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Paying Attention

Children's sermon
This week the lectionary brings us the story of young Samuel hearing God’s voice and being identified as a prophet of the Lord. At first Samuel assumes the voice calling him is that of his mentor Eli, but Eli eventually clues in Samuel that it is likely the voice of the Lord he is hearing. In this installment of The Immediate Word, team member Chris Keating notes that Samuel’s awareness of the voice calling him echoes the modern concept of “mindfulness ” -- which is defined as “a state of active, open attention on the present.” Samuel must be open and attentive in order to hear God’s voice and to respond to it. Likewise, Chris points out that this story demonstrates the necessity for us to be mindful as well -- both of God’s calling and of the needs of the world we live in.

Team member Mary Austin shares some additional thoughts on the psalm text and the psalmist’s theme that God knows us better than we even know ourselves. We like to think that we are the “masters of our domain,” but Mary suggests that judging by the lack of success of most of our new year’s resolutions, we don’t really have a very good handle on what it is that makes us tick. Yet God already knows where we’ll go off-track... and offers the care and support we need to actually make those resolutions stick this year.


Paying Attention
by Chris Keating
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

With his sons besmirched by scandal and his eyesight failing, old Eli probably wondered why he didn’t take early retirement. Instead, he’s been entrusted with mentoring a precocious protégé, Hannah’s young son Samuel. The boy’s an up-and-coming wunderkind clad in a snazzy linen ephod. If there’s one thing Eli does not need, it’s a hyper, eager-to-please upstart shadowing him day and night.

Indeed, the old guy just wants a good night’s sleep. Samuel, on the other hand, seems to be in perpetual motion, a youthful scout always prepared for service. One night Eli tucks the young lad into his pallet near the ark of the Lord and heads to bed. Samuel’s eyes dart across the room, catching glimmers of the flickering light of God. Even in the shadows, Samuel’s eyes work just fine. There’s nothing this boy can’t see or hear.

In a word, he’s fully present, unencumbered by impermanence.

Samuel’s attentiveness allows him to hear the new thing God is about to do, and stands in firm contrast to Eli’s feeble leadership. God’s up to something, and Samuel’s ability to pay attention to what is happening bodes well for Israel. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, but Samuel was listening. His were the ears which were tingling.

One of the challenges of life, suggests Frank Ostaseski, is staying alert to change by understanding its “impermanence.” Ostaseski, founder of the Zen Hospice in San Francisco and a noted Buddhist teacher, says that “without impermanence, life simply could not be.” Accepting change prepares us for death, he argues, while also enabling human beings to live more fully, and perhaps more faith-fully, in the present. It’s exactly what Samuel was learning.

Mindfulness isn’t just for Buddhists anymore. Business leaders, politicians, and even evangelical Christians are employing its principles for everyday life, discovering new ways of being present.

Eli’s world, like ours, is changing. Things hadn’t turned out the way he had planned, and perhaps he had lost interest in paying attention. But then -- out of the blue -- came the announcement that God was about to do something incredible. “Can you hear me now?” proffers God. Suddenly the old man’s ears had begun to tingle.

In the News
When it comes to trends mindfulness and meditation may not be new, but there’s a certain buzz flying around these ancient practices lately -- and not just from the sacred Om sound either. Wall Street executives, Silicon Valley techies, and wannabe Jedis have been counted as devotees of these consciousness-calming practices. It’s not necessarily news -- celebs and execs have sought out wisdom teachers, yoga practitioners, and new-age gurus for decades.
Yet a theologian from a fundamentalist Bible college writing about “vocational mindfulness” is hardly a quotidian event. John Koessler, of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, encouraged pastors to adopt a more mindful, present-tense approach to ministry in an August 2017 article for Christianity Today: “I’ve reached that stage in my ministry when it feels like I have more time behind me than in front. I know this isn’t really true. I realize I am winding my way toward eternity where I will serve God perfectly and without distraction. But for now I seem to be running out of road, and I wonder why I was in such a hurry to get here in the first place. Like most leaders, my interests and aspirations have skewed toward the future. I have prayed for it, planned for it, and expended most of my ministry effort trying to put it into effect.”

Koessler suggests that pastors stop looking for a particular day marked “future” on their calendars, and instead practice being present in the present. He’s quick to add that some Christians will be skeptical about adopting a practice associated with another religion, and assured his readers of mindfulness’ Christian bona fides. He could have just as well said Judeo-Christian roots, or even just plain common sense.

Karma seems to be making a comeback.

Examples abound, from corporations that encourage participation in mindfulness programs to life coaches offering new year’s resolutions aimed at personal transformation. Andy Lee, chief mindfulness officer at Aetna, sees meditation as essential to corporate health, including increased productivity. Aetna reports that its meditating employees are regaining more than an hour of productivity a week. Mindfulness training has become a billion-dollar a year business.

Headspace -- an app that features daily meditation lessons -- soared in popularity in 2017. Some see this as a reflection of tense political times. In fact, analysts note that Headspace’s “SOS” feature, a special technique to bring calm in times of “sudden meltdowns,” increased its daily downloads 44 percent the day following Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Other apps saw similar gains.

It’s hard to say whether this is a trend, or a shift to the pursuit of deeper consciousness.

“Meditation,” observes writer and ABC news anchor Dan Harris, “is by no means a cure-all for our era of mean tweets and mindless tribalism.” But Harris notes that meditation has helped him survive the current cutthroat political realities he covers:

I’m not guaranteeing you bulletproof imperturbability, but short daily doses of meditation can make you meaningfully less likely to do things you will later regret. And there’s something else. Sitting and watching your insane inner torrent puts you in touch with a fundamental truth: everything changes. This can be a bitter pill. Nothing lasts -- not the dopamine hit from a fistful of popcorn, not even your life. But at a time of national tumult, a felt sense of impermanence can also be deeply comforting.

Some Buddhist purists observe that the current trends amount to nothing more than a dressed-up self-help program, something akin to a secularized form of Buddhism. Ronald Purser, who is both an ordained Buddhist teacher and a professor of management at San Francisco State University, notes it’s becoming sort of a “prosperity gospel for coastal elites -- Joel Osteen in a saffron robe.”

Indeed, as Purser and others point out, there is a bit of irony involved in the mashup of a 5,000- year-old spiritual tradition and secular capitalism. It’s seen as “McMindfulness,” a sort of Buddhism beyond Buddhism that blends mindfulness with capitalist ventures and results in a catalog of upscale merch like yoga mats, t-shirts, pendants, and other baubles. Writing in the National Review, Kevin Williamson comments that “if there is a hole in the soul of the West, it probably isn’t shaped like a designer meditation cushion.”

On the other hand, it might just be shaped like the yearning for an encounter with God. In a world cluttered with chaos and marked by scandal, the opportunity to learn how to be fully present and cultivate compassion and inner calm might be helpful to Christians. Frank Ostaseski, the Buddhist teacher known for his work with hospice patients, likens mindfulness to kissing.

“A kiss is an intimate act,” Ostaseski told middle schoolers as he tried to teach them meditation. He suggested that those who are great at kissing know how to be in the moment. “At its best, it engages all of your senses. You want to be able to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in ways that are vivid, fresh, and alive. Ideally you want to feel your heart fully and observe your mind with curiosity. It’s unlikely you will be able to be open to these experiences if you haven’t cultivated the habit of attention. We have to learn to kiss the moment.”

It’s an approach he employed following a near-fatal heart attack. “I learned not to be incapacitated by the suffering,” he said in a recent interview, “but allowed it to become the ground of compassion within me. Meditation practice develops the equanimity that often allowed me to be the one calm person in a very chaotic situation.”

In the Scriptures
There’s not much kissing mentioned in 1 Samuel, but there is no doubt Samuel is discovering what it means to be in the moment. Samuel’s story arises out of the ash heap of Eli’s failures. From the beginning of the book, Samuel’s rise is contrasted with Eli’s demise. Where the priest’s sons have been greedy scoundrels, Samuel is a child of faithfulness. He serves the Lord, while Hophni and Phinehas grab what they can for themselves. As a result, God’s judgment has been set against Eli and his family.

