into this text, we realize that the reason God has called Samuel, the purpose of that call, is to bring a message to Eli and God’s people that is just as dire as the circumstances Israel faced. Samuel is charged with bringing a harsh message of judgment – a message, we will soon learn, that is necessary if Israel is to ever get back on track; a harsh message that is necessary if there is any hope for a new beginning for God’s people.  

     Sadly, when we read this passage, we either focus on Samuel being called or the judgment of Eli and his household. If that is our focus, we can miss out on the truth that this story is an affirmation that for every beginning there is an ending and for every ending, a beginning. This particular story affirms that God is present in the endings and beginnings of human history, just as it is a story about the endings of Eli’s term as high priest and his family’s legacy. But remember; for every ending there is a beginning. For all its dire and foreboding message, this story affirms a new beginning for the people of Israel: Samuel will become a godly judge and priest of Israel. He will lead the nation back into her covenant promises with God, and the nation will flourish, and eventually, David’s kingdom will be established.

     It is easy to miss the depth of truth in this story. It is not just about an ending, but also a beginning: God has taken the initiative to raise up new prophetic leadership. God is doing a new thing. Something completely unexpected. Our text says that this new thing that God is doing will, “make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”

     So, this story opens with a corrupt and discredited religious leadership in place and closes with new and vigorous leadership. See, this story is more than about Samuel learning to hear God’s call. If that’s all we think this is about, that leads to an assumption that all we need to do is respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” and everything in life will be hunky-dory from then on. Not so. God often calls his people, calls us, to be the channel for God’s prophetic word in our own time. And what is it that prophets throughout scripture have uttered? They have called God’s people, called whole nations, to realize that the path they have been on is wrong and they must change their path or reap the consequences of their corruption.

     So, what is it that this story is telling us today? We are living in a time of social upheaval, a time of families rising up against each other and communities being ripped apart at the seams. As the Rev. Ruby Sales describes it, “We are in the midst of a turbulent tornado that is whipping throughout the nation.” We are at a crossroads as citizens and as people of faith – and each side believes they are right and everyone else not only wrong, but less than human and unworthy of respect.

     Our story from Samuel – in fact all of today’s scripture lessons (including the Psalm!) affirm God’s steady and active hand throughout human history even during seasons of despair and spiritual distress, even days of threatened violence like we find ourselves in today. And yet, just as in Samuel and Eli’s day, just as in that day when Jesus invited his disciples to follow him, just as in that day when St. Paul reminded the Church that salvation is not an ending to itself, but only the beginning of a new way of life, our lessons affirm that for every ending there is always a new beginning. God, who is always present, always initiates new possibilities as the failures of our past and old patterns pass away. New beginnings are always possible if we will pay attention to what it is that God is doing, what it is that God is saying, what it is that God is calling us to embrace.  

     Beloved, our scripture lessons these past few weeks have urged us to seek diligently for Christ and to not only listen for God’s voice, but discern how and why God is calling us and for what purpose in this particular time. Now, the truth is we don’t always recognize the voice of God when we hear it. Our story from Samuel suggests anotherimportant learning: sometimes it takes someone else to point out God’s presence and God’s voice. In other words, we need each other. And we need to humbly admit our need for one another. For that is what makes a community. That is what births wholeness and grace.

     “Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something’”. For every beginning there is an ending. And for every ending, a beginning. Such is the way of God and the way of God’s people. As we continue to listen for God’s voice, to hear and act upon that which God is calling us to do and to be, let us continue to seek diligently for Christ in all things and upon finding him, strive to become just like him. For in so doing, God’s new beginning for our community and nation will begin to unfold, will begin to shine forth in us and through us to the greater glory of God, and for the peace of this nation and the world. Amen.