What is Prayer?


Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent 2015
St George’s, Dunsborough

Gospel: John 12:20-33

Some weeks ago, a friend emailed to say that his dear friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I could tell this story dishonestly and say that I prayed for his friend and the tumour turned out to be benign, and we gave thanks to God. Those facts happen to be true; but actually what he asked me was not to pray from him and his friend, but, “What is prayer?”

That’s a much harder question. Especially as we know that many times, most times, we pray for someone to be healed, and it doesn’t happen, or it doesn’t happen the way we expect. We don’t need much experience in prayer to learn that God is not some kind of cosmic Santa Claus granting our wishes just because we ask.

In fact, it would be a little scary if our prayers caused anything to happen. If there was any cause behind the fact that our friend’s tumour was not life-threatening, apart from random cell growth, that cause is God, not our prayers. God heals, not our prayers. We don’t begin to know what to ask.

We do learn that sometimes we batter on heaven’s door for a healing and God does not seem to answer. We also learn that sometimes God surprises with a healing that is unexpected and even un-prayed for.

Jean Vanier is the founder of l’Arche communities where the mentally disabled live in community with the able. He tells the story of the parents of Vincent, a mentally disabled boy in Bangladesh. The parents felt great pain because of their son’s disability. They prayed and prayed that God would heal him. They were surprised when God answered their prayer – but not in the way they expected. They changed, not Vincent. They discovered they were more compassionate. They discovered that God had given them more strength to care for Vincent. They saw Vincent in a new light, as a loving son. They had buried his delightful personality by thinking of him as a problem, as a disability, and not a person.

But we do want prayer to fix things.

People with too much time on their hands have set up scientific experiments trying to show whether prayer works. In one experiment, they prayed anonymously for some patients recovering from heart surgery and not others to see whether their healing was fast-tracked. The results were inconclusive. Other scenarios have been tried, but prayer remains stubbornly inaccessible to science. You can’t prove one way or the other. The data is too vague.

We Christians persist in praying. And this morning’s Gospel reading gives five indications why we pray and what prayer is.

  • In prayer we follow Jesus.
  • In prayer we recognise with Jesus that we live in a broken world.
  • In prayer we offer ourselves in solidarity and love, as Jesus did.
  • With Jesus we lose ourselves in the situations of others, hoping that our self-giving will bring transformation and life.
  • Prayer is an intention to serve the need of others.

Jesus does not see the world with rose-coloured glasses. He invites us, like him, to see the world as it is, a broken place. He gives us the strength to look steadily at its reality: not to look away from the friend with cancer, or the child with a mental disability, or the world at war, or the greed of corporations making the homeless hungry and Africans in the Congo desperate.

We do live in a world where our children leave us for the Eastern States or overseas, and where the friends who we thought loved us the most betray us – like Judas.

We can look at it all. Not to be overwhelmed by it, but to see it as Christ does, and still love it.
The key word for me is solidarity.

We give away our selves. In other words, we stop worrying about our needs. We stop putting ourselves at the top of the list of people to be served. We offer our own time and energy and strength in solidarity with the one in need. Often we cannot do more than hold out our heart in solidarity. Because of distance, or other practicality, there may be nothing more we can do. But our heart is powerful. When we when we hold out our heart to the one in need, when that is our prayer, we find Christ also standing there in solidarity with the one in need.

That mutual solidarity can transform even the most hopeless of situations, even though, like Vincent’s parents, we cannot tell in advance what form that transformation will take.

Ghislaine Howard (1953 – ) The Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art No. 40

There will be times when, in the strength of Christ, we offer not only our heart, but our practical help. So when I pray, I should be looking not to get God to do something, but looking for something I, and often only I, can do.

My prayers often turn into cards and words. Sometimes they become phone calls, conversations in which I may have some particular knowledge or insight, or just share the load over a cup of tea. Sometimes they turn into Betadine on a scratched knee, or a letter to a politician, or a referral to a physiotherapist who has soothed the pain in my back and might do the same for the one in need.

But in reality, those practical things are a small part of prayer. They are the tip of an iceberg. The main part of prayer – the nine-tenths that is mystery, that is hard to see – is the offer of solidarity, the sharing of love.

