The Call (Second Sunday after Epiphany: Year B)

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

When I was living in England the last job that I had, before I returned to Australia, was in a prison where I worked as an Operational Support Grade officer or OSG.  One day I was outside the prison, doing some work near the gatehouse, when a voice yelled across from the visitors’ carpark.  “Oi screw!” came the voice.  I ignored it.  “Oi!  Oi screw!” came the voice again.  I looked up, and could see a man looking in my direction, but standing thirty metres away and near the door to the visitors’ centre, the place where visiting family and friends wait before being allowed into the prison on visiting days.  I looked down again.  “Screw!” came the demand, “oi screw I’m talking to you!”  Still nothing from me.  “Screw!  Feckin screw, screw!”  Nothing.  Eventually the man gave up.  I didn’t see where he went, whether he entered the prison or went back to his car; I didn’t look.

Why did I not answer, you might ask.  Well it’s simple really, he wasn’t talking to me; and I believe that if you’re not talking to me then it is rude of me to answer you.  I know he wasn’t talking to me because my name is not, nor has it ever been, “Screw”.  My name certainly isn’t “Oi Screw”.  The fact that I was the only other person in the area, and that I was wearing the Queen’s uniform of HM Prisons Service, is beside the point.  Had he wished to speak to me I’m sure he would have come over to me and politely said “excuse me OSG”.  But since he didn’t, he can’t have been speaking to me.

Oddly enough this isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone not speaking to me.  Often students at the school I told you about two weeks ago would yell “Oi Squeak”, or “Oi Aussie”, or occasionally “Oi Tanny” on campus.  I don’t know who those people are, if they are people at all, but since my name is “Mr Tann” or “Sir” the students can’t have been speaking with me, so I didn’t get involved.  Similarly, here in Australia, I’m not sure who “Oi blind maggot” is, but since my name is “goalie” or “umpie” again I am polite enough to stay out of other people’s conversations, especially when they already sound rather cross.

As was read to us this morning from 1 Samuel 3:3 the lamp of God, the light which symbolised the presence of God in the sanctuary, was still alight when Samuel laid down to rest in preparation for sleep when God spoke.  Since The Voice of The LORD was rarely heard in those days Samuel, who was in the actual sanctuary and lit by the lamp of presence, responded to his name believing it had come from the priest.  Maybe Samuel thought that even if The LORD did speak that God would only address the priest, so the voice he heard could not have been The Voice of The LORD since it was directly addressed to him, Samuel, by name.  Three times the voice came, three times Samuel responded promptly by running in to Eli’s presence.  Kind of like me waiting for a polite summons to listen to someone, any my ignoring any impolite tone or name as indicating that the voice could not have been directed toward me, Samuel knew the inverse; that he couldn’t have been hearing The Voice of The LORD because The LORD doesn’t speak to small boys.   Unlike me, Samuel was called by name, and at last he recognised The LORD’s summons, or at least he followed Eli’s instruction, and God spoke to him.

Did you notice, right at the beginning of this reading, that Samuel was already engaged in ministry when he was called to?  In the second part of 1 Samuel 3:1 it says that he was singled out for a rare honour because visons were not widespread and in 1 Samuel 3:2 we are told that the sparsity of visions did not matter much since Eli was going blind anyway.  When The LORD spoke to the boy, and bypassed the priest in doing so, Samuel’s work of priestly ministry was expanded to encompass the work of prophecy.  The Voice of The LORD spoke, out of the blue, to a boy, and thereafter The LORD spoke through Samuel because Samuel was willing to be used as an amplifier.  Samuel showed his willingness to be used by God, even in his ignorance of The Voice of The LORD, by engaging in priestly ministry.  The one who had amplified God’s ministry in ministering would be used to amplify God’s message in prophesying.

What are you doing now, in God’s work, that God can ask you to do something else for the Kingdom?

I know that I have been called by God.  I do not say that to boast, or to make myself superior to you.  As all are called to ministry within the Kingdom of God, those who belong to that Kingdom at least, I am called.  I am a Christian, I am a Christ worshipper and Christ follower, and part of that is lived out in what I do for Christ in the world.  I hope you can say the same, even though none of you do what I do.  One of the things that gives me confidence to follow God in the footsteps of Jesus, and also in the footsteps of those who walked in the footsteps of Jesus, is that I know that God knows what I am capable of.  God will often take me beyond what I think I can do, but God has never taken me beyond what God can do through me nor beyond where God can save me if I stumble.

