Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sermon: Humanness and Divinity—II Samuel 11 and John 6 | Pentecost 9B

Humanness and Divinity | July 26, 2015 | Pentecost 9B

For First Congregational Church of Greenwich, CT

Silence. That’s all I heard.
When I prayed, all I heard was silence.
For ten years… silence.

When I was a youth, things were much different:
·       I had been a precocious member of my youth group.
·       I was involved in many activities.
·       I went on all the mission trips, I sang in the choir, I went to church twice a week, I did my devotions just about every day…
·       I was on fire for Jesus, and I could feel the Holy Spirit every time I prayed.

I even went to a Christian college, became class chaplain, and got involved with its Spiritual Life Council. I couldn’t get enough Jesus. He was my life.

Then, one day, silence was all I heard when I prayed.

You know how it feels when you lose a relative or a close friend? It was almost like that.
·       I had lost my best friend, it seemed.
·       I don’t mean to be flippant. I’m not trying to minimize the feeling of the loss of a loved one.
·       It’s just that my entire identity was wrapped up in my affiliation with Jesus.
·       He had been my entire life—my entire existence.
·       Not hearing God was like a death that would take me years to understand.
o  I spent hours upon hours in the prayer chapel and on my knees in my own dorm room—trying to get Jesus back into my life. Crying, pleading, tensing all my muscles—doing “everything I could think of” to tell Jesus I want him back in my life, to tell the Holy Spirit I wanted to feel her presence again… Silence.
o  I talked to pastors and ministry students, and they formed a consensus: “Oh, you must have some sort of sin on your hands. You ought to repent.” But no amount of repentance took this away from me. I still couldn’t hear God. Silence.
o  I started seeing a psychiatrist. He gave me some pills, which definitely helped my outlook on life. But I still couldn’t hear God. Silence.
o  It affected my social life.
o  My homework wasn’t getting done anymore, so I had to take incompletes on most of my classes until I could finish my work. Silence.

Nevertheless, I finished all my coursework and graduated from college.
·       Even though I could not hear God, I still felt called to ministry.
·       I knew that the last thing I heard from God was to prepare myself for service to the Church.
·       And so, I enrolled in a seminary.
·       I tried to connect the dots on my own. Silence.
After graduating from seminary, I took a job in a church as a religious educator.
·       I worked with children and youth.
·       That is where I had last felt the tender embrace of our Lord.
·       Despite all my comings and goings in children’s and youth ministry, I still could not hear God. Silence.
For 10 full years, I attempted to serve God without hearing God’s voice.
·       I felt like I was on my own every time a parent got upset with me for making too much noise during a lock-in.
·       Or every time I wrote a sermon but did not have the Holy Spirit whispering to me.
·       Or every time it just became too difficult. 
·       I knew that my entire being was to serve God and the church, but it seemed that God wasn’t there.
o  I wondered what I was doing in ministry, but I couldn’t fathom doing anything else with my life. I had to be a minister.

Then, one day, I got a phone call.
It was my father, sobbing. “She’s gone,” he said.
Somehow, I knew that he was talking about mom. I learned that she had been involved in a car accident—not of her own fault. And she died instantly.
I could not believe it or understand what had just happened.
I had a friend drive me home from work, and I got busy trying to schedule a plane trip home to Indiana, where I grew up… where the accident took place.
It seemed I would be the family member who would be giving the eulogy, and I had absolutely no idea where to begin. I wrestled for hours. Until, at one moment it was like a rush of wind filled my heart.
·       It was like a tongue of flame lay on my head.
·       It was as if the Holy Spirit breathed on me and filled me again with the Holy Spirit.
·       I felt the warm arms of God wrap around me, and I started to hear God again—after ten long years.
·       I was not expecting it. It was not anything I did, but I needed God at that moment—for the family—and that is when God showed up.
·       I could get through this difficult time.
·       And, by grace, I continue to hear God speak to me.

In further studies after seminary, I learned that St. Teresa of Avila went a full 18 years without hearing the voice of God, yet continued to persevere through a silence of her own.
·       Despite this silence, she wrote numerous theological treatises and eventually became a Doctor of the Church—which is a fancy way of saying: she helped shape the theology of the Roman Catholic church.
When I learned that a saint—a Doctor of the Church—went through something similar to my silence (an even longer silence), a burst of liberation.
·       I wasn’t a freak.
·       I wasn’t an apostate.
·       I began to realize that this was not God punishing me for some sin, but rather, God’s silence was a “universal” that transcended time, and gender, and nationality, and denomination.
·       In learning about St. Teresa’s experience of silence, it was as if Jesus came to me and said, “Peace be with you.”

I wonder if any of us here today have experienced God’s silence.
I wonder if anyone here has felt spiritually abnormal, or wounded, or underdeveloped, or inadequate.
I wonder who else has experienced God come into their lives and bring a new sensation of grace… at the very hour of their need.

In the text for this morning, we read two contrasting stories:
One in which King David acted very humanly, and one in which Jesus encouraged his disciples to multiply their efforts and feed an almost innumerable crowd.

The first story begins with a key piece of the puzzle: that King David did not go off to war, as kings are called to do in the spring. This was equally as shameful as what he did later to Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah the Hittite.
·       First, he stalked the woman during bath time, then he fornicated with her—probably without her consent. There’s a word for that. And it traumatizes individuals, usually for the remainder of their lives.
·       Next, he called his victim’s husband off the battlefield—the place where he should have been! This guy, Uriah the Hittite, was so noble that he slept outside in solidarity with his fellow military men. David, in his forcefulness, got Uriah the Hittite drunk, yet he still slept in discomfort, in solidarity with his brothers in arms. David, being fully human, placed Uriah the Hittite on the front lines with the servants. And that’s the last we heard about Uriah the Hittite.
·       Now think about that: David stalks and rapes Bathsheba, then he toys with her husband until he finally decrees his death. The marriage is broken not once but twice.
o  This was the same little David who took the slingshot and killed Goliath.
o  This was the same poetic David who supposedly wrote the majority of the Psalms.
o  His accomplishments go on.
·       Interestingly, despite his humanness, we still look to David as someone God used for God’s glory. (There’s a whole sermon in that statement. Just think about what God can do through you and me, despite our humanness and sin!)
·       But one of the lessons I receive here is that the Holy Spirit existed before She was made known at Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit is continually at work in the background—using even sin to advance the reign of God on the earth.
The second story is a little more familiar and less provocative.
We see a Jesus growing in popularity.
·       So the people come to Him in droves. They listen to his preaching. Perhaps they have already received the Holy Spirit, whispering to their hearts like only the Holy Spirit can do.
·       But then, Jesus and the disciples realize the crowd must be hungry. And so, the disciples scramble to find food.
·       Interestingly, only one person—a young boy—was prepared for a long sermon.
o  They took his loaves and fishes and passed it around.
o  And, amazingly, when they gathered the remnants, they could not hold it in one basket. They filled twelve baskets! And the people had already had their fill.
o  Something (or someone) was at work here.
o  Behind the scenes.
o  Someone was multiplying the meager offering of the young boy.
o  Perhaps this was the work of the same Holy Spirit that used the humanness of David… who spoke to St. Theresa of Avila… and who held me in my time of need.

Today marks the 9th week after Pentecost. The Lectionary texts for this season is filled with passages that show how God works behind the scenes—even in silence.
Friends, you who have been following the path of Jesus for years (or maybe you have been recently baptized)…
People stop hearing God for all sorts of reasons or for no reason at all.
·       Remember, people had many theories about why God was silent in my life: sin, depression, the list goes on.
·       But maybe a loved one died, and you don’t know how to cope.
·       Maybe you can’t get over the fact that bad things happen to good people.
·       Or perhaps there is no reason, and like with me, you could not comprehend the ways in which God was directing your life.
Whatever the case, God is faithful.
·       When we don’t believe, or when we simply can’t believe, Jesus comes close to us and says, “Put your fingers here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
And he breathes the breath of God into our lives and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
But why does God send the Holy Spirit to us?
·       Just so we can feel good?
·       Just so we can be nice Christians?
·       Just so we can read the Bible better?
·       No, why?
It is not enough for you to do devotions every day.
·       It isn’t enough for you to say “Oh, I attend church every week.”
·       It is not enough to say, “Yes, I’m a Christian.”
·       It isn’t enough…
Because God is calling us out of our houses of worship and into a mission field called the world.
·       In John, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
·       And in Acts, quoting Joel, “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 laborers, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
·       That means EVERYONE gets access to God’s intimate spirit.
So what does this mean for First Congregational Church of Greenwich?
·       It might mean reaching out to people we have no connection to.
·       It might mean showing love and compassion towards those in financial need;
o  or ethnic and racial groups who do not have political power;
o  or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities;
o  or Muslims;
o  or people who belong to that other political party;
o  or the people in the church who want things to change;
o  or the people in the church who want things to stay the same;
o  or that driver that won’t let us merge.
o  Or the customer service representative who barely speaks English.
o  or the waitress who didn’t get our order right.
The Good News of the Feeding of the 5,000 is that the Holy Spirit equips us to give compassion in many different ways so we can reach out to all people for the glory of God—especially when we have very few resources.
And by “reach out,” I don’t mean converting people to Christianity. I mean showing the love of Christ to all the people whom it is difficult to show love to.
THAT is what the feeding of the 5,000 is all about.

Who do you have a hard time with?
Chances are, because of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, God has equipped you to love that person or those people.
Because of the feeding of the 5,000, we become a people who have received the breath of God and are now equipped to show charity and compassion toward all people.
Because of the feeding of the 5,000, we are no longer alone in our silence, because we have a mission to follow the path of Jesus: and that is to care for everyone we see—even when we lack the resources; God will provide.
And this difficulty of God’s silence… It hurts.
·       Do you remember that poem, “Footprints in the Sand?”
·       It is precisely when we only see one set of footprints that we should know that God has been carrying us… this whole time.
·       When we can’t hear God, when we have no more intimacy with God… we must trust that God is still leading us.
o  God lead me through seminary and through my first congregations—by grace.
o  God led St. Teresa of Avila to write monumental theological treatises—by grace.
o  And God led “doubting Thomas” to touch the hands and the side of Jesus and to have to a deeper understanding of God.
o  And Jesus responds, “Peace be with you.”
The church of God is not “mighty” because it has so many members, or its political pull, or the riches in the Vatican, or so many parsonages, or our church endowment, or any other worldly thing.
·       We are strong because our Savior was born, died, and lived so terrifically.
·       He made himself ceremonially unclean—he made himself an outcast among his colleagues—just so he could love people who were rejected by society.
·       This is why Jesus was sent to the world.
o  Because life is dirty and cruel
o  And wonderful and amazing
o  And hurtful and lonely and hard.
o  For this, was Jesus sent.
Thus, Jesus said: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
In closing, the scripture passages tell us another thing about the nature of God: even in our humanness, in our weakness, in our sin, in our inadequacy, GOD STILL MOVES.
And we are to be the hands and feet of Christ.
It is not enough that we live piously, with our few loaves and fishes.
·       But rather, we are called to live in community with one another—and to pool our resources.
·       And God blesses that, and multiplies that, and uses that.
·       And in our humanness, God transforms our collective efforts into the hands and feet of God.
·       We have the opportunity to make Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
·       May we not shirk our duties like David, but let us rise to the occasion, as we heal this hurting world.
·       May it be so. Amen.