by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Yahweh called again, ‘Samuel!’ And Samuel got up, went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But Eli repeated, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ Now Samuel had not yet encountered Yahweh. The word of God had not yet been revealed to this young one.” — 1 Samuel 3:6-7.
In my comments last week I noted that before being called to be pastor and teacher here in Norwich I had served as a part time Associate Pastor— 20 hours a week— at a five church cooperative in rural Maine— Waldo County, Maine to be precise. Sometimes someone asks the obvious question. Five churches— how does that work on a Sunday morning?
The full time pastor, the Rev. Mr. Jim Wood, and I took turns. One week I would preach at three churches and Jim would preach at two. The next week I would preach at two; Jim would preach at three.
End to end, the distance from the farthest-most church to the farthest-most church among those churches was 40 miles. Of course, if you are trying to start the services within the time frame of 8:45 a.m at the earliest and 11:15 a.m. at the latest, logistics between the churches, that is knowing all the back roads and shortcuts between the churches, becomes critical.
Now, when it comes to five church cooperatives, some of you might remember the Rev. Dr. Chuck Maxwell who served as the interim pastor here in Norwich. Chuck was at this church during the time between when the Rev. Mr. Hollister left and I arrived. Chuck actually also once served a five church cooperative. But he did it all by himself.
How did that work? How could he get to all the churches in one morning? I actually asked Chuck that question. He had a simple, somewhat amazing response.
This five church cooperative was on an American Indian Reservation in North Dakota. When Chuck went from church number two to church number three, traveling East to West, he crossed over a time zone from Central Time to Mountain Time. He gained an hour which gave him the time to start all the services in the morning, at least in terms of locally calculated time if not the time calculated by Chuck’s own body clock.
In any case, I need to come back to the Rev, Mr. Jim Wood, the full time pastor with whom I worked at the Waldo County Cooperative. Jim would sometimes embarrass me in a very specific way.
He would not say this to a parishioner or in front of a parishioner but, on occasion, when were with a colleague, he would point to me and say “We should ordain this guy right now (you see I was just licensed for the position). After all, he’s been involved in church work all his life. He can do all this pastor stuff.”
Now, as I indicated, that was embarrassing. And it was also not true. And it was also wrong— very wrong. Yes, Jim appreciated the fact that I had been involved in churches my whole life and he appreciated my skill set.
But most of the time, and certainly in my case, that is what it is and that’s all it is: a skill set. Someone may have a skill set but without anything else it’s unvarnished, untested.
To learn and to understand how to do anything takes not just talent, not just a skill set. It takes time, training, involvement, work, an exploration of emotional life, experience and testing to hone that skill set, in order for any skill set to become adequately developed. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as First Samuel: “Yahweh called again, ‘Samuel!’ And Samuel got up, went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But Eli repeated, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ Now Samuel had not yet encountered Yahweh. The word of God had not yet been revealed to this young one.” (Slight pause.)
One day in a Seminary class one of my professors asked this question: “Why does college take 4 years, 4 years to get a Bachelor’s Degree? After all,” she said, “if you worked hard at it for 8 hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks, it’s likely you could do all the necessary work to get a degree. So why does it take 4 years?” (Slight pause.)
We all looked at each other with blank stares. I am sure none of us had ever considered that question.
Here’s the reasoning this professor gave: it takes 4 years because you need time to become acculturated, to become accustomed to this group you are intent on joining and are actually joining, this group who holds a degree in a specific area. Indeed, you may already have a fine skill set. That skill set will help you immeasurably.
But you need time, training, involvement, work, an exploration of emotional life and testing in order to have that skill set become adequately developed. A skill set needs to be honed.
I might add, just a degree will not suffice. Work in the field, work after a degree, is a necessary component, a part of honing a skill set.
As I am sure you realize professional Baseball has the minor leagues and professional Football and Basketball rely on college programs. Why? These are places where skill sets are honed. And honing a skill set takes time. (Slight pause.)
Question: does it take time to discern the voice of God? My answer is ‘yes.’ I would, equally, suggest if you think otherwise, you ignore the witness of Scripture. Scripture is clear about this: the voice of God needs to be listened to and absorbed and what is heard needs to be pondered for good length of time.
Equally, when it comes to listening for the voice of God I maintain we all have that skill set. We can all, probably in different ways, hear the voice of God. The voice of God is available to each of us because God endows us with that skill set.
But, as the Apostle Paul suggests, none of us has a skill set that covers everything, all the gifts needed. We all have different gifts and talents.
Interestingly and equally, I think that is precisely where this turns back to what my Seminary professor said about why it takes 4 years to get a degree in the context of a community. The thing people often miss about honing a skill set is this is something done in the context of community.
The voice of God is, you see, not the sole possession of any one individual. No single individual alone has access to, can hear a fulness of the voice of God, the message offered by of the voice of God in its entirety.
Which is also to say the voice of God needs to be heard in community. I would go as far as to say the voice of God is heard only in community. The skill set we broadly identify as listening to the voice of God has always and historically been done only in community.
In fact, here’s something we do not get about the Hebrew Scriptures because our tendency is to read what we find there with 21st Century eyes. Our modern eyes constantly search for outstanding individuals rather than outstanding groups.
But a basis of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Hebrew people, is the community, not the individual. You see, the very word for prophet in Hebrew, Nevi’im, is not singular. The word, itself, is always plural. There is no singular form of the word. And the word means guild of prophets.
So, that leaves the obvious question: how is the voice of God discerned, how should the voice of God be discerned in our modern context? (Slight pause.) I want to suggest the voice of God needs to be discerned in only one way— in community. And for a community to discern the voice of God the community needs time, training, involvement, work, an exploration of emotional life and testing in order to have that skill set become developed, honed. (Slight pause.)
As you know, last week we commissioned a Transition Committee who shall be striving to discern the voice of God as I am retiring in 18 months and as this search for a new pastor gets launched. Search for a pastor, striving to discern the voice of God— tall order these. And, as has been said, this committee will be relying on you. Why? The voice of God is discerned in community.
I need to be clear about this. Part of being a member of the community in the Congregational tradition is an idea some might label as ‘compromise.’ That is not a popular idea in modern times.
Indeed, it might even be labeled as a counter cultural idea in today’s society. My way or the highways seems to be our response. But, to be blunt, what some call compromise others call listening to the voice of God in the context of community.
Why do I say that? These words are in First Samuel: “Yahweh called again, ‘Samuel!’” And as you know, Yahweh called and called and called.
And finally, finally, Samuel relied on what someone else said— in this case relied on what Eli said. And Eli— Eli was, of course and by definition, not an individual prophet. A group of prophets stood with Eli even when Eli was alone. Eli was a member of the guild of prophets, the Nevi’im— plural, not singular.
And so what did Eli, a member of the Nevi’im, the prophets, say? (Quote:) “Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if you are called again, say, “Speak, Yahweh, God, for your servant is listening.’” You see, it does take time, training, involvement, work, an exploration of emotional life and testing in order to hone a skill set, especially for a community. Amen.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I have said this many times. It applies today. The late poet Maya Angelou always said she was surprised when someone told her they were a Christian. Her response was, ‘doesn’t that take a lifetime to accomplish?’ I, personally, am always surprised when someone tells me they know the will of God, hear the voice of God. My response is ‘doesn’t that take a community and the sharing of time, training, involvement, work, an exploration of emotional life and testing?’”
BENEDICTION: We do not always know where the voice of God will lead us. But when we hear the call we need to follow. May the voice of God be open and clear. May our sense of God’s purpose be keen and true. May we be aware of God’s promise to be with us in our journey. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, and the presence of the Spirit of Christ which is real and available, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge, love and companionship of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.