The text is plain: Eli is old, and he can barely see. Moreover, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Despite his infirmity, and in spite of his failure, Eli provides a valuable service as Samuel’s mentor, coaching the young boy to respond to the mysterious voice.

Aroused from his bed, Samuel leaps to his feet, exclaiming “Here I am! Here I am!” The Hebrew phrase, hineni, calls to mind Abraham responding to God’s call as he is prepared to sacrifice Isaac, or Moses’ response to the burning bush. Eli suggests a different tactic. It’s apparent to the old priest that God is at hand, and so he offers Samuel a bit of instruction: be still, be open, listen.
Eli may be a failed priest, but he is a priest nonetheless. He fulfills his obligation to help his young protégé remain radically open to the transcendent presence of God. It’s a bittersweet scene. The word handed to Samuel concerning Eli confirms the old priest’s suspicions. Judgment is coming, and immediately Samuel is entrusted with the hard task of speaking truth to power.

God’s call, as rare as it was, emerges. To receive that call, however, requires openness and willingness to be present. God’s call is a personal address, notes Eugene Peterson, not some abstract philosophical discourse. “God does not speak grand general truths, huge billboard declarations of truth and morals; the Lord’s speaking is to persons, named persons” (First and Second Samuel, p. 38). Those addressed by such speech receive it the way Eli instructs Samuel: being still, remaining open, and actively listening.

In the Sermon
Ministry, notes John Koessler, takes place in the present tense. Koessler observes that it is easy to get wrapped up in the past or to be overwhelmed by the future: “The past is merely a succession of presents we have left behind.” By slowing down and becoming aware of the present, we surround ourselves with the immediacy of God’s presence. It’s astonishing to consider what Eli’s priesthood might have been had he embraced the wisdom he imparted to Samuel: sit still, remain open, listen.

Epiphany offers the opportunity for such moments of contemplation. In Epiphany, the cacophony of holiday noises has ceased. Distractions are reduced. Aside from some football games and winter’s bite, there are few things competing for our attention. This context may provide a ripe moment for exploring the ways we explore and discern God’s call.

This could be particularly helpful as new leaders are installed to church boards, or as individuals are commissioned to paths of service. What does it mean for us to say “Here I am!”? Who are the mentors among us who will teach us the mindfulness of the moment so that we might say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”?

This could be a particularly compelling text for us to consider as we mark the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Despite the obstacles that Dr. King endured, the word of the Lord was not rare in those days, except to those who were not listening. Fifty years after his death, the realities of racism plague our nation like the exploits of Eli’s sons. Who is listening, silent and still, for God this weekend? In this moment, filled with chaos and scandal, a word of truth to the powers may come for those willing to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”


by Mary Austin
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Willpower -- that’s the secret to keeping our new year’s resolutions. No, wait, it’s forming new habits. No, wait, it’s scheduling -- putting things on the calendar. On second thought, why bother? By January 8, a quarter of us will already have failed. Why do we keep making resolutions? 

Each January 1 feels like a fresh beginning, even though we could plan to lose weight or save money or cook at home more often on any day of the year. Why are we so excited about making a new start, and so bad at keeping our resolutions? We make the same resolutions as millions of other people -- lose ten pounds, join a gym, save more money, and eat more fruits and vegetables. Do we even know ourselves well enough to benefit from a resolution or two?

We think we want novelty, but our minds really love routine. Popular Science reminds us that the brain runs on the fuel of habits. To change anything permanently, we have to exchange one set of habits for another. “Getting fit and losing weight are the two most common new year’s resolutions, and both depend on making daily changes to your life. That means interrupting your normal habits and exchanging them for new ones. Unfortunately, humans are terrible at doing both of those things.”   

