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“Speak, Your Servant is Listening”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20

 

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O LORD, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them — they are more than the sand;
I come to the end — I am still with you.

 

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

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.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

This story of Samuel hearing God calling to him repeatedly and Samuel’s not knowing who is calling him has fascinated my imagination.  It is one of the few stories centered around a child or youth.  And so it made listening to God something a child could do.  I suppose it always gave me hope that God could speak to me also.  I just needed to be listening and receptive.

I hope that any youth listening will take note of this:  God is reaching out to YOU, speaking to You!  Believe it!

 

But today I read the scripture with new eyes, noticing things I’d never before noticed.

Did you realize that while Eli slept in his own room in the temple, Samuel slept in the innermost sanctuary where the arc of the covenant was housed?  Perhaps Eli did this as well from time to time.  They may have rotated, or perhaps this was a task given over to Samuel, once Samuel grew old enough to be responsible for protecting the arc & light of God during the night.

Scholars note that just enough oil would be put into the lamp of that room – as to last the night.  So the indication that the light hadn’t yet gone out, implies the time to have been early morning, just before the light would have gone out naturally.  They point out that since Eli was of poor sight, Samuel may have been used to listening for Eli – to assist him, as he had need, tending to him during the night when needed.  But on this night, though Samuel swears Eli is calling him, he finally learns that it is the Lord who has come there to be with him, calling his name.  And Eli, suspecting it to be God, instructed Samuel to respond saying, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening,” and so Samuel does.

 

At this, Samuel is given an earful about how Eli’s house will be punished, their sins not forgiven.

Samuel doesn’t want to tell Eli a thing.  But Eli implores him saying, May God do to you the same or more if you do not tell me.  And so Samuel is coaxed into speaking the Word of the Lord in full – that condemning word concerning the fate of Eli’s family.  And to this grave Word, Eli replies, “It is the Lord; let Him do as He sees best.”

 

And so this is the way Samuel first hears God speak to him.

 

Several weeks ago, we discussed whether or not we wished to hear God speaking to each of us.  Simeon & Anna were two who had heard the Word of God, God’s promises spoken to them!  And they wait and watch and endure LONG – for God’s Word to be fulfilled in their lifetimes.

Here we have Samuel, but a child.  He wears a linen loin-cloth and a little robe that his mother makes and brings to him each year.  Scripture tells us that Samuel has been ministering to the Lord under Eli.  Samuel is growing in stature and in favor with God and people.  But still he does not know God, and God’s Word had yet to be revealed to him.  So this experience takes him quite off guard, especially as the Word of God was rare in those days and visions were not widespread.

 

I can relate to this.  Culturally we place very little faith in visions and words allegedly from God.  We tend to think someone crazy or over-inflated if they claim to have gotten a word from God or seen a vision from God.  Do we not?

This is most unfortunate for we see God doing both things here.  And our God is moving and speaking still…

But because it’s not something we’re well versed in discerning or recognizing or imagining, we aren’t attuned to listening for God to reveal Godself in such ways.  And such was the case with Samuel, who – not even yet an adult – is hearing someone call his name and struggling to piece together what is actually going on!

We are akin to Samuel in this way, in many of our inexperience with listening for God, in today’s world and our daily lives.

 

Finally, I am struck by the finishing words of this story:

19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

I find this phrase, Samuel “let none of [God’s] words fall to the ground,” to be most inspiring.

 

What we do with God’s Word is of utmost importance.
What do you think it means to not let God’s Word fall to the ground?
Might it be similar to the defilement of letting a national flag touch the ground?
Or perhaps is it obedience?
Does this mean that Samuel both spoke and did whatever God spoke and asked of him?

Scholars convey here that in Israelite culture, one’s word was almost a concrete expression of character.  Words could be active or idle.  But God’s Word is active; God speaks and it is done.  So the meaning believed to be communicated by this phrase, “Let none of God’s words fall to the ground” is that whatever Samuel said, came true.

