Sunday, October 15, 2017

Hearing God

1 Samuel 3:1-21
“Hearing God”
15 October 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

Has anyone heard God speak directly to them? While it hasn’t happened to your beloved chaplain, he is fully aware that sometimes people do hear God speak directly and distinctly to them. I do know that if God were to speak to me I probably would not believe that I was hearing God, that the voice was the one in my mind or that I overheard someone’s nearby conversation.

Because someone hasn’t heard from God doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy or loved by God. Much like the beginning of this passage, God isn’t appearing to us in overt and obvious ways. Again, this doesn’t mean that God has left us to fend for ourselves all alone without communication or guidance. Just that God is working in our world through different means.

I’m also not so sure how God appearing in the sky or simultaneously on every mobile device on earth would be received. There would probably be a mix of fear that the end was near, that it was the greatest hoax ever devised, that an alien race was near and poised to destroy the earth, name whatever your fantasy scenario.

We have become people who expect and demand proof, so when we don’t see God face to face we can doubt the possibility of God in the world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, for you need faith to doubt. Faith leads to questions that introduce doubt, doubt leads to exploring and strengthening faith. The cycle continues.

God seems distant in the world. The religious establishment is battered and bruised through scandals of all kinds, especially those dealing with sex, money, and substances. People’s trust and high view of religion and those who practice religions are on the decline. Religion is viewed as a hindrance to society rather than a help. Those who are religious begin to quietly ponder if God has abandoned us because of what is going on in the world.

Sound familiar? That is exactly what was going on in Israel during the time of Samuel’s call to the priesthood.

Sometimes, modern culture tends to think that our situation and the state of the world is a new development that has never been experienced in history. Today’s passage demonstrates that history does have a tendency to repeat itself.

Eli was an ageing priest whose sons had completely defamed the name of Eli and the priestly office he held. So much so that God has already told Eli he would be the last priest from his family. Israel was asking for a king, yet again so they could be like their neighbors and have a better standing in the world. The religious judges and priests hadn’t worked, in fact they were getting in the way of Israel becoming the power it was destined to become. People were unsure of God’s power in the world because God wasn’t physically there in a column of smoke or fire anymore.

Just like with Israel, God is still very much present and at work in the world today, just in a different way.

 It’s of note that Samuel’s call is different than the call of Moses and most other call stories we will hear in Scripture. In this case, Samuel does hear God clearly speaking to him, yet he is still young enough in the faith that he doesn’t full understand or recognize what is happening. He didn’t even know enough to ask the right questions. He just assumed that Samuel was calling for him. At least Samuel knew enough to go and ask Eli if he called.

Samuel’s call is also one to speak a word not against Israel, but against one individual, Eli. God tells Samuel that Eli’s days as a priest are over and that Samuel is the next priest for Israel. He will now be God’s voice and representative to God’s people. Samuel was reluctant at first, but did tell Eli. In a bit of shock, Eli took the news in a good spirit and honored both God and Samuel by continuing to teach and mentor Samuel towards his priestly office.

This passage beautifully demonstrates how intergenerational ministry should occur in the world. The youth and open ears of Samuel provided a conduit for God to do some amazing work in the world and to introduce something that would make everyone’s ears tingle. The elder Eli listened to what Samuel was hearing and through his wisdom knew it was God speaking and working in the world and Eli gave Samuel the time and mentorship to help God work in the world through Samuel.

God speaks in a variety of ways so we need a variety of mentors and experienced brothers and sisters in Christ to help us discern God’s voice in the cacophony of noise that surrounds us each day. Those of the older and wiser persuasion need to listen for God’s call on the younger believers through their actions and words. Conversely, the younger members need to take their ideas and inspiration to those who’ve been around a while to hear their suggestions and ways to enact God’s work in the world, because those with experience will help us avoid the pitfalls and frustration endured by many before us.

Along with the dual nature of intergenerational ministry spurring our ideas to completion, let’s also look at the interesting turn of phrase used in this passage, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”

What a powerful way to let the world know something amazing is about to occur. If someone were to tell you today that they had something that would make your ears tingle, what kind of news would you expect? Perhaps it would be juicy gossip. Maybe there is some bad news on the way for which they want to prepare you. Much like the character Saru in the new Star Trek Discovery series, where his body physically reacts to fearful situations, in our world today we tend to assume that when our ears tingle it signifies something bad is on the way.

