Tag Archives: call

“Have You Heard the Word?”

Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 40:21-31 (NRSV)

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,

and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;

who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,

and spreads them like a tent to live in;

23 who brings princes to naught,

and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,

scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,

when he blows upon them, and they wither,

and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25 To whom then will you compare me,

or who is my equal? says the Holy One.

26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:

Who created these?

He who brings out their host and numbers them,

calling them all by name;

because he is great in strength,

mighty in power,

not one is missing.

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,

and speak, O Israel,

“My way is hidden from the Lord,

and my right is disregarded by my God”?

28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

his understanding is unsearchable.

29 He gives power to the faint,

and strengthens the powerless.

30 Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.

The writer of our passage from Isaiah this morning certainly had his work cut out for him. While scholars are not of one mind on the topic, the predominant view in the academic community is that multiple authors composed this book. During the last century, a type of literary theory developed out of the discovery of distinctive writing styles, grammatical choices, and historical references throughout the book of Isaiah. The  theory goes that there were three primary authors who wrote sections before, during, and after the Babylonian exile.

The selection that we have read this morning is believed to come from the opening chapter of the second section.  These verses are written to the deposed community that has now seen the fulfillment of all that had been foretold in chapters one through thirty-nine.  Having been forcibly deported from the land into which the Lord their God had delivered their ancestors, the remnant of Israelites were left to wonder if all hope was lost.  If they cried out to the Lord for deliverance, would their pleas fall upon deaf ears?

An ancient relief, which depicts the Babylonians leading the Israelites into captivity.

The fear of the exiled Jewish people is one that many communities continue to struggle with: “Does anyone hear our cries for help?”  I’ve seen this fear echoed several times in recent days.  It was echoed by students, faculty, and alumni, following the murder and suicide on campus at the University of South Carolina this past Thursday.[i]  While visiting the city of Baltimore, I heard it echoed by the citizens there following a suspected gang-related shooting outside a high school basketball game on Wednesday.[ii]  I’ve even heard it echoed by the inhabitants of that land once known as Babylon, as we receive the latest report on the atrocities committed under the ISIS flag.  Over and over, the desperate cry is echoed: “How long, O Lord? How long?”

As these and so many other stories continually pour in, that question reverberates louder and louder: “How long, O Lord? How long?”  “How long, O Lord? How long?”  This cry for mercy echoes over and over until we can hear nothing else.  And at times, we wonder, like those Israelites, is there anyone left to hear our cries?  Will anyone come to our rescue?

But even as we wait for someone to answer our distress, the writer in Isaiah asks us a couple of questions of his own: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”  In the midst of their captivity, the writer calls to people to unplug their ears and remember the story of their God…of our God.

And this emphasis on remembrance becomes even more important for us, in light of the message that we have received from the prophets in recent weeks.  From the boy Samuel, we have learned of the importance of being open to experiencing the mystery of God in a world that continually calls us to look for the certainties.  From Jonah, we have learned that God fervently desires to involve us in the work of love and that God will continually call us to participate in this work until we submit. And from Moses, we have learned that when we are called to serve the Lord, we must not take on this work timidly, but we must go boldly as those who have been given authority.

To these lessons, we add this morning the message from Isaiah, which calls us to always remember the Good News.  Like the prophet, we are called to proclaim God’s sovereignty in the world, even as we are faced with the seemingly most desperate of situations.  In fact, it is in moments precisely like these that God’s people are starving for a reminder of God’s providence—the ultimate goodness with which the Lord guides the world.

If we have heard the word, we should remember our God in the face of the evilness of this world.  As we witness the power of humans to destroy our planet through careless abuse of its resources, we should remember the goodness of our God who first entrusted to us the care of the earth and all that dwell therein.  As we witness the powers of this world treading upon the weak and boosting themselves on the backs of the defenseless, then we should remember the sovereignty of our God, whose reign will endure, even as all lesser powers wither.  As we witness heinous violence that threatens the unity of our homes and our communities, we should remember the restoration of God, which has repeatedly mended the brokenness in our relationships with the Lord and one another.

