Listen Up!

“Listen Up!”

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (3:9) – January 17, 2021

            Have you ever been on the other end of a conversation over the phone or over a two-way radio or walkie-talkie, and had problems hearing the other person? Exactly that happened to me the other day. I was on the cell phone with a UCC pastor colleague, and we had a whole lot of muffle-muffle, crackle-crackle on the line. We could hardly hear one another – that is, until we hung up and reconnected with a new phone call.

             Our scripture reading today comes from 1 Samuel 3, and we can tell the boy Samuel wasn’t quite sure what – or who – he was listening to. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves!

            Let’s set the scene. Chapter 3 begins with the boy Samuel, who lives and serves in the Tabernacle, a special tent where the altar to the Lord God is housed. The elderly Eli is currently the high priest, except Eli had difficulty with his eyes and could not see much any longer.  I can relate to Eli, since several members of my extended family had or currently have problems with their eyes and vision. I wear very strong contact lenses myself, and I thank God that I live in a time and place where I can get corrective lenses to help me to see!

            This Bible reading mentions both seeing and hearing – two senses so important for people to navigate through life! Not that people cannot live, and live well, without these senses of eyes or ears, but in Bible times, people had real, acknowledged difficulty without them.

            I suspect that Samuel was a real helper for Eli, helping with the everyday duties of caring for the Tabernacle. Just so, the elderly Eli had problems seeing. Verse 1 of our reading makes a fascinating editorial comment: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” In those days, rare was the person who heard from or saw God: an uncertain, precarious time, indeed.

Certainly, a person might think serving in the Tabernacle – or Temple, or church – would give someone a pipeline to God! But, maybe not.  

Samuel helped Eli on a regular basis, and slept in the same part of the Tabernacle where the ark of the Covenant was kept. In this narrative, the Lord speaks to Samuel in an audible voice. That means, a voice just the same as yours and mine. Or, perhaps a bit more special. Think of voices like James Earl Jones, or Charlton Heston, or Morgan Freeman.

We hear about Samuel running through the dark Tabernacle to wake Eli, saying, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down. Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Perhaps Samuel did not understand the voice. Perhaps he hadn’t quite tuned in. Maybe there was some static, or maybe the voice was muffled at first. Let’s listen to what happens next: “A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” Samuel got up, went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Does a special voice get your attention? Or, can your attention wander? Once your attention is captured, is the message conveyed by that special voice easily received?  

            As commentator Carolyn Brown mentions, “God speaks in other ways, too.  Sometimes we read something in the Bible and know it is meant for us.  Sometimes when we are scared or sad, we feel God very close to us helping us be brave.  Sometimes when we are outside, we see something God has made and feel God loving us.  Sometimes we have a feeling deep inside that God wants us to do something to take care of another person.” [1]  The Lord can communicate in a great variety of ways! God’s word and God’s instructions come to a great variety of people, too. And, not just to “religious people,” either!

            God’s words and instructions come to people for their own encouragement, sometimes. But, God can also mean for us to take action. Sure, we ought to listen up! It is truly an awesome thing to hear from the Lord. Plus, God sometimes wants us to go – do – speak – take action!

            Two days ago was the 91st birthday anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. January 15, 1929. This day has been declared a Federal holiday, and also been commemorated as a national day of service. This day “is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities. This day of service helps to empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, address social problems, and move us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a ‘Beloved Community.’” [2]

            This vision, this phrase “Beloved Community” is a great part of the United Church of Christ’s vision for our world, as well. Just as the Lord called Samuel to act and to speak, just as God calls many people to go, to do, to speak for God, perhaps God is calling you to step out for others? As Americans, as believers in God, we are all encouraged to serve others on this day. This day, and every day.

            Listen up! Listen to God, and see where God would have you serve today.

And, serve with joy and love in your heart as you do your part to bring about the “Beloved Community” of God. Alleluia, amen!


[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2011/12/year-b-2nd-sunday-after-epiphany-2nd.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 2B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2012.

[2] https://americorps.gov/newsroom/events/mlk-day

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Do Not Be Afraid!”

“Do Not Be Afraid!”

Rembrandt, sketch of the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel

Luke 1:26-38 (1:30) – November 29, 2020

            This week, we read one of the most familiar of the narratives in the New Testament. From the first chapter of Luke:  “In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

            Imagine yourself as Mary, a teenage girl. Perhaps doing housework, cooking in the kitchen, or folding laundry. When, out of nowhere, an angel appears. Out of the clear blue sky, something completely supernatural happens! She is wondering at the angel’s words. What kind of a greeting is this, anyway? Here she was, probably in the middle of an ordinary day, with the angel Gabriel paying a surprise visit to her!

            I would like to compare Mary’s surprise situation to many people, in the current day. Specifically, to my friend, several years ago. Out of the clear blue sky, she found out that she needed surgery. Before the beginning of October, she was traveling along, blithely, no serious cares or concerns. After the first week in October? Her life was turned upside down, with a serious medical situation, followed by major surgery.

            How often does something like that happen? Perhaps not a medical emergency in your life, or a loved one’s life, but some other situation out of a clear blue sky.

