Excerpts from a sermon preached on June 3
Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis
God often interrupts our lives: calling us by name; communicating with us in words, actions, symbols and signs that we can understand; and inviting us to do extraordinary things like healing the wounded, raising the dead, and bringing joy to those who despair.
As a young adult, I had a passion for justice and wanted to be a preacher who would change the world, but as a child of an interfaith marriage, I just wasn’t sure whether I should become a rabbi or a minister. Eventually, my quest led me to the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, right across the street from the Jewish Theological Seminary. My first semester was a prolonged interrogation of God. Who are you? Do you really exist? What’s your relationship to Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and all the rest? Is the Bible really your word? Is it true? Why are so many bad things done in your name? You know those questions. You’ve probably asked some of them yourself.
I was also trying to sort out my life, and I wasn’t clear about what would become of me. By January, I was utterly exhausted from taking on someone bigger and stronger than me. I found myself walking down 42nd Street one day asking God to just let me go and get on with my life. And then it happened.
As I was crossing Madison Avenue, a voice called out from within me saying, “I’m not going to let go of you.” Ignoring the voice, I kept walking and went about my business. An hour later, walking out of a building, it was as if the voice was leaning against the door waiting for me. “Why me?” I asked, and the voice replied, “Why not?” “What do you want with me?” I inquired. “Your life,” the voice responded.
At that moment, I realized something was going on to which I had better pay attention. I looked up and there was a McDonald’s. I walked in, ordered my usual cheeseburger-fries-and-coke, sat down at a table, and starting writing out the most remarkable and memorable conversation I’ve ever had with anyone. Scribbling as fast as I could, I wrote T for Tracey and G for the voice.
While my conversation at McDonald’s was very personal, I am convinced that the voice I heard is also the voice that Samuel heard. It is the voice that Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, Mary, Jesus, and Paul all heard. I believe that this voice - this divine presence - resides in each and every one of you as well (albeit speaking in different languages and appearing in different ways that each of us might understand). If everyone would hear and follow it, our individual lives would be enriched, our imaginations would be set free, creativity would flourish, and this fragile and endangered world would be a better (and I think, safer) place to live.
So you might be wondering, how does one hear this voice? Try following the advice that old Eli gave to young Samuel: be quiet, wait, listen, and receive.
Eli instructed Samuel to lie down, and when he heard his name called, he was to invite the voice to speak. So Samuel did just that, and God spoke. You might never hear what God has to say if you don’t (in your heart and mind, as well as your ears) invite God to speak.
Once you ask a question, or extend an invitation, you have to wait for a response. God immediately spoke to Samuel, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Patience is required. God might take a little time in accepting your invitation, and God’s response might come in unexpected ways: through a conversation, a dream, a sign, a vision, or even silence. It took awhile for God to speak to Job, and then the voice came from out of a whirlwind. It took years for God to respond to my persistent pleading. God also might manifest the Divine Self in unexpected times and places – on top of a mountain, in the belly of a whale, under a fig tree, or even at a McDonald’s.
To hear God’s voice, we have to develop a habit of listening. The Zen masters call it mindfulness, contemplatives call it meditation, and mystics speak of it as contemplation. Whatever one calls it, you can’t hear the voice without listening, and that might mean silencing all those other media filling up our airwaves. Moses climbed a mountain, Eli instructed Samuel to lie down; and Paul was brought to his knees by a lightning rod.
The day after my McDonald’s conversation, one of my professors said that faith is a two-way street: it’s a gift and a willingness to receive the gift. The voice and wisdom of God is a gift that can only be actualized by receptivity. Abraham had to believe the promise of land and descendants, Moses had to accept the call of leadership, Mary had to welcome an unplanned pregnancy, and Thomas had to touch Jesus’ wounds. Remembering the example of Jesus in the wilderness, it’s also a gift that must be tested to ensure it’s calling one to build up and not destroy, to love and not hate, to do good and resist evil, and to respect the dignity of every human being and the rest of creation.
Most, if not all of us, are perplexed by life, but we don’t have to be driven to despair. We all get struck down, but we don’t have to be destroyed. And, whether we can preach like Peter, pray like Paul, prophesy like Eli, or lead like Samuel, we can all hear the voice of God in our lives and carry God’s wisdom into the world. Really, all you have to do is be quiet, wait, listen, receive, and then respond in faith, hope and love. - Tracey