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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening

Note: On March 29th, it will be my joy and privilege to be one of the presenters of Michael Sniffen for ordination to the priesthood. It's a little gift from the Diocese of Newark to the Diocese of Long Island. Ever gracious, he makes light of the work of the COM in the discernment process, but it was not fun at the time, I assure you. I fear we'll never get him back. Well, perhaps one day as our bishop. Ah, you think I'm exaggerating? Never mind. Just read this sermon.

Renewal of Ordination Vows and Chrism Mass 2008
Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City NY
(the Rev'd) Michael Sniffen

In the name of God who Created us, who Redeemed us and Sustains us.

I am honored to be with you this morning as we move one step closer to the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord – and by God's grace –closer to embracing the fullness of our vocations and ministries as members of the body of Christ.

I would like to thank Bishop Walker for the invitation to preach in this beautiful cathedral during Holy Week. I am trying my best not to be intimidated by preaching in this empire state building of pulpits 11 days before my ordination to the priesthood!

A faithful minister of the Lord heard his name called late in the evening, "Samuel! Samuel!" - but it was not clear who had called him. He ran to his mentor for help, but alas - he had not called.

"Samuel!" he heard again…and again he went to his mentor for guidance, but Eli said, "I did not call you."

"Samuel! Samuel!" he heard for the third time…and so a third time he went to Eli to see what was going on.

I would have been feeling a little crazy by this point…but it was then that Eli perceived it was the Lord calling the boy's name.

God called Samuel by name no less than six times before anyone recognized it was the voice of God calling. Sounds a little bit like my discernment process! How about yours? It seems to me that the Commission on Ministry would have had a field day with Samuel.

So, what does the story of God's persistent call to a sleepy, Israelite boy have to do with our lives and ministries? Perhaps the story is simply saying, Keep listening...God isn't through calling you yet – God isn't through speaking to you and through you…and the greatest challenges in ministry are still yet to come if you heed the voice of the one who called you each by name.

After hearing his name called over and over and over again - Samuel finally responds, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening…" and it was then that his life of prophetic ministry began.

Now we could just leave the story there– God calls, Samuel responds, ministry happens - and all is well in the land of make believe. Bring on the oil of gladness! But that really wouldn't do justice to the work that Samuel was called to –or the work that we are called to do – would it?

There can be a tendency in the church (especially on days like this) to tie a nice bow around one of the great biblical "call stories," add a couple of sermon illustrations, an anecdote and a few one liners – and give it to ourselves as a gift for Holy Week.

My friends, a gift that is all wrapping and no substance is not worth receiving. The gift we really need this morning is not the gift of vague feel-good stories about ministry– but the truth of what it means to be called by a God who is persistent in transforming us and the world around us. And that gift is all right there in the story if we listen carefully!

Less than half a verse after Samuel's response to God's call, the Lord says to him,

"See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle." Or in Eugene Peterson's translation, "Listen carefully Samuel. I'm getting ready to do something in Israel that is going to shake everybody up and get their attention."

Not exactly subtle! Of course, if you're like me – you might be thinking at this point… "Uh Oh… Samuel's about to get himself in a whole lot of trouble!" Is he called or ill advised? Shaking things up is not exactly the best way to get started as the new guy on the block. In fact, many people spend their whole careers avoiding shaking things up!

Most of us are trained as young people, when controversy comes our way, to play the soundtrack of conflict avoidance in our minds. "Keep the status quo, steady as she goes, don't rock the boat, no reason to make extra work for myself…and so on until we lull ourselves back into a state of perceived safety."

But where does that leave poor Samuel who was called to confront his boss with the inconvenient truth of God's vision – and where does that leave us in the complexities of daily life and ministry??

Samuel had been called for all of 5 minutes – and he found himself smack in the middle of a situation where he had to choose between what was right and what was easy. This is scary good news for us…because it reflects the reality of our lives of faith.

The difficult decisions we face every day are individual calls from God to make good on the promises we have made.

We are told that Samuel was so troubled by the difficulties before him that he laid in his room until morning for he was afraid to tell anyone what God had revealed to him…Good news again! Because when we find ourselves tired and afraid we can remember that we are follow in the tradition of the prophets who struggled with the same feelings.

Samuel took a big risk. He chose to follow God's lead in shaking things up by telling the truth as it had been revealed to him…he gave up any concern for his own self-preservation or worldly success and discovered in so doing that he was freed from the bondage of self-doubt and opened to the joy that comes from trusting in God.

Risking our lives and worldly success, we are told, is an essential part of what we are called to do. Jesus tells his disciples, "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

Like Samuel and the disciples, we all find ourselves faced with a difficult decision every day – to shake things up and engage in the messy work of delivering God's message in a world that functions on status quo logic– or to remain silent and god back to sleep.

Today we are reminded that those who are called by God can make no peace with the status quo. We have been asked, like the disciples, to speak the truth in love whatever the consequences.

This is certainly no easy task in our day and the consequences for telling the truth are great. In this last week alone, many have watched as Barak Obama's pastor was derided in the press for pointing out that Hillary Clinton is a white woman (seemed pretty obvious to me)…and that she therefore enjoys the spoils of white privilege in her campaigning for President of the United States.

Should this critique of institutionalized racism have been silenced because it is not popular among many white folks? Speaking the truth as we know it, even when it is unpopular, is at the core of discipleship.

In her sermon at St. George's cathedral in Jerusalem this Palm Sunday, our Presiding Bishop had this to say:

"The turmoil Jesus stirred up ended in his execution as an enemy of the state. Prophets tend to do that -- stir things up and end up dead. That is part of the invitation Jesus offers each of us, to pick up our cross, die to self, to proclaim the word of God in human flesh…and to be willing to die to everything else."

She goes on to say,

"Stir things up, for this world [has] certainly [not] yet reached the divine dream of [peace]."

Hear God's calling to Samuel – hear Jesus telling the disciples to risk it all that they might live…and hear the challenge of our Presiding Bishop – and don't be afraid to stir things up! New life is just around the corner.

May each of us find the courage to say anew this Holy Week, "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening…"



Anonymous said...

WOW! This is a prophetic message!

Fran said...

This is amazing - thank you for sharing it here. I especially loved this line - "but the truth of what it means to be called by a God who is persistent in transforming us and the world around us.

God is persistent in transforming us - thanks be to God.

Easter Blessings to you, to all.

Muthah+ said...

Did he go to EDS or is he just one of the new radicals that are going to come to the Church as this 'Skizim' ceases to have its hold on us.