"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

25 January 2009

Sunday sermon (moved)

I forget where I started with this sermon. Due to winter weather, you know I almost didn't make it to church to give the sermon... I tried again at the very last possible moment and came scooting into the church just in time to do the work the Lord had given me to do. I started the sermon somehow with further reflections I was making on the long snowy drive to the church... and somehow got around to bench-warming as an illustration (my unofficial place on my elementary school basketball team and the only position I was skilled for).

When we meet the boy Samuel in today’s readings, he’s a bench warmer. He doesn’t know the Lord, God’s word has not yet been revealed to him. That may seem shocking to you, after all, he lives in the Temple. Some of you may say "I’m in church every time the doors are open" but this boy Samuel is there even when the doors aren’t open! You may remember his story, how his mother, Hannah, prayed for a child but was infertile, how she went into the temple and prayed with such energy and emotion that the priest thought she was drunk. How she bargained with God, if you will just give me a son, I won’t even keep him for myself, I’ll give him back to you. She didn’t want a son for an insurance policy, as most women of that era wanted sons, to care for her in her old age. She didn’t want a future for herself, she just wanted a son to love. And God gave her Samuel.
And Hannah fulfilled her vow. When the boy was no longer nursing, she brought him to the temple and gave him over to the priest to raise in God’s presence. And now Samuel is in the temple, it’s night time, the lamps are burning before the altar as they did every night. It’s a pretty routine scene. But in the middle of this routine, God gives Samuel a message for Eli, and the words are difficult ones to hear.
This is clearly the first time Samuel hears a literal word from the Lord. The technical term for such an experience is a locution, when you audibly hear God. I get a kick out of that old joke, when you talk to God, it’s prayer. When God talks to you its schizophrenia. We can laugh about it, but anyone who takes Scripture seriously has to understand that God does sometimes choose to communicate with us in this way. The message God has for Eli is that the punishment God promised would take place was going to come to pass, that God "would judge his family forever because of the sin Eli knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, 'The guilt of Eli's house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering. " To give you the background story, Eli’s sons were said to have no regard for God. The were of a priestly family, but instead of taking a priest’s portion of the sacrifices, they took the best and the first portions, similar to practices that we hear of later in the prophetic writings as "robbing God." The way the Bible tells it, here are Eli’s sons who Eli should have been raising up to be priests after him, but he’s turning a blind eye while the boys run wild and show contempt for God. But immediately we see the contrasting character of little Samuel, the boy in the Temple. Eli’s sons will be cast down, and we would eventually see that Samuel would be raised up as a great prophet who would anoint the kings themselves.
This story is the big moment when Samuel goes from being a little boy in the temple, set apart for God’s service, but sitting on the sidelines, to being a front line believer who will help raise up kings, and proclaim God’s word all over the land. Eli gives good advice, to listen, to be open to God’s leading; but the words Samuel hears are not a message he wants to deliver. Can you imagine poor Samuel, sweating it out through the remainder of the night as he wonders how to give Eli the message with which he has been entrusted? Eli very harshly commands that Samuel obey God and deliver the message, but really, the message is given because God loves Eli enough to give him a warning and Samuel must now love Eli enough to deliver it.
Part of what we have to do, in the days and weeks ahead, will involve the hard words and actions that love requires. We’ve heard a lot in our culture that tells us that love is about feelings, sex, or warm fuzzies and then defines "God is love in those cultural love terms." But in fact, the self serving images of modern American love are not love at all. Is action, self-sacrifice, and does not withhold the truth, even when the truth may involved hard words. This is why the church has come to the point of the vote we have taken this week. One group sees love as not withholding the truth of God’s hard but important commands, while the other sees those commands and truths as "hate speech." But the cold hard fact is that sometimes love is agonizing, and withholding God’s word is never love.
There are other things love requires which may seem uncomfortable. The key question which we must ask ourselves is whose interest is at the heart of our actions. If we are walking outside our comfort zone, taking risks to bring a neighbor, a friend, or a stranger closer to Jesus, if we are the ones willing to be hurt in all of this, that is love. Again I think of Samuel and this awkward moment he experienced with Eli, but in the end, he had to do what was required of him.
He kind of reminded me of my son Isaac, my eleven year old… Isaac likes to play dodge ball at the study center he attends. And one day he told me "Mom! I was fantastic today! I never got out!" I asked him did he get anyone else out. No. Well, did you take any risks that might have gotten you out? No. So you didn’t get out, you didn’t get anyone else out, and you didn’t take any risks… why did you play? My son realized that sometimes it was worth risking being "out" in order to be effective.
And when I consider a congregation that will now be faced with the question, where do we go from here? I realized that that is what we need to understand… where we go, no matter what the vote turns out to be, is that we go out to take some risks, to deliver God’s message to the world. We can’t control one another’s actions, but if we’re going to be sideline Christians, we may as well not bother playing. Instead, let’s take the risks to be front-line Christians. It won’t be easy, but sometimes we have to take a risk in order to succeed.

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