Expecting The Unexpected

1 Samuel 3.1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Words are important.

What we say often shapes what we believe and, perhaps even more importantly, it shapes how we behave.

Take the common words we all offer together after the scripture is read in worship: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. We say those words week after week, and if you’re like me, you don’t really think about what we’re saying.

But those words are really important, and they say a lot about what we think theologically.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him may not perish but have eternal life. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

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But what about those difficult text from the bible? What are we supposed to do, or say, or believe about the scriptures that make us uncomfortable? Should we be thankful for something that makes us squirm?

But Jael took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the tent peg through his skull, until it went down into the ground and he died. (Judges 4) The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission (Timothy 2). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

What are we communicating to young people, or those individuals who are new to the faith, when we say we are thankful for God’s Word when perhaps we’re not?

Additionally, words mean different things to different people based on a variety of different contexts. What you can say to one individual, and how it is received, is not the same as what you could say to someone else.

I have a long habit of adapting words to particular contexts and individuals. For instance, during vacation bible school, when dozens of young children are in our building, I’m not breaking out the bible stories about tent pegs being driven through skulls, or rules about genitalia, or verses about women’s subordination. Those kids, like the scriptural story today tells us, are like Samuel and they do not yet know the Lord.

Similarly, if I’m teaching a Sunday School class to seasoned Christians, I’m not going to just talk about how nice it is that God loves us. It’s true, but that kind of simple affirmation alone doesn’t challenge us to be any better than we were before we heard it.

The church is supposed to be a supple and open avenue to God’s ways in the world such that we can delight and rejoice when God moves outside of our expectations and reaches people where they are rather than assuming that they’ll figure it all out on their own.

That’s one of the reasons that we keep coming back to do this strange and wonderful thing we call worship. For Samuel it took God’s calling in the night three times, and the wisdom of a mentor, to help him know that God was encountering him. For some of us, it takes a lifetime of Sundays before we hear it.

Of all the stories in the bible, this one, this nighttime calling, might have the most ominous beginning: The Lord’s Word was rare at that time. This meant there were few prophets, decent sermons were all but gone, and the Lord seemed to be nothing more than an idea. And yet it is precisely at this time when the Word was rare that God intrudes and upends expectations.

When we have communion we, like many Christians, are invited to the table, we confess our sins, share signs of peace, and then share the bread and the cup together. While you all line up in the center aisle and make your way toward the altar, I will adapt the words I use as I offer the body of Christ. For some of you, well seasoned in your faith, I can say the words that have been said for centuries: “The body of Christ, given for you.” But for others, saying something like this only produces more questions, and so I will adapt the words, and instead I might say something like, “The gift of God for you” or “This is Jesus” or “God loves you.”

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A few months ago we had a fairly typical Sunday service, the sermon was around a B- quality, the hymns fit well with the theme of worship, and then we moved to the table. We said and did what we always do, and then we feasted. I offered the body of Christ to all who came forward and there was a young girl who I’d never seen before, and when I tore off the bread I said to her, “God loves you.” And then I kept serving everyone else.

When our service ended, the young girl’s mother shook my hand on her way out of church and then she said words I’ll never forget, “That’s the first time my daughter’s ever had communion. Thank you.”

And I couldn’t help but think, “What if that was the first time she ever heard that God loves her?”

Years from now I can imagine that girl graduating high school and entering college. Though fully endowed with a message of faith and love here in this place one Sunday, she never steps foot in a church after that day for one reason or another. High School is tough for her as she wrestles with her identity and wondering if life is about more than what she has experienced. The good grades never feel good enough, the friendships never feel close enough, and no matter what she tries it always seems like something is missing.

So without really knowing why, she applies to some university, and leaves home without looking back with the hope that this new chapter will be better than high school.

Sadly, it’s not. College life for her is filled with even more people, and she feels less and less connected. She falls through the cracks of campus life and spends far too much time alone in her dorm. She still believes that life must get better but she’s not seeing any indication of it. One night, however, her roommate invites her to a campus ministry service. She reluctantly attends, and is truly underwhelmed by the experience.

The music is okay, and the message is all about spreading the Gospel, whatever that means. She sits and listens attentively but she knows that she’ll never come back. But right before the service ends, the pastor brings out a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and starts talking about communion. Immediately, the girl is brought back to that morning when she walked down the aisle in this church when she heard a bearded man wearing a long black dress talking about communion. While her mind is flooded with memories from the past she makes her way up to the make-shift altar and stretches out her hands to receive the body and blood of Jesus while the pastors whispers just loud enough for her to hear: “God loves you.”