We pray because, as Christ’s people, we can’t help expressing love. Real love involves letting go of our ego – losing our life for Christ’s sake, and standing in solidarity with Christ and the one in need. The end result of dying and rising with Christ is service, a life of service, and prayer means letting our selfish needs go so we can be transformed to serve.

Prayer is a way of loving the one in need, and meaning it, and discovering the living Christ in that space also loving you and the one in need. What transformation can come from that!

Books have been filled trying to answer the question my friends asked, ‘What is Prayer?’ I would encourage you: keep praying. Keep gazing on this broken world. Keep looking for ways to love it. Keep sharing your heart. You will continue to be surprised by Christ loving the world alongside you, and turning your tiny seed of love into a flowering of sharing and solidarity.

A Man on the World Day of Prayer


Talk for the World Day of Prayer

6 March 2015 – Theme of the Service: Domestic Violence

The reading set is: John 13:1-15 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292090860)

I can’t help worrying about Simon Peter. He’s an angry man, and angry men can be a worry for all of us. We live in a world made dark by the shadow of angry men.

First, let me thank you for the privilege of speaking to you today. The World Day of Prayer has long been a movement which brings together Christian women and men to pray and to be together, and, I believe, is a real force for good.

Our Bible reading this morning is a story about Jesus. And nearly every story about Jesus brings us closer to his cross, and in this story in particular, John helps us to prepare for the great events of the crucifixion and resurrection.

In this story, at the last supper, Jesus lays aside his outer clothes to prepare for ministry.

On the cross, Jesus lays aside his human life to prepare for his death and resurrection to eternal life.

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in water to make them clean – and this cleanliness goes beyond the physical cleansing of dirty feet. It is described as an all-over clean; holistic cleansing.

Jesus washes away our dirt in the blood of the cross. I know this metaphor is not always pleasing to Anglicans; it’s not a pleasant image, but it’s a strong Biblical metaphor and totally unavoidable.

And the thing about being cleansed by Jesus is that once you are clean, you stay clean. “A person who has bathed does not need to wash,” Jesus says. Once you have accepted the cleansing power of the Cross, your sins are forgiven; you start again with a clear page; you are a new person.

Jesus accomplished this cleansing by giving himself. He takes the role of a servant – even more than that, as we will see – to wash his friends’ feet. He gives his whole life on the Cross to wash the lives of all humanity, of all who will hear and accept.

This is what upsets Simon Peter. Offering to wash his disciples’ feet is more than a role reversal. It’s more than Jesus just taking the part that a slave would normally take. Or a woman. In poorer homes without a slave for this task, visitors would be welcomed by a woman to wash the dust of the road off their feet. It’s bad enough for Peter that his Rabbi and Lord is acting the role of a slave — or a woman, God forbid – but foot-washing seems to take too much away from Peter.

It’s hard for those who are frail to accept someone helping them to shower. It seems to be a complete loss of dignity. I’ve been in hospital when nurses and other care-givers have helped me with my daily routine. I had to swallow my pride. I can’t imagine how hard it would be if my Archbishop came to help me shower. Embarrassed, angry, a complete loss of self-respect. At least, that would be my first reaction.

I think that’s what provoked such a strong reaction from Peter. His Lord and Teacher was offering to do something for him for which, in part, Peter had to swallow his pride. He was embarrassed and angry. “Lord, do you wash my feet?”

It’s a hard lesson for Simon Peter: first to accept the loving care that Jesus offers, and then to be told to offer and receive that level of care from others. The implication for Peter is that he has to put aside that pride in himself for ever if he is going to be any use in offering loving service, and if he is to continue to have the joy of receiving loving service from others for himself.

We know Peter takes a while to learn, but St John thinks he gets the message after the resurrection, (in John 21:15-19) when Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” If you still have that macho pride inside, you can’t answer that question, even if the answer is yes. As long as you carry that pride inside saying “I love you” is a sign of weakness. That’s why Jesus insists Peter makes the declaration, “Lord, you know I love you!” otherwise it’s a waste of time telling Peter to “Feed my sheep.”

