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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Devotional – Psalm 30.4

Devotional:

Psalm 30.4

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.

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How often are we really thankful for the people God has placed in our lives? Sadly, it usually takes a profound moment of loss or grief before we are able to recognize how fortunate we were to spend time with them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat with a family while planning a funeral when someone breaks down in tears as they begin to wrestle with how shaped they were by the person now dead. It is a frightening moment when we recognize how blessed we were to have them, and their loss leaves a gaping hole.

On Saturday night I received an email from my home church containing the news that a man by the name of Bud Walker had passed away. As my eyes read over the lines in the email it was impossible to not let my emotions get the better of me as I realized that one of the greatest men I’ve ever been privileged to call my friend is now gone.

I met Bud Walker on a Sunday morning when I was 13 years old. I was responding to a volunteer opportunity from the church bulletin about learning how to run the sound system for Sunday services and Bud was going to teach me how it worked. For a month he stood behind me and looked over my shoulder as I twisted nobs and raised levels so that the whole congregation could hear the choir and the pastors, and for that whole month I was terrified of messing up. And yet, even after I passed my training month, Bud continued to stand with me at the back of the church before and after worship just to talk. I learned about his life and his family, I heard stories from his youth, and I saw what it meant to be faithful. During those incredibly formative years of my youth, I learned about God from the sermons, but I learned what it meant to follow Jesus from Bud Walker.

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At the time, my experience of church was that the adults got to do their thing and the youth got to do their thing. We might all sit in the same sanctuary on Sunday mornings, but there was a clear divide between our activities. Bud never saw that divide. He was one of the first people who pushed me to pursue a calling to the ministry, and he always made me feel like I mattered. And now he’s gone.

Today I sing praises to our Lord for having placed Bud Walker in my life; I am a better person for having spent time with him. As we continue to take steps on the path that leads to following Jesus, let us not take for granted the people God has given to us. Let us find the time this week to reach out to the people who helped to shape us and, if they are no longer living on earth, let us sing praises for the time we had with them.

Devotional – 1 Corinthians 15.57

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 15.57

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Favorite Thanksgiving food? Mashed Potatoes (or as we call them in my family: Mashed-for-Taylors). Favorite Thanksgiving tradition? Getting together with a number of friends and family the day after thanksgiving for a giant kickball tournament (Kids vs. Adults, and I’m still young enough to be considered for the kid team!). Strange Thanksgiving memory? The year my grandmother kept praying for God to take care of the people in Siberia, when she really meant to say Syria, and none of us could figure out why she was so adamant with her prayers. Favorite Thanksgiving pastime? Standing outside with my Dad in the cold while he prepares to fry one of our turkeys.

I love Christmas and I love Easter, but Thanksgiving is equally wonderful in my opinion. There is just something so special about all the traditions coming into focus with incredible people on an annual basis. I look forward to this week with eager anticipation because I will get to see family for the first time in a long time, I will get to laugh with my sisters at the expense of our parents, and I will get to enjoy my mother’s incredible cooking.

Of all the Thanksgiving traditions, my favorite is the moment after the prayer, once we have finally sat down in our seats, when I have the privilege of inviting everyone to go around the table and share what they are most thankful for this year. At our house, tears are always inevitable. During the time of thankfulness I witness my cousins maturing to an age when they can truly appreciate some of the blessings in their life, I witness family members break down in the recognition of how wonderful their lives really are, and I witness friends and acquaintances truly become part of the family. Expressing our thankfulness at the table is, without a doubt, my favorite moment during the Thanksgiving experience because you get to share in God’s glory made manifest in the lives of those gathered together.

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Over the last few months we have had too many funerals at St. John’s. Too many times have I stood in the pulpit and proclaimed the life, death, and promised resurrection of someone in our community while friends and family wept in the pews. For every funeral I have used the words from Paul: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Even in the midst of horrendous suffering and loss we give thanks to God for the gift of those persons we have lost, we give thanks to God for His continual and abiding presence, and we give thanks to God for the great victory over death through Jesus Christ.

No matter who we are and no matter where we are, we have something to be thankful for this year. It might not be a new job, or a loving spouse. It might not be a lucrative career, or perfect children. But there is one thing that we can all be thankful for: the gift of God in Christ.

May God’s grace and presence be with all of you this week as we give thanks back to God for our blessings.