1 Samuel 3:1-10
1 Kings 19:11-13
Was it just two weeks ago that we were talking about the God of New Things, and a few days later that we entered the season of Lent together, proclaiming it our church’s “journey to newness?” Was it just last week that we talked about ministry as the “love business?” Was it just last Monday evening that we feasted on desserts and then, with laughter and love and prayerful discernment, voted to set our historic community of faith on yet another new path?
What is going on here?
I want to read to you from an email I received last week from a former member of First Church:
“I still was not sure that I wanted to be a member again
until Monday night,” wrote Dorothy Cresswell (who gave me permission to share this with you). “Who would have thought that the annual meeting would be a time of inspiration and joy?” she said. “But for me that night, that’s
what it was. Suddenly I saw this church as the living breathing
entity that I’ve always hungered for. The old rigid forms and
organization drove me batty, and drove me away. But what I heard and
saw Monday was a responsive, risk-taking, call-listening, loving,
laughing, honest community, and THAT makes me want to count myself in.”
The God of New Things is not wasting any time.
For those of you who did not attend the Annual Meeting, I can tell you that I agree with Dorothy’s assessment. It was a time of inspiration and joy; it was a time to see the Spirit move among us with gentleness and courage, with sensitivity and boldness, with deliberateness and spontaneity and—in case anyone missed it—joy-filled laughter.
So evident was the presence of the Spirit that you might not have noticed that we were doing some very serious business. In fact, we voted—unanimously in every case—to make some pretty significant changes to the way things are done around here, the way things have been done for a very, very long time.
This was not done on a whim, of course. The actions we took were the result of three years of prayerful listening, holy conversation, respectful disagreement, faithful risk-taking, and Spirit-led discernment. Then, when we finally reached the point of entering a new era (at least for a year), before each vote Mary Taft had us get quiet, be still, and just listen for God.
Since I am not yet a member of the church and, therefore, could not vote, I was able to slip into my old reporter mode of observing: just watching, listening, taking the temperature. Among the things I noticed:
First, when we truly let the Spirit work among us—not just as individuals but as a community of faith—what results is a kind of holy giddiness. Do you remember the story of Pentecost, how the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles in a mighty rush of wind and tongues of fire, and they began to speak in other languages? Some in the crowd sneered and said, “They must be drunk.”
Well, the Annual Meeting on Monday night was kinda like that. People got so caught up in the excitement of what they were doing that they’d sometimes forget the finer points of parliamentary procedure—whether they needed a motion, if anyone had seconded it, if they needed to call a question and, if so, which one.
At one point, Jay Killough said, “I move that we listen to God.”
“She told me how to vote the last time,” quipped Ken Langley, not missing a beat, despite his pneumonia.
And so it went. It seemed to me that this business of listening for God and letting the Spirit work can be downright fun.
Second, holy giddiness appears to lead to what the Bible calls the “building up of one another”—something the Bible is in favor of, in case you were wondering. After all the motioning and seconding and discussing and listening and voting, a lot of people wanted to spend time expressing their appreciation for the hard work, generosity, wisdom, perseverance and dedication of just about everyone else in the room.
Third—and this is what I really want to focus on this morning—as I gave thanks for all that was happening around me, I sensed that this church had not simply completed one long, important project, but that it also was beginning another. And, here’s the key: What brought us this far—listening and being faithful to our still-speaking God—is the same thing we need to carry us forward.
Now that we’ve adopted the strategic plan and reorganized ourselves and come up with new ministry teams and new titles and jobs and every-member ministry, we must not simply pat ourselves on the back and then return to business as usual. We cannot simply marvel at what God’s Spirit has done and then go back to running the show ourselves.
What we have to do, it seems to me, is continue to listen for God, continue to let God’s Spirit lead the way. What is most needed in our church, in our individual lives and in our world—far more than a change in structures or by-laws or elected leaders—is a change of heart. And it is in listening for God and listening to God that we find our own voice, make our own way, become who God intends us to be, and live into a new day as God’s people.
So, let’s turn our attention to what our scriptures have to say about listening for God. First, we have the story of Samuel, a miracle child who became a king-maker.
As part of the bargain Samuel’s mother made with God, he grew up in the temple under the tutelage of Eli, an elderly priest. Despite this hyper-religious upbringing, when our story begins “he [does] not yet know the Lord.” But that’s about to change.
Samuel has gone to bed after hard day serving old Eli when he hears a voice: “Samuel! Samuel!” it says. Thinking it’s the old priest, he jumps up and says, “Here I am!” and runs to Eli. But Eli hadn’t called, so he tells the boy to go back to bed.
Samuel is no sooner back under the covers than he hears the voice again, calling his name. Again he jumps up and runs to Eli, who again tells him he didn’t call. After the cycle repeats for a third time, Eli realizes that the voice Samuel is hearing must be God’s.
