Sermon transcript for January 15, 2012
“Waking Up Our Spiritual Senses”
1 Samuel 3:1-20
Belmont UMC—January 15, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
There must have been times when the young Samuel wondered what his mother had gotten him into; he had spent virtually his entire childhood assisting in the temple at Shiloh, training to become a full time servant of God, loyally waiting on the priestly family of Eli.
But not once had he perceived God’s presence in the temple or God’s purpose for his life. Samuel had been dedicated to God, but where was God? What was he supposed to do now? The text says that there were not many words from God being heard and there were no frequent visions to guide him. It was a quiet, barren spiritual environment.
Because Samuel did not yet know the Lord, he must have been directionless, wondering, and confused. Why was he at the temple? Why was his life dedicated to this barren life? His role models for life did not offer much encouragement either. As priests, Eli’s sons were greedy, gluttonous and completely self-centered. They cheated the people, stole from the temple and desecrated it.
Eli was Samuel’s mentor. Apparently, he was kind, wise and obedient, but he was incapable of controlling his sons’ behavior and the sanctity of the temple had not been maintained under his leadership. He was a weak leader. With no vision or experience of his own, all Samuel could hope for was a lifestyle like that of Eli and his corrupt sons.
Samuel lived in Shiloh and Shiloh was thought to be God’s dwelling place, where the light always burned to symbolize that God was at home and where an oracle could always be obtained by priestly rites and rituals. At Shiloh the Israelites believed that they had God’s presence as a captive audience. At Shiloh Samuel literally slept in front of the Holy Ark of the Covenant. But the word of the Lord had not been revealed to him. It was a visionless, voiceless, experience. Where was God? Why was Samuel in Shiloh? What was God’s purpose for him?
And then one night the word of God came to young Samuel in an exchange that was both comical and tender. It was comical because Samuel thought Eli was calling him and he woke the old priest up three times before Eli was convinced that the word was from God.
What had God been all this time? Have we not asked ourselves this question at one time or another? Where was God during difficult days? Where was God when answers did not come? Where was God when depression or confusion came over us? Where was God when we went to church week after week and felt nothing of God’s presence?
The Psalmists often asked God this same question. Were you hiding from me God? Were you asleep? Did you turn your face away from me? Were you angry? Will you always remain silent?
Is God no longer around? Does God have no words to speak to our generation, our culture, our church? Does God no longer offer us visions of hope and direction for our future? Will God reveal God’s purpose for us?
These are fair questions but they may be the wrong questions. It’s possible that we, like Samuel, have been face to face with the holiness of God but unable to perceived God’s presence because our spiritual senses have been dulled by a dark night of the soul or our busyness, or because we have forgotten how to come into God’s presence and hear God’s word.
A relative shared with me his experience of quitting smoking after 40 years. He said, “I smell things. I taste things. My senses have been awakened and it’s amazing.” We need our spiritual senses to be awakened to the reality of God.
Where has God been? God has been in Shiloh, near the Ark of the Covenant. But the vision and hearing of the Eli, his sons and their attendant and trainee, Samuel, have been dulled to the possibilities of communicating with this revelatory God.
Where is God? God is here! And God has a word and a vision for the people of God, but we will need to have our spiritual senses awakened! God has been here all along. God has a purpose for our lives and we will need to have our spiritual sense awakened to see it and to hear it. From the text we find a prescription for awakening our spiritual senses.
The first prescription is to lie down! Be still! Samuel did not hear God in the moment of activity or when he was going about his daily temple duties, he heard God when he was lying still in the quiet of the night, alone, at rest, at the shutting down time of the day. We will need to be still, stop moving, stop our frenetic activity, our multitasking. Or we are like Mary Pipher who describes her journey to wholeness in Seeking Peace. She was learning to practice meditation and learning to be fully present to one thing at a time. She writes, “I have a long history of doing two or three or seventeen things at once. I am cooking, but planning my next road trip. I am talking on the phone but wondering if I have a can of tuna handy for lunch. I am bird watching but wondering if I have offended someone. I am walking, but even as I smell the French lilacs in the air and notice a heron on the lake, I am thinking of presidential politics.” (p. 218) Our minds are multitasking even if our hands are not.
Through the Psalmist we hear God say, “Be still and know that I am God.”
