Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Connecting with God

1 Sam. 3:1-10
1 Cor. 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Today we have three passages that all talk about recognizing or hearing God in different ways.  In the 1st Samuel passage, Samuel is learning to recognize the voice of God when it calls him.  It takes him time and the words of his mentor/teacher to realize that the voice that is calling him is coming from God, but he does eventually learn to hear and recognize God’s voice.  In the John passage Nathanael is challenged to recognize Jesus as the Messiah or Emmanuel, God with us.  Nathanael recognizes Jesus because Jesus can tell Nathanael what he was doing when Jesus wasn’t there.  The Corinthians’ passage is perhaps the hardest to understand.  But even there the Corinthians are being challenged to recognize where God is in our actions, in our behavior: what is Godly behavior.  The Corinthians had been arguing over the necessity of obeying Jewish law, Biblical law: whether or not they needed to be circumcised, whether or not they needed to follow the food laws that are outlined in books such as Deuteronomy.  And Paul basically told them that no, they did not need to follow these laws.  Their faith in Christ gave them freedom from Law for the sake of law.  But, he added, out of their love for God, they were stilled called to do what was right – or in other words what showed love to God, neighbor and self.  And while we might argue about how to do that, as obviously the early Christians were, hence the argument between Paul and the Corinthians, the message is important.  We are called to discern what is most loving to God, self and other, and we are called to do our best to behave in ways that express that care for all three.
These three passages, then, represent three challenges that are really part of the same.  The challenge to recognize what is Godly behavior, the challenge to recognize the Godly person and the challenge to recognize the voice of God when it speaks.  In today’s world some might say that these challenges are easy – we know that Jesus is the Godly person, we hear the voice of God in scripture, and the Biblical instructions help us to know what is Godly behavior.  But in other ways, I think that all three of these remain very challenging.  How do we hear God’s voice in the world around us?  How do we discern it from the voices of so many others around us?  How do we see who is leading us in God’s path and who might be pushing us into a path that may not be what God calls us to?  And there are times when it is not clear what is the most loving path to take.  Also, and what is harder, there are times when we have to choose between what is most loving to one person over another person or even what is most loving to others vs ourselves.  Those challenges confront us regularly, and can make living a Godly life very difficult.
Sr. Joan Chittister told this story: once, the ancients say, a seeker asked a group of disciples: "Does your God work miracles?" And they replied, "It depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of people. We say that a miracle is when people do the will of God."  If discerning the will of God were easy, this parable would not make sense.  But it does.  It rings true to us because living the life that God calls us to live is a miracle, and part of the reason it is so hard is that discerning the voice, the will, and the presence of God can be a real challenge.
I have heard it said that life can be understood by looking backwards but must be lived going forward.  How do we do that, how do we live life going forward when we can really only see where God’s hand guides us by looking back on our lives?
A while ago for Film and Faith night we watched the movie, “The Help”.   In it, an African American maid named Abileen in Jackson Mississippi in 1962 is asked by a white woman to help her write a book about the experiences of black maids working for white women in the South.  Abileen knows how dangerous it would be to tell her story – that she would be risking everything, including her very life, to share her experiences.  She refuses, therefore, to do so.  But then she goes to church, as she always does, one Sunday when the preacher is talking about the call to be brave.  And he says, “Courage isn’t just about being brave.  It’s about overcoming fear and daring to do what is right for your fellow humans.  It’s about being willing to speak the truth.” As Abileen sits there and listens, she hears God’s voice calling her to do what she knows to be risky, but what she hopes will begin to make some changes as people come to understand her experience and the experiences of other African Americans in the South during the 60s.
In early 2013 the Pope resigned.  The last time that had happened had been in 1415.  He read from a statement that said, “Both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.  For this reason and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, entrusted to me by the cardinals on 19 April 2005.”  It takes a strong person to give up power, to acknowledge ones limits.  It took incredible strength to recognize his time was over.  It took courage.
I found myself reflecting on a poem written by Ken Untener, later bishop of Saginaw, called, “Prophets of a Future that is not our own.”  Sometimes attributed to Archbishop Romero.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. 
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete:
            which is another way of saying
            that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that should be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
 No set of goals or objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted,
            knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
            far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
            and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
            a step along the way, an opportunity for
            God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
            but that is the difference between the master builder
            and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
            ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.
Once again I believe that through prayer, through gathering together in worship, through time with God, through building our relationships with God, but also by weighing everything against the central call and message of Christ – to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves  – that is how we learn to hear God’s voice when it speaks to us.  In that relationship to God, we learn to recognize God’s presence and God’s call for us.  Samuel was just a boy at the time that God first called him.  But through his mentor and teacher, Eli, Samuel began to learn to discern when it was God’s voice calling him.  Nathanael began as a doubter, but when confronted by the Jesus who looked into his eyes and knew him, he believed.  The Corinthians came to know the will of God through conversations, and sometimes arguments, with other Christians.  We come to hear, to see, to recognize God’s voice, God in our midst, God’s call for our lives by spending time with God.  When our hearts are open, God does come in. When our minds are open, sometimes we are given the grace to hear the call, to recognize the voice, and to see God in our midst.