A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Lent 4, March 10, 2002, dedicated to the excellent staff of First Church who seek to serve each day with love, devotion, joy, dedication, & concern for all whom God brings to us & always to the Glory of God!
(Part 5 of 7 in Sermon Series, "God's Word and Our Struggle to Respond")
I Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-41
Today I continue the series, "God's Word and Our Struggle to Respond." Today we meet Samuel and God; Jesus and the man born blind; and questions emerge about how and who God chooses for God's work and God's will. Again, I ask that you use your imagination in facing the truth of God's word and struggling through our response to such a word as this . . . Please pray with me. . .
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
I feel that I need to give share some background to our Hebrew scripture text this morning. There was a time in the history of Israel when a prophet ruled the nation. His name was Samuel, son of Elkanah and Hannah. Through most of his life, Samuel ruled as a prophet and a judge - making the rounds of cities where he would pass judgment on cases before him. He continued this pattern until his old age when he was approached by the men of Israel who requested a king.
Although angered and hurt by this request, and after warning people that a king would impose burdens upon them, Samuel nevertheless spoke to God and God chose Saul as the nation's first king. The transition from prophet to king was rocky, but eventually Samuel stepped aside, offering one final prophetic admonition to both his people and the new king to do what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord. For a while this went on. But, eventually Saul lost favor with God and Samuel condemned his leadership and prophesied that he would be removed from office. This is where I Samuel picks up the story...
The Israelite community is in deep crisis when the word of God comes to Samuel to go to Bethlehem and find a new king. The first king has failed miserably. Both God and Samuel have acknowledged their huge mistake in choosing Saul. But God is ready to move on. God speaks abruptly to Samuel in vs. 1. He says, "I have rejected Saul..." The Lord feels no commitment to leadership or power that is bankrupt and has failed. God can obviously abandon what doesn't work!
God has looked around and found a new king. So, God tells Samuel to get the anointing oil, pack up and go claim him for the Lord. But, Samuel is afraid. He knows that doing this is dangerous. If Saul finds out, he will kill Samuel. God sets up some protections for his old prophet, but it is clear that Yahweh is completely ready to instigate a palace coup. The Holy One of Israel is obviously more prepared for revolutionary activity than is Samuel.
Samuel undertakes this dangerous mission of newness with a heifer in hand as a sacrificial decoy and lots of personal fear and reluctance. In the tiny town of Bethlehem, from the smallest tribe of Judah, who would ever image that a king could be found? Never underestimate the power of God! Samuel goes to the house of Jesse. In a scene that is reminiscent of the Miss America contest, each son of Jesse parades down the runway in front of Samuel. While the sons are all reviewed, God and Samuel carry on a conversation in whispers about each candidate. Although they are all good looking, fit and strong, God is going for different quality this time. Saul was a good-looking king and that didn't work out! God is looking for a leader with "a heart" of loyalty and compassion. After all seven sons have done their review before the prophet, Samuel gets to feeling that all is naught. But, there is one more - the baby of the family, a little boy named David. He is out in the fields tending the sheep. Samuel says, "Fetch him!" As he walks in, Yahweh whispers one last time in the ear of his prophet. This time he says, "This is the one." God chooses one who is a shepherd, a poet and a musician to lead the people. He is not powerful. He is humble of heart. He is youngest and least among his own household, not to mention the tribes of Israel. Is he to lead the nation? David?
It will take time before David will ascend to the throne. Battles with giants, being hunted by a king whom he loves and follows, and many other challenges await this shepherd boy who will become a warrior-king. And before he ascends the throne, Samuel will die.
God chooses whom God chooses. I believe the call to ministry and leadership often falls to unlikely candidates. Sometimes you never know what God plans for your life, even while others are sure. I know as a young man I wanted to be a lawyer. I went to college as a pre law candidate. I actually wanted to be an environmental lawyer. I spent most of my time in college working in electoral politics and studying history and political science. My heart and mind were wrapped up in law and studying our great American constitution.
In the summer of 1979, in my 21st year of life, I decided to work in St. Louis' north side housing projects. The whole summer was an amazing, life changing experience. While riding on a school bus my last day on the job, an eight-year-old child anointed me with a challenge to return to his city, to work among the poor, to minister where few white people or middle-class people of any color would ever take a step. All he said was: "It was nice to know you. Have a nice life. I know you won't be back because white people never come back here."
In that moment, my career as a lawyer went out the school bus window. I made a promise to return. The next summer I returned to St. Louis, and the call of God in Jesus Christ to serve the city has never left my heart and mind. That child, whose name I do not even remember now, was my Samuel. He anointed me. Everyone else has merely confirmed what God spoke through him.
