Of the adhan, locomotive horns, and following Jesus

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Matthew 4:12-23

I was with friends who recently visited Egypt. We drank some spiced coffee, and as we did, I was shown a photograph of the restaurateur in Luxor who sold them this coffee and engaged them in friendly, funny conversation as they spent time in his establishment.

“Look”, said my friend, “see the carpet burn on his forehead?”
Sure enough, there was a definite reddish-brown spot right in the center of his forehead.

You see, he’s a Muslim, like most Egyptians, and that carpet burn is there because five times a day he hears the muezzin give the adhan, the call to prayer. That call to prayer is a brief summary of Islamic belief, and he, as an observant Muslim answers the call, kneeling on his prayer rug, then bowing his whole body to the ground until his forehead rests on his rug.

If you’ve ever visited the Middle East or North Africa or anyplace where Islam is in the majority, you’ve heard the haunting sounds of the call to prayer. It wafts in the air early in the morning, then four more times ending at bedtime. It is a call to stop everything and pay attention to God.

On this side of the pond I’ve never lived near a mosque or heard the call to prayer.

When I was living in Eugene I was at least two miles from the main rail line passing through Eugene and Springfield, but late at night when the wind direction was just right I would sometimes be awake at night hearing locomotive horns pierce the night as they repeatedly made street crossings. That sound in the night was often a summons to deep feelings.

The blare of the locomotive horn would sometimes remind me of my late father’s love of trains, and bring some nostalgia for childhood moments with him thrilling to the sounds and sights of locomotives. Thinking of my father, who died when I was nineteen, would in turn remind me of the uncertainty and shortness of life. I would hear those sounds and realize that life is coming at me. This would in turn bring about a contemplative moment considering the question “Who am I, what am I doing? What should I be doing? To what are you calling me?”

The closest I come to hearing an audible call to prayer out in the open is the sound of our carillon, or the blaring horn of a locomotive.

I’m never far from that sound now, living as close to the tracks as I do. Sometimes I’m awakened at night when the northbound or southbound trains come around to South Bellingham and hit the horn at the crossing of Harris. There’s this sense that life is coming at me, and moving on.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus proclaiming “Repent, for the kingdom of God is coming near!”

In Frederick Bruner’s commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew he gives us a fresh understanding of the nature of that call from Jesus.

What Jesus is saying is “Look out! Move! A whole new world is headed straight toward you!”

If you are in Boulevard Park and about to cross the tracks when hear that locomotive horn blaring, you know you’d better move. You hear that horn as “Hey, look out, I’m coming your way!

I invite you to hear Jesus’ words in this way Bruner suggests:

“Move, because here comes the whole new world of God.”

The call of Jesus is a call to action. God is on the move coming at us. We are to turn and go with it, nothing held back.

The adhan – the call to prayer of the Muslim faith – is a summary of Islamic belief. When a Muslim hears it, they must respond. It is a call to submission.

The words from Jesus today are a summary of everything a Christian needs to know and understand. "God’s kingdom is coming, get with it!”

This is a summons to full attention, full submission to the purposes of God for our lives.

That’s the way Simon and Andrew and James and John heard Jesus’ call. They heard, and they submitted everything to the call.

We marvel at the suddenness of their following, but I think they were ready for this call in some way beyond my understanding. They were fishermen, yes, but human beings first, and something in their deepest yearning was met by what they had heard about this man, and when they were face to face with his invitation they knew that his invitation was what they had been hoping for. God moved right into their lives and claimed them.

The adhan, the call to prayer, just keeps coming when you’re living in the Middle East or some places in Michigan.

The locomotive horn just keeps coming when you’re in Bellingham. It’s always there. If you miss it at one hour of the day, you’ll hear it later on. It’s like that with God. God is always coming at me, inviting me to life with Jesus.

What is it for you? What in your life signifies that repeated summons to follow?

God is always coming at all of us, asking for all of us. We have this life to respond. An ancient poem by Rumi puts it this way.

For sixty years I have been forgetful
every minute, but not for a second
has this flowing toward me stopped or slowed.
I deserve nothing. Today I recognize
that I am the guest the mystics talk about.
I play this lively music for my Host.
Everything today is for the Host.

As Church, we profess that everything is for the Host. “Blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and for ever”, we pray together.

Our life together as Church will be stronger and more responsive to the call of God of Christ the more we commit ourselves individually to listening for and responding to the call.

Jesus says “Move, for here comes the whole new world of God!”

locomotive near Ferndale WA: http://www.flickr.com/photos/17456491@N00/3764784292
Hans Süss von Kulmbach The Calling of St Peter. 1514-16,Oil on wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Karl Wilhelm Gentz The Muezzin's Call to Prayer. 19th century