Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hearing God's call

In a certain monastery, the monks took turns preaching. This rotation greatly worried a new novice. When his first turn to preach came, he looked out at the assembled monks, looked down at the lectern, and eventually, in a very nervous voice, asked who knew what he was going to say. Nobody raised a hand. “Well,” he said, “I also don’t know what I am going to say.” And with that, he sat down.

Needless to say, an irritated Abbot assigned the novice to preach the next sermon. Again, standing at the lectern, shifting his weight from foot to foot, after a seemingly interminable silence, the obviously uncomfortable novice asked his listeners who knew what he was going to say. This time, every monk raised a hand. “Good,” said the novice, “I don’t need to preach since you already know what I am going to say.”

The novice again met with the Abbot, who again assigned the novice to preach. When the novice stepped to the lectern, the monks could feel his nervousness. He looked at the assembly and then at the lectern. Finally, he spoke, “Raise your hand if you think you know what I will say.” The monks hesitated, unsure how to respond. Slowly, about half raised a hand. Visibly relieved, the novice said, “Good. Those of you who know what I’m going to say tell those who don’t know.”[1]

This morning’s gospel reading[2] can easily conjure up cinema worthy scenes. Jesus walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee spots Simon and Andrew, then James and John, fishing; he calls to them; they immediately drop their nets and leave everything to follow a man whom they have never met.

Alternatively, perhaps the four fishermen had met Jesus on occasions when all five were in a crowd listening to John the Baptist preach. Perhaps the five had shared one or more meals, either on occasions when they had travelled to hear John the Baptist or when they gathered because of budding friendships. Perhaps those meals had led to long conversations about their hopes for spiritual renewal and Israel’s restoration as an independent kingdom. Perhaps the five by unspoken mutual consent looked to Jesus as their leader, someone who might lead their preparations for a new Jewish king if he himself was not to become that new king. If so, when Jesus beckoned the four to follow him, his call had grown out of those deepening relationships and much conversation.

The gospel reading contains little detail. Mark’s brevity makes sense. Writing materials were expensive in the first century; copies of a document, laboriously transcribed by hand, were even more expensive. Mark’s gospel, the first biography of Jesus written, is the shortest and contains the fewest details. The text offers no reason to presume that Simon, Andrew, James, and John were unacquainted with Jesus prior to him calling them to fish for people.

This alternative version, or something like it, seems more credible and more analogous to how God today calls each of us to become a disciple. In general, three principles characterize God’s call to a person.

First, God calls an individual to tasks and to roles for which that person is, or can become through education and training, well suited. Jesus recognized in the four fishermen the character and gifts to successfully fish for people. Conversely, God never calls anyone to tasks or roles for which their personality or God-given abilities makes unsuitable. The novice in my opening story had either incorrectly heard a call to join that monastery or misunderstood God’s call about the basic direction of his life. God calls each of us, lay and clergy alike, to minister in Christ’s name. The call may challenge us without being unattainable; answering the call leads to deep joy and fulfilment.

Second, God calls each individual in a way that individual can hear. For some, this call may be an inner feeling or sense; for others the call may be a word of Scripture understood in a strikingly fresh, personal way; for most of us, the call may come through another person, such as in Jesus’ call to the four fishermen.

Third, God’s call to Jesus echoes in God’s call to us. We are to “to bring good news to the poor. … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor."[3] Although historians know little about the twelve disciples, the known facts emphasize that in God’s call we will invariably hear an exhortation to promote justice, to love our neighbors, and to practice mercy in some specific way.

In 1968, two Maryknoll nuns attended a conference at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. One evening, they strolled to the harbor and sat on a bench watching the ships. One nun noticed a Farrell Line ship anchored nearby. In 1955, she and two other Maryknoll sisters were three of twelve passengers who travelled for 42 days from New York to Dar es Salaam aboard just such a freighter. She told her companion about that freighter’s captain, who had encouraged the three nuns: “Anytime you see a Farrell Line ship in the harbor, come on out and we’ll feast you with American ice cream!” The nun ended by enthusiastically exclaiming, “Let’s go!”

