This is my sermon from the Second Sunday after the Epiphany in Year B, January 17, 2021. You will find the lectionary here.
This past week I was at a preaching conference. The conference was for experienced preachers and focused on preaching during the pandemic and the resurgence of white supremacy resulting in the violence we have witnessed time and time again. I signed up for this conference because it has been increasing difficult to find a fresh message each week, one with both relevance and the hope of the Good News we have in Jesus. As is the case with so many of you, I am tired. Covid, racial injustice, and violence have worn me down, have disrupted my sense of how to navigate my life in ways big and small. I went to this conference because I needed to be fed, to be renewed and refreshed. I went because I needed to be reminded somehow of how to do what it is that I am to do, here, each and every week, with and for you.
One of the plenary speakers said something that our Bishop has been saying for over a year, quoting the Book of Esther: “We are ‘called for a time such as this’”. Though it isn’t always to clear to me why – or perhaps “Why me?” – I believe that. I know it to be true. Another speaker quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. (who may have been quoting someone else): “You can no more preach what you don’t know than you can come back from somewhere you’ve never been.” It occurred to me after reading the story from the Hebrew Scriptures that we heard this morning, the wonderful and familiar story of young Samuel’s call, that it might help to go back to the beginning, or, at least, the beginning of this part of my life.
Until I was 12, I went to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church. At that time, my mother was Roman Catholic and my father Episcopal so I went to Mass and Catechism classes at St. Bernard’s Church, and the “service” and Sunday School at All Saints’. I remember clearly Good Friday when I was seven years old, just before my First Communion. I was sitting with my Catechism class mates in front of the tabernacle in St. Bernard’s, sitting vigil. I remember the soft blue and cream of the walls and ceiling, the blonde wood of the side altar and the pews, and the shiny gold of the monstrance that held the host, the Body of Christ, set into an alcove with vividly colored scenes of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I remember being transfixed by the experience of all it, even though I had no idea what it meant. I knew I was there for a reason and that reason was not that the nuns told me I had to be if I wanted to receive First Communion.
At some point, Monsignor O’Brien started praying out loud. I have a somewhat hazy memory of seeing him off to my left, seated in the chancel, though not at his usual place behind the altar. I glanced at him when I heard him begin to pray and he was kneeling, closer to us than he had been and focused on the tabernacle. I have no idea what he was saying because he was praying in Latin. I remember his somewhat ruddy complexion, his piercing blue eyes, and his thick, wavy white hair. I remember knowing – in that way you do when you know something from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, with every fiber of your being – that God wanted me to do what he was doing, even though, as I said, I didn’t know exactly what he was doing and I knew that I was not a boy and girls didn’t do what he was doing. Monsignor O’Brien was my accidental Eli, the priest who helped me to hear God’s voice.
I mentioned – didn’t I?- that this happened in the Roman Catholic Church, not exactly a place where women are allowed to answer a call from God in the same way that men do. What I didn’t mention, perhaps because it’s a reminder of just how not young I am, this happened a good seven years before the first women were ordained in the Episcopal Church, and more years than that before the ordination of women was not an unwelcome exception to the rule. At the time that God first called me to be more fully who I am, it was not even possible for me to answer. And, had I been able to answer, I had absolutely no idea what the invitation was about.
Calls from God are not all the same, though we all are called to something. Some hear God’s voice distinctly, as Samuel did, while others just feel different in a moment or over time. Some are called as children, like Samuel. Some are called when they doubt, such as Nathaneal was in today’s Gospel. What I knew when I was a child and know even more so now, is that a call from God is both about the one being called and not at all about that one. God calls us to be a part of something bigger than we are, to use the gifts that we have been given to make a positive difference in this world, wherever we find ourselves, in whatever time it is.
Calls from God are about God and how God works in and through us, with a persistence and with a vision of the world that we cannot know in advance. Sure, we can have some idea of what it means to live faithfully, perhaps even some of the responsibilities and tasks of the call, but we can not know exactly how it will unfold, any more than I could have predicted a global pandemic in 2020 and living my faith here in Millburn with all of you, any more than Samuel could have known that he would become a king maker, eventually anointing Saul and then David; David from whose lineage Jesus would be born.
What we can know – what I hope all of us do know- is that God calls each of us to a life of faith, a life that will continue to unfold. When God calls, it is never to just what we know or think we know. It is always to more, sometimes in ways that are clear and make sense to us, sometimes in ways that leave us wondering what on earth God was thinking. God promises to be with us always and will remind us of why we are called as we are, bringing us to places and to be with people who remind us, too. God calls us to live our best selves in ways that are always meaningful and sometimes confusing or challenging. God calls us in ways that will transform us, with the promise that one day the whole world will be united in God’s perfect love.
Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland