I was privileged to deliver the sermon at my church yesterday.
(Readings for 10 August are below)
It took me quite some time to discern the common thread in our readings today. But since we are in the season of Pentecost, I should have known that our readings would have something to do with prayer and being in communion with the Spirit of God. All of our readings this Sunday, present to us, examples of prayer and discernment with the Spirit; from several different points of view.
The most obvious example of prayer and discernment is in our Gospel reading from Matthew. A typical day in Jesus’ ministry on earth. After a long day of preaching and teaching, Jesus sends the people and his disciples away and secludes himself to pray. What could be a more typical a passage in any of the Gospels? But notice how long Jesus is praying in this passage – He prays through most of the night into the early morning. My impression is that Jesus often prayed into the early hours of the morning. It was probably the only time of day when he could be alone, when it was quiet; that time of stillness, to reflect and to allow the Spirit of God the time and space to speak to him.
Jesus shows us how important it is to have this time for prayer and reflection by His example.
We see something similar in our reading from first Kings. The prophet Elijah was fleeing for his life from King Ahab and especially Queen Jezebel. Elijah was the sole remaining priest and prophet in Israel, all the rest of the priests having been killed by their majesties Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah finds refuge in a cave high up on a mountain. He must have been relieved to have found this hiding place, this place of safety, this place to reflect, this place to pray, this place to wait and to discern what God wanted him to do next. Elijah is told that God is going to visit him just outside this cave on the mountain.
A mighty wind storm sweeps past. Elijah does not even go outside, because he knows that God is not in the mighty wind.
Then an earthquake shakes the mountain, again Elijah does not bother to go outside, because he knows that God is not in the earthquake.
A fire then sweeps over the mountainside, and again Elijah does not stir from his cave, because he knows that God is not in the fire.
Only when the sheer, profound silence settles over the mountain does Elijah get up and cover his head, as is the Jewish custom when in prayer, and go to the mouth of the cave because God is in that sheer, profound silence.
It is in this profound silence, when we are calm, when we have emptied our minds of our concerns and our worries, when our thoughts are quiet; that we may be able to hear the Spirit of God speaking to us.
What is our prayer life actually like?
Again from our gospel reading, we read that after Jesus was finished praying he walks across the water through a violent storm to where the disciples were struggling to keep their ship afloat. They see Jesus out in the storm, walking on the water – they hear him over the sound of the storm – and think they are seeing and hearing some sort of ghost across the water. Peter asks Jesus to command him to walk across the water, and Jesus calls to Peter to join him.
This passage about Peter crossing the water feels like many of my experiences with prayer. How often have I started to pray, to attempt to walk across that gulf that separates us from God – only to start to sink, to be distracted by
the violent storm that sometimes is the world around me,
the violent storm that sometimes is my own thoughts and fears,
and finally as I am going under I call out to be saved:
O God, make speed to save me!
O Lord, make haste to help me!
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me!
For 1500 years, Christians have prayed these three, simple, prayers to our Lord: to be saved, to be helped, and for Jesus Christ to show us His mercy.
As fallen human beings, I believe we all have these problems in prayer; I certainly do.
It seems that, most Christians since the time of the apostles have had these problems in prayer.
That is why, we must continually practice prayer, and through trail and error find out what works best for each one of us, at each stage of our lives; to help us in listening to the Spirit of God.
In all our examples of prayer, reflection, and discernment up to this point – we have concentrated on that journey of faith that we travel alone, in our personal relationship with the living God.
Paul in our reading from Romans, takes our discussion to the next level.
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
What in the world is Paul talking about here? John Gill, the first Baptist theologian, in his commentary on Romans 10 verse 15 really helped me to understand the meaning of this passage.
Ordinary mission is of [people] to be pastors and teachers …. for whom Christ sends forth into such service, he bestows gifts on them, fitting them for it …. and it also includes a call unto it, which is …. by the Spirit of God ….. and the inclination of the heart to this good work which he forms; and which arises not from a vanity of mind, and a desire of popular applause, ….. but from a real concern for the good of souls, ….. being willing to deny themselves, and forsake all for Christ
Paul’s 4 questions in our reading from Romans, are about how we are to call and select our ministers; our leaders and teachers in the community of Christ. Paul is laying the organizational groundwork for growing Christianity from a small group of believers to an organization – a Church. He is asking how we should listen for; and experience; the Spirit of God, when we believe we are being called to ministry in that larger Church organization.
It has been more than two years since I started my own discernment process. Feeling a call to ministry; I met with my discernment committee here at St. Martin’s and we feel that this call is to diaconate ministry in the Episcopal Church. I had no idea what discernment meant before I started this process. I thought that it would involve an objective, logical analysis of the needs of the greater church, the needs here at St. Martin’s, and how my skills and talents could be used to meet those needs. I was thinking about church ministry in terms of getting hired to do a job, or fill a position or role – as in a business.
I had (and still have) a great deal to learn about discernment!
However, I have learned what discernment is not.
Discernment is not about what you want.
Discernment is not about your talents.
Discernment is not about what the church needs.
Discernment is about listening to the Holy Spirit and letting God direct you to where you should be.
Discernment does not end after you are called to some ministry. Discernment continues. The proper place for you today may not be where God needs you next year.
As I started to understand what discernment is about, I was surprised by how familiar it turned out to be. It seems I have been in discernment all along, I just did not know what I was doing, and I have been using it for trivial things. All this time, in my work when I have been stuck on some network or programming problem. I clear my mind, to either not think about anything at all, or to think about something completely unrelated to my current problem. And then suddenly, from out of nowhere, I will receive an idea about how to approach that particular problem, or how to put together a solution. The artist waiting for inspiration, or the engineer waiting for that technical insight are in discernment. They are opening themselves; allowing their own divine nature to commune with the divine nature which is present in everything in the universe around us. When we are inspired, we manage; for just that brief instant to hear God’s voice, the Spirit of God, speaking to us.
I have found that in discerning what God wants me to do – I am discovering what I am capable of becoming:
I am learning who I am.
God as our Father and Creator, knows us far better that we know ourselves.
It is a startling and humbling experience to be 51 years old and to be finally learning who I am.
I’d like leave you with this thought.
Discernment is for Everyone.
Not just those people, who are the clergy.
Not just those people, who are on the vestry.
Not just those people, who are being called to ministry.
Not just those people, who are working on revising our mission or vision statement.
We should all be trying to be present and aware of God’s spirit speaking to us in our reflections, our thoughts, our feelings, and our prayers.
We should all be finding time, each day, to listen to that sheer, profound silence; allowing the Spirit of God the time and space in our lives, so that we may hear the quiet voice of God.
1 Kings 19:9-18
At Horeb, the mount of God, Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?
“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”