Pentecost 2B: I Love this Church, but…

Readings

  • 1 Samuel 3:1-10
  • PSALM 139:1-6, 13-18
  • 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
  • Mark 2:23-3:6
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.

Sermon

I like to watch movies and read books multiple times.  And the only reason, is because I like the feeling of discovering something new the next time.  I think it’s interesting that we can pick up on something different in a repeat viewing or reading.  This is, of course, true of reading the Bible.  Each and every time I think I know a story well, I am genuinely surprised to discover something else.

We read the story of Samuel’s call not that long ago – the second Sunday of the Epiphany season, to be exact.  And that week, we spent some time discussing a part of my call story and what it means to be called by God.

In truth, I think most people hear this reading from the Hebrew Scriptures and immediately know it at some level – the Bible is full of call stories, and Samuel’s offers an important perspective on the validity of God’s call across the generations and through all kinds of people. God’s calling of a child makes this story a precious one to share with younger generations, and an important challenge to adults in a faith community about being prepared to help the young.  Not only to recognize the voice of God calling, but to be prepared to hear God speaking through younger voices.

Strangely, this week, it wasn’t so much the call story that caught my attention, as something said very early on in the reading.

“The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.” [1 Samuel 3:1b, CEB]

According to Valerie Bridgeman,

“Samuel arrives on stage in a peculiar time and in a peculiar way. The tribal city-states with clan leadership have devolved more and more. ‘Everyone does what is right in their own eyes,’ (Judges 21:25). The reason things are out of control, we are told, is because ‘there is no king in Israel.’ As a result, religious lethargy has left the times devoid of divine animation. Visions were few; rituals were steady, but only rarely provoked a divine encounter: ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.’”[1]

I was struck by how familiar that scene feels.

When it comes to matters of faith and church, we live in a time and place of generalized statements that speak of so-called declining membership across all Christian denominations;

of those who would define themselves as deeply spiritual but not religious;

of people comfortably claiming the label of Christian because they have sat through a church service at least once this year, or have given some money to a charitable cause, or have lived a good life and consider themselves a good person who leads by example;

of deep skepticism – perhaps not of church, but of the religious institution;

of stories about the yearned-for-in-our-spaces, younger generations, seeking the unquestioning and strict hierarchy of religious orders or finding soul-solace in high ritual practices of a more ‘traditional’ church service;

of individual congregations that are maybe too focused on the rule of tradition and the idol of ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ that the mere mention of change quickly goes from disagreement to open hostility.

Uncomfortable statements – all of them.  All with different layers of truth and reality and ‘religious lethargy’.  And I would be the first to tell you that I often wonder and ponder where the voice of God is in all of this.  But, it strikes me that our time is not unique.

From Genesis to Revelation, from Samuel to Paul – people, places, and issues have changed, but it seems that, at the core, truth hasn’t.

In our Gospel reading this week, we find Jesus up against the so-called institution.  Pharisees calling Jesus to account for actions taken in Sabbath time.

The literal embodiment of ‘divine animation’ – the Word of God – calls the Pharisees into the presence of God, and speaks to two different situations from that one place:

Then he said to them, ‘Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’” [Mark 3:4, CEB]

A question specific to that situation, but also full of meaning and implication for life.

I wonder if the Pharisees say nothing because nothing within them is recognizing that they are in the presence of God.  Another example of the Word of the Lord being rare, and visions not widely known.

Except, in, through, and around this man named Jesus.

“But they said nothing. Looking around at them with anger, deeply grieved at their unyielding hearts, he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he did, and his hand was made healthy.” [Mark 3:4b-5, CEB]

With one act of healing, Jesus shows all those present that the Word of the Lord isn’t keeping people captive to a set of ossified rules and it isn’t about fixing something that is broken and seen as wrong in the eyes of the law.  The Word of the Lord is about bringing shalom – wholeness and dignity that promotes life.  Life abundant.  Life with God.  A Sabbath life.

And yet the Word of the Lord challenges.

This one encounter with the presence of God puts the Pharisees in a spot to choose life or death.  And, ultimately, the Pharisees answer Jesus’ question by choosing death over life.

The encounter with the presence of God puts Samuel in a difficult spot to choose to tell Eli of his condemnation in the eyes of God, or to keep that to himself.  And, ultimately, sets Samuel on a path of prophecy that speaks God’s fury and anger more than hope and promise for many years.

The undeniably clear Word of the Lord may be rare in these days, and visions may not be as widespread, but they are not absent.  They are there.

We can hear and see because, as Valerie Bridgeman says, like the psalmist who was known in the womb, and Samuel who was known in Hannah’s prayer,

“We also have been known beforehand — and we have been brought before God through a series of relationships. If not our parents or families, along the way pastors, friends, youth leaders, strangers have shepherded and nurtured us into a place where we may hear God’s call and have an encounter.”[2]

It takes courage to get up and move into God’s calling because each and every encounter with the presence of God puts us in a spot to make a choice.

The Word of the Lord challenges, and I find that the Apostle Paul’s words this week help me find enough courage.

Courage that declares that life with God means that we don’t preach about ourselves.

Courage that recognizes that life with God means distinguishing that church is God’s, not ours, and that truth changes everything.

Courage that leads us into a life with God that means seeking to understand where and when we are called into the presence of God, and being open to the challenge that the way we are living isn’t necessarily a life giving, or Sabbath way.

Courage that risks a life with God that means being in a spot that sees both life and death together – Christ’s death for our lives lived through Christ’s life.  Life at work in all manner of creation.  Thanks be to God.

Let us pray,
Holy One, through time and ages you have spoken our names and called us into your presence.  We thank you for your tireless pursuit of relationship with all of creation, and especially to each of us.  Bless us with eyes to see you, ears to hear you, hearts to feel you calling us again and again into your presence of shalom – life abundant with wholeness and dignity.  Give us courage to stand in your presence and say, “Speak, God, your servant is listening.” And stir us to make the choices that you want us to make and the voices to speak what you are announcing to the world through your son, your Word, Jesus Christ, our saviour and redeemer.  Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. Valerie Bridgeman. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]” Preach This Week, Alt. 1st Reading: June 03, 2018.  org
  2. Mark Davis. “Putting Sabbath in its PlaceLeft Behind and Loving It
  3. Roger Nam. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]” Preach This Week, Alt. 1st Reading: January 18, 2015. org
  4. Melissa Bane Sevier. “Ignore?Contemplative Viewfinder
  5. Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6” Preach This Week, Gospel Reading: June 03, 2018.  org

This week’s image is entitled, “The Calling of Samuel,” created by Joshua Reynolds, in the 18th cent. 
The image is public domain, and is presented solely for education and admiration. Reproduction from this page is discouraged.
You can find out more about the painting here, and the artist here
The image has been modified for the purposes of this blog.


[1] Valerie Bridgeman. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]” Preach This Week, Alt. 1st Reading: June 03, 2018.  WorkingPreacher.org
[2] Valerie Bridgeman.  “Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6

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