As we hear the word and know it within our hearts, we discover that God is not hidden from us, nor does the Lord ignore the cries of God’s people.  Instead, we find that God allows us to serve as the answer to our own cries.  As we wait for the great day when the Lord shall institute the everlasting reign of the Kingdom of God here on earth, we who look for the coming of our Savior Christ have been empowered to continue his work.  In the final words of our Old Testament lesson, we remember that it is God who “gives power to the faint” and “strengthens the powerless.”  When even youth falters, perseverance in the Lord shall be rewarded.  Remember: “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

One of the many bald eagles that calls Hoonah, Alaska home.

Each time I hear these words from Isaiah 40:31, a very particular memory comes back to me.  This was the theme verse for the mission trip that my youth group went on in the summer of 1999.  Our travels took us to the remote fishing village of Hoonah, Alaska.  The idea that God’s faithful would “mount up with wings like eagles” became much more real for us when we saw numerous bald eagles perched atop the jetty wall or gliding over the still waters of the bay.  Set against the backdrop of evergreen covered hills and snow-capped mountains, it was a sight that most of us had never seen outside of a National Geographic special.

And yet, this scene of tranquility was broken as soon as we turned around.  The town of Hoonah was a hodgepodge of dilapidated old buildings and trash filled streets.  It reflected well the life of many of its citizens. This was a place where the rates of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, alcoholism, and suicide all far exceeded the national averages.  If ever there was a place one might think  God had “disregarded,” it was Hoonah.

So, you might wonder, what great task could a group of high school students from South Carolina possibly perform in order to improve the lives of these people.  Well, for a part of our time, we picked up trash.  As we moved slowly up one street and down another, the work hardly felt like that which would have been given by the God who strengthens the powerless.  And at points, we questioned whether or not we had come all this way to toil in vain.  But as we sought to understand how such a menial task could possibly be the fulfillment of God’s will, our pastor Dennis Tedder encouraged us to see ourselves through the eyes of the local people.

The people of Hoonah are, in some ways, an exiled group.  They truly live separated from the rest of the world.  Some of them may never even experience life apart from their little village.  And as the jobs that once supported this village had moved elsewhere, the people had little left for which to hope.  After all, nobody seems to care about them.

But then, as you look out your window you see one, then two, then a dozen youth slowly making their way along the street.  What on earth could have driven these kids to travel thousands of miles for the experience of picking up little pieces of trash?  What have they heard about Hoonah?

What we were hearing, Dennis reminded us, is that God has not forgotten Hoonah.  If we, as people not of this community, could give witness to the Good News that God loved and cared for these people, perhaps they might remember God or come to know the Lord for the first time.  In our service, we had the opportunity to let them hear the word: “[God] is great in strength, mighty in power!”  In the tiny act of collecting refuse, we could share with them the truth that the way of Hoonah and its people was not hidden from God.

Of course, we were only there for a short while.  And when the time came to leave Hoonah, we really didn’t know if we had made a lasting difference in that moment, just as we don’t know whether or not the words of Isaiah 40 might have made a difference in the moment they were first proclaimed to the Israelites.  But I do know that both the prophets words and our own calls do make a lasting difference when we perform this work repeatedly so that the community cannot forget.

In the centuries since the words of Isaiah were first recorded, these verses have not only comforted the Jewish community in the midst of the Babylonian exile.  They have also offered reassurance as the Romans sacked Jerusalem, as Europeans targeted the Jewish people during the Inquisition, and as Nazis sought to eradicate the entire race in the implementation of their “Final Solution.”  Each time, the people have needed to hear this word again, so that they might remember that God had not abandoned them, even in the midst of the darkness that enshrouded them.

We, too, need to live as those who repeatedly hear and proclaim the Good News.  As those who have been called by God into lives of discipleship and service, we must proclaim the greatness of the Lord in the face of the world’s brokenness.  As we lift up God’s goodness, power, and love, people may not gain hope for themselves the first time they hear the word.  But if we proclaim it over and over again, the truth that echoes in their ears will be undeniable.

So friends, “Have you heard the word?”  Do you know the Good News that God is calling you to share?  In a world filled with hopeless exiles, there is a longing to hear the truth that we have received!  God alone has the power to redeem us!  Like the prophets before us, may we speak the word that God places on our tongues, calling all to receive the strength that is offered to all who have hope in the everlasting God.

To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

[i] http://www.thestate.com/news/local/article13948286.html

[ii] http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-fr-frederick-high-shooting-20150204-story.html

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, February 08, 2015 (The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany).

