This past week I was in Atlanta for the annual Festival of Homiletics. Homiletics is just a fancy word for preaching. I was at a festival and celebration of preaching. It is jokingly called “Woodstock for preachers.” It is wonderful to sit in a pew and worship at a service I didn’t plan, sing hymns I didn’t pick out, and hear sermons I didn’t write. At the same time, it’s like drinking out of a firehose. Or to put it even better, it’s like eating at a buffet and you keep eating despite the fact that you’ve had to let out your pants, made more room at the table, and call for a wheelbarrow to take you out…but the food is so good!!! That’s what it was like for me. I heard voices I don’t normally get to hear. I got to hear voices from various denominations, people of various races, preachers of varied sexualities, and even a preacher that was differently abled. I heard familiar texts preached in new ways. I heard unfamiliar texts actually preached, inspiring me to maybe someday tackle those same texts. Most importantly, I was reminded (multiple times) of a God who forgives me and loves me. This was, in all ways possible, continuing education.
I don’t know how many of you have to do continuing education for your jobs, but as a Pastor it is expected that I engage in ongoing continuing education. Continuing education is important to me because despite what you may believe (or, even better, what I may believe) I actually do not know it all. I need to always be willing to listen to new voices, read new voices, engage in conversations that are difficult, and be willing to change my mind. None of this happens without God’s urging and the Holy Spirit interpreting and intervening. Today’s reading, to me at least, sounds like Jesus is encouraging the disciples to engage in some continuing education.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” I have to believe that there was one disciple present that either said or thought “what does he mean?!? I can handle it! Come on….tell me!” And when Jesus speaks to the disciples and says “I still have many things to say to you” what he is also saying is “you’ve got a lot still left to learn.” Let us not forget that the messages given to the disciples weren’t just for the disciples of Jesus’ time, they were for the disciples of all times, in all places, in all ages. So, this means you and me, brothers and sisters. Jesus is telling us “you’ve got a lot still left to learn.” Now, depending on our lot in life, we may interpret that statement with enthusiasm or with skepticism. It could be “YES! I get to learn more!” or it could be (sarcasm) “joy! I get to learn more.” And sure, Jesus could have told the disciples (and us) everything all at one time, but would we have listened? We hear it, but do we listen? I think we have all had times in our lives where we’ve heard someone say something, including God, and we don’t listen. We get that proverbial “in one ear and out the other” thing going on. So perhaps, just perhaps Jesus actually knew what he was talking about when he said that there is more for us to hear and learn, but we just can’t bear them right now. Jesus knew the disciples (and us) needed to be “primed” for learning.
When God speaks to us, God doesn’t always come as a booming voice from the sky. God’s voice isn’t always surrounded by claps of thunder, flashing neon lights, or even an introduction. When God speaks to us, it’s usually in ways we don’t expect, through people we don’t expect, and in times we don’t expect. Even more, when God speaks to us, it’s usually in ways we don’t like, through people we don’t like, and in times we don’t like. God often does God’s best work through the most unexpected ways; and often those ways can make us uncomfortable. This is usually because we’ve placed our own expectations onto God, and so we expect God or maybe even anticipate God acting one way. And instead, God acts whatever way God so chooses. God refuses to be placed in a box.
And so it is that when we finally do hear and listen to the word of God, it comes in many forms through many people. What do we do when God speaks to us through people we may not want to listen to? What happens when God speaks to us in ways we don’t like? What do we do when God speaks to us at a time that isn’t real convenient for us? Now, don’t get me wrong, God loves us, dearly. But do you really think God cares about our expectations? Do you really think that when God starts to move and send the Holy Spirit down on us that it’s going to stop just because it’s not a real convenient time for us? Friends, the Bible is full of stories of people who fought with God, tried to deny God, tried to redirect God, even those who ran from God. I’m going to ruin the end of all of those stories for you: God won.
When God speaks to us (notice I didn’t say “if,” but “when”) it is because God believes we are prepared to listen, learn, digest, and bear the news that God has for us. And trust me when I tell you that should you choose not to listen the first time, God will keep repeating the message until you do. I jokingly tell people that God telling me to go to seminary was like being hit over the head with the Holy Spirit 2×4. God will get out the 2×4 for you if that’s what it takes. But again, God sometimes chooses to speak to us in ways and through people we’d rather not listen to. And we’re missing out on hearing from God just because we firmly believe that the people we don’t like, God must not like them either. Listen friends, if the God that you have constructed in your own mind hates the same people that you do, then you can go ahead and safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image and not the other way around. (loosely based on Anne Lamott quote) How many of you have heard the story of Baalam and his talking donkey? If not, look it up, it’s Numbers 22:21-39.
Baalam and his donkey are on their way Moab, God was upset about this but Baalam was going anyway. Since Baalam wasn’t listening to God, the Lord sent down the Holy Spirit, opened the mouth of the donkey and out came the voice of the Lord. And trust me when I tell you this, if God can speak through a donkey to Baalam, God can certainly use someone you would label as an ass to speak to you. Including me. We need to hear other voices than our own. We need to hear other voices than the ones around us. Believe it or not, you need to hear other voices than mine! Read other pastor’s sermons or listen to them. Read books by authors you wouldn’t normally read so that you can maybe hear God in a new way.
God will speak to you. God will speak to you through God, through Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, through whatever ways are necessary. God will speak to you because God loves you. And because we have a God of second chances, God will continue to speak to you until you listen. You’re never too old to learn. The disciples needed some continuing education, and so do we. God has many things still to say to us. You never know who is going to be the one to be the voice of God to you. And the flip side is this: God just might use you to speak to someone else! Continuing education starts at this table, and school is in session!