My Call, Your Call, God's Call


Notes from

Environment Sunday, June 03, 2018

Trinity on Church UC, Kitchener

Text: 1 Samuel 3

I chastised you all this morning, for coming to Trinity on Church for worship at all today.  We had agreed at repeated meetings, and published in all media, that 5 congregations were United this morning, in honour of our anniversary of church union in 1925, and Jenny Stephens, senior national staff, was speaking.

We had noted at our ‘Should I Be Driving’ workshop in May that too many of us had not ridden a city bus in memory, or even recognized a ticket.  Imagine God weeping to watch us drive past so many churches heading to our own site every Sunday!  Some took a GRT bus to First today – congratulations!

This afternoon, Prayer in the Park was celebrated by hundreds of co-religionists in Victoria Park, and I didn’t see any of you, but hope that was my error.  We do not have a monopoly on God – we need not ask WWJD, but WWFJD – what would a Friend of Jesus do? (An acronym to be distinguished from WTF!)

Apparently some felt slighted that our choir was not invited to star in the show.  Others were disappointed that one of our top 5 staff, not the moderator, spoke.  I lamented the lost opportunity, but by the end of worship, was prepared to forgive, and again, much to my relief, God had spared and not struck us down.

Next Sunday, we enjoy the choir one last week before their summer break, and our congregational meeting ratifies our current growing consensus about funds and governance, anticipating a year of discernment ahead, after an eventful year behind us.  Will anybody come in succeeding weeks?  God knows.

We started the service with an Arrogant Worms song ‘Rocks, Trees, and Water.’   Most of this congregation share an apophatic spirituality, at its best a mysticism of negation, God experienced in nature and music, beyond words or imagery.   Trinity worship has, ironically, leaned to the kataphatic way of word and action.

Canada generally claims the spirituality, way of being, associated with creation and wilderness.  Matthew Fox and Annie Dillard are, or should be, widely read and appreciated by most Trinity folks.  Yet we live urban, busy lives – and too rarely retreat to what we claim as our spiritual centre.

Charles Pachter presents that irony in his work ‘Davenport and Bay’, an image of a sofa in a window looking out at a Georgian Bay scene.  Group of Seven were more indirect, producing a vision of Muskoka and Algonquin for the railway company and resorts advertising for American and Toronto tourists.  CP Hotels commissioned great Art Deco poster art of Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise.

Sure, you’re all to busy to indulge what you claim to really want.  But we all get the same 24/7, and some control of how we spend, waste, or use that time, for which goods or indulging which appetites.  Despite my denials, some of you were simply reminded of Jay Zee’s fatuous claim that black slavery, continued over 500 years, was a choice.  Are you really enslaved to your lifestyle?

Since my arrival, I asked you for 5-10 minutes a day, 30-60 minutes a week – for prayer, bible reading, or other spiritual disciplines, and again from leaders, for keeping in touch with our administrative concerns and discernment of priorities and directions together as a congregation.  How is that going?

Spiritual discipline is hard for me, too.  June, July, and August, while asking you to read Genesis and Romans with me, I propose to be in Kitchener only Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, and the rest of the time have more ‘sleepovers’ at the beach house in Southampton with grand-boys and family.  We may fail, but  ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’.  Let’s aim for something, at least!

After that long introductory rant, I acknowledged the Hallmark vignette, of a small child waking an old man 3 times at night.  I identify with the old man:

‘Here I am!’  We can teach kids that God calls us – we should keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to clues of such an invitation, in Creation Spirituality. Since we are so familiar with that sermon, I left it to you to preach it later.

My job, my burden, was to retell the story in an adult perspective and context.  ‘In those days, there was no king in Israel, and each one did what was right in their own eyes.’  Judges introduces that time, and Samuel resolves it with the beginning of a monarchy.  Eli saw the risks of anarchy, but Samuel will start from those risks, then discern the new risks of tyranny of ‘strong man’ rule.

We followed Moses, with his staff and signs, out of Egypt through the sea, following pillars of cloud and fire, then the tablets of Torah, the ark of the covenant revered in the elaborate tent of presence.  We followed Joshua, and this ‘God-in-a-box’, to claim our providential allotment.  We parked the box in Shiloh, enjoyed our entitlements, till roused under a Judge to resist threats.

When there is no agreed source or authority, reasonable people may differ on moral norms.  Ad hoc collective responses to external threats are inadequate over a longer term. Is the only alternative a tyrant, who brings death and taxes?

As 1 Samuel begins, Eli is the priest in Shiloh, and his sons Phinehas and Hophni are corrupting the priestly tradition with riotous living.  They spend the moral, political, and financial capital of the shrine, indulging their own appetites, and don’t contribute nearly what they spend.  Fertility and fecundity as Dillard and Fox sing it in our time falters, and poor Hannah suffers the infertility of the time.

Hannah prays, promising to give Samuel to Shiloh shrine when weaned, putting Eli in loco parentis like a residential school. Eli thinks she is drunk, and tries to kick her out of the shrine.  His profligate kids are the problem – but Eli himself has grown so fat and lazy that he falls of a bench and breaks his neck in c.4!  Imagine being Eli in an unregenerate, if not degenerate time!

Now imagine Samuel, getting bad news to deliver to Eli.  The message is that God will let Eli’s priestly lineage fail and end. Sure, Samuel is credible after that, but not popular.  We know his future career, warning people against kings who will conscript their sons and demand high taxes.  He acquiesces to Saul, who is weak, superstitious, and lustful, whose lineage also fails.

