Listen and Act – 1 Samuel 3.1-20 & John 1.43-51

January 18, 2015 – 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Have you ever had the experience of someone really listening to you? Listening to you deeply? For a lot of us it’s kind of rare because listening is a hard assignment.

On the face of it, listening seems so simple. You stop using your mouth and you start using your ears. Only, most of us would rather talk than listen. And even when we stop talking, there is typically a big conversation going on in our heads that makes it hard to hear what the other person is saying. Then there’s the tendency of many of us to start planning out what we’re going to say while the person you are supposedly listening to is talking. Not to mention all the distractions of the television being on, a text coming in, an email arriving, or even the phone ringing. Which means there isn’t a lot of listening going on.

So if you have had the experience of someone really listening to you, you know it’s kind of rare. And can be remarkable when it happens. And scary too. Scary because deep listening may let you hear something in yourself you didn’t know was there or didn’t want to know was there. But that kind of listening can also liberate and free you to hear what you really need to hear and to know what you really need to know and to do what you you really need to do.

The story about Samuel and Eli is about seeing and about listening. In their day the text tells us, the word of God was rare. Visions were not widespread. The old priest Eli’s eyesight was diminishing and he could not see. But, the story says, the lamp of God had not yet gone out. Literally, the lamp of God in the temple was still lit. Metaphorically, there was still the possibility that a vision from God could be seen.

On this particular night that we hear about in 1 Samuel 3, Eli was lying down in his room and Samuel was lying down in the temple where the ark of God was—where the very presence of God was located. The night is interrupted with someone calling “Samuel!” For those of you who know the up and down nature of the night that often comes with older age, it could very well be that Samuel was used to getting up in the night to help Eli. So Samuel runs in to Eli to see what he needed. But it’s not Eli who called him. This exchange happens three times until Eli perceives that it is God who is calling Samuel. So Eli instructs Samuel to go back and lie down and when Samuel hears his name called again, he is to say “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The story tells us God came and stood there and again called Samuel. Samuel responded as Eli instructed him. “Speak, for you servant is listening.” And then the hard news comes. God will remove Eli and his sons from the priestly role because of their neglect and abuse of what God had entrusted to them.

Samuel likely lies awake all night wondering how he is going to tell this to Eli—or how he will hide it from him. In the morning, he goes about his routine to open the doors to the temple and then Eli wants to know what Samuel heard from God in the night. Eli wants the truth. So Samuel tells him what God said.

In the story, what God said to Samuel is called a vision. It’s an interesting merging of vision—which we typically associate with seeing—and words—which we associate with hearing. Just like the combination of physical details of Eli’s diminished eyesight and the light of God in the temple combines with Samuel hearing his name being called.

And then the story tells us that as Samuel grew up, God was with him and none of his words fell to the ground—all of his words were trustworthy and true. And God continued to to reveal God’s self to Samuel through the word of God.

One person I read this week said a prophet has only two tools: ears and lips.[1] Tools for listening and tools for speaking.

We typically refer to this story as the call of Samuel. Except in this story, unlike many stories of people being called by God, there is no sending. There’s no commissioning. God calls Samuel to hear what God is about to do. Johanna Bos in her commentary on the books of First and Second Samuel says that the name Samuel has roots in the Hebrew word that means “to listen.” There is a lot about listening in this story about Samuel. “Listening” Johanna writes, “underlies Samuel’s openness to hear God and his capacity to continue to listen to God’s word so that he, Samuel, can speak the word to God’s people.”[2]

Ears and lips. Listening and speaking.

Samuel didn’t have the distraction from tech devices that keep us from listening well, but he certainly had the distraction of his own mind and I’m sure the pressure to skew the word of God toward the different political and theological interests of his time. In the bible we hear mostly about the prophets who did speak the word of God but there were also prophets who spoke the word of the highest bidder and the word of the most alluring party whose rewards could be experienced by tweaking the message to favor them. Those were the false prophets. Samuel had to develop a capacity to listen carefully and deeply in order to discern the true word of God that could easily get lost in the enticing weeds of so many other words.

This week with Monday’s holiday coming up, I was thinking of course about the ministry and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We know a lot about his words and his actions. But we don’t know a lot about his prayer life and how he listened to God. We think of Dr. King as a prophet because he spoke and wrote in the tradition of the biblical prophets: proclaiming God’s care for the vulnerable and the marginalized, calling for an end to war and violence and poverty, crying out for justice and peace, and speaking truth to power.

Dr. King was a prophet who used his ears to listen to God and his lips to declare God’s desires for justice and righteousness and peace. Not just for some but for all—and especially for African Americans. When we have heard people say, “Black Lives Matter” in the protest movement of the months since the death of Eric Garner and so many other African American men, it resonates with what I know about Dr. King. It’s not that black lives matter more than other lives. It’s that we have to lift up that black lives matter because for so many generations and in so many institutionalized ways, we have collectively said “black lives don’t matter.”

Read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow in which she argues that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”[3] Or read Bryan Stevenson’s moving book titled Just Mercy which tells the story of his legal work with people on death row and with a multitude of poor African Americans who are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and because they are not white or wealthy or well-connected very few people care that their legal defense was negligent or that the prosecution withheld information and coerced false stories out of so-called witnesses.