“No Unauthorized Personnel”

Old Testament Lesson: Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (NRSV)

15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17 Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”

Over the past couple of weeks, leading up to tonight’s big Super Bowl game, the leading stories have all seemed to share something in common.  They were all about access.  Over on the Patriots’ side, we’ve been hearing about the scandal that has been nicknamed “Deflate-gate” in the media.  An NFL investigation has led to speculation that a New England assistant may have used his access to a dozen game balls in order to make unauthorized reductions in their air pressure, thus giving his team’s offense an unfair advantage.[i]

Meanwhile, across the field, a Seattle player accomplished a rare feat by making the front page for what he didn’t say.  Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is engaged in an ongoing battle with the league over the access that he is required to provide to reporters.  But when he was faced with a half million-dollar fine if he failed to appear at the team’s Super Bowl media day, Lynch chose to put in an appearance.[ii]  Yet, when asked a variety of questions during his press conference, he responded with the same answer twenty-nine times: “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.”  And as soon as Lynch had put in the required four and a half minutes with the now irritated members of the media, he called “Time” and left.

In addition to the big news coming from the two teams, another story about a special regulation outside of the stadium has also been in the headlines.  As a result of FAA rules put into place after 9/11, aircraft that have no transponder and no filed flight plan will not be authorized to fly anywhere within a thirty mile radius of the stadium in Phoenix during tonight’s game.[iii]  And while this was once seen as a prudent move, failure to adjust the language now means that a child piloting a radio controlled aerial drone in neighboring Scottsdale could actually face federal charges.

Among the stories making big news ahead of Super Bowl XLIX, the FAA has imposed a ban on drones over a ten mile radius around the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

And access is really just as relevant in our lives as it is to each of these stories.  Think about the topics that are likely to dominate the political speeches of the next two years.  Central to the debate over immigration is the question of whether or not those who have entered this country illegally should have access to government services.  Politicians also continue to argue over the government’s role in ensuring that its citizens have access to affordable healthcare.

Recent proposals to offer two free years of community college tuition to American students has reignited the conversation about the access that we provide for higher education in our nation.  While we are hearing that the nation’s economy is on the path to recovery, reports that the wealth gap between middle and upper class households has reached a thirty-year record high[iv] have left many to question what needs to be done to assure that American families gain access to a greater portion of the overall wealth that our nation is accumulating.  And this past week, the Koch Brothers announced their intention to spend nearly one billion dollars in the upcoming election cycle, leading many to ask whether such unlimited spending buys the donors unfair access to our leaders in government.

Of course, the discussion of who should or should not have access is certainly nothing new.  Even Moses takes up this issue in our lesson from Deuteronomy this morning.  The Israelite community found itself faced with a difficult question: “What do we do once Moses is gone?”  Of course, Moses was the hero who had led his people out of Egyptian captivity.  But he was also something more.  He enjoyed communion with God to a degree that was unparalleled among the Jewish people.  Moses was God’s prophet, through whom the Lord had spoken the Law by which they were to live.  But when Moses is gone, who would take his place?

In answer to this question, the Lord spoke through Moses, promising to raise up from among the people a prophet like Moses.  The promise of another who would have the authority of their patriarch filled the people with hope.  In fact, the promise of this prophet is one that the Jewish people still wait to see fulfilled, even to this day.  Neither Samuel nor Jonah nor Isaiah nor any of their fellow prophets were considered  the realization of this hope.

But while they wait, we know that our prophet has come.  Our Lord Jesus did indeed speak the word of God, which he received from his Father in heaven.  And we who have faith in Christ must heed this word that calls us to action.  It is the word that we remember in Christ’s Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”[v] Even as Christ establishes his supreme sovereignty, his word bestows authority on all of us who follow, granting us the power to go and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them all that our Lord Jesus has commanded us.

Now, it only remains for us to determine how we are going to respond.  We can’t stand here staring at the door to the mission field like it has a great, big foreboding sign: “No Unauthorized Personnel!”  Friends, we are the Authorized Personnel!  Our authority is bestowed upon us at the font and table.  It is given to us by the words of Holy Scripture and the presence of Christ made real through the Holy Spirit who abides with us.  In all of these things, we are made ones with authority!