Samuel’s words were his action.  And his words came from God – faithful each one.  Such that from the northernmost sanctuary to the southernmost sanctuary of the nation, Samuel became renowned as a trustworthy prophet of God.  And this must have been significant, given the realities that God’s Word was rare in those days.

 

Samuel was blessed to be born of a woman Hannah who KNEW this fervently-prayed-for gift of her first son Samuel was a gift undeserved by God, granted by God after.  In profound act of devotion and faithfulness, she pledges her firstborn male child to be God’s servant, a Nazarite, forever.  And when God grants her prayer, opening her womb, she remains faithful to God, following through with her promise.  Her WORD is her ACTION.

This is Samuel’s mother, and though he does not live with his mother long, he too grows in faithfulness – such that his WORD is his ACTION.  And God’s Word is Samuel’s word.  It would appear that Samuel learns some of this devotion from his mother.

Samuel also serves the Lord, ministering to God, day after day – before he understands it or knows God.  He is faithful in character, such that even in this state of separation from God, he is growing in the favor of God and of people.  He is a child of integrity and faithfulness.

When we meet Samuel, he is attending to the arc of the covenant of God, assisting Eli in his priestly and probably his personal duties.  Samuel grows in stature BY DOING good, by working faithfully, even without understanding.

And Samuel is ever-so-blessed to have a mentor in Eli.  For though Eli’s own boys are hardened in doing evil in God’s sight, Eli himself has been serving the Lord his life-long.  So when Samuel begins to hear God speak, Eli has the foresight to guide Samuel in surrendering himself to God, making himself open and attentive to God.

 

I believe that in this story of Samuel’s coming-of-age, if you will, we are given a picture of listening for God, of watching for God, of faithfulness even amid confusion, and of surrender to God’s will.

Listening for God’s voice to you and to me is perhaps not as far-fetched or as difficult as we have often been led to believe.  God has been revealing Godself to us through-out human history!  And sometimes it is indeed through visions, hearings, and visitations by angels.  Our Christmas story re-attests to this fact – as does the story of Christ’s baptism, in which a voice from heaven says, “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

 

God speaks.
God STILL speaks
to you
to me. 

God is speaking.
God is showing up.
God is telling us what we need to know,
when we need to know it.

 

So are we,
growing in faithfulness and devotion, day by day, even when our understanding is incomplete?
Are we
positioning ourselves in service to God and to others?
Are we
remaining in the presence of good teachers
who can help us grow in our open obedience
of listening,
responding, and
surrendering to God’s Word? 

 

Would that we be so faithful as Samuel,
such that many more might come to hear God’s voice,
and live devotedly:
proclaiming God’s Word
…in voice
and action. 

 

 

 

 

“Open, Empty, Humble”

Katherine Todd
John 9:24-41
Luke 1:26-38

John 9:24-41

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing 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 he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

 

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

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For nothing will be impossible with God.

The angel Gabriel comes to Mary, and tells her crazy, wonderful, wild, and impossible things.  Few encounters are so entirely world-altering as this news would be to Mary’s entire life.  She will give birth to a child, who will be great and will reign on the throne of David…forever.

None of this message could be true.

Could it?

She, a virgin, pregnant?  Giving birth?
The child, with God – quite literally – as his father??
This child a King?
…to reign on the throne of Israel?
…forever??

Mary is being asked to believe in impossible things.
Mary is being asked to trust, beyond the boundaries of her mind and all her life experience.

 

What we view as possible is changing all the time.

I remember thinking as a child that the next invention would be a phone where you can see people as you speak.  And voila!  We have that and soooo much more!

Had you told the apostle Paul that you could communicate with peoples on the other side of the world, in minutes, or that you could go there in a day, he would have thought you mad.  It was impossible.

Flying was impossible…until it wasn’t.
Talking across miles was impossible…until it wasn’t.
Broadcasting your video to the world was impossible…until it wasn’t.
Making a video was impossible……..until it wasn’t.