If you are like me you have trouble being still. We have a work ethic that does not want us to take moments of stillness and quiet—it always seems like wasting time to us. There are times when I’m alone in the car, or running (not still physically but quiet and experiencing some level stillness is inside of me), at times when the house is quiet and I’m caught up with work or too exhausted to keep going. And in those moments I may experience some clarity about the God’s presence and purpose in my life.
I used to sit down and pray something like this each morning, “Okay, God, tell me what you want me to do today? What can I add to my already extensive list?” I never heard an answer to that prayer. I have changed my prayer practice. Most mornings now I will find time to sit in my favorite chair and say to God, “Here I am again. Allow me to be in your holy presence.” I don’t talk a lot and tell God what to do; I try to allow myself to be with God, to be still, to be quiet, and to wait. And God prepares my heart and mind for the day ahead and for what may come.
We need to be still! And we need to be quiet! I think it was Soren Kirkegard who said that if he were a doctor and were allowed to prescribe one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, he would prescribe silence. I doubt we need to elaborate on this but most of us fill our homes and our ears with sounds and most of us find silence a little unsettling. But Elijah heard God in the stillness and the silence of the holy mountain, at a time when he was too exhausted to go on his own energy and he had to rely on God. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. heard God in the quiet of his kitchen, late one night after receiving a threatening phone call. “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.”
When we are still and quiet we will want to listen! I’m not suggesting that I have ever heard God speak in those moments of quiet stillness, but sometimes in those moments there will come an inner knowing, a certitude, about something. Sometimes I come away knowing that I need to be quiet and still more often, but that’s a good message for me to hear. Sometimes I am inclined to check on a friend or a church member because they came to mind in those moments of quiet. Sometimes I hear that I need to let something go or pay more attention to my family. Sometimes I simply enjoy the quiet stillness and that is enough.
If we are seeking God’s purpose for our lives, we will want to look! People ask me what God’s purpose for their life is. Obviously, I don’t know, but I encourage them to look close to where they are. Our tendency is to assume God is going to send us to some exotic place to serve. Samuel made his bed near the altar of God but could not see God’s purpose for his life. Look around you. Look at your family, your friends, your church. Look for the places God is already using you to fulfill the purposes of God in the world.
When I was a teenager I was pretty sure I was going to college and then to the Peace Corp and I had all the information on how to make that happen. One day a young woman spoke to our Sunday School class about her time in the Peace Corp in the Philippines and I was enthralled. I met with her later in the week to get more information and she told me a story that changed my life. She told me that her greatest adventure came when she had to return home to care for her dying mother and in the process she found God for the very first time. It was not long after that conversation that I experienced a renewed relationship with God and I knew God was calling me to pastoral ministry, not in some far land, but here in Tennessee, among people I knew and understood and loved.
Today a story about a boy named Samuel allows us to imagine God calling our name in the quiet, stillness. God is calling us to fulfill God’s purposes in our world. God is calling us to something beyond ourselves. God is preparing us for the words, “Here I am!” “Speak, Lord, for your people are listening!”
Sermon transcript for January 8, 2012
The Heavens Torn Apart
Baptism of the Lord Sunday—January 8, 2011
Ken Edwards, preaching
It was cool, sunny day in early December. Our tour bus pulled up beside a popular tourist spot somewhere along the Jordan River. It was suggested that this place, or a place much like it, could have been the place where John the Baptist preached and welcomed people into the waters of repentance.
On that day in December I took off my shoes and socks and rolled my pants up to my knees and waded into the cold water. I tried to imagine hundreds of people lining the banks of the unimpressive little river—people as far as I could see in my minds eye, people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem.
I could hear John preaching, loud and authoritative, and I could hear the quiet rumble of agreement and astonishment among the crowd. Occasionally, I could imagine hearing the voices of playing children, oblivious to what was happening on that river bank, and I could hear the hushing from their elders.
And then everything became quiet, like the quiet before a storm. I could see a man walking down the bank and into the river. He was walking toward John and everyone’s eyes were on him. This is the one whom John predicted would come, the one more powerful than John, the one who will baptize with God’s Spirit.
I could see the man covered in water as John poured water it over him. I looked up and I imagined the heavens being torn apart and something like a dove descending on the man. Then the silence was pierced with a voice that came from the opened heavens, “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
On that day the heavens were torn apart! This is an interesting phrase and I suspect it’s a phrase that we gloss over as we read this text and others like it. The heavens being split apart indicates that God is about to speak or make God’s self known in some way. The Irish might call these moments “thin places,” places where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that it is possible to step through.
