Christ Church, Springfield—I Samuel 3:1-20
Father Kevin Martin is a retired priest in Texas with decades-long experience as a congregational development consultant. I used to look at his online newsletter from time to time; more recently it’s a Facebook group. He once listed several convictions that he believes are essential to congregational health and growth. One of them was this: “Boring people is a sin.” For some reason, that got my attention. Do I bore people with my preaching? Do we bore people with our worship in the congregations of the Diocese of Springfield? Is Christ Church boring? I’m not the one to answer those questions, of course, but I certainly try not to be boring. And I take the question seriously, because I really hate being bored myself, as most people do. There are a number of things that have the potential to bore me. Even as a “religious professional,” certain religious attitudes and practices have the capacity to bore me intensely. (It’s one of the reasons I became an Episcopalian 45 years ago; I’d found a way to actually make going to church fun!) And what I find most boring is watered-down, toothless, harmless, gutless Christianity. I am bored beyond tears by any vision of Christianity that reduces it to a bare minimum, a vague sense that we should believe in God, be as nice as we can to people, and volunteer for a few things before we die.
Unfortunately, this describes the way many people understand their involvement with the church and with Christian religious practice. Even if we know better, and even if we would never think it or say it directly, in actual practice we reduce the creed to its first article: “I believe in God.” All the rest is considered to be optional or incomprehensible, or both. We reduce Christian discipleship to trying our best to be good people, in a generic sense, and, for extra credit, trying to do something concrete to make the world a better place. This invariably results, however, in deep frustration arising from a lack of a sense of purpose in life, a lack of a sense of mission and direction.
We get ourselves all in a twist trying to do what we think must be “God’s work on earth.” And they’re good things—don’t get me wrong. Feeding the hungry and housing the homeless and educating the illiterate and solving conflicts and preventing violence are all good things. They’re good things and God approves of them. Believing in God and being nice and “making the world a better place” are not bad things, and we should be doing them. We just should not be thinking that this is the heart of Christianity, because it’s not.
Yet, in thinking that it is, we’re in good company, historically speaking. Back in the days of ancient Israel, before they had a king—we’re talking maybe 1200 BC—before there was a king in Israel, before there was a temple in Jerusalem, the Ark of the Covenant—the sign of God’s presence with His people—was kept for a time in a shrine at Shiloh, and attended by a priest named Eli, who was assisted by his two sons and, in time, by a young apprentice—a child, actually—named Samuel. Eli was just trying to faithfully and inconspicuously do “God’s work on earth,” taking care of the shrine and attending to the needs of those who came to worship there. His sons were lazy and corrupt, but Eli plugged along, and Samuel helped him.
Yet, as the biblical writer tells the story, there’s a pervasive gloom that’s hard to shake. We are told that “the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” It may not have been the worst of times, but it certainly wasn’t the best of times. The absence of the word of the Lord, the absence of frequent visions, must have made things, not only around Shiloh but through all of Israel, rather dull, rather lifeless, rather . . . boring. Now, the story, as we heard it read a few minutes ago, is not really about Eli, is it? It’s about the young boy Samuel. Samuel hears a voice calling him in the night. He thinks it’s Eli, but it’s not; it’s the Lord. But Samuel doesn’t recognize the voice of the Lord, because, as the author tells us, “Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.” Without a living personal relationship with and knowledge of God, Samuel was not equipped to recognize the voice of God when God called him. Without a living personal relationship with and knowledge of God, you and I are not equipped to recognize the voice of God when God is calling us. We just plod ahead out of formal institutional momentum, doing what we think we’re supposed to be doing, and more often than not, bored out of our minds.
Most of you may remember the TV series The West Wing. I was pretty much addicted to it in the last three or four years of its run, and watched the seasons I had missed on DVD. In the classic years of the series, the main characters, senior members of the White House staff, were consistently passionate in their devotion to the president at whose pleasure they served. They knew him. They knew him as a person, not just as a president. They didn’t just know about him, they knew him. And that personal knowledge enabled them to stretch themselves and push themselves and work harder than they ever thought possible in order to serve that president. And they were never bored for a second! At the same time, many other people in the country were of the same party as the president, and largely shared the same views as the president. But they could hardly have been expected to be nearly as passionate in their effort and zeal on behalf of the president as were those who knew him personally and interacted with him daily. They only knew about President Bartlett; they didn’t actually know President Bartlett. The quality of knowledge makes all the difference in the world.
The third time Samuel comes to Eli in the night saying, “Were you calling me, boss?”, Eli finally figures out what’s going on. He says to Samuel, “Next time you hear the voice, son, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” The rest, as they say, is history. On that night, Samuel got to know the Lord, and the word of the Lord came to him in a powerful way, and he was given a job to do, and he went on to become the greatest prophet in Israel’s early history. Your vocation and mine may not be quite so auspicious, but we won’t be in a position to even know until we come to “know the Lord.” Only then are we in a position to be able to hear his voice, to discern his will for us with some clarity.
When we know the Lord, when God is an everyday reality in our lives—a living reality, not a hypothetical construct—it’s like having a cell phone with five bars on the signal strength meter; we can hear loud and clear. When we come to know the Lord, we realize that a personal daily “walk with Christ” is more than vaguely “believing in God.” When we come to know the Lord, we realize that our main calling as a Christian is to become holy, and becoming holy is a whole lot more than being nice. When we come to know the Lord, we realize that Jesus wants us to be his disciples, his followers, and that discipleship is infinitely more demanding than volunteer work. When we come to know the Lord, the stage is set for something tremendously fruitful and infinitely satisfying, and sometimes even exciting and practically never boring. The Lord tells Samuel, “I am about to do a thing in Israel, at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle.” How my inadequate pastor’s heart wishes we could hear that message and substitute “Diocese of Springfield” and “Christ Church” for “Israel.” “I am about to do a thing in the Diocese of Springfield—at Christ Church, at St Paul’s Cathedral, at St Luke’s—at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle.” What might happen if we, together, were to say to God, “Speak, Lord, for your servants hear?” What might God accomplish in us and through us if we were united in our desire for the Lord to reveal to us and empower us for the specific mission to which He calls us at this time in our history? The thought makes these two ears, at least, tingle with excitement.
I invite you to join me in some prayerful listening. I’ll be even more specific: The vision that I believe God has given me as bishop is that the three congregations that are in the city of Springfield—the cathedral, Christ Church, and St Luke’s—will be moved to come together in prayer and in dedication to the gospel, to coordinate the work of mission in this city and in Sangamon County. I realize that there is a long list of reasons, about 130 years of reasons, why this is an audacious and daunting vision. But the Lord is calling us, as he called the boy Samuel. My prayer is that our collective response will be, “Speak, Lord, for your servants hear.” And then let us listen. Amen.