1 Samuel 7, Revelation 22
The line in the hymn is not a reference to a Dickens character, but to a moment of thanksgiving in the life of Samuel – a story we just heard. The prophet Samuel took a stone, and raised it up, and named it Ebenezer – which means ‘stone of help.’ The stone was intended to observe and celebrate the help the people of Israel received – or understood to come – from God in defeating the Philistines and recovering the Ark of the Covenant. The Ebenezer served as a memory-holder, a place-marker, of God’s power, God’s blessing.
We could also describe an Ebenezer as a placeholder or remembrance of a time, place or moment when the divine and the ordinary have met.
Samuel’s Ebenezer – Samuel’s stone of help – serves as a way to remember a place where the divine and ordinary met – of a time and place where he received and profoundly felt God’s grace and God’s guidance.
We also have lots of ways of doing this, do we not?
Perhaps a walk through your home – or office – is a way of journeying through such mile-markers. I don’t know about you, but most of the stuff I surround myself with – that I put on the walls, or on shelves, or on my fridge, tells a story. They are like placeholders – ways that I hold on to important people, moments, times.
There are the concert posters hung – one over the television and one over the piano – memories of hearing good music, but also reminders of the friends who went along with me. The piano is its own marker – it belonged to my grandma first, and it was the only thing I told her I wanted from her home – no small memento – it is an incredibly gracious gift from an incredibly gracious woman.
There are the postcards and thank you notes on my fridge reminding me of some of my favorite and most important people.
There are the clay bowls, stacked alongside the rest of the dishes for everyday use – but not ordinary at all. They are handmade by members of my church in Waco, and part of the annual Palm Sunday Soup Supper – now they hold cereal, chili, yogurt. They also memories of eating lentil soup and learning about missions in the West Bank, of eating miso soup and hearing about earthquake relief in Japan.
If you look around my office, there are similar markers – the watercolor my Grandpa painted – the hobby he undertook voraciously after his retirement and enjoyed until the day he died.
There is the communion set, handmade, glazed in purple – a gift from Lake Shore Baptist Church on my ordination.
There are crafts that decorate my window, made by children in this church during Vacation Bible School.
There is the stained-glass panel from Green Lake this summer – yet to find its home.
And one of my most treasured pieces – a canvas painted by my sister, with song lyrics from one of my favorite Over the Rhine songs. It is especially meaningful to me – not only because she made it with me in mind – but because, far more than other things and the decorations that are treasured reminders of people and moments of grace and love in my life, music serves as one of the ways that I hold up Ebenezers. Music is the primary avenue through which I return to times and people and ways that I have experienced God’s presence and grace in my life.
Certain songs or albums or artists remind me of specific moments and times in my life. A couple of weeks ago I went to Plymouth Congregational Church to hear Jennifer Knapp speak. Jennifer is a songwriter, and she took some time to play her songs and talk about how her faith has changed throughout her career and how songwriting helps her understand her faith and doubts.
When she played a couple of songs off her first album, Kansas, (appropriately named, as she is from Chanute, after all), I could practically smell my freshman dorm room in Knight Hall at Georgetown College – the mustiness of warm fall days and the ways our puny window fan tried to compensate for the lack of air conditioning, the smell of ancient cinder block walls and tile floors and illegally-burning candles and intro-level used textbooks. I was snapped back to those memories – more than 10 years ago – and recalled the ways that I both struggled to understand who I was and the ways I grew in the shadow of God’s grace in those days.
My guess is that for many of you, music is also a way that you raise Ebenezers – it is an avenue through which we both tell and understand our stories. Different songs help us understand, yes, but also, in the same way that Samuel raised up his Ebenezer – his Stone of Remembrance – these things help us remember both Who we are, and Whose we are.