You see Peter has two choices after his feet have been washed and the blushing has receded from his face: either he can put the old pride back in his heart and go on being an angry man, the kind of man that lashes out with a sword and cuts off the ear of a servant (John 18:10). That’s only a few steps away from the kind of anger that fuels terrorists who coolly cut off the heads of their captives.

Or he can learn to dismantle that pride by accepting the loving service of others offered to him, with the implication that he is a vulnerable human being. Giving and receiving love leads to intimacy and to a genuine experience of love, of being cleansed from anger and pride. St John knew that Peter was a work in progress.

I don’t find this path easy. I am definitely a work in progress. We men would rather hang on to our macho pride of independence. That’s the picture of manhood our culture teaches us, and to be different requires an effort. But I see the positive effect that strong vulnerable Christian men have on others.

All of us, men and women, are challenged to lives of mutual self-giving service, and the vulnerability that goes with that.

Women, and men, too as mothers, fathers, or grandparents are challenged to give their sons and grandsons a cleaner picture of what makes a strong man: the angry, macho self-reliant hero, or the caring, strong and vulnerable servant-leader.

The more there are of us who tell the story of strength in vulnerability, the more we push the shadow back, and the more God is revealed.

From David’s Harp to Praise Songs in the 21st Century


Tim Dowley, Christian Music: A Global History, Oxford: Lion Hudson Plc (2011)

ISBN: 0745953247 / 9780745953243

263 pages, illustrated, hardcover from $AU 29.50 online.

In Australian Libraries: http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/203573249

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Tim Dowley is a church historian who has written biographies of J.S. Bach and Robert Schumann. Christian Music is an historical survey of everything musical in Christian worship from David’s harp to 21st Century praise music. It covers contemporary Christian music on every continent, including Australian and the Pacific, and every style of music from choral to hymns to instrumental.

It was good to be reminded of the rise of Christian rock and the banning of early practitioners like Larry Norman, 1970s pioneer of “Jesus Music”, and to see his place in the development from Gospel to praise music.

The strength of this book is its breadth, and the clarity with which such a wide range of music is described. It is beautifully and generously illustrated adding a further dimension of understanding: depictions of early instruments with comments on their accuracy are a great aid to understanding a little better how the music of each period sounded. A few screenshots show the development of musical notation and its impact on composition without drowning the reader in technical description, and sensitive portraits make the viewer ponder the sensibility of individual composers.

Seven specialist contributors take the reader to places where Dr Dowley was not so familiar: Dr Mark Evans is the guide for Australia and the Pacific, Lisbon-based Orthodox priest the Reverend Dr Ivan Moody explores Orthodox music.

Of course, breadth leads to mistakes of over-simplification. Gustav Mahler, for example, whose music has a complex and intentional Christian dimension, is dismissed in a sentence: “Gustav Mahler, a convert to Catholicism, confessed he could not compose a mass because he could not affirm the Credo.” (p.165). In contrast the sceptic Verdi and the Jewish Mendelssohn rightly receive one page and three pages respectively for their efforts in writing music around Christian themes (p.162, pp.159-161).

To produce a book like this, charmingly presented, wide-ranging and clearly written, of course involves many choices about inclusions. It is too easy to nit-pick on the basis of what has been left out. What has been left in covers a huge range of material placed in a narrative which reveals the dynamism, inventiveness and beauty of music inspired by Christian faith and used in Christian worship.

It will remain on my shelf as a reference and a companion to treasure.

Dr Tim Dowley

Alan Blackwood: Builder of Men


Alan Blackwood is dead, and I salute my former house-master and colleague.

Boys nicknamed Alan “Hoont”, and it was a sort of joke that we all knew why. I never did. I always spelt it in my mind “Hund”, as in the German for “dog”, but that’s the last thing you’d call Mr Blackwood.

As a figure of authority – he was Deputy Headmaster for over 30 years – Alan Blackwood had an extraordinary sense of justice. He believed in corporal punishment and regularly handed out 4 or 6 lashes of the cane for serious offences, but boys rarely felt treated unfairly.

He was always for me an exemplar of manhood. Alan was a big man who held himself well with practised military bearing. He carried the mystique of having served in Special Forces during the war. He spoke less about this experience than Headmaster Peter Moyes, who was also reticent to describe his time in Z Force.

