Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sermon - Seeing as God Sees

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Seeing as God Sees
James Sledge                                                                                     June 17, 2012

Let’s be honest. Unlike Samuel, most of us would have gone ahead and anointed Eliab. I know that I would. If I had somehow been paying enough attention that I heard God in the first place and went to Bethlehem looking for a new king, I’m pretty sure that Eliab would have seemed an answer to prayer. Here’s the one! Pour the oil on his head. Glad that’s over. Can’t believe we found a new king so quickly.
We Presbyterians have our own version of Samuel.  Because we’re big on representative government, Samuel is not one person but rather a committee – a nominating committee to be precise. We have nominating committees charged to find those called to be deacons and ruling elders, and we have pastor nominating committees to find the person God is calling to be a teaching elder or pastor. Like Samuel, these committees are charged to find the one or ones that God already has in mind, and we use fancy words like discernment to make clear that the task is to hear and sense the Spirit guiding us to the one God has already chosen.
Now clearly I’ve had some recent experience with this congregation’s pastor nominating committee, although I did not see how they went about discerning and deciding. I’ve not been here long enough to see an officer nominating committee at work.  However I have seen them in a number of other congregations, and I’ve talked with enough pastors about how it works in their churches to have some sense of what is typical.
The stereotypical officer nominating committee works like this. A group of folks, including representatives from Deacons and Session, are cajoled into this task. Often people are chosen to represent some of the different groups and interests in the congregation. It is common to have someone from Presbyterian Women, someone from the youth, and so on.  Then this group is “elected” at congregational meeting.
Then comes the hard work. A first meeting is set, and nominating committee members arrive with pictorial directories in hand.
The committee then begins suggesting names, drawing from a list of usual suspects, folks who are active in committees and ministries of the church, people who are leaders in business or other fields, people who seem to have useful skills in finance, administration, management, and so on.
Once the list seems long enough, the nominating committee has to decide how to rank them, to determine who will be asked first.  I’ve seen some interesting conversations over the years as a committee considers the list and people suggest why this person does or doesn’t look the part.  Finally, the list prioritized, phone calls are made. “Hi, this is Joanne from the nominating committee and we were wondering if you might consider serving a term as elder.”
Once enough people have said yes, sometimes after additional meetings where more names are suggested, another congregational meeting is held where the members elect new officers saying, at least implicitly, “These are the people God has called to lead us.”
Now perhaps the stakes are not as high in this process as they are in our Old Testament reading today, but nominating committees have exactly the same job that Samuel does, to uncover the ones God has called.  But in my experience, most nominating committees would never have found David; unless Eliab and all his brothers had said, “No.”
For that matter, most nominating committees would never have put the 12 disciples on their list of names. They did not have the requisite backgrounds. A lot were from less than respectable professions. Some were quite uneducated. You have to wonder sometimes what Jesus saw in them. But then again, as God says to Samuel, “Yahweh does not see as mortals see.”
So how do we align our sight with God’s? How do we become more like Samuel, able to hear God say “No” to Eliab, able to wait patiently for God’s choice to be revealed, able to trust that David, this young, unlikely candidate is indeed the one God had in mind?
People often assume that Samuel is some sort of spiritual prodigy. No way that we can hear God the way he did. But if you’ve read Samuel’s story, you know that he could not recognize God’s voice at first. The priest Eli had to help him. And he only heard God that first time as he lay silently in the Temple.
If you’ve ever been on a nominating committee, you’ve probably not encountered a lot of silence, not a lot of stillness and patient waiting for God’s will to be revealed. For that matter, nominating committees often feature little in the way of prayer, other than that perfunctory opening prayer.  In his book, Becoming a Blessed Church, Graham Standish suggests that “figuratively and literally committees in most churches begin a meeting by inviting God into the room in prayer. Then, by what they do and how they discuss proposals and make decisions, they basically tell God to wait outside in the hall until they have made a decision. Finally, through their closing prayers they invite God back in to bless their decision.”[1]
I think Standish is correct, although I’m not certain of how it got this way. It may partly be because of a strange notion that God no longer speaks to people as in biblical times.  I’m not sure where this idea comes from, this notion that people were somehow closer to God long ago. Jesus promises the Spirit to his followers in every age, and if the Holy Spirit has deserted the Church, then we might as well close up shop.
But I also think the Spirit frightens us. It threatens our sense of control. It may take us in a direction we don’t want to go. It may lead us somewhere that doesn’t make a lot of sense to us, that demands we really trust God’s guidance over our own.  “No thanks. Let’s go ahead and make Eliab king.” Or at least put him on the Session.
And so we go about the work of running our churches, trying to keep the programs good, the administration efficient, and the funding adequate. But I think many of us, maybe even most of us, long for something more. We wish we hadn’t simply settled for Eliab. We want to touch holiness. We long to hear God’s voice speaking to us. We want to see what God sees.  We want to experience what Paul does where “in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Have you ever been on a mission trip, gone on a spiritual retreat, visited a monastery, or been to a church conference at a place like Montreat and felt like you got a little closer to God?  Such things are sometimes referred to as thin places, that is, places where the boundary between heaven and earth, between us and God, almost disappears, and we can reach out and touch holiness, commune with the sacred.
Many of us have been to such thin places. We have experienced the divine presence there.  But then we come home, and the barrier goes up again.  That has certainly happened to me.  But that barrier is not simply a matter of place.  Thin places work their magic, in part, because we expect them to, because we give them time to, because we are attentive to that possibility when we are there. 
It is a curious thing that many people do not think of their church as a thin place.  Sanctuaries sometimes hold that possibility, though often they seem more theater or concert hall than thin place. And if you look at church facilities in general, you’ll often find little attention to the notion of thin places. Rare is the church that does not have a kitchen and some classrooms, a nursery and a storage room. But even rarer is the church that does have a meditation room, a prayer room, or a labyrinth.  How odd that churches have left the thin place business to others.
Samuel carried a thin place with him. The presence of God journeyed alongside.  But I do not think this some special dispensation only for Samuel.  No, he had a long tutelage and years of practice in drawing near to God. He knew well how to be still and silent and wait. He spent years with his spiritual director, Eli, and he had learned never simply to do what he wanted or thought best, but to pray and wait and listen for what God wanted.
When Samuel went to Bethlehem to find a king, Eliab passed before him and he thought, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed.”  Eliab was the first born son and looked every inch the part. But Samuel had learned how God works, how God sees, and so he waited, maybe even half expecting that God had other plans.

[1] N. Graham Standish, Becoming a Blessed Church (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), 88.

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