29 February 2016

Listening for Water

Yesterday I preached my very first sermon. Here it is:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
     come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
     come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
     without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
     and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
     and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
     listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
     my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
     a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
     and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
     for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
     call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
     and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
     and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
     nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
     so are my ways higher than your ways
     and my thoughts than your thoughts.
~Isaiah 55:1-9

I love the imagery of God as water. In the desert context of the biblical authors, water was precious, necessary and all-powerful. Scriptures are full of this imagery - the Living waters which offer everlasting life; God bringing water forth from the rock, the parting of the Red Sea and so much more. Water is intrinsic to our ritual of baptism which is the symbol of committing to be a part of God's calling for us. Gregory of Nyssa compared the trinity to a fount, a stream and a spring - all three part of a larger whole, but distinct from each other in their function. God as water offers us rich metaphors of cleansing, nourishing and strength.

There is nothing else besides oxygen that we physically need more than water. It is absolutely essential for our survival. The longest anyone has been known to live without water is two weeks; though most people would only survive a few days. Our bodies are 60% water, our brains 70% water and our lungs 90% water. For me, this reframes my thinking about God as water. Not only does it quench and satisfy us - but we wholly and desperately need God. We cannot survive without God. God is essential for life. Thankfully - God promises that she is always with us, so we know we won’t go thirsty.

In our scripture today, the prophet Isaiah tells us to come to the water. All we need bring with us is our hunger and thirst and we will be fed and quenched. Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on Isaiah writes “The initial verse, perhaps in the summoning mode of a street vendor, offers to passersby free water, free wine, and free milk. This of course is in contrast to the life resources offered by the Empire that are always expensive, grudging, and unsatisfying. Israel is invited to choose the free, alternative nourishment offered by Yahweh.” God is calling us to a life of more depth and richness than anything the world - the Empire - has to offer. God's water of life calls us into more fullness - calls us to freely be more wholly ourselves and to connect more deeply with our community. The only thing required of us to receive the Living Water is to seek it - to follow God's call - to listen for water.

Do you remember those wilderness survival shows? Where a survivalist like Bear Grylls, Les Stroud and the like get dropped off in the middle of nowhere with a camera crew and try to find their way back to civilization. One particularly boring summer during college I watched a lot of random television, Man vs. Wild with Bear Grylls being one of my favorites. I would pay close attention just in case I ever found myself lost in the wilderness. Thankfully, this knowledge has yet to come in handy. But one thing I’ve always remembered is Bear listening for the sound of water. No matter what kind of wilderness he was dropped in, he would always need to look for water. Sometimes it was loud and clear, other times he had to sit still for long minutes, his ear turned to the wind.

This listening for water can be like listening for God’s call. When we are in the wilderness of our lives - when we face uncertainty, physical challenges, emotional pain or psychological trauma - we are desperately listening for God’s call to us - toward our path, our healing, our salvation or our reawakening. The prophet Isaiah urges us to listen; commands us to give ear. The water is there for us to freely partake, but we have to find it. On occasion, the water is easy to find. Sometimes we stumble blindly into the stream - stumble blindly into grace. But often times, we feel utterly lost and alone before we are blessed with the gentle sound of God's call and find ourselves on the banks of the river.

But what is “God’s call” even referring to? It is often used to talk about our vocational calling and I think that can be one aspect, but it is also much bigger. We are called to repentance - called to forgiveness - called to serve - called to speak up and called to listen. We have all been called many times in our lives. I imagine many of us felt called to this church. Several in our congregation are feeling called to Nick’s ministry to returning citizens. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. I view calling as a sort of journey where there are no paths. We are called in different directions that might not seem to make sense together, but we are always moving in a steady direction. That direction is toward God - toward the water.

One thing that can make hearing God’s call difficult is that, as Isaiah tells us, God’s ways are not our ways. Sometimes even if a booming voice is heard, we don’t recognize it because it doesn’t make sense. God’s vision for this world is far greater than we can imagine. We approach our choices with the limited view of humanity which can easily cloud the greatness of God’s plan for us. This makes me think of Robert Frost poem: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I took the one less traveled by. Our instincts tell us to take the clearer path - the safer path - but God's plan calls us to the more difficult and more fruitful work.

Oftentimes God’s call comes when we aren’t expecting it. My dad was an avid birder and always pointed out hawks when he saw them. Now I always find myself on the lookout for them. I try to go to the Woodlands Cemetery about once a week. I feel incredibly connected and calm walking through the beautiful old gravestones. Over the last few months I’ve noticed a pair of hawks who I think live there. They have an uncanny ability of only showing up when I’m not looking for them. On days when I go and squint at every tree and mistake every far off airplane for a hawk, they’re nowhere to be found. But on days when I’m lost in my own thoughts one of them will suddenly fly right in front of me. God’s call - the sound of water - can be just as unpredictable.

