Sermon January 18, 2015

A sermon at Ketchikan Presbyterian Church by George R. Pasley
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); John 1:43-51

They were not the best of times, far from it. The scribes described the times this way: The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. It was the time of the judges, a time that is described in other parts of the Bible as a time when “each person did as they chose to do.”

I’m not sure.

I’m not sure if that meant there were home invasions and terror. But it did mean there was little respect for God- Eli’s disrespectful sons were proof enough of that. But there was something worse- even the faithful wondered where God was. It was a dystopian world, the world of Eli and Samuel. There was little to celebrate and less reason for hope.

The thing is, I’ve seen folk and met folk who have little to celebrate and who have given up on hope.

They go through the motions, but they’re not far from giving up.

One of the young men at the jail- just 20 years old- committed suicide on Thursday.

I don’t know why, and I’m not sure anybody does. But hopelessness is involved. It always is.

Hopelessness is more than lack of joy. There is a very real feeling of pain, and it is pervasive and when you start to think the pain will never go away- well, tragedy happens.

Great tragedy.

So in some ways, that was the world of Eli and Samuel. So when God DID speak, it took three reports before Eli realized what was happening. God had not gone wondering off on a wild goose chase.

No, God was right there in the middle of things, and God was calling out to a young boy who was being raised by an old, un-reputable priest.

Then there was Nathanael, hanging out under the fig tree.

He was a young man, of the same generation of Phillip and Andrew, maybe a few years younger than Peter. They were all young men, looking for something to do.

Now, next week we’ll read that passage about the fishermen leaving their nets and following Jesus. Much has been said about that abrupt and fateful decision. But one possibility hasn’t been explored too much: hope, and hopelessness.

We know they were dynamic, unstable times in Palestine. Preachers were popping up everywhere, the population was restless, and the politicians were wary. Religious sects were jealous, argumentative and competed for power and influence. In just a few short years, the whole region would explode in revolution. But in the meantime, a generation of young men were looking for opportunity to live meaningful lives- and some of the scholars say that instead, they found lots of locked doors.

So Phillip and Andrew and Nathanael had been talking about the promises of God. They hadn’t given up. They still hoped, and perhaps they even hoped a bit more fervently than their fathers and grandfathers had hoped. But Nathanael, at least, had grown a bit cynical.

Nazareth? Yeah, right. That’s funny.

So there are two problems to overcome. The first is that neither Samuel, nor Nathanael, recognized God at first reference. Each one was eager, each one was willing, but they had handicaps of ignorance and cynicism to overcome.

And how were they overcome? By the guidance of a mentor, and the encouragement of a friend.

Not miracles, not therapy, but advice and encouragement. Simple things that anybody with experience and willingness can provide.

But then, there’s the second problem- us.

You see, Nathanael- well, he was a little suspicious. This stranger was addressing him like he knew him, and he was certain- rock-solid certain- that they’d never met.

Believe me- the normal reaction to the notion that God is paying attention to us is a sneer. God pays attention to saints, not sinners or even ordinary folk. In fact, we might even go so far as to say that God holds us back. After all, visions are not widespread, and good things usually come from good places.

One year ago this week I was in Seattle for a meeting, and I stayed an extra day to be part of an ordination service for a friend. Twenty years after he graduated from seminary, he became an ordained minister. So when he planned his ordination service, he had a certain group of people in mind: his friends from a wide assortment of circles outside the church. People who loved Bert, but had no notion of being loved by Jesus. People who wouldn’t know God was talking to them even if their name was spelled out in the clouds.

Bert wanted them to know, God was there, wherever they were, whatever sort of tree, whatever sort of pitch dark night, whatever sort of boring life, God was there and God was inviting them to something that means something.

So the question is,
Can we imagine?
Can we imagine our life, but different-
Meaning something.
A fountain in the desert
Drawing on some source deep
Within the origins of time and space.
Then imagine this-
We are part of the whole, whatever it is-
And without us, all would be different.
So with us-
All MUST be different.

So- really? Yes, really- Jesus saw you under the alder tree, or whatever else you were under yesterday. And really, Jesus was thinking- why, she’s just the person to give some encouragement to that person over there.
Yes, you. Really.

Wednesday night I met with a few people in Lisa’s office and we discussed a teenager in town. No names, we weren’t told, but Lisa were told that the kid was really interested in computer graphics.

Not much else captures his enthusiasm, but he likes the creativity behind computer graphics. So Lisa asked, do we know anybody who knows computer graphics who could encourage the kid

Well I do, but he lives in Seattle. Scott.

That’s too far away, but I sent him a message anyway. “Josh,” I asked. “Is there anybody up here who could encourage this kid?”

I haven’t shared a message with Scott in five years, but he wrote back almost right away. “I don’t know, but I’ll look. There has to be somebody.”

Now I’m wondering, why was Scott so enthusiastic? I’m guessing that maybe somebody encouraged him.

And I’m thinking, if Lisa’s looking for somebody to help that kid, and Scott is looking for somebody to help that kid, well then- Jesus must be looking too.

So let me take that thought one thought further: somewhere, there’s a kid, or an old person, or a homeless person, or a hungry person, or a parent, who needs some encouragement, who needs to know that God is on their side, and Jesus wants you to be the one.

Yes, you. Really.

Now. This week I’ve been reading the finest spiritual novels I’ve ever read- The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich.

There’s a story about a Catholic priest on an Indian reservation in Minnesota, back in 1919. It was a fiercely cold winter, and they were stricken by the worldwide influenza pandemic. Nineteen million people died around the world, and 200 people died on that reservation in the depths of winter.

But every day that priest went out in search of the sick, accompanied by one large, silent woman whom everybody on the reservation considered to be an idiot.

They trudged through snow, though they had no medicine- only the strength to light fires in the stoves, bury the dead, give water to the near-dehydrated, feed the living corpses.

It was horrifying, work that seemed to only amuse the disease.

“One day, in anger and desperation, the priest asked in an exhausted fury, -Where is the Trinity? Any one of them would do…God the Father, God the Son, God the Son of a Bit*#, God the Holy Ghost.’

Weeks went by. But the priest’s prayers did not turn back the course of the disease. The parents of six children were lost. Then in another house four children, while the parents were left alive. Father Damien brought the two devastated families together, only to have them re-infect one another. Old women and brand-new babies, new mothers, the meek, the beautiful, the ugly and the useless, all the same. Lost in hours or days. It didn’t matter. And still, father Damien kept on and Mary Kapshaw broke the way and together they left only one trail.

When death drew near, Mary cleared snow, and built a fire to thaw the earth, so she could dig another grave.

Then one day, “As Mary walked before the priest, thrashing through steep slough grass, the two of them aching for sleep, the priest final saw the one whose presence he had sought. They were walking due west, into cloud cover.

Far ahead, Mary turned in her tracks and waited for the priest to toil closer. Behind her, the sun swelled in a dull mist. The sky was a glowing blister. Just a ray stabbed forth and panned her in its glow. In that strange glow, the priest saw beneath the girl’s disguise the very face of Christ.

Then the priest knew, Christ had gone before the priest, stamping down the snow.
Christ had bent low and on that broad, angry back carried Father Damien through sloughs.
Covered him when he collapsed at the bedsides of the ill.
Christ had fed him hot gruel from a spoon of black iron.
Protected him so that he never sickened even when the dying kissed his hands or coughed their last prayers into his face.
Christ was before him now, breaking the trail

…but the girl watched impassively, and when the priest drew near enough she turned away, and continued walking in her ordinary form.” (Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Louise Erdrich, 2001)

Lift your hands, look at your palms.
Make a fist, and turn it over before your eyes.

Those are the hands of Christ.

Turn in your pew, and look at your neighbor.
They are ordinary, really,
But they are marvelously made
And called by God
And filled with grace, more than enough grace-
Enough so to become the face of Christ
Wherever someone is praying for mercy,
Wherever anybody needs a miracle.
And so are you.

Be filled with wonder,
Because YOU
Will see the heavens opened.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

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