Equipping the Saints, by The Rev. Susan Russell

Equipping the Saints

by The Rev. Susan Russell st_peters@earthlink.net

May 5, 2001 ~ St. Peter's San Pedro

Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 63:1-8; Ephesians 4:1-16; Matthew 9:35-38

The story of God's call to Samuel is a particular favorite in Sunday School, since the central character is a child -- Samuel -- who responds obediently to both his teacher (Eli) and to God. (Clearly an example of the kind of behavior we'd like to see more of in our own children!) The lesson usually ends, as it did today, with Samuel's faithful and obedient words, "Speak, for your servant is listening" -- and we say "Thanks Be to God."

I grew up with this story. I remember the flannel board that Mrs. Shields used to tell it in my Highland Park Sunday School class. I studied it in my Introduction to the Old Testament class in seminary, and in the years since my ordination I've preached it many times. But it was in preparing for today that I considered for the very first time that "speak for your servant is listening" is hardly the end of the story. For the first time, I asked: "Now that Samuel was listening what did God actually SAY?"

And so I read on to verse 11: Then the Lord said to Samuel, "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle."

God goes on to tell Samuel that Eli's time at the helm of Israel is about to end. The rest of the Book of Samuel will tell the story of Israel's transformation during Samuel's lifetime from a confederation of tribes administered by "judges" to a nation ruled by a king: first Saul and then David. No wonder God warned Samuel that "ears would tingle." This was new ground, uncharted territory, a radical re-visioning of just how Israel was called to be the people of the God who seemed always to be calling them to become more than they were. By including verse 11, suddenly the text becomes not just about Samuel's obedience to the Lord, but about God's call to Samuel to participate with God in the process of re-visioning Israel itself.

This, my friends, is the tradition we inherit. This God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, of Samuel and Eli -- is our God, too. And the God who told Samuel "just wait and see what I'm going to do NOW" is at it again. And believe me, "ears are tingling" as we gather here today to celebrate what God is doing in and through us as we respond to God's call.

For we have been called -- no less clearly and no less specifically than Samuel was. Called to the work described in the Letter to the Ephesians: "building up the Body of Christ until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ." Called to be those laborers Matthew refers to -- the ones with the plentiful harvest in this morning's gospel: called by virtue of our baptism to participate with God, just like Samuel was, in the work of redeeming creation.

It can seem an overwhelming task -- an impossible challenge. But take heart in the words Benedictine Joan Chittister once wrote: We are each called to go through life reclaiming the planet an inch at a time until the Garden of Eden grows green again. Words of both encouragement and challenge. Encouraging because an inch usually seems "doable" -- challenging because it's an inch at a TIME, not "do your inch and you're done" -- tempting though that might be!

I'm reminded once again this morning of watching my son Brian faced in trying master the mystery of Long Division. I remember the night he proudly announced at the dinner table that he'd finally figured it out. "First you guess, then you multiply, then you subtract until you run out of numbers! [pause for effect] So, now I understand math." And I remember his older brother, quickly bursting that bubble with the sobering news of algebra, geometry and calculus yet to come. "Oh no" exclaimed Brian in disbelief and horror. "You mean there's MORE?????"

Yes there's more -- for Brian and for us. And just as my mother's heart ached for him that night at the dinner table -- wanting him to celebrate the achievement, yet knowing how much further he has to go -- how many lessons he has yet to learn -- I imagine God who is mother and father to us all feeling much the same about us every time we think we're finished: every time we're tempted to think the inch we've just reclaimed is enough.

I believe the greatest challenge we face is settling for where we've come rather than being open to where God is calling us to go. I'm told that Ghandi once said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world" and I tell you this morning that in this church -- in this diocese -- we are living up to that challenge.

Just as God caused amazing changes to happen in Israel during Samuel's lifetime, there's been a lot going on in the Episcopal Church during mine! This is the church of my birth and baptism -- and when I returned to it as a young mother (after what I call my "obligatory young adult lapsed phase") I found a church where the Presiding Bishop said, "There will be no outcasts" -- and I believed him.

