January 14, 2018

2018 Jan14

Epiphany 2 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M Delinger

 

The obvious theme of today’s reading is “Call”. The call of Samuel, directly from God, and the call of Philip & Nathanael, directly from Jesus, remind each of us of our own call to follow God’s will for us in the world. We are called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, which comes in the form of loving our neighbors, and working toward peace and reconciliation in this world.


There is a less-obvious theme in today’s readings. If you put yourself into the scene and get alongside the characters, you can see that


Samuel, Nathanael and Philip

see God in a new and

different way.


I believe that is it that Epiphany of seeing God in a new way that compels them to follow God without hesitation.


Samuel was an assistant in the temple, and he lived in the temple in order to be on-call for whatever was required of him. I would venture to guess that he rarely left the temple. Being in such a lowly position meant that he was accustomed to being summoned by his immediate supervisor, Eli. It would have been through Eli and through the temple priests that Samuel would have formed his understanding of God. In fact, the story tells us that Samuel had not heard the word of the Lord. In this story, God speaks directly to Samuel – Samuel who is confused by the tricks that his supervisor and mentor is (in his mind) playing on him. When Samuel realizes that it is God who is calling him, and realizes that God is calling HIM, there is a shift of status and authority between Samuel and Eli. Samuel now has this direct relationship with God that will influence his life forever, even before he says, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”


Nathanael and Philip, about whom we know very little, would have probably been Jews whose experience of God would have been from the synagogues. Indeed, Philip describes Jesus as the one about whom Moses spoke. They may have heard of Jesus, but it is clear in this story that this is their first physical encounter with Him. Their understanding of God would not have been of someone in human form. But in this scenario, Nathanael’s mind, and no doubt Philip’s too, is opened to a new understanding of God. Not only is the Son of God, the King of Israel standing in front of him, like with Samuel, the Son of God, the King of Israel is standing in front of HIM! Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28 takes on new meaning, and no longer is the access to God through a ladder that comes down from Heaven. Nathanael sees that our access to God is through this man standing in front of him.


Some of you may have heard of James Fowler, a theologian who developed the Stages of Faith, described in a book of that name, published in 1981. While I’m not opposed to understanding one’s faith as it develops and the tools used to do that, I’m skeptical of how these tools are applied to persons rather than to a general understanding. I argued vehemently against one of my boss’ assertions that we should use the Stages of Faith in a way that moves our students from Mythical-Literal Stage 2 to the Synthetic-Conventional Stage 3.


The simplistic presentations and applications of Fowler’s Stages of Faith are focused on the maturity of the individual, and compare the individual’s faith to the chronological stages of life, and – to some degree – the intellectual capacity at certain ages. What is missing is one’s relationship and understanding of God. Samuel, Philip and Nathanael have experiences of God which changed their lives. There is no evidence that their understanding of that experience, or of God, was a prerequisite for them devoting their lives in service of God. And I would suggest that we reach different stages of faith as individuals as we have ever-deeper experiences of God, which we may or may not fully understand.


An article from Christianity Today was posted on Facebook last week. It’s an old article from May 2016 entitled “How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life” by Nicole Cliffe. In the article, Cliffe describes her life as a contented atheist and her shift to confessing: “I believed in God. Worse, I was a Christian.” Her story isn’t 100% stereotypical: there is a moment of realization, but it’s not a cataclysmic one. There are no visions or voices. There is no human angel who draws her into a faith community or faith experience. Cliffe’s story of conversion is borne out of an experience of God which she can’t fully explain. She writes:


“I was crying constantly while thinking about Jesus because I had begun to believe that Jesus really was who he said he was, but for some reason, that idea had honestly not occurred to me. But then it did, as though it always had been true. So when my friend called, I told her, awkwardly, that I wanted to have a relationship with God, and we prayed, and giggled a bit, and cried a bit, and then she sent me a stack of Henri Nouwen books, and here we are today.”


Fowler might categorize Cliffe as Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith, a stage that few people reach before mid-life. But if I were her priest, that would be immaterial. How can she and I together nurture her faith, through both education and experience, in order for her to continue to have an experience of God? For me as a spiritual mentor, knowing that God is in one’s life takes priority over knowing who or what God is. And there is plenty of biblical evidence, in both the Old and New Testaments, that illustrate that God prefers that we experience God rather than have an intellectual understanding of God:


God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.


One of my frustrations with The Episcopal Church and the Church of England since I’ve been ordained has been the imbalance of knowledge vs. experience. Both our worship and our initiation primarily focus on understanding through education. We leave little room for the experience of God. Then we carve out time for retreats, centering prayer or other mechanisms to draw us into an experience of God. Our experience of God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist should be at the forefront of the “was, is and is to come” of our faith.


The article by Cliffe was refreshing for me, because it wasn’t the stuff television is made of. She writes:


“This is why apologetics, in my opinion, are hugely unconvincing. No one could have in a billion years of their gripping testimony or by showing me a radiant life of good deeds or through song or even the most beautiful of books brought me to Christ. I had to be tapped on the shoulder. I had to be taken to a place where books about God were something I could experience without distance. It was alchemical.”


And just like Samuel discovered, and Nathanael and Philip discovered, and each and every one of us have discovered, being a Christian and saying “Yes” to God is something that any amount of knowledge cannot equal the experience of God. It was the same for Cliffe:


“There are times I feel a bit like a medieval peasant, in that I believe wholly in God now, but don’t always do what he wants, or, like Scarlett O’Hara, put hard conversations with him off until I’ve done the thing I wanted to do. It’s a thrumming backdrop to the rest of my life. My Christian conversion has granted me no simplicity. It has complicated all of my relationships, changed how I feel about money, messed up my public persona, and made me wonder if I should be on Twitter at all.”


Had she said that to me during a one-to-one in my office, I would have responded: Welcome to a life in Christ!


When the Lord called Samuel, when Jesus called Nathanael and Philip, they gained a new understanding of God through their experiences. There were no apologetics, no impassioned stories, no Catechism. Like Cliffe, there were three men doing their normal routine, and God came into their normal everyday lives.


The Eucharist is to be that punctuation of our daily lives, that moment that we experience Jesus as not only in our lives at that moment, but that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that God will be in our lives always. The Eucharist is that moment between Jesus’ call for us to follow Him, and our saying “Yes”, “Amen”, “It shall be so”.


The Eucharist is that experience

that causes us to see God

differently and realize that God

is standing in front of us, and

realize that God is standing in

front of each and every one of

US!

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