transition to transformation – a sermon for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany*

preaching(*and my last as rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC)

The call of Samuel. A story of transition. Appropriate for us today (though I dare not presume to step into the light of biblical proportion!) as I, your soon to retire rector, preach my last sermon; my final Sunday among you, in seven days, drawing nigh.

The call of Samuel, who will become the anointer of kings, signals transition in governance writ large in biblical historical sweep from the era of judges, like Deborah, Barak (so close to Barack; who knew?), Gideon, Samson, and others, who rose up to fight enemies, then, when the threat was vanquished, receded into obscurity, bequeathing no right of succession to the reigns of Saul, David, and those following. Samuel’s call also signals transition writ small, in the details of our immediate story, in the passing of leadership from Eli, an old, infirm priest, with failing eyesight, no longer able to behold a vision of God to Samuel and the commencement of his prophetic ministry.

This ancient story opens with a remarkably current observation: “God’s word was rare in those days.” At this point in the biblical narrative, long since there had been no pillars of fire or clouds of smoke to declare God’s presence, no parting of waters to demonstrate God’s power. So, in our post-modern era, long after the crumbling of our trust in our institutions, when was the last time since Martin, whose life and legacy we celebrate this weekend, have folk, nearly universally and absent of any hint of absurdity, claimed to have heard God’s voice? God’s word is rare in these days.

Back to Samuel. God’s word is rare. However, “the lamp of God has not gone out.” Literally, it’s night and the temple sanctuary light is lit. Metaphorically, a glimmer of light amid the surrounding darkness is a sign, however slight, of the people’s hope.

For what? That the silent God will speak. And God calls, “Samuel! Samuel!”, who, thinking Eli has summoned him, rises and goes to his mentor. Three times, back and forth, Samuel, meaning “God has heard”, comes to Eli, meaning “my God.” And Eli, though feeble and ineffective, incapable of corralling his incorrigible sons, finally recognizes that God has heard the people’s cry, instructing the boy how to answer when God next speaks: “If God calls, say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant listens’” (Such faithful counsel given what oft seems to be the way we pray in practice: “Listen, Lord, your servant speaks!”)

God declares that the mantle of leadership will be stripped from Eli, who, after long, faithful service, must depart in disgrace, and placed on the shoulders of Samuel, so young and unfamiliar with God’s ways, who must deliver the devastating word. And reading on in the story, what was true of Eli will be so for Samuel; in his dotage, his deceitful sons will betray their father’s faithfulness and the people will demand a reckoning.

Yet is not this, all of it, true always in all ways for all people: Transition, compelled by time and circumstance, from imperfect leadership to imperfect leadership. So imperfect that the cynical among us (or any of us when cynical) can find relevance, feel resonance in Nathanael’s question: What good can come out of (pick a place or person, principle or point of view)? Nothing is perfect; able to satisfy every desire. No one is perfect; able to intuit and meet every need or to meet every need even when known.

Eli. Flawed in his blindness, unable to behold a vision of God.

Samuel. Flawed in his youthful inexperience and, in his maturity, his indiscretion in the repetition of inherited patterns.

Martin, an icon of modern day prophetic ministry, daring to speak truth to power, his voice silenced by an assassin’s bullet. Flawed, his reputation sullied by marital infidelity and charges of plagiarism.

And though well I know my flaws, I cannot define all of my deficiencies in your eyes (for how can I know?). Nor do I dare imagine those of my successor, although I know, as human, she or he will have them.

What I do daresay is that we, each and all, are like Nathanael. Trusting our assumptions and expectations, we are inclined to respond with contempt when faced with anything or anyone that challenges what we think or calls into question what we believe we know.

It’s a good thing always to remember that it’s hard to know, to be certain of anything. It’s a good thing never to confuse our convictions with truth, with God. Although related they are (we hope!), our convictions and truth are not the same. For truth, for God, yea, life itself, we ourselves are filled with miracle and mystery, which are not riddles that by reason we can wrestle to resolve, but rather that which we never fully comprehend. Truth, God, life, we always are larger than (hence incapable of being contained, confined by) our convictions.

So, in moments when we are confronted with contradictions to our convictions and we ask, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” might we, like Nathanael, our raging skepticism in hand, go out to see, for…

It’s hard to believe that Messiah would come from a tiny town like Nazareth.

It’s hard to believe that God would speak to a young, unseasoned boy, Samuel, and not to the learned, long-serving priest, Eli.

It’s hard to believe that Martin, with prophetic voice, holding up to America a mirror of justice reflecting what she is meant to be, but has not yet fully been, could pierce the conscience of a nation.

Perhaps none of this truly involves matters of transition, but rather a miracle of transformation. A transformation that occurs when one experiences the mystery of being known. When that happens, one can recognize a call to be greater, larger, truer than one previously may have believed or allowed one’s self to be. Nathanael, known by Jesus, was called to confess him as Messiah. Samuel, known and named by God, was called to prophesy. America, reminded by Martin of her identity and destiny to grant liberty and justice for all, was called to repent, an act of atonement still in the making.

Perhaps this – transformation, which means being changed – is why it’s easier to cling to our assumptions and expectations, especially when something or someone challenges, calls into question what we think we know. Transition is hard. Transformation harder still. Easier to try to remain as we are. But I don’t think that has anything to do with me knowing myself, we knowing ourselves, we knowing our community of St. Mark’s, our world, or God.

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