“Go lie down again,” he tells the boy, “and if you hear the voice again, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then, “the Lord came and stood there,” the scripture says, “calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel says, in what I imagine was a somewhat shaky voice, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Our second story finds the prophet Elijah already communicating with God—but he’s doing much more talking than listening. Running for his life from Queen Jezebel, stranded in the wilderness, surviving on honest-to-God angel-food cake and water, Elijah begs God to get him out of the prophecy business. He whines, he argues, he pleads his case, and then . . . then God tells Elijah to prepare to meet his Maker.
So, sitting in his cave, Elijah waits for God to come by. First, there comes a mighty wind, but God is not in the wind. Then there’s an earthquake, followed by a fire; but God is in neither the earthquake nor the fire. Finally, after the fire subsides, Elijah hears what the Bible calls “a sound of sheer silence.” It is there, in the silence at the door of a cave, that Elijah hears God’s voice.
So, what do these two very different stories tell us about listening for God? Let me suggest a few things:
First, God calls us by name.
Until Samuel responded, all God said was his name. For some of us, though, that doesn’t always work. If we’re struggling with questions of racism, sexual identity, body image, family position, vocational indecision, spiritual uncertainty or any other kind of identity crisis, we may not recognize our name when we hear it.
Yet if we really want to hear God speak to us, we must answer to our true name. If we want God to reveal the truth to us, if we want to be able to hear God speaking, we need to be true to who we are.
Second, God is persistent; God’s love hangs in there.
Even when God’s word is not getting through to us, even when we’re not listening, God is standing by. After God had called Samuel three times without success, the scripture says “the Lord came and stood there, calling as before.”
Third, God’s communication system is multi-layered and universal.
When the direct approach doesn’t work, there are myriad people, situations and experiences available to direct us to God’s voice. In Samuel’s case, it was the wisdom of an old, blind priest. What are the Spirit conduits in our lives?
Do we listen for God in the circumstances of our lives, in the social conditions of this country, in the poverty, disease, war and environmental degradation of our world? Do we listen for God’s voice in our children, in the people who hurt us, in our church and the scriptures, in the beauty of the earth, in the mundane chores of an ordinary day, in the smile of those we love? If you want to hear God, says Frederick Buechner, “Listen to your life.”
And if we can’t hear God in our lives, maybe we need to change them. Maybe we need to be more intentional about putting ourselves in the places, surrounding ourselves with the people, immersing ourselves in the beauty and struggles and resources and pain that are most likely to reveal something of the love and justice and healing of the Spirit of God.
And, finally, if we want to hear God we have to put away our notions of what God has to say.
We have to set aside our preconceptions of how God works. Maybe we’re like Elijah, waiting for God to save us with a miracle or some melodrama. Maybe, like Elijah, we’re too busy whining to hear what God has to say.
Not to worry. God is patient, and God is wise. God knows that sometimes only silence, or absence, will get our attention. God knows that after we’ve tried to force God to do something, to say something, to give us a sign, we might finally just give up and listen. Maybe we’ll finally arrive at the place where we realize we don’t have all the answers; maybe we’ll begin to see how much we need God; maybe we’ll reach the point of being so exhausted that we have no choice but to stop and be still and listen. And so God becomes silent, holding God’s piece until we are able to hear—even if it’s only a still, small voice.
These are changing times in the life of First Church—exciting times. We stand on the precipice of what could be a new era in our lives together—a more Spirit-filled, broad-based, out-reaching, community-building era. Chances are we’ll make mistakes or lose some momentum or fall into old, less empowering ways of doing things. But as long as we keep listening, I believe we’re going to be just fine—and better than fine—because the still-speaking God is standing by, waiting for us to listen.
And, given that it’s Lent, it seems to me we could do worse than to adopt listening for God as our communal Lenten discipline.
Speaking of discipline, I admit that I’ve broken a few rules this morning. Most experts on preaching say that sermons should not be full of private jokes or details about the inner workings of a church. Their concern is that such navel-gazing can make non-members feel left out. And I understand that.
But I ask you to understand this: I’ve told you about our Annual Meeting, I have shared with you some of the jokes and fun because I want you to know what you’re missing if you are not part of this church. How will you know what you’re missing if we don’t tell you? I’ve told you a little about where we’ve been and where we want to go because we need you to help us get there, to help us listen for God’s new direction. How will you know that we need you, if we don’t tell you?
And how will we, as a community of faith, continue to listen to God is we don’t all encourage one another to listen individually? How is God going to do a new thing, if not through us?
I invite us all to enter more fully into the life of what Dorothy so rightly called this “responsive, risk-taking, call-listening, loving, laughing, and honest community.” May we all listen more intently for God, to see what God might have to say to us about our place in this church, and our church’s place in our community and our world.
Let us all say together: “Speak God, your servants are listening.”