Samuel will also anoint David, before Saul is done, part of the civil war conflict of transition from a weak declining regime.  David is running a protection racket in the Hebron hills 7 years, then brings the ‘God-in-a-Box’ to Jerusalem for 33 years – but Samuel anticipates the blood, lust and greed of David’s ambition. Samuel’s job is no more appealing than Eli’s, is it?

What’s it like to be Eli? What futility, frustration, disappointment, belatedness, with his sons messing up, his shrine in disrepute?  What’s it like to be Samuel, always giving bad news to the ‘good old ways’ and warnings about the risks of the ‘quick fix solution’ of kingly rule? What futility,  frustration, disappointment, belatedness, his anointed kings messing up, Shiloh a shadow of its former self?

Canaanite religion of Baalism dealt with orderly cycles of generations and seasons – family values of patriarchal succession. Yahwism was a tradition of surprises, the failure of eldest sons, the infertility of women, disorderly discontinuity reminding us that God’s in charge, not us. Baal myths of nature and genetics, affirm that a good household of good parents makes good kids!

Do you recognize anything of Eli’s situation in our congregation, denomination, culture? How about Samuel’s situation in the future soon and near here?

We are tempted to blame, to panic, to deny, or to indulge in corruptions. We are uncomfortable with belatedness, laments, grief, integrity and hope. We are offered progress, optimism, narcissism, pragmatism, and civil religion of consumerism. And we know that we are getting older, adding pounds and losing eyesight and sleep.  What will our legacy be?  What will give us courage?

It’s a sentimental story of a child losing sleep – and political one of generations. Religious. Spiritual.   Each Sunday, a bunch of us gather in this Shiloh shrine. We’re excited to keep company with any little Samuels – because most of us more readily identify with Eli. What are we teaching, or re-presenting, about what is truly human, and what reflects the truly divine?

Hanging around any church we’ve got our share of Phinehas and Hophni characters, here by heredity and accident of birth, serving themselves, getting more benefit than sharing burdens.  What entitles we few dozen people to claim the name of this priceless heritage, let alone its $5.5M legacy funds?

Surrounded by a secular culture of consumerism and Baalism, we are tempted to the cultural scripts of family values, of nature and nurture – our children are our future, not our present. The old ways will stand forever, and our own adult children will succeed us as trustees of this shrine of Shiloh.

And all the while we are so tempted, we are aware of how much denial, suppressed grief, blame, panic, is ready to rise up.  Samuel shows up, and says ‘You called – I came?’ We’re tempted to bluff, and say yes, and explain as if we knew what to say on behalf of God.

Our culture, our denomination, and our congregation, too often confuses providence and progress. Providence is the idea that God has some plans and is working them out within the order and freedom God arranges. Progress is the idea that things are getting better and better every day in every way. We confuse what is necessary, inevitable, or given with what is good or attainable.

Individually, within that confusion of providence with progress, we confuse prudence with consumption. Prudence is a traditional form of virtue associated with trying to live in faithful relation to providence – usually through some self-restraint, and care for God and others. Consumption is the new virtue, progress through freedom: life, liberty and the pursuit of wealth. We succeed.

We are not the first generation to face these fundamental religious and spiritual issues – we just think we are.

We are not the first to live within a culture firmly committed to progress, consumption and family values – that’s Canaanite Baalism. We are not the first to live through the decline of some institutions and social patterns, before the shape of things to come have come clear – Eli lived it before us.

The cognitive dissonance of actually recognizing biblical narratives in the sea of the cultural norms and alternatives makes epiphany hard to reach, and harder to keep. It’s easy to deride all this as uptight guilt ridden pleasure avoiding pietism, reactionary depressives gathering together to smugly repress.

I closed this bleak lament with a poem by W.B.Yeats, in 1914 on the eve of a Great War and Irish Uprising. “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing”:

Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honour bred, with one

Who, were it proved he lies,

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult.

 George Grant’s ‘Lament for a Nation’ in 1965 offers a similar song of Canada:

The impossibility of conservativism in our era is the impossibility of Canada.

 As Canadians we attempted a ridiculous task in trying to build a conservative nation in the age of progress, on a continent we share with the most dynamic nation on earth. The current of modern history was against us…

 Those who loved the older traditions of Canada may be allowed to lament what has been lost, even though they do not know where or not that loss will lead to some greater political good. But lamentation falls easily into the vice of self-pity.

 To live with courage is a virtue, whatever one may think of the dominant assumptions of one’s age.

 Multitudes of human beings through the course of history have had to live when their only political allegiance was irretrievably lost.

 What was lost was often something far nobler than what Canadians have lost. Beyond courage, it is also possible to live in the ancient faith….

If you prefer the privatized and personalized version of the faith, I can offer the more recent Henri Nouwen (1981) ‘Aging: The Fulfillment of Life’:

One way of describing the way to the light

is to call it a slow conversion

 from wishes to hope. 

 You wish ‘that’, you hope ‘in’. 

 Wishes have concrete objects

such as cars, houses, promotions, and wealth. 

  Hope is open-ended,

built on the trust

that the other

will fulfill his or her promises. 

 Therefore the conversion

from wishes to hope

asks for a slow process of disengagement

 in which we are willing to detach ourselves

from the many little and big things

 of the moment

and open ourselves

 to the future….

 As our closing benediction put it:

‘Now let’s get on with it.  God help us if we do.  God help us if we don’t.”