Benediction Online

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Is the word of the Lord rare in these days?

1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20) 
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 

If Samuel was like most small boys, he was probably quite wriggly and often got up and down during the night with dreams and worries and fanciful ideas. It’s not surprising that Eli didn’t immediately understand that it was God who was calling to him, especially since it was a time when “the word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

Visions don’t seem to be particularly widespread in our day either. And we aren’t especially used to God calling to us whatever the time of day or night. Perhaps like Eli our spiritual eyes and ears have grown dim. Yet all of us have in one way or another heard Jesus saying “follow me.” It may not have been very clear or obvious, and we may not be wholehearted in our response, but we would not be here today unless there had been something or in this case, someone, who called us here.

So the question is; how can we be more attuned to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and how do we discern what we are being called to?

The first step, as always, is willingness. Sometimes God breaks into our lives unexpectedly but since God never forces herself on us, on some level the soul must be willing first. Since we are made in God’s image we are free beings – our freedom is limited by the world in which we live, but we always have free will. God never coerces us. God never sends us off to darkest Africa totally against our will. If we want to hear God speaking to us then we need to be willing to hear and to listen.

The second step, is to be attentive to what we hear when we think we hear it. The voice of the Holy Spirit is nearly always quiet, whereas the voice of the culture or the voice of our own little ego is often loud. The voice of the Holy Spirit is always loving, and it is always maturely loving, which can on occasion be difficult to separate out from the roar of our own hopes and aspirations and desires. Sometimes we just have to take a risk, hoping that what we are hearing is the Spirit of God and not just our own imagining. As I go through my day whenever I have unscheduled time I try to hear how God is calling me to use it. Sometimes it seems that I get it right – other times I might go out of my way to call on someone only to find that they’re not home.

For some reason God never tells me to file my papers or tidy my desk.  This may be for the same reason that God doesn’t tell me what clothes to wear each day. I think God expects us to behave like sensible human beings without continually giving us clues or prompting us to do the right thing. Which isn’t to suggest that the Holy Spirit is not interested in the small details of our lives. As the psalm we read indicated, God is indeed very interested and knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, but I think that we don’t need to sweat the small stuff.

If we get up every morning and ask God to show us today how best we can serve; if we live our lives in a constant attitude of willingness to serve, then we will be guided and prompted and just going about the regular activities of everyday life we will be used by the Spirit to further God’s reign.

The third step in discernment is to check our intuition and inklings with trusted people. Sometimes I get a brilliant idea about something we could do here at St Ben’s. If the idea sticks around in my mind, I check it out with other people – especially those whom I think might be interested or might be involved. Sometimes I get a positive response, sometimes I don’t, sometimes the idea gets modified and improved. None of us comes to God alone – we are all deeply connected - and so thoughtful and prayerful input from other people is often very helpful. Even if we disagree with it, it helps to deepen our own thought process and to refine our ability to listen.

Sometimes it seems as though the Holy Spirit takes us in one direction and then suddenly brings us up short. 
We have faithfully discerned God’s will to the best of our ability, we have followed all the steps and then wham, the door closes in front of us. It happened to me recently when it suddenly became very obvious that as President of Integrity, the national organization for lesbian, gay and transgender people, I could no longer work with the Executive Director. The relationship between us had completely broken down. Yet I had thought it was God’s will for me to be in that position, and in many ways I enjoyed it. It was a painful time but I was greatly helped by the Methodist covenant prayer which I have shared with you before, with its amazing declaration of surrender:
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you.

When we can live with that degree of willingness to participate in God’s mission rather than our own, then discernment takes on a whole different dimension, becoming part of our regular rhythm, just like breathing.

As a young adult, I was deeply concerned about God’s will for my life – thinking of it in terms of further education and career. When someone told me “God’s will for your life is in the Bible,” it puzzled me to no end. The Bible contains very few career choices for women.

Pondering it years later, I realized that in a way she was right. But “God’s will” meant something totally different for each of us. I was asking “What is God calling me to do with the 50 plus years ahead of me?” She was answering, “Who is God calling you to be?”

