Monday, January 7, 2019

Sermon: "God Speaks", 1 Samuel 3:1-10/Matthew 2:1-12, 16 (January 6, 2019)

1/6/19
(First of four in a series of sermons during Stewardship Season)


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Today, I want to begin with a story: a friend of mine was in the middle of her ordination process when she encountered an obstacle. It was making things really difficult, to the point that she wasn’t sure if ordination was what God wanted for her anymore. While she was struggling with her sense of call, she still needed to continue her work as a hospital chaplain—unfortunately, life doesn’t stop for discernment. She told me about a day during this time that she visited a child who couldn’t talk. The little girl had to write down anything that she wanted on paper, and she was having a hard time with this process. My friend watched her get upset and quit. As soon as the girl threw down her pen, though, her aunt, who was also in the room, gently chided her, “Now baby, don’t get frustrated and give up!” The girl picked up her pen and tried again, and the rest of the visit went on without incident.

But work couldn’t distract my friend from her own challenges for long. She was still hurt and angry, and she wanted to drop everything and walk away. When her shift ended that day, she went to the chapel to pray and sit with her anger for a while since she couldn’t seem to shake it. She sat for a long time, closed off from the world in her pain. When she was finally able to look up, she saw the chapel’s stained glass window staring back at her through her tears. It had a song of praise written across it, and as soon as she noticed it, the words of that West Texas aunt flooded back into her mind: “Now baby, don’t get frustrated and give up.”

That friend is now an ordained Episcopalian priest.

All people of faith long to hear God speaking to them. We long to be told that we’re heading in the right direction, doing the right stuff, making God proud. Or, at the very least, being gently encouraged to maybe reconsider our path and try something different—gently being the operative word. But we pray, and we wait, and we pray, and we wait, and we wait, and we get frustrated when no burning bush shows up at our front door and no booming voice from heaven fills our ears. It’s not fair that the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of our faith could so easily find out what God wanted them to do! Why can’t WE just get a clear answer when we most need it, like they always seemed to?

It’s not an unusual question. When I googled, “Why doesn’t God talk to us anymore?”, I got over 130 million results (I didn’t read them all). All of us wonder at one time or another why God doesn’t just tell us what God wants, since it seems to be so easy for human beings to make the wrong choice in the absence of divine guidance. We assume, quite reasonably, that if we were just directly and clearly told what God’s will is, we’d have no problem following it—or at least we’d have fewer excuses…right?

Well…maybe it’s not so much that God doesn’t talk to us, but that we’re particularly lousy at listening. Maybe God speaks to us all the time, but we don’t recognize it as God’s voice. Maybe, because we don’t EXPECT to hear God, we’re less able to perceive an incoming message as originating from God. Samuel almost missed his calling to be a prophet for this very reason. Scripture tells us that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days [and] visions were not widespread.” So when Samuel heard a voice calling to him—to HIM, by name, specifically, and in actual, audible words—he assumed it was just his mentor Eli, probably with some routine task for him to do. And if Eli hadn’t been so perceptive, Samuel might have missed the boat completely. Lucky for God (and for Samuel, and for us) Eli was able to redirect Samuel’s assumptions and help him understand what (or who) he was actually hearing. Once Samuel could recognize God’s voice for what it was, he answered as we hope we’d all answer: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Sometimes, in order to recognize God’s voice, we need a shift in our assumptions, too.

Another story: when I was finishing up seminary in Boston and trying to figure out what came next for me, an unexpected job opportunity arose in my hometown of Rochester, NY. It was perfect in that it would allow me to work in ministry even though I hadn’t passed all my ordination exams yet (which wasn’t the case in Boston), but I had made a home in Massachusetts over the past five years and didn’t want to leave. Plus, the position was at an Episcopalian Church, and after four years in different denominational settings, I was ready to be around Presbyterians again. I knew what choice I WANTED to make, but I didn’t know which choice I NEEDED to make.

I did everything you might expect someone making a big decision to do: I made pros & cons lists, I processed out loud with friends and family, I researched costs and logistics—but I wasn’t any closer to figuring out what I should do. Finally, I thought to myself, “This is silly. I’m a seminary graduate; I should stop trying to think through this and start trying to listen to what God wants.” So I lit a candle, curled up in my favorite chair, and just…did nothing. I just sat there and stared at the flame. And within a few minutes, I knew—I just KNEW—that I needed to move back home. I cried. Sobbed, really, because that was not at all the answer that I wanted. But it was the answer that I got, and so I went. (In case you were wondering, it was the right decision; among other things, Rochester was where I met my husband.)

Sometimes, it can be hard to hear God’s voice because God’s calling us to do something that we don’t want to do, or something that’s difficult. If we don’t listen, we can’t hear, and we can’t be expected to do a hard thing that we haven’t even heard about, right? But God doesn’t just speak when the conditions are ideal or when we’re prepared to listen. God speaks when it’s time. God speaks when there’s something we need to hear, whether we’re ready or not, so we’d better improve our listening skills. In the words of reformer Thomas M√ľntzer, “Believe that God is more willing to speak that you are prepared to listen.”

