(Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2012 || Epiphany 2B || 1 Samuel 1:1-20 )
People, including many of you, often ask me how I knew that God was calling me to be a priest. Here’s the story. This week ten years ago, I began the second semester of my freshman year of college. At that time, I was enrolled in a four-semester Humanities class that took a holistic approach to studying Western civilization. The second semester of the class moved from the end of the ancient world through the Middle Ages, so we began around the time of the fall of Rome. The first book we read was The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Now, many of my classmates couldn’t stand Augustine’s introspective, theological memoir, but for some reason, I couldn’t put the book down. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Augustine was teaching me to look deep within myself as he had done all those centuries ago. For me, this book turned out to be much more than an assignment in a four-semester Humanities class.
As I slowly, hesitantly began to look deep within, I began to notice a glowing ember. This ember was the source of the blaze that would become my heart’s fire, but at first the ember was nothing more than the tiniest of flames, the mustard seed of flames. With St. Augustine’s help, I caught sight of that tiny flame. And without realizing what I was doing, I took a deep breath, and when I exhaled, the Holy Spirit rode the wind of my breath into that ember. And the fire began – slowly, hesitantly – this fire that was my call to serve God as a priest in God’s church.
In today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture, the boy Samuel is fast asleep on the floor of the temple of the LORD. And God calls to him, “Samuel! Samuel!” This is Samuel’s own glowing ember, the first phase of his call.
The spark, the glimmer that St. Augustine made me aware of was Phase One of mine. Well, from God’s perspective, what I thought was Phase One was probably closer to Phase 23. But to me, the ember was just the beginning. By the end of my freshman year of college, I knew something was going on in the recesses of my being. I knew a flame had been kindled, but I didn’t know yet on what the flame was shedding light. However, if I had been alone, if I had been the only one to notice and nurture the glowing ember, I am convinced there would never have been a Phase Two.
Enter the Reverend Tom Ward, the chaplain at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Once a month for my entire sophomore year, I met with Tom Ward, and we just talked. We talked about my hopes and dreams, my fears and doubts, my past and future. And then one day – the day was so ordinary that I don’t even have a clear memory of the meeting – I told him about the glowing ember. I told him about reading St. Augustine and looking within and being surprised to find the glowing. And then, fully realizing what he was doing, Tom took a deep breath, and when he exhaled, the Holy Spirit rode the wind of his breath. And the fire spread out from my gut and into every corner of my being.
In today’s lesson, the boy Samuel is fast asleep on the floor of the temple of the LORD. And God calls to him, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel cries out, “Here I am!” And then he runs to Eli, the priest under whom he serves, thinking that Eli had called out to him. “I did not call; lie down again,” says a confused Eli. Samuel does so, but God calls again and then again. Each time, Samuel runs to Eli, thinking that Eli has called out to him. Finally, the third time, Eli realizes that the LORD has been the one calling out to Samuel. So Eli instructs his young charge: “If [God] calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ ” Eli understands Samuel’s call, and Eli teaches Samuel how to respond to that call. Elis is Samuel’s Tom Ward, the mentor who teaches the student how to respond to God.
During my junior year of college, Tom Ward gathered a group of six people from the community of Sewanee to meet with me about the fire that God had kindled two years before. Every week, we met and shared stories about ourselves: not just me, but each of us sharing. Some stories had to do with God’s movement in our lives, others not, though you come to realize that every story has something to do with God’s movement. This group tested the fire, attempting to discern if the fire was from God. Through listening and sharing and praying, we decided God was in the flame.
In today’s lesson, Eli sends the boy Samuel back to his bed with a response to God. The LORD stands before Samuel and calls his name. Samuel responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The group that Tom Ward formed for my discernment taught me how to listen – how to listen to their voices and stories, and within them how to listen for the voice of God speaking God’s story for my life.
During my senior year of college, I went before a scary committee in the diocese of West Virginia. We talked through four one-hour meetings, and at the end of the day, they decided to recommend me for postulancy for Holy Orders. Two years of seminary later, I went before the same committee again, though they were less scary this time. We talked more, and at the end of the day, they recommended me for candidacy for Holy Orders. Six months later, the bishop of West Virginia ordained me to be a deacon. And six months after that, he ordained me to be a priest. Of course, discernment of God’s call is never over, so don’t take away from this that my call story ended that day in June, 2008.
Rather, reflect back on these stories I’ve been telling you these last few minutes. Notice how my story and Samuel’s story overlap. In neither case, can we classify these stories as just mine or just Samuel’s. These stories also belong to Eli and Tom Ward, to the group at Sewanee and the scary committee. And these stories belong to you, for you here at St. Stephen’s have always been a part of God’s call in my life. We just didn’t know that a decade ago.
Notice also that nothing in these stories is all that mysterious. Save for the glowing ember and God’s first call of “Samuel! Samuel!” every phase of these stories involves the simple act of talking with other people. God has built this need for conversation, for communion really, into the very fabric of God’s call in our lives. No call from God exists in solitary confinement. No call from God can ignite into full flame without many people blowing on the embers. We need each other to tease out and discover and nurture God’s call because God’s voice most often comes to us in the voices of other people. Why else would Samuel think Eli was calling to him over and over again?
When you are wondering what God might be calling you to, I offer you this guidance. Find a friend whom you trust more than you trust yourself. This person could be a parent or a spouse or another person whose soul is somehow mingled with yours. Ask this person these two simple questions:
“What do you think the world needs?”
“What do you think I’m good at?”
As you and your friend talk, listen to her words. At the same time, watch for the glowing ember deep within you. Sooner or later the answers to those two questions will intersect, and the ember will glow just a little bit brighter. And without realizing what you are doing, you will both take a deep breath, and when you exhale, the Holy Spirit will ride the wind of your collective breath and ignite a fire in your heart.