Transcription of the sermon preached
By The Very Reverend William Carl Thomas
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 15, 2012
At Saint Matthews Episcopal Church, Charleston West Virginia
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“Speak, your servant is listening.” This is what Samuel finally says when he realizes he is being addressed by God, that God is calling to him. I would think that as I look back upon my own Christian journey that listening has probably been my greatest challenge and continued challenge: this whole notion of listening carefully to God.
If I was to take the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator test of which some of you are familiar with, one of the polarities that comes out of this test is, in essence, are you prone to listening: although they don’t claim that as the actual question. They would say, “You’re a judger or a perceiver.” It’s what you self-select. It’s how you take information from the world and work with it. Judgers like to make decisions. They just feel better when they make decisions. Doesn’t have to be the right decision, but making a decision is a good feeling. Perceivers, if you take it to the nth degree, they want to make a decision but they want to make the right decision. And are so busy gathering every piece of data, information, whatever you want to call it, they get to the point where they don’t seem to make any decision. And you can see how, just as an aside, how frustrating it might be for a judger to be in a room with a perceiver, trying to come to grips with something. And you can see how they’re knocking heads with each other to get to one point or to another.
Well, I, as I said, test out as what they call high “J”: high judger. I like to make decisions. Now, I was talking about my, my Christian journey: What is it to access my perceiver’s side? We all have this in us. One is just more dominant than the other. Often in this type of Jungian based psychology, we wind up working with one or the other, we may find ourselves working with the one where (we) are less competent in because we don’t do enough with it. So it means building the skill, building the skill. So for me, building the skill of listening has been an ongoing journey.
We have mixed into all of our scripture today, also a sense of God calling someone: “Philip, follow me.” He finds Nathaniel: “Nathaniel, come and see Jesus.” God calling out to Samuel, Samuel saying, “(Your) servant is listening”: Samuel, a most important prophet. For me, when I heard my call to priesthood, it wasn’t because I had worked up any great ability to be able to then say, “Lord, your servant is listening.” It was if a whack on the side of the head, and I’m not going to go into the long story of how that happened, but I was in a state where I was so bereft that the only thing I could hear would be God calling me. It was like I had to let everything go, to be stripped away. And as I entered into my journey, I’ve been very, very human about how I go about almost selectively listening to God. Because I am still the sum and the make-up of all that God has created in me; all the great that could be and all the parts that just drag me down. And it’s sort of expressed to some degree in my understanding of how listen when I’m working.
For instance, I’ve come to realize that if I’m at somebody’s bedside, and this has been the case for the 22 to 23 years of my ordained life: I listen extremely well. I listen because I’m taken out of my body and I’m letting God listen for me. And I’m listening to God. I’m listening to God so carefully that whatever comes out of my mouth is appropriate. I’ve always been amazed at this, at a bedside, or when somebody is in distress or needful. I began to realize because I knew in order to do the work at that moment, that very moment, I needed God totally and completely to be there. Cause there was no way I could do it on my own. It was too huge a responsibility. It’s little like what we say (when we say), “I will, with God’s help” in the Baptismal Covenant.
But then there’s that other part, that other part, where I think I’ve got great competency in doing things. I’m fairly well organized. I can find stuff. Being a Judger, I can make up my mind. I can figure things out. And consequently, I decided to listen to what I want to hear and not all that’s placed before me, that God would yearn for me to hear. Now remember, this is an ongoing story in growth and depth in Christian growth. My own rediscovery, if you will, of the Rule of St. Benedict has helped me because the word obedience, as I’ve said before, means to hear or to listen. So if you think about it, Samuel is being immediately obedient: “Your servant is listening.”
If you know the Serenity Prayer, the true Serenity Prayer, goes like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” The Serenity Prayer as written, and as lived by so many people and integrated into their hearts, is really a prayer about listening carefully. Listening carefully to the choices that must be made so that the very best choices can be made. Somebody coping with addiction, for instance, will know this prayer as one that says, “If I touch that bottle, and I make that bottle, Oh, I could drink just a drop, but that drop is going to take me down a path I don’t want to go, for I’m going to forget that that bottle is not by best friend.”
For me, in the world of listening, I realized I had written a different serenity prayer for me. I had written a prayer, and I had integrated it, and I had sort of done this dualistic thing. When I was doing pastoral work, at your bedsides, in the needs, it’s as if I was listening to the true Serenity Prayer. Cause there were things I could change and not change, I was seeking the wisdom to speak the words that would comfort. But in all other things, I was pretty darn sure of myself. And so, this is sort of what I think I was saying. This is my revised version of the serenity prayer: “God bless my ability to handle the things I cannot control, strength to control the things I can, and determination to make a difference.” I would almost offer to that, that’s the credo of a high “J”: one who has all these other abilities. That was another way of say, “God, step away, your busy, I’ll take care of this for you.” And what I’ve come to realize, especially over the past few years, is that I need God in everything.
There is no way for me to listen affectively or effectively as a leader in any form: especially one who stands before you as an ordained minister. If I don’t listen to God in all things as carefully as I listen to God when I’m at somebody’s bedside. So beginning realize how much I need God is a continued part of my own growth.
About a year ago I stood before you at Annual Meeting and I said that at some point in the next twelve to eighteen months I would return the keys to the wardens. That’s still going to happen. But when you say twelve to eighteen months, it sure sounds like a long period of time. In that period of time, I have been engaged in a lot of heavy duty listening. I have been talking with other parishes about what it might mean for me to come in their midst. I have been part of their need to listen. You see, all of this comes under the term “discernment.” Heavy duty listening for what God would have us do is discernment. And discernment calls for conversation. The type of conversation that means all parties are listening carefully. Hopefully listening in the spirit of the true Serenity Prayer. I must tell you that I have come very close in two or three instances of thinking that I would get a phone call that said we’ve been listening and we think you’re the one that should say, “Yes lord, your servant is listening.” But its not happened yet. All know is that I have learned much in those conversations and I have helped them refine for what they think God is doing in their midst.
And I also know, that over the last year at Saint Matthews, there has been some incredibly good listening going on for what might happen in the years to come. And we will celebrate that next week at Annual Meeting. Because the long and the short of all of this is: those who are committed to listening to God, those who are obedient, those who are willing to claim “Yes, your servant is listening,” are those who put their trust in God. Putting your trust in God calls for great faith. And let me tell you, there are moments when my faith wilts.
Those of you who were here on Christmas Eve will know I preached a sermon that I wrote, and I preached it from the pulpit, and I wrote on the Monday before Christmas Eve. And I wrote it and I declared in that sermon about what is the cost of faith. And I remembered Lamentations: the great faithfulness of God. Three or four days after I wrote that sermon, the most recent parish that I had been in close conversation with, let me know that I was not in their final two candidates. I have felt blessed by that sermon in ways you cannot understand. I felt blessed by the support and continued love I have felt at Saint Matthews for how I ought live and move forward: listening carefully not only to my needs but the needs of the parish.
If we are all committed to listening carefully to God, being obedient and trusting, then the fullness of all that God has to offer us will become apparent. I believe that fully. God is faithful. And that’s why I say to you today that I live my life as one who knows my deficits but knows where my strength comes from. I thank you for your participation in helping me find that strength.
And I close again with these words from the Serenity Prayer because I think it means to much to me but to all of us in these moments in this time: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Yes, Lord, your servants are listening.
All these words I offer in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.