Like my Episcopalian friend, Herod heard God’s voice through another person: in his case, the magi. Like me, he didn’t like the message that he heard. So he chose not to listen. He chose to react in fear to what should have been good news. He chose to protect his own perceived power by murdering innocent children. Earlier that same day, the magi who gave Herod his message had also heard God’s voice. They perceived it through Jewish prophecies and an unusual astrological phenomenon. These gentiles would have had no personal reason to pay any heed to Jewish writings. And yet, in contrast to Herod, they chose to listen. They chose to make the long journey away from home simply to pay homage to an infant king, and they rejoiced at the gift that God had given to humanity in Christ. THEY heard. THEY listened, even though the task set before them was not an easy or natural one. (Do YOU know any modern leaders or rulers who would travel miles across the desert to bow down to a baby from another country? I don’t.) They demonstrated what it means to heed God’s call.

One last story; it could be yours: Yesterday, God spoke to someone through the encouragement of their community. Today, God is speaking to someone through an unexplained physical sensation. Tomorrow, God will speak to someone through a challenging experience. Every day, God speaks to each of us in so many different ways—some we might hear easily, others might not even register in our consciousness. The next time someone tells you the unusual or unexpected way that they heard God’s voice, don’t write them off as overly imaginative or silly. Consider what they’re sharing with you. Perhaps they’re teaching you a new way to listen. Perhaps they’ve heard something that you’ve missed. Perhaps their own voice is God’s way of speaking to YOU.

Today, the Church celebrates Epiphany. An epiphany is a moment of sudden revelation or insight. The particular revelation that we celebrate on this day is the incarnation of God on earth, particularly in the Magi’s recognition of it, but perhaps “Epiphany” can take on an additional meaning for us. Maybe, in addition to recognizing God’s physical revelation in Jesus, this Epiphany we can remember God’s ongoing revelation in our hearts and minds. How is God revealing Godself to you, today? Is it in a way that you expect? Is it through the voice of a friend or the voice of a stranger? Is it through an abstract feeling in your heart or a clear thought in your mind? Through the words of Scripture or the words of a blogger? Something you see in the majesty of nature or something you see in the banality of everyday life? Something you know but haven’t responded to yet or something entirely new?

And how will you react? Like Herod, in fear of the unknown and potentially threatening? Or like the magi, in trust that God will provide guidance and help in whatever God calls us to do? Will you, like the magi, commit what you have to God—your time, your talent, your treasure—knowing that if God is calling you to it, God will use whatever you offer to do magnificent things for God’s Kingdom? Will you listen?

In a few minutes, as we gather at the table, you’ll be given another opportunity to hear what God may be trying to tell you. As you come forward to receive communion, you’ll have the chance to choose a “star word” to guide your listening in the coming year. Don’t think or worry too much about it—let the Holy Spirit guide your hand. You may not like the word you choose. You may not understand why it’s your word. It might make you confused, or frustrated, or uncomfortable. These feelings might persist for weeks, even months, after you’ve chosen your word. To you, I say, “Now baby, don’t get frustrated and give up.” It’s okay. Trust God to speak to you through the word, whatever it is. And trust that, no matter what God’s voice “sounds” like, or how ready you are to hear it, or how prepared you are to respond, God is still speaking. Let’s hear what God has to say. Amen.

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I mentioned "star words" in my sermon...hopefully you can gather what I'm talking about based on my brief description, but in case it's not clear, "star words" is a relatively new practice that many churches do each year in order to help individuals guide their prayer, reflection, and listening over the next twelve months. They're called "star words" because your word is supposed to act as your guide and anchor, just like Jesus' star served as a guide and anchor for the magi. The idea is that you allow the Holy Spirit to guide your hand as you choose your word without looking, and then you pay attention to how that word's meaning might "show up" in your life throughout the year. It's another way for us to listen to God. 

My word was "awareness", and I'm already seeing ways that God is speaking to me through this word! I can't wait to see how it plays out over the rest of the year.


We still have some un-chosen words left at Boone. If you would like me to pick one for you, I'd be happy to do that! The easiest way is for me to take a picture of it and send it to you (I'll take it and write your name on it, then I'll pray over it for you during the year--bonus!), but I can also scan it or mail it to you if you prefer. 

I recommend keeping your star word somewhere visible that you'll see it a lot--I tape mine to my computer screen and I take a picture of it and make it the wallpaper on my phone. Some people put theirs on their bathroom mirror or the dashboard of their car. You could even laminate it or cover it with packing tape/contact paper and keep it in your wallet, purse, or pocket!

Let me know if you're interested...I'm in the office on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, so I'll pick a word for you on one of those days.

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