This is the season of Epiphany and the season begins and ends with these heaven splitting stories of baptism and transfiguration. During Epiphany we begin to get a clearer understanding of how the life of the Christmas baby will unfold. We understand that this is God’s child and God is pleased to share this child with the world.
We began the Christian year on the first Sunday of Advent and with a lament from the prophet Isaiah. He speaks to God, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down. You could make the mountains quake, and the waters to boil and the nations would tremble at your presence.” (Isaiah 64) The prophet wants to choreograph God’s activity. There is a plea in this lament, a plea that comes at the time of exile, for God to do something dramatic. How many times have we offered that same plea? “God, rip open the heavens and do something extreme to rescue us!”
But the Prophet admits, “But you did things we did not expect.” The prophet admits that God is the potter and we are the clay and God’s activity cannot be choreographed or manipulated. Epiphany is a time for us to watch and see what God is doing in Jesus Christ and in the world, and often what we see from the birth of a baby in a manger to the mountain of transfiguration is the God who does things we do not expect.
I was struck by contrasting images over the holidays. I saw images of shoppers storming a store and shoving each other, just to buy a pair of Air Jordan shoes. I saw images of people being pepper sprayed in shopping malls and at an Occupy Movement site. These were troubling images and they got lots of attention in the press. One day I read a story about a widow, whose husband died last year, and who didn’t plan to celebrate Christmas. One day she walked into a K-Mart store and she paid off all the lay always for people who could not afford to do so, and she walked up and down the line at the check out and gave people $50 bills to help them buy the toys in their carts. It was the unexpected and as I read that story and I looked up I think I saw the heavens split open, just a little bit, just a glimpse, but there it was.
Another observation: I’m concerned about how quick we are to identify people as our enemies! We seem uncertain of ourselves unless we can point to a group or groups and call them our enemies. In our culture we have wrongly identified people from the immigrant and Islamic communities as our enemies. And they have victims of our hatred and even violence. Sometimes this hatred is perpetuated by political leaders. And what is worse, sometimes this hatred is perpetuated by groups claiming the name of Christ. This is antithetical to Christ’s teaching that we are to love everyone and Christ’s blessing of those who are peacemakers. May we hear God calling in this New Year to live into Christ’s teaching and find time to get to know those we might want to call enemies.
But there was an unexpected moments when my wife and I saw the movie “War Horse” over the holidays. The movie features a horse named Joey raised and trained by a young boy from Devonshire who fell in love with the horse. But when the Great War came to England and they found themselves at battle with Germany, Joey was sold to the British army to make money to save the farm. Joey winds up serving in both the British and German armies as a war horse, but a sympathetic German soldier sets him free at the height of battle. And Joey runs and runs until he gets tangled in strands barbwire used to slow the enemy. Caught somewhere between the foxholes of the German and English soldiers, fierce enemies, he is rescued by a soldier from each side, and in a beautiful moment of peace making the two soldiers free the horse, shake hands, share personal information and wish each other well. When peace is made, when weapons are laid down, when enemies are loved and forgiven, the heavens are split in two and the grace of God descends like a dove.
Today we baptized a baby boy, son of Justin and Carrie Hall, brother of Caroline. The Halls love this church and they are loved by all of us. They have given their time to serve as youth counselors. Carrie served as an interim youth director while we were searching and finding Chris Allen. Justin has served as Chair of our Board of Trustees. There are typical of the committed Christ followers who come here each week and seek to live this unique and often countercultural life. Their presence here today reminds us that it is indeed a privilege and a joy to be a part of this faith family. And today as we shared with them in the service of baptism and answered the questions of discipleship with them and watched as the water is placed on the head of Ian Marcus Hall, the heavens opened up and we experienced the profound grace of God.
When Jesus entered into the Jordan River that day, something new and radical and challenging was entering the world. And from that day on being a disciple of Jesus would be filled with adventure and surprising grace. Throughout our lives we will experience the God who does what we do not expect, who acts outside of our narrow mindset, who surprises us with moments of grace even though our tendency is to focus on the darker things going on around us.
This God invites us into the refreshing water today to renew our baptismal vows, to remember who we are and whose we are, and to watch the heavens split apart—even just a little—and hear God say, “You are my child, I love you, and nothing pleases me more than to call you my child.”