In the Name of God Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Last night or early yesterday evening I read through a sermon of John Wesley’s which was based on the Gospel Text in Verse 47 and what John Wesley picks out is “Truly an Israelite...” and then that’s what he preached on.
And as I read through it - and it was certainly at least half and hour’s worth of preaching (I got bored, the chances are it was a lot longer), I thought: I am sure that John Wesley would be appalled, absolutely appalled if he were to hear the sermon of today. (Laughter from congregation)
Not particularly today, I mean you might be appalled at that! But certainly I thought of where I speak from and where John Wesley spoke from, and I thought, gosh, he would be appalled!
And it certainly says something to me about the orientation of the day; the Church orients itself, turns towards, the living Word, and in every age and every day that requires a different orientation. The orientation is constantly towards the Word of God. It might appear and look quite different, that’s when the Church is living the Gospel.
And certainly in John Wesley’s day the role of the Church was quite different, circumstantially different to what it is today. Perhaps by choice, perhaps by accident, the Church and the State were truly one. Now we know they had been, since
. But there was a working together. The Church provided the teaching that fed the factories, the protestant work ethic. The Church provided the teaching that enabled the statesmen with getting on with running the country that was their duty. The Church had a mission that was in line with the colonisation that was going on at the State level.
And the world was a lot simpler because the rules were absolute. Right and wrong were fantastically clear. In fact black and white, it was that clear. There were no shades of grey. And if there was any doubt or shades of grey, it was quite easy, you went to a priest and he could clearly tell you what was right and what was wrong.
Thankfully we hear Sunday by Sunday the living word of God and it cuts through whatever the Church is doing and wherever the Church is oriented. The living word of God just cuts through the whole lot, if we can hear it.
So I thought it was useful, having read what it would have felt like being in church back in John Wesley’s day. It did cause me to wonder: well what is our orientation today? Because as sure as eggs are eggs, someone will look back and they will know where the orientation of the church was in 2003.
It is perhaps harder to discern because we are moving we have moved we are still moving from absolute into world relativity. We’re discovering it. We are beginning to see as we listen to other faiths that in fact right and wrong might not quite be as simple as we thought and maybe there is right and right. And still wrong.
In order to discern that orientation I guess what we need to do is to open ourselves to hear God’s word, open our eyes to see God’s revelation, and then see where we are in relation to that. And we must, as we do that, beware and be careful of asking God what we want to hear. And the readings that we have today are very much about opening ourselves to hearing, opening our eyes to seeing.
A further thought this morning on John Wesley was: I can look back and project onto John Wesley what I think he would feel about today, and I can state with some confidence that I think that John Wesley would be appalled. I don’t know that John could do that, the other way round, I don’t know that he could look forward.
And as we just hear again the readings of today, just be aware of how much we rely on hindsight. Ah! With hindsight I can see! And this struck me I don’t know why this struck me this morning the first genre of video games, of arcade games remember what they were called? Did you used to play them? They were called Space Invaders. Remember those? Now with hindsight we can understand why they were called that. They’ve invaded so much bloody space, haven’t they! But what if, at the time, we could see with foresight? If we could see with foresight that these would invade our space? That they will suck the minds out of our children out of us for a while, probably or out of me for a little while. What if we could see with foresight?
We rely on hindsight; it’s the easy way. God’s word constantly calls us to use foresight and in the call that we hear this morning, what we hear is the beginning of that foresight: it’s the eyes of the prophet who looks forward. The looking back bit, don’t give yourself a tick, we can all do it, it’s easy with hindsight. It’s the foresight that we need to perhaps become aware of.
So we have that lovely story of Samuel and Eli. The way the story is set it’s almost there’s a quality about it if you picture the ageing mentor and his young student totally devoted, for they not only work and eat in the house of God, they sleep there too. And the story, quite, I think quite appropriately, is brought very much into the present day with the line that says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were not widespread.” You sort of go, oh - a bit like today, isn’t it? So we are already into the story.
One of the delights in the Bible is getting it new when you read it and every time I have heard this story (and quite predictably one can hear almost in the background the song that we will finish with today “Lord of sea and sky…. Here I am Lord. Here I am Lord”) it’s almost that we place ourselves into the story and my guess is, certainly my experience is, when I place myself into the story, I place myself in there as Samuel, and wish and wonder and look at what it would be like to hear that Word so clear.
