Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sermon: “The How-Tos (and How-Not-Tos) of Discernment”, Judges 6:34-40/Joshua 24:2-5, 11-15 (July 23, 2017)



This sermon is the last one in our series based on questions submitted by you all. There were some excellent questions, and while Andrew’s sermon last week on sin and predestination addressed some juicy topics, I think that I lucked out for this week, too. The question for this week, as submitted, is: “How do you know what to act on, which decisions to make, what paths to take? How do you know it’s God leading you and when are you doing your own thing?” And, the questioner added, “Don’t just say to pray about it.” So, since THAT route is off-limits, I guess I have to go a little more in depth. No 30-second sermon for you this week.

Of course, prayer—talking to God—IS an important part of discernment. You can’t know what someone wants unless you ask, right? But more important than figuring out the right questions to ask is figuring out the right way to listen to the answer. I think that’s more what most of us struggle with, anyway. Frankly, the reason prayer often feels so ineffective is because we refuse to listen for and to the answer that God is offering. If it doesn’t fit what we want or expect, if it doesn’t come the way we anticipate, if we’re too distracted to listen, more often than not we assume that our prayer isn’t working, instead of considering that the issue might be with us. This isn’t an indictment of anyone personally; this is a reflection of our natural human hubris, impatience, and stubbornness. As a quote on the wall of my office by Thomas Müntzer says, “Believe that God is more willing to speak than you are prepared to listen.” We don’t hear because we aren’t letting ourselves hear.

So it’s little wonder that we look for obvious signs we’re making the right choice. If we struggle so much with listening, shouldn’t God give us answers that are easier to hear? It seems like the polite thing to do. That must have been what Gideon was thinking with this fleece business. I mean, in a way, it seems like an example of “what not to do” regarding discernment. Didn’t Jesus say, “Test not the Lord your God”?[1] And HE got it from Deuteronomy,[2] so it’s not like this would have been news to Gideon. And yet, Gideon does seem to test God—not once, but twice! He even knows it’s not cool; he says, “Do not let your anger burn against me,” please don’t be mad, God, but…I’m still just not sure.

I’m confident that most of us can relate to Gideon. It’s tempting for us to think that that’s the solution, isn’t it? That God just needs to be clearer with God’s messages, darn it! But God doesn’t always work like that—especially, it seems, when we most desperately want it.

I, myself, have flirted with “discernment demands” in the past. Like many pastors, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if my call to ministry was from God or was just an errant idea I’d had. At one point, I was walking with a friend back from Greek class, and the conversation turned to why we had chosen to take an ancient language with such limited real-life applications; as it happened, this friend was also PCUSA and discerning a call to ministry. He shared with me his own struggle to figure out God’s will for his life, and in the process, told me the story of Gideon’s fleece (it was, at this point, the first time I had heard it). My friend said, “I need a clear sign like Gideon, so I’m gonna apply to Princeton Seminary, and if God wants me to be a pastor, I’ll get in. If I don’t get in, I’ll know that God has other plans for me.” Made sense to me. Fast-forward a couple of years, and when he graduated college a year ahead of me, he followed through with his plan, got into Princeton, and became an ordained minister. Discernment made easy.

After seeing how successful his “arrangement” with God had been, I figured I’d try something similar. After I graduated college, I moved to Boston and eventually began looking into theological schools there. There are a ton of seminaries in Boston, but a part of me had always wondered if I could’ve gotten into an Ivy League school (maybe you can see where this is going). So I prayed: “Dear God, if you want me to serve you by being a pastor, let me get into Harvard Divinity School. If I don’t get in, I’ll know that you want something else for me.”

Guess what? I didn’t get in.

I remember lying in my bed, reading that rejection letter, and feeling like I’d hit a dead end. What should I do now? I didn’t have any other ideas for my future, no other real interests, and I had made it pretty clear that this was the sign I needed. I wasn’t sure what God was thinking. But, the results of my test were indisputable: clearly, God didn’t want me to be a pastor.

A few weeks went by, and I finally stopped looking for the “Oops, sorry; we made a mistake” letter from Harvard to come in the mail. But just as I stopped looking, a different letter arrived. From Boston University School of Theology. Inviting me to join the class of 2013 M.Div. program.

See, although I had a fool-proof plan to discern God’s will, the pastor of the church I had been teaching Sunday School at had been watching me and following my discernment, and had gently suggested that because there were so many great theology schools in Boston, I shouldn’t limit my search to just one. I should AT LEAST apply to one backup. So, to make her feel better, I did, and promptly forgot about it in my dogged pursuit of Gideon’s fleece. As it turns out, Boston University was an exponentially better fit for my learning style, theological priorities, and interests, and, well, here I am. God refused to be deterred by my misguided discernment. God refused to be bullied into expressing God’s will in the way that I demanded. God refused to let me walk away from my calling even though I was determined not to hear.