But, sadly, I can imagine that even after that profound moment of the past catching up with her future present, the knowledge of God’s love doesn’t stick. The girl continues through school and eventually meets her husband. They get married shortly after graduation, and move to a new city for work. Years pass, and even though all of the things on the outside look perfect – she has a few children, a steady job, and a home – she still feels like something is missing.

She tries to find fulfillment in her life: She joins young professional groups, she volunteers at the local soup kitchen when she has time, she even helps start a community garden. But nothing seems to fill the void she feels.

One day, however, a neighbor invites her and her family to the local United Methodist Church. She laughs while responding about how her mother dragged her to a UMC one Sunday morning when she was a kid but the neighbor is persistent and she eventually agrees to go to worship.

The woman sits with her family in church on Sunday morning. She stands when she is supposed to, sings when everyone else does, she even bows her head and mutters some version of a prayer under her breath. She listens to the sermon, but most of it feels lifeless and too repetitive. And then the pastor moves to the table and invites the congregation to partake in this beautiful and precious meal that Christ offers without price. The pastor says, “This table is the one true place we can find who we are and whose we are, because in the bread and cup we discover grace. We are living in a time when the Word of the Lord is rare – but at this table you can hear God calling, because here you find the God whose finding you.”

With tears welling up in here eyes, tears she cannot explain, the woman walks forward. She remembers that day long ago at Cokesbury UMC, she remembers the night in college when she walked up toward the altar. The emotional wave is almost overwhelming and as she stretches out her hands the pastor whispers just loud enough for her to hear, “God loves you.” And for the first time she believes it.

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One of the hardest things in the world to accept is the fact that God loves us. In our heart of hearts we, more than anyone else, know what we have done and what we have left undone. We see the mirrored reflection of our brokenness and we believe that we are unworthy of the love of God we so often hear about in church.

Sometimes, in fact most of the time, it takes more than a simple affirmation from the pulpit, it takes more than hearing it whispered during communion, it takes more than a bumper sticker or a billboard for the message to sink deep in every fiber of our being. We need to hear those words over and over and over again but they are true and remarkable and difficult.

When the Word of the Lord was rare during Eli and Samuel’s life, no one was expecting God to do something like call upon a young boy in the temple. The call completely disrupted his life not with peace, but with a call to disturb to the peace.

Why a kid? God does not call the equipped, God equips the called. God bypassed the expected and seasoned possibility of Eli, and went instead for the untrained and immature Samuel.

God does whatever God wants. But this story, this calling, is also about more than that. God loves upsetting our expectations.

God loves loving us, even when we do not love ourselves. Amen.

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Why We Do What We Do – Pray

Mark 10.46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

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The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary quickly, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings.

This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray. If you’ve ever left church with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you.

Today we will explore why we pray.

We’ve all been there before. We’re driving through the parking lot, maybe running a little bit late, and we cannot find a parking spot to save our lives. We search and search, we circle and circle, but nothing opens up and the more we look at the clock the more nervous and frustrated we become.

The man was driving through the grocery store parking lot with a list of items to purchase in his pocket and not a parking spot in sight. To complicate matters, the man’s wife is pregnant at home and he knows that the only thing that will make her happy is a jar of pickles, ice cream, and a bag of Doritos (all on his list). He had rushed out of the house with the hope of returning home with the necessary items as soon as possible, but the lot is full and he’s running out of time.

He decides its time to resort to the guy in the sky. Not the normal praying type, he’s not sure how to start. “Um… God, I’m not sure if you can hear me, but it’s me calling. I need your help. I don’t know how long I’ve been circling this lot, but I need a parking space. Maybe you don’t realize how getting this stuff for my wife will earn me some major brownie points. And I need those brownie points.”

He keeps driving around with no spots opening up, so he decides its time to step up his game: “God, I’ve been a good guy. I give to charity. I listen to others. I try not to swear. Can’t you just help me out this one time?”

Nothing. If the man was desperate before, now he’s starting to panic. He decides it’s time to make a deal. “Okay God, if you give me a parking space I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life. I will start tithing money to the church. I’ll even volunteer in the nursery…” When all of the sudden he rounds a corner to see a perfect spot open up just within his reach and decides to finish his prayer: “Forget it God, I found a spot on my own.”

In the story immediately preceding our scripture today James and John (the sons of Zebedee) want something from Jesus. To which Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” “We want to sit on your right and left in your glory!” They want power and prestige, and they want Jesus to give it to them. And what does Jesus say? “You do not know what you are asking for.”

Why-Pray

Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and the disciples were walking with a large crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth walking by, he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” However, the crowds were so large that Jesus was unable to hear Bartimaeus, and those closest to the blind man ordered him to be quiet. But Bartimaeus was no ordinary man so he continued to yell out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus immediately stood still and called the man forward.

