thechurchbetweenSERMON: The Church In Between

SCRIPTURE: 1 Samuel 3:1-20

DATE: November 2, 2014

I believe that All Saints Day is one of the most important days in the church because when it comes to a faith that matters, we have much to learn from and be inspired by, all of those saints that have made up the church of Jesus Christ throughout the centuries. Certainly that is an important cornerstone of our Wesleyan heritage. John Wesley believed that there were four pillars upon which our faith must be built. One of those pillars was scripture – God’s word. Wesley, who was well educated and an avid reader of all types of literature, always proclaimed himself to be “a man of one book.” Another was experience. The God sightings in our life. How we have experienced the indwelling of God’s Spirit. It seems to me that our call to make disciples comes mostly out of the experiences of our life and faith, as we share how God has worked in us. And the third pillar he said was reason. The intellect. God created humans with a mind so that we would use it to know of God’s presence in the world and in our lives. And the fourth was tradition. The history of our faith. Knowing the faithful people who have come before us.

And that’s what we are about today. Celebrating our tradition. When I was in seminary, the professor who taught the classes on Methodist History and Beliefs began the first class with the question: Who can tell me what the concept of Apostolic Succession is? And when no one volunteered to answer, he went on to say, “Well by the time you leave this class you must be able to explain to me what Apostolic Succession is. Because,” he said, “everything in our Wesleyan approach to faith depends on this concept.” And quite simply, it is the idea that everything we are as faithful people, our faith that matters, has been passed on from Jesus to the Disciples and from the Disciples to generation after generation of disciples, and through these we remember today, to us. So This is a day we celebrate the wonderful tradition of our faith.

You know for some time now, I’ve suspected that I’m getting old. I know I’ve got a little arthritis in my joints. It used to be that I needed glasses to be able to see things well that were beyond my thumb. Now I need them to see my thumb also. A few years ago the barber would talk realistically about trimming out the grey hair, now when I broach the subject, he just holds up a straight raiser and says this is the only way it could be done.

The definitive proof though came in an edition of Reader’s Digest. In an article entitled “What’s Your Real Age” there was a quiz. The idea was that you begin with your chronological age and then depending how you respond to a series of questions you either add or subtract years from that age and the sum total is your real age. For instance if your blood pressure is in the acceptable range you subtract three years, but if it is high you add three years to your age. If you eat a good breakfast more than five times a week you subtract, but if you eat a good breakfast less than two times a week, you add to your age. Now they did not specify what a good breakfast was, but I’m thinking that a Krispy Kreme donut and a coke doesn’t count. One of the questions concerned marital status. Now I found this to be interesting. Men who were happily married were to subtract 1 and a half years from their age, but happily married women were to subtract only a half a year. And so I asked myself, how happy can men be if their wives are aging so much quicker than we are. But, I decided to take the test, just to see if my suspicions were correct, that I am getting old. So, for the purpose of the test, I rounded my chronological age to 39, and then adding and subtracting where appropriate based on my lifestyle, it turned out that I am actually 181 years old. And I never thought I’d live to an old age.

