July 15 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
SCRIPTURE READINGS: Acts 2:42-47 and John 10:1-10
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[j] to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous[l] hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Last week I shared a few statistics with you about the growing number of people in our communities who are either nonreligious or only nominally religious. Over 40% of people in the U.S. today say they do not believe in God of the Bible , and over 60% of people in any given community today are either unchurched, or de-churched . So the questions that Pastor Adam Hamilton poses, “Why do people need Jesus Christ? Why do people need the church? and Why do people need this church?”  take on much significance for us as disciples of Jesus who are called to join Christ in the work of seeking and saving the lost. Today we’ll wrestle with the second question, “Why do people need the church?”
A member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going. After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him. It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire.
Guessing the reason for his pastor’s visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a big chair near the fireplace and waited. The pastor made himself comfortable but said nothing. In the grave silence, he contemplated the play of the flames around the burning logs.
After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone. Then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet fascination.
As the one lone ember’s flame diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more. Soon it was cold and “dead as a doornail.”
Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting.
Just before the pastor was ready to leave, he picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately it began to glow once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.
As the pastor reached the door to leave, his host said, “Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday.” [source unknown]
Now those of us who have been in the habit of attending church can easily grasp the implications here – that without the church, our faith can become weak; our love for God and neighbor can become diminished; and we know from our own experiences that without these, life becomes much harder to navigate. But what about those who have never experienced this? Or what about those who have been hurt or harmed in some way from the very institution they believed was meant to be a source of healing and acceptance? As I give you a moment of silence, I want you to think about a time in your life when a group of Christians offered you something life-giving; something that brought comfort or peace or encouragement in a way no other group did. Think about that for a moment, and then I’ll lead us in a prayer.
Here in this place new light is streaming,
Now is the darkness vanished away,
See in this space our fears and our dreamings,
Brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in – the lost and forsaken,
Gather us in – the blind and the lame;
Call to us now, and we shall awaken,
We shall arise at the sound of our name.
[“Gather Us In” – TFWS #2236, verse 1]
I’ve shared a little about my childhood and college years, how I had experienced disillusion with church and religion and had rejected it for a time. But when I experienced a call back to God, I found myself in need of a community to help me put my life back together and to figure out how to live a different, and better way. I was blessed to be welcomed by a faith community who accepted me where I was, and for who I was. And so you’ll understand a little of what that means, at that time in my life, I was one year on the other side of a history of substance abuse and a long-term abusive relationship. And I still remember the associate pastor there talking about how for some people, the church must be a place of sanctuary – a place of refuge and safety. And that’s exactly what I found there.
Last week we talked about how throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus notices those whom society and religion had marginalized – the sick, the malformed, the unclean, those with mental and physical anguish, and those whose behaviors, practices and lifestyles – the sinners and tax collectors – were shunned by the religious community. And when Jesus notices them, he has compassion on them, and engages them in acts of healing, wholeness, and hospitality – which angered the Pharisees and others in the community. But you see, I’m convinced that if I had been living in the days when Jesus walked the earth, I would have been characterized right along with those outcasts. I was lost. But, remember that Jesus says he is like the shepherd who would leave the 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and find the one that is lost. In today’s passage from the gospel of John, Jesus again compares himself to a shepherd. In this parable, we see an intimate relationship between the shepherd and his sheep – one where the sheep hear and know the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, and leads them to pastures of safety, and bounty and rest. This story of sheep & shepherd touches on our deepest longings as humans, to be known and cared for by the Divine, and to be led into times and situations of peace, safety, abundance. And it teaches us that Jesus is not only a voice in our lives, but the way that leads to fertile ground, and abundant life.
When I was found by Jesus, he led me to a faith community that opened its doors to me, and invited me in to pastures of safety and rest. This church embodied the healing, restoring and welcoming love of Christ to me. So, why do people need the Church? – because the Church is now the body of Christ in the world; the place where Jesus’ voice can be heard, and where his ways can be learned and followed.
Luke basically extends his gospel by writing the Acts of the Apostles. The book of Acts begins with the resurrection of Jesus, and then tells the story of how Jesus, working through the movement of the Holy Spirit, continues to be present in our world.
Scripture tells us that on the day of Pentecost, the spirit came upon both men and women, and that hearers in the crowd had come from every known country in that part of the world. From this crowd, the Spirit gives birth to the church, the body of Christ. This diverse group of people which included all ages, genders, ethnicities and socio-economic classes becomes the new way that Jesus’ love is experienced and shared in the world.
In Acts 2, we see that this group of believers, which knows no barriers to who is in and out, becomes the place where our human longings for God, community, and basic provisions are met. First, it’s important to note that the Spirit comes upon those men and women who were already meeting together in prayer. Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Matthew 18:20)
Verses 42-47 describe the early church as a model for us today:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
What does it mean to be devoted to something? Does it mean, “Oh, I’ll
get to that eventually?” or “That sounds nice, but I don’t really have time right now?” Devoted means dedicated, faithful, constant, steady, loyal. Meeting together was a priority for these early followers of Jesus; they made a commitment and followed through. The writer of Hebrews reminds his readers of this: "And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Being devoted to study, fellowship, worship and prayer are the marks of those who are followers of Jesus’ way – in fact, that’s how the early followers were known, as followers of the Way. But what’s important to note is not just that these were ‘gold-star attenders’ or that they set the bar really high, but that the regular practice of these spiritual disciplines in community, among men and women, Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, created a community of commonality that broke down barriers, and thrived on equity and justice! Hospitality was extended to all as they broke bread together in each others’ homes. Needs were met as resources were pooled in order to minister to without. They were characterized as having generous and glad hearts. Even the pagans noticed the transformation taking place within this group of people. Tertullian writes that they would exclaim with amazement, “See how they love one another!” 
I was at a workshop this week which highlighted three of the unique United Methodist communities of faith found right here in Central Iowa –Trinity Las Americas United Methodist Church in Des Moines, the Women at the Well United Methodist congregation formed inside the walls of Mitchellville Women’s prison, and the Simpson College Youth Academy.
Pastor Alejandro Santiz of Trinity Las Americas spoke about how his congregation, which used to be two separate worshipping bodies – one comprised primarily of English speaking Caucasians, and one comprised primarily foreign-speaking people of various ethnicities – has taken the step to merge as one worshipping body; he spoke of the conviction that all people at Trinity have of being inclusive and welcoming of all people, no matter where they are in life. But he pointed out that Trinity is not unique in its diversity – there are differences in all of our churches and communities; we are people made up of different ages, different life experiences, different levels of education, and different political opinions and worldviews. And on top of that, there may be differences in ethnicities or socio-economic backgrounds. Pastor Alejandro was very upfront about that fact that being welcoming and accepting wasn’t always easy for everyone; it’s something they have to always work on. But he said they decided that, “If we’re going to spend all of eternity together, we might as well work on getting along with each other in the here and now.”
Pastor Lee Schott shared with us how her eyes have been opened during her ministry in the prison to life experience that she was sheltered from in her previous church work. So she encouraged us as pastors to realize that there are likely people sitting in our pews already whose lives have been touched in some way by violence, abuse, addictions, and incarceration. And that if we aren’t already, we should be working to create places of welcome and safety in our churches for people such as these – spaces where we can take off our masks that hide our true selves, so that we can share honestly about the experiences that need healing and prayers. This is the way that we will form community who knows how to support one another in love and prayer.
Finally, Pastor Eric Rucker shared some of his insights about the spiritual needs of youth based on his experiences of working with United Methodist youth through the newly formed Youth Academy at Simpson College. He says that before we can offer relevant ministry to anyone in our congregations, we should first take note of those in our communities by asking, “What is happening?” What is happening with the youth in our community? What is happening in terms of jobs and wages? What is happening in terms of access to health care and education? What about crime, mental illness, care for the aging or disabled? Once we know our neighbors and the things that are impacting their life, we can better offer opportunities to meet them where they are, to respond to their needs, and to invite them to use their gifts and passions to join us in helping to transform the world around us. He reminded us that every person, including our youth, have desires from God to work toward making the world a better place – and we need what they have to offer!