“Go where?” replied her startled companion.

“Out to the Farrell Line ship and eat American ice cream!”

After futile protests, the second nun reluctantly joined the first in a rowboat they hired to take them to the freighter and then return for them in an hour. Drawing alongside the Farrell Line freighter, a crew member hailed them, and then called over a young officer who courteously invited the nuns aboard.
Once aboard, the nun explained that they were Maryknoll Sisters, teachers attending a conference at the university, and repeated the invitation extended to her in 1955. The officer apologized that he could not introduce them to the Captain because the he was in his quarters, grieving privately. He had received word just this morning that his only son had been killed in Vietnam.

The two nuns exchanged glances, then one said to the officer, “Take us to your Captain.” The officer hesitated, but soon realized that the nuns would not accept no for an answer. They quietly followed him to the captain’s quarters. There they sat with the Captain for an hour, weeping, talking, weeping some more. In that era before cell phones and the internet, they left the Captain with two serious hugs, promising to call his wife in Pennsylvania to tell her that they had seen her husband, and assuring him and his family of their prayers. While being rowed back to the dock, the nuns just looked at one another with teary eyes.[4] They had heard and obeyed an unexpected call from God to love their neighbor.

What is God calling you to do?
George M. Clifford, III
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 21, 2018
Parish of St Clement
Honolulu, HI

[1] Source of this historically dubious story unknown.
[2] Mark 1:14-20.
[3] Luke 4:18-19.
[4] Amended and abridged from Jane Vella, Friends and Family (Saarbr├╝cken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2017), Chapter 23.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Learning to hear God

It was the noon-hour rush on a steamy July day and two men were pushing their way through the crowds in New York City's Times Square. They practically shouted at each other as they tried to hear above the din. One man was a native New Yorker; the other was a Native American from Oklahoma.

The Indian stopped suddenly and said to his friend, "Listen! Do you hear the cricket?"

His friend was incredulous. "Are you kidding?" he laughed. "How could anyone hear a cricket in this bedlam? You just think you heard it."

The Indian didn't argue. He just said, "Come over here and look." He walked over to a planter that was holding a large shrub, and pointed at the dead leaves in the bottom. To his amazement, the New Yorker saw a cricket.

"You must have an extraordinary pair of ears," he exclaimed.

"No better than yours. It just depends on what you are listening for. Watch this."

The Indian reached into his pocket and pulled out a few nickels and dimes. Then he dropped them on the sidewalk. People all around stopped in their tracks and turned to look where the sound came from.

"See what I mean?" he said. It all depends on for what you are listening.

How does one learn to hear God speak? This morning’s reading from the book of 1 Samuel offers four key insights on that subject.[1]

First, as my opening story amply illustrates, one must have a desire to hear God speak. The boy Samuel was born to Hannah, a woman filled with a desire to please God.[2] Samuel was the child for whom she had long yearned and that she had promised to dedicate to God if her desire to be a mother was fulfilled.[3]

Today I hear many saying that they would like to hear God speak. Yet I witness few who actually invest much time and energy in the project. Actions, not words, best measure desire. The aspiring athlete devotes countless hours to training. The young musician virtually lives in a practice room. The one who finds fulfillment in working with computers can lose track of time when at a keyboard. We almost instinctively understand the importance of a desire so strong that it pushes us to persevere until successful. Do you have that same degree of spiritual motivation?

Second, desire to hear God must give birth to silence. The psalmist wrote, "Be still, and know that I am God!”[4] Samuel slept in the temple of the Lord where the ark of the Lord – the physical symbol of God's presence[5] – was kept.[6]

Unlike Samuel we cannot live in close proximity to such a powerful symbol. However, some Christians, especially from the Orthodox tradition, find the use of icons helpful in centering and quieting themselves. Other Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, find that praying in the presence of the consecrated host, which they believe embodies Christ's presence, helpful in the same manner. You may find that art, spiritual music, nature, meditatively reading Scripture or some other technique helps to quiet your mind and spirit so that you can hear God speak. Technique is the incarnation of desire. Find a technique helpful to you and stick with it. God is speaking. All you have to do is learn to listen.