For me, there are some songs that remind me of very specific places and times – like Jennifer Knapp’s music. And I could have a great deal of fun this morning talking about different songs that make up the aural landscape of my life, but my guess is that might not seem so interesting – or all-that-relevant to many of you. Samuel’s Ebenezer, after all, was just a rock – to those who had eyes to see but not the memory to tell.
There are other songs that, perhaps more like Samuel’s Ebenezer, are melodies and lyrics to which I return, and which serve as almost cyclical memory-keepers, that remind me of Who God is, and Who I am, and Whose I am – by returning to something that seems familiar, I find myself reminded in refreshing ways.
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is one of those songs for me. It reminds me of the summer I worked for Passport Camps, and learned of God’s presence through profound experiences of loneliness. It reminds me of worshipping with my peers in ministry & learning in chapel services at Princeton Seminary – so many of us representing so many kinds of uncertainties and wondering – yet profoundly – even audaciously – certain in the grace and guidance of God’s call on our lives. It reminds me of singing alongside people who had nurtured me and befriended me and ordained me at Lake Shore Baptist Church, and who sent me on to follow my call here.
This hymn has transformed beyond a hymn for me. It has become the very thing about which it sings. It is an Ebenezer. But not just because it is nostalgic, or a catchy tune. As we have been saying – reminding you, reminding ourselves – over the past weeks, (and even months), words matter.
And this hymn reminds me, not only of these different moments, but it also reminds me of who God is. Words matter. Listen to the way it names God in the first line – in the title of the hymn: “fount of every blessing.” The words focus on God’s mercy and God’s grace as singular to understanding whose we are – we belong to a God whose grace and blessing flows “never ceasing,” and a God whose love is powerful like a mountain, and a love that binds us unto God’s own self.
Words matter. How do we understand God? How are we to recognize God’s working in our lives? This is perhaps some of the most difficult and challenging discernment there is – to sift through all the voices, all the thoughts, all the possible paths, and discern God’s leading in that.
Do we discern God as an abusive, controlling figure – pushing us around, victimizing us to his unrelenting will? If so, perhaps we have convinced ourselves that the more submissive, the more we put ourselves down, the clearer God’s voice.
Do we discern God as a disaffected, distant figure – the divine clockmaker as one analogy goes? If so, perhaps we have convinced ourselves that God doesn’t care, that God is not good, that God is not, then, worth our time, attention or devotion.
Do we discern God as judgmental, wrathful – like a dictator seeking to punish or squelch enjoyment out of our living? If so, perhaps we have convinced ourselves that we will be redeemed through our suffering – that perhaps God wills pain and oppression – the more miserable we are, the more sure we are of God’s will?
Or do we discern God as a loving, caring, source of life? Do we understand God as the very being of grace and love? This is one reason I love Revelation – (as much as I also don’t love Revelation) – the words of hope and promise towards the end of John’s vision speak of an unending source of life – the river of life and the tree of life.
John’s vision is a promising invitation, “Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (22.17b). The God who promises a river of life, the tree of life – the same God who offers the source of life is the same God this hymn seeks to praise and follow and remember.
This song seeks, then, to raise up Ebenezers not to moments when we were subjugated to the knocking-around of an abusive or angry God – but moments when we remember, in profound and in small ways, the power of grace and the peace beyond all understanding – of being created, loved, and known by a God who is all mercy and all life.
So, yes, ebenezers are important – finding God, remembering God in the moments and persons in our lives. It is just as important to discern how we recognize where to locate those ebenezers.
There is one other phrase that has captivated me most – especially as I have sung and heard it over the last few months or so.
The first line of the song addresses God – the Fount – and implores God to “tune my heart to sing thy grace”. What might it mean to tune our hearts?
We are instruments. Think about the very rhythm of living – the cadence of our breath, the beat of our hearts, the tone of our voice and the pitch of our whispers, our shouts, our excitement and our fear. The percussion of our movement. In our very being we were created to make noise – to make music.