There is nothing bad with ears that tingle in fear. In fact, that is a great defense mechanism that can save us from much trouble and harm. However, we cannot ever let fear be the only way in which our body reacts, or our ears tingle, to upcoming events and news. We also need to allow our ears to tingle with hope that good news is coming.

Hope in the world and people is a diminishing art and skill in the world. Not every situation or every action is something to fear and cause stress. Granted, there are plenty of situations where fear is warranted. I’m not saying that we should ignore the tingle of fear, rather that we should allow our souls to recognize both fear and hope in the world around us and act out of a healthy balance between the two.

I must make a confession to you all. I am one who tends to assume any tingle of my ears is one due to hope while ignoring the dangers of the world or the actions of others. If you doubt me self-assessment, feel free to ask my lovely wife and she will regale you with tales of my leaning too far towards a posture of hope. So, I need to work on not subduing my fear response as much as I do. I think we all need to get to a healthy balance. Not exactly 50-50 but maybe 70% hope and 30% fear.

This takes us back to the need to do what Samuel did in this passage. He was listening with both ears and wasn’t sure so took his concern to someone with more experience for advice and guidance. Something I know I could do more often in my own life. Even when God told him something that was fearful for Samuel in having to speak against his mentor, Eli gave him the strength and courage to do what God had instructed. Eli gave him the safe space he needed to be the priest God had intended.

As a church we are called to be that safe space where people can discern the right balance of fear and hope. A place where we can help others navigate the rapids of life with experienced guides. A place where our fears and hopes can be laid bare so that we can go forward with confidence and trust not just in each other but in God. Then we will know that even when the word of the Lord is rare, God is still speaking.

You can listen to sermons from St. Andrew's Military Chapel here.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Unexpected Blessing

Exodus 16:1-18
“Unexpected Blessing”
08 October 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

Anyone here ever complained to God? I mean a good, stern, one-way conversation from you to God. Ever had a moment where you think God has let you down? Not in a superficial way or a way in which you feel slighted because you didn’t get what you wanted. But where you are without basic needs and at such a point where the only thing you can do is cry out to God and tell God that you’ve been let down. That you are in need and God needs to drop everything God is doing, focus on you for just a moment and fill your need.

If you’ve ever been there it’s not a comfortable place. You are completely reliant on someone or something else and everything is out of your control. It may result in a panic attack or just shutting down. You are so frustrated, angry, and desperate that nothing on earth can help you. You only have one option and that is to let God and the world know you are at wits end and need whatever help God will provide. Your complaints may not directly address God because you don’t want to seem unfaithful for questioning God’s plan in the world, so you find someone with power and address your complaints to them and are praying that your cries will be heard and taken seriously.

This is where Israel finds itself in today’s passage. God brought up Moses to deliver them from Egypt in dramatic fashion. Then they ventured into the desert following where they eventually ran out of water. They let Moses know and God provided water and led them to a place with 12 springs of water. As they set out again, the food ran out. Again, they complained to Moses and pondered whether it would have been better to die in Egypt than starve in the wilderness.

God heard these cries and sent quail each evening and manna in the morning to satisfy the basic needs of Israel. But, there was a catch. They could only gather what they needed for themselves. If they gathered too much, it would go bad the next day. On the sixth day, they could gather two measures so they would not have to work on the Sabbath. Other than that, there was no way to gather more than one needed.

If you didn’t gather the full measure allotted you still had enough for the day and were satisfied and without hunger. Everyone had exactly the amount they needed and not much more. There was no way to go without and no way to take too much.

As we can see from this story of Israel, food insecurity is a trying time for anyone. When people are hungry they get desperate. In this case, many were comparing what death by starvation would look like to death as a slave and were seriously contemplating death by a slave as preferable. When one is without the basic need of food, one can take fairly drastic action to meet that need.

Unfortunately, food insecurity is still alive and well in our world. For most of us in developed countries we don’t fully grasp the breadth or complexities of the problem. Or, if we have seen and met people in food insecure areas, we get so overwhelmed with the issue that we don’t know where to start or how to help. Issues as large as hunger can paralyze us into inaction. Not because we don’t want to help, but because it’s so big we don’t know how to help.

The United Nations estimates over 750 million people living in food insecurity with 66 million children worldwide attending school hungry. Two-thirds of the population here in Asia are classified as hungry. Wherever do we start and how can we help?

There are many organizations that have programs to feed the world. The United Nations has its own food distribution program, as do many of our home countries. America has United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The UK has the Department for International Development (DFID). Australia has Australian Aid (AusAID). New Zealand has the New Zealand Aid Programme. Even a country such as Singapore with no agriculture has the Singapore Cooperation Programme. Many developed countries have ways to provide assistance to countries in the developing world.