Why do people need the church? Because God created us to be in relationship, with God and with others. I believe that the best place to be welcomed by God, to be encouraged when life is hard, to be held up with hope, to be nourished with fellowship, and to be truly known and loved by God is through the community of believers known as Church. The best chances for doing good that makes a difference in our world is through the power of the Holy Spirit, who works through the body of Christ on earth. And before people can experience any of this for themselves, they need to see the evidence of this transformation in the world.
If we go back to the passage from John’s gospel again, we see in verse 9 that Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Church is not something we can keep to ourselves. If those 60% of people living near us are to know anything of Christ’s saving love for them, then we must occasionally leave the pasture and go into the wilderness and search for them! Jesus says we are to go in and out – and the book of Acts is all about the work of the Holy Spirit through those who are led out into the world, to take the good news of Christ’s love to those who are lost. We can offer them a place of safety and acceptance; a realm of justice and equity and abundance; a community of peace and love that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. But only if they see how we love one another, and how that love extends to the lost, the least, and the lonely. This is the ministry of the Church – to join Christ in the seeking and saving work of the kingdom. May it be so.
 Hamilton, Adam. Leading Beyond the Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched. Abingdon Press.
July 8 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
SCRIPTURE READING: Luke 19:1-10
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
When I was growing up, our family used to live about 20 miles from the nearest K-mart and Wal-mart. So every week or so, our mom would pack my sisters and I into the car to make the trip to “town” to do our shopping. My youngest sister rode in the shopping cart, leaving me and the next oldest sister to walk on our own. My mom instructed us to hold each other’s hands so we wouldn’t get separated. Of course, that never worked out! And I still remember vividly the panic I felt the first time I realized that my sister was no longer with us. I remember running to my mother and crying that I had lost her. I was so upset, I was inconsolable. And then we heard the sniggering and giggling coming from within one of those round clothes racks. To my relief, my sister had not been kidnapped by a serial killer, but had simply decided to play a game of hide and seek – without telling anyone! To my dismay, however, she thought it was so funny how upset I became when we lost her, that she continued her disappearing act almost every shopping trip from then on.
There’s a certain type of desperation that comes over you when someone is lost or separated from you. In a developing news story in Thailand,12 boys and their soccer coach were found alive after 10 days stranded in a cave. Imagine the desperation those boys have to get out of that dark, enclosed space, and to be back home with their parents, in their own homes and beds. And imagine the desperation their parents and communities feel as they wait and pray that experts will devise a plan to rescue them and bring them out safely, especially before more rains come. Imagine the desperation that might prompt someone living in war-torn countries like Syria or Honduras to take their children and abandon their homes, families and friends in order to try to survive! And imagine searching for safety in a new country, only to have your children separated from you – imagine the desperation of mothers and fathers not knowing where their children have been taken, and when – or if – they’ll see them again.
There is another kind of desperation that might result in being separated or lost from loved ones – imagine the desperation of individuals and families who are affected by drug addictions, gambling or pornography; domestic or sexual assault; bullying, racism and hate crimes aimed at ethnic minorities or the LGBTQ community; or those who don’t have adequate access to food, clean water or healthcare. In the book, “Leading Beyond the Walls,” UM pastor Adam Hamilton suggests that the biggest problems facing our society today are at their core spiritual problems. Policies, laws and criminal justice can only help so much. Pastor Adam says, “the real solution must address the condition of the human heart; it must break hearts of stone, transform hate into love, and offer healing and deliverance to those who are slaves to ideas, or their upbringing, or their addictions.”  What people really need is to be found and restored into community and relationships.
In our scripture today, Jesus declares that he has “come to seek out and to save the lost.” As I give you a moment of silence, think about someone you know who is experiencing a kind of desperation in their life today. Does she or he know Jesus? Have you prayed with or for him? Have you shared your faith with her? I encourage you to lift them in prayer as we pray together…
I need thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like thine can peace afford.
I need thee, o I need thee; every hour I need thee;
O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee. (UMH 397)
Last week, I shared with you how I left the church for a time during my college years. And during those years, I would say that there were certainly times I experienced a desperate longing to believe in something that would fill the emptiness and loneliness in my life. There was even a period when I considered myself ‘spiritual but not religious.’
