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July 26, 2020

Do You Hear What I Hear?

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The call of God is strange and marvelous and complicated.  Some believe God calls only those who enter professional ministry – that God’s call relates only to full-time religious service. I have always strenuously disagreed with that assumption.  And so does our focus hymn for this morning.

“God Is Calling Through the Whisper” is about the call of God – particularly about the variety of ways God calls to each one of us.  Contemporary musician and hymn writer, Mary Louise Bringle was the Chairperson of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song which compiled our amazing hymnal Glory to God.  Better known to the world as Mel, she wrote today’s hymn in 2003 to be part of a collection of Samford University materials on the theme of “calling.” The assignment, she writes, “prompted me to think about the variety of ways we experience God's "calling" in our lives.  I'm not sure that many of us, like Moses or Samuel or Mary Magdalene, actually hear God calling our names verbally.  I suspect that rather more often, God "speaks" to us -- beckons us, impresses Godself upon our attention -- in ways that are not verbal at all.” 

Listen to stanza one of this hymn: (soloist)

God is calling through the whisper of the Spirit’s deepest sighs,

through the thrill of sudden beauties that can catch us by surprise. 

Flash of lightning, crash of thunder; hush of stillness, rush of wonder: 

God is calling – can you hear?  God is calling – can you hear?

Our scripture companion this morning is Elijah from the Old Testament.  At the beginning of Chapter 19 in I Kings, Elijah is terrified. He’s been anointed as a prophet and is working to rid the ancient world of false prophets – those who worship not Yahweh, the creator of the universe, but those who worship Baal, the god of worldly concerns. Elijah is deep into the contest not only of God vs. gods, but of prophets vs. prophets.  After encountering Jezebel, Elijah runs for his life. No orders from Yahweh, no instructions, no planned route, he simply runs for his life. Exhausted and frightened, longing for his own death, he finally sleeps under a solitary bush - a thorny shrub known as a broom tree – a symbol of hope in the Bible. 

As he slept, Elijah twice heard a message to get up and eat; both times he found fresh baked bread and clean water – nourishment that sustained him for a 40 day/40 night journey to the Mount of Horeb where he hid in a cave.  Even without audible instructions from God, it’s clear Yahweh has been calling to Elijah all the way. For deep in the darkness of the cave, God speaks to Elijah, “What are you doing here?”  And we come to our scripture passage for this morning – beginning at verse 11 of chapter 19:

***** ‘God speaks to Elijah, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.”   A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. (Sheer silence.) When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat and went out and stood at the cave’s entrance.”  Elijah knew that, in the thin quiet -- the sheer silence -- the Lord had passed by. In the sheer silence, Elijah heard the voice of God calling.’ *****

This season of pandemic has offered many opportunities simply to sit in silence – to reflect, to ponder, to wonder, to question. I pray you have taken advantage of this stillness.  Have you heard God calling to you? Have you felt the whisper of the Spirit’s deepest sighs? God is calling. Can you hear?

Mel Bringle says this about stanza 2: “We also see, and sometimes hear, the calling of God in the claims of the world.  As Frederick Buechner wrote, our vocation or "calling" appears at the intersection where our "deep gladness" -- our gifts and yearnings to be of service -- meet the world's "deep hungers." These hungers become known to us "in our neighbors' urgent prayers" … in "strident cries or silent pleading" … in places of hurt and faces of need that move our hearts to respond.”

Listen to stanza two: (soloist)

God is calling through the voices of our neighbors’ urgent prayers,

through their longing for redemption and for rescue from despair. 

Place of hurt or face of needing; strident cry or silent pleading: 

God is calling – can you hear?  God is calling – can you hear?

Oh my … how God is calling to us these days! In the wall of Moms standing firm in Portland … in the continued cries for justice for children trapped at the border … in the exhaustion of our siblings of color who confront white privilege and racism each and every day … in the confusion of children and parents who yearn for the coming school year to resemble something close to familiar … so much pleading … so many prayers for redemption and rescue.  As Presbyterians, we believe God speaks to us through the voice of the church. Through the voice of the church these days, I hear God calling to us – “Hold fast to your faith.  I am with you.  The world needs you now more than ever. Your mission partners are depending on you.  Your worship life has been, and will be, different for awhile, but the creation needs your care and the Creator continues to crave your praise and thanksgiving.”

Whose urgent prayers are, for you, the voice of God in these days?  Where are your deep gladness and your gifts intersecting with the world’s deep hungers?  Where and how are you being moved to respond? God is calling – can you hear?

Mel Bringle says of stanza 3: “Music is yet another medium through which we hear and are moved to respond to God.  God calls to us, touches our hearts, transforms our spirits through "the hymns of earth and angels"  I constantly need to remind myself that the music which stirs and soothes and inspires me is likely to be quite different from that which stirs and soothes and inspires you.  And, conversely, melodies and rhythms that leave me utterly cold may be life-saving for the person next to me in the pew.  This variety of responses to song is precisely why we create hymnals containing a rich diversity of materials:  so that--as on the day of Pentecost--God can speak directly to each one of us, in our own language: and we hear!”

Listen to stanza three: (soloist)

God is calling through the music of sublime and human arts,

through the hymns of earth and angels and the carols of our hearts. 

Lift of joy and gift of singing, days and nights our praises bringing:

God is calling – and we hear!  God is calling – and we hear!

Back on June 10, when Ruth and John and I met to plan worship for these summer Sundays, I believe God was calling to us through the idea of focusing on hymns. Northminster is a singing church; we are a congregation that loves music in all shapes and styles. We love to sing together. We rejoice when amazing musicians lead us in worship.  Not singing together in these days is one of the most difficult parts of planning and leading worship.  When we return to in-person worship, it will be a challenge to focus silently on the hymn text as Marko plays the melody on the organ or piano.  I am grateful we will continue with live-streaming worship where we will hear lovely solo voices calling us to joy and praise.

I confess – the hymns we selected for this summer series are ones which stir and soothe and inspire the 3 of us – today’s hymn was one of John’s requests! As we share with you hymns which at times have almost literally saved each of our lives, our deepest prayer was, and continues to be, that this music of sublime and human arts lifts your spirits and speaks to your souls in a time when all of us – all of us -- are yearning to hear the voice of God.  I pray music has stirred, and soothed, and inspired you – perhaps even saved your life – during these strange days.

God is calling – can you hear?  God is calling – and we hear! So now what?  Let’s return to Elijah for a moment.  After hearing God in the sheer silence, Elijah is told … “Go….  Get up … go back through the desert … tell what God has done for you.” 

“Go … tell what God has done for you!” That’s how we respond to God’s call. We go – and tell!  Go … tell what God has done for you by reaching out to your neighbors. Tell what God has done for you by doing something for one of the least of these.  Tell what God has done for you by your continued faithful participation in Sunday morning worship. Tell what God has done for you by asking, “What can I do to help?” and by responding, “I can do that,” when offered an opportunity for service. Tell what God has done for you by praying for the staff and the Session as they continue to lead and guide us towards the arrival of our Interim Pastor. And tell what God has done for you by praying fervently and diligently for each other, for our city, our nation, and for our whole world.

God is calling … God is calling.  Now go and tell.  Go and tell that you hear.  Go --- to join your deepest gladness to the world’s deepest need!  And to God be the glory.  Amen.

Resource: Email correspondence with Mel Bringle – July 2020