Sunday, November 14, 2021

Paying attention 

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector 

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church 

Katy, TX 77493 


This week I found my thoughts turning to our passage about Hannah and the Canticle that is the Song of Hannah. This is a critical moment in the history of the Jewish people. The time of the Judges is ending and this is the point where the monarchy begins. Samuel is considered by some to be the last of Judges and as a prophet, he will play the important role of anointing both Saul as the first king of Israel and David the second and most important king. Israel is not yet a nation but a loose confederation of 12 tribes. Unification only comes when David takes the throne and unites the people through several battles. There is no written Torah at this point. Everything is mostly an oral tradition.   

 Hannah as was the norm in those days and for much of the bible, was the one of two wives. The problem was that she was barren. The other wife has numerous children and this is a source of great distress for her since it is obvious that the fault is hers. Being childless was considered a disgrace at the time and meant the woman had somehow sinned or was not favored by God. She was considered less than whole in that world. 

 Our passage finds her deeply in prayer and offering sacrifices hoping that God will open her womb. The important point is that she is persistent in her prayer. She does bargain with God, which is certainly not unusual since many of us do this, but she keeps at it year after year until Eli notices and according to the story so does God  

 As we approach Advent this should bring to mind two other miraculous births. Elizabeth in her old age will bear John the Baptist and Mary becomes the mother of Jesus.  We also will hear of Zachariah who has been waiting and praying for the birth of the Messiah and others. This is a pattern that has occurred several times in the Hebrew Scriptures 

 One thing that is common in all of these is that they all stayed in relationship with God. They were all persistent in prayer. They also listened and responded in the affirmative when God spoke or acted. In short they cultivated an active and ongoing relationship with God through prayer.  

 I had the opportunity a couple years ago to hear Fr. James Martin SJ speak in the Hampton Roads area.  Now the lecture was held in a non-denominational church because the crowd was large and Immaculate Conception’s main worship space was under repair. 

 Fr. Martin made the statement that he suspected that on Sunday morning there would be more Jesus talk in the worship space of a non-denominational church than in all the Roman Catholic churches that most of the audience came from. He said we are better at churchiosity than Christianity. He reminded us that people come to church to have a relationship with God and Christ not a relationship with the institution the church. I was very aware of the nervous laughter in that congregation. 

 I know I’ve heard Michael Curry say much the same and there is that same nervous laughter. In fact at one point of his installation sermon he said, “Why are you all so quiet, don’t go all Episcopal on me when I’m talking about Jesus.” 

 Michael Curry in his sermon at his installation referred multiple times to the Jesus movement. He encouraged us to all have an active and personal relationship with Jesus. I vividly remember sitting at an evangelism conference and hearing Bishop Curry say, “OK we’re going to practice saying Jesus together.” So what makes us go quiet at the mention of Jesus? 

 The issue is probably found in the word relationship.  Really that relationship is what Hannah shows us this morning except hers was with God. That relationship with God is what Samuel will learn and understand and will undergird his entire life and ministry. A relationship with God and Christ is why we are here. If you are not interested in that, then folks we are in a lot of trouble because we have no real reason to be here. For the people who walk through our doors, the people who will be our future are looking for Jesus whether they know it or not. They know that this world is not enough, that there is more to our existence than just breathing in oxygen. God put us on this earth to make his kingdom a reality for all God’s children regardless of who they are. 

 Fr. Martin was in part on a tour to promote a book that he had just written entitled “Jesus a Pilgrimage,” In that book1 he gave four reasons why he believes we are hesitant and I have found these to be very true. 

 Reason 1. Unworthiness. So many people feel unworthy, in part because of the bashing into our heads that we are all sinners. Ok, so we are sinners, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us. What I realized one year on a retreat was that many people confuse being unworthy in the religious sense with being worthless. They are not the same. None of us is worthy when compared to God, but through grace God does make us worthy. Nobody is worthless in God’s eyes. So please start with that understanding. 

 Reason 2: Fear of God: By this I’m not talking about awe and reverence but real fear as in afraid on God. So many people worry about God sitting up there with his finger on the smite button. 

 Reason 3. Fear of change; This is the fear of what happens if you say yes to where God seems to be leading. I had a friend that I worked with for 16 years who when learning that I was going to seminary said, “I’m not sure I want to know God like you do. I’m honestly afraid of what he would ask me to do.”  I wise counselor once told me “Change is the exchange of the known no matter how painful for the unknown.” Many of us would rather stay in the pain we know than let God lead us into something life-giving. 

 Reason 4: Fear of intimacy: Many fear what an intimate relationship with God would look like if we really believed what the Collect for Purity I say at the beginning of the service implies. Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid:” This simply means that God knows everything anyway so as one spiritual director told me, “Get over yourself.”  

You see God already is in relationship with us, the invitation is to respond to that relationship and of course to remember sin is the breaking of that relationship.   

 This seeking of relationship has been a theme in the Bible from the very beginning, starting with Adam and Eve and continuing with Abraham and Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth and Mary; all of those people who responded to God’s invitation.  

 God is seeking to deepen his relationship with each of us and with St. Paul’s as a community in this time of trial. Now is the time to be even more intentional about listening for God. Advent is time when we are told to stay awake God is speaking and acting.  

 However, this means we need to be intentional about listening to God. I walk around 6:15 every morning. I listen to a daily meditation podcast from a Jesuit group in London and then some chant as a prayer time. I find it interesting that on my morning walks and in my neighborhood in general I’m seeing a large number of hawks. I had two go swooping through my backyard while we were building our patio a week or so ago. Tuesday morning one landed right in front of me on the sidewalk. Now that’s really unusual. He stayed there a moment and then went up into a tree just 10 ft above my head. American Indians will tell you that the hawk is a messenger, a sign that there is a message for you and to pay attention. I will be spending time on my early morning prayer walks listening and paying attention.  

 I hope you will do the same as we move into Advent. Watch for God, for Christ at work in the world and in your life. Get curious. Ask God to show you what he is inviting you to consider as we move into Advent.