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Getting out of our Hobbit Holes: Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Second Sunday after the Ephiphany:
1 Samuel 3:1-10
1 Corinthians 6:12-26
John 1:43-51

[The actual preached sermon was significantly simplified and delivered in a more ‘off the cuff’ style, giving more examples from our congregational context. But here is what I worked from.]

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.*

So begins one of the most-loved books of our day, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which of course, sets the stage for his famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. The twist to come is that the saving of the world, as recounted in that later trilogy, hinges on these hobbits: tiny people who love comfort —the least adventuresome creatures in the land. People who live in hole-homes, but not nasty holes; quaint, cosy holes in hillsides.

These are folks who have grown used to — and preferred — the situation described in the reading from First Samuel: that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” After an era of great battles, magic spells, and rival empires, things have settled down. Nothing much really happens. And hobbits can focus on hosting dinner parties and drinking tea.

That’s just a quick and easy example of how a lot of the time there’s continuity between our contemporary mythologies and our sacred stories. Not that they’re exactly the same, or of equal importance, but simply that there are parallels that can help us, or help us help others, to understand what we sometimes assume is a pretty difficult collection of books.

In the story of Samuel we might recognize our own world: a world where, for most, it seems that “the word of the Lord [has become] rare.” Where religious language and habits that used to ‘work,’ used to give shape and order to society, seem to have lost their power. Like the priest Eli in the story, some feel their eyes going dim, their life’s journeys coming to an end, and a feeling of uncertainty about the future of the church.

Like some of the characters in the gospel story we might be looking for a saviour. Or like Jesus, we might feel like we’re at the very start of something special. That movement that’s going to save the world, but that has to start somewhere; has to start, with just a few people. Or like Nathanael, we might look at the options presented to us (that some might be really keen about), and respond with “can anything good really come out of that?!”

And what about that awkward conversation we seem to have walked into, between Paul and the Corinthian church? Like Paul, maybe we’ve been part of some exciting project at its early stages, only to find that it then goes in unpredictable directions, when we have to deal with — you know — other people, who aren’t exactly the same as us.

If we attune ourselves to the challenges in these readings, we might also become aware of the graces that are there, as well. “The lamp of God had not yet gone out,” we read in First Samuel. No, the voice of God was rare in those days, but it didn’t mean that God wasn’t there. And it’s at that time — that sort of spiritual desert — that God did move, and speak in a clear way, once again. Like Bilbo and Frodo and those other hobbits that thought that they could rest assured that nothing exciting would really ever happen again. They had no idea that they’d be pulled into a story with gold, and dragons, and invisibility rings.

There’s grace in our Gospel story, in how Jesus is actively recruiting people for an exciting mission. And he’s willing to work with Nathanael, even after his grumpy reply to Philip: can anything good come out of Nazareth? Because a successful movement will need to tap into all sorts of gifts and abilities. Even grouchy Nathanael had something special to offer.

And there’s grace that comes out of awkward correspondence between Paul and the Corinthians. Because it’s by wrestling with the issues of that church that Paul has the opportunity to write about freedom that takes seriously the needs of our neighbour. Yes, we’re all free. But our freedom isn’t an excuse to get away with anything. Our freedom is a clearer realization of how we’re all connected and interdependent. And it’s not just people that are connected; but our physical and spiritual lives, and our present realities, and the Kingdom of God that, Paul says, is starting to be realized, but isn’t fully here.

And for us, in our particular community here at St. Andrew’s, we might especially find resonance in Nathanael’s grumpy retort: can anything good come out of that place? Because we’ve found in recent months, that indeed, yes, good things can come out of unlikely situations. Last fall the mood that permeated St. Andrew’s could be described in various ways: grief, anger, uncertainty, anxiety. But this community held on to hope. And was open to the surprising movement of the Spirit, that calls us to action at times that seem the most unlikely.

And though we need to ensure that the awesome news of our 2017 surplus doesn’t lull us into a hobbit-like complacency, we can celebrate that our community responded to the movement of the Spirit over the course of the year. We’ve, I think, rediscovered and recommitted to the call of Jesus that goes: follow me.

And insofar as we’re faithful to following Jesus, I am convinced that we’ll continue to find that the word of God will call to us, and empower us, like Samuel, for exciting ministry, in a growing city, and in a neighbourhood that, quite simply, can only benefit from a strong presence of caring, compassionate people. In our positive closing of what we knew would be an unpredictable year, we’ve shown that as a congregation we’ve responded to the calling of God with a resounding: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Let us pray:
Insistent God,
by night and day you summon your slumbering people.
So stir us with your voice
and enlighten our lives with your grace
that we give ourselves fully
to Christ’s call to mission and ministry. Amen.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937.