Who are WE to say what IS and ISN’T possible?!?

 

All we have are the boundaries of our own experience, the limits of our understanding, the borders of our imagination and vision.  Thus, every time we pass judgement, we are incorrect.  We simply cannot perceive all that is or can be.

So when GOD says something, we do well to listen. 
When GOD guides our steps, we do well to follow.
When God makes a promise,
speaks a word,
makes a move,
you can believe it.  You can count on it.  You can build your house on it; it is solid.

 

The difficulty then is in the hearing.  Do we believe God still speaks at all?  If so, do we believe we have the capacity to hear God?  And if we hear God, who might rightly interpret what we hear?

So many questions – all understandable, all legit.

And yet Mary, with the faith of a child, accepts this word of Gabriel as from God. 
Mary, with the faith of a child, believes what she cannot see or understand.
Mary, with the faith of a child, opens herself – her mind, her heart, her body, and her entire life – to the will of God.

 

Can you imagine?

Quite often it is precisely because we’re so grown up that we cannot believe.
Most often, we grow to trust our own experiences more.
We learn things and therefore think we see and understand.
And what does scripture say about those who think they can see?  That they in fact are blind.  But about those who know they are blind, they can see!

Whatever our training and education,
Whatever our degrees and certifications,
Whatever our history and experience,
Whatever our vision and foresight,
WE cannot grasp the Truth.  We cannot capture the Way.  We cannot contain Life.

We
do not have
the capacity
to
behold
God. 

 

Children know this.
They are open.
They are curious.
They are humble.

Mary knew this
as she suspended her own understanding and imagination and experience
in order to make room for GOD. 

And so it is that Mary makes room for Christ. 

 

It isn’t about her decorating a baby room, buying baby insurance, diapers, or formula.
She makes room for Christ
by humbling herself.

In humbling herself, Mary makes room for the possibility of Christ. 

 

It can be tempting to compare ourselves to one another and then think better of ourselves when we “come out on top.”  It can be easy to look at the evening news and think, “I’m glad I’m not a person like THAT.”  We are always better at something, relative to someone else.

And this can woo us into an inflated sense of ego.

We might look around us in church and think, “I come more often than so & so” or “If only so & so would do things my way” or “wow, look at that sin!”  But in this case too, we are seduced into thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.

Any measurements we take of ourselves should be relative to God.
Do we know what God knows?
Have we experienced what God has experienced?
Who among us has made what God has made?
Who among us sees what God can see?

And if we come out lacking, we have every reason to humble ourselves, to lift the veils of our egos, and make ourselves open like an empty glass.

Are we empty, like a dry and ready sponge, to make room for Christ?
Are we open, like a covid-time social calendar, to make room for Christ?
Are we ready, like well-aged wine, having soaked ourselves in the yeast that is Christ?

Do we accept the twists and turns, as the ocean accepts all rivers?
Do we hunger, like a baby bird waiting for its mother?
Do we trust, like a child – gleefully squealing as his father throws him high into the air, begging him to do it “Again!”

 

May we be as Mary – open, accepting, obedient, humble –
for this is how we ready ourselves.
In acknowledging that we cannot see,
God gives us eyes to see,
…eyes
to BEhold
and BEheld
by Jesus Christ, Emmanuel!

 

In these words of Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) let us quiet our hearts and minds, praying together.

I keep projecting my present condition onto the future.  If I feel dark, the future looks dark; if I feel bright, the future looks bright.  But who am I to know what life will be like for me tomorrow, next week, next year, or ten years from now?  Even more, who am I to know who you will be for me in the year ahead?  O Lord, I will not bind you with my own limited and limiting ideas and feelings.  You can do so many things with me, things that might seem totally impossible to me.  I want at least to remain open to the free movement of your Spirit in my life. …O Lord, let me remain free to let you come whenever and however you desire.  Amen.

