A sermon in 6 words (much to everyone’s relief!)
Sermon for All Saints, Coddington, Sunday, 18th January 2015, Epiphany 2
I Samuel 3:1-10, Revelation 5:1-10
transform – poverty – riches renewal – make known – glory
Those six words come, of course, from the collect for today. I think they make an excellent summary not only of what God does for us but of what we can do to bring about God’s kingdom on earth today. I’d like to explore them in relation to the very familiar reading that we have heard about the call of Samuel.
The situation in the world today all too often calls out negative responses, particularly if you’ve lived a reasonable length of time: “I don’t know what the world is coming to” we say, or something along those lines. We have witnessed in recent days yet more terrorist attacks, a huge reaction and debate on the meaning of ‘free speech’, and even mysterious bomb-disposal activities in a supposedly quiet and peaceful Colwall. Underlying this, we are all aware of the continuing violence ravaging so many parts of the world – conflicts that go on and on without resolution – neighbours inflicting relentless persecution on those they resent for one reason or other – together with natural disasters that are often ignored once they have fallen out of the headlines and the terrible effect of disease, such as the spread of Ebola in Africa. A dark world, it can seem. I wonder how many deeds of goodness, kindness, nobility, forgiveness and self-sacrifice have gone unnoticed this week? And why is it that when our Archbishops suggest that we should be pursuing such virtues as a society, they are lambasted in the press as ‘naïve’ and ‘hypocritical’?
The world into which Samuel was born was a dark world too. A world in which people were ignoring God and pursuing their own selfish agenda for their own gain. In this instance, the darkness is focused on the behaviour of Eli’s family and, if we read around the passage we heard, we find two most terrible passages outlining God’s reaction to this behaviour, resulting in the total destruction of Eli’s family. It is clear that God regards the actions of individuals, in families and as neighbours, as crucial to the furtherance of his kingdom. The light or darkness of the nation is created by the personal behaviour of the individuals in it. By perverting the worship of God and the sacrifices to him, Eli’s sons have a guilt that it says later in this chapter ‘can ever be atoned for by any sacrifice or offering.’ Eli will lose everything and this is the first and terrible message that Samuel must deliver as a result of recognising God’s call to him. The context of our reading therefore challenges us to look at our own society and the roots of the ills about which we complain. That is certainly what the Archbishops are doing when ‘they argue that society has been “dominated” by “rampant consumerism and individualism” since the Thatcher era, while the Christian values of solidarity and selflessness have been supplanted by a new secular creed of “every person for themselves.”
Right at the beginning of the reading there are three pointers to the nature of such darkness in our human family. The very first thing that the story tells us is that “the word of the Lord was precious in those days, for there was no open vision.” Both of these phrases do not occur anywhere else in the entire Hebrew Bible. In biblical Hebrew, the descriptor of “rare/precious” is typically reserved for an item like jewellery, the idea of something extremely valuable due to pure lack of supply. (Roger Nam). Elsewhere in the bible it says “without vision, the people perish”. How many of our ills today are a result of lack of vision, lack of willingness to expect and seek direct contact with God himself? Not only is the idea of God widely derided as ‘imagination’, but even amongst those who do believe, and particularly in the church, there is often a reluctance to be open to such direct vision. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in our time, it is said, and we worship the intellectual solutions reached by our own reasoning, rather than expecting God to do anything real in our lives. But this passage makes it quite clear that God can and will intervene directly in individual lives, calling and shaping them to do his will. What happens when this attitude of dismissal and disbelief is prevalent is shown by the fact that Eli’s physical vision is ‘waxing dim’ alongside his lack of spiritual vision. This is reinforced by the fact that the call of God comes to Samuel just before ‘the lamp of God went out in the temple of the Lord.’ The lamp may have been going out because it was the end of the night, somewhere just before dawn, but it is also a potent symbol of the need of those who know God to keep that lamp alight. We and all Christians have that duty to perform today so that the poverty of our darkness may be transformed to the richness of God’s light.
For transformation is what God’s love is all about. There is nothing that God cannot transform. In this story, Samuel – an ignorant youth – is transformed when he listens to God’s call and becomes the instrument of renewal for his country. God does not wait for Samuel to become mature and full of intellectual reasoning before giving him a task to perform. God takes Samuel as he is at the time and transforms him into a prophet with a calling. Too often we fail to recognise – despite numerous examples in the bible – that God calls us and uses us now, in our imperfection, not when we are worthy to serve him. I wonder how many potential servants of God there are out there, still waiting to become worthy enough, instead of getting on with their calling? Perhaps if, like Samuel, we could all get the message at least at the third hearing, then the world would be transformed into God’s kingdom much more quickly. For we all have the potential to be renewed by God, and so to make known his glory in the world, a glory of peace and justice and love for which that world of darkness longs. And it is no good saying that we’re too old for this kind of transformation either! See how in this story, even though Eli has failed so significantly in his calling to lead his family and his religion, God is able to transform and use him in his old age; for, without him, Samuel would not have known that it was God who was speaking to him.
So, like Samuel and Eli, we have to say ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ Prophets, great and small, old and young, are needed today and this is what Archbishop Setenamu has been saying. “Like the Old Testament prophets, I suggest, it is essential for religion to speak truth to power,” he writes. That is not an easy calling, but it is, I believe, an essential one. And it is nowhere more important than in our witness to the young. Young people are seeking something and they will so often turn to the most persuasive and forceful witness before them. If we want to stop young terrorists committing atrocities in the name of religion, then we have to offer a transformative vision that will capture their imagination, renew their spirits in love and give them a true vision of the glory to come, for which they can work instead. We do that best by allowing God to work here and now, in every moment of our lives, without waiting to achieve a suitable level of perfection. That is not an easy task for any of us. In the course of my research for this sermon, I found a blessing written by an American artist, Jan Richardson, whose husband, with whom she shared a ministry, died just over a year ago. Out of this darkness, Jan writes of trusting and growing in God’s knowledge of us.
The blessing is entitled: Known:
First we will need grace.
Then we will need courage.
Also we will need some strength.
We will need to die a little
to what we have always thought,
what we have allowed
ourselves to see of ourselves,
what we have built our beliefs upon.
We will need this and more.
we will need to let it all go
to leave room enough
for the astonishment
that will come
should we be given a glimpse
of what the Holy One sees
in seeing us,
in knowing us,
intricate and unhidden
no part of us foreign
no piece of us
fashioned from other
all our days.
Transform – poverty – riches
renewal – make known – glory
“Speak, Lord, for you servants are listening.”