Additionally, there are many non-profits that provide aid around the world. Some just provide meals while others teach sustainable agriculture or how to become more efficient farmers. Still others provide a combination of education, meals, outreach, and agriculture techniques.  Studies have demonstrated that there is enough food in the world, it just doesn’t end up distributed globally.

So, what does this mean to us? It means that the church has a role in alleviating suffering locally and around the globe. We have been blessed in a variety of ways and it is our calling to share that blessing with the world. It can be something as simple as only buying what you need to cook. If you cook more than you can eat, save the leftover for a later meal. We can give of our time or money to organizations that are working to ensure food gets distributed where needed. The list is long, but we can do something. This isn’t a problem that is too large for God and the church. In fact, it’s a God sized problem that needs a God sized solution.

There is one more lesson from this story. God is at work in and through the world. So, help may come through ordinary means.

            A man was stuck on his rooftop during a flood. As a good Christian, he was praying to God to send help and save him. A man in a rowboat came by and offered him a ride. The man shouted back that God would save him. Later a motorboat approached and offered him a ride. Again, the man said that God would save him. After a while, a helicopter spotted the man on his roof. They lowered a rope to pull him up to which the man again said that God would save him. Eventually, the flood rose too high and the man drowned. In heaven, he confronted God and asked why God didn’t save him. God replied, “I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat, and a helicopter. What more did you expect.”

            If God calls us to bless the world, then we should expect other people to be a place where we too receive a blessing. Miracles happen each and every day under ordinary circumstances and from ordinary people.

In today’s passage, blessing and care for Israel came in the form of quail and a flaky, bread-like substance we call manna. It’s not exactly what they were expecting or desiring, but it was a blessing still. In a similar way, we need to avoid the denial of the man on the roof when God is using others in the world to provide our needs. Israel recognized God at work each morning and evening when the food they needed arrived. So too should we look for ways that God is at work in the world providing for us.

            And that is the way blessings should work. The heavens don’t have to open and God doesn’t have appear in a burning bush for something to be of God. We receive an unexpected and unmerited blessing from somewhere or someone we didn’t realize was a blessing every day. When we remember back to Genesis 12 we are called to take every blessing we are given and use it to bless the world. Most likely, it won’t be in some grand gesture. Many times we may not realize we are blessing someone with our words and actions. Because we are called to be the subtle blessing of the world, we may not see ourselves being blessed either. So we need to stop for a moment each day, recognize and give thanks for the blessings in our lives. Then we are called to find a way to use that blessing to bless others in the world, to pay that forward as the unexpected blessing in someone else’s life.

You can listen to sermons from St. Andrew's Military Chapel here.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

What's In A Name?

Exodus 3:1-15
“What’s In a Name”
01 October 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

Does anyone here know what their name means?

Until a few days ago I didn’t really know the origin of my name or its meaning. Apparently, Charles comes from the German name Karl, meaning man. An alternate way to define that name is that it means army or warrior. The name became popular when Charlemagne became famous. Charlemagne actually comes from Charles the Great. How’s that for a powerful name.

Then I looked up the meaning of Russell, my middle name. That one has a very different meaning. It’s actually a surname, or last name, that comes from French meaning little red one. Odd as I’ve never had red hair, and can’t recall anyone in my immediate family with red hair either.

Perhaps it’s time to start following my wife’s advice and go by Charles rather than Russ.

Though after living in Singapore, maybe I’ll combine the two and be the king of the little red dot.

I was intrigued so I started looking into the history of our names and learned how important our surname, last name, or family name used to be in culture. Back in the Middle Ages, the family name was commonly used to denote one’s occupation, appearance, or location where they lived. Smith was usually a one who worked with a metal such as a blacksmith, goldsmith, or brownsmith. Taylor comes from those who were tailors. Brown comes from the color of one’s hair. Hill and Green come from places where the family resided or originated.

There are some names that describe where someone is in the family pecking order. Johnson comes from son of John or John’s son. If we want to shorten the name Johnson we get Jones. Williams comes from son or descendent of William.

I found this all fascinating because I’ve never really been one to derive meaning out of my name, or the name of others. If I ever delved into my family history it was the genealogy and the stories that were passed down. I remember my dad telling tales of the distant relative that was a horse thief, or the princess of the Blackfoot Indian tribe.

But, this passage focused me on names and the power and meaning of those names. Beyond just identifying what one’s vocation in life or their home land, the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, are full of names with rich meaning.