The crowds who have just moments ago ordered the blind man to be quiet now begin to shower him with praise: “Take heart! Get up, he is calling you!” Bartimaeus jumped up from the road and threw off his cloak, his one possession of value, and makes his way to the Lord. Then Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asked the sons of Zebedee: “What do you want me to do for you.” But Bartimaeus’ prayer is completely different from the disciples and we can almost picture him kneeling before Jesus and saying, “My Lord, let me see again.

Why do we pray?

One answer, of course, is that we want God to do something for us. We cry out to God in the midst of suffering for healing, when we are lost we call out for direction, and when we are afraid we ask for peace. We need something from God so we ask for it through prayer.

Another reason to pray is to commune with God. These prayers are not based on receiving something in particular, but setting time apart to listen for the ways that God is speaking in the world. Instead of listing all of our needs and wants, we wait and tune into God’s frequency.

Yet, the majority of prayers come in the form of a need. Sadly, prayer is often our last resort when we can no longer bring order out of the chaos in life and we rely on a higher power to straighten out our mess.

How do we pray?

For centuries faithful disciples have experimented with ways to pray. Silence is always a good place to start. Finding a quiet space and time in our lives and just letting the worries of the world float away. Like Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak, we look for the ways we can rid ourselves of the baggage that clogs our ears and prevents us from listening.

Another form of prayer comes through the reading of small bits of scripture over and over. Like taking one of the psalms and slowly reading the words as our own prayers to God, letting the words of the past make manifest our needs in the present. We dive into the depth of God’s great Word and slowly begin to realize that God is still using scripture to shape us even today.

If all else fails, we can rely on the helpful acronym of PRAY for Prayer.

P – Praise

God, I praise you for all of your marvelous works in the world, and in particular the gift of you Son Jesus Christ.

R – Repent

Lord, I confess that I have not loved you with my whole heart and I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.

A – Ask

Father, give me the strength to be a better disciple and patience to accept the things I cannot change.

Y – Yield

God, even with my needs and wants, let your will be done in my life and here on earth. Amen.

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There are such a great number of ways to pray, that so long as we are doing what we do with intention, it can be a form of prayer. The greater question is not how do we pray, but are we praying for the right things?

On Wednesday night the youth gathered for The Circle. We went through the words of communion and feasted together, we checked in with each other and caught up about the comings and goings of the last week, and then we started to go through a few accountability questions. Someone pulled out the question “Who do I need to be praying for and why?” and the table responded in silence as we began to think about our responses. We listened as each person shared a particular need for someone else and it was obvious that our Adult volunteer was astounded by their maturity, and could not help himself from asking a new question: “Have any of you ever had your prayers answered? I’m not talking about praying for the Redskins to win, or to pass a test but a real and true prayer.”

It was truly a beautiful and holy moment as each of them shared a particular time when God had answered one of their prayers, a true prayer. Not prayers for a sports team, parking space, or academic grade, but for healing, patience, and purpose.

Bartimaeus is a model for discipleship. Instead of waiting for Jesus to just show up in his life, he calls out from the depth of his being for mercy. Instead of assuming that God will give him everything he needs without sacrifice, he quickly throws off the cloak of the past in order to embrace a new future. Instead of expecting a divine healing and a return the normalcy of life, he regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, he fervently prays for mercy, and the crowds catch a glimpse of God’s grace. This event is a miracle. Miracles are those things that bring people from the darkness into the light, not just for the blind man, but everyone gathered around Jesus. Miracles turn our attention to what really matters in this life.

The true power of the miracle rests with Bartimaeus’ prayer. He calls out to Jesus. He comes to Jesus. He prays his true prayer. He sees Jesus better than the disciples, and he was blind.

What are we praying for?

In each of your bulletins you will find an envelope with a blank piece of paper inside. In a few moments I will be encouraging each of us to take out that paper and write down a true prayer to God. It has been my experience that when I pray out loud I don’t take the necessary time to really contemplate what I am asking for. But if we slow down enough to write down our prayer, it might encourage us to pray like Bartimaeus.

Cash-Envelopes

So we will take time to pray to God in written form, and then we will place the paper in the envelope and seal it. Then I would like each of us to write our name and address on the front and place it in the offering plate later in the service. No one will see this prayer but you and God. But we will mail them back to you in a number of months.

God answers our prayers, sometimes in different ways than we can imagine. My hope is that we will all take the time to earnestly pray to God, and in the months ahead we will begin to have our eyes opened, just like Bartimaeus, to the ways the God is moving in our lives. Amen.