This experience of being called is one that plays a major role in my family history. Before my father was a pastor, he was a carpenter. He was, however, very involved in the church and conference. He and my mother were youth sponsors and they taught Sunday school frequently. Dad was also the chair of the peace and justice commission for the Ohio conference. He was invited to go to a conference in Kansas in the 1980s as their representative. While he was gone, Mom stayed behind and went to a woman’s retreat. While there, Grace Brunner, a local pastor and mentor to my mom, asked her if she and my father had ever thought about going into ministry. Mom told her that they hadn’t and she suggested that they should. Meanwhile, someone dad met in Kansas asked him the same thing. When dad returned home, he and mom compared stories and were startled to discover that they both had been asked the same thing. They realized that these people had spoken with God’s voice to them - that this was their calling.

Dad was excited and they decided to pursue this. However, mom did not want to leave her family and friends in Ohio for dad to go to Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She had a lot of misgivings about uprooting everything to move halfway across the country. Dad wanted mom to be one hundred percent certain about it, and he said he wouldn’t do it without her full support. One day, Grace Brunner invited mom to breakfast and mom divulged to her all of her misgivings. Grace told her, “God would not lead you and leave you.” My mom responded to this call to faith and she committed fully to moving our family to Virginia to pursue our calling.

I have been very blessed to hear God’s voice and calling clearly in my life. One of the most profound experiences of this came the summer I did my internship with Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Northeast Philly. I spent much of that summer wrestling with my ideas about God, Jesus, religion and the church. I was nineteen and having my first real epistemological crisis. What was really bothering me was my uncertainty about Jesus’ divinity and what that meant for the whole of my theology. One Sunday, pastor Leonard preached on the passage “Who do you say that I am?” I was really hoping that this sermon would help clear things up for me, but he offered me nothing that I hadn’t already heard. When he was finished preaching, pastor Leonard asked us all to sit and reflect on and pray about who we thought Jesus was. I was sitting in the sanctuary feeling so lost and confused and all I could think was “I don’t know.” I was nearly to the point of tears when I felt something. It was, as most experiences of God are, indescribable. I just felt that God was standing beside me, telling me “That’s okay. It’s okay that you don’t know. So long as you know that I’m here and I love you. I want you to explore these doubts. Have your crisis of faith. Just know that no matter what – no matter where these doubts take you – I will be right here beside you, loving you.” God was calling me to explore my doubts - calling me to freedom.

I came back to visit Philadelphia several years later and when I went to Oxford Circle church that Sunday morning, I was so clearly reminded of how much I loved the people there and what they were trying to do together. As I sat in the service, I once again felt God’s presence very strongly, but I did not know then what it meant. I felt that God was telling me that there was a plan for me, but I was uncertain as to what that plan was. I could hear the water, but I could not discern what direction it was calling me to. It was not until later that day when I was riding the train back home that my eyes were opened. I suddenly understood what God had been trying to show me: That Oxford Circle (and Philadelphia) is where I am meant to be. As soon I had formed the thought in my head, I felt in my very soul that it was right. I knew, without doubt, that Oxford Circle is where God wanted me to be. I soon as I gave in to the call, my very being affirmed it for me. I called my mom the next day to tell her of my newfound purpose in life and she, as good moms do, began to ask me questions. She asked me what I would be doing there and where I would be living and how would I get around and all those really good, reasonable questions. I had answers to none of them. In fact, I hadn’t even really thought of any of them. It was then that I realized that I had no reason to be so certain of my place at Oxford Circle, but I was. I then remembered Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” and suddenly I understood it. Having faith in your calling means going toward the sound of water even when the path is uncertain or treacherous because you know for sure that God will walk with you and that reaching the water is worth the journey.

When I started coming to WPMF, I was ready and eager to offer my gifts to this congregation. I very quickly became a deacon and began helping with worship. It was at my very first church retreat that a few of our youth asked me to be their youth leader. Even as things with my job got more challenging and the growing responsibilities of adulthood weighed on me more, I never wanted to stop saying yes to helping and serving this congregation. It was in thinking hard about my boundaries and how much would be healthy for me to take on that I realized how very life giving this church work felt for me. A desire to go to seminary that had sat dormant in my heart for so long was being awakened by the joy I feel here.

I imagine that I will never forget the chilly January evening when I bumped into Megan Grove while walking home from work. She was headed to the church for a worship committee meeting to plan Lent for 2015. she remembered that I was worship leading 3 times during Lent and invited me to take part in the meeting. I happily agreed and it was as I was sitting there looking over the resource materials that I heard the sound of water. I felt God stirring within me the realization that church work - specifically worship - is my call.

Sometimes we hear the sound of water in the voices of friends and mentors. Sometimes it is heard in our minds. Sometimes it is a feeling of deep faith and certainty. Other times it is merely a coincidence - a divinely orchestrated meeting. The sound of water can be as loud as Niagara or soft as a gentle trickle; but God's promise is that the water is always there - always within reach. No matter what kind of wilderness we find ourselves in, we need only to listen for the sound of water and God will lead us to the banks of the river of life.