Traditional Sermon, Pentecost 9
Shema Israel Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad… “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one.”
This is the first line of the prayer known as the Shema, that Pastor Pretz mentioned in his sermon last week. The Shema is recited or chanted twice daily (morning & night) by Orthodox Jews. This first line, found in Deuteronomy 6:4, is one of the first things taught to Jewish children. In light of our question for the day, “Can you hear me now?”, this Shema seems appropriate. The word itself, translated in this instance as the verb “to hear” does not quite fully grasp its entire meaning. It not only means “to hear” but it has aspects of active listening, and striving, not just to hear, but to understand and contemplate just what it means that the Lord, our God is one. There is a big difference between hearing or recognizing something and understanding the implications of that something in relation to our lives. This became oddly clear over the last couple weeks as I have been taking the sign language class here with Pastor Russ. Everything in the class is without voice. I can see his hands moving… I see the message very clearly, but I have no understanding of what that message actually is saying or what implications that message might have.
The keyword here, that seminaries use for this process of trying to understand what God is saying to us, is DISCERNMENT… So in light of this, I thought I might share a little of my story here. People had mentioned to me in the past that I should consider being a pastor, but I had always completely blown them off. I have what you could call, a rough past. I was never arrested or spent any time in real trouble, but let me tell you, it was by the grace of God because the friends I was hanging out with certainly did. In fact, at one point I had reached so low that I found myself sleeping in the back of a beat up old Camaro on the street in the middle of a very rough part of Louisville, KY. I remember lying there in the middle of the night staring up at the sky through the glass of the back hatch and thinking, this is it. I had taken a wrong turn somewhere, and if I didn’t find a way to correct my course, in the gutter of a street somewhere like this would be where I would meet my end. Oddly enough, it didn’t upset me. At this point I decided, really what did I have to lose. If this was what my death was going to look like if I kept going the way I was going, what did I have to lose if I made a change. Something my grandfather had told me once, that had always stuck with me, ran through my mind. He had said, that if you listen real close and truly pay attention, you can hear the voice of God in the wind through the trees. I decided I had to get back to familiar ground and back to those trees. It caused me to swallow some rather enormous pride and make a couple of collect phone calls. I decided I had to get back to where I thought I could hear God more clearly, back to the place where I was thrown off course. I headed back to the farm.
Anyway, back to the story, even though those days had long been past and so much had happened since then, when I looked in the mirror, it was still that person I saw looking back at me. So, as I said, I always just blew off any thoughts about me in any type of religious role.
I had gone back to school and was working on my degree in environmental biology/ecology where I had focused specifically on ornithology (Birds) and was all set to attend Cornell University pending graduation with my bachelor’s degree when my life would take another drastic turn. In my last semester, I developed a softball size mass that prevented me from being able to walk for several weeks while doctors were trying to get swelling down and preparing for surgery, etc. Since the remaining portion of my work was field research, I was unable to graduate. I was forced to drop out. Not only that, but due to the location of the mass it was thought that there was a good chance that I might never be able to ever have children.
I spent the next several years trying to go back and finish my degree but every time I would go back and try to complete my degree something, life or finances, would always prevent me from finishing. In fact, I signed up for classes more than once thinking I was finally going back only to have something else happen. I was so close to what I felt was going to be a success and having my life “together”, whatever that means, only to just have it ripped away. I was angry. What was God trying to tell me? Honestly, if God had asked me, “Can you hear me now?” the answer would have been… A pure and stubborn, “Absolutely not…”. In fact, you might say, that I felt that if this was the way God was going to operate, I didn’t care what God had to say.
Well, my brother got me a job working as a firefighter/EMT and I spent the next few years working in EMS. In this time, something happened. Maybe it was all the suffering I saw working on the ambulance, who knows, but I decided I wanted… no needed, to understand why God would operate in such a way. I started reading. I really got interested in the Old Testament especially. My favorite time of the week became Tuesday night when a Rabbi would come to our church and teach a class on the Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament. I started reading theology, and started learning a little Hebrew and it became “my mission.” Still, I never thought of myself as a pastor. This was more of me taking on God mono e mono. I know it sounds arrogant, but there was something I needed to know. I can’t help but laugh now looking back. Sometimes in the process of looking for an answer to a question that you can never receive an answer to, you find your life completely changed. The pastor even mentioned taking classes at seminary, but again I blew it off.
Then we moved to Virginia and we started attending a church there. The pastor came back from synod assembly and was giving a lecture to the men’s group about the great need for pastors. Something happened. I described it, at the time, as feeling like I had been kicked by a mule (in true Kentucky fashion). The pastor and I started talking, but I had still never finished my bachelor’s degree and that was a requirement. After all, you couldn’t get a master’s degree without a bachelor’s. Regardless, we couldn’t afford it. Still, Meg and I discussed it, and decided why not. Take a “leap of faith” as we called it. If this was really what we were hearing God say and God wanted me to go seminary, God would provide a solution to the financial problem. So I signed up for classes having no idea how we were going to pay for it.
Then the bill arrived. We had managed to scrounge up a little bit, but not near enough to pay for a full semester’s tuition. I was in the downstairs gallery of the museum Meg was working at showing her the bill on my computer. We had decided that I guess I just wasn’t meant to go to seminary after all. I was just about to cancel my classes when a lady in the museum overheard our conversation, walked up and said, “…if that is the only thing stopping you, I’ll cut you a check right now.” A week later, she did just that. She paid for me to go back and finish my degree. Come to find out, I was not the first person she had done this for. I just “happened” you might say, to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, when we think all is lost something happens and it feels like God is screaming, “Can you hear me now?”
Still that is not the end of the discernment process. Just hearing God does not necessarily equal understanding. Another part of discernment is community discernment. I would spend the next several months being interviewed by my committee and the church community also had to examine my call and be directly involved in discerning what God was calling me to do. The importance of community involvement in the process of understanding what God calls us to do cannot be underestimated. In fact, that process of discernment never ends.
Due to our sinful state as human beings, we are born, you could say, with a damaged way to communicate. Even when we hear God, we get a bad signal because our receiver has something interfering with it. We have a faulty connection and get garbled communications at best. The nature of our sinful state prevents us from being able to clearly hear God. The image of the guy from the Verizon commercials walking around testing signal quality comes to mind. Can you hear me now? We can hear You, but we can’t quite make out what You’re saying. As an individual it is much more difficult to put the pieces of the garbled communication together; but as a community, each of us hear portions that other might not and if we work together we get a much clearer picture. Luckily, just as in Mark 7, when Jesus speaks to the deaf man (who couldn’t hear him speak) to make him able to hear, the action of God in our lives is not dependent on whether or not we can hear God. God can and does work in our lives whether we are able to hear it or not. Praise God for that.
In our story from Genesis this morning, Abraham and Sara are almost incapable of believing what they are hearing God say to them. In fact, what Sara hears is so outrageous to her that she laughs. She hears, but she doesn’t understand. But is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Her receiver doesn’t get the complete message and no matter how plainly God is communicating to her, what she hears is garbled. She is told that what she thought was impossible, what she had given up on ever having, was going to happen. She was going to have a son.
This story has a very special place in my heart. As I said earlier. Meg and I had believed that just as we feared, my illness had made me unable to have children. But, lo and behold, today we have a beautiful baby girl. I remember lying in bed and waking up to see Meg staring down out me with a look on her face that is impossible to describe. I remember my first thought being, “Oh crap, what have done now?” However, when she finally spoke all she could say was, “How do you feel about a December baby?” Thinking about my grandfather, I like to think there was a sound of God’s voice whispering on the wind through the trees that day saying, “Can you hear me now?”
Everyone at seminary knew our story they joking called us “Abraham and Sarah” and all but insisted that if the baby was a boy that we name him Isaac. Thank God she is a girl. And just like Sarah, we laughed and still laugh every time we look her. Seems impossible to believe, but there she is.
Today is a special and important day for my family. Today we Baptized the daughter we never thought we would have. From the moment we are born, our ability to understand what God is telling us is affected negatively by our sinful human nature. One of the miracles of Baptism, there is certainly more than one, but one is that it brings us into the family and community of and in Christ. It is that family, that community that helps us put the pieces of God’s message together and helps us understand the Word of God. Today, God asks Elizabeth, as God asks us all, “Can you hear me now?” The answer is… Can I hear You? Not clearly, but thanks to this family and community of God in Christ and by God’s grace, we are here together to help each of us trust in God, figure it out to the best of our human abilities, and put the pieces together.
THANKS BE TO GOD… AMEN…