According to a Pew Research study released in April, only a slim majority of Americans, 56%, still believe in the God of the Bible.  According to this information, Christians can no longer assume that their friends or neighbors believe in God, if they believe in any higher power at all. And over 60% of those living in our community are either unchurched or de-churched.  In trying to determine why so many Americans reject religion today, many of them cite the fact that they simply no longer believe in God, or that they see too many negative Christian stereotypes. In light of the social problems I mentioned earlier, it there certainly seems to be a link between the declining number of people who have a personal relationship with Jesus, and the increase in the instances of addictions, violence, systemic poverty and racism, and policies and practices that place corporate profits above economic justice in our society today.
But, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.
As a music major in college, I was in a chamber choir that presented a Madrigal Dinner near the end of every fall semester. At this dinner, we dressed in medieval costumes and sat around an ornate table singing nativity carols interspersed with classic Christmas poems and the scriptures that told the story of Jesus’ birth. And each year as we would sing those carols, and I would hear the story told, something welled up inside me – I think it was hope: Hope that perhaps the story was true; hope that there really was a God who loved us enough to come down and experience the same pains of life that I knew; hope that Jesus came to bring news for the poor and the outcast. Again, there is a kind of desperation that one feels when you are lost or separated from someone you love.
What I eventually came to understand, in the theology of incarnation, is that God experiences a kind of desperation, as well, in being separated from us. The incarnation – that God became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus – is God’s desperate act to pursue us and bring us back into community. In the gospel of Luke, we learn that from Jesus’ birth, God comes to dwell, not with the religiously righteous, but with the lowly shepherds, the lepers, the sinners and the tax collectors – in other words, the outcast. In chapter 4:16-21, Jesus reveals this mission:
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke’s gospel is centered around the idea that Jesus came to bring salvation in the form of liberation and restoration – to seek out and to save the lost. Jesus’ teachings and healing acts aim to bring those who have been cast out by society back into community. He heals the unclean, eats with tax collectors and sinners, breaks unjust laws, and teaches a counter-cultural message of loving your enemies and considering everyone a neighbor. Throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus sees those who have been marginalized and has compassion on them. And then he sets to work righting the wrong.
In chapters 9 – 19, what is considered the “heart of Luke,” Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem. Along the way, as he is accompanied by his disciples and other followers, he encounters crowds who come to him for healing, or to hear his teachings, as well as his adversaries, the Pharisees, who grumble and object to his methods of ministry. In these chapters, Jesus shares the story of the Good Samaritan – an ethic group despised by the pious Pharisees – to teach us about loving our neighbors. He himself eats with ‘those people’ – tax collectors and sinners – and then share through parables the true meaning of hospitality, which includes the hungry, the homeless, the foreigner, the needy and the weak. Jesus offers healing to those whom the rest of society have ignored, neglected and despised – the leper, the blind beggar, women with ‘women issues’, and the mentally unwell. In each of these instances, the Pharisees and others in the crowd grumble at his methods. So Jesus tells them three important stories to drive home his mission to seek out and to save the lost:
4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:4-7)
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)
Then, he tells an even lengthier story of a son who takes his inheritance early, runs off and squanders it all, then returns, utterly defeated, and begs for his father to take him in as a servant. Instead, the good father gives him a robe and a ring, and orders the servants to kill the fatted calf, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15: 11-24)
That brings us back to the Zacchaeus. Like many of the others whom Jesus encountered earlier in Luke’s gospel, Zacchaeus makes an effort to see Jesus. We know that he was the chief tax collector in Jericho – and we also know that the practices of tax farming in the ancient world often involved very corrupt practices of squeezing more than was fair from the locals in order to pocket anything that wasn’t given to Rome. So perhaps Zacchaeus has realized that his wealth is not enough to satisfy the emptiness and loneliness in his life. Maybe he is feeling guilty about the impact of his extortion on his neighbors and community; maybe the conflict of knowing what is right in contrast to the way he has been living his life has caught up with him, and he’s decided he just can’t live like this any more. It seems to me that Zacchaeus has become desperate. And he must have been desperate to see Jesus if he was willing to make a spectacle of himself to the crowds of people by climbing up a tree in order to catch a glimpse, even just a glimpse of Jesus.
And Jesus notices Zacchaeus, and calls him by name, urgently expressing his desire to dine with yet another tax collector. At the crowds’ grumbling this time it is Zacchaeus himself who takes the first step toward restoration, offering to give half of his possessions to the poor and make restitutions to anyone he has cheated. Sometimes, when the outcast have an encounter with Jesus, it changes their life! Not only does Jesus pronounce salvation on Zacchaeus, but he reminds the crowds that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham – one of them – and he thus helps to restore Zacchaeus to his community. Jesus came to seek out and to save the lost!
It’s a worthwhile side note to point out here that the crowd themselves became a barrier to this sinner being able to encounter Jesus. They had pre-conceived ideas about who was and was not ‘worthy’ of Jesus’ time, attention and fellowship. They grumbled and objected to Jesus’ methods of ministry. And in the end, when Jesus finally entered Jerusalem for the last time, they ultimately rejected his Ways altogether – Jesus and his teachings became the outcast: despised and rejected and executed on a cross.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) There are desperate, hurting people all around us. They are longing to encounter a healing and reconciling Love who sees and notices their pain, who is just as desperate to be in relationship with them, and who longs to see their lives restored. My own personal relationship with Jesus has changed my life! Think back to that person I asked you to name silently at the beginning of the sermon.. how can you share this message with them?
Again, I ask you to lift them in this time of prayer…
I need thee every hour, teach me thy will;
And thy rich promises in me fulfill.
I need thee, O I need thee; every hour I need thee;
O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee. (UMH 397)
 Hamilton, Adam. Leading Beyond the Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched. Abingdon Press.
July 1 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
SCRIPTURE: 1 Samuel 3:1-20
1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
Have you ever heard something that made both ears tingle? My youngest sister just celebrated her one year wedding anniversary. She and her husband, who is a firefighter, live in a 1950’s era house in central Mississippi, and she tell us that for the last year, on the nights when he is working, she’s been lying in bed at night and hearing these noises coming from the attic – sounds that definitely made her ears tingle! She’s been trying to convince her husband that there’s something up there; but he has repeatedly brushed it off as ‘probably just mice’ – until recently. One night, he finally heard the sounds himself – hissing, groaning, and heavy scampering – and he realized that whatever was in their attic was much too large to be a mouse! Thinking that is must be an animal of some kind, he borrowed a box-type trap and set it in the attic. A few nights ago, we were sent pictures around 1:00am of the raccoon they caught, and the following day, a picture of all the baby raccoons they found when they took apart the eaves on the side of the house!
Now, hearing noises coming from the attic and realizing that something else is living in your house is certainly one of those things that would make my ears tingle! But there are other things that might cause the same response in us.
In our scripture today, the young boy Samuel, who was dedicated to the service of God by his parents, has been taken to the central temple in Shiloh where he can be mentored by the Priest Eli. One of Samuel’s responsibilities is to make sure that the Lamp of God remains lit at night, so he must sleep inside the sanctuary, near the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant is located. And one night, as Samuel lay sleeping in the sanctuary, he hears a voice calling him, “Samuel, Samuel.” Now if you are one of only two people inhabiting a certain space, and you hear someone calling your name, you would most likely assume, as Samuel did, that it was the voice of the other person. But when Samuel repeatedly goes to Eli after hearing this, Eli begins to perceive that this voice must be the voice of God. So he instructs Samuel to go back and lie down, and if he hears the voice again, to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” This time, when God speaks, and Samuel answers, the Lord tells him, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”
I chose this scripture as the backdrop for telling you my own call story today. But first I want to ask you to think about what encounters you have had with God’s Word, or God’s divine presence that have made both of your ears tingle? I’m going to give you a moment of silence to think about that, and then I’ll lead us in a moment of prayer.
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare? Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me? Amen.
[“The Summons” - TFWS #2130, verses 1 & 2]
Some of my earliest memories of encountering God were thanks to my parents who are here with me today. My father retired this year after 54 years of preaching for the churches of Christ in Mississippi. I still cherish the early childhood memories I have of my dad preaching, my mom teaching Sunday School, my grandparents, aunts, uncle, cousins and sisters filling the church pews together, and the beautiful harmonies of unaccompanied congregational hymn-singing. Music – especially hymns – were one of the first ear-tingling ways that God spoke to me, and it is still one of the primary ways that I worship God and express my faith to others.
When I was young, church life spilled over into our family life as we would gather for Sunday dinners at my great-grandmother’s house, and then sit around singing hymns on her screened-in front porch. It was the basis for fun and friendship, through church dinners on the ground, ice cream socials, and gatherings in each other’s homes. As a child, I even talked my sister, cousins and friends into ‘playing church’ with me – but only if I got to be the song-leader AND the preacher! But unfortunately, those were positions in the particular church of my childhood that I could only pretend about; because in this church, only men were allowed to lead.
As I outgrew playing pretend, I began to notice things that seemed unfair, or unjust, in the world around me – especially in the 1970’s and 80’s in Mississippi. I noticed gender inequality and the way some people talked about women as sexual objects instead of as a person in her own right – especially if she held some job or position of authority. I heard racist jokes, and noticed racial and ethnic bias, oppression, and economic disparity. I noticed the ways some people were put down or left out, the way people were talked about and talked to, and the ways some people were treated, and I began to wonder why…
At this time in my life, I couldn’t make sense of a God who would allow these kinds of injustices; and because my everyday world was so closely tied to church and to God, I began to blame the church for not doing enough to ‘fix’ things that were wrong in the world, especially as I perceived some church members themselves to be on the offending sides of these actions, and this eventually hurt my relationship with God and with my family.
As I grew into my teens, I of course thought I had the world figured out, and I was sure that I would be better off without the constraints of a hypocritical church telling me what I could or couldn’t do. So I left home for college, and I turned my back on my faith.
Now without faith to anchor me, and without a faith community to hold me accountable, or to watch over me, I began to make choices and engage in activities and relationships that brought me and others more harm than good. The Bible is full of examples of people who have found themselves in the midst of brokenness and pain.
In 1 Samuel, we learn that the people of Israel, after being led to the Promised Land, have quickly forgotten their promises to God. They have gotten busy with their own lives, they hardly come to temple any more; the scripture says that in those days “the word of the Lord was rare.” Even the priest Eli’s sons have become susceptible to corruption and abuse of power; chapter 2 details how they preyed on the vulnerabilities of women, and took what they wanted from the offerings people brought to the temple, even threatening force, if necessary. Eli seems at a loss for how to deal with his sons, and allows their abuse of power to go unchecked. And so, without the foundation of God’s Word in their lives, and without the support of a faithful community, the people of Israel find themselves in the midst of struggles.
In my own life, even though I had become disillusioned with the church, there were times growing up when I desperately wanted to know God, and when I prayed for God’s direction in my life. And God, in God’s faithfulness, did not abandon me. In college, I came to a crossroads where I had to decide whether to continue living in fear and isolation, not trusting God or others to love or accept me, or to take a leap of faith and hope that God existed, and that I could somehow start over. I can look back at this time in my life and see very clearly God’s prevenient grace at work in my life. When I reached this crossroads and began to pray for help, there was a particular professor of mine who asked for a meeting with me. I had missed a lot of class, and I was sure he was going to tell me that I was failing. But when I walked into his office and sat down, he leaned across his desk and said, “I want you to know that I and my whole church have been praying for you. They don’t know your name, but they know that I have been very worried about you. And so I just wanted you to know that God sees and loves you, and that you are not alone.” Are your ears tingling? Mine were!
After that, I had another professor who offered me a small scholarship to come sing in the church choir she directed. She wanted me to know that she had already talked to her choir and to one of her pastors about me and some of my struggles, and that they would not judge me – that they would be happy to be my church. Again, my ears were tingling!
In this new community of faith, I was able to learn of God’s unconditional love as it was being shown to me through others who seemed to have some of the same concerns about the world that I did. I was supported with kindness and patience as I grappled with my understanding of who God was and healed from past hurts. As I experienced a renewal in my relationship with God, I also experienced restored relationships with my family. When I started my own family with a new husband and daughter, we were surrounded by this church with nurture and care. This wonderful expression of God’s love led me to a new commitment to learning about Jesus and sharing that love in my life – in the church, we call this discipleship.