I found people who loved me and sent me on a Cursillo weekend, where I learned to sing "Just As I Am" -- and they told me that meant me and I believed them. I found a diocese where when I came out I called my bishop and he asked me two questions: "How can I help?" and "How are your boys?" -- and told me that everything would be OK: and I believed him. In so many ways and in so many places we are being the change we wish to see.

This is a diocese that declined to receive the portion of the Lambeth Resolution on Sexuality that declared homosexuality to be "incompatible with Scripture." This is a congregation whose vestry last year passed a resolution offering explicit welcome to gay and lesbian people. They did so with some fear and trembling -- having to answer the hard question, "Our mission statement already says we're "open to all' -- why do we have to offer a special invitation?"

The answer was, because of the voices, historically louder than ours, claiming the prerogative of offering their version of "Christian Values" for all of us. Because if we're going to respond to the call we've been given, we can no longer let those voices be the ones the culture is hearing as representing Christianity. Because we must stand up, must speak out, must WITNESS to the work that God is doing in and through us on behalf of the Gospel: the Good News of God in Christ that is meant for all people.

And so we passed the resolution: and an inch of the planet grew greener. An important inch -- a hard won inch ... an "inch" that is growing pretty green at this point. A gathering such as this could not even be imagined in many -- I dare say "most" places in the church. We have both the privilege and the responsibility to help God change that. One of the ways can do that is through our partnership with Integrity, the national gay and lesbian advocacy voice in the Episcopal Church. Later today we will hear from Michael Hopkins about the work being done -- about the "inches being reclaimed" by those committed to proclaiming the Good News of the inclusive love of our Risen Lord.

God is clearly not finished with us yet, but we stand today on rare and holy ground. That "harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few" part -- that's us: the laborers. And we are few indeed in contrast to the multitudes out there at this very moment having no idea there is a place they could come and sing "Just As I Am" without worrying that if anyone knew who they were, they'd be outcast.

And just for the record, I've checked. There's no fine print in the baptismal promises that says "Unless he turns out to be gay."

There's no disclaimer in the baptismal covenant that says "in the event the candidate is determined to be gay or lesbian the above offer is null and void." Just a few weeks ago I had the privilege of baptizing into the household of God three brand new Christians: Omobolawa Labisi, whose family came to San Pedro from Nigeria; Alisa Yukina whose parents are of Japanese and Anglo heritage; and James Franklin Davenport IV -- whose ethnicity I will leave to you to deduce.

As the baptismal families gathered around the font in the glowing candle light of the Easter Vigil, I thought, "this is what the kingdom looks like." And I gave thanks for the face of a church that looks so very different than the one I was baptized into at Old St. Peter's Cathedral those many years ago.

In a few moments we will renew the promises we made -- or were made for us -- at our baptism. As we reaffirm our response to God's call to us the questions we will answer include:

The answer to all these questions is "I will with God's help" -- for it is only with God's help we can do any of these things. It is God's help that has brought us this far and it is with God's help that we will continue to be the change we want to see; will take back the planet, if need be, an inch at a time. That is the work -- the call -- the "agenda" we gather to celebrate today.

We claim the inheritance of our spiritual ancestors -- like Samuel -- as we partner with God in making "ears tingle" at what God is doing now! May we be given the grace to settle for nothing less than the coming of the kingdom: where all are welcome, all are fed and all are gathered into the loving embrace of the one who created them to be "just as they are" -- the reign of God we've glimpsed today in this celebration of life and love:

Not in the dark of buildings confining
Not in some heaven light years away
But here in this place, the new light is shining
Now is the kingdom, now is the day
Gather us in and hold us forever.
Gather us in and make us your own.
Gather us in, all peoples together,
Fire of love in our flesh and our bone.*
Amen.

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*"Gather Us In" Marty Haugen (GIA Publications)


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