1 Samuel 3: 1-10; Mark 6: 30-44
Many of you know from the brochure that the APNC put out about me back in May that I like to think of myself as a runner. I love to go running and I loved training for the half marathons I ran last year. When I moved to Charlotte in July I was eager to get to running on the light rail path by my apartment. But it was really hot in July, I mean it was really hot in July, too hot for this Northerner to run much more than a mile in the blistering Southern sun.
So it didn’t take long for me to get out of the habit of running, to make excuses for why I couldn’t go running—how I couldn’t go running in the heat, or how I didn’t have the time with my busy new church schedule or how “I’d get back into running when the weather cooled down.” Or this or that, something was always keeping me from getting out and running. Even though I knew I loved it, even though I knew it was good for my nosubhealth.com health, even though I know I have never ever, not once regretted going for a run, even though I feel so much better after a run, even though I am always happy I went for a run, even still, I made excuses to not get out and run. So I said to myself—“Grace, you have to do something- you have to make a change” so 3 months later here I am, signed up for a half marathon on December 12 and struggling to commit to getting out and running each day to prepare for those 13.1 miles on December 12.
It’s not much different with the commitment to grow spiritually; we know its good for us, we know it’s a good idea, we know we feel better after a prayer or a bible study, or meditation with God, or Sunday school, we know its good for our souls, for our spirituality, for our relationship with God and yet, its so hard to commit, its so hard to take that step. It’s hard to get out of bed on Sunday morning—the one day we get to sleep in to make it to Sunday School by 9:45, its hard to open the Bible and read scripture for 15 minutes when college football is on, it’s hard to commit to journaling or meditating for some time each day when we feel like maybe we got our fill by going to church for an hour on Sunday morning. It’s hard to commit to making it happen, even when you know its good for you, even when you remember how it fed your soul the last time, its still hard to make that commitment. The difference, however, between my struggle to commit to running each day and the struggle to commit to growing spiritually is of course—I have an end date, I have a tangible practical, real thing to work towards, and to celebrate when it happens, because me and my running struggles have December 12. I’m not going to lie to you—there is no tangible thing to wait expectantly for in the commitment to grow spiritually. There is no celebratory final moment that is going to come—there is no December 12 with the commitment to grow spiritually.
Asking us to commit to growing spiritually is simply asking us to take a step, a step you perhaps have taken before, a step that may be small or a step that may be a big leap but is nonetheless a step acknowledging your commitment to walking this strange, bumpy, windy, challenging but good–totally good, totally wonderful, unbelievably amazing path that is our faith journey.
In the passage we just read from the book of Samuel—we hear of a young Samuel’s call from God–his call to be a prophet to the people of Israel. Let’s take Samuel as an example of committing to grow spiritually. If we learn anything from Samuel’s call story in this passage as a commitment to growing spiritually let us learn two things.
Firstly, God is continually calling us. The first verse of the passage mentions that Samuel, before he receives his call from God to serve as a prophet was already ministering to the Lord. Samuel had been committed to the service of God at birth by his mother Hannah, he was already ministering to the Lord and he was sleeping in the ark of the covenant for crying out loud—if there were such a thing, Samuel would have reached “mega-spiritual” status—and even then, even as a faithful servant of God—the Lord calls him by name, crying out “Samuel, Samuel.” What I hear in this passage is that God is constantly working through us, constantly calling us, at different times in our lives–there is no arrival point, no arrival date, God constantly calls us and works through us at different points in our lives.
At the beginning of this service we heard from a wonderful member of our congregation, a woman who spoke of being pushed in new ways, pushed and called again even late in life. God can and God will work through us at many times throughout our lives, we need only to have our ear tuned and open to God’s voice calling us in our lives.