When I returned to the school, I worried about how he would receive me as a colleague. On my first day as chaplain, I called him “Mr Blackwood.” He surprised me with a warm smile. “It’s Alan,” he said, “now you call me Alan.” He turned out to be the easiest of colleagues, supportive, friendly and helpful. In particular on the five-man School Executive, Alan was the encourager, the man who could see how others’ vision could be put into action.

As his chaplain, I never really found out what Alan believed. I suspect he had seen things so horrible in the war, things that human beings should never see, that he had suspended his belief in God. But he also must have seen some special padres, and he held my office in high respect. He fought against measures to dilute the effects of Chapel-going. On the other hand, he did not disguise his contempt (in private, at least) for a chaplain colleague who was not, in his opinion, up to scratch.

Many Old Boys and staff were closer to Alan than I was. But I knew him as a decent, upright human being who loved Christ Church and showed many boys how to be men.

Invasion, Survival or Celebration: A Native Australian’s Day


Ngaala kaaditj Noogar moort keyen kaadak midja boodja

We acknowledge Noongar people as the original custodians of this land. In particular, on this Australia Day in this place, Busselton, I acknowledge the Wardan people, the Noongar sea people, who have walked this part of Noongar boodja for tens of thousands of years.

Reconciliation Australia puts before Australians three options for marking January 26: for many Indigenous Australians, this date can only be remembered as the anniversary of the British invasion, with the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney. For others, they celebrate the survival of their culture despite every hostile attempt to destroy it. For others, it is a day of celebrating the rich culture brought to this country by Europeans and shaped as well by indigenous and later migrant influences.

As a wedullah man, I tread carefully in this conversation. I am a native, but not indigenous. I have held positions of authority, and as a white man with a privileged education, I can make no claims to share the lot of the powerless.

January 26 also happens to be the anniversary of my baptism in 1949, so today is also coloured by being claimed by Christ. My formation in Christ leads me to seek confrontation only if it will lead to reconciliation, and to rejoice in human culture only if it reflects in some way divine creativity.

Noongars had a different experience of white settlement than Aborigines in the Eastern States. Firstly, contact with individual ships of explorers and lost traders was earlier than on the East coast and it seems that Noongar elders developed some strategies for welcoming wedulahs into their midst. While they didn’t count on the level of violence the wedulahs would bring, it seems they were not so much on the back foot as were the Sydney mob. The Noongars lost land – and that was and is a calamity – but they did not entirely lose the initiative. They can be proud of Yagan and others who resisted the newcomers.

Because Western Australia was not founded as a convict settlement, ownership of land was open to all classes of people. In the 19th century, some aborigines owned farms. It was only in the early 20th that discriminatory laws deprived most Noongar farmers of those properties.

Those who see today as Invasion Day, whether Aboriginal or whitefella, tend to have an Eastern States-centric view of history. The predominant emotion of their history-telling is anger. This anger provides energy in the search for social justice, in the genuine attempts to close the gap, in the attempts to empower Aboriginal and Islander people to take a prime role in Australian society. Australia needs to feel the fire of that anger and to be moved by it to make a more equal community.

Those who want to mark today as Survival Day are conscious of the extraordinary achievements of Aboriginal culture. I am constantly thrilled by new (to me) rock paintings and dance that are dazzling, complex, ancient and contemporary. Some proponents of Survival Day are upbeat and invite people to celebrate the glories of Aboriginal culture and its resilience against the odds. Others mark Survival Day with a grudging pride, a sense of “You have to admit it: Aboriginal culture has something special. How sad that it was nearly lost.”

Others want to celebrate the possibilities of Western culture and the tempering influence Aboriginal culture can have on it. It took courage for Jessica Mauboy to sing “Advance Australia Fair” at the Award Ceremonies last night. I am sure some will bring out choice epithets to describe her acceptance of the invitation to sing as a betrayal. But I’m sure Mauboy saw it the other way around: people would be impressed the quality of her singing regardless of her race, but, even so, she brought to her rendering of the Anthem resonances from her background.

Jessica Mauboy sings the national anthem – a brave gig? Photo courtesy Crikey.com.au

It’s true that whitefellas in particular can celebrate today in a spirit of forgetfulness as if the first inhabitants don’t exist. They mark Australia with the ongoing tag of terra nullius. They should be called out for their hypocrisy.

