Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Over the last couple of weeks our Wednesday Bible Study group has been talking about what it means to communicate with God through the Holy Spirit. How do you know that it is God’s voice you are hearing? What do you do once you are convinced? What do you do if no one believes you?
If you are the boy Samuel, you are confused. Samuel is the son of Hannah, who, after being unable to bear a child for some time prayed to God, promising that if God gave her a child, she would dedicate him to God’s service. That didn’t just mean bringing him up right and encouraging him to volunteer at church. It meant that Hannah actually handed him over to live in the temple and be trained as a priest. In this particular story, Samuel is sleeping in the temple itself when he hears someone call his name. He assumes it is Eli, the prophet and priest who is training him. Samuel himself has no way of knowing that it is God who is talking to him– but Eli does.
Eli recognizes God’s call to Samuel in several ways. First, God is persistent, calling Samuel repeatedly until he gets an answer. Talk to anyone who has felt a call from God – me included- and they will tell you that God is annoyingly persistent. Secondly, God is unpredictable. God does not act as we humans would- calling in the most qualified person for the job. God does not call Eli – a seasoned priest - to share his prophecy. Instead, God calls a naïve and untrained novice to tell the people that he is about to do something so incredible that will make their ears “tingle.”
This is a consistent pattern in both Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. God calls the most unlikely of his servants to do the most significant of her work. St. Paul makes this point repeatedly throughout his letters, detailing his own unworthiness as a prophet and using his own weaknesses to demonstrate God’s strength. According to Paul, although he has suffered and even failed in his mission many times and in many ways, he remains assured of the truth of Jesus’s life and mission because, despite Paul’s own frailty, he continues to find life – and joy – through belief in Jesus.
Perhaps most tellingly, Samuel knows that he is truly hearing the voice of God because the task that Samuel is asked to carry out is not a happy one. “In the Bible, every instance of the prophetic call from God entails the commission of the prophet for some crushing burden.” I have yet to hear a story in which God calls someone to do exactly what that person wanted to do anyway –one in which God ask them to get rich and spend money on themselves – one in which God tells them to sit down and make themselves comfortable. When I am asked about my own call to ordained ministry, I often say, “People say it’s a ‘calling.’ I call it a “dragging.” Whenever I have felt an irresistible compunction to do something I would never have considered doing before (and often really don’t want to do at all), my first reaction is always, “No, God, really!?” because my very reluctance to answer tells me that it is the Holy Spirit who is calling on me.
God’s summonses are also personal. God does not call out for “the little boy who’s sleeping in the temple.” God calls for “Samuel.” God has known Samuel from before he was in his mother’s womb; God knows his sitting down and rising up. God discerns his thoughts from afar. There is nowhere where Samuel can go where God is not; wherever we go, God is there. God has laid her hand on Samuel, just as God has laid his hand on each of us. God knows us each by name.
In one sense, that is reassuring – the notion that we are never alone- but it quickly turns terrifying when we recognize how very steep the cost of doing God’s will may be. We know that God’s will is frequently disruptive. We know that people lose their lives in seeking to do God’s will. No wonder we resist it. We may want to do what is right, but we are only human beings - self-interested and fearful by nature. Our instincts are to protect what we believe is ours – to defend what we can comfortably believe. “To claim divine authority on behalf of the church is…to stand vulnerably under the living gospel…Good people in the name of God are capable of opposing the very good that [God sends]. In every generation there have been human attempts to invoke the name of God on programs and policies that end up subverting the love and grace [of God].” This tendency is represented in the gospels by the behavior of the Pharisees.
Most of us have been trained to view the Pharisees as “bad guys” - but it is important to realize that the Pharisees loved God, and acted as they believed God wanted them to. The problem with the Pharisees was that they were rigid in their beliefs. “The Pharisees represent the basic temptation of religion to absolutize those things that mediate faith to us… [They] are portrayed as obsessed with religious authority, traditional observances, and righteousness. [They let their obsession with what they know] blind [them] to the compassion and joy that pour off Jesus toward all humanity.” We are susceptible to this as well. I was raised in the Episcopal Church. All my life I have found peace and comfort in our liturgy. Religious tradition has much to recommend it. Tradition is, after all, one of the three sources of authority of Anglican belief. But traditions – and comfort – and peace – are not the primary basis for our faith. Jesus is. Our structures are designed to enhance our desire to enact our beliefs as found in the words and example of Jesus – not distract from it. We cannot become so focused on the patterns of our worship that we forget its meaning. That is what Jesus was saying when he told the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. God provided human beings with rituals and rules to help us to get along with each other, to love one another. To use God’s laws to validate hatred, greed, and separation is not consistent with the loving, compassionate, joyful, Holy Spirit that God has given us as a guide.
If we want a measure of whether the Holy Spirit is genuinely present in our intentions, then we need to consider whether what we are being asked to do opens us to the world around us - or closes us in. The Holy Spirit is about expanding – not contracting - about widening, not narrowing. We cannot say that we are grateful that God’s arms are open to everyone and then close ours. The same thing goes for our minds. The Holy Spirit helps us to learn and grow – to gather fresh information and assimilate it into our beliefs, to experience God in new and enriching ways, and to share our faith. The Holy Spirit is about giving, not keeping. In every scriptural story in which the Holy Spirit is identified as a driving force, the task set before the hearer is not to get but to give something. The Holy Spirit asks us to focus on what we are sending out, not what is coming to us – and whenever we become focused on what we have or want we stray from the mission of the Holy Spirit.
The last thing Jesus did before he was separated from his disciples was to charge them with the Great Commission. “Go forth,” he told them, “and make disciples of all people.” This is the same Jesus who repeatedly talked about “feeding the hungry and caring for the naked and visiting those who [were] alone, (and) is the same Jesus who… [talked] about loving your enemies and [blessing] the poor and the poor in spirit and the persecuted.” That means that in order to follow his command we have to speak to and break bread with people who are different from us and who do not believe as we do – to take risks in order to spread the gospel – and we have to do it without judgement, and without fear.
I know this is hard. I know this is frightening – but I truly believe that God has always and will continue to tell us how to best emulate the generosity and mercy exemplified in the life of Jesus - and I believe that it is by doing God’s will that we will be revitalized, reborn, and saved. Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening. AMEN.
Bert Marshall, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 77.
Don E. Saliers, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 77.
Wendy Farley, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 94.
The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, quoted in Jack Jenkins, “Bishop Michael Curry walks a fine line in the political fray,” in Religion News Service, 5/31/18, https://religionnews.com/2018/05/31/curry-fray/.