As I read the paper this week and saw stories of white people who got in trouble with the law and whose charges were dismissed, I wondered if that would have happened if the people who broke the law were black.

So here we are almost 47 years after Dr. King was assassinated.  How might we, in our day and time, honor Dr. King’s life and work?

It seems to me learning to listen is one way. Samuel listened to God and heard some hard words. Words that were not going to make people around him very happy. That is part of the legacy of a prophet. Dr. King said things that a lot of people did not like. A lot of white people. A lot of white Christian people. Those hard words are part of the biblical tradition that we often don’t feel so acutely because they’ve become familiar to us. I wonder if the hard words of someone else’s experience, the perspective of another person’s life, the reality of another community’s suffering might be the word of God to which we need to learn to listen today?

There are lots of opportunities to practice our listening skills if we look for them. One opportunity that’s coming up in March is the White Privilege Conference that will take place in Louisville. The conference was started by an African American man, Dr. Eddie Moore, who grew up in Florida and went to college in Iowa. The first six years the conference was held in Iowa before it began to move around the country. Last year 2,400 people—white people and people of color—came to the conference to listen and learn and talk.

The White Privilege Conference is a conference that examines challenging concepts of privilege and oppression and offers solutions and team building strategies to work toward a more equitable world. The conference started 16 years ago focused on white privilege and now talks about many kinds of privilege—race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, etc. — the ways we all experience some form of privilege, and how we’re all affected by that privilege.[4] I encourage you to seriously think about attending either the whole conference or one of the institute days. You can find online contact information in the bulletin this morning.

Samuel learned to listen to God and then he spoke a prophetic word from God. Jesus told Phillip (in the story we heard from John’s gospel), “Follow me.” And then Phillip told the good news about Jesus to Nathanael and said to him, “Come and see.”

Dr. King listened to God, spoke prophetic words and called people to action.

I wonder what God says to you when you listen?
I wonder who else needs you to listen?
I wonder what words are waiting to be spoken through you?
I wonder what action you are being called to take?

* * *
1.  Richard Boyce, “1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20) Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, eds., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 245.
2.  Johanna W.H. van Wik-Bos, Reading Samuel: A Literary and Theological Commentary, (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011), 46.
3.  http://newjimcrow.com/about/excerpt-from-the-introduction, accessed 17 January 2015
4.  http://whiteprivilegeconference.com/wpc.html, accessed 17 January 2015

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An Incarnation Epiphany – John 1.1-18

January 4, 2015 – 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day

You might be aware that Mark and I generally use the Revised Common Lectionary for the biblical texts that we preach from.
   And you might be aware that there are three cycles of texts for preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary. There’s Year A, Year B, and Year C and then the whole thing repeats again. In Year A we primarily hear from the gospel of Matthew. In Year B—the year we’re in now—we primarily hear from the gospel of Mark. And in Year B we primarily hear from the gospel of Luke.
    But, you might ask, what about the gospel of John? When do we get to its year? There is no year for John. Instead, we hear from John at “each of the critical turning points”[1] in the Christian year: at the birth of Jesus, in preparing for the death of Jesus and in the joy of Easter. We turn to the gospel of John to guide us through these essential parts of the story of Jesus; through these essential parts of our story as followers of Jesus.
    And so we get today to John 1. John 1 also shows up as the last reading in the traditional Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols. It appears as the gospel reading for Christmas Day and it reappears on the second Sunday after Christmas. This is no accident on the part of the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s an intentional effort to focus our attention on this mysterious text and the mystery of the incarnation.
    King’s College Cambridge—the locus of the classic Christmas Eve lessons and carols service—titles the John 1 reading: “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.”[2]
    I appreciate that we speak of the incarnation as a mystery. Bill Placher, one of my favorite theology writers says, “Trying to make things clear is often a mistake in theology.”[3] I love that! A scholar who wrote about theology his whole life reminds us that trying to make theological ideas precise and completely comprehensible—to completely unpack them and lay out all of their parts—can often be a mistake. Because part of all of this is a mystery. Not that we can’t talk about it, and study it and think about it. But trying to get it all figured out and nailed down and explained away belies that we are trying to put words to something that is ultimately greater than all our words. We can talk about God all day long but at the end of the day, all our words pale in light of the mystery of God.
    The fourth-century desert abba, Gregory of Nyssa, said, “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything.”[4]
    Wonder is a key component of the Godly Play class at Central. I had a conversation with one of our Godly Play children not too long ago. I was worried that she might be getting bored because she had been in Godly Play for about four years and had heard many of the same stories repeated each year. When I asked her if she was bored, she said, “No! Every time I hear the story I hear something different.”
    That’s why we keep coming back to a mystery. Every time we come back, we have the possibility of hearing, seeing, touching something different. And we are able to enter the mystery more deeply.