But as an Australian native, I want to celebrate much about this country: its natural attributes, and its people, some of whom have fled from fear and oppression in 2013, some whose great-great-grandparents made the dangerous boat trip from Britain 200 years ago, and others who ancestors crossed the land-bridge from Indonesia 60,000 years ago. It’s a rich mix and a beautiful blend.

I respect people who choose to mark today as one or other – Invasion Day, Survival Day or Celebration of a Nation. But personally I want the three together – the anger, the pride and the joy all make sense, and I hope extend my hand to Noongars and Aboriginal people around Australia.

Jonah and the Projection of his Dark Side


Sermon 25 January 2015

Epiphany 3

St George’s, Dunsborough

There have been Christians in Iraq since the earliest times, probably as long as, or even longer than there have been Christians in Syria. The Iraqi Christian community may be the oldest continuous Christian community in the world. In recent years, their numbers have been decimated. In 1987, there were 1.4 million or about 8% of the population. We should not have been surprised that Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s Deputy Prime Minister, was a Christian. By 2010, the number had dropped to between 200,000 and 400,000.

The terror group calling itself Islamic State in Syria and the Levant has reduced the number of Christians even further; and, it should be said, the number of Yezidi, and Shia Muslims, and even Sunni Muslims who are not intense enough in their beliefs, all have been reduced by ISIL.

ISIL proclaimed its “caliphate” in Mosul just across the river from the ruins of Nineveh, and made its destructive presence felt not only in beheadings and mass executions but also by blowing up Jonah’s tomb, not because they had anything against Jonah, who is also a prophet in Islam, but because their brand of fundamentalism worries that people might worship the shrine instead of the God to whom it is dedicated.

Even so it’s not immediately obvious why Jonah is an exemplary prophet. The rabbis debated as to whether Jonah should be included in the Bible, and many Protestant scholars regard him as a failed prophet.

His story is told as a four chapter novella – a fictional form. Whether there’s history or not behind the story is your judgement call. In the first chapter, God told Jonah to go and proclaim to Nineveh, the largest city in the world. Go to New Delhi; or go to Shanghai; go to Nineveh. But Jonah booked a passage for Tarshish. That’s like buying a ticket for South America. He headed as far as possible in the opposite direction.

Then “the Lord hurled a powerful wind on the sea. Such a violent tempest arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break up.” (Jonah 1:4) The terrified sailors each cried out to their own gods. Jonah went below and went to sleep. He didn’t help. He didn’t even pray. This storm, he knew, was his doing, and he was still running from responsibility.

Eventually the sailors drew lots to discover who was the cause of the storm. Jonah drew the short straw. The sailors questioned Jonah, who then – at last – began to preach. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). This made the sailors more frightened and the storm grew worse and worse until Jonah offered to be thrown overboard.

It’s only then that the storm stopped. Many commentators believe that the storm was an internal storm. It was happening in Jonah’s head. It was telling of his emotional state. Denying his responsibility caused turmoil within him. The moment he took responsibility the storm stopped. But he didn’t admit full responsibility. The admission was squeezed out of him. So a further step had to be taken before Jonah was behaving like an adult.

As the storm calmed, a big fish swallowed Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the big fish for three days and three nights. Three days and three nights is a significant period in the Bible. One life ends and a new life begins. Sometimes the bible talks about two days, sometimes three days; sometimes it talks about a new life beginning “on the third day”. It all means the same. You can easily get confused with the numbers, just like when you are talking with a travel agent about a travel package – a week’s holiday might be six days. Two days, three days – it depends when you start counting from – but it always signals a transition time.

So in the fish’s stomach for three days Jonah told God how sorry he was, and after the transition time, the Lord commanded the fish to disgorge Jonah on dry land. (2:10)

All that was being mulled over in his head, stirred up, with that feeling in the pit of his stomach, unable to see the way ahead, suddenly became calm and light: Jonah could see the way ahead.