To me the experience of that was hearing a call to the priesthood, but Samuel heard a constant call. It’s not the call of God that says “I want you to do this, or to be that” it’s a constant voice. O to be able to hear that and to be able to arrive and say “Here I am!” and be listening.
So I’ve read this story before and heard it before and before and before and just pop into the picture as Samuel. This time when I read it, it struck me how Samuel doesn’t hear, how he doesn’t hear. Three times he is called and he doesn’t recognise the voice even.
Hang on a minute. He’s with his mentor Eli, who has ministered all his life. He sleeps in the church. And he can’t recognise the voice. He cannot recognise the voice.
Then I thought - perhaps we should consider ourselves in the role of Eli. And it made me wonder, who is it, who is this Eli for me? Who guides me to recognise and to hear God’s word, God’s word constantly spoken, constantly calling? Who guides us to hear it? And then I wondered if I placed myself in the role of Eli, whom do I help to hear it. Who do I help to hear God’s word? And I then wondered about us as church, about whether we actually spend a bit too long as Samuel, with this great desire to hear God’s word, and every now and again, with a prod from Eli, going “O yea, yea, that’s God, isn’t it. Yep, yep. Got it. That’s God.” Rather than owning our role as Eli.
Because there is a part of us that is here because we have heard God’s word.
Now there is a lot of pressure on to perhaps see ourselves as Samuel, because then Eli can maintain a controlling interest. And this is the history of the church: I’m Eli, you’re Samuel, it’s that simple. No, no, let’s look at it that we are both Samuel and Eli. We desire to hear God’s word and at times, when it is clearly spoken, we will not recognise it, I will not recognise it. And it’s in our face! Space Invaders, they were called, and we allowed them to invade our space. It’s clear, it’s obvious, we don’t hear it. We don’t see it.
So we then need to own that part that’s Eli, because if we can do it as a community, if one of us fails to recognise the other, it can help us to hear: “You know what that is, don’t you, that’s the voice of God.” So in each other, the story, I think, calls for a dynamic in which we can own both. And as we perhaps place ourselves into that read the story again perhaps when you get home and put your own name in there for Samuel, put your own name there for Eli.
Read it through a couple of times. And you begin to wonder about us, the Church. What is the voice that we hear? What is the voice that we listen to? For it is the one that we attend to that will determine our orientation as Church. And for a long time I think we’ve closed down, we have relied on the
. We haven’t bothered. Why didn’t Samuel lay there a bit longer and listen intently. He knew that voice. He knew that voice. He could lie there and listen and listen and listen. Knee jerk reaction O that’s Eli who is calling me. Surely we do that, we knee-jerk react to the voice of God in a way that is not a response to that voice. Begin to look for an Eli who will help you to hear, because we all have hearing difficulties.
It’s picked up again, that whole story is picked up again in John’s Gospel, and there’s a twist, if you like, a turn, from the Samuel. The shift occurs when Nathanel realises that he was known by God he was known by Jesus and it changes his attitude. Before that he was behaving like an English…. he was behaving like an Australian cricketer, all right, up to that point. “Oh nothing good can come out of
, can it?” Typical racist comment. Up to that point, he’d already pre-judged the situation based on where this guy came from. Do we ever do that? No, I don’t think so! We don’t look at refugees and pre-judge any situations. Do we? No, no, we don’t do it with asylum seekers. No. We don’t do it at all. We don’t pre-judge things based on where people come from. But he did. Until he knew that he was known by Jesus. He changed, he completely changed. And he changed because knowing that he was known enabled him to know himself and from that place he could then seek and recognise Jesus.
They are two very similar stories. On the surface they are all about call and about our call. Don’t leave it at the surface level and go into some loop that you never get out of about ‘what does God want me to do?’ Go beyond all of that and see that this is about our orientation together. It is about our call here as a community. What is it that we hear, what everybody will respond to? Will I find Eli sitting next to me or does the person next to me look to me to be an Eli for them, guiding them, helping them to see?
We’ve got Eli, Philip, Nathaniel and Samuel today. I am sure we can find each of them in us and us in them. As we do that, as we relate our story to the story, we participate then in the life of the Church, and if we participate in the life of the Church we participate in the orientation of the Church and it too has a calling, a calling that is both Eli, enabling others to hear the word of God, and that is also a calling that is that of Samuel, being called to respond to the word of God.
The Lord be with you.