 

 

PRAYERS                                                         [Hildegard of Bingen, Germany (1098-1179)]

Holy Spirit – giving life to all life, moving all creatures, root of all things, washing them clean, wiping out their mistakes, healing their wounds – you are our true life:  luminous, wonderful, awaking the heart from its ancient sleep.

[George Appleton, England (1902-1993)]

Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the deeps of my being.  Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts.  Take me down to the spring of life and tell me my nature and my name.  Give me freedom to grow, so that I may become that self, the seed of which you planted in me at my making.  Out of the deeps I cry to you, O God.

 

“The More, The Better”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 2:1-21
Numbers 11:24-30

 

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

 

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.


 

Just before this part in Moses’ story among the people of Israel journeying in the wilderness, the people have been complaining.  For though God has been supplying them with manna – simply forming on surfaces early in the morning – for which they had neither to plant nor reap, some among them are disgruntled as they recall how they ate in Egypt: the fish, leeks, garlic and chives,…and on an on and on.  They feel sick of manna and want a change.  They crave meat.

And this sends Moses into his own complaint to God.  He rants:

“Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors’? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”

 

Moses doesn’t hold back all!  This must be some trust – to be able to just throw his own tantrum on the floor, as it were, before God Almighty.  But God responds with compassion toward Moses and a measure of anger at the behaviors of those disgruntled and ungrateful among the people.

God tells Moses his will to have others among the people to also help carry the burden of the people.  Moses is to select 70 of the elders and officers over the people.  They are to gather with the Moses in the tent of meeting, and God will speak with Moses there, putting some of God’s spirit on the elders.

 

And so this is what Moses does.  He calls and gathers the elders and officers in the tent of meeting.  And when God’s spirit rests on the elders, they begin to prophesy.  This is the only time they prophesy.

But most surprising, two of those selected (but who do not make it to the tent of meeting) …they also began to prophesy…but in the camp, among the people.  And so, a messenger is sent to tell Moses of the goings-on in the camp – how the two are prophesying.  And before Moses could respond, Joshua, Son of Nun, is indignant on Moses’ behalf saying, “Stop them lord Moses!”

But to their surprise, Moses replies,

“Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

 

“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” …

What a blessed desire.

 

Moses does not want to hoard or control the Spirit of God.  If he has any controlling tendencies in his bones, the sheer emotional and physical exhaustion at bearing the weight of responsibility for all the people is flat wearing him out!  He yearns for more to carry the burden with him.  He yearns for others to also hear God, for others to also prophesy, for others to also speak truth, discern solutions, resolve dissent, and lead this wandering people.

And so God’s response of putting the Spirit on the elders is in direct response to Moses’ human desire and limitation.  Moses needs help!!

So when this young man runs to alert Moses to the two elders in the camp, who are prophesying too, Moses is not threatened at all.  He is elated.  He only wishes ALL the people would be filled with the Spirit of God!

 

And how poetic, that this is exactly what God does, as Jesus returns to heaven.  God sends the Spirit out upon all God’s children – children not by blood, natural birth, personal righteousness, or position, but God’s children because the undeserved grace and mercy, love and redemption of Jesus Christ.  We have only to receive this unbounded gift, that we might enter into the joy and freedom and salvation of our God.

God pours out the Spirit on ALL God’s people. 

 

I am struck by this story.  For one, in all my years growing up in church and studying scripture, I’d never before noticed this passage.

  • I love how Moses rants at God.  I relate.
  • Complaining, venting, and ranting are quite often looked down upon in our Christian culture.
  • I am filled with gratitude that God does not shame Moses but helps him.
  • I appreciate seeing how another servant of God reaches his own limitations. I also relate. Moses give us an example of asking for help.
  • And in God’s response we see compassion and understanding. It gives me hope that we too can ask for help…even through our rants.

