Readings: 1 Samuel 3: 1-10; Luke 7: 36-50
Read the sermon below:
Speak Lord, your servants are listening.
Speak Lord, your servants are listening.
Speak Lord, your servants are listening. Amen
A challenging image
At the risk of sending you to sleep before I have hardly begun would you please close your eyes. [Not required to hear God's voice!] Now would you picture in your minds eye an old fashioned sand timer. The kind which has two bulbs of glass joined together in a wooden frame. The bottom one filled with sand the top empty. As the timer is turned over the sand begins to flow through a narrow connection between the bulbs and empty under gravity into the other bulb. Wonder what this image brings to mind?
If I can bring you back As you will appreciate this a slightly risky start to a sermon, as first I made you sleepy and now I have made some of you aware you missed breakfast, or have not played Pictionary or Boggle for a while!
A year ago probably longer the image of the sand timer came strongly to me in a time of prayer. It was unexpected and was linked to a thought about the future of the Church of England. It was unsettling because what came into my mind was this: is time running out for the Church of England? More disturbingly was this: Is it God who has turned the timer over? Although God would not give up on the universal Church the Church in England might the Church of England be about to enter a period equivalent to the wilderness or the exile? Is a diminishing of our impact, our influence and our numbers part of God's purpose for recovering our bearings and spiritual vitality?
As you might imagine this was a hard thing to reckon with for someone who has given my best energies to serve God and the people he loves through the CofE. And it was a thought which seemed to go in a very different direction from my normal trajectory I have been described as relentlessly hopeful and this seemed anything but. I didnt know whether this sombre image was a gift from the Spirit or an expression of my unconscious anxieties as a bishop. It was arresting and concerning but I gave it to God and recommitted myself to giving my best and my all in what God has called me to. It is something I have shared with my colleagues in the Bishops Staff but it was not something I felt I would go more public with certainly did not feel like an image to inspire the troops at a Maundy Thursday Eucharist.
A tough message to hear and deliver
That was until I took a quiet day earlier this week to prepare for today. The image came back very clearly as I studied the passage from 1 Samuel chapter 3, and context of the preceding two chapters. As so often with the lectionary readings chapter 3 stops at verse 10 when the sting is in the 11 verses that end the chapter. What the Lord speaks to Samuel the servant who is listening is very tough indeed. The message is that the priesthood of Eli one which Yahweh has said he would be faithful to for ever is now to end. The behaviour of Elis sons, both priests at Shiloh their flagrant corruption and immorality have caused Yahweh to withdraw his promise to them and this, as Walter Brueggeman points out, is truly shocking in itself. The sands have run out for Elis dynasty because of his inability to deal with his own family and address what has brought the priesthood into shame and disrepute. This is an ending.
BUT and this is critical even as Yahweh draws Elis inheritance to an end, he announces a fresh beginning. And Eli despite the failings of his sons and his own inability to discipline them yet plays a key role in the new beginning. The boy Samuel, whom God has chosen to replace Eli, has been nurtured, cared for, and invested in by Eli himself.
The depressing opening to chapter 3 with its statement that the word of the Lord was rare and there were not many visions was about to change. Samuel, who has not yet learned to recognise God's voice, is tutored by Eli both in the listening and the speaking, and Eli models to the young Samuel both humility, courage and the acceptance of hard truths. Samuel is understandably fearful of uttering what he has heard to Eli that God is bringing judgement on the house of Eli yet it is Eli who has been a blessing to Samuel and has been deeply involved in making Samuel the person he is and will become from before conception as Eli blesses Samuels mother, to this point of transition. Elis inheritance will be down a different line one might say an adopted line - but there is an inheritance.
Embracing the ending and the beginning
Being given this passage to preach on has felt like the completion of a word of God to me. Having only seen an ending in the sands running through I have now perceived the countdown as a positive maybe it is just that relentless hopefulness coming back but perhaps it is the renewal of confidence in what God might be doing. It feels like I had to let one reality take hold before taking hold of the hope, and I believe I am not the only one that applies to. So easy to be a wishful thinker Diocese or parish. Just as Samuel had to face Eli with an unpleasant reality, so we have to receive hard truths and indeed help others to receive them.
Last week I heard someone from Liverpool speaking about how their Diocese has sought to name their reality in fact, three realities: Broken Buildings, Aging Money and Retiring Clergy. It has been sobering to name them it was described as a platform burning from the ends and in the middle (!) but it has also been liberating. There is a fresh energy for imagining the future and a greater boldness. It is when reality bites that God's people often become more attentive to God and prayers become more real. Way we name crucial Samuels reluctance. Mine in preparing this. Jesus and naming reality for Simon hardened religious man. Jesus insulted yet stays and names reality with grace.
Bishop Mike has regularly spoken of the need for leaders to define reality and that is what we seek to do in this Diocese, and will continue to do. That is why it is right to hold both the threat and the promise in the image of the sand timer. To be prepared and to make endings, but to hold them with beginnings. This is what we are seeking in the Diocese as deaneries, boards, central services and the Bishops Staff work together to re-imagine ministry and mission and foster growth. 10 000 Voices the vision of seeing 10 000 Christians sharing their story of faith with someone who is not a believer is an initiative which recognises the reality that most of us dont find this easy, but seeks to turn this around and build fresh confidence and spiritual vitality. Learn to treasure the E word!
The older investing in the young to hear God afresh
Before I close there is one dimension of 1 Samuel 3 which I want to return to, and that it is the interplay between the generations: Eli, the minister whose season is closing, and Samuel, the one on whom God's favour rests and who will provide godly leadership into the future. Eli realises that God is speaking to and through Samuel. Many of us here this morning have been invested in as young men and women, and given opportunities to develop. Older and much wiser ministers lay and ordained have listened to us and sought to discern what God might be saying through us. [Great lesson in my late 20s - David Saville and not discounting what God saying through a somewhat awkward teenager] We know that many churches struggle to connect with teenagers but not because they arent open to exploring the Christian faith. Have we asked young men and women what they might be looking for? Can we get better at engaging with them, supporting them in exploring, questioning and critiquing. How can we work together with our schools? Hannah brought Samuel to Shiloh and God may be bringing many young people to us only for us not to recognise the gift and responsibility. And those we do have are we encouraging them to grow in spiritual stature the words used about Jesus which echo those used of Samuel.
In the vocations team we have seen a number of much younger people exploring lay and ordained ministries. We dont know what the Church of England might look like in 10 or 20 years, but such people will be critical in shaping that. The question for older ministers like me is how can we invest in them and receive what God has to say to us through them. It is a question I believe God is planting in our midst. As with Eli it may well mean embracing an ending to some of our inherent ways of working but if we can do it with humility and acceptance listening for the new thing God is doing we will not only be a blessing, we will see a blessing.
A moment of quiet to picture sand timer again and ask God what he may be speaking to you in that image.
Lord your servants have been listening let us turn your word to us into actions.