What is God calling you to do and be? In the words of John 21, is God calling you to places where you would rather not go? Is there a still small voice working on you to serve in ways you never imagined possible and in places you never thought about before? Are you being called from the fields of your labor to serve God in new and uncomfortable places? Or has it happened and you find yourself delighted to be in God's service?
Now I realize how you face is this call is difficult. After all, most of you are not 21 and at the beginning of your faith walk. But, I also believe in all times, in all place, and in all circumstances of life, God is at work in strange and mysterious ways through people and on avenues you might consider strange and mysterious, too. Today, I ask you to be aware and responsive to God's Word. Pay attention because - Truthfully - our God is more prepared for revolutionary activity than we are.
Reflections on John 9
Time does not allow me to deal completely with one of my favorite texts of scripture - the story of Jesus' healing the man born blind. But, let me take a quick stab at this incredible story of God's word given to us through Christ Jesus!
This is a story about two supposed sinners and ultimately, two heretics. One is Jesus and the other has no name - just a man born blind. The man is considered a sinner because he was born blind, which in his day was a sure sign of God's judgment. Jesus is deemed a sinner because he breaks one of the ten commandments by healing the man on the Sabbath. Jesus rubs mud on the man's eyes and sends him to the pool of Siloam to wash his eyes. When he opens his eyes, the healer is gone and the man's journey through the scriptural absurd begins. An investigation ensues. The questions come fast and furious, as though the man has committed a crime worthy of death (which actually is the case under Judaic law). "How were your eyes opened? Where is the man who did this? How could he do this? What did he do to you? What do you say about him since he has opened your eyes?" No one says "alleluia!" No one says, "Thanks be to God!" Not one soul asks him what it feels like to see for the first time in his life? No one asks, if the light hurts his eyes. No one offers to direct him to go and see the sights he has missed his whole life long! It's just a barrage of "How?" "Where?" "Who?" and "What?"
To have this happen, everyone assumes the worst about the man and his unsavory situation. Imagine, he was blind and now he can see! How terrible! At first his answers are timid and simple. Finally, as he gains strength in the face of the assault, he speaks in a way that makes clear he is a heretic in the eyes of the congregation: "Here is the amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes! We know that God does not listen to sinners, but God does listen to those who worship and obey his will! Never since the world began has it been heard that a man born blind has his eyes opened! Never! If this man were not from God, he could do nothing!" (A paraphrase of John 9:33ff).
That is it. The man has turned from sinner to heretic. He has dared to challenge the congregational leaders and the church council! They will not let this challenge go unresponded to. They drive him out of their presence and out of the congregation. The man's parents and neighbors are no doubt embarrassed and shaken by his excommunication. But another sinner and heretic hears about it and returns to his side. The face is new, but there is something about that voice! They begin a conversation about what just happened. In the course of the conversation, focus comes to the man - this is the one who healed him!
One heretic confesses to the other. He proclaims his faith in him. This happens outside the bounds of religious institutions. Away from the churches and synagogues, with no clerical presence approving the words confessed and forgiven, our God is present! And we learn a lot about God's word and our struggle to respond.
We need to remember that a lot of astounding and miraculous things happen in this world that may or may not have anything to do with the power of God. They may only have to do with the power of human imagination, the power of positive thought and suggestions. But, what if something is not God and I believe it? (Questions are drawn from Barbara Brown Taylor's Home By Another Way, p. 77).
Well, the answer is simple. I will get into trouble. This wrong belief will, in pharisaical terms, upset God and place my soul at risk. I will become a heretic. But, according to John 9, there is something worse than wrong belief, and that is wrong disbelief.
What if something is God and I don't believe it!? That's a question the pharisees forgot to ask. What if God, in fact, works on the Sabbath? What if God has other spokespeople than Moses? Or Jesus? What if God did not create the man born blind as a judgment on him or his parents? What if God works in and through sinners to teach us all a truth beyond our imagining? All of these questions lead to wrong belief!
If you and I are truly going to get the word of God, we need to allow it to speak to us outside the boxes we create about it! Whether we are liberal, moderate, or conservative in our belief structures, we need to allow God to say and do amazing things which don't fit into our limited imagination or belief structures! We need to listen to the truth. A man was born blind. He was healed. He couldn't see at one point, and then at another point he could!
I don't know what questions the man was asking as Jesus was rubbing mud on his eyes. Quite frankly, I don't care. But, all of us know what he said after his eyes were opened after a lifetime of blindness: "I don't know whether he is a sinner. I know one thing. I was blind, now I see." Thanks be to God when we can respond to the acts and presence of God with such simplicity and clarity. Thanks be to God when we can name the realities of our lives for what they are! And then, move on in a new way. Amen.
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