This is the message I presented on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 19 January 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10 (11 – 20), 1 Corinthians 6: 12- 20, and John 1: 43 – 51.
Throughout the years I have had the chance to hear or know about a number of children’s sermons. One sermon that I would like to have heard involved the senior pastor at one of the churches in Memphis. This particular pastor had an aversion to doing children’s sermons, preferring to let his associate pastor or the Director of Christian Education do them. But he was forced into doing a children’s sermon one Sunday because he found out that the children didn’t know who he was or what he did each Sunday. Unfortunately, because of a previous commitment I did not get to be there for that momentous occasion.
But, of all the children’s sermons that I have heard, the best one came on Laity Sunday in 1992. When I came to this particular church, Laity Sunday was an occasion for the regular pastor to take the Sunday off and have the lay speaker do everything from the opening announcements to the closing benediction. All in all, it was not really fair to the congregation or to the lay speaker.
When I took on this particular assignment in 1991, I wanted to involve the entire laity in the service. Based on the success of the 1991 service, we sought to replicate it in 1992. For the children’s sermon that year, I wanted Kathy Mugge to do it. Kathy was a young, active mother in the church and a language teacher in the local Catholic school system. Because she was a teacher, many in the congregation wanted her to teach the junior high kids during Sunday school. They could not understand why she would refuse to do so. Some were even very nasty in response to her refusal.
But her refusal was based on sound reasoning and supported by the pastor. She worked with that same age group all week long and she was entitled to time off from teaching in order to enjoy the meaning of Sunday herself. We find many times that people in a church congregation think that because someone is good at something or does something every day, that they are automatically willing to take on that task for the church on Sunday. It does not always work out that way because they do not get a chance to recharge or enjoy the meaning of Sunday. If someone wants to do something for the church that is in line with what they do every day, then let them; but do not force them.
Were it not for the fact that the message that I was presenting that Sunday included the passage from Samuel that we read this morning, I would not have even approached Kathy about doing the children’s sermon for me. But I explained what I had in mind and she readily agreed to do so. Once the children had gathered on the altar, she greeted them with “Guten haben, mein herren and mein damen.” She continued in German, encouraging the children to wave to their mothers and fathers. Because I was seated behind the children, I could not see their faces and that is something I have always regretted. For I could not see the bewilderment or confusion that surely was on their faces. But through her coaching and the use of German words that are the root of common English words, the children quickly understood what it was she was saying. Her message still rings true today, that while God may speak to us clearly and distinctly, we are not always able to understand what he is saying. Like Samuel, we hear God calling but do not always recognize that it is He who is doing so.
It is hard to describe how one hears God. Often times, we think and are told that such encounters must be like Paul’s on the road to Damascus or Moses’ with the burning bush. Even today there are those who will say that unless there is thunder and lightning or other similar events taking place, at least in your mind, then our encounter with God is limited and invalid.
We should not try to justify or question someone else’s calling. But we should make sure that we hear the calling that is meant for us. The church in Corinth struggled with division among its members, division created by how each group was identified and how it interpreted the Gospel message. The Corinthians interpreted the message in terms of the person delivering the message rather than through Jesus Christ. Paul’s words for today were meant to show that you could not interpret the Gospel in a way that simply justified what you wanted to do. Rather, in following the Gospel, you choose a different path.
We might be tempted to just write off this problem, saying that it was a young church, still in a growing stage of life. But it is something that we still do today. Society today tends to exalt dynamic leaders, especially those who are engaging Christian speakers or vibrant, charismatic spiritual leaders. Our identification belongs with Jesus Christ and His message, not with the messenger.
God uses sinful people. (From Connections, #123 – January 2003, Barbara Wendland)
From what we read in the Bible it seems quite clear that God calls people who are far from sinless. Look at Moses. While the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, he murdered a man and fled to avoid being caught. Look at David, too. Scripture shows God calling him “a man after my own heart,” yet he blatantly committed adultery. Not only that, he schemed to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle, to get him out of the way. And we read about David publicly exposing himself in a way that onlookers criticized and that we would consider indecent if not criminal.
We’d reject some that God has called
Many leaders chosen by God in more recent times are also well known to have had far less than perfect records of behavior. John Wesley, for example, had a questionable history of relationships with women. Martin Luther King’s sexual behavior was evidently far from admirable. Yet someone whose behavior was known to be similar to either of these men’s would be unacceptable in the ordained ministry of many of today’s churches. And we could name many other outstanding Christian leaders who were called by God but whose behavior wasn’t perfect.
God doesn’t require perfection
Countless examples make clear that God calls and uses imperfect people to carry out the ministries God wants done. That’s fortunate, isn’t it, because if perfection were a requirement for being called by God and accepting the call, then none of us would qualify. In fact, God would have a very severe shortage of people to use as leaders.
Can we justify being more selective than God? That question isn’t as easy to answer as it may seem, because in today’s institutionalized church and especially in today’s litigious society, we probably must have standards for who we will let represent the church and who we won’t. Still, we need to keep asking, “Can we legitimately reject someone whom God has called?”
So the question is how do we hear God’s call? Will it be with thunder and lightning and voices calling down from heaven, as it was for Paul. Or will it be from a burning bush that is never consumed, as it was for Moses? I think not.
The way in which we encounter God is going to be one we least expect. Like the disciples, God is likely to come up to us in the form of a passing stranger or a close friend. It was that way throughout Jesus’ entire ministry. Though the crowds that grew around him were enough to tell people that He was entering the city, he never encouraged such announcements. He did not send in advance teams to rent out the local amphitheater. More often, his work and ministry was done quietly and humbly.
God’s call to each one of us, more often than not, will have us to do something for others. That’s what makes it so difficult to hear the call and even more difficult to answer it. Look at the twelve who were first called. To each of the twelve chosen to be a disciple, Jesus simply said, “Follow me.”
It could not have been very practical to just get up, leave their present jobs and families behind. To follow Jesus at that time was a very risky venture. Times were tough and this man from Nazareth was asking them to leave everything and work for him, not knowing if they would get paid for their efforts. Better to stay where they were, doing what they knew best and eke out a living as best as they could. And though we know what the disciples did, we never hear what they wives and families said or what they thought.
But, Jesus was the one they were expecting. Philip and Andrew both knew that the Messiah was coming and what they saw told them that Jesus was perhaps that person. Only Nathaniel was initially skeptical, citing the common belief of the time that Nazareth was not a place from which great persons came. But as we read, when the evidence was put forth, even Nathaniel believed.
Following God requires faith and commitment. If we have the faith to believe and we make the commitment, we can do anything. Ask Noah or Samuel or any of the earlier disciples what faith meant to them. Ask the early circuit riders of the Methodist Church in America what commitment to the program meant. Could they have survived the weeks traveling from town to town, in all types of weather, were it not for their own faith or their commitment to the Gospel message? Where would this church be were it not for those early circuit riders?
Francis Asbury, the first Bishop of our church, made it a point to emphasize the physical struggles that these early preachers would have to endure. He didn’t want someone whose commitment was weak or whose faith was not the strongest. He wasn’t looking for someone who was in it for personal glory, for there was none to be given back then. Glory and fame would come later, if at all.
Just as then, our own encounters with God today will come through those moments where our service is needed the most. An atheist is said to have proclaimed, in what must have surely been a shock to his or her friends, that they met Christ in Calcutta after observing Mother Teresa move about quietly, taking care of those in need, without fanfare or announcement. For Mother Teresa, service was more than praying about the outcome. Service was helping those in need because it was a completion of Matthew 25: 31 – 46, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was naked and you clothed me; I was homeless and you took me in.”
So how will we hear God’s call? Will it be from someone in need whom we choose to walk right by? Will it be from someone hungry whom we choose not to feed? Will we miss the cry of those who cry out for peace and justice simply because it is not the politically correct thing to do at this time? Will it come from some soul who seeks to find peace and solitude in a world of darkness and trouble but whose cries are muffled by the disagreements between people?
Will we be like the Corinthians, following leaders more interested in their own agenda rather than the true message of the Gospel? Will we be at first skeptical that God would even speak to us here at Tompkins Corners?
This much is certain; God’s call to us will come in a way that we do not expect; He will ask us to do something we don’t think we can do. And each person’s call will be as different as the person receiving it will. It is will also be hard to say how many opportunities we will be given to hear God’s call for service. But each encounter that we have with someone may be that occasion when choosing to speak to us.
In his book A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins described his journey from Alfred University in upstate New York through North Carolina and Alabama to New Orleans. Along the way, he had a chance to attend an old-fashion church revival in Mobile, Alabama. There it became clear that what he would find on his journey was his own salvation and the answers he was looking for in his search for the truth. But he also found that what he was looking for was not found at the revival; rather, it was at the revival that he discovered that he had met the Holy Spirit through the quiet lives of people he had encountered during his time walking down the Appalachians. It was at the revival that he began to understand how the presence of the Holy Spirit provides the strength and support needed when encountering many great difficulties.
There is the old evangelist’s song about Jesus calling. He does not call loud and strong but softly and sweetly; it is a call that does not go away easily. And just God kept calling on Samuel, so too will he keep calling on each one of us until we answer that call. We have the opportunity to answer God’s call; shouldn’t we do so?