I love Moses’ response when Joshua wishes to restrain the Spirit, in order to preserve Moses’ status within the community.  Joshua is concerned that this prophesying might endanger Moses’ respected position.  But Moses is not at all concerned with this political move.  He does not play the game.  He does not grasp to control or restrain the Spirit.  He doesn’t discredit the two men who begin prophesying outside of his purview.  Rather, he is concerned that the people hear truth, receive guidance, and walk in God’s ways.  The more true guides, the better.  The more workers for the harvest, the better.  The more who are led by the Spirit of God, the better.

 

Do you know how many generations of Christians have sought to restrain the Spirit of God?  Though we might not call it that, that is exactly what we have done.  We’ve attempted to define and control who is in and who is out, just as the earliest Jewish Christians did when some required that all Gentile believers be circumcised, refrain from eating meat, and observe all the holiness rituals.  It is what Jonah did when he refused to follow the Spirit of God and sailed in the opposite direction, rather than go and preach repentance to the people of Nineveh.  It is what Peter was tempted to do, when he was called by a Gentile family to come and preach the gospel among them.  It is what the church has done, when it has placed ritual upon doctrine upon confession upon giving – as a requirement for salvation – diminishing the gospel, making it conditional, and in fact, not very good news at all!

Even if you and I, per say, have not participated in these particular efforts to quench and control the movement of the Spirit of God, our own Christian culture, our ancestors who came before, and generation after generation of believer has been tempted in this same way.  And I suspect that when we are truly quieted and listening, we too will discover ways in which we have participated in efforts to limit the expansive love of God, and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.  For God is moving through-out the world, to seek out and save the lost.

 

Are we?

Are we listening?
Are we following?
Are we obedient?

 

Are there actions we have taken,
prejudices we’ve carried on,
things we have left undone,
words we have said or left unsaid
– even unbeknownst to us –
for which we need to ask forgiveness?

 

Will we set down our temptations to control?
Will we surrender our ego
and take on humility?

 

Will we take our cues from the movements of God by the working of the Holy Spirit, rather than expecting God to follow our strategic plans and secret desires?

 

“Would that ALL God’s people be prophets and that the Lord would put the Spirit onto them!” Moses imagines.

 

Thanks be to God!

For God has anointed you and anointed me!
God has put the Spirit into child and grandparent,…
Men and women and those non-binary,…
The powerful and the powerless,…
God has poured out God’s Spirit upon ALL flesh!

 

What wonder!  What goodness!  What honor!  What opportunity!

May we take this long-desired, unparalleled gift – this pouring out of the Spirit of God – and may we be about the work of our God:

Grateful to share in this gospel work,
Shining our light into the darkness,
Proclaiming freedom to those oppressed,
Doing justice, and thereby ushering in the Kingdom of our God, and
Announcing the mercy and grace of our God.

Thanks be to God! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“To Be Channels of God’s Goodness”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23

 

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.


 

Reading this passage from Acts about the apostles and early believers sharing everything they have in common, I am struck anew at how very, very counter-cultural this act is.  One could even say it is subversive.

We buy and sell.  We own and transfer ownership.  We own land.  We build and own property.  And back in Jesus’ day, even women, many servants, enslaved persons, and children were all considered property.  As capitalistic as we are today, there was an even bigger spectrum in Jesus’ day of what and who people thought could be bought and sold, owned, possessed.

Frankly the idea of a person owning another person causes a visceral response in my body.  I find it so very offensive.  Nonetheless, the culture and world to which Jesus came and gave his life saw ownership as a sign of wealth and power, much as we do today.

So when the disciples ask new believers to share everything freely with one another, to sell their possession and give to the poor, to hold nothing back – it is most certainly subversive.  It is a hard ask.  Can you imagine asking that of another person?

 

I cannot.

I truly delight in ownership.  I love owning a car.  I adore owning real estate.  I love the items that I’ve purchased or found and now call my own.  I love the memories.  I love the resourcefulness.  I love being prepared.

And yet the disciples learned a very different way of living from Jesus.  They travelled from place to place, without ownership, without provision, without knowing where their next shelter or meal would come from.  Sometimes they picked wheat and produce from the fields through which they wandered.  And sometimes Jesus asked them to feed people, when they themselves did not have anything on them to offer another.

