HOMILY FROM SERVICE ON SUNDAY, JANUARY 21, 2024 – THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
You see where this is going, right?
Since Advent, I’ve been dropping clues about “obedience” meaning “to hear”…to listen deeply, and then to act…And I’ve encouraged you to practice stopping in the midst of your daily lives and listening for the answer to the questions…”what is truly needed…right here…right now…and am I the person to respond to that need?”…And then, for the last couple of weeks we’ve gotten a series of call narratives—Samuel, Phillip, Andrew, and Simon, Jonah, James, and John…All people who hear a call and in obedience to that call…respond…it’s almost like I planned it this way.
But I want to pause here, because something always seems to happen when many of us are confronted with these biblical call narratives…there’s a kind of disconnect that happens…usually I hear people say something like, “that’s fine for Simon or Andrew or whoever, but God has never been that direct with me.” Or “If God was ever that direct with me…then I must have missed it…”
These narratives where: God speaks out of burning bushes [Exodus 3]…or pillars of clouds [Exodus 13]…or thunderous silences [1Kings 19]…Where blinding lights and voices from heaven knock you to the ground [Acts 9]…all of those narratives can give you the sense that, unless you’ve pulled a sword out of a stone, or discovered that you suddenly have powers that you never knew you had and you can’t really control, or you’ve been tasked with somehow destroying a mysterious and powerful relic before the forces of darkness overwhelm the world…that unless you’ve had those experiences you’ve never been called.
And don’t get me wrong…I love stories like that…most of us love stories like those…They’re great stories…The trouble is they can make us experientially blind to God’s call in our everyday, mundane, quotidian lives.
In other words, having an expectation that The Big Shocking Reveal is the only way God’s call works…means that unless and until we get The Big Shocking Reveal…we won’t think that God is calling us…in fact we won’t even be able to hear it when God does call.
We need to remember, and attune our senses to, all the other call narratives which are just as significant as The Big Shocking Reveal, but much more subtle. We have to remember that very often the chosen ones are farm boys, and good-hearted gondoliers who are terrible singers, they are people who live on the planet the farthest from the bright center of the universe, who are literally “nobody, from nowhere,”…people who have lost parents, who been outcasts, who have tragic flaws that they will struggle to overcome at crucial moments. We need to remember that anyone can be called…at any time.
And rarely does the message come through an angelic messenger…usually it comes through…a stranger, a teacher, a friend, a gardener, a blind oracle…Last week, Samuel needed his teacher Eli to tell him what was going on, and how to respond to the voice in the night (1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20). Last week, Jesus called Phillip, but before that, John the baptizer was standing in a crowd pointing out Jesus and no one was paying any attention (John 1:29-34). So the next day, John again points out Jesus, when two of John’s disciples are there, (Andrew and one other) and they start following, get into a conversation with Jesus, and stay with him until the end of the day…And in John’s gospel it is Andrew who brings his bother Simon/Peter to meet Jesus. Or remember the stranger who meets two of Jesus’ followers on the road to Emmaus, who falls into conversation with them, and “interprets scripture” with them (Luke 24)…or the Ethiopian Eunuch who asks Phillip to help him understand Isaiah (Acts 8).
Sometimes the call is a simple request: “Give me a drink,” (said to the woman at the well—John 4) or “fill these jugs with water” (said to the waiters at the wedding in Cana)…or a straightforward instruction “do whatever he tells you” (which is what Mary says to the same waiters—John 2:5-7). Or even, “you give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37)…even as clear and as simple as “come out!” (John 11:43).
A call can come through a challenging conversation…”Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28), “let the one without sin cast the first stone,” (John 8:7)…Or even—and this is really perplexing, but seems to be a call in the form of an admonition—“And he commanded them that no one should tell of it, but, as much as he commanded them, they proclaimed it all the more extravagantly” (Mark 7:36).
It’s also worth pointing out that scripture highlights stories of people who hear the call and say, “yes” … eventually. They are often reluctant…(like Moses—“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? But what if they don’t believe me?…But I’m no good at speaking in public…Exodus 3) or cantankerous (like Jonah…”You want me to go where? Sure.…He heads in the opposite direction, throws himself off a boat)…but ultimately they say, “OK,” or “here, am I” (Luke 1:38). But I often wonder…How many people along the Galilean shore that day, either ignored Jesus, or said, “Nah, I’m good.” Poets have been known to write about people who initially said “no” but later find their way back into the narrative. But I think it’s important to remember that saying “no” to the wrong call…is just as important as saying “yes” to the right one. That’s why it’s important to ask, am I the person to be responding to this need, at this time, and in this way?
Jesus does call us o’er the tumult…but rarely is it in Big Shocking Revelatory ways…mostly it’s in through the basic hungers of our own souls, and the simple but persistent voices of needs around us. If we are to be faithful in answering the call, we need to expand our awareness so that we can perceive the glory of God’s work all around us and respond with our whole being when that divine nudge comes and says, “you…you’re the one I need now.”…