Many of you know that my Dad is also a Presbyterian pastor, I was lucky enough to be encouraged watching his ministry throughout my life and learned from his wisdom as a pastor. One thing that always sticks in my mind are the words my Dad speaks on New Member Sunday at the church he serves in New York. After the New Members have answered the constitutional questions and the congregation has promised to support them, he walks out to the middle of the church and faces the New Members of the church. And he says to them “The Christian faith is a pilgrimage, an adventurous journey, one not without risks. Please know that you do not undertake this journey alone. You will enjoy and be strengthened by the company of the faithful in this congregation and beyond. And in all of your life, in all that you do, you are assured of the transforming, empowering, and loving presence of God. We, as the church, are by no means perfect. Your church membership implies no new state of completion, rather it implies simply and clearly that you are whole-heartedly resolved to join in this journey. We as your congregation and pastors, pledge our best to you. In turn, we ask no more and no less than your best: your regular attendance in worship, your sharing of time, talents and resources to the greater work of Christ’s church. We welcome you, especially that gift which no one else could bring to this congregation: yourself as a unique child of God.”
My favorite line in that welcome message is the reminder that not that day, not the day of joining the church, or the day of a baptism, or the first day of taking the step to committing to growing spiritually none of those days are days of completion, none of these days are the final steps on the faith journey, none of these days are December 12—they rather “simply and clearly imply that you are whole-heartedly resolved to join in this journey.” That is all we can ask of you, that is all we can expect and that’s all we can hope for—a step to join in this journey of faith, with its bumpy path, its windy road, and its wonderful and amazing surprises.
The second thing we might learn from Samuel’s call story is Samuel’s commitment when he gets turned down—3 times, 3 times Samuel goes to the wrong person hoping to serve. Three times he gets out of bed, walks down the hall and tries to be a good servant and three times he is sent back to bed. That had to get exhausting, to get turned down after crawling out of bed in the middle of the night and then to go back to bed over and over again just looking to be a good servant. But Samuel goes back over and over again.
Samuel’s persistence is worth noting here- his persistence to being a good servant even when he is confused, his persistence to answering the call; but also Samuel’s need for someone else to help tune and discern the call that is coming from God. Samuel does not recognize the call from God without the voice of Eli perceiving it. Samuel leans on Eli in the midst of his confusion.
We need not be afraid that we are walking into this commitment alone, even Samuel the prophet leaned on the ear of Eli. We have one another to lean on as we make this commitment, as we make this commitment together. We have the loving arms of our church family, you have the commitment of your pastors to grow with you. We make this commitment to grow together.
For several years during college I worked at a summer camp in a small town in Northern Michigan—you’ve heard me tell some stories about my time as a counselor at this camp before, running out of gas on the way. Well this camp was a beautiful Presbyterian summer camp on the shores of Higgins Lake. Several years before I began working there a group of youth from western Pennsylvania came and carefully laid stones around a large tree out in the forest of the camp. They laid them in the formation of a labyrinth, a big, labyrinth for the campers to walk during their time at the camp.
You may know about labyrinths and their use by Christians—labyrinths are maze-like designs that have a path to a central point. The labyrinth we had at Camp Westminster had an old giant oak tree as the center of the labyrinth. Unlike mazes though, labyrinths have one way in and one way out and unlike mazes they have no blocks, no tricks, no dead ends, the path windy and long as it is leads to the center and then leads back out. Along the way, along the labyrinth path there are times when you walk close to the center, seeming like you could almost touch the big old tree, and times when you are far distant, whether you are close enough to touch the tree or far distant from it, you are always walking to it.
When I worked as a counselor at Camp Westminster I loved to take my cabin full of middle or high school girls to the labyrinth right at dusk. My other counselor and I would light the way with candles and we would tell the kids about the labyrinth journey and encourage them to walk the path quietly and meditatively in prayer, praying for themselves, praying for God’s guidance, praying for their friends or family or neighbors or the world and when they hit a bump in the road and didn’t have anything else to say in prayer, to keep walking. So my other counselors and I would describe this to our cabin full of kids and tell them about the ancient traditions of the labyrinth and then we would say “when you’re ready, take the first step and walk the path.”
When we commit to growing spiritually, we’re not committing to a goal, we’re not committing to a certain tangible moment, we’re committing to walking into that labyrinth, to taking the steps to walk around the tree, to getting so close to it, it may just speak to you, to getting far from it and even when you are far from it—committing to still walking, still putting your feet down, one foot in front of the other, still walking towards getting closer. So commit to taking that first step in, that first step into the labyrinth of growing spiritually. Let us make this commitment together—because we need one another along this bumpy and windy and always changing, always new path that is our faith journey.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.