A Sermon I Didn’t Preach (or: Hopes & Fears)

What makes a sermon, a sermon?

I’ve long held that the mere writing of a sermon, words on a page, don’t actually make it much of anything. A sermon is only a sermon when it is proclaimed among and for God’s people within the context of worship. The prayers, music, and even presence of individuals make the sermon what it is because the Holy Spirit delights in making the words proclaimed from the pulpit God’s words for us.

And so, I have a sermon that is not really a sermon. I prayed over these words and put them together for the first Sunday of Advent, but became sick prior to Sunday morning and never actually preached them. Oddly enough, I am grateful that I didn’t preach this sermon because Isaiah’s insistence on God’s people beating swords into ploughshares, and my take on what that might mean today, was sure to upset quite a few in the pews. And yet, if we believe the church lives according to God’s future in the present, then perhaps every Sunday is an opportunity to proclaim the radical audacity of our hope in the God “who shall come to judge between the nations.”

Anyway, here’s the text and “sermon”…

Isaiah 2.1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord form Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

We begin at the end.

7 centuries before the Advent of Christ, before the little town of Bethlehem hosted the heavenly host, before the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head, the prophet Isaiah saw a word.

What an interesting turn of phrase.

The prophet doesn’t see a vision, he doesn’t hear a word, he sees the word.

In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and all people will stream to it. A king will come and teach the ways of the Lord, the instruction will command the attention of the masses.

And what does this king teach?

An eye for an eye!

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!

Life’s hard, get a helmet!

No.

The king will teach the way of peace. He will come to judge the living and the dead. And, in judgment, the people will beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Their weapons of war will become instruments of agriculture.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Even if you’ve never read from the prophet Isaiah, you’ve probably heard these words before. Or, perhaps better put, you’ve seen them, or some version of them.

We’re familiar with these words because they have captivated the imaginations of the faithful for generations, just think of the famous images during protests against the Vietnam war and all the people who placed flowers inside the barrels of guns. 

And, interestingly, this prophetic proclamation from Isaiah is engraved in large letters on the wall directly across the street from the United Nations. There they rest, day after day, mocking our feeble attempts to make peace while we continue to lift up our swords against one another.

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Isaiah sees the word about the days to come. He does not know when, or even how, these things will come to fruition, but the prophet catches a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos and he seeds the end.

It’s a bit odd that we begin at the end. Today, after all, is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year and we start with the conclusion. But, then again, it’s only right for us to do so because we are Easter people, we’re stuck squarely between the already but the not yet. 

There’s a through line in the Gospels, frankly the whole of the strange new world of the Bible, about time. We sees these words about the past, the present, and the future, and it’s not altogether clear which ones are which. And yet, if there is a persistent proclamation, it is that we belong not to this age, but to the age to come. That’s why Paul can write in his letter to the church in Rome, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.

We are a people out of time. We live in the future because we know that the tomb is empty.

But the future we live in its not a future that we bring to fruition.

There’s a temptation, every time Advent rolls around, for us to feel like it’s our responsibility to make the world come out right; that its up to us to make the word Isaiah sees real. 

To use language from Stanley Hauerwas, we play at waiting this time of year. Advent, after all, is all about patience isn’t it. And yet, for us, it isn’t. We can’t help but make ourselves the main character of the story. We rejoice in this language of getting back to God, of climbing back up the mountain, of making the world a better place.

But, when was the last time we left church jazzed up to turn our swords into ploughshares, or transform our guns into garden shovels?

Did you know that there are more guns in this country than human beings?

The word Isaiah sees is not predicated on us finally getting everything good enough that we can be good enough for God. In fact, its quite the opposite. The end is made possible only as we come to grips with our badness and how badly we need someone to do for us, and to us, that which we cannot do on our own.

Isaiah sees swords turned into ploughshares, a people willing to relinquish their forms of control for forms of sustenance, a people of peace. The strange new world of the Bible is filled with impossible possibilities just like that. The Lord will bring the hills low, and raise the valleys up. The Lord will make the last first, and the first last. The Lord turns a sign of death (the cross), into the sign of life (salvation).

The end is not yet. We Easter people are oddly stuck living in the time of Advent. We exist in the time in between, the time being as Auden put it. We make it through this mortal life waiting and hoping for things not yet seen.

That’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years. We know not all is as it should be, but we also know that the future is coming, and his name is Jesus. 

“Building a better future for our children.” I saw that on a sign recently. And I hear those kind of words all the time. Here at church. The PTA. On the news. And, it’s a worthy sentiment. What can we do now to ensure a better and brighter future for the coming generations?

The only problem is, we are not creating the future, and certainly not a better one.

We know what we should and shouldn’t do, and for some reason we refuse to change.

It’s been almost ten years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7, plus 6 adults were murdered. I remember being glued to the television and feeling this raw hopelessness in my heart. And yet, I also remember thinking, “This is so bad, we’re definitely going to make sure these types of things will never happen again.”

But we didn’t.

In just the last two weeks we’re seen horrific shootings in Charlottesville and Colorado Springs. Awful. And we just keep going forward as if nothing happened. We’ve become numb to the violence that we are. 

And, sadly, I had to go back and edit this sermon because in between writing it, and preaching it this morning, there was another mass shooting at a Walmart in Chesapeake.

These reports keep coming out, year after year, about how we have a problem with guns in this country. There are too many and the access is too easy. But we do nothing.

We were at the pediatrician’s office a few weeks back, patiently waiting. Talking about living into the Advent season, waiting and waiting and waiting. And what is there to do when you’re waiting in a doctor’s office? You start reading all the random posters on the wall.

Here’s the proper amount of medicine for a 6 year old. Here’s an example of a healthy diet for a ten year old. On and on.

But then I saw a word, a poster on the wall that chilled me to my core:

“Firearms are now the number one cause of death for children in the United States.”

We are not making a better future. 

But, thankfully, the future is coming to us. From God.

God is creating our future and that future is our only hope. If it were left up to us, we would continue on paths that lead to destruction. But it is not God’s will that anyone should perish. 

Isaiah sees a word that is staggering. Weapons turned into tools for food. People gathering at the mountain. And judgment.

We don’t do well with that word. It sits heavy on our hearts.

But the day of judgment that Isaiah sees is ultimately a day of hope, not of despair. It is a day of restoration, not doom. It is a day of judgment when sin will be no more. 

That’s why we pray to God for help.

We need help that is outside of us. We need something done to us. We need this because we’ve had plenty of opportunities to change ourselves, to make things better, and the world keeps going down the toilet.

No wonder God had to send God’s son into the world. We need all the help we can get.

God is in the business of making all things new; yesterday, today, and forever. And the church, as Christ’s body in the world, is not some social club or gathering that provides a distraction from all that is wrong in the world. Instead, the church exists to call a thing what it is. Or, in other words, the church exists to tell the truth. 

Advent starts in the dark. It always has and it always will. The texts, the hymns, the prayers, they all beckon our attention to the way things are knowing that that not all is as it should be. It is the season of honesty about who we are, but more importantly whose we are.

We are not making a better future but, as the church, we live according to God’s future in the present. We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales. 

The church is God’s weird and wild story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that runs completely counter to everything else in the world. 

One day God is going to get what God wants. Swords will be beat into plowshares, guns will be melted into garden shovels. Peace will reign. O church, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 2.1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13.11-14, Matthew 24.36-44). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Handel’s Messiah, Chicago, Advent themes, the house of the Lord, church attendance, Fleming Rutledge, hopes and fears, worldly preferences, divine peace, Good Mythical Morning, progress, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Bloom Where You Are Planted

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7, Psalm 66.1-12, 2 Timothy 2.8-15, Luke 17.11-19). Sara and Teer both serve Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including friendship in the workplace, peaceful situations, political welfare, grace, ecclesial architecture, joyful noises, spreadsheets, supplicatory prayers, memory, the main thing, faith, and word wrangling. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Bloom Where You Are Planted

Hide & Seek

Genesis 3.1-11

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

The beginning of the strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, new and strange. God makes it all through the power of speech, “Let there be light!” And then, as is God’s pleasure, God makes humankind in God’s image. Fashioned from the earth, given the breath of the Spirit, our ancestral parents walk among paradise.

This, to put it bluntly, is when the story gets good.

I often wonder what story from scripture is known among the masses more than any other. With the ubiquity of Christmas celebrations, there’s a pretty good chance that lots and lots of people knowing something about the manger and something about the birth of Christ. With the never ending resourcefulness of the “underdog triumph,” David and Goliath must be known by others. But the story of Adam and Eve is, quite possibly, the most well known story from the Bible.

And for good reason.

It is short. It is simple. It gives explanation for why things are the way they are. Though, it cannot be explained in a way that leaves us satisfied, which is what makes it worth coming back to over and over and over again.

Last week in worship Fred Sistler, guest preacher extraordinaire, said, “Genesis doesn’t give us the how, but the wow.” I really like that. There’s a lot of wow in this story. But perhaps, at least with Genesis 3, the wow turns into a woah.

Adam and Even are in paradise. To us that might seem like a remote island in the Caribbean, or any other number of idyllic spots, but paradise in the strange new world of the Bible is simply a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.

Which, if we’re being honest, might not sound much like paradise.

We can scarcely fathom how communal the communion was because it sounds so wrong. And if it sounds wrong it’s because the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God, is no one’s idea of a good time.

We know what we’re really like behind closed doors, and what’s buried deep in our internet search histories, and where our knee-jerk reactions can be found. We know that even though its easy to point out the splinter in someone else’s eye, we’ve got logs in our own. We know that, to use Paul’s language, we continue to do things we know we shouldn’t.

All of us, the tall and the small, we’re all masters of blocking our some of the grim realities of life. We can read a frightening article about something like the devastating effects of global warming, or we can listen to a podcast about the terror of our current economic situation, but when push comes to shove, we can definitely pretend like everything is fine.

But the Bible doesn’t do this – it never does. Oddly enough, this is why the strange new world of the Bible is realer than our own. It tells the truth, even when it hurts. 

Consider: This book begins with paradise, perfect communion (perhaps uncomfortable communion), and by chapter 11 we encounter murder, near genocide, lying, and loads of violence.

Which begs the question: What went wrong?

As has been mentioned before, GK Chesterton famously responded once to a newspaper article asking “What’s Wrong With The World?” With only two words: I am.

You see, the story of Adam and Eve is real, realer than we often give it credit for. And their story is our story. 

Our first parents find themselves in paradise and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You’re never in need of anything at all. There’s just one teeny tiny caveat: See that tree over there? You can’t eat from it. Everything else is yours, except for that.

Enter the serpent, the craftiest of creatures.

“Psst, Eve. Did God tell you that you were forbidden to eat from every tree?”

“No, you silly snake, we’re not allowed to eat from one tree.”

“Don’t you find that a little odd, Eve? I mean why would God give you all the other trees to eat from but not this one? Isn’t God the God of love? Doesn’t sound very loving to me…”

“Well, God said we would die if we eat it…”

“C’mon Eve! Do you really believe that? Why would God go through all the trouble to give you life only to take it away?”

And so the seeds of doubt are planted.

The end of the beginning.

She reaches for the tree, as does her husband, and their eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect is instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There is no going back. 

And what do they do with all this knew knowledge? Are they puffed up with bravado? Are they ready to take on the world?

No.

They are afraid. They see themselves for who they really are and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion fig leaves for clothing, and they hide.

We still hide all the time. We hide in our jobs, in the bottle, in our busyness, in our children, in our wealth, in our power.

And it’s while we’re hiding that God comes and says, “Taylor, Taylor, where are you?”

Notice, the question is not who are you? God does not come with moral judgments, or ethical inquiries. God comes asking where we are.

And what’s the answer?

I’m right here God and I’m lost.

We might not think we are lost, we can try to convince ourselves that we know exactly where we are on the map of life. But, when we take a good hard look in the mirror, we know that we are not as we ought to be. The condition of our condition ain’t good.

And, typically, this is where the scripture, and therefore the sermon, ends. In Adam and Eve we discover ourselves, our plight, and we are made to feel bad about out badness.

And that might not be such a bad thing. Sometimes discovering or confronting our badness leads to goodness. But most of the time, it just makes things worse.

And, notably, that makes it all about us. Our choice, our failure, our punishment.

But what about God?

God comes looking for us.

You see, the strange new world of the Bible is the story of God’s unyielding search for us. From the first parents in the garden of Eden, to the Good Shepherd, to Eschaton, God is for us. 

When they eat from the forbidden tree, God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky, nor does God spin together a tornado. No, God goes into the garden and asks, “Where are you?”

Adam, Eve, you, me, we’re all lost. Truly, completely, lost. And for some reason, we assume that we have to be the ones to find ourselves. It’s why we’re forever giving ourselves over to the latest fads of self-discovery, some of which are probably fine. We’re trying to find ourselves with technological advancements, some of which are probably fine. 

We’ve done all sorts of crazy things in the name of progress to make this world more like Eden.

We got rid of slavery only to now have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

We keep improving our medical systems, but American life spans are diminishing in large part due to the opioid epidemic.

Examples abound!

And yet! (The strange new world of the Bible always hinges on the divine yet.)

And yet God does not give up on us! The story, our story, begins in the garden but it does not end there. The story continues through the strange and wild wilderness in the days of Abraham, it weaves through the journey to Egypt and back again in Jacob and Joseph, it delivers through miracles made manifest in Moses, it rises through the power of David and Solomon, it dances through the prophets who proclaim the word of the Lord, it endures through drought and famines, it connects the lives of the powerful and the powerless, it brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly.

Of the many details in the story, the story we know so well because we’ve heard it time and time again, the one that always hits me in the face is the fact that, when Adam and Eve see the truth, they hide behind a tree

The story of God’s search for us eventually leads to a small town called Bethlehem, it trudges through Galilee and sails over the sea, it tells of prodigals and publicans, it walks the streets of Jerusalem and turns over the tables at the temple, it marches up a hill to a place call the Skull, and it hangs on a tree for people like you and me, and then it breaks free from the chains of sin and death for you and me.

Our first parents hide behind a tree in their shame, but Jesus hangs on a tree to proclaim that God will never ever stop searching for us, that no amount of badness will ever hold a light to the love that refuses to let us go, and that God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.

Life is a long game of hide and seek. But God always wins. Amen.

It’s Better Than You Think It Is

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 5.27-32, Psalm 118.14-29, Revelation 1.4-9, John 20.19-31). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange intros, short sermons, eating in Eastertide, Raymond Brown, good trouble, Stanley Hauerwas, codas, timelessness, the firstborn of the dead, real peace, and the gift of faith. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: It’s Better Than You Think It Is

Transformation By Disruption

Jesus was nothing if not zealous.

Jesus sees possibilities where we, too often, see failure.

Jesus believes in those who have quit believing in themselves.

Jesus makes a way where there is no way.

That’s exactly who Jesus is!

And, lest we ever forget, God is at least as nice as Jesus which also means that God is at least as zealous as Jesus. Because Jesus, as Paul reminds us, is the fullness of God revealed.
God is not merely sitting idly by watching the world spin down the toilet – God is showing up in places, flipping the tables of complacency, and is probing us to wonder about the ways things are so that we might move to where things can be.