The Lord then gave Jonah a second chance to go to huge Nineveh, the enormous city, and proclaim the message that the Lord will give. Jonah’s message was five words in Hebrew, the shortest and most effective sermon ever. “Forty days until Nineveh’s overthrown!” ‘

Much to Jonah’s surprise the people heeded Jonah’s message: they repented. The king, the people, the cattle, the sheep, everyone repented; and so whole-heartedly that God repented too and decided not to destroy the city.

“This displeased Jonah terribly and he became very angry.” (4:1) Chapter 4 is wonderful comedy starring the irate Jonah. God appointed a little plant to grow over Jonah and shade his head to rescue him from his misery. And “Jonah rejoiced with great joy” (4:6) over the little plant.

But then God sent a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah was furious about the destruction of the plant. God mildly made the point that God was concerned about destroying a mega-city with more than 120,000 people – plus animals – and Jonah was concerned about one plant.

If it wasn’t so tragic, Jonah’s story would be funny.

Jonah was not at ease in his own skin, he was a prophet who ran away, who was churned up inside about his vocation, and the story reveals what happened when these inner emotions were allowed out.

Rather than take responsibility Jonah was quite happy to let a ship full of sailors break up and go down. When he got to Nineveh, he was still a reluctant prophet. He went only one day’s walk into the city. He preached only five words. He pronounced the destruction of an entire city.

There’s an old riddle: how do you tell the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? A liturgist is an expert in how things go in worship, what colour you should use for what season, what vestment you should wear, what gestures you should make. What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist. The joke is funny only because negotiation is not what terrorists do. They hold to ransom. They demand. They stipulate destruction.

Jonah’s job, on the other hand, was to “proclaim”. The difference between “proclaiming” and “stipulating” may be difficult for a fundamentalist to grasp, but for the rest of us, “proclaiming” includes “engaging with”. Jonah was supposed to learn that his task involved discussion, persuasion and responsibility. Instead he contemplated the annihilation of the biggest city in the world.

God does not work through mass destruction, whether it is the massacre of journalists in Paris or the beheading of Christians in Iraq.

Jonah’s story brings us up short with its perceptive psychology. It’s not really about recruitment for ISIS. It’s about us and how we can be like Jonahs in our own homes and in our own communities.

When we’re uncomfortable with ourselves, we can become manipulative and destructive towards others. We blame. We blame God. We blame people who are different. We blame people who are close to us. We confuse our feelings with the world outside. The dark side of Jonah leads me to create a check-list so that I don’t end up like him caring more about the life of one little plant than a whole community.

  • Am I leaving others room to make their own decisions?
  • Am I really taking responsibility for my own actions?
  • Am I acknowledging my changing moods and feelings?
  • Am I really prepared to repent, and to change?
  • Am I open to God so that God’s love can flow through me to others?

“No sign will be given this adulterous and sinful generation,” declares Jesus, “except the sign of Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39, 16:4, Luke 11:29). Jesus rescues Jonah’s reputation on two counts. Firstly, Jonah and Jesus both sleep through a raging storm, and then with the stilling of the storm it is revealed who is the Creator of the sea and the wind.

Secondly, Jonah’s three days in the big fish, being swallowed at the end of his old life of denial and being disgorged to a new life of obedience, pre-figure the three days Jesus spends in the earth between the crucifixion and the resurrection, entering the tomb a dead man and rising to new life for all people.

By that calculation, Jonah is far from being a failed prophet. He’ll go on causing laughter and discussion and leading us into deeper insight into being real before God.

Vocation: consistent, constant and insistent


Sermon for Epiphany 2 – St George’s, Dunsborough

18 January 2014

I Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” (I Samuel 3:1) That may not have been surprising. Eli was old, frail and nearly blind. He couldn’t see how corrupt his two sons were, partly because he was a doting father, and he didn’t want to believe that his offspring could be the stand-over merchants they were. His eyesight was failing, and as they say, “There are none so blind as so those who do not want to see.”

Maybe Eli’s end of life fatigue made him deaf to the word of the Lord. He wasn’t even in the Temple when the word of the Lord came, and the eternal lamp was only just flickering.

Little Samuel, on the other hand, was right inside the Temple, but he was naïve. He didn’t know what the word of the Lord was. There was nothing to hear because Samuel didn’t know then that there could be anything to hear.

