January 15, 2023
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Weekly Prayer Recording
The Reverend Mark R. Sutherland
Recording of the sermon:
Gathering for worship in the New England of 2022 is God’s call to engage in an increasingly countercultural practice.
We mark the Sundays from The Epiphany to Lent as the Epiphany Season. On the second Sunday after Epiphany we pick up the theme of the call of discipleship. Over and over, we hear how Jesus met people who accepted his invitation to join him. From a cursory reading it appears that those whom Jesus met, just dropped everything – left their lives and existing obligations to go off into new lives as his disciples – they literally followed him.
Isaiah paints a movingly intimate picture of his sense of God’s call in the Old Testament reading for the second Sunday after the Epiphany. He announces: Listen to me you coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was still in my mother’s womb, he named me. Isaiah is describing God’s call as his awakening realization of his life’s purpose. His is a life changing realization of encompassing spiritual intensity. Oh, that we could feel so intensely.
The psalmist in Psalm 40 captures the life-changing nature of God’s call: I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit … He put a new song in my mouth. Waiting with longing and patience – who can bear such things? He then connects his call with his passion. He finds his song, and it’s not the same old song of his frustrated life. He finds himself singing a new song. He cries out – for the new song in his mouth is a song of praise of God that excites not only him alone – but the many who experience his joy and passion. Hearing his song – they will be deeply moved – and like him be encouraged to listen for their own call from God.
Likewise, Paul’s opening words in his first letter to the Corinthians. In 14 words he hints at the life transforming nature of his experience of God’s call. Paul was a man who had never lacked zeal or passion. As Saul, he had been the most zealous hound and persecutor of the followers of the way – who were for him a heretical Jewish sect. In 14 words he is recalling his bruising encounter with God’s call on the road to Damascus when suddenly blinded he fell from his horse and heard Jesus saying to him: Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? From that moment his priorities were violently reordered so that years later he is able to write: [I] Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.
The Evangelist John paints for us the amazing domino-like effect of God’s call to follow Jesus. John the Baptist testifying to his experience of baptizing Jesus, seeing Jesus’ approach whispers to his disciples standing near –Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is the one I’ve been telling you about – the one who confirmed everything I had been dreaming about. John continues into an impassioned account of how Jesus came to him for baptism -electrifying his disciples nerve endings – exposing in them a longing they didn’t know they had. The next day – by the way this is an important rhetorical device for John the Evangelist – momentous events always unfold over a sequence of days – the next day the same thing happens. John and his disciples are once again loitering with intent – observing the goings-on along the lake shore as Jesus walks by. Two of John’s disciples break off from the group. Their hearts pumping, their ears deafened by the surging of blood, pulsing – as if in a trance, they follow Jesus. Jesus aware of being followed turns and looks at them.
Have you ever had the experience of secretly admiring someone from a distance and getting caught out? Thinking you are unobserved, the object of your admiration spots you. Bamm! You’ve been rumbled – you feel exposed – stripped bare – feeling shame as a red blush spreads across your cheeks.
Making due allowance for the somewhat distanced and polite translation of the NRSV – we can detect that this is the kind of experience the Evangelist is describing when he tells us that Jesus, seeing them – a better rendering might be – that Jesus, spotting them asks: what are you looking for? Imagine the men stuttering and spluttering before finally their tongues untied they get out a few words: Rabbi –where are you staying? I mean what else is there to say in the heat of such an intoxicating moment? Jesus simply says: come and see.
The dominos keep falling– Andrew, one of the men who has spent the whole day with Jesus – as evening comes rushes off to find his brother Simon. Finding him – out of breath he exclaims we’ve found him. Yes, HIM, the one we’ve been waiting for. Andrew, returning to Jesus with his skeptical brother in tow, brings Simon to Jesus. And what happens? Jesus – as if expecting Simon’s arrival gives him a new name.
Remember my message of two Sundays ago on the feast of the Holy Name on New Year’s Day – that names really matter? Well, here we are again. Simon is renamed Peter which means rock. There is an echo to Isaiah here. Peter is the name as if given to him by God while he was still in the womb, unknown to him until the moment when it was awakened in him by Jesus’ call.
Let me recall for us and image I’m sure we will all be familiar with from World War II movies where a small group in Nazi occupied Europe have secretly gathered around a radio dangerously tuned into the BBC broadcast frequency. Knowing the German radio detector van might not be far away, they wait – feeling a mixture of trepidation and expectation. Finally, the airwave crackles to life and they hear the announcer’s voice: This is London calling! This is the call they have been waiting for. A voice that calls them to hope -reviving their longing to be free.
Listen to me you coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was still in my mother’s womb, he named me.
I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to me and heard my cry.
I Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus – by the will of God.
Jesus asked them what are you looking for? Stuttering and spluttering before finally their tongues untied, they get out a few words: Rabbi –where are you staying? Jesus says to them: come and see.
This is London calling! The callsign of hope in their liberation.
We may not feel much like it, but we are those who probably without knowing quite why – have amidst the cacophony of busy lives filled with petty preoccupations have responded to God’s call to worship and got ourselves somehow, to church. We are the ones who have woken early enough to tune-in to the livestream of this service in real time. Or maybe we will be those who will remember later in the day or week to click on the livestream link. The point I’m making is that we are present to worship God because we have for reasons maybe unclear to us, chosen to do so.
Despite competing pressures, worship remains important to us – although we are a dwindling constituency among those who nevertheless remain committed to this church community. Gathering for worship in the New England of 2022 is God’s call to engage in an increasingly countercultural practice. So let us be encouraged by this suggestion while keeping in mind the deeper question for those of us whose expression of faith is often muted by our too close alignment with prevailing culture and social trends.
God is calling. The message from the scriptures this morning is that unless we are listening – unless we are expecting, unless we are hopeful, unless our expectation is tinged with enough patience to tolerate waiting, we may not hear God’s call when it comes because we have stopped listening. It’s one thing to listen and quite another to expect to hear something.
If the weekend when we commemorate the call and life changing mission of Dr. Martin Luther King is not the time to question are receptivity to God’s call, then when will be the opportune time?