Taking at step back from Jesus’ temple tantrum, with the tables overturned and the money-lenders cowering in the corner, it’s not hard to imagine the headline in the next issue of the Jerusalem Times: Jesus – The Disturber of the Peace

There have always been disruptors of the peace, those zealots who shake up the status quo.

And yet, the peace disturbed by Jesus that day, and still disturbs today, was no real peace. The weak and the marginalized were getting abused and forced into economic hardships all while God’s blessing were being construed as something to be purchased or earned.

And then God in Christ shows up to remind us there is no real transformation without disruption. Faithful following is only every possible because of disruption and dislocation – otherwise we are doomed to remain exactly as we are.

And, for some of us, that doesn’t sound too bad. Some of us would do quite well if things remained exactly as they are. But God is in the business of making something from nothing, of taking us from here to over there, of deliverance.

Change, real change, good change, is never painless. It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries, an ever present reminder of what happens should any of us start asking all of the right questions.

We have a method for dealing with disturbers of the peace.

And yet, it only takes a quick glance at the great stories of history to be reminded that the most important shifts from one thing to another have always come because of disruption.

We can point to the real change makers of the world, those who refused to accept things as they were, but Jesus, whether we like it or not, is the most striking example of disruption, dislocation, and painful challenge to our status quo. Ever since he showed up we’ve never really be able to return to normal because God in Christ is marching on, all while bringing us along for the ride.

“Zeal for your house will consume me,” the psalmist writes and the disciples apply to Jesus. And they were right – The zeal Jesus had for a new day did consume him. So much so that we killed him for it.

But even the grave couldn’t stop our disturber of the peace.

A Modest Proposal

2 Corinthians 3.17

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 

My former professor Stanley Hauerwas likes to tell the story of how he hung a poster on his office door at Duke University. The poster was published by the Mennonite Central Committee, and it displayed a haunting image of two people in grief holding one another, and underneath the image were these words: “A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” 

Hauerwas then explains how, for over twenty years, students (and professors) would knock on his door with anger and frustration. They would barge into his office and declare, “Your sign makes me so mad. Christians shouldn’t kill anyone.”

And Hauerwas would reply the same way every time: “The Mennonites called it a modest proposal – we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Last night Russian forces invaded Ukraine, assaulting by land, sea, and air in the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War Two. Missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities and countless Ukrainian citizens are currently fleeing for their lives. 

And Christians here in the US have already floated around a bunch of possible responses from flooding the Ukrainian military with money, arms, and technology, to invading Russia to make them pay for what they’re doing, to praying for peace.

Jesus commands the disciples to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” which looks nice on a cross-stitch hanging on the wall in your living room until you start to see images of bombs exploding and parents frantically trying to rush their children to safety.

War is always complicated, ugly, and even addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few other things can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. Way conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness made manifest in machine guns. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “war” fails to express the frightening nature of the act. We so quickly connect the word “war” with the “righteous” outcomes of our wars. 

Can you imagine how differently we would remember and even think about wars if we called them something else? World Massacre II? The Vietnamese Annihilation? Operation Desert Carnage?

Part of the strange witness of Christianity, and an all too often overlooked aspect of the faith, is that Jesus rules in weakness. God in Christ reconciles the world through the cross. Our salvation is wrought not with the storming of the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the powers and the principalities with a mobilized military, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

As the images continue to flood in from Ukraine, as the talking heads on every news channel tell us how we should feel and think about the images, I find myself grateful (oddly enough) for the Book of Discipline in the United Methodist Church because it already outlines how we (Methodists) think and feel about war.

Namely, that war is incompatible with Christianity.

Paragraph 165.C:

“We believe war is incompatible with the teaching and the example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them.”

It might be a modest proposal, but we have to start somewhere.

Lift High The Priest

1 Samuel 2.1-10

Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one beside you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren have borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

Hannah is miserable.

She’s in a situation no longer permissible these days – polygamy. That is, her husband is married to two women, Hannah and Peninnah.

Hannah’s misery is born out of her inability to bring a child into the world while her rival has produced numerous offspring for their husband.

