Always Being Re-Formed, Part Two

Rev. Gusti Linnea Newquist

June 13, 2021

Based on 1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13. Samuel Listens for God’s Choice to Be King

Can you believe it was only two years ago – next week – that Christopher and I made our way south to interview with the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church Pastor Nominating Committee?

It feels like two centuries, given our time with COVID!

Even then, it was truly a time of deep listening: ears pressed to the earth, toes dipped in the Potomac, discerning in our dreams (both pastor and PNC) how dying to what currently was – for you and for me – might begin a whole new way of life for all of us together.

Many questions were posed. From them to us. From us to them. Not one of them, I will remind you, about how I might plan – five months into our ministry together – to lead the congregation through a global pandemic!

We did, however, talk a lot about listening. Which seems like an oxymoron at first – that we would talk about listening – but it is true.

We all agreed that the depth of change already in motion for SPC was substantial. That pastoral transition did not exist in the living memory of the congregation. That there would therefore need to be a great deal of listening – to God and to one another – in order to navigate this transition well.

We also agreed that the depth of transition was not only pastoral, but would include nearly every one of the nine paid professionals serving SPC. Many of whom had been in their roles for more than a decade. Again we agreed to the need for a great deal of listening – to God and to one another – in order to navigate this transition well.

We did not name it, but we did emphatically assume the depth of transition would also be generational. From a Baby Boomer hippie with a ponytail and Birkenstocks (always assumed to be a male) to a midlife Gen-Ex female (who was warned before entering ministry not ever to wear a ponytail unless she wanted the stained glass ceiling to come crashing down on her un-coifed head!).

Again, the need for listening.

At the same time, we acknowledged the incredible capacity of the congregation to change!

Especially given the theological trajectory of my predecessor from a fundamentalist dispensationalist forty-something years ago, through an profound embrace of the LGBTQIA+ community twenty-something years ago, to a much more universalist and expansionist understanding of the spirit today. Talk about change!

We talked about the great dialogue between pastor and people throughout those forty-two years. The deep listening to God and to one another that must have taken place, in order to allowed for such dramatic change in one congregation.

We agreed that great dialogue and deep listening would need to continue. Even before COVID came along to compel us even further along “the tightrope of longing” in the midst of dramatic transition.

We delighted in the capacity for new life emerging from our dreams. We reveled in the potential for transformation. We looked forward to learning in our life together even more how to love God and love our neighbor by practicing community.

But the truth is, even with all of that delight and reveling and forward-looking, great dialogue and deep listening is just plain hard.

Take Samuel, for example, in our Scripture lesson for today.

Samuel has, for his entire life, listened with due diligence to the guidance of the Spirit of God in dreaming and visioning the outpouring of the Spirit in his own time and place. He is the classic Presbyterian Elder. Decently and in orderly about everything.

So when God tells him it is time to anoint a new king, Samuel does as he is told.

But if you remember from last Sunday’s lesson, Samuel was never in favor of this whole “king” business to begin with. He only submits to it begrudgingly. And it takes him a while to hear what God has envisioned for the community to come.

Samuel at least understands that the next leader for the people of God will come from the family of Jesse. So Samuel goes to Jesse. And he leads them all in the worship of God. The dreaming and the visioning of the guidance of the Spirit of God always begins with worship. Just like it does for us today.

But it does not end there.

Jesse brings his children forward. Which one will it be? Surely that first-born son is the one! (they all think) Groomed for greatness from the very beginning. The one who would allow them to call off the search right away and go back to a life of leisure. But “God does not see as mortals see; we look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”

The guidance of the Spirit of God is clear, once Samuel truly listens for it. The dream that makes the most sense in Samuel’s well-experienced eyes is simply not what God has in mind. So Samuel keeps searching. Candidate after candidate parades before him. All of them are great people with great dreams. But none of them are anointed by the Spirit of God for the particular purpose of envisioning the possibilities for the people into the next era.

Samuel becomes quite certain the task is hopeless. “Do you have any more children?” Samuel begs of Jesse. Jesse hesitates.

“Well, there is that little shepherd boy,” he says, the runt of the litter, who could not possibly embody God’s vision for the people.

That little shepherd boy turns out to be King David, himself! Who, in hindsight, ushers in the great glory days of the people of God.

All because Samuel listens and is willing to change his heart and mind.

This, too, will be the case for us, as we continue our phased re-opening, mixed with figuring out hybrid ministry, mixed with ongoing pastoral transition, mixed with ongoing staffing transition, mixed with ongoing generational transition.

Not because I am personally comparing myself with King David. Truth be told he is not my favorite biblical character, given his arguable record of rape and murder. But because your Pastor Nominating Committee and I, and now all of us together, have committed to listen. To God and one another. And through our listening we have been and will continue to be willing to change. Not necessarily for one another, as I said in my very first sermon what seems like centuries ago, but by one another.

My colleagues who have already begun the transition to hybrid worship in their own phased re-opening have warned me: do not think the in-person church you return to in September will be the church you remember before COVID. Too much has already changed. Too much has already been left behind. For us at SPC, too many of our beloved leaders have already departed, and too much of our generational pastoral transition has already settled into place.

We will be a different church in September.

We already are.

But fear not, the Spirit of God says! Fear not, my colleagues who have already begun the transition say! The steadfast love of God is exactly the same! Even still from everlasting to everlasting! Even today bearing a peace that passes all understanding, no matter what season we find ourselves in!

Fear not, the Spirit of God says! The listening, discerning, devoted heart of our beautiful beloved SPC community is still anointed for ministry in this time and place! You have no idea what the future will look like. In the moment all you can do is listen.

But who knows?

Decades from now, when all is said and done, and the history of this transition is written in stone, maybe, just maybe our descendants will look back at what we are doing right now, from the perspective of all that unfolds in the months and years to come, and say: wow, they didn’t know it at the time, but their best days – their glory days – were still yet to come!

Let the church say, Amen!