Early in my time in England things were not going well and my life was equal parts adventure and adversity, sometimes unequal parts in fact with adversity in the majority.  One time when I was crying into the phone to Australia my mum, in her regular attempts to get me to come home, said to me, “I don’t know what to do Damie, God has taken you out of my depth.”  I remember that being a turning point, one of many and not the final one, but a turning point nonetheless when I realised that God might have taken me out of my mother’s depth, and she was struggling as a loving mother with the distress her darling boy was undergoing, but God had not actually taken me put of my depth.  I was on tiptoe for sure, and in fact I had to swim after that, but I can swim, and I did swim and God swam me into deeper water where I learned to swim harder.  What we read from Psalm 139 this morning is the same message.  God knows me.  God knows me “in the Biblical sense”, for all of the intensity band passion that phrase suggests.  Before I was knit together in my mother’s womb, 32 years before the anguished phone calls between the mouth attached to the heart attached to that same womb and my adult ears, God knew what God was doing.  Because I have swum hard, very hard, but never have I drowned, I am confident, utterly confident in God.

Sort of like Samuel, but sort of not, when God took me from the ministry of pastoral care as a school chaplain on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and reset me through five years and two more degrees at university to minister as a preacher and pastor, currently in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, I followed God without question.  The one who knows me in the Psalm 139 sense has my permission to call me in the 1 Samuel 3 sense because I am so well known, so thoroughly understood.  I don’t say that to boast in my prestige as a minister, a lay preacher with a long-term contract, not at all.  I boast in the Lord Jesus Christ and the empowering grace of The Holy Spirit with the word of my testimony.  My life’s story is that God is dependable.  I was ministering, and God called me to minister bigger, and I trusted God to go with that because God had proved Godself faithful way, way ago.

So as your brother in Christ, a simple yet dedicated Christian, and in no way your senior pastor (which I’m not) or the ordained priest (which I am so, so not), again I ask you: what are you doing now, in God’s work, that God can ask you to do something else for the Kingdom?

Perhaps your answer is that you aren’t doing anything.  Now that is not true because I know you; not in the Biblical sense but I’ve been here four months now and I am familiar enough with each of you to know that there are no passengers on our mission bus in Yallourn and Morwell.  So, you are each doing something.  So, we’ve sorted that one.

Perhaps your answer now, because I didn’t let you get away with the first one, is that you aren’t interested in doing more.  “Yes, okay Damien I am doing, but I’m happy with what I’m doing, and God is more than welcome to ask someone else to step up.  Don’t let me stand in God’s way of asking someone who is not me.  No, no really, you first mate.”  And you know what, that’s fine with me.  It’s not fine in the sense that I am defeatist, or that I don’t have confidence in you, that’s not what I’m saying.  It’s fine because I am confident to the extent of my ministry to leave your ministry up to God.

I don’t know you in the Psalm 139 way, but I know that God knows you like that.  So,

  • If God is calling you onward today then my job is to open opportunities for you to serve in this place, a job I share with the elders at Yallourn and Morwell.
  • If God is calling you to sit and rest, as in “well done good and faithful servant”; and you see out your days as an active worshipper and a retired missionary then praise God.
  • If God is calling you to sit and rest, as in “take a breather, I’ll be back for you in the fullness of time and it’s going to be epic”; and you spend a season here as an active worshipper, active in private prayer and discernment, and a recuperating missionary then praise God.

Just let me know eh, but please be polite and call me Damien won’t you.

Amen.

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Sacred Secret Space

This is the text of the message I prepared for Sunday 23rd July 2017.

Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24.

Our brief journey through Genesis has brought us, this morning, to the place where God repeats to Jacob the promise made to Abraham.  God speaks in Jacob’s sleep and Jacob awakes in awe of the place: he names it Bethel or beit-El which means the house of God in recognition that he has stumbled across consecrated ground.  Jacob is wonderfully aware that he is in the place of “Secret God Business”, whose secret is now shared with the descendants of Abraham.  The stone pillar he erects and anoints is the rock he had used for a pillow, connecting the real presence of God with the physical geology of the place on earth.  So, the point is not primarily the promise, real and secure as that promise is, but that God repeats it to another generation.  God continues to speak; the message of God is not a once-only revelation which then belongs to the prophets to repeat.