But Jesus had shown them the power of this way of life.  They’d been challenged to wholly lean on God for their well-being.  When they split up to go and witness to the Kingdom of God in neighboring towns, Jesus had instructed them to go empty-handed.  They were to take nothing but the tunic on their backs.  And they were to rely, wholly, on the generosity of those they met.  Can you imagine?

 

Some in our culture know this way of life.

There are a few who also know not where their next meal will come from or where they will find shelter and rest.  There are some who travel without provision, wholly reliant on those around them to survive.  Many hustle in their own way – trying to sell goods or services to make a buck.  And others beg on street corners, traffic islands, and even grocery store parking lots.

We tend to look unfavorably on these folks.

They are not being responsible, we say.  They are mooching off the rest of us.  We are paying for their laziness, we feel.

We don’t know what to do when we see them.  Are they truly in need?  Are they a victim?  Are they victimizing me?  What will they use my gift for?  Will they use it for life-crushing substances?  Will they use it for food?  Will they use it wisely?

Our questions are left unanswered, as we each try to make up our own minds.  And this discomfort weighs on us, especially as we pass by those we choose not to help.  Are we doing the right thing??

 

And though these wanderers and sojourners differ in some ways from Jesus’ disciples, they also have enough similarity, that it behooves us to pay attention.

 

In America we have some exposure as well to a culture that did not believe in land ownership:  the Native Americans.  The earth and all its fullness is seen as a gift – not to be grasped, but to be received with gratitude and respect.  The earth and all its fullness is not for us to use and squander however we choose.  Rather, we are given its keeping for a little while, and it is our great and holy responsibility to keep it thriving for our children and our children’s children.

Frankly, this view of creation sounds far more in keeping with Christ’s manner of living than our own.  And sometimes, the manner of living of the homeless and wanderers among us, seems much more in keeping with Jesus’ manner of living.  Jesus was, after all, homeless.  He did not have money.  He was not beholden to the systems and powers that be.  He was not part of the economic engine, the machine.  So in this way, he was uniquely free, a freedom many of our homeless brothers and sisters have also known.

 

So where does this leave us?

I’d like to think that our society is just what Jesus would have designed, but I cannot imagine that is true.  I appreciate capitalism.  I love home and land ownership, but this is not what we see in Jesus’ own life, and as uncomfortable as it makes me, I believe you and I are responsible to God for how we life, be it for good or for ill.

So whether we own or use land, whether we own or use resources, whether we buy or borrow goods and services, we are responsible.  And our actions reflect, in some way, our levels of trust, in the good shepherd, with whom “I shall not want.”

 

We give lip service in the church to trusting God.  We give lip service to trusting God with our money, our goods, our lives.  But when it comes down to it, our actions most accurately reflect our trust. 

Do our gifts of money, answer God’s call on our finances?  Have we taken the time to be still and listen for God’s still, small voice speaking over what we possess?  Do we even dare open up ourselves to such a vulnerable position of listening??

How much treasure do we store up for ourselves?  When do we have enough?
How much toilet paper do we store up?  When do we “have enough?”
Isn’t it all relative?
Isn’t it all so easy to rationalize?

 

I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to any of this.  I dare not venture to prescribe how much you should own or give.  And I think God’s answers and invitations to each of us differ widely. 

 

And so, I invite you, to be still before our God, and to listen. 

 

What does God bring to mind?
Who does God bring to mind?
Is there someone in need nearby, whom you can help?
Do you have resources you’ve outgrown that would tremendously bless someone else?

This process is for you and you alone.   Each person, each family, each couple is responsible for how life is lived, what resources are used, what is shared, and whether or not we obeyed God’s private instruction in our lives.

 

The early believers shared all they had in common.  They sold what they had and gave it to the poor.  They shared, wherever there was need.