You can just imagine Peninnah walking around the house with children dangling from either arm while the rest of the herd pummel one another in the next room. “Oh Hannah, its such a shame you’ll never get to be the kind of blessing I am. You’re lucky that our husband has such pity on you, otherwise, who knows what might happen to you!”

It’s got all the makings of a mid-morning soap opera!

Every year Elkanah goes to make his sacrifices and he gives portions to his wives and to his offspring, and he even gives Hannah double portions because he loves her in spite of her childlessness.

And that only makes it worse.

So this year, Hannah weeps from the depths of her soul. She goes to to the temple, throws herself to the floor, and makes a pledge, “O Lord! If you would only look upon my misery! Please give to me a son. If you do, I will dedicate him to your work.”

Meanwhile, Eli, the priest, overhears her ramblings and accuses her of being drunk.

“No,” she says, “I haven’t anything to drink. I’m drunk with sorrow and with hope. If only the Lord will listen to me.”

And the priest says, “Get out of here, the Lord has listened to you.”

In short order, Hannah is pregnant and she eventually gives birth to her son, and names him Samuel, which means “God is exalted.”

Now, if this story were a movie, or a Netflix special, we all know what would happen next: The new mother would rejoice over her baby boy and they would live happily until it came time for her to make good on her promise and there would be some sort of epic show down because, you know, you’ve got to be careful about what you pray for.

But this isn’t a movie, and it’s not a day time soap opera, this is the Gospel of God. 

Hannah raises the child until he is able to eat solid food and then she drops him off at the house of the Lord at Shiloh forever.

Which is where our particular scripture today picks up. It’s in response to the gracious work of the Lord, and returning the child back to God, that Hannah can’t help herself from singing: “My hearts exults in the Lord! My strength is exulted in my God. There is not Holy One like the Lord, no one beside you; there is no Rock like our God!”

It’s a touching story. I know quite a few people for whom this is their favorite text in the entirety of the scripture. And it’s made all the more powerful by what happens next: The child Samuel sleeps in the temple at night and he hears the voice of God calling to him, “Samuel, Samuel.” And it’s this Samuel who will become the priest who anoints Saul king over Israel, and eventually David as well.

But we’ll save all of that for another sermon.

What we have today – a woman who begs and the Lord who responds, it’s one that calls us to consider another woman and her child, who we will be celebrating in just a few weeks.

And it calls us to consider how the strange new world of the Bible compels us to narrate our lives as part of God’s work with us. Week after week we return to this bewildering and wonderful text not just as a reprieve from the wider world, and not just because it’s got some exciting narratives, but we also do so because it is alive – it has something to say to us today about who we are and whose we are. 

Ultimately, one of the profound declarations from this whole book, and from this story in particular, is that we don’t belong to ourselves. Despite all the pontificating from the world about our rugged individualism, the Bible tells a very different tale: our lives never really belong to us. That’s what we dare to proclaim in each and every baptism; God has desires, choices, and efforts that help to make our lives into something God wants. 

Each of us are gifted. 

I’ve been here long enough already and have enjoyed enough conversations with most of you to know that is true. Each of you bring your own experiences and gifts and graces to our community of faith and we cannot be what we are without you.

That’s the real beauty of the church – it is filled with a bunch no good dirty rotten scoundrels, myself included, and yet God delights in using our gifts to be gifts for others.

Let me put it this way: Rarely does God give us gifts that are solely for our own personal benefit. God gives us gifts so that we might actually use them for the kingdom.

Priests, pastors, reverends, whatever you want to call them, they can be a lot of things, but more often than not they serve to help us see how God can use who we are for others.

Priests point out the power in people.

There’s this great German expression, “Eine gabe ist Eine aufgabe” – a gift is an assignment. I think that’s what’s at stake in our scripture today and, frankly, in the life of all those who follow Jesus.

