If you wish, you can hear this sermon as it was preached in the pulpit of the United Church of Jaffrey. Simply click to the play button below.
Delivered at the United Church of Jaffrey.
June 3rd, 2018
It may be a perilous undertaking to brag about marriage — especially in present company —
many of you have been married long enough to make my 16 years with Cary seem like we’ve barely walked through the garden gate…
But I’m going to anyway…. Brag that is.
Because, in at least one, very important way, Cary and I are very well suited.
I go “AHA!”
And she goes… “Hmmm.”
Along about 2010 — I had a big “AHA!”
I went to Cary and I said: “I think I want to become a minister!”
This is what I was hoping she’d say.
When Cary says “hmmm” it means that she is working it out.
When I have the big idea.
Cary figures out all the little things that need to be done to make it happen.
And as it turned out, this business of me becoming a minister was not a simple matter.
Both Cary and I had to really get to work to make it happen.
Their were all kinds of hurdles to be jumped — not the least of which being that I had to get a “Masters of Divinity” — the professional degree that prepares a person to be ordained.
“If you are going to do this degree,” Cary said to me, “you aren’t going to mess around. You go straight through.”
Straight through, meant three years of full-time classes.
So when Yale accepted me and gave me a full scholarship, that’s what I did — I got myself a roommate, and signed up for a room in the dorm.
I spent the weekdays in New Haven… thinking through theology, haggling over hermeneutics, opining on ontology, editing essays about epistemology…
And on Friday nights, I leapt into my old Nissan Sentra and hightailed it back up Interstate 91 to 7 Greenfield Road, where Cary would greet me at the door with those words that every husband longs to hear:
“Hi Honey! Grab a dishtowel and help me out here wouldya?”
A Scheduling Problem
It was around this time that I had a memorable a conversation with a fellow Divinity School student.
It was a busy time in the semester, and my friend — more of an acquaintance really — had been feeling down.
I was about to commiserate with her when she announced that she’d figured out the problem and was now feeling a great deal better!
What? She’d figured out the problem?
She was feeling better?
This was uncharted territory.
When it comes to complaining, graduate students are artists —not many bother to actually come up with solutions!
Curious, I asked her to elaborate. What had been the problem, and what, in turn, the solution?
“I’d been depressed,” she told me, “because I had no time for God.”
This immediately struck me as odd, but I couldn’t really figure out why. Before I could put my finger on it, she continued…
“So I made some time in my schedule for God, and now I feel a lot better.”
I don’t remember how I responded, but I hope I was polite. I think I managed to beat a hasty retreat.
The conversation had left me feeling uneasy.
Since I was away at Divinity School during the week, — one of the ways I kept track of what Cary and the boys were up to, was by sharing our calendar online.
So at that time the calendar was a very present and real concern in my life.
I was painfully aware of not having enough of my family in my schedule, but it never occurred to me to try to schedule God!
How does this work anyway?
Should I assign God a specific color, or priority level?
When I schedule God, does God actually show up on Monday at 2:30, next to my Dentist appointment?
Do I have to rush God, if I’m running late to class?
I’m being facetious, of course — but these speculations beg an important question…
And its not, how much of my time does God get?
The question is this— How much are we willing to domesticate God?
And if, indeed, we succeed in domesticating God — that is, make God fit our schedule — than is this God really God?
To put God in your schedule sounds to me like putting the Pacific Ocean in a teacup.
You can put a few ounces of the Pacific Ocean in a teacup, and if you take a sip, it will taste salty, but doing so will do little to give you any meaningful understanding of that primordial surging element that encompasses our planet, making it blue.
This business of scheduling God makes me nervous.
Has it really come to that?
I’m sure it has…
I’ll bet there is an app for that.
A Call in the Night
The two scripture lessons that Mary-Lu read for us this morning have some bearing on these concerns.
The story of Samuel’s first call is a familiar Bible story.
This was one of my favorite stories when I was a child, no doubt because I could identify with Samuel, who was a child himself when this story occurs.
I could easily place myself in Samuel’s position — waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of someone calling my name.
Three times God calls Samuel…
And three times Samuel makes the mistaken assumption that he is being called by his master — the old prophet Eli.
I did not have to be a terribly sophisticated reader to recognize what was at stake in this story.
Most of the time, when we are spoken too, we can correctly assume that a person is talking.
This story makes the suggestion that sometimes God speaks to us.
By extension, human life itself is an intricate fabric of actions and experiences, the vast majority of which can correctly be described as
of limited consequence.
But this story tells us that sometimes, when we least expect it, we find ourselves confronted with matters that have ultimate consequence.
Here, in this quiet story of a child waking up in the middle of the night, we find a question of dire historical significance.
Here, in this quiet story of a child waking up in the middle of the night, we are confronted with an problem that has outsized political implications.
Samuel thought he heard a human.
But he really heard God.
How are we to tell the difference between a person speaking and God speaking?
How are we to discern the difference between a concern that has limited value, and a concern that has ultimate value?
The brutal record of human history has taught us, over and over again, that those who claim to speak for God, are almost always advocating for their own power.
This story offers a couple observations that may be helpful.
One observation is that you do not schedule ultimate value — it speaks to you on its schedule —which often means the middle of the night.
Another observation is that ultimate value is tenacious.
It won’t leave you alone.
If something makes you get up out of bed three times — you better pay attention.
In the today’s gospel lesson from the end of the second chapter of the Book of Mark, Ultimate value is incarnate in the person of Jesus.
And from Jesus, our tradition gives us some more food for thought on the matter under consideration.
In this story Jesus and his disciples are under scrutiny.
The Pharisees are looking for reasons to condemn Jesus.
And they find reasons.
He is letting his disciples pick corn on the Sabbath.
He is even healing on the Sabbath!
Jesus is not sticking to the schedule!
He is breaking with tradition.
This is, quite clearly, a story that threatens institutional power. Jesus scandalizes the Pharisees by proclaiming:
“The sabbath was made for humankind,
and not humankind for the sabbath”
True to form, neither Jesus, nor the Bible itself gives clear, step-by-step, well organized prescriptions on how to solve pressing problems.
Those who look for “seven habits of the successful person” are likely to be frustrated by Biblical literature.
But this is an interesting story about Jesus.
This tells us something about him, and about his relationship with power.
If Jesus is the incarnation of ultimate value, then we can gather, from this story, that ultimate value does not feel obliged to obey social norms.
Not, at least, when there is something more essential at stake.
Healing a man’s withered hand, Jesus tells us, is an act that has within it more divinity, than slavishly following the constraints of social expectation.
This makes sense to our hearts.
Even those most invested in convention are stopped in their tracks.
Then Jesus said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”
But they were silent.
Both this story, and the story about Samuel’s call, suggest that as we go about our days — moving about, eating, sleeping — we may encounter matters of immense significance.
We can’t schedule these things
They will appear.
And when they appear, they will humble us.
And our job, will not be to assume power.
Our job will be to pitch in.
Grab a dishtowel and help me out here wouldya?”