This isn’t, of course, to say that Gideon’s idea is ALWAYS a bad one. Obviously, it worked for my friend, and it worked for Gideon. What I mean to say is that discernment is not a “one size fits all” process, and that God speaks to each of us in different ways at different times. I can’t say with any certainty why this method wasn’t effective for me: maybe it was because it was rooted in my pride at wanting to go to an Ivy League school. Maybe it was because the “test” that I set up was contrary to what God knew was best for me. Maybe it was just because God wasn’t in the mood to barter with me about my future. I really don’t know. What I do know is that if I had held fast to the rules and regulations of discernment that I’d carefully laid out, I would have missed out on living the life that God wanted for me.

While there’s no one formula that will result in true discernment every time, there are some good clues that can help us. Discernment is as much about listening to the evidence around and within you as it is hearing the answer directly from God. In fact, sometimes that’s the ONLY way we can figure out what God wants. In our reading from Joshua, the Hebrew people were at a crossroads—they had to figure out what their next step was. They didn’t hear God’s voice directly, but they had something else: Joshua. Joshua had seen God constantly working in the world, through history and through their own lives, and reminded his people that this evidence was important part of their discernment. He helped them see the signs all around them. For the Hebrews, Joshua’s words and encouragement played a huge role in their discernment. For me, my pastor’s insight into my calling and the ways I was potentially short-circuiting it was transformative in ways that I couldn’t even imagine at the time.

As Presbyterians, we place a huge emphasis on group discernment. Have you ever wondered why we, in contrast to so many other Christian denominations, don’t have bishops? It’s not because it’s more fair that way; it’s because we believe that God’s will is most readily discerned in community. It’s not that majority opinion rules; it’s that if we’re all earnestly seeking to do what God is calling us to do, we’ll have an easier time figuring it out together. It’s the same sort of idea as when you hear a strange noise and you turn to your neighbor and ask, “Did you hear that?” It’s not that the noise is only real if several people agree that it is; it’s that the more people who perceive something, the easier it is for us to accept and believe and know it. And while the long committee meetings and tense disagreements can sometimes make it feel like a burden, I believe that it is, in fact, a gift. We don’t have to figure this out alone. We’re not supposed to figure this out alone. God wants us to seek these answers—answers for our church family, answers for ourselves, answers for our future—together, in beloved community.

Now, at the end of the day, after all’s said and done, we still need to make a choice. We can spend every moment in our lives discerning, trying to hear and figure out what God is calling us to do. But as Joshua implies, at the end of the road to discernment is a leap of faith—a trust that God will continue to guide and direct us, and that if we turn the wrong way, God will not abandon us. I debated the order that I wanted to read scripture today, and eventually I settled on the Joshua reading going second, largely because I didn’t want to subject anyone to reading all those biblical names. But the canonical order is important to remember because it tells a story.

When Joshua presents his challenge to the Hebrews, they’re at the cusp of a new life and a new identity—they had finally entered the promised land and were no longer just the people of God, but were becoming the nation of God. Joshua knows that they’ll need help remembering God’s plan for them, so he makes lays out the path they are meant to take—again, discernment made easy. The people promise, multiple times, that they understand and choose to follow this path to which God has called them. But in the story between these two readings, the people fall away from God over and over again, choosing instead to follow the gods of the foreigners who lived among them. Even though Joshua had helped them to discern correctly that one time, there were plenty of other times that they discerned incorrectly, or that they didn’t even bother discerning at all. It’s that listening problem again, I guess.

But Grace means that that’s not the end of the story. Grace means that when the people fell away, God brought them judges to help them discern. Grace means that even when the judges weren’t sure—when Gideon doubted and worried and wondered—God gave him the answer he needed. Grace means that the people got to keep making the choice to follow God, even when they messed up. Grace means that discernment is a team sport between you, your community, and God, and that while it’s a hard game to play sometimes, you don’t have to fear it because you’re never alone in figuring it out.

So, a disclaimer: in case you haven’t noticed, this sermon does not, in fact, hold the key to discerning God’s will, despite what my misleading title might imply. That would not be a sermon that I could give in good conscience. Instead, it hopefully offers some perspective and handy tips. Remember that one size discernment does not fit all—even at different points of your own life. Remember that your community is one of the best tools you have. Remember that part of discernment is the choice to trust and follow God no matter what God tells you, even if that requires course correction. And remember that God is talking all the time, and we need to be ready to listen in as many ways, whether expected or unexpected, as we can. Amen.

[1] Luke 4:12, Matthew 4:7.
[2] Deuteronomy 6:16.

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