Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
We are winding down this sermon series on the Book of Judges. Whew! I’m sure you are relieved. Last week, Doyt preached about Gideon and if you were here, you will never forget that Gideon was a trumpet player just like Doyt.
This week and next, we are spending some time with Samson of “Samson and Delilah” fame. We started this sermon series with Doyt saying, “We need to talk.” Then, “I’m sorry and you are forgiven.” I said, “Just do it. God believes in you.” Doyt followed with “think like God” and a study on the treatment of women in Judges with the pronouncement that “it doesn’t have to be this way.” And last week, we talked about thanksgiving. Today, we’re going to talk about ways to experience God. How do we see God? How do we hear God? How does God communicate with us? How do we recognize the fingerprints of God upon our lives?
I just finished leading a minyan, a study group on Sara Miles’ book entitled Take This Bread: The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-First–Century Christian. In it, Sara reflects upon her conversion experience and subsequent calling to a ministry of feeding people. Her experience of God was out of the blue, immediate, and beyond life-changing. It was a paradigm shift of epic proportions. Sara says, “Holy communion knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God.” In the introduction, she writes, “Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all, but actual food—indeed, the Bread of Life. In that shocking moment of communion filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.”
We were a small group studying this book together, a group with many years of church attendance between us. And I found it shocking to realize that none of us has had this kind of mountain-top experience at the communion rail. For those of us gathered, the act of taking communion is a holy habit—important, life-giving even, but earth shattering it is not. So why is that? At first I was surprised and maybe even disappointed. Here we were discussing a book in which a self-described heathen walked into a church, took communion for the first time, and was reborn a disciple. How come God spoke to her so directly in such a grand way and not us?
As I reflect on that question I can identify the fingerprints of God all over my life, in experiences both difficult and joyous. I can recall times in which I felt closer to God than others. I can even tell you about a time when I felt God’s overwhelming presence right there in the room with me. But none of these experiences is quite the same as what Sara describes in her book. Sara says, “Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and terribly inconvenient Christian conversion” (Miles, xiv).
As a life-long Episcopalian, that simply isn’t my experience and it isn’t the experience of the people who attended my class. But, it might be yours. Perhaps some of you have had a knock-down, cataclysmic conversion experience that turned your life upside down, but that’s not the norm. It doesn’t happen just because we want it to, or because we will it to. God doesn’t work that way. God’s communication with us isn’t for our entertainment; it’s for our souls. I’m willing to bet that someone here today has had God speak to them. Some of you have encountered God in a real, almost tangible way. Some of you think that sounds crazy.
I believe that God still speaks to us. God sends angels. They may not be dressed in white with a halo and wings, but they are angels none the less. And yet, these sorts of direct experiences of God are the exception, not the rule. Many of us encounter God through music. I know I do. When the choir sings an anthem, when Tom plays the organ, when the brass and timpani do their thing at Easter, I feel God. How about a sunset over the water? A glimpse of the mountains glowing pink, orange, and purple? How about the laughter of a child or the crinkly smile of a grandparent? Where do you see God? How do you see God?
For Manoah and his wife, Samson’s parents, God comes to them as an angel. God speaks to them, but they don’t even realize to whom they are speaking. The nameless woman, known only to us by her relationships as Manoah’s wife and Samson’s mother, is visited twice by the angel of God. The angel tells the woman, who has so far been barren, that she will bear a son who will be a Nazirite to God from birth. His hair should never be cut. The boy’s life will be consecrated to God, and he will begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines. The second time upon seeing this strange man, she immediately runs to get her husband. It’s important to note that this “angel of God” doesn’t come down with a trumpet, lights, and a halo; instead they describe the angel as simply “a strange man.” When they return, the angel is still there and repeats the instructions. The angel directs the woman to not eat anything of the vine, not to drink wine or strong drink, not to eat anything unclean.
After a big production of preparing an offering and the angel receiving it, the angel ascends in the flames of the altar and disappears before their eyes. Finally, Manoah realizes that it was God, it was God’s angel. I seem to remember Frank Spina talking about Manoah in one of the forums and referring to him as “not the sharpest tool in the shed.” Brilliant he most certainly was not. I wonder if I’m sometimes more like Manoah than I would like to admit. Does my blindness, or ignorance, or doubt keep me from hearing what God is saying to me? What stumbling blocks get in the way of God’s communication with us? What things get in the way of our recognizing God’s communication? What prevents us from receiving God’s message?
Life is messy and our feelings are messy. Fear, self-doubt, judgment, all of these things have the capacity to overwhelm our rational brain and crowd out the pieces that yearn to truly know God, to experience God. I want you to try something with me right now. As you are comfortable, put your hands gently in your lap, palms up. Take three deep breaths. Then, close your eyes. Notice your body, the hard wood of the pew. Notice your breath in and out. What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you notice about the people around you? Now, when you are ready, open your eyes and take a few more deep breaths. Mindfulness. Centering yourself. Breathing in deeply. These little things change your perception, your attention, and your focus. Try it before you pray. Try it as you listen to the choir sing the anthem. Stretch yourself to be open and God might surprise you, as God surprised Manoah and his wife.
Now we need to talk. I’m going to give you an assignment. You don’t need a laptop or school supplies, maybe just a pen and the back of your bulletin if you’re so inclined. Later in the service, when you come forward to receive communion, I want you to really pay attention. Center yourself before you walk up. Take those deep breaths. And when you are up here, close to the altar, I want you to settle into your body and pay attention. What do you see?
What can you hear? What do you smell? What does it taste like? What are you feeling and touching? In the five senses of our bodies, fully experience communion with intentionality, with openness, and with grace.
Then, return to your seat and take a few more deep breaths. Grab that pen and make a few notes on the back of your bulletin. Capture a few images, or phrases that you can use in prayer later this week. This exercise may seem silly or trivial, but if you can allow it, if you can open yourself up, maybe, just maybe you will engage God in a new way.