Logo_Soup_Pot_LogoThis year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Souper Bowl of Caring.  It is a program that was begun by the youth group at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, when the young disciples  decided to stand up as those who were authorized.  In 1990, they partnered with twenty-one other churches in their community to raise $5,700 for local charities.  Not bad.  And yet, this was only the beginning of their work.  In the years since the program began, churches around the country have collected more than $90 million dollars in support of the soup kitchens, community pantries, and other charitable organizations in their communities…all because these young people stood as those with authority!

It is the same way that we stood with authority yesterday when we welcomed our Brothers and Sisters in the community to come and receive the hospitality of this church through our annual Soup Supper.  But we also invited them to share in the ministry we offer through the gifts we can all bring in support of our local ministry partners.  Each year, when the event is over I am grateful to hear so many voices celebrating the hard work that this entire church puts into this project and the success of our efforts.  And each year, I wonder, “Why are we surprised?”  This is exactly what happens when we are all drawn together to exercise the combined authority that we possess as church!

The result is exhausting and time-consuming.  But it is also uplifting and exhilarating!  And it is also reassuring.  As we seek to move forward in ministry together, a moment such as this one assures me that this is an empowered congregation!  We are God’s called people!  And at this table, we are sent away, authorized to continue the Lord’s work!

So, Brothers and Sisters, let us continue to celebrate the great product of our combined efforts.  But as we do so, I pray that we won’t just sit around now and wait until next year for the chance to enjoy this feeling once again.  Let us look right now for the places where we are being called to speak with the authority of the voice of God and to act with the love of Christ through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  With courage, let us continue on in joyous service to the Lord!

To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

[i] http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2015/1/26/7917523/nfl-investigating-patriots-locker-room-attendant-for-deflategate

[ii] http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2344416-marshawn-lynch-at-super-bowl-media-day-im-here-so-i-wont-get-fined

[iii] http://gizmodo.com/the-faas-drone-ban-at-the-super-bowl-is-absurd-1682650957

[iv] http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-pew-wealth-gap-20141217-story.html

[v] Matthew 28:16-20

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, February 01, 2015 (The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany).

“Pesky Perseverance”

Old Testament Lesson: Jonah 3:1-10 (NRSV)

1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

“If you build it, he will come.” For Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, this message is mysteriously spoken to him to one evening while he is walking through his cornfield.  And for us, this remains one of the best known film quotes of all time, even twenty-five years after the theatrical release of Field of Dreams.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the movie, the story centers on Ray’s need to build a baseball field in his cornfield, in order to fulfill a vision that he has had.  Ray seeks to do this, even while everyone around him doubts the credibility of his vision and even he himself questions the validity of his mission.  And yet, each time I watch the film, the character that truly draws me into the story is that of recluse Terrence Mann.

Portrayed by James Earl Jones, Terrence is a celebrated author in the vein of J. D. Salinger.  Having once written a book that some consider to be a masterpiece and others regard as offensive, his celebrity and infamy have driven him into a life of solitude.  But when Ray has yet another vision, he becomes determined to convince Terrence to come out of his self-imposed isolation, so that together, they might pursue Ray’s dream. Ray comes to Terrence seeking his help, but the author has no interest in helping this stranger to fulfill his ludicrous vision. Clearly this is a “fool’s errand” taken on by a man caught somewhere between nostalgia and hopeless idealism.

Reclusive author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) drives Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) out of his home after he hears the Iowa farmer’s crazy dream.

I wonder if this is perhaps where Jonah thought that God was dwelling when he received the call to go to Nineveh…between nostalgia and hopeless idealism.  The Lord knows the “wickedness” of the people of this city, just as his prophet does.  And Jonah also knows that God’s righteousness would justify the complete eradication of such a sinful population.  So why then, does God call his servant to speak words of warning?

Perhaps God looks at the people of Nineveh and sees them for who they once were.  The Lord sees in the city more than one hundred twenty thousand of His children.  These are the Sons and Daughters, whom God had fashioned.  They were the pride of God’s creation.  And when God looks upon them, even in their present, corrupted state, the Lord’s first impulse is still love.

Perhaps God looks at the people of Nineveh and sees them for who they will become.  The Lord looks in the city and sees a multitude of souls who wait for the offer of redemption.  These are the faithful servants who will turn back to their God.  They will repent  of their iniquities.  And when God looks upon them, even in their present, broken state, the Lord’s first impulse is still mercy.