In my life, God had claimed me in my baptism, and God’s Spirit, though I didn’t always perceive it, had always been present with me. This was my first call – and in fact is all of our calls to know, love and serve God. For a time, I stopped listening to God’s Word in my life, and I wandered away from God’s path. In our scripture today, this is where we find the people of Israel. But notice God’s unwillingness to leave them. Notice how persistently God calls Samuel – not once or twice but as many times as it takes for Samuel to recognize and respond. Notice, too, that it took the help of Eli – the act of collaboration with the worshiping community – to recognize God’s voice. When Samuel was open to hearing God’s call, Go set to work on a program for Israel’s renewal.
At this time in Israel’s history, they were still living in encampments without a permanent home and without a formalized government – and they were being ruled by greed and corruption. The people of Israel needed to make a transition from a tumultuous way of living, constantly battling neighboring forces in order to survive, to a new way of being – a new community led by a benevolent monarchy. God said, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” We know, of course, that because of the flaws of humanity, the world would eventually need another plan for renewal until God sent the only One who could save a broken world – that One is Jesus.
Because of Jesus, we are all given the opportunity to become ‘new’ – to have a new way of living in relationship with God and with others. Thanks to God’s Amazing grace, I have learned that life in Jesus is the answer to the pain, brokenness and struggles I have experienced. In the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth, he says:
17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (1 Corinthians 5:15-21)
I love those words, ‘the ministry of reconciliation.’ For many years, I have loved having the opportunity to witness to God’s transforming love through the ministry of music. But several years ago, I began to question whether singing to and with those who were already coming to church was the best way to let the world know about God. I had been taking Disciple Bible study, and was beginning to sense that there was a ministry beyond that of music that God was calling me to. It was about this time that I was visiting my parents in Mississippi, and decided to attend church with them. This was a different congregation that the ones I had grown up in. So I didn’t know many people there, and I was probably somewhat disconnected from worship that morning… until one of the men stepped up to read that morning’s scripture, and I heard something that made both my ears tingle:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)
In that moment, I had a new understanding of this scripture – an understanding that this wasn’t just a far-off promise for life after this one, but God’s plan – God’s desire – for life here on the earth God created. This was the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ to which we are all called – life lived in the wholeness that God intended when God first spoke the world into existence; life lived ‘on earth, as it is in heaven.’ And then, just as I was experiencing this realization, I heard a voice as clearly as if someone had been standing right beside me say, “One day you will proclaim the Word.” Are your ears tingling?
That was in 2013. It took me five years to fully follow what I perceived God calling me to do. And I want to acknowledge that sometimes, like in our scripture today, when we hear the voice of God, our ears may tingle with fear for what it may cost us. Sometimes we may think that what God is asking of us is too hard, or may require sacrifices we’re unwilling to make; it may take us out of our comfort zones by requiring us to do or say something that is counter-cultural, or unpopular with our friends and family. In my own life, I can only say that every time I have been faithful to follow God’s call in my life, God has been faithful to go before me and with me, and has guided me every step of the way.
Now, my calling may have been to a ministry that would eventually become my vocation. But each and every one of us have been called and claimed by God. God is calling all of us to be disciples and ministers of reconciliation. Like our scripture today, I believe that God’s call is always best perceived in the context of community, and I am so excited to be joining the disciples here at Maple Grove, and to listen together for the ways that God will speak to us about how we can join God in the mission of bringing others into this community of love. Just like our scripture today, I believe that God has set to work on a plan for renewal for the community of West Des Moines and Waukee, and I believe that God is calling us to be co-creators of a new beloved community!
Over the next three weeks, we will consider three essential questions, “Why do people need Jesus? Why do people need the church? and Why do people need this church?” that will help us lay the foundation for reaching out to those in our community who right now may be living unconnected to the love of God, and the love of a faith community. If we listen to the news or to conversations in the grocery store or on social media, we know that people in our world are hurting. People are looking to the church, just like I did in my teens, and asking whether or not they can trust us to be bearers of good news. Will we show them a God who is able to love and mend, a God who cares about abuse of power and injustice? A God who sees them and loves them and calls them by name to be part of a community who loves them just the same? This is our call. Are your ears tingling?
Let us pray:
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name? Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same? Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen, and ad mit to what I mean in you and you in me?
Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same. In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.
["The Summons" - TFWS #2130, verses 3 & 5]