Not only that, but instruments are meant to be played. They are meant to play music – to find rhythm, melody, harmony. Instruments are meant to be played, not just for joyous song, but for songs of lament, for songs of questioning, for all the songs that articulate all of our living. There is holiness to be found in all of it. How might we be tuned to this, then?
Robert Robinson wrote the words of this hymn originally for use for Pentecost Sunday – the one Sunday we attempt to give some air-time to the Holy Spirit. As you might have caught on from the Biennial and Adult Sunday School this summer, Pastor Matt and I have been a bit intrigued by our attempts to understand and write about the Holy Spirit.
One of the ways that I found meaningful in my own reading and writing was the idea that the Holy Spirit doesn’t work exclusively in the big moments that seem a little out-of-grasp – the mountaintop moments, or ecstatic moments. But the Holy Spirit works in the seemingly-mundane of our lives.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes the gift of the Spirit as a gift of “new sight…grabbing us by our lapels and turning us around, so that when we are set back down again we see everything from a new angle. We reason differently, feel differently, act differently.”
Being attentive and aware and open to receiving the gift of the Spirit – which we know from the teachings of Paul and the early church are open to all not just to those who seem more like professional Christians – is a way of tuning our very lives. Taylor says that when we are “attuned to God’s presence and movement in the world [we] do not have to invent much. All we have to learn is how to say what we see.” It is in tuning our lives to be in key with God that we are attentive – and open to the world that is alive with God’s presence, God’s grace and God’s beauty – in our surroundings, in other people, in our very selves.
This tuning is not a passive posture. Much like tuning any instrument, takes some vigilance, some care, some patience and practice. I’ve already mentioned Over the Rhine this morning – one of my, if not my favorite musical artists – made up of husband and wife Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist.
In a recent interview with NPR, Karin describes the way she writes songs, and in many ways receives songs. They live out on a farm in the middle of nowhere Ohio, a farm they have – appropriately enough – names Nowhere Farm. Karin describes the walk she takes around the farm. She notes that every time she gets to one place on her farm as she’s walking, she knows she needs to be ready to receive something – words, melody, images. This process for her is a kind of tuning: “Sometimes you have to really work for it, but sometimes they’re like gifts. If you take care of your signal, that part of you, it stays open and you can just tune in and receive these gifts that come.” Isn’t that lovely? Take care of your signal.
This tuning then, will prompt us to sing of God’s grace, as the hymn goes. Again, what if “singing God’s grace” is not about a handful of moments, but singing through our very lives – being aware, as Frederick Buechner puts it, the words right in your bulletin that all our moments are key moments – that life itself is grace?
What if we tuned our lives to this reality – the reality that God created us, and God knows us and God’s own self is love. Brennan Manning, another contemporary prophet, and one who deals in the complex and costly reality of God’s grace writes this: “To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.”
Words matter. The hymn writer chose to ask that our hearts be tuned to sing God’s grace – not write of it or speak of it or think of it (though, honestly those are forms and formats with which I feel more adept). Think about all the times in scripture persons were struck so profoundly with God’s grace and God’s guidance that they broke out in song – think about Hannah or Miriam in the Old Testament, or Mary or Zechariah in the New.
There is a reason that God’s grace prompts us not just to thinking or speaking, but to singing – “Song seeps into our bones in ways that didactic information never will. To sing the story of God’s gracious acts is not just to recite them. In the embodied, affective rhythm of song, the Spirit paints the story in the epicenter of our being: in our desire, in our imagination. Singing the story is the way it gets into our bones and under our skin, shaping the very way we perceive the world.”
As we prepare to turn to our hymnals and our own singing I challenge us to a couple of things:
Might we think of our own ebenezers – moments or things or people who serve as remembrances of God’s grace and presence – times when we have encountered the divine in our lives. Might we also tune our lives to understand God’s love and God’s grace in even more intimate and profound ways this day. Might we open our hearts and our lives to understand all of it as holy – as our entire lives as a means to understand and experience God’s grace.