            But let’s return to Mary. Or, more directly, to the angel Gabriel and what the next words out of his mouth are: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.”

            I should think, if I had the opportunity to see an angel, I probably would be afraid, too! Practically every time an angel visits someone in the Bible, “Do not be afraid!” is one of the first things out of their mouths! Gabriel continues: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

            Understandably, Mary’s response—quite sensible, under the circumstances—“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?”

            I can see Mary’s point. Truth to tell, it’s hard to beat a virgin birth! We can look at other places in the Scriptures, and see other miracles. We can look at the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus when He was an adult, and acknowledge the fact that He did miracles, regularly. But—here we have Mary, herself, wondering how on earth this miracle is going to happen to her?

            The angel has an answer for Mary, sure enough. “The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” In brief, here we have the angel describing the divine plan for a miraculous conception. Mary expresses doubt, Gabriel explains God’s plan in greater detail, Mary consents, and the angel departs.

This whole narrative makes me want to ask Mary so many questions.

How soon did you tell your parents you were pregnant? Did you tell Joseph about the pregnancy yourself, or did the gossipmongers of Nazareth take care of that for you? Was there anyone in the village who believed your story? For that matter, after the angel Gabriel left, did you doubt his visitation to you? Did you think it was a dream? What about the townspeople’s response—did you fear for your life, since people could have thought you were an adulteress?

The Gospel of Luke is silent on this matter. It leaves us with so many unanswered questions! All we know is what Mary said to the angel. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled,” was her response.

An unmarried girl who was pregnant was not just looked down on but actively persecuted. She knows that she takes the risk of being rejected as a slut, as a tramp, as unworthy of polite company, as a result of this new openness to God’s surprise activity in her life.

            Yet, we can see that Mary exemplifies the kind of response to God’s surprises that I would like in my own life.

Though—out of a clear blue sky—God completely spun Mary’s life around, though Mary knew that her life would never be what she expected it to be before, she nevertheless said “yes” to God in faith. Yes, she worshiped God (especially in her prayer, which comes after our Scripture reading for today.) She models the heart of worship, the giving of ourselves to the one who has given everything to us.

Mary’s example challenges and encourages us to have the courage to say to the Lord: “Be it to me according to Your word!” Remember, Mary realizes there is something special about to happen, that God’s plan must take precedence over her own. She accepts the challenge with hope and faith as she realizes she will be carrying the Messiah her people have longed for.

            I’d like to remind all of us here today that Mary—a normal, ordinary teenager—was visited by an angel out of a clear blue sky. She was an ordinary person who was willing to say “yes” to God, to respond to God’s call willingly and with courage, and go forward in faith.

            It doesn’t matter what our situations are, today. God can come into any of our lives out of the clear blue sky. God can rush right in, abruptly, with no warning. We all—each one of us—are encouraged to respond to God in the same way as Mary did. To agree with God willingly, with hope, and go forward in faith. Are you ready to say “yes” to God, when God calls? Say yes, in faith!  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

“Who Are You, Lord?”

Who Are You, Lord?

Acts 9 conversionofsaintpaul - ethiopian icon

Acts 9:1-19 – August 2, 2015

Sometimes, asking good questions can be difficult.

In the 1400’s and 1500’s, the astronomers in Europe were discovering wonderful things about our solar system. It wasn’t until 1543 that astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus asked, “Could it be that the Earth orbits the Sun?” This was a dangerous question to ask, in his time. Common knowledge and expert opinion were in agreement, in the 1500’s: the Earth was the center of everything. But Copernicus had the courage to ask this simple—and profound—question, which turned the scientific community on its heads, and changed the world.

We turn to our Scripture passage for today. Acts chapter 9. Saul, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, was one of the chief persecutors of the early Church in the area of Jerusalem. He had been a witness to the stoning of Stephen, a short time before this reading today. Saul’s zeal in pursuing these “Jewish heretics,” these followers of “The Way” had become legendary. Let me read the Acts passage from an excellent translation by J.B. Phillips.

“1-2 But Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the High Priest and begged him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he should find there any followers of the Way, whether men or women, he could bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners.”

That was the situation. Saul was filled with religious zeal! It wasn’t enough that he had been instrumental in kicking out most of the believers and breaking up the Jerusalem church. He was going to round up these Jewish heretics in Damascus, more than one hundred miles away. Nab these false believers! And, extradite them. Bring them back to face the Chief Priest and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

Who was Saul, anyway? Born a Roman citizen in Asia Minor, he was one of the graduates of the equivalent of an Ivy League school—the University of Tarsus, one of the finest universities of the first century. He had been a student of the Rabbi Gamaliel, one of the most prominent Jewish scholars of that day. As far as knowledge and book learning was concerned? Saul had it, in abundance! He was trained as a Pharisee, in every aspect of the Jewish religion. And, he was on fire to haul in every upstart Jewish heretic he could lay his hands on!

Just like the scientific establishment in the 1500’s in Europe, Saul had his mind set, for once and for all. He knew he was right, and nothing could make him swerve from his desire, his zeal to see justice done. Let’s go back to our reading from Acts. “3-4 But on his journey, as Saul neared Damascus, a light from Heaven suddenly blazed around him, and he fell to the ground. Then he heard a voice speaking to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?””