The story from Bethel tells us that there are places where God speaks to us, and speaks with us, as women and men.  I think it’s important that we find and remember those places.  As Christians of this expression of Uniting Church, noting the vibe of the room in front of me, we believe that God can and does speak with us anywhere. But the story of Bethel, among others in the scriptures (such as the stories of Sinai) says that there are places where God desires to be found and where our movement toward that place prepares us to listen and respond to what we have heard.

And so, I ask you, where do you hear God?  Where has God spoken to you before?  Where is your Bethel?  Do you even have one?  This may be geographical (the prayer chair in the bedroom) or metaphorical (wherever I am at rest).  It might have been a one-off place in time and location (that worship service in Rosny on 10th September 1996), or it might be a repeated location.  In Genesis God often speaks “in dreams”; we see this here but we also see revelation-by-dream in Genesis 20:3, and Genesis 31:10-11, 24.  What is important to know about Bethel is that it is at the frontier of Canaanite territory.  God is speaking to Jacob as he is on the edge of leaving the land given to Abraham, the border of what has been promised as home.  Does God speak with you at the edges?  Perhaps if we want to hear God, or we want God to hear us, we might need to go to the edges.

Jacob is about to depart Canaan in search of a suitable wife, travelling back to Haran as the servant of Abraham had done to find a wife for Isaac.  God meets with Jacob and promises him that he will indeed return to the land promised by God to Abraham.  Since the promise was to Abraham for his descendants God reminds Jacob that the promise is for him too.  As the favoured son of Isaac, the favoured son of Abraham, the promise of a homeland and of nations and generations like the stars in their number for the blessing of the whole world is for Jacob.

What has God promised you?  Do you know?  Do you remember?  Has there ever been a promise just for you?  As Christians, we all have the promises of God in Christ, promises Jesus made to the Church or that God made through the Holy Spirit revealed in scripture.  I do not believe that the Church has been promised what Abraham was promised, which is to say land, many descendants, and the means to be a blessing to the world, although there are modifications of that if you follow the train of thought that the Church is the new Chosen people.  Blessed to be a blessing is certainly true of the Church, whereas an eternal homeland in Palestine, centred on Jerusalem, is not.  Christianity is not a land-based religion in that way: there is no Aliyah for us, the Jewish call for home, and we have no Mecca or Amritsar.  But, to get back on track, what has God promised you, personally?  Would anyone care to name such a promise?

God promised me one time at the edge, when I was homeless and sleeping in a shelter, that I’d never be without a roof; and specifically, that I’d never have to sleep in the two-storey carpark across the road from the shelter.  God reminded me many times, at the edge, that this was God’s promise.  And so far God has proven faithful to God’s word.  I am confident that God will always prove faithful to this promise.

In Psalm 139 we read what is many people’s favourite psalm.  It’s not my favourite, although it used to be, and it’s not my favourite only because another psalm has supplanted 139 in my heart as the deepest promise of God to me.  But if it’s your favourite then good for you, it’s a gem.

Tradition accords this psalm to the pen of David, and the NRSV has my partial approval in subtitling this poem “The Inescapable God”.   God is inescapable, not that God is unable to escape us, but that we are unable to escape God.  We cannot escape the inescapable one.  Why can’t we escape, well because as the very first words of this poem say, God has searched and has known you who has come to worship.  “I cannot outrun you,” says David, “you’ve got me and you always have had.  You know every movement of every sinew in my body, and every firing of every synapse in my brain.”  Such a God cannot be escaped.