THIS my friends, is the Kindom of God.
THIS is the radical way of living Christ calls us to.

We are to place our trust in Christ alone, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

 

And I am moved to read this now, because so many of us have been acting more like this of late.  Food Lion issued 1,500 $20 gift cards for school children in impoverished neighborhoods in this community.  Jo-ann’s has been giving out mask-making supplies free to anyone who will make them.  Reservoir Distillery here in Richmond is giving away hand sanitizer every weekday – turning their tasting room into a distribution center.  Celebrities are paying rents for entire low-income neighborhoods.  One is even paying for virtual therapy.  Another has started his own boot-leg broadcast called, “SGN” – Some Good News, and he’s using it to spread stories of hope and courage to lift of the community.

You have made masks upon masks for one another.  You have labored long over financial records and payroll sheets – to find and solicit ways to continue employing those workers who have served in our midst for so very long.  You’ve written cards and letters to one another, especially our home-bound members and friends.  Money for projects and paychecks has been provided, mysteriously, anonymously.  You have rallied to put up and fill a new Little Pantry on our church grounds, to supply the community in this needful time.  When various ones among us have been in a bind, you have responded with help, in time.  When folks call our office asking help to pay a bill, you fund an account that pays portions of these bills.  When folks among us need a ride to appointments, you have shown up.

 

Just as the Israelites long ago were not blessed for themselves alone, WE are not blessed for ourselves alone.  We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world – to be CHANNELS of God’s goodness – of grace and love, abundance and provision, comfort and care.  We are called to shepherd one another, as our God has shepherded us – to love and comfort one another as our God has loved and comforted us.

We are blessed in order to BE a BLESSING. 

 

So as we prepare to leave this gathering,
I invite you,
to covenant
– with yourself and with God –
to set aside a holy moment,
this day,
to listen to your God.

Generous and merciful God,
how are you calling us to be faithful,
here and now,
in this time.
Speak, in ways we can hear.

And by your grace, may we most surely be, your faithful disciples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Holy Spirit Growing Pains”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 16:9-15
John 14:25-29

Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.  On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

John 14:25-29

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.


 

This story of the Apostles figuring out how to follow the risen Jesus, by the power of Jesus’ gift to them of the Holy Spirit – this is what fills the pages of the book of Acts.  Clumsily these apostles keep running into the borders and boundaries of God’s call on their lives.

They have been given this ultimate gift – to know the Lamb of God, Jesus – and to receive forgiveness of sins – what a gift!?!  The Spirit has been poured out on them, and they are all in, eager to share the good news with any who will hear, but they keep awkwardly hitting boundaries.  In the bit just before our passage today about Paul dreaming about a man in Macedonia begging him to come, Paul and Timothy try to go many places, but we read that the Holy Spirit limits them.  It says the Holy Spirit forbade them to go to Asia.  And then they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit would not allow them.

 

I wonder what this looked like.  How did they know it was the Holy Spirit?  We are not told if they both were given hunches or premonitions, we don’t know if they received visions forbidding them to go, or whether or not they deducted the Holy Spirit’s leading by which doors were opened to them and which doors were closed.  But I am very curious, because in our everyday lives, this is what we’re in the business of determining.

It is very easy to read these stories and to make a mental separation between what WAS and what IS.  It isn’t so very difficult to accept that the Holy Spirit led these two early disciples in spreading the Good News – after all, we are all here today because something they did worked!  We know about Jesus because of their good work and those who followed in their footsteps, generation after generation.

It can be another thing to believe that such things happen in our lives today.  So do you believe?  Do you believe that the Holy Spirit is still active and living in the world today, still speaking to our hearts today, still guiding our steps today, still interceding for us with sighs deeper than words today?

I certainly hope so!

 

It gets tricky because how can we be sure?  It isn’t a scientifically proven thing.  It isn’t black and white.  It isn’t something we can fully perceive or even begin to understand.