Whoa! Wait a minute, here! Saul is one of the top religious law-followers in Jerusalem. As he said himself, a Pharisee of the Pharisees! But, BAM! Here is a clear, Heavenly event happening to Saul. You might have heard about “a Damascus road experience,” meaning a sudden, dramatic conversion experience? This is it. Right here, right now. Paul’s—I mean, Saul’s dramatic conversion experience.

Time after time in the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets have encounters with the living God. We can see from descriptions in the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, just to name several. And the most significant—that of Moses, in Exodus, at the burning bush. Just as God called Moses twice: “Moses, Moses!” So the risen Lord Jesus also calls twice: “Saul, Saul!”

I have a suspicion that Saul immediately “got it.” The mental puzzle pieces started falling into place. Saul finally asked a really good question: “Who are you, Lord?

Isn’t that the way it is with you or with me, sometimes? Here we are, headed down Life Road, going about our business. When, boom! A sudden event happens. Maybe not as serious as Paul’s Damascus Road encounter, but all the same, earth-shaking. It could be something that happens to our health, or our jobs, an accident or some type of traumatic or sudden happening. Or, if it doesn’t happen to us, it happens to one of our loved ones. Our best friend. Or a next door neighbor.

Even if it’s something really fantastic, it can still be earth-shaking. Just as much of a shift or a change in life. Similar to the dramatic shift in the scientific world after Copernicus proved that the Earth really did orbit the Sun. He turned the whole world’s attitudes and ideas on their heads and paved the way for a whole new way of thinking. New frames for good questions.

As Saul was lying there in the dust of the road, I am sure a few new thoughts broke into his mind. “Who are you, Lord?” As one commentary says, Saul’s really good question was that “of a devout Jew who understands the significance of his experience from reading Scripture.”

Let’s continue with our reading: “6-7 “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,” was the reply. “But now stand up and go into the city and there you will be told what you must do.”

His companions on the journey stood there speechless, for they had heard the voice but could see no one.”

Do you understand what’s going on here? The others in this vigilante posse can hear a voice, but have no idea Who is speaking. On top of that, Saul is suddenly struck blind. The companions don’t have a clue what is going on. They need to lead Saul by the hand into Damascus, blind and helpless. There he sits, and fasts, for three whole days.

I need to finish the narrative. It doesn’t end here! Not by a long shot!

10 Now in Damascus there was a disciple by the name of Ananias. The Lord spoke to this man in a dream. calling him by his name. “I am here, Lord,” he replied. 11-12 Then the Lord said to him, “Get up and go down to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man named Saul from Tarsus. At this moment he is praying and he sees in his mind’s eye a man by the name of Ananias coming into the house, and placing his hands upon him to restore his sight.” 13-14 But Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard on all hands about this man and how much harm he has done to Your holy people in Jerusalem! Why even now he holds papers from the chief priests to arrest all who call upon Your name.” 15-16 But the Lord said to him, “Go on your way, for this man is My chosen instrument to bear My name before the Gentiles and their kings, as well as to the sons of Israel. Indeed, I Myself will show him what he must suffer for the sake of My name.”

17 Then Ananias set out and went to the house, and there he laid his hands upon Saul, and said, “Saul, brother, the Lord has sent me—Jesus who appeared to you on your journey here—so that you may recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18-19a Immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got to his feet and was baptised. Then he took some food and regained his strength.”

We see how a persecutor of Christians became the foremost preacher of Christ. By asking a really good question.

John Holbert mentions in his study on Acts 9, “Luke seals his portrait of the great apostle by reminding us that God is forever in the business of choosing the least likely of persons to do the great work of God.” Remember God’s “chosen instrument” mentioned in Acts 9:15? Paul refers to himself again as a cracked pot (in Greek, skeuos) for Jesus, in 2 Corinthians 4:7. We are all flawed, cracked pots. Each of us is a chosen instrument for God, yes! And a less-than-perfect cracked pot, too.

Do I have the amazing gifts of planning, leadership and public speaking that the Apostle Paul had? Not likely. However, I do what I can with what God has given me. You can, too! God calls each of us. Some to small tasks, others to larger ones. We are all flawed vessels—less-than-perfect cracked pots for Jesus.

Saul—shortly to become the Apostle Paul—was called by God to go to the Gentiles. To go to the nations, and not to just preach to Jews. I wonder. The Lord has called each one of us. God has welcomed each of us into a heavenly relationship. I wonder. The nations are coming to us—to Morton Grove, to Glenview, to Niles, to Des Plaines, and all over the Chicago area. Is God calling us to be God’s chosen instruments to our neighbors? To those we work with? To the person at the coffee shop or the clerk at the grocery store?

I offer you—I offer all of us the opportunity to hear God’s call! Chances are, it won’t be as dramatic as Saul’s conversion. But can you hear God’s call with gladness? God calls each of us. Some to small tasks, others to larger ones. Paul’s conversion narrative fires the imagination! May we find in its depths a call on every single one of us, for change and new possibility.

Alleluia! Amen.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!