But Jonah does not share God’s vision of love and mercy.  The immoral people of Nineveh deserve the Lord’s wrath, not His compassion.  God should crush them under foot, not welcome them to return with open arms.  Even as God speaks to His servant Jonah, the prophet can’t understand what the Lord is saying to him.  And in his frustration, Jonah flees in the opposite direction, on a boat bound for Tarshish.  But escaping from God isn’t that easy.

As I was thinking about Jonah’s inability to understand the command of his God, I realized this past week that I was faced with a communication breakdown of my own.  I’ve recently found myself engaged in some extended conversations with Rebecca.  There’s just one little problem: I don’t have a clue what she’s saying!

We’ve reached the point where my daughter clearly has thoughts and ideas that she is prepared to share with us.  But unfortunately, her speech development isn’t as advanced as her overall language comprehension.  And so, while I can clearly recognize that she is sharing some truly complex thoughts, I can’t  understand much of it.

I used to be able to buy myself a pass with responses like, “Oh, I see” and “Is that right?”  But now, I’ve learned that such replies simply won’t do.  Rebecca doesn’t just want to talk; she wants to know that I’m listening.  And she can be pretty persistent in her attempts to make you understand!  If there’s something she wants, Rebecca will pursue from one end of the house to the other, telling you about it time and again, until you get the message.  And if that’s what it’s like dealing with the resolve of my two-year-old child, I can only imagine what it must have been like for Jonah to try to evade the perseverance of the Almighty God.

This carving, found on a sarcophagus from third century Mainz, depicts various scenes from the Book of Jonah (Vatican Museum).

God thwarts the attempted escape of His prophet by sending winds and waves against his boat.  And in his stubbornness, Jonah actually allows himself to be thrown overboard to suffer certain death, rather than simply listening to the command that the Lord God has issued.  But having determined that Jonah would be the one to carry the warning to Nineveh, God saves the prophet from the sea by sending the most unlikely of rescuers. A fish swallows up Jonah and carries him safely through the sea for three days.

During his journey, the prophet recognizes that this strange protection is the Lord’s doing.  And while Jonah remains convinced that Nineveh is irredeemable, he still confesses in prayer that “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.”  After his prayer, the fish returns Jonah to dry land.  And having rededicated himself to his vow of prophecy, he goes to the city of Nineveh when the Lord issues a second call.

As I think again about the Field of Dreams, I am reminded that even when Ray convinces Terrence to join him in fulfilling a vision by going to a game at Boston’s Fenway Park, Terrence remains skeptical.  He doesn’t want any part in this bizarre mission of Ray’s.  That is until both men experience a new vision.  After this shared revelation, Ray and Terrence are united in the work ahead.

Sadly, despite God’s efforts, we don’t know whether or not Jonah ever truly shares in the Lord’s vision for Nineveh.  Even after he fulfills his work as prophet, Jonah still laments God’s decision to spare the city.  While he acknowledges that the Lord is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” Jonah’s anger leads him to a hill outside of the city, where he sits and waits, anticipating the destruction that he believes is surely coming.  But even as he waits in vain, that pesky God of his continues to come to him, inviting the prophet to share in the Lord’s vision of love.

Today, I believe that God is offering to share that same vision with all of us.  We are called, not only to return to God, but also to be a loving voice of repentance, which welcomes people to make their own turns back to the Lord.  And yet, even as we are invited to share this vision of love with our God, we are also faced with “Ninevahs” in our own lives.

These are the places and the people and the situations that we have no desire to engage.  And I know that we don’t like to admit it, but these places exist for each of us.  We look at the convict and see a man who is deserving of his sentence or worse.  But God looks with hope for one who might be rehabilitated into society.  We look at the addict and see a woman who deserves no pity for the condition she’s in after abusing her own body.  But God looks with compassion and sees a sick child who needs somebody to offer her care.  We look at the unemployed single mother and see a woman who is fittingly trapped in a situation of her own doing.  But God looks with love and sees a daughter who wants to provide for her child, just as much as the Lord wants to provide for his own.

But even as we struggle to enter Nineveh, the Good News for us is that our God is a pesky God.  The Lord is not only “abounding in steadfast love,” but God is also determined to call us to share in this love for the world!  With eternal perseverance, God is going to annoy us and irritate us and pursue us with all the love there is, calling us to share in his vision, so that we might stand in the midst of Nineveh and be God’s presence, calling people to receive God’s love and to return to God’s ways.