So the word of the Lord was infrequent. I don’t think that means that the Lord had given up on his side. God still spoke consistently. People just listened infrequently.

We’re just human, after all. When I was about eight, my big brother said to me, “Don’t let them,” (them meaning our parents) “Don’t let them teach you how to milk the cow, or else you’ll get the job.” I never did learn how to milk a cow! We all arrange things so we won’t get called up to do some task or another, and we justify it to ourselves some way or another. But in the end, it’s avoiding the responsibility of a relationship.

Eli hadn’t taught Samuel how to listen because Eli knew what was likely in store for Samuel: a call to minister to the Lord in the Temple. But the Lord persisted, as the Lord does. The Lord woke Samuel, and Eli sent him back to bed telling him he was mistaken. He hadn’t heard a voice. How ridiculous! God doesn’t call people. The word of the Lord is rare.

Three times the Lord called. Three times Samuel answered, “Here I am, for you called me,” and three times Eli sent him back to bed.

Eli knew that both Samuel and he had to take on this responsibility. Samuel had to respond to this call from God, and Eli had to mentor him to become a spiritual leader. Both Eli and Samuel were called up to duty, to take up the responsibilities God had for them. So on the fourth occasion, Eli gave Samuel the instruction to reply, “Speak, Yahweh, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (3:9-10).

God did have something to say. It wasn’t actually the case that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. God had been calling Samuel before that night. God called Samuel repeatedly that night. God continued to call Samuel all through his life from that night on. The name “Samuel”, “Sh’muel” in the original Hebrew, means “called by God”.

Shmuel

Of course these days, in 2015, in our sophisticated world, the word of the Lord is rare. I mean, who would admit to hearing God speak to them?

Or might it be the case that it is our deafness, our spiritual unwillingness to listen, that is giving the impression that the word of the Lord is rare? We don’t want to hear, in case we’re called up to do a task, and get caught up in a web of relationships having to be responsible. Count me out, we pray silently. We might get the job of milking the cow every morning.

But the uncomfortable truth is that God is consistent and insistent. He continues to call people to himself.

Nathanael, in this morning’s Gospel, was called through Philip. That was the moment Nathanael responded, but he was surprised to realise that Jesus had already called him. Jesus had already called him when he was sitting under the fig-tree, presumably studying the Old Testament. (The scholars say what else would a model Israelite be doing sitting under a fig-tree?)

The fact of being called is important in itself, important enough to be recorded in the Scriptures.

God continues to call us. Not just like Samuel, at the beginning of our Christian lives, to particular life-long tasks of ministry, although those calls are still valid and immensely important. I’m no longer able to run a parish or work as a school chaplain, but I still feel strongly under the call of 40, 60 years ago to be a teacher and priest. The shape of the tasks is different; the call is still there.

Just as I am called, you are called. As a priest, the sacrament of ordination makes visible the fact that I am called. But that sacrament testifies to a God who calls his people. God has been calling you; God is calling you, God will go on calling you.

We are obviously not all called to be priests. But we are called to be with God. This aspect of being called grows in importance as we grow older. Our calling is first of all to respond in love to that love which believes enough in us to be constant in calling us to him.

Our calling is to be loved. Beyond all the tasks, beyond all the busy-ness. God calls us to allow Him to love us. Before we begin to love God, before we begin to love others, knowing that God loves us.

There’s a well-known prayer by St Ignatius of Loyola that usually goes by the name of Suscipe, the first word of the prayer in Latin. Suscipe means “Take”. The prayer goes:

“Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all these to me. To You, Lord, I return it. All is Yours, dispose of it wholly according to Your will. Give me Your love and Your grace, for this is sufficient for me.”

       “Give me Your love and Your grace, for this is sufficient for me.”

Take a moment now in your place to be aware that God is calling you. God has been calling you; God will continue to call you. If you are comfortable in doing so, close your eyes. … … … Be aware of your name, your Christian name, the name by which God claimed you at baptism, the name by which God welcomes you into his nearer presence, and be aware of God calling that name.

In your heart, say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”… … … In the quiet, in the silence, continue to hear that loving voice speak your name; and hear whatever else He is saying to you. … … …

The Lord is with you.

Philip brings Nathanael to Jesus

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