Sermon for October 13th, 2019
Choir anthem, “You’ll Be Found” from the musical “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
1 Samuel 7:12
Qur’an 110 “Help”
When God’s Help and Victory come
and you see humankind entering God’s religion in throngs,
hymn the praise of thy Lord,
and seek forgiveness from God.
Truly God is Ever Relenting.
John Philip Newell
It is because we long for peace
that we pray.
It is because we hope for wholeness
that we hunger.
It is because we need forgiveness
that we seek new beginnings.
So we come
entering the depths of our soul
to plead for peace
to summon wholeness
to beg forgiveness
of ourselves and one another
and thus of You
Soul within our soul
Light within our longings.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
SERMON Here I Raise My Ebenezer John Shuck
“Here I raise my Ebenezer.” What is that?
It is a line from the hymn we will sing after this sermon is completed. It is a line from the hymn, “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing.” It is kind of a funny thing to say. Here I raise my Ebenezer. When we sang it in presbytery youth gatherings in Tennessee, teenagers would occasionally giggle.
It is an odd word that only appears three times in the Bible. All occurrences are in 1 Samuel in regards to the battles between Israel and the Philistines.
Israel was camped at a place called Ebenezer. They brought the Ark of the Covenant to the place of their encampment. This was probably a mistake. It didn’t turn out well. The Philistines defeated Israel and captured the ark. However, the ark proved to be trouble for the Philistines, causing a plague of mice and people to break out in sores or tumors and so forth. So after a few months they sent it back with some golden mice and golden tumors to placate Israel’s god.
Long story short. The battles with the Philistines rage on. One day, Samuel tells the people of Israel to put away their foreign gods and he leads a sacrifice. The Philistines attack during the sacrifice and according to the Bible, Yahweh intervenes and confuses the Philistines and Israel defeats them. This ends up being a decisive battle. According to the text:
“So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.” (1 Samuel 7:13)
Samuel erects a stone and calls it “Ebenezer”, which means stone of help. Samuel says, “Thus far Yahweh has helped us.” The ebenezer serves as a marker, a sign, a reminder, of Yahweh’s help. So Ebenezer, the name of the town of Israel’s shame, where they lost the ark of the covenant, becomes Ebenezer, the stone of help, that Samuel raises as a sign of Yahweh’s interference on their behalf.
It is because of this hymn, “Come thou Font of Every Blessing” that this word, ebenezer, is in our consciousness. The hymn was written in 1758 by a Calvinist-Methodist, Robert Robinson.
What can we take from this?
Some of us are making our way through David Ray Griffin’s book on Process Theology, The Christian Gospel for Americans, and the question of divine influence comes up. How does Divine power work in the world and in our lives? But more importantly, outside of general terms of how divine power influences life, I think the invitation from the hymn, “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” is to make it personal.
Here I raise my ebenezer.
Why? Why do that?
If you or I have a spiritual experience in which we acknowledge the presence of divine influence and power in some way, how do we mark it, remember it, and acknowledge it? Samuel took some time to make some art. He built a thing, a stone of help, an ebenezer, as a visible sign of invisible grace, what we call a sacrament.
Thus far Yahweh has helped us. This far. He marked the place. He named it and he erected a sacred symbol so that it would be remembered.
As we know, it is easy to forget.
We can forget the grace points in the timeline of our lives.
It is true that the grace of God is throughout life, in every moment, every interaction, God is inviting and guiding, but there are moments in which that divine influence is more obvious than during ordinary time, shall we say.
Samuel by raising his ebenezer, is declaring, I don’t know what the future holds, but we got this far with Yahweh’s help. Don’t forget that tomorrow, when it looks rough. Go back and look at this rock art, this sacred stone, this ebenezer, this stone of help and know that when times are tough, and you are feeling alone, and the troubles are mounting, that the Holy One was there for you.
The rituals of gratitude and the practice of thanksgiving have a practical purpose. More than one practical purpose. The practice of gratitude keeps us from falling into anxiety and despair for the unknown future. We can’t know how God will influence the future.
Wendell Berry knows that truth. In the beautiful anthem the choir sang, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry writes:
“I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
That is a marvelous definition of anxiety, “taxing [our] lives with forethought of grief.”
The wild things, according, to Wendell Berry, don’t do this. This is a product of human evolution. We worry about the future. The wild things do not.
The solution to this anxiety over the future is not to try to ignore or deny the issues we are facing. It is not to try not to worry. No, the solution, is to acknowledge the divine presence, the moments of peace, of victory, of grace, by erecting our own ebenezer. Acknowledge where God has been. We don’t know where God is going. We can acknowledge where God has been.
