What was the best part of your week? The best part of mine was Wednesday afternoon. I had two appointments. The first was with a brilliant young seminarian. We talked about ways to reach her generation with the good news of God´s love and we decided to invite other millennials to join the conversation. Half a dozen or so immediately accepted the invitation. I felt blessed to be invited to participate in the group with the young people.
The second appointment was a visit with an elderly couple who recently suffered a traumatic event and who are trying to navigate their way back to peace and wellbeing. I was blessed again, to be entrusted with the tender gift of their pain. Even though I was sad for the couple´s ordeal and very angry with those who perpetrated it, I walked back to the church filled with joyful thanksgiving for this call that gives me the privilege of pastoring people at all stages of life, of getting to be with you at moments of inspiration, of grieving, and of celebration.
Thirty years ago when I first heard a call to ordination I had no idea what lay ahead. Like the young Samuel, I didn´t recognize God´s voice the first or second time I heard it. I managed to keep my fingers in my ears for maybe five years before I was finally able to say, ¨Speak, for your servant is listening.¨ It wasn´t until I became close friends with a young woman priest that I was able to imagine myself in such a role. But God gently persisted, and eventually I heard the call and answered it. And here I am today, getting to brainstorm with brilliant young adults and comfort hurting souls and pray with and for the people I serve.
The writer Frederick Buechner says that vocation is where your deep gladness and the world´s deep hunger meet. So let me ask you, where does your deep gladness meet the world´s deep hunger?
I wonder if the boy Samuel had any inkling of where his vocation would take him. He was born to Hannah, a woman derided for being barren, after she made a deal with God: give me a child and I will give him back to you. So as soon as he was weaned she offered up her long-awaited, precious, only son to live in the temple and serve God. When Samuel was born, Hannah sang a song of triumph that begins, ¨My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God; my mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.¨ Sound familiar? Scholars agree that it´s the basis for the much more famous song of Mary, the Magnificat in Luke´s Gospel.
Samuel grew up to be one of the Bible´s superheroes, a warrior prophet and kingmaker who was feared and respected throughout Israel. His call took him far from those quiet childhood nights in the Temple. We´ll hear more about Samuel and the kings he made, Saul and David, over the next twelve weeks – including some of my favorite Bible stories.
This story of young Samuel and old Eli is a reminder that sometimes those of us who are elders in the church have trouble seeing what the young people see. Eli´s sight was becoming dim, we are told, maybe not just his physical sight but his spiritual vision too. Sometimes we can be so invested in a beloved institution that we can´t even imagine what might be possible. That´s why I´m so excited about meeting with the millennial group. If there is a call for me and for us in those conversations I hope it won´t take me five years to hear it.
It´s well documented that the millennial generation has values and priorities that are markedly different from those of the boomer generation. Institutions are not popular. A certificate of membership isn´t required. Some of the old rules seem meaningless and needlessly restrictive. We are being prodded to take a new look at the way we have always done things.
When the Jewish people first became a nation, they needed rules, strict boundaries that helped them retain their Jewishness in a diverse world. The law of Moses was regarded as a blessing, a gift from a gracious God who wanted to help them live faithfully. But as time went on, those rules were twisted and stretched until people no longer remembered what the law was created for, and it became a tool to control and oppress. That´s what we see in the Gospel story that we just heard.
The law to keep the Sabbath day was intended to honor God´s commandment to rest, as God did on the seventh day of creation. It didn´t mean that people shouldn´t eat or heal on that seventh day. But the meaning was distorted over the centuries, and even today in Israel elevators are equipped with automatic functions so that on the Sabbath people don´t have to do the ¨work¨ of pressing a button when they enter the elevator.
God, in generosity and love, offered humanity the gift of Sabbath rest. Humanity took the generous gift and squeezed it into a box, squeezing God into the box at the same time. Jesus opened the box and showed the world how expansive God really is, how liberating God´s love is, how life-giving God´s guidance is when we discern the true purpose and meaning of the rules, when we re-examine the rules in the light of the world we now live in.
It´s easier to blindly follow the rules, because they shift responsibility away from us. When a decision is unpopular it´s tempting to blame someone else: the rules say so, or the bishop said so, or my Mom said so. But as we mature in life and in faith we are called to think about the purpose of a rule, to dig into the reason it was made, and sometimes, after due thought and prayer, to conscientiously object to it and even deliberately contravene it.
So: Rosa Parks on the bus, or our local practice of offering communion to everyone, or those who participated in the “illegal” ordination of eleven women as Episcopal priests in 1974. That kind of radical action is sometimes what´s needed to move positive change along, but there’s a risk that it will also create conflict and disruption, and sometimes a violent backlash.
Jesus provoked such strong feelings in the religious community with his challenge to the rules that those most fully invested in the institution took extreme measures to silence him, putting him to death on a cross. But even death wasn´t strong enough to stop the change that Jesus began, because the change was of God, who constantly seeks to expand us, to open up our hearts, souls, and minds to new life.
That expansive nature at the heart of God is what we sense in Psalm 139, where the speaker luxuriates in God´s embrace, acknowledging God´s steady presence and comprehensive knowledge of each of us. God knows everything about me and God still loves and cherishes me. That´s an amazing message. God knows what I can do and what I cannot. God knows my gifts and my shortcomings and God calls me to serve anyway. God called little Samuel to do a hard thing and Samuel said ¨Here I am¨. God calls us to participate in the transformation of the world. That might mean rethinking some of the rules we have taken for granted, as Episcopalians, or as Christians, or even as Americans.
When we vote on Tuesday – and I hope we will all vote – what if we consider the issues before us in the light of this God who loves us intimately, unconditionally, and expansively. What if we ask ourselves, how does this action or this position expand our world´s understanding of God´s love and our own part in the transformation of the world?
Psalm 139 highlights the contrast between true intimacy and the fake intimacy of social media or mere acquaintance. As people who belong to this God, we have an opportunity to pursue genuine intimacy. As people who pray the psalms every week, who share the Peace, who meet at God’s table, we should be able to trust each other with our true selves, with our tender places. To trust each other we need to know each other, and that’s what our summer gatherings are about, opportunities to know each other and to appreciate the beauty and richness of our community.
Take a moment now. Listen to a couple of verses of this Psalm in an even more intimate translation than the one in our prayer book. And then sit in the quiet for a minute or two.
Listen in the silence for God. And know that God is with you right now, longing for your response, longing for you to say, “speak, for your servant is listening.”
O my Beloved, You have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You discern my innermost thoughts.
You find me on the journey and guide my steps;
You know my strengths and my weaknesses.
Even before words rise up in prayer,
Lo, You have already heard my heart call.
You encompass me with love where’er I go,
And your strength is my shield.
Such sensitivity is too wonderful for me;
It is high; boundless gratitude is my soul’s response.
Search me, O my Beloved, and know my heart!
Try me and discern my thoughts!
Help me to face the darkness within me;
Enlighten me, that I might radiate your love and light!
Psalm 139, from Psalms for Praying, an Invitation to Wholeness, by Nan Merrill (New York: Continuum, 1999)
June 3, 2018
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges