Tuesday, July 22, 2014

When God Doesn't Speak

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The passage was Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67:

We are told at the beginning of Genesis, that in the beginning that the earth was formless and darkness covered the face of the deep, and then what happens?  God says, “let there be light,” and there was light.  So we are told that simply by speaking that God is able to create, and in fact in the first creation story, everything is created simply by God talking.  Indeed, the central declaration of faith in Judaism “Hear, O Israel…”  Not peak, or believe, but instead listen.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”  For us as Christians speaking and language are just as important, because we are told that at the beginning of the Gospel of John, that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.  And who is the word?  Jesus.  So God talks creation into existence and Jesus is the word, and a God who emphasizes this is not a distant transcendent God, but instead an imminent God who is involved in our lives, and we also see that witnessed to in scripture, especially in the stories of Genesis.  God talks with Adam and Eve, and God talks with Cain, God talks with Noah, God talks with Hagar and of course God talks with Abraham.  God talks a lot with Abraham.  In every step of Abraham’s story not only is God present and active, but God is telling Abraham what to do and what God is going to do in return.  God is asking things and making promises.  God is intimately involved in everything that is going on in Abraham’s life, and yet in the passage we just heard, which is the last significant story of Abraham, God does not speak.  Now after the past two weeks in which we have heard God tell Abraham that he should listen to the voice of his wife Sarah and expel Ishmael and Hagar, and then last week when God calls for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac perhaps we are a little relieved that God is not talking or asking anything.
Rebekah and Abraham's Servant at the Well
by William Hilton

Today’s passage is a nice little story.  A simple story of a servant going to get a wife for his master’s son.  It has a nice beginning, a good middle and even a happy ending because we are told that Isaac loves Rebekah.  A nice simple passage which transitions us from the story of Abraham into the story of Isaac.  But it’s not like this is an insignificant story.  This sets up the rest of the Book of Genesis and the creation of what will become the nation of Israel, and yet in striking contrast to everything that has come before, God is not a primary character.  While it’s assumed by the author that God is involved in this process, God does not interact with anyone.  God does not have a dialogue with Abraham about what he needs to do or with the servant about what to say or where to go.  Nor does God talk with Laban, Rebekah’s brother who conducts the negotiations for marriage, nor does Rebekah hear from God telling her that this is the plan she is to follow, that everything will be okay and she should go with the servant.  Throughout this entirely long story, God does not speak.  Not once does God become openly involved in the plot.  Not once does God utter anything to anyone to let them know that what they are doing is according to divine plan.  God is strangely silent.

Abraham decides to send his chief servant back to his native land to find a wife for Isaac.  Why he is concerned about getting a wife from among his own country, versus those amongst whom he is living, is unknown.  Is this Abraham acting on his own, which he sometimes does, or has God told him to do this?  We don’t know.  But the steward sets off, along with other servants, many gifts and ten camels, which will become important, and as he approaches a well he says a little prayer or more of a request to God of how things might go that he might know he has found the right girl.  Now if we are familiar with the biblical stories, we know that meeting at a well is often how marriages happen, and this was also a popular motif of ancient storytelling, so people first hearing this would have known exactly what was going on, what was going to come.  And sure enough, the first person that the servant, who is unnamed, encounters is Rebekah, and not only does she offer him a drink from her jar, but she offers to water his camels as well, which is what the servant hoped would happen.  This is not an insignificant gesture.  A camel can drink up to 52 gallons at a time, and the servant has ten camels, so Rebekah possibly draws up to 520 gallons of water.  This is sort of a sign that she is worthy of doing God’s work, that she is not concerned simply about doing the minimal required, or concerned only about herself, this is a sign of racial hospitality.  But even though Rebekah does what the servant hopes will happen, the servant still does not assume that everything is just going to go according to some grand plan, because he begins to offer Rebekah gifts to win her favor, and later offers gifts to the family as well.  There is still the possibility that what God may want can be thwarted  through human action, after all Laban could say no, and it turns out that perhaps Rebekah could say no as well, and although Laban, Rebekah’s brother, says in a portion we didn’t hear today that he sees God’s hand in these actions, God does not tell anyone here what they should or should not do.  God never speaks to any of the participants.

I received my call to the ministry 19 years ago this summer.  I was not attending church at the time, nor had I for quite a while.  I was working on my first master’s degree at the time at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, and I was in a religion and philosophy class in which we were reading Exodus and discussing the power of the clergy, when I heard a voice in my head saying “this is where you belong.”  Those five words kind of reverberated in my head for a while, and I would sort of hear echoes for the next few.  But, while I didn’t discount them altogether I can’t say that I took them all that seriously either.  After all, who was I to become a minister, I wasn’t even attending church.  But still, those five words were out there.  It took me another three years before I called up one of the local Methodist churches to talk with the minister there about answering the call, and began to attend church again.  Three years during which I never heard any other guidance or direction.  It took me more than another year before I was sort of finally pushed to make a decision about which way I was going to go, enter the ministry or do something else, and I still never heard a word from God.

I had a job at the time that I loved, but a boss that I could not stand.  I was driving into work one Monday morning knowing that she and I were going to be having another argument about what I was and was not doing around the office, and who was responsible for all of the problems.  On my way in, I began to pray, which was not one of my normal activities at the time, and I said “okay God, you have to tell me what to do because I have no idea what I’m doing here.  If you want me to be doing something else, you need to tell me and show me.”  When I got to work exactly what I thought would happened occurred and my boss and I got into another argument.  In the middle of it, I told her that I didn’t have any idea what she wanted from me or how I could make the situation any better, and asked her if she wanted my resignation.  She said she did and I walked out.  It is the only time in my life that I have left a job on those terms or in that type of situation.  And never once in that interchange did God speak to me, even though I had asked.

As it turned out, I ended up with a job interview that afternoon for a position which led me to move to Albuquerque, which is where I needed to go in order to put some of my other ducks in a row in order to go to seminary.  My brother, who had been living in North Carolina, also decided to return to Albuquerque around the same time so we were able to move in together, and he ended up working with someone by the name of Marianna, who happened to have a twin sister by the name of Linda.  So within 10 1/2 months of asking God for help and walking out of my job, I had a new job, in a new city, living with my brother who had to move back across the country, and I had met the woman who would become my wife.  Within 3 ½ years I was studying at Boston University in order to be here in front of you today, and the entire time God never said a word to me.  But I can see now that God was involved in my life the entire time.

Beyond those initial five words I heard in my head, I have never been spoken to directly by God.  Now those five words may be more than some of you have ever heard, but may be less than others, but there have certainly been times when I would have liked more guidance.  There have certainly been times when I wished that God would have said I want you to do this, or perhaps if you do this, this is what I will promise you.  I would have liked some of those situations to arrive, but I didn’t because God didn’t speak.  But does that mean that God was not present in my life?  Does God not speaking mean that God does not care what is happening to us?  Does God not speaking mean that God is still not trying to guide our actions to do what is right?

I’m sure that by now you have figured out that these are all leading questions, and the answer of course is no.  Just because we don’t hear God speaking does not mean that God is not interested in our activities or participating in our lives.  I suggest that there are a lot more of us who are like the unnamed servant then there are who are like Abraham.  That is we are out there in the world trying to do the right things, trying to follow the path of God and hoping to receive some response that we are on the right track.  We are much more like the servant in that very rarely do we have direct interactions with God, or at least I don’t, and I’m guessing that most of you don’t either because it is by far the more common occurrence that someone will say to me that they want God to talk with them, and they aren’t hearing anything and so they wonder what they are doing wrong, then it is for someone to say they have heard God speak and want some help with that.  We are unlike most of the patriarchs or others we read about in the scriptures who hear God speaking with them.

Sometimes I think this is because we are looking for the wrong thing.  We are looking for the big booming voice, or perhaps to see the burning bush, and when it doesn’t happen we’re disappointed.  But I think we’re more likely to experience God like Elijah does in the 19th chapter of 1 Kings, where we are told that Elijah saw a great wind, but God was not in the wind, then there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake there was a fire, but God was not in the fire, and then after the fire was the still small voice of God, or the NRSV says there was the sound of sheer silence, and there was God.  God was found in the silence.  And that statement should scare us, because we’re not good at silence.  We are surrounded by sound all the time.  Have you ever been sleeping and woken up suddenly wondering what woke you up and you realize that the power has gone out and the silence was so loud that it woke you up?  Can God be found in the loudness of the silence?  Not only can God be found there, but I think that is where we most often find God, and that is where the servant and Laban and Rebekah find God.  We should remember that silent and listen contain exactly the same letters, or as John Grossmann said “silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything.”

We operate most often in our lives without hearing God speaking to us, and that is why this story should be meaningful for us.  We should see it as more than just as a transitional story taking place between two patriarchs, more than just a story that sets up how Isaac and Rebekah met.  Instead, it is a story about how God operates in our lives, how God operates in the lives of most of the servants of God, service that has us partaking in completely “ordinary circumstances, remaining anonymous in the overall scheme of things, but crucial actors for the leading and blessing work of God in daily affairs.”

But to understand that we have to approach our lives the same way that the servant and the others do, and that is with the expectation that God is not only going to be involved, but that God is involved in our lives, and yet they are also prepared to do things by their own actions knowing that we, and others, can thwart what God wants us to do and wants to happen.  But they all assume that God is there, from the servant making a prayer of petition, to giving thanks after meeting Rebekah, to Laban saying in a section we didn’t hear, that this is all the work of God.  It’s not so much looking for that booming voice of God, or even for the still small voice, but instead looking for God’s actions that take place in our lives every single say, and also how God uses us to accomplish God’s will every day.  In order to help us to do that, we are going to start having these cards in the program each week, which ask us how we experienced God this week, where others were used to be a blessing to us, and where we have been a blessing to others.  And so we are going to be asked to fill this out each week and place it in the offering plate, and then we will share some of these stories each week to help us remember that God is active in our lives, even if we might never hear God speak.  We invite God’s participation into our lives through prayer and through action and listening.  The servant does not wait around for God to say something, he goes to God in prayer asking for what he needs, or hopes, trying his best to do what is right, and so it is with us.  Whether you have heard a whole five words from God as I have, or two thousand, or none at all, God is active in our lives.  God is participating in our lives even when we can’t feel God’s presence.  God is participating in our lives even when we feel like we are doing everything by ourselves.  God is participating in our lives even when we feel that everything we do is wrong and we are being counteracted at every turn.  And God is participating in our lives even when we never hear God speak.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment