[Sermon preached on Sunday, April 22, 2018 (Easter IV) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]
[You can listen to the audio of this sermon by checking out the latest episode of the Word Made FRESH Podcast].
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
1 John 3:16
A few years ago, I had finally worn down the Children’s Ministry Coordinator at my former parish enough to convince her to let me tell a Godly Play story. I had just completed the Godly Play training and fell in love with the way the Gospel stories were told, particularly because the focus wasn’t on getting the story “right,” so much as it was about inhabiting the story in a particular way. In Godly Play, the words of the Bible aren’t words the exist in some far-off realm. They are incredibly present, in front of us, within us.
The first Godly Play story she allowed me to tell was the Story of the Good Shepherd. As I told the story of a loving shepherd who leads each of his sheep out into the wide, green pasture, and calls them all by name, I made a point of emphasizing the part of the story that says “the sheep know his voice and they follow.” One child raised hand the way only young children can, straining to get my attention. “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Pick my, Father Marcus! Pick me!” I was able to ask him to wait until the end of the story, which made him sit really still, as if he was really afraid that if he moved too much the question would escape fly away.
At the end of the story, he raised his hand and said, “Father Marcus, what does God sound like?” I was startled by the question and asked him to repeat it to give myself time to answer it. Finally, I remember that the point of Godly Play wasn’t to answer questions, but to trust the listeners of the story to find the answers for themselves. Finally, I was able to respond with my own question. “What do you think God sounds like?”
“I think God sounds like a fire-breathing robot.”
“Why you think that?” I asked.
“Ionno,” he shrugged. “I just think God is cool.”
Dear friends, what does God sound like to you? When you pray, what voice do you desire to hear? In a context wherein people from both sides of the political aisle claim to speak for God, how do you distinguish between what is authentically the voice of God and what is the voice of a hired-hand in shepherd’s clothing?
When I was in the last semester of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. All of my friends felt really sure that they wanted to be teachers or go to graduate school to be lawyers or physicians. Some of them decided to start their own businesses. But I was clueless. The chaplain of my small alma mater had been watching me for a few years and suggested that I go to seminary after I graduated. I had no idea what seminary was or even why I would go, but I found myself saying “yes” anyway.
Years later, after I had found my way into the Episcopal Church, I found myself in a similar conversation with a friend of mine who was soon to be ordained as a priest. She told me that I should talk to my rector about ordination. I told her that she was crazy and that I was in no way, shape, or form called to be a priest and that even if I was, God might want to try again. Eventually, on my way to a magic store with my rector, we began talking about ordination, and I found myself saying “yes” anyway.
About 18 months ago, when I was discerning my new call as a priest, I was faced with a choice. I could stay where I was, I could go back south to a congregation that was a lot like my old one, or I could go to Minnesota where I could stretch some new leadership muscles. I’m not going to lie: going south was really tempting, but when faced with that choice, I found myself saying “yes” to the most unknown of the choices.
I can’t pretend to know what God’s voice sounds like to you, dear friends. All I know is that, at least for me, God’s voice is the voice that summons up the best in me. God’s voice calls me to do the harder, more challenging thing. God’s voice is the voice that believes in me even when I am overwhelmed, or anxious, or fearful, or sad. God’s voice is the voice that finds a way to penetrate the din of toxicity that is all around to speak love, and mercy, and compassion, and peace into my life. God’s voice is the voice that fills me with joy and reminds me of home.
What does God’s voice sound like to you? When is the last time you heard it? I wonder when was the last time God called you by name? Where were you the first time you remember hearing God’s voice and without a doubt you know that it was God?
Maybe you have a story, a moment where God spoke to you. Maybe it was during a really hard moment in your life when you thought it was all over and you just couldn’t go on. Maybe it was during a really happy moment, when your heart was overflowing with thanksgiving and gratitude. Maybe it was in one of the quiet times, when nothing big was happening, good or bad, but your soul had quieted down long enough to hear it.
Maybe you don’t have a story. Maybe you’ve never heard God speaking to you. Maybe you’re still wandering in the wilderness, waiting for a word from God to help you know where to go.
Rowan Williams suggests that we are a people who expect to be spoken to by God. To follow in the way of Jesus is to expect God to speak to us. What a blessing! What a burden! We pray, we read and hear scripture, we sing, we speak to one another, all hoping that somewhere in all those words, God will find a way of speaking to us, personally, a tailormade message from on high.
Because every last one of us is wandering, trying out best to make it home, and just one word from God would help us to take the next step in faith.
Because, when you’re 8 years old, God is like a fire-breathing robot, and life is so filled with wonder. But, when you’re older, life is so much scarier, even if we don’t admit it, and the wonder that allowed us to see God so clearly disappears.
But that doesn’t mean God disappears. We just have to identify what our fire-breathing robot is now.