Third, the variety of techniques for learning silence, learning to truly listen, makes it important that one has a spiritual guide. The young boy Samuel’s parents sent him to live with Eli.[7] Three times Samuel heard God speak but thought that it was Eli. On the third occasion that this happened, Eli finally realized that God was speaking to the boy Samuel.[8] Now you may think Eli spiritually dense for not having recognized what was happening sooner. But who knows how many more times God would have had to speak before Samuel realized on his own that it was the Lord speaking. Part of the value of religious education – Sunday school, Bible study, etc. – is helping us learn to hear God speak.

One day, Dwight Morrow and his wife, the parents of Anne Lindbergh, were in Rugby, England. After wandering through the streets, they realized that they had lost their way. At this moment, an incident occurred that entered into Morrow's philosophy and became a guiding principle in his life. He stopped a little Rugby lad of about 12 years. "Could you tell us the way to the station?" he asked.

"Well," the boy answered, "You turn to the right there by the grocer's shop and then take the second street to the left. That will bring you to a place where four streets meet. And then, sir, you had better inquire again."[9]

Developing our ability to hear God is an iterative, lifelong learning process. Consultation with a spiritually mature individual or a chaplain can help you find a technique that suits your personality and spirituality.

Fourth and finally, listening for God to speak can be dangerous. In this morning’s reading God speaks with what Samuel considers to be a human voice. The text also describes God standing in the temple with Samuel.[10] Philosophers and theologians label the practice of using human imagery to describe God as anthropomorphism. We know that God is both infinite and spirit and cannot be accurately portrayed using finite, human terms. Our choices are either abstract nouns such as God for which no tangible referent exists or concrete nouns associated with finite objects such as humans or nature. John Wesley once said, “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from Him. They may be from nature. They may be from the Devil.”[11] Wesley was absolutely correct: haste in ascribing things to God often leads to error.

Several safeguards exist by which we can test what we think is God speaking to us. Is the word we receive consistent with the God revealed through Scripture? Is the word that we receive consistent with the God who has a human face, the one who for love’s sake was crucified and then triumphed over evil? Is the word we receive confirmed by those who know and love both us and God best?

Listening to God is also dangerous because very often we find ourselves opposed to contemporary culture. Samuel was usually at odd with Israel’s kings; John the Baptist and Jesus were at odds with the Jewish and Roman elites; and Martin Luther King, whom we commemorate tomorrow, powerfully opposed the dominant culture of racism and economic exploitation. Today, it appears if some of those clearly unchristian forces are resurgent as we hear racism spoken from the White House, laws passed that increase rather than diminish economic inequality, and the challenge of scientific reductionism to the very possibility of God’s existence. In short, your presence here this morning is evidence of countercultural behavior.

May we like Samuel desire, listen and learn that when God speaks we too respond, Speak, for your servant listens.[12] Amen.

Sermon preached the Second Sunday after Epiphany / 14 January 2018

Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] 1 Samuel 3:1-20.
[2] 1 Samuel 1:16.
[3] 1 Samuel 1:11, 21, 24-26.
[4] Psalm 46:10.
[5] “Ark,” The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Henry Snyder Gehman (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), p. 62.
[6] 1 Samuel 3:3.
[7] 1 Samuel 1:24; 3:10.
[8] 1 Samuel 3:2-9.
[10] 1 Samuel 3:10.
[11] J.K. Johnston, John Wesley Why Christians Sin, Discovery House, 1992, p. 102.
[12] 1 Samuel 3:10.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Why bother with church?

Some years ago, two signs were posted on the gates of the Anglican cathedral: in Winnipeg, Canada, "The Anglican Church Welcomes You" and "The Premises are Protected by Guard Dogs."[1]

Churches easily send mixed messages about welcoming people. But mixed messages cannot explain the dramatic decline in church attendance since the 1960s. Illustratively, Sunday attendance at Holy Nativity over the last sixty years has declined from 2000 to about 100. Dire prognostications even suggest that US church attendance this century will approach zero.

Nostalgically yearning for the good old days of full pews is a common reaction to declining attendance. Feeling depressed about the state of the church is another understandable response.

Instead of nostalgia or depression, ponder why people, including yourself, attend church. Whether you came voluntarily or were dragged here by a family member or friend, what benefit can you expect to gain? To answer that question, consider the big picture, not the details, of today’s gospel.[2]

Crowds of people flocked to see and hear John the Baptist and then Jesus. Obviously, in an era long before radio or television, curiosity drew some people. Others came because they wanted to be part of what was happening. Neither factor motivates many people to attend worship today.

John and Jesus’ initial and most loyal followers had one or more of four motives, each instructive for congregations that would grow today.

First, people gathered around John and Jesus longing to experience God. In both men, hearers discerned a charism, a gift or presence, that they wanted for themselves. People especially remembered, and probably exaggerated, Jesus’ miracles because they perceived what happened as a manifestation of God’s powerful presence. In time, the identification of Jesus with God’s presence became so complete that people described Jesus as fully human and fully God.

In my first parish, I was surprised that an atheist who taught math at a nearby community college became a regular attendee. At first, he attended occasionally with his family. Then his attendance increased as our friendship grew. Ultimately, he found Sunday worship a time to search for answers to his questions about God. He was like the those who flocked to John and Jesus, and like many of us, attending because we hope to encounter God. Good worship helps people to center themselves and to contemplate the mystery of God’s presence and God’s otherness, God’s love and God’s justice.

Second, John and Jesus attracted listeners interested in understanding the meaning of life. The circumstances of first century Jewish life were generally much more depressing than are empty pews. No independent Jewish state existed. Most Jews eked out a subsistence lifestyle. Yet the Jewish scriptures incongruously described an Almighty God who had chosen the Jews as God’s favored people. John’s call to repent of sin presumed that Roman domination was God’s punishment for Jewish sins.

Today, less than a quarter of Americans believe life has any meaning. Accumulating research, however, shows that people who live with a sense of purpose enjoy better health and thrive more abundantly than do people who live without a sense of purpose. [3] The cosmic meaning of life is frustratingly elusive. Nevertheless, you can discover the meaning of your individual life by developing a clear vision of personal purpose, a sense of who and what God is calling you to be and do in 2018. Do this by focusing on your education, talents, interests, skills, and personality as well as your personal awareness of God. Living into one’s personal purpose is the best New Year’s resolution anyone can make.

Third, people flocked to John and to Jesus because they heard a clarion call to action, empowering them with hope for improving the world, or at least their little part of it. Jewish and Romans elites opposed both John, whom they beheaded, and Jesus, whom they crucified, because these elites believed John and Jesus represented threats to the established order.

While the audience takes their seats for a symphony concert, the musicians “tune up.” Each player does his or her "own thing," hearing how they sound, ignoring the other musicians. The result is cacophony. Only when the conductor leads do the individuals blend into a greater, and sometimes wondrous, musical whole. Individually, few if any of us can improve the world, or even our neighborhood. But working together we can make a difference, and other people will want to join us. [4] Congregations actively involved in mission, locally and globally, grow.

Finally, people followed John or Jesus because they, like us, wanted to be part of something greater than themselves. Humans thrive in community, yet isolation and loneliness doggedly and continuously plague us. Jesus followers were so committed to him and to one another that they formed a new community, the Church, which Christians believe is the in-breaking of the fullness of God's vision into the world. Sadly, the Church often falls short of that vision.

A recovering alcoholic’s story is instructive. He pointedly observed “that, after his life-changing experience in Alcoholics Anonymous, his local church was unbearable. ‘After I had at last been part of a real community where we loved each other enough to be honest, to sacrifice our time and energy to aid others in their struggle with alcohol, the sweet superficiality of my church was repulsive. When I tried to share with them some of the insights gained from my own struggles, they looked at me like I was crazy, like my struggle was a purely personal problem.’”[5]

Come, then, and follow the example of those who flocked to John the Baptist and to Jesus. Come and commit yourselves to sharing a weekly meal together, united in the hope that God is present; come and learn to discern God’s specific call for you as individuals, while concurrently, confidently, and collectively welcoming all as you work to move the world closer to God’s vision. Amen.