When were young, we cant wait until were older and can do the things weve always wanted to do. But then you reach the age where you have to face up to the fact that you cant do the things you used to be able to do. When the idealism of youth is replaced by the practicality of the years. And I think, in a sense that has been the hope of the church in recent years. Yes, the young people are leaving the church but as they mature and start raising families, they’ll come back. But the reality is beginning to sink in that that isn’t happening. Because they are not leaving to sow their wild oats, they are leaving to find more relevant ways to express their faith. Perhaps the challenge for the church is not in finding ways to help people grow up in the faith, but rather grow together in the faith. We all get older, don’t we? And as we do, our perspective changes. We start to understand how Apostolic Succession impacts our life. You know, we look at the church today and we often lament the lack of young adults who are involved in the church and we fear for the church’s future. And we should. But I’m not sure it’s anything new. I grew up in the Sixties and I can remember all the talk about how young people were dropping out of society, and church was one of those institutions they were dropping out of. There were those who said that God was dead. In fact, the media began to refer to those young people who remained in the faith as “Jesus Freaks”, implying there was something extra ordinary, even freakish, about a young person practicing their faith. And I suspect that if we continue to trace the church back through the centuries, we will discover similar periods of history. And so the great hope of the church should lie in the fact that many of my generation came back to the church, and we now are the aging disciples who are lamenting the fact that young people are dropping out. I think the generation gap is really a part of the tradition of our faith. It can even be seen in the tone of the Gospel writers. On the one hand there’s Mark, a very young man, whose Gospel in many ways reflects the impatience of youth. Very abrupt and matter of fact. No time for a lot of reflection. Mark was a young man of action and he was intent on presenting Jesus in the same way. Contrast that to John’s gospel which was written when John was an old man. His gospel is much more reflective. He is far more interested in having his readers understand why Jesus did the things He did, and not so much interested in describing the actual events. When Mark wrote the church was young and new. When John wrote the church was getting older and so was he. I think, that for the most part, All Saints Day reminds us that we’re getting older. Oh occasionally we remember and honor the innocence of a child as we do today in honoring Savannah, or someone just entering the prime years of their lives like Scarlett was, and they are in no way lesser saints, but for the most part we remember those like Beverly, and Ray, and Wanda, and Esther, and Frances and Margaret, whose longevity became an integral part of their witness.

And it is this process of getting older that provides the background for the scripture that was just read. Scripture tells us that Eli was an old man. His best years were behind him. Though his family life had been a mess, Eli had been a faithful priest, a faithful servant of God. There had been a time when the will of God had been clear to him, and God’s voice had rung in his ears. But those days were past. We’re told from the very beginning of this story that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. Perhaps a better translation is that the word of the Lord was not as vivid as it had once been. Which says to me that it was not a matter of the Lord not speaking as much as it was a matter of Eli not hearing as well as he once had.

Samuel on the other hand was a young man. The name Samuel literally means “a person who is from infancy to about forty.” It is apparent from the way the story is presented, that though the young man Samuel is earnest in his efforts in the Temple, he just doesn’t seem to be getting it. Samuel’s problem was not that he did not hear the word of God, it was that he did not always have the patience to listen. Every time God began to speak, he sprang up and ran to Eli. But Eli could not hear, and Samuel would not take the time to listen and the result was according to scripture that the word of the Lord was not heard in the land. Leonard Sweet contends that the story of Eli and Samuel is often the story of the church. He writes:

Often we hear well enough, but theres too much of lifes hullabaloo, too much internal cerebral or external doings, to listen carefully.

Communication specialists call this that impairs our ability to hear the message, “noise”, and it comes in a variety of forms. Perhaps we do not hear . . because of cultural noise. We can’t relate to someone’s cultural background, and we are irritated at the heavily inflected accent that makes it difficult to understand. . so we shut the person off completely.

Perhaps we turn a deaf ear. . because of environmental noise. The room is so hot and stuffy, it is difficult to keep listening. Soon we give up and allow our minds to wander off

We may turn off because of sociological noise. We are in a different social place. . and we have difficulty connecting on the same level.

We may turn off because of internal noise. We are so stressed that there is no point in even attempting to listen or be in conversation.

We may turn off because of the noise that often comes because of conflict. We so strongly disagree. that we simply shut down and refuse to listen further.

The point is that there is nothing wrong with the spiritual ear which God has given us, but there is a problem with our ability to filter out the worldly, secular and internal noise that can prevent us from hearing the Spirit of God speaking to us. I suspect that’s what Jesus had in mind when He often concluded a teaching with the words He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

I believe in the story of Eli and Samuel we have the the story of the torch of faith being passed from one generation to another. It is a common theme in scripture. The spiritual father passing “the blessing” on to the spiritual son. Elijah to Elisha. It was the source of the conflict between Jacob and Esau, Jacob tricking his father into passing the blessing on to him rather than his older brother. Paul to Timothy whom he calls his “son” in the faith. And here it is Eli who is ready to pass the torch to young Samuel. But, you see, the problems arise when we start to think that the arrival of Samuel means that Eli no longer has a place. That one does not need and cherish the other. Samuel heard God’s call, but he did not know it was God until Eli told him so. I am concerned that the church of today too often falls into the trap of elevating the importance of one generation over another. And the result is that we let the noiseof our world keep any of us, whether we are Eli or Samuel, from really hearing or listening to Gods word. And so sometimes in the church we have struggled to blend the generations. To share leadership. To worship in a way that appeals to all ages, and on and on. But the story of scripture is that Eli needs Samuel and Samuel needs Eli, if the word of God is to be heard.

And the different generational attitudes that we bring to the church should serve to enrich us, not separate us as it sometimes does. Those who approach life from the perspective of Samuel, sometimes view Eli as an obstacle to be overcome. When change is proposed, Eli is going to be against it. And those of us who are more like Eli fear that the Samuel’s are going to throw out all of our tradition, all that has taken years to build. But this story tells us that the different perspectives of Eli and Samuel are not right or wrong, they are just different. And the church needs to embrace both Eli and Samuel if the word of God is going to be heard. The church is enriched most when the Eli’s and Samuel’s embrace one another with the love of Christ. Will Willimon reflects on this passage when he wrote during his time as dean of the chapel at Duke University:

I preach in a grand, great gothic cathedral-like church with numerous pipe organs, a grand tradition, and great beauty. We often say of our glorious building that it is irreplaceable, that you couldnt build this building today. But just on the edge of town is a concrete-block, steel fabricated building with an encircling gravel parking lot where more people gather in one service than we have here in a month. Is the word of the Lord going elsewhere? Is the torch of Gods truth being passed? Note that Eli needs to tell Samuel that this voice, which so intrudes and confuses the young man, is from God. Having had past vivid experience of God, we at least know how God sounds when God stirs. I do believe that the younger, newer churches need the tradition, the roots of the older churches. But those of us in the older, more established churches also need the vitality, vividness, and unruliness of the younger churches. We need to celebrate that God is not limited to our style of worship, our method of proclamation, our way of being the church.

God has always found a way to speak to all generations. What would Samuel have been without Eli? What would Timothy have been without Paul? But what would the church have been without Samuel and Timothy to carry God’s word to a new generation. I believe this story hinges on two decisions. The first was Eli’s. How long he had served in the Temple, waiting and hoping to once more hear God’s voice speaking to him. He did what he was supposed to do. He kept the law. He observed the rituals but still he strained to hear. Why would God speak to Samuel and not him? Why Samuel didn’t even know that it was God speaking to him. Should he tell him? Or should he let him go on and then hope that God would give up on Samuel and turn once more to his long faithful servant? Should he go on with the rituals he had so faithfully performed, the ones that Samuel had little patience for, or should he allow for the possibility that God had something new in mind and so He was calling out to Samuel? And then there was Samuel’s choice. Should he believe the old man? That the Lord was calling him? And if he believed him, why should he do what Eli said and lay down and listen patiently’ What kind of response was that to the call of God? Shouldn’t I do something? Go somewhere? Listening patiently was Eli’s way, the old way. I need to do it my way. But in the end, Eli chose to hear, and Samuel chose to listen, and the word of God was proclaimed with new vigor in the world.”

And I think that All Saints Day reminds us that the word of God, His call, transcends the generations. He called Abraham when he was an old man, but He called Jeremiah when he was still in the womb. And the church exists in the in between places. If the church is to be the revelation of His word, as He intended it to be, we, whether we are closer to Eli or to Samuel, must be able to hear and listen, together, as one.

In the last year, some dear, dear Saints passed from our midst, but we also celebrated the arrival of Theo Neely, Kyla Faith Harris, Naomi Grace Arnold, Charles Michael Dampier, and Rebekah Faith Barber and in between all of those lies the church of Jesus Christ. And how wonderful it is that on this All Saints Day all generations come and kneel at this altar, and partake in this Holy Sacrament, and that we do so as the church united, surrounded by the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us and the hope of all who will come behind. So let us come now and together commune with the saints as generations have in the past and generations will in the future.

© 2021 St. Luke UMC
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