Friends, as we continue to seek to hear God’s call in our lives, let us acknowledge the places where we struggle to go and the Lord who calls us there anyway.  May we consciously ask whether the vision we follow is truly that of our God.  And may we trust in the Lord, who leads us to see people not as they are, in their poor, crumbling states now, but as they once were in God’s loving act of Creation…and as they shall be again in the fulfillment of God’s redemption.

To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 25, 2015 (The Third Sunday after Epiphany).

“Meeting the Mystery”

Old Testament Lesson: 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (NRSV)

1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

The power of storytelling never fails to amaze me.  Often, we can think that we know a story from beginning to end, and yet, when we hear it told again,we discover something new that had previously eluded us.  I had this experience in the last week as I read a story that was being shared through social media.

In an article published by online sports magazine “The Cauldron”, writer Shawn Krest tells the story of a rather bizarre press conference by Gregg Nibert, coach of the men’s basketball team at Presbyterian College.[i]  The conference came just after the PC Blue Hose had lost 113-44 to Duke in the Blue Devils’ 2014 season opener.  As Krest describes it, the PC Blue Hose were nothing more than “cannon fodder” put in the line of fire so that the nation could get its first look at the all-star lineup Duke would field this year.

And so, after he had praised the effort of his Blue Hose team and remarked on what an unforgettable night this would be, Coach Nibert collected his things and yielded the floor so that Coach K could take his podium.  But just outside the media room, it occurred to him that this here was the largest audience that he would have the opportunity to address this season.  And so, Coach Nibert turned around and walked back in, announcing to the reporters, “I have something to say.”

Gregg Nibert, Coach of the Presbyterian College Men’s Basketball Team

Coach Nibert addressed the problem of child abuse.  He pleaded for people to speak out for “voiceless” children for whom there are not enough advocates.  He decried a justice system that fails to prosecute abusers.  And he called for social service reforms that would stop returning victims to the homes where they had been hurt.

Coach Nibert’s words came from a very personal place.  Over the past eight years, he and his wife Peggy have repeatedly served as foster parents for thirty-seven babies, several of whom had been the victims of serious abuse.  Time and again they have received these children into their home, often straight from the hospital.  They come broken and battered, having been abused by the people who should have protected them from all harm.  Often, the babies they welcome have health problems or developmental issues.  And yet, no matter what their condition, Peggy and Gregg have repeatedly been there to receive these children with loving, open arms.

I’ve known this part of the story for quite some time.  The Niberts are two of the most loving, caring, and dedicated Christian servants that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, so it was no surprise to learn that they had answered God’s call to give refuge to these children in their time of greatest need.

What I didn’t know about was the struggle that the Niberts had gone through in answering this call.  According to Krest, Peggy in particular had wrestled with the idea for almost six years.  “Finally,” she said, “[God] was kind of beating me over the head with the idea.”  Peggy’s experience speaks to the persistence of God, when calling us to serve.

It’s the same sort of persistence that the Lord demonstrates in our Old Testament Lesson this morning.  As Samuel struggles to understand who is calling to him, God relentlessly comes to the boy until at last, with the guidance of Eli, he is able to answer the mysterious call being issued.  And as we reflect on the unlikely encounter between God and the boy Samuel, we might also think about the way that we meet the mystery of God, as we are called to service.

To begin, we may recognize that God often calls the most unlikely of people.  This is to say that God recognizes strengths for service that we tend to overlook in others.  Many might look at Samuel and discount him for his youth and inexperience, but God sees a servant dedicated to his work.  Many might look at the Niberts and think that the hectic life of a coaching family would make them unlikely foster parents, but God looked at Gregg and Peggy and saw two servants whose hearts were big enough to take on the additional challenge.

We even do this with ourselves.  When met with the mystery of God’s call, we question whether this voice could truly be directed at us.  We ask, “Why would God call me?”  And then, we fixate on all the things that we think make us unworthy.  Surely, God’s call is for someone who is more righteous, more dedicated, more learned.  But as we focus on all the reasons we think we shouldn’t be called, the Lord sees in us all of the reasons that we are perfect for the job. We have but only to stop making excuses for why we are the wrong person, so that we can hear the voice of the Lord assuring us that we are indeed exactly the ones whom God is seeking.

Of course, the moments that God calls to us are rarely the quiet ones that we imagine.  Samuel at least hears the voice of the Lord calling to him in the stillness of the night.  But as Peggy shared in Krest’s article, her own experience was quite different.  As she was hearing God’s call for her to receive foster children, she struggled to discern God’s voice in the midst of other life events.  Was God truly calling her to take on this new challenge, just as her own sons were about to leave home?

Like Peggy, we, too, can find that God seems to come to us at the most unlikely of times.  This is certainly nothing new either.  Think about the manner in which Jesus called several of his disciples.[ii]  As he walks along the shoreline, he doesn’t wait for them until the end of their shifts.  In the moment, Jesus calls them, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people!”  And they respond by dropping their nets and leaving their boats behind.

As we meet with the mysterious God, we often struggle to understand why the Lord doesn’t call upon us at a more convenient time.  Now just isn’t good for us.  Maybe we can be God’s faithful servants a little later.  But such thinking forgets that we are called to serve, not according to our time, but according to God’s.  And while the reasoning for God’s timing may remain a mystery, we trust that God does call to us in this moment so that each of us might serve a particular role in the work of the Lord in the world.

We also find that God calls to us in the most unlikely of ways.  If only it were always so easy to discern God’s will by looking for the burning bush that came to Moses or the talking donkey, such as the one who spoke to Balaam.  We might even settle for a mysterious voice calling to us over and over in the stillness of the night.  And yet, God’s call often requires dedicated discernment.

Peggy Nibert, pictured with one of the many children, for whom she has lovingly served as a foster mother.

In Peggy’s case, it took years of focused prayer.  Time and again, she asked God for clarity and trusted that the Lord’s will would ultimately be revealed to her.  And though the answer did not come quickly, Peggy did eventually gain such great understanding that she had no doubt about the work that God had planned for her and her family.

One of the truths about meeting with the mystery of God is that the encounter more often than not happens in rather ordinary ways.  Because we tend to remember those experiences like that of Paul on the Road to Damascus, we set ourselves up to expect that we will encounter God through an unmistakable blinding light and booming voice.  But if Scripture witnesses to anything, it is the truth that God speaks to the faithful through myriad ways.  And more often than not, God’s will is not made known through clashing thunder or violent wind; it is experienced in the course of a lifetime relationship one builds with the Lord.

As I think about the ways in which we meet God, it occurs to me that the greatest mystery that remains is not in the Lord’s call, but in our response.  As people of faith, we should gladly answer God just as Samuel does, saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  And some of us have.  But today, there are many of us who ask, “Could You maybe look for someone else, Lord?” “Could You maybe call me at a more convenient time?”  “Could You maybe make the call a little flashier?”

The Good News today is that even as we struggle to meet the mystery of God, the Lord is undeterred in calling.  God is calling you and me to listen closely to discern the places where we are called to be in service.  In our homes, in this church, and in our whole lives, God is calling each of us to live lives of discipleship, serving as Christ served.

And let me be clear: the future life of this congregation is dependent upon whether or not you all step forward to say, “Here I am.”  Don’t expect the church to attract new members when you aren’t going out and sharing the Good News and calling people to live into that Good News in the life of this congregation.  Don’t expect people to bring their children here to be nurtured, when you don’t show up for Sunday School and when nobody can be found to teach classes.  Don’t expect this church to have the funds to support any sort of meaningful ministry if you aren’t willing to make a true sacrifice from your own wallet or purse.

I pray that not one person will leave this sanctuary today without understanding that we face real challenges and that we are called to make true commitments if we wish to answer those challenges.  We must stop looking around, expecting that God will find someone else, or some better time to ask us.  If you haven’t yet, go and listen for the voice of God calling.  God is calling each of us to answer this day with a determined response.  And as we answer individually, I pray that as the whole church, we will be able to lift up a unified voice to God, saying, “Here I am!”

“To the LORD who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever.” Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

[i] The details of Peggy and Gregg’s story are taken from  Shawn Krest’s article, “Open House”. Updated January 14, 2015. https://medium.com/the-cauldron/open-house-100e414fac0e

[ii] Matthew 4:18-22

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 18, 2015 (The Second Sunday after Epiphany). The NCAA also has a video that shares the Niberts’ story as a foster family.