Awake for God’s Surprises

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read the full text of the sermon here: 

This week, I’ve been thinking and praying for Washington, D.C. During and after the capital riots two weeks ago, I’ve worried about former parishioners and friends who work in or near the capital and those who are trying to navigate the anxiety of living in Washington. We continue to keep Washington and our nation in our prayers.

With thoughts drifting to Washington this week, I guess it’s no surprise that the scriptures today reminded me of a story I heard. My church in DC was very close to the National Cathedral and the Diocesan offices, and so we had volunteers from the parish who helped at the Diocesan offices.

One morning, the volunteer was at the reception desk and the door to the offices opened. In came a cyclist—the bicycle poked in first, and then a person in a biking helmet, riding tights, and sunglasses. Assuming this was an aggressive delivery person, just barging in, the desk volunteer began to say, “Excuse me, you can’t….”

And just then, the biker took her helmet off, smiled, and introduced herself to the volunteer as the new bishop elect of Washington.

How often are we surprised by a person when we read their name, and then meet the person? Maybe they’re a different gender, or (try as we might) we still sometimes stereoptype by race, and so we’re surprised when the person is a different race or ethnicity than we imagined. On and on it goes, as we don’t seem to learn—resist pre-judging. Resist imagining too much. Resist forming expectations.

As much as people can surprise us, God does even more.

In our first reading, God moves among the young a unsuspecting. The boy Samuel is sleeping in the hallway of the temple. He’s an apprentice there, so he must have been familiar with the sounds of the place at night. And so when he hears a voice, he assumes it’s the voice of Eli, the old priest whose service he is in. Samuel is probably 11 or 12 years old and, as an apprentice at the temple knows about God, even if scripture says “he did not yet know the Lord.” He must have known all the great stories of the faith, something of the prophets and priests and characters. 

But he did not yet know God well enough to recognize God’s voice when he heard it. Or, even at a young age, Samuel might not have seen or heard God coming. Samuel might have expected God to come from a different direction, with a different voice, in some different guise. He would have had certain impressions and ideas about who God might be, and how God might work—he doesn’t seem to have been ready for God to rouse people out of bed in the middle of the night. Samuel’s expectations, at first, don’t allow him to hear God. But old Eli helps Samuel to realize God in the vision. He helps Samuel realize God in the nighttime, in a vision, in prayer, and in the silence.

In our Gospel, God arrives from an unexpected direction and it’s Nathanael who almost misses God because he’s expecting God to show up in a different way. The last thinkg Nathanael imagines is that God might look and sound like this Galilean, Jesus. But here, right in front of him, is the One. Christ doesn’t come from Rome, or any of the other great cities. He hasn’t traveled the world. He doesn’t come from some far away, exotic, rich and wonderful place. Instead he’s from Nazareth.

If you go to Nazareth today, it’s not a whole lot different from when Jesus was there, except there’s probably a lot more plastic. We can almost feel and join in Nathanael’s disappointment.

But Jesus senses this. Slowly, in that Christly charming way he has, Jesus begins to talk to him. Jesus talks through him, almost. Jesus lets himself be known by Nathanael. And Nathanael sees something in Jesus, and wants to follow. “Rabbi!” is his simple statement of faith and trust. “You are the Son of the God, the King of Israel.” To which Jesus simply smiles and says, “you haven’t seen anything yet.”

The scriptures ask us today, “Do we see God when God comes? Do we notice?

Or are we busy preparing in the wrong place. Is it like when we’re expecting a delivery at church, and so we’ve unlocked doors, moved things around, turned on lights, and are ready— only to realize that the person making the delivery is standing patiently on the other side of the building, in a place that is better for them to enter? Do we ever do this kind of thing spiritually?

God might meet us in church or in a vision or in silent prayer, like it was for Samuel. Or God might occur to us in our thinking and or in our conversation, like with Paul. God might even come through a friend who point us in the way, who says “Come and see,” and so we go and see, and we meet the Risen Christ.

But God also might come in a hospital waiting room, in a fast food restaurant, in a board meeting or an AA meeting, in a family gathering or on a first date. God might show up on Zoom, or Facebook, or somewhere else. God enters our world not so much when and where we think we’re most ready. But rather, God comes where God wills. “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”

This weekend offers a number of opportunities to remember the work and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He had his own version of “come and see,” as he brought people together to work for Civil Rights. God came to him in through suffering and heartache, through human frailty and his own human nature, but God eventually came in a dream that could be named and offered to others—the dream that

“ . . . little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A dream that, with Isaiah, “one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” [“I have a dream,” delivered August 28, 1963]

And so, in concrete, particular, everyday ways, God has come and keeps coming as we live into the dream for civil rights, for human rights, and for all of God’s dreams to be realized.

The Good News of our scriptures today and the Good News of the faith that is in us is that God comes. God visits. God surprises. God startles. God sweeps us off our feet. God picks us up and draws us close. God comes—not always when we’re most prepared, but God comes always when we are most in need.

Thanks be to God for the power of his visitation, the power to knock down doors and fill our lives with love and with hope. May we realize God’s presence and share God’s power.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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