    So it is with the incarnation. The mystery of the incarnation.In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. (1.1, 14)

    God comes to be with us in the person of Jesus. When we talk about the incarnation, we are talking about the idea that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. Which seems like crazy talk because we have no other reference point for someone who is both fully human and fully God. How can someone be both at the same time? We might be able to imagine half human and half God but fully human and fully God seems impossible to comprehend.
    So what if we didn’t try to make it fit as if we’re solving a math equation? What if we thought of this as a mystery or a paradox to hold lightly and to keep returning to it in order to encounter it more deeply?
    Bill Placher in his book on the meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian faith says “Looking at Jesus is the best place to start in learning what it really means to be human.”[5] Which might be a surprise because we tend to think of “being human” meaning messing up. “I’m only human” we say in our defense when something hasn’t gone right. But theologically speaking, “being human” means being created in God’s image. Being created “very good.” Created by God for right relationship with God and with others. And in Jesus we see this kind of human being. In Jesus we see what it is to be fully human.
    One of the best things I’ve read about the mystery of the incarnation is in Shirley Guthrie’s classic book Christian Doctrine:
“In Jesus Christ God came to us in a human being and put God’s stamp of approval on human life. Christmas means that what God wills and accomplishes in the world is not the creation of religious people but the creation of human people; not just the salvation of our souls but the renewal of our flesh-and-blood humanity; not the ability to escape from our human existence but the ability thankfully to accept and courageously to live an authentically human life both now in this world and in the new heaven and earth to come. God’s coming to us in a human being means that God supports and participates in every religious and secular movement that enables human life to be more fully human and frees people from all the forces within them and around them that enslave and dehumanize them…whoever is against human beings (any of them), is against God, for in Jesus God took up the cause of humanity to make it God’s own cause.”[6]
In other words, “If you want to know what it means to be a genuinely human being and to stand for the cause of humanity—look at Jesus Christ.”[7] He was fully human.At the same time, in “Jesus of Nazareth, God was uniquely present in the world.”[8] As we encounter most explicitly in John’s gospel, what Jesus does is what God does and what Jesus says is what God says. But even more, Jesus is God’s Word; the enfleshment of God.
    In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, [we could also say, the Mother’s heart] who has made God known. (1.1, 18)
    Again we encounter a surprise. Because, really, who expects God to show up in a person, be born to poor parents, grow up to be a friend of outcasts, and be tried, condemned and executed at a public execution?[9]
        God-with-us in Jesus—that Jesus is fully God—didn’t start as a theological idea or a doctrine. It started as a story. A bunch of stories. It was only after the early Christians “had lived in [Jesus’] company, listened to what he said, watched what he did, and especially after they had seen his death and experienced his presence as the Risen One…[only then] did they confess him as God-with-us.”[10] What those early Christians experienced in Jesus was more than just another martyred prophet. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, they experienced the presence of God.
        Fully God and fully human. “Instead of an explanation of how that could be possible, the Bible gives us stories that show [us].”[11] We look at the life of Jesus. We read the stories. We hear from others who have followed him. And we find our hearts and minds challenged and changed, comforted and consoled.
    Fully God and fully human. Does it matter? I think so. Preacher Tony Robinson says, “If Christ is only divine, our human lives are not embraced, known, hallowed and blessed by God. If Jesus is only human, then we know nothing finally, fully, or decisively of God [from him].”[12]
    Fully God and fully human. It doesn’t fit together in any equation we have known before. So we hold it loosely without trying to pound out a precise, scientific explanation. We let it be a mystery to explore and ponder.
    Fully God and fully human. Does it matter in our lives? I think it does. A colleague of mine from seminary, Ken Kovacs, wrote recently:
“The Christian experience of transformation is not an out-of-body experience…the Spirit doesn’t take us out of ourselves or out of our bodies…the Spirit is not trying to rescue us out from the world or ourselves…The Christian life is an in-the-body experience…The Spirit is forever putting us into our bodies, putting us into the world, thrusting us down deep into matter, into concrete existence, into the physicality of flesh. God is always seeking incarnation. In Christ, yes,…but also in us and through us, because of Christ at work in us.”[13]So incarnation is a celebration of God becoming flesh in Jesus and in us. Incarnation is “a celebration of love embodied in the world in Christ, and love embodied in the world through you and me. Humanity and divinity are linked together[—not only in Jesus but also] in us.”[14]
    In us! What wonder. What a mystery.* * *
1.  Gail R. O’Day, “John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 494.
2.  In the Presbyterian Book of Order, we also read about “the mystery…of the incarnation of the eternal Word of God in Jesus Christ.” F-2.03. It’s one of the confessions we Presbyterians share with most other Protestants as well as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions.
3.  WIlliam C. Placher, Jesus the Savior – The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 31-32.
4.  Quoted in Anthony B. Robinson, “Back to Basics,” Christian Century, July 26, 2003, 26.
5. Placher, 33.
6.  Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, revised edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 247.
7. Ibid., 248.
8. Guthrie, 243.
9. Guthrie, 248.
10. Guthrie, 244.
11. Placher, 49.
12. Robinson.
13.  Ken Kovacs, “In the Flesh” http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/2014/12/in-flesh.html, accessed, 23 December 2014.
14. Ibid.