Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Listen... from Samuel and Nathanael to Benedict and us

The Bible readings we have today are about asking and listening - about being ready to ask and being ready to listen.  What’s going on with this young boy Samuel, an apprentice priest at the Israelite shrine of Shiloh in the days before the building of a Temple in Jerusalem? What does Nathanael have to learn from Jesus? Are we ready to ask and listen?

I started thinking about this because I wanted to know more about Samuel - like what does his name mean? There’s some uncertainty… What we have is the story of how he came to be born. His mother, Hannah, hadn’t been able to have children - and it caused her real pain. In her desperation she’d been to pray at the sanctuary in Shiloh. She promised that if she had a child she would dedicate him to God’s service, but she was so upset that she wept as she prayed - and Eli the priest thought she was drunk. But she told him what she was asking for, he blessed her and she had a son. “She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’”

There’s some disagreement whether the name “Samuel” does mean “asked of the Lord.” But I wonder if it matters. The “el” bit of the name in Hebrew does mean God. And Hannah had certainly asked God for help - and she persisted with her prayer even when things seemed hopeless and people thought the wrong thing about her.

But there’s something more. In Hebrew the name Samuel is Shmuel. The first words used by Jews in prayer are Shema Israel… “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might…” They’re the words which Jesus uses when he sums up all the commandments of the Law. Love God… love your neighbour… but first, Hear - Listen.

Samuel’s mother had asked for his birth - she had listened for an answer from God. And Samuel needs to learn how to listen for the voice of God and to ask what he should say and do if he is to be faithful as his servant. Hannah learns the way of sacrifice - she gives up Samuel for the service of God. Samuel needs to learn how to say hard things. We discover that if we read on beyond the point at which today’s reading ends: Eli the priest needs to be told that things are not right in what he is doing - nor in the way his sons are living. And Samuel can only play his part if first he learns to listen - and to ask of God how he should act. So three times he hears his name called - three times he gets up and goes to Eli. But only then does he realise that it is God who is speaking to him - only when he asks does he find out what he must do.

The story of Samuel is one of those Old Testament stories which I learned as a child. Perhaps you did... But we need to see that it’s not merely a story from the past - 3,000 years old. It invites us to look at ourselves - what do we hear? It invites us to ask - what does God want from me?

As part of my prayer discipline this year, I’m trying each day to read part of the Rule of St. Benedict. It’s an ancient Rule drawn up in the middle of the 6th Century for those monks who followed Benedict in the community life which he established. It’s a way of life still followed by many thousands of monks and nuns - but it has a still wider application to any Christian who wants to ask, how can I serve God and get on with other people? Actually that’s the whole point of the Rule - serve God and manage to live in harmony with other people, even the most irritating of people. The Rule has 73 chapters - but it’s also divided up so that you can read a short section each day and get through it in four months. The idea is that those who follow it should read it three times a year. We’ll see how I do…

But actually all I want to do now is tell you what the first word of the Rule is. It’s “Listen…” “Listen, child of God, to the guidance of your teacher…” That’s where we all need to start. Be faithful in this says Benedict, and you’ll realise his aim:

“… what we mean to establish is a school for the Lord’s service.”

Benedict sees that if we’re to grow as Christians we need to be faithful as disciples - and that starts by listening so that we may learn.

Today’s Gospel reading takes us to the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel. Jesus is calling his disciples. We’ve missed the call of the first three. They’re Andrew and another disciple whose name we don’t know. Jesus simply invites them to come and spend time with him - and they go… they listen. Then Andrew goes and gets his brother Simon and takes him along too. At the point we reach today, Jesus has found Philip and called him to follow him - that means to be a disciple, to listen and learn. And he does. It’s something that Philip wants to pass on, so he goes looking for Nathanael and asks him to come and meet Jesus. But Nathanael is doubtful - he wants to write Jesus off: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip has to persist: “Come and see.” It’s a simple encounter which brings Nathanael to recognise how God is at work in Jesus. He simply needs to place himself before Jesus. And then he realises how Jesus already knows him - Jesus is looking already into his heart.

How ready are we to make that encounter? - to be ready to be quiet and listen? The priest and psychoanalyst, Maggie Ross, has just published a book called, “Silence - a user’s guide.” She has her own way of living - as a hermit, not in a desert or out in the wilds, but at the top of a house in a city. It’s her way of trying to understand her life and the lives of others. What are we doing when we come to church? She says of herself:

“I go to the eucharist as often as I can find one that isn't just a lot of noise. This is extremely difficult to find; so often I have to settle for the least worst of the options.”

And she goes on:

“There are a lot of hungry people out there. The churches are full of noise. There is an idolatry of spiritual experience. The situation is dire.”

I think hers is a pretty extreme position. Hermits themselves are probably not the easiest people to live with - and that’s a good reason for them to be hermits. But there’s a valid point in what she says. Do we just go out looking for what is superficially attractive? Do we stop to ask ourselves what we are truly looking for? Have we already made up our minds - like Nathanael - as to what we want to find? Are we taken in by the words, the music, the warm feelings… what she calls “the noise”?

I hope people come here to St. Cuthbert’s / St. John’s and find warmth, music which they like and words which speak to them. But there’s that other element also which is so important - that I bring myself here to meet God.

What am I looking for? Who am I looking for? Am I ready to listen?
 (1 Samuel 3.1-10; John 1.43-51)

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