Gifts are intimately connected with vocations. God has given us good work to do based on what good we can do. And it is through our calls that our future becomes intertwined with God’s future. Our lives count for, and mean, something as they are caught up in God’s loving purposes in the world.

God calls people. Scripture points to it over and over and over again. And our own experiences point to it as well.

Have you ever heard God call you by name? Honestly, I haven’t. At least, not the way that scripture often portrays it. And yet, as sure as I am standing here I know that God continues to call people. Even me.

I’ve never known a time outside the church. Baptized at nineteen days old – confirmed in the church as a tweenager – ran the sound system on Sundays – played in various bands for the church. All of the good churchy stuff.

And I loved church, but not in a way that I thought I would be doing this kind of church work for the rest of my life. However, one December when I was a teenager, one of my dearest friends died tragically in a car accident. And like countless times before I stood in the back of the sanctuary and ran the sound for the service. But afterward, when I gathered with my friends and we tried to take steps into a future without someone we loved, I found myself reaching out and comforting other with words that we not my own. That is, the language of the faith was pouring forth from me not because I wanted to, but because God wanted me to.

And so it came to pass one late December evening, I was walking along the sidewalk on Ft. Hunt Road in Alexandria, Virginia, and I felt pulled to my knees. And I prayed and I prayed and I prayed, and when I stood up I knew this was what I had to do with my life.

No parting of the clouds, no big booming voice, just a feeling. But it was enough.

God calls us to use our gifts to be gifts for others. Part of my vocation, part of my call, is helping others to see (or hear) how God is calling them. I point toward the cross in order to help us see how God might be nudging and pushing us in certain ways.

Sometimes it happens over a cup of coffee, or hearing a hymn, or sitting down in a Bible study, or even the proclamation from the pulpit. After all, God works in mysterious ways!

But sometimes, it’s hard to discern how God is calling us. The difficulty stems from the fact that we are bombarded by stimuli from every direction – we are a people overwhelmed. Things are changing constantly and we can barely keep up with all of it. And sometimes the priests in our lives make it even harder! 

Consider Eli with Hannah: he doubts her faithfulness and accuses her of being drunk! It pains me to know that those of my vocation have failed to fulfill our vocation, myself included! Even priests are sinners in need of grace! But when faith is at work, when the Spirit is moving and we have the ability to respond, miraculous things take place.

Or, to put it another way, no matter how wild the world might become, and no matter how poor our priests might be, there is one thing that hasn’t changed, and it never will – the power of God’s unconditional love and the call on our lives from the One who is Love.

We don’t always know what the future will hold. The only safe bet is that the future will include both joy and sadness. However, in Jesus Christ, the great high priest, whatever the future holds, we know who holds the future. God is with us not only today, but tomorrow as well.

We worship the God who calls. God calls us to live for more than just our own selfish desires, God calls us to reach out to the last, least, lost, little, God calls us to use our blessings to be blessings.

Hannah and Samuel’s stories are, in fact, the story of Israel. And Israel’s story is your story, and mine, and ours. It it the story of salvation that comes through another child, born to set us free.

So today, hear the Good News, hear the call of God upon you lives: 

“By grace you have been saved. This is no small declaration! You are not a little bit saved. You have been saved! Totally and for all times. Yes you! Look to the one on the cross! Look to the one who broke forth from the grave! By grace you have been saved!” Amen. 

An Understanding Mind

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 31.10-31, Psalm 1, James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, pronouns in Proverbs, misapplied texts, theological thinking, healthy happiness, the realm of wisdom, the possibility of peace, secret applications, the depths of dopamine, and the connection between humility and humiliation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Understanding Mind

The Temptation of Domestication

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Haley Husband about the readings for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 7.1-14a, Psalm 89.20-37, Ephesians 2.11-22, Mark 6.30-34, 53-56). Our conversation covers a range of topics including sabbath scriptures, God’s presence, corporate worship, confronting control, the faith that moves, profound peace, crazy covenants, Taize tales, Jesus’ friends, and compassion. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Temptation of Domestication