There is no question who God is calling us to be. God is calling us to be Christ-like men and women, filled with the Holy Spirit and living lives of simplicity, service and spiritual discipline, just like Jesus, and yes you can find all that in the Bible. The question “What would Jesus do?” is both profound and silly. It is silly because there is no way to know which model car Jesus would drive or what career he would follow or whether he would be vegetarian. It is profound, because it calls us back to Gospel values. “What would Jesus do in this situation?” is also a way of saying, “what is the most loving thing to do now?” or “What is God calling me to?”

But in the moment we are often too busy reacting to be able to even ask the questions. And that is where spiritual practice comes in. Learning to sit in silence, allowing your thoughts to pass without getting involved with them, is a difficult task but one which then allows you a little space between an event and your reaction. A little space which is enough for you to hear God calling you to respond in a different way. A little space in which you can ask “what would Jesus do?”

And as each one of us opens up more and more to the Spirit of God, asking for guidance, asking to be used in furthering the reign of God, right here where we live, right here in the midst of the humdrum activities of living, right here in the stress of the 21st Century; I believe that “The word of the LORD will become normal in our days; visions will be widespread and we may even “see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending” upon the children of God.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The First Baby Shower

It’s been called the first baby shower.

Wise men from the east come looking for the baby whose birth they have seen foretold in the stars and, although they at first make the understandable but not very wise mistake of looking for him at the palace, they soon find him in Bethlehem and give him gifts.

You may notice that although there are three gifts, the Bible does not tell us that there were three magi – there could have been two or four or a whole crowd.  Neither does it tell us that they came by camel. All it says is that they came from the East having followed a star and when they went to Herod’s palace they were told that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem and so that’s where they went next.  It was almost certainly a while after Jesus was born and probably Joseph and Mary had found somewhere a little more comfortable to stay by this time. So they didn’t go to the stable – the Bible just tells us that the star “stopped over the place where the child was.”

When the wise men found Jesus they gave him gifts and paid him homage. This rather odd phrase meant that they made a formal public statement of their allegiance to their feudal lord. In other words these travelers from another country – presumably Gentiles since they don’t know the prophecy – saw in Jesus their lord.

Their story is in many ways our story. We were each drawn by a star or a light or a glimmer of something. It may have seemed like a powerful comet or it may just have seemed like co-incidence – but each person sitting here today was drawn by something to approach the presence of God. It was a journey. And not an easy one following that light, that glimmering. As T.S. Elliot says in his well-known poem, “The Journey of the Magi”
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

“A hard time we had of it.” The journey from following our own ego to following Jesus and seeking God’s presence is never easy and yet it has a special grace because we are drawn ever forward by that light.

In fact the big difference between our journey and that of the Magi is that they arrived at the place where the child was. They saw the infant Jesus in a particular time and a particular place. For us, the star never stops moving. We have glimpses. We have epiphanies, God moments when Spirit is suddenly present in our lives. When we gather together in worship or when we stand in awe of the ocean or a beautiful sunset we may feel then the presence of the all-compassionate God but so often, as soon as we notice, the moment has passed. The star has moved and we can only follow in hope.

We bring our gifts but we don’t get to open our treasure chests and give tangible things to a visible child. Our task is perhaps much harder. We get to give our gifts, often intangible though none the less real, to the Christ in other people. Not for us, paying homage to a visible incarnate lord, however young. Our homage is due to one who moves in our lives like the wind, never staying still and whom we are asked to see in others; and not just the others whom we like the most but those who are different and those against whom we are prejudiced.

Our baby shower doesn’t have a clear beginning and a clear end. Because we are asked to shower our gifts on God in each other day after day after day.
The gifts in our treasure chests are not gold, frankincense and myrrh. We have each been given innumerable gifts by God and although these include our money and possessions they tend to be more intangible. Many of you have a gift of friendship- of being able to include new people into your life and helping them to know that they are loved; many of you have wonderful gifts of hospitality – of helping people feel at home and welcome; which often includes cooking great food, and we certainly have some wonderful chefs among us; some of you have a great ability to bring order and beauty; others have tremendous skill with color in paint or in fabric; while others weave with word, ideas and concepts. Some of you are skilled musicians or can sing a beautiful song to God and help others to be touched by music. I could go on… this church is full of talented people.

There are other gifts which are even more foundational, and as our bodies start to restrict our activities these become ever more important: love, joy, humor, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control - these are all gifts.

What is in your treasure chest? What are the gifts that God has given you to offer in his service to others? What are you bringing to Jesus’ ongoing baby shower?