That is of course his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” The poem itself is Wendell Berry’s ebenezer, a marker of the grace of God as seen through “the presence of still water.”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
That is the function of the ebenezer, the stone of help. It is a visual, physical, reminder of grace.
“I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
We need to recall these times of grace, we need to practice thanksgiving, eucharist, else we get lost in despair and cannot function. God doesn’t need people who cannot function. God needs people who can see the world as it is and engage it with love. And you can’t do that without a lifetime of ebenezers that you have erected to acknowledge God’s presence in your life.
That is the point, I think of Luke’s parable of Jesus. Jesus heals ten lepers and only one returns to thank him, to acknowledge his fortune, the grace of God. The point that is made is that the only one who returned was the foreigner, the one who had a different religion. Samaritans and Jews were close but different. The difference made the difference. They didn’t like each other.
This story and the parable of the Good Samaritan, as well as other stories, such as Jesus’s first sermon are warning stories. In Jesus’s first sermon, the congregation tries to throw him off of a cliff because he lifts up the foreigner as a recipient of God’s healing, not Jesus’s own people. Each of those stories of the outsider receiving the grace of God is a warning story. It is a warning not to take grace for granted.
The author of Luke, the first half of a two-part work, Luke-Acts, is hard on the people of Israel for forgetting who they are and who they are called to be. They are resting on their laurels. They are resting on their identity and their symbols. John the Baptist thunders in Luke chapter three, “God can raise up from these stones, children of Abraham!”
The children of Abraham and those who claim to be his heirs are forgetting that God is active in the present and God requires compassion as in the story of the Good Samaritan and thanksgiving as in the story of the Thankful Samaritan Leper. They are warning stories. They are stories that say, “You aren’t going to make it unless you are humble and grateful and compassionate.”
Unless you bring into your awareness and consciousness, in mind and in heart, the presence of divine grace, you won’t be able to face with clear vision what is to come. You can’t do it by yourself, you need to know that God is influencing the outcome. And that is what the ritual of thanksgiving does.
When life gets rough, we need to remember that God took us this far. Thank God for that. In Arabic, the phrase is alhamdullilah — Praise be to God. Whether one says it in Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, or English, “Praise be to God” is a phrase of trust that God will take you the rest of the way.
I want to take a moment with the reading from Jeremiah. I have been using the lectionary readings and we have been journeying with Jeremiah and Luke the past few weeks. Jeremiah is a bit of a gloomy doomer. He is the weeping prophet warning the people of the wrath to come. The thing is, it came. It is one thing to bum on Jeremiah for being a Debbie Downer, but he was right.
Jerusalem was overtaken by Babylon and the people were taken into captivity in chains.
Then Jeremiah gets pastoral. Actually, he was always pastoral. Sometimes the pastoral message is of warning and at other times encouragement, depending on what is needed at the moment.
After those people have gone into exile….
After everything is destroyed…
After the humiliation…
After the deaths and the destruction and the violence…
After it appeared that God had deserted them,
or perhaps was defeated himself,
or maybe didn’t even exist….
After the temple was destroyed….
After the palace was destroyed
and the king, Hezekiah, saw his family killed, was blinded and led away in irons…
After the stripping away of anything that resembled home, or a people, or hope…
After all that, Jeremiah writes a letter to the people in exile. He writes, to paraphrase:
“Make a life. Build houses. Plant gardens. Eat the produce. Get married. Have children. Let your children have children. Make the home of your captors, your home.”
“The welfare of the city is your welfare.”
Wow. How do you do that? How do you start over after that much sorrow? And in enemy territory? Hopefully you have erected some ebenezers along the way. In fact, the exile itself became an ebenezer, a stone of help. The reason we have a Bible and a faith is because the ancient Israelites didn’t lose their religion during the exile. Their religion changed. And they had to reinterpret everything, including the ways God influenced their lives.
The exile became an ebenezer in itself. They survived it and they thrived. In fact, the first chapter of Genesis is a product of the exile, the story of creation and the Sabbath Day, the seventh day, the resting day, the thanksgiving day, the creating of an ebenezer day.
That is what the first chapter of Genesis is really about. It is why we waste productive time resting and praising God on the seventh day. If we do not we may not get through the rest of the six days with clear eyes and a moral compass.
Every seventh day, every worship service, every practice of the “regular means of grace” is erecting an ebenezer. We remember that God took us here thus far. God is not going to forget us tomorrow.
Today I raise my ebenezer on behalf of Southminster.
Here we are, October 13th, 2019.
“Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
By faith God will take us the rest of the way.