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If You Build It

The Second Sunday after Epiphany
Proper 2, Year B

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20); Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

I understand that Canadians have the distinction of being the greatest users of the telephone in the world. We are used to calling others and to being called. In this day and age we feel uneasy if we go out the door without our cell phone. But when it comes to being called by God, we are less sure. We wish it were as easy as receiving a phone call. We question. What does it mean to be called? How does it happen? How can we discern God’s call? Are we all called by God? Our readings today explore the ways in which God reaches out to us and helps us to discern our calling.

Samuel received a call from God when he was just a child. He was three years old when his mother took him to live in the temple at Shiloh where he was to serve. Eli, the priest in the temple, was an old man. His two sons were servers in the temple. But their greed had given it a bad name amongst the people. Eli had not spoken out about their bad behaviour. This had cut him off from God’s good graces.
There in the darkness of the night, God called Samuel. Samuel heard the call, but not on his own. He needed Eli, the very one who was out of favour with God, to help him respond. He needed someone’s guidance. He needed help to know that it really was God calling him.

Fast forward! Jesus invites Philip to follow him. He in turn finds his friend Nathanael and invites him. Nathanael’s first response is negative, perhaps even scornful. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He retorts. Philip knows better than to argue. But he also knows Jesus. And indeed the answer for him is a resounding “yes!” So he invites Nathanael with the same words that Jesus used in inviting him. “Come and see.” What is he inviting him to come and see? Come and gain insight into the mind and purpose of God. Come and deepen your relationship with God. Come and answer the call to serve.

Fast forward to the present! James Hillman, author of the book, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. His is not particularly a Christian way of looking at call, but he comes surprisingly close to describing the process through which God helps us to determine who we are meant to be. He says that even very young children have a sense of call, and that if we really listen to what they are saying, we can help them to discern their life’s work. He recounts the story of the English philosopher, Collingwood, who at eight years of age tried to read Kant’s Theory of Ethics. He could not understand it. He knew with a sense of urgency that he needed to. It became his life’s work. Was he called by God? That is how I would name it.

Martin Luther King was aware even as a young child that God was calling him to fight against racism. Even when his family, worried about his safety, opposing his efforts, he continued to challenge racial discrimination.

How do we personally discern God’s call? Sometimes it happens through other people in our lives, people like Eli who have insights into the way God works. Such people are able to share their insights with us and help us to discern God's call. I had such a mentor when I came to discern my call to ordination. I went to tell my parish priest that I felt called and intended to seek ordination. He leaned back in his chair, gave his characteristic hmmph! "It's to be avoided if at all possible," he said to me. Two hours later after I had given him all the reasons why I couldn't avoid it, he said to me, "Well, that's wonderful, isn't it!" He was a strong advocate as I went through the process.

Sometimes it happens through invitations like the one of Philip to come and see. God calls us as individuals in a personal way to serve, to follow, to share. Where have you heard God’s call? How have you passed on that call to others? How do we become open to God’s presence and call?

Sometimes it happens to a group of people who begin to listen and act on God’s call to them. It rather reminds me of the movie “Field of Dreams”. In it, a man receives the message, “Build it and they will come.” ‘It’ is a playing field. And he builds it, not, of course, without running into difficulties. He converts the field on his farm into a playing field complete with lights and seats for people to watch. ‘They’ are the great players of the past. And they come out of the corn stalks to play great baseball. People come from all over to see the games. But most importantly, the builder is confronted by his own past.

“Build it and they will come” seems to be the way we operate in the church. A few people get together and build a lovely church. They begin to hold services and wait for people to come. And it used to work. Those of us who are ‘Cradle Anglicans’ grew up in a church where that worked. Going to church on a Sunday was a given. Even now given the right location, people may notice the church and come. Like Samuel, they may come in to find out what it is all about. They may even become involved and begin to serve in some way. But, like Samuel, they may not yet know the Lord they are serving.

Or they may be like Nathanael, hanging around the fringes, rather angry and suspicious. Yet there is some sense of longing they cannot seem to fulfill, a sense of need in their lives, or a sense of duty. ‘I come to church for my children, for my family.’ Or a sense of guilt! 'It’s the right thing to do.’

But if the church is really going to be vital, if it is really going to reach out to the community, then just building it and waiting will never work. The people who come will never be enlivened. You see, invitations need to go out. People need to be invited to come and see, to come and meet Jesus, to come and see who we are, to come and see what Christianity has to offer, to come into relationship with the God who walks with us.

It is not enough to assume that people will hear the message. We need to invite them in a personal, eyeball-to-eyeball way. So 'unanglican', isn’t it! We are all ministers of the Gospel. We all have parishes or arenas of service. We are all called. We can invite. People should be able to see something of God’s love and saving power in our lives, in the things we say, in the things we do and primarily in how we live our lives.

And we need “Fresh Expressions” of church. If you have not heard that way of putting it, you will hear lots about it from me. I truly believe that if the Church is to survive, and I am speaking not about this particular congregation but about the Church of God, we need to find new ways of being the church. It means moving out of our comfort zone and finding a way to speak to people in this modern world of ours in a way that they can understand and appreciate. It means finding new ways to draw people in to share in the faith that we take for granted.
What is God’s call to you, the people of St. George’s, Newcastle or St. Saviour’s, Orono? Is God calling you to be a church that meets the needs of its longtime members? Or is God calling you to be a vital and living message of God’s love to this community? Do you want to be an inviting and vital church? If you do, you must lose your complacency. You cannot wait for people to come in. It doesn’t work to simply wait. Just ask yourself a simple question, “How has it been working for us?” Then consider what God is calling you to do about it. How is God calling you to be the church?

You are in a good position to reach out to others. The community is growing. New families are moving here. The church is well located. But you cannot sit within these four walls and wait for people to come. You must be inviting. You must have good programs to offer them when they get here, good music, a fine Sunday School program, activities for people young and old, people on hand to welcome, modern liturgies that speak to people’s souls, programs that reach out not only to those who have an affinity for traditional Anglican worship, but the dechurched and the unchurched.

People are looking for fulfillment and renewed spiritual life. They are looking for God. If God is at the centre of our lives, they will find what they are looking for. This place will be alive in Christ. We will discover what Paul wanted the Corinthians to discover. It is not a matter of just following the laws set out by the community, but of living our lives centred in Christ Jesus. Being different. Being set apart. Living lives of prayer and service to God. And then sharing it with a needy world. Amen.

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