“You search out the way for me,” David goes on to say.  God goes ahead like a scout and then comes beside as a trail guide to set the best path for where you or I walk next.   This verse, Psalm 139:3, is why I’m not enamoured of theologies which speak of Jesus occupying the driver’s seat of someone’s life.  Yes, in the “Footprints in the Sand” moments of life we may need a taxi or ambulance, and then it’s all “Jesus Take The Wheel” for me.  But for the most part I suggest that Jesus wants us to do our own driving while he sits in the other front seat as map-reader, course-plotter, navigator and companion.  Jesus is not a sat-nav, a disembodied voice from the dashboard; neither is he a front-seat passenger, passive as you drive.  No, this verse suggests that Jesus is more like the co-driver in a rally car, one who has travelled the road before and who knows where the tricky corners are, which way they curve, and whether there is sloppy mud or oil or ice or cow muck on the racing line.  Jesus is the one yelling out pace-notes above the roar of the engine as you throttle through those brief stages of life where you must travel with your foot to the floor, trusting him to tell you what to do in the next three bends.  Even in a championship rally, let alone a local car trial, not all the road is competitive: there are cruising stages where you and the navigator sit back a bit and drive to the next timed stage.  This is where Jesus sits with you just being and chatting and enjoying the road, and Psalm 139:4 speaks of this moment in the intimacy and trust that you and Jesus have in each other – he knows what you’re about to say, not because he is God omniscient but because he is your partner and he knows you.  To extend the metaphor, Jesus as co-driver has placed his life in your hands, he trusts you to keep him safely on the road and not to lose the car he is hurtling along in (with his head down to read the pace-notes) into the adjacent gullies, hillsides, and crowds of spectators.  It’s no wonder he is intimately acquainted with your thoughts and actions, he has needs to know you enough to trust you with his life.

That’s certainly not the metaphor David was thinking of, that God needs to know you intimately enough to have life-risking faith in you, but it works for me.  It works for me because the idea of Jesus as navigator rather than driver was revealed to me in my Bethel.  It works for me because if God in Christ is prepared to go to that extent to survey me, to ask about me, to check my references and my CV, and to look up my criminal record for selecting me for a relationship then I trust the news that God is interested in me and wants to know me.  If God knows everything about me and still wants to love me, well that’s amazing, but that’s the story of grace.  While I always celebrate the fullness of the gospel message to a hurting, waiting world, including me, I’ve heard that story before.  But that God would go to all that effort to find out about me, not just from God’s omniscience, but from God’s pursuit of me and God’s work to woo me just for the purposes of love, well that’s different.  Remember from Psalm 139:1 that David specifically says that he was searched and loved, not merely known about and acknowledged.  God is active in chasing you just so you can know how much God loves you.

God knows you.  God made you and so God knows how you were made and the bits used to make you.  We could go on to read that in the paragraph of Psalm 139:13-18.  God is eternal and without limit and for that reason it is not possible to be where God is not, and we have read that in the paragraph of Psalm 139:7-12.  But, again, even as wonderful as that message is, hear it with the insight that this loftiness and majesty of God is active, and is actively attending to you for love and to uphold you.

God chose Abraham and no one else, but God still loved the world.  Then God chose Isaac and not Ishmael, even as God loved and protected Ishmael.  Then God chose Jacob and not Esau, even as God loved and protected Esau (and saw him married to Ishmael’s daughter).  And from Jacob, eventually, comes the Jewish people and the story we continue to read of God blessing one group so that they can bring that blessing to the whole world.

God has also chosen you.  Don’t worry, God has chosen me as well, it’s not all up to you as it was all up to the Patriarchs.  But as God promised to be their God in the hope that they would be God’s people the same promise is made to us.  God promises love for you, guidance for you, protection for you, supervision for you, rescue for you, and peace for you.  Do you know that?  Do you know that because I have told you that, or others before me from behind this and other lecterns?  Do you know that because the Bible, or Joyce Meyer, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer told you that in print?

Can I invite you to say yes to those, but can I also invite you to develop and inhabit your own Bethel?  Can I encourage you to find a space, place, and time, to be where God is and to watch and learn as God goes about the work of grace right in front of you?  Find a chair, or a wardrobe.  Find a minute or twenty.  Fall asleep and dream if that works for you, (it often does for me).  Whatever you do, find God where God is and listen and ask about the promise made to you for your life.  Not just for salvation from sin, not just for Heaven when you die, not just for the promises made in Christ to the whole Church (although those too, those too).  But listen and ask for God’s personal, timely promise for you.  And then, in the confidence that the God who knows you in the Psalm 139 way is also with you in the fresh promise of today, go out and change the world.

Amen.