Let’s look at the names we’ve heard the last two weeks. Adam can translate as from the earth. Eve can translate as living one or source of life. Isaac can translate as he laughs, based off how Abraham and Sarah laughed at the thought of having a child at their old age. Rebekah can translate as connection or to couple or join. Esau can mean red one, which depicts the color of the stew for which he sold his birthright. Jacob means supplanter or one who follows on another’s heels. He was the second of twins after all. Later, his name is changed to Israel, he that strives with God or is ruling with God.

Names are important in the Bible, and God will change people’s names to signify a change in their role or status within leading Israel. Because of the importance of a name we see them repeated over and over as well as used to describe the family from which someone descended. Names serve as a marker in a shared story, a place with which we can connect and enter.

We still do this in modern times. While the name itself doesn’t offer a description of a person’s characteristics, vocation, or appearance someone’s name provides details about that individual and who they are and their back story. When we meet a new person most of us will ask who they know that we may know. We use those common names among us and the connections they derive to include a new person into our story and to mark the place where the fringe of our story, entered into the background description of that person’s story.
Moses comes from the root word meaning to pull up out of the water. Fitting name given his story. He was born illegally and his mother placed him in a basket hidden among the reeds where Pharaoh’s daughter found him. What is shocking about this is that her father is the one who gave an order to kill every newborn Hebrew boy. So in a bold act of civil disobedience from the midwives and his mother that let Moses live to a daughter and her court standing up against Pharaoh, Moses lives. Ultimately to stand up against Pharaoh and free Israel from bondage. Pulled out of the water to stand against the king.

Moses is allowed to live at great risk to many people and grows up in Pharaoh’s house. He somehow knows that he is Hebrew and not Egyptian. While out one day he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, had enough and killed the Egyptian. This caused him to flee. He eventually stands up for a group of women at a well (there’s that water thing again), marries one and becomes a shepherd. All the while, God is listening to the cries of the Israelites in Egypt.

One day, Moses meets God. Not face to face for that would be too much to handle for a human. God appears in a burning bush that was not consumed by the fire. During this conversation, God tells Moses that Moses would be the one to free Israel from Egypt. Moses wants nothing to do with that endeavor and keeps finding excuses to not go to Egypt. As a tactic to get out of this assignment, Moses is clever and asks God for God’s name. But, how will they know you sent me, Moses asks. How do I get them to follow me?

So, God gives Moses the divine name. I am who I am is how it reads in most translations including the one we used today. We can also translate from the Hebrew as I will be who I will be. I don’t think this dual use was accidental. God gives a name that means God is and will always be. We see God today through God’s actions and work in the world and we will continue to see God in the future through God’s work in the world. Alpha and omega, beginning fulfillment of the world. In today’s passage, we are all invited into this story through not just any name, but the name.

It’s of note that in the next verse, the writer uses the tetragrammaton to describe God. This can also be conceived as a conjunction of was, is, and will be. Again, God is timeless. If you remember from a the last time we discussed God’s name, it is four consonants (yod, heh, wav, heh) that together are unpronounceable and sound like breathing. In this way God is always there and we say God’s name with every breath.

God is telling Moses, I’m with you and I’ve got this. You tell everyone else I’ve got your back because I am all there is and all there ever will be. Look around, I am there. Two songs sum up this idea beautifully. The first by Mark Shultz has the lyrics, “I am the universe, I am in every heart, I am where you are.” Also, Bebo Norman sings: “I am in the shade, I am in the light that love has made, I am in the cold, I am in the warm, I am in the center of your storm, I am in the fire, I am in the flood, I am in the marrow and the blood, When you cannot stand I am.”

Our names matter. God’s name is the name above all names because it is the name that was, is, and will be. God’s name is all encompassing because God is all encompassing. God is all around us speaking to us in wondrous and mysterious ways. Sometimes through a burning bush or other miraculous sign, but mostly through others or the still, small voice of God. God speaks God’s name to us to comfort us, inspire us, provoke us, comfort us. God’s name is powerful and matters.

God is always with us. God will be who God will be and we are part of that story as we utter God’s name with each breath we take. When we breathe in and out the name of God we connect our story with God’s story. By becoming part of God’s story our story matters and we too are given the tools, inspiration, motivation, and comfort we need to do the work of God in the world. We are always saying God’s name and always part of God and God’s plan in the world. Through God’s name we matter.

You can listen to sermons from St. Andrew's Military Chapel here.