So in this modern world of facts and fiction, it can be hard to know when and if the Holy Spirit is active and moving.  How do we know?

Well, first off, as scripture says, “For now, we see through a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.”  In this world, we do not see with clarity and breadth.  We cannot.  And so when it comes to the Holy Spirit, we must approach with eyes of faith.  It is by eyes of faith that we believe and then see.

 

Nicole’s mom Bonnie, Jayne’s sister is a praying person.  When she heard about the needs of a young family in our congregation, she wanted to help.  She offered to buy the baby girl her first pair of shoes and a new dress for her first birthday.  So she spoke with the mother who measured the child’s feet, and Bonnie set out to buy a new pair of shoes.  She went to a shoe store and spoke with the clerk.  She told the clerk about this family and how the child had never before owned a pair of shoes but that she wanted to get the little girl her first pair.  The woman was moved by the Bonnie’s story and said, give me your number, I have several bags of little girl outfits AND shoes.  I want this little girl to have them.  When the clerk dropped off the bag to Bonnie, the clerk explained, ‘The day before I meet you in the store, I was cleaning out all these old clothes from my daughter and preparing to store them.  My daughter, 3 ½ years old, came in and said, “Mommy, there’s a little girl that needs those clothes.  Don’t put them away.” ‘

 

Bonnie was so moved by this.  It was so clear to her that God had spoken through this child.  It was clear to her that God loved this young family.  It was clear to her that the Holy Spirit had directed this mother and was directing her.

And this gift freed Bonnie to put her money toward caring for the rest of the family, the mom and dad.  And even as she shopped for the parents, she prayed and paid attention.  Even the sales seemed so appropriately suited to the family, and Bonnie followed that trail – she followed the Holy Spirit.

 

How do we follow the Holy Spirit?

How do we understand when God says, “Don’t go there,” “Go here,” “Say this…,” “Don’t say that…”

I do believe that the Holy Spirit is still living and moving among us here and now.  I do believe that God is still speaking to us in ways that we uniquely can here.  Even now as I sit and write this sermon for you, I do not have a plan of what to say.  I’m not mapping things out.  No, I am praying and listening and following the trail.  If I am doing this well, it is because I am following the Holy Spirit as I serve in this way.

For the Spirit of God knows the deepest heart.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs deeper than words.  The Holy Spirit can use any means by which to guide and direct us.

And so, I believe the key is to listen, trust, and follow.

 

Will we ever KNOW FOR SURE that we are following the Spirit of God?  Probably not in this lifetime, but when in doubt, I have prayed to God saying, “Lord, I hear you, but is this what you’re really saying?  Please confirm it to me.”  And as I’ve kept my heart open, as I’ve stayed alert, listening, I have heard confirmation, God has given me clarity.

Sometimes this clarity has come over years and decades.  Sometimes it has come in days or even minutes, but our God loves us.  Our God is good.  Our God has given us this precious gift of the Holy Spirit SO THAT we might follow God well – SO THAT we might continue to do the work of Christ, in the power of God.

 

Only God knows what’s going on in our secret hearts.  Only God knows the questions we dare not speak.  Only God knows the feelings we dare not acknowledge.  Only God knows the path that leads us to fullness and quality of life!

 

And so may we take this good gift!

May we, like Paul, bump into the boundaries and borders of this gift – trying out wrong paths and being redirected until we hear and find our way.  Scripture says, ‘…Whether you turn to the right or the left you will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way.  Walk in it.” ‘  We don’t need to know the way head of time.  We just need to set out, to start, and to listen as we go.

May we, like Paul, be alert and listen to the many ways God speaks to us – be it in dreams, or visions, friends, or facebook, strangers, or little children.

GOD STILL SPEAKS.

 

May WE be a people who are open – open to the Spirit of God, living and active, working and moving, calling and inviting, opening and closing doors – that the love of Christ might spread abroad in hearts and minds, setting captives free, giving sight to the blind, proclaiming God’s favor.

It is for this, that we are called!