St. Paul’s Congregational Church
June 6, 2021; Proper 4B - 1 Samuel 3: 1-10
God is Still Speaking – Are We Listening?
It was a year ago that Walter Brueggemann, retired professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, wrote his book, “Virus as a Summons to Faith – Biblical reflections in a time of loss, grief, and anxiety.” He’s always been one of my favorite writers – especially since I had the opportunity to hear him speak back many years ago. Maybe one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard!
In the forward to the book, a rabbi writes, “The devastating effects of the virus summon us to renew our covenantal relationship with God and to renew our responsibilities within that relationship” – little did we know back in June, 2020, how true that was – how we’d be worshipping remotely for 15 months or longer, stuck at home under quarantine, not being able to travel, not being able to hug our families and friends – so many changes we’ve experienced. Not to mention the unprecedented violence we’ve seen – this pandemic has exposed a deep and dangerous and, I’ll add, sinful divide in our society, hasn’t it – and to get right down to basics, what’s happened to the command to love God first, and to love our neighbors as ourselves?
Now we’re looking forward to getting back to a more semblance of “normal” – is that even possible? Honestly, friends, I hope not. Like Samuel, maybe we’re being called into something more than we can imagine: a call into a deeper, more caring, and mutually beneficial relationship with all that is. A new normal, a new creation, that is restorative to the basics – love God first, love our neighbors as ourselves.
Brueggeman writes, “In our moments of fear and insecurity, we may be tempted to hold on to what was once safe and secure. Prophetic tradition knows, to the contrary, that the future does not reside in old treasured realities – rather, it belongs to bold faithful thought that evokes bold faithful action. The new thing God is making possible is a world of generous, neighborly compassion – it is before our very real eyes! The good news is that we don’t need to go back to those old ways – we can embrace a new normal that is God’s gift to us.”
He writes a prayer entitled “At the Edge of a New Normal”: yes, you’ve heard me read this before – but it’s worth repeating a year after it was written as we explore Samuel’s call and his response: listen for God’s call as we pray:
Oh God, our “normal ways” are reassuring to us;
It is our normal way to slot people for wealth or poverty;
It is our normal way to classify people as “us” and “other.”
It is our normal way to prefer males to the other gender;
It is our normal way to distinguish heteros and the “other”;
Our usual normals make us safe,
make us happy,
leave us certain.
Only now our normal ways are exposed as constructs of privilege that cover the reality of our neighborly situation.
In the midst of the virus we notice that the others are very much with us, and we are all vulnerable together.
We sense the disruption, the loss, the deep dis-ease among us, and
we want our old normals to be “great again.”
Except that we cannot!
Except that you, O God, summon us to new futures made sober by the pandemic;
You require us now to imagine, to risk, and be vulnerable
as we watch the new normals emerge among us:
the blind see, lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news;
students have debts cancelled; the poor have health care;
workers have a living wage, the atmosphere breathes fresh air.
We want to return to the old normal that yield (for some) safety and happiness but you dispatch us otherwise.
Your new normal for us requires some adjustment by us, and adjust we will. We will live and trust and share differently.
“All things new” is a huge stretch for us.
But we know it is your good gift to us; with wistfulness, we receive it we embrace it, and we give thanks to you. Amen.
Maybe today is not so different from the world in Samuel’s time – the Word of the Lord was rare. Visions were not widespread. Maybe we’re stuck in the way things have been – we’ve lost the vision of how things could be different – a view of something more than the obvious; a wider, bigger picture; a look toward the future, possibilities, a look to a deeper meaning to something inside of us beyond words, deeper than our senses. Maybe, just maybe, God is offering us a vision that goes so far beyond what is to what could be that we just can’t see it – but it's there, just waiting for our response “Here I am, send me.”
Over this past year we’ve seen glimpses of a new vision – some of it has been painful to watch as too many have been hurt, even killed as they stand up against discrimination, against oppression, against outrageous and vile language. But people are speaking out, people are acting – how many food banks have opened, how huge have donations been to the effort to fight food insecurity. In my town I go by homes in quiet neighborhoods where there are labeled boxes on the porches for people to drop off food, clothing, shampoo, cleaning supplies, personal supplies – and they’re overflowing. The homeowners deliver them quietly, without fanfare. The vision is now reality and it continues.
The fight against voter suppression, especially against people of color in the poorest neighborhoods and rural areas who have been especially affected by COVID, is ongoing. Yes, there’s difficult and frightening and sometimes ridiculous push back to these efforts but they continue. A vision is now reality and it continues.
And with the advent of effective and safe vaccinations available against COVID, volunteers are going into neighborhoods, into churches, into empty storefronts to bring them to people – yes, even some states are awarding college scholarships by lottery to students, million dollar cash prizes – to encourage vaccination. There’s a vision that we can beat this pandemic now…unheard of a year ago.
What is your vision, our vision for our life together here at St. Paul’s? The church council is struggling with that question – and we all need to participate in the conversation as we look toward reopening our doors. And you’ve heard this before – weak finances and an old building have made us vulnerable – vulnerable to being in survival mode, not an envisioning mode. I hear people say, “We need people back in the pews” – I wonder how to expand that vision to include new people, strangers with new visions – what’s the vision that brings you here on this hot weekend in June?
Somehow I believe it has something to do with an emptiness that we all feel at one time or another, a sense of something missing, a way to make sense of the world around us, a sense of stability as we make the journey through life, a yearning for justice and equality for all people – and a sense of needing something, someone, a presence that’s bigger than ourselves – a vision that goes beyond our limited sight. I’ve come to refer to this emptiness, this yearning, as a “hole in the soul” - a hole that must be and will be filled by something. But by what? New cars, new toys, a new job, a new relationship, drugs, alcohol, gambling – they don’t work very well, do they. They’re not lasting.
But a vision that gives meaning and strength to our lives – a vision that’s a gift from God. And I’m a believer that the only thing that can fill that hole in our soul permanently is God’s presence in our lives.
So here we are, the church – not individuals but the visionary community of the people of God. Not a gathering. Not a club. I suspect that churches can have a hole in the soul too – I wonder if that’s a sign of loss of vision, of erosion of their fundamental reason for being.
When people come here what do they find? I challenge everyone of us to think about those questions as we move into the future: affirm the vision of the past, yes, but to also reach out, to risk a new vision of the future, the new normal, intentionally grounded in faith and love of God and neighbor.
Will we as individuals and church respond as Samuel did, “Here I am Lord. Send me. Send us.” How will we as individuals making up the church community contribute to the effort of creating a world of generous, neighborly compassion? Is our mindset “we need people” rather than “people need us?” And friends, it will take all of us with God’s help - after all, we’re all in this together.
Friends, this new thing that God is making possible is a world of generous, neighborly compassion. It is before our very eyes! Let us see it! Let us adjust! Let us embrace it! And let us live it! Let us live it together! And we ask that this begin right now, right here, as our lives can be changed by the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup of the new covenant! Let us respond in thanksgiving and turn to the God who loves us all and say, “Here I am Lord. Here we are, Lord. Send us! Amen.