[Sermon preached at the Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI, on the Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018]

[1] Richard Lederer, More Anguished English (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1993).
[2] Mark 1:4-11.
[3] Dhruv Khullar, “Finding Purpose for a Good Life. But Also a Healthy One.” New York Times, January 1, 2018, citing Kobau, R., Sniezek, J., Zack, M. M., Lucas, R. E. and Burns, A. (2010), Well-Being Assessment: An Evaluation of Well-Being Scales for Public Health and Population Estimates of Well-Being among US Adults. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2: 272–297. doi:10.1111/j.1758-0854.2010.01035.x.
[4] Garret Keizer, "Reasons to join," Christian Century, April 22, 2008, 31
[5] Thomas H. Naylor, William H. Willimon, and Magdalena R. Naylor, The Search for Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 209.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Gifts from Foreigners

The gospel reading for Epiphany, celebrated by Christians on January 6th of each year, tells the story of the wise men visiting the infant Jesus. Wise men is a convenient euphemism; these magi who traveled without passports were actually foreign astrologers. For a contemporary analogue, imagine a handful of illegal immigrants from Central or South America who establish a palmistry or tarot business in New York or Washington. Although imperfect, like any analogy, that image may help us to move beyond romantic idealizations that distort the gospel’s power and message.

Tradition asserts that the wise men brought three gifts: gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Illegal immigrants from Central and South America bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh as well. The gold – a gift for the newborn king, Jesus – these immigrants bring is their willingness to work long hours at low paying, labor-intensive, tedious jobs most U.S. citizens disdain. This labor translates into a gift of affordable yet substantial improvements in the quality of life for many U.S citizens.

The myrrh – a spice used for embalming recognizes Jesus’ humanity – that many of these immigrants bring is their example of sacrificing self for family. Men, women, and children come to the States and work for minimal wages, then send substantial sums home to support the family left behind. The immigrant ekes out an existence on the remainder, often unable to visit the family whom they support for years at a time. In our culture of rugged, self-reliant individualism, the gift of that example vividly incarnates true family values.

The frankincense – incense burned at a god's altar emphasized Jesus’ identity as God's son – that these immigrants give to this nation is affirmation. The continuing stream of illegal immigrants who risk limb and life to come to the States affirms that the dream and promise of this nation built on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not dead.

If immigrants symbolize the wise men, then by implication the U.S. symbolizes the Christ child. And that is the analogy’s fatal flaw. The United States is a great and often good nation. But the United States is not the new Israel, the nation of God's own choosing to bring salvation to the world. A dangerous idolatry of self-serving nationalism too often permeates U.S. Christianity.

In fact, the entire analogy builds upon an even more fundamental error. Most of the illegal immigrants who come north to the United States are only foreigners if you and I take our primary identity from being U.S. citizens. In Holy Baptism, we died and we were reborn as citizens of God's kingdom. That citizenship, not nationality, should define our identity.

Most of the illegal immigrants from Central and South America have also received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Thus, they are not foreigners. They are family. Like us, they are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which means that they are our brothers and sisters.

Illegal immigration raises a web of complex problems that lack simple answers. Christianity does offer some guidance for our nation, our Churches, and each of us. Even as Joseph used Egypt’s prosperity to feed many in time of famine, so the U.S. should use its unparalleled prosperity to help others raise their standard of living. Christian Scripture and tradition teach the Church to care for the poor and sick, especially for members of Christ's body. The Christian vocation is to practice hospitality towards strangers, not to build fences to keep the stranger at a safe distance.

This Epiphany, give gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense to some of the least amongst us, the many illegal immigrants in our city. Gold represents the necessities of life; myrrh signifies recognizing the humanity, dignity, and worth of each immigrant; frankincense reminds us that by giving these gifts we may unknowingly entertain angels or even minister to the Christ himself.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Ethical Musings is changing

Change is endemic and pervades the cosmos. Ethical Musings, part of the cosmos, is not exempt from change.

First, Ethical Musings posts will generally appear only once a week.

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Best wishes for 2018!