So if habits are so powerful, what do they say about us? Author Gretchen Rubin says our habits reflect our identity, but we don’t really understand what allows us to change. She argues: “The most important step -- and a step that oddly, habits experts seem to ignore -- is to understand ourselves. There’s no shortage of advice about how to change your habits. Start small! Do it first thing in the morning! Reward yourself! Be moderate! But while it would be terrific to discover some magic answer, the fact is -- as we all know from tough experience -- there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each of us has to figure out, for ourselves, what works for us.” One strategy Rubin suggests is “pairing” -- combining a chore with a reward, every single time. She also says that convenience is powerful, and that convenience and inconvenience are “two sides of the same coin. Anything we want to do should be as easy to find as possible, and anything we don’t want to do should be as hard to find as possible. If you don’t want to use your cellphone so much, don’t put it in the back pocket of your jeans. Put it at the bottom of your purse. Put it on the top shelf of your downstairs closet with the door closed. On the flipside, keep your gym bag packed and by the front door. You’ll be more likely to go.” In other words, we need to use our minds against our habits.
Willpower is the one thing that doesn’t work. As human beings, we have it in short supply. Using it in one arena depletes the amount we have for other endeavors. Professor and researcher David DeStento says that, curiously, the spiritual gifts of gratitude, compassion, and pride (not arrogance, but a sense of our own abilities) take us out of the short term. They prompt us to think about the future, and to care about people other than ourselves. They hold the key to changing our behavior, his research shows.   

His research resonates with the words of the psalmist, who says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God. Dr. Nancy deClaissé-Walford writes about the word “fearfully,” noting that in “verse 14, ‘fearfully’ is derived from the verbal root yara'. Unfortunately, in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. Yet yara' encompasses a larger meaning of awe, reverent respect, and honor. It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for ‘love’ ('ahab, Deuteronomy 10:12); ‘cling to’ (dabaq, Deuteronomy 10:20); and ‘serve’ ('abad, Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will. Thus, a better translation of the word in verse 4 might be ‘reverently.’ ” We are reverently made -- and ideally we return that reverence to our Creator. We might consider starting the new year with a resolution to live with reverence, and see if that takes care of the other things on our lists.     

We hardly know ourselves, and yet God holds a deep knowledge of us. God already knows where we’ll get derailed on the annual quest to get in shape or to plump up our retirement savings. And still God is cheering us on, even when we fall into despair about our lack of willpower or stray from our plans along all too familiar paths. In God’s presence there’s the hope for true change as God hems us in behind and before, ready to catch us when we fall and help us start again. 

God’s thoughts and plans are broader and deeper than we suspect, uncountable by us, even “more than the sand.” Whether we keep our resolutions or fail on the first day, whether we make firm plans or are content to be guided by a dream and a star, all of it happens within God’s embracing care. Whether in success or failure or somewhere between, we come to the end... of a week, a year, or a lifetime... and find ourselves still with the God who knit us together in the beginning.  



From team member Ron Love:

(These illustrations are based on major themes in this week’s lectionary readings.)

Eli belonged to the tribe of Levi. For a number of decades, he acted as a judge and as high priest in Israel. Many biblical characters have faults, and Eli was not alone in his disobedience to God. Eli’s fault which brought judgment upon his name was the conduct of his own two sons, Phinehas and Hophni. His sons, who lacked their father’s character and qualities, were still put by Eli into the priest’s office. Their conduct disgraced their high calling and shocked the people of Israel so much that they abandoned serving the Lord. While Eli warned his sons of their sinful ways, he did not rebuke them with the severity their evil deeds merited. He should have exercised the stern authority of a father and rebuked them as a judge. Instead, Eli mildly reasoned with his sons, only asking them why they behaved in such a wrongful way. But his sons disregarded such a weak and useless protest, for their hearts were cold and callous. For this reason, they no longer heeded their father’s rebuke. Although Eli had no power to change the hearts of his sons, he could have prevented their ministry before the Lord. It is for this reason God judged the house of Eli.

When Donald Trump was campaigning for president, he said that not paying taxes “makes me very smart.” His supporters called him “a genius” for this, but the future 45th president of the United States received a great deal of criticism for this remark. After Trump made this observation, the liberal-leaning New York Times noted that if Trump is smart in not paying taxes, then “the executives running corporate America are absolute virtuosos.” The newspaper reported that if 58 of the Fortune 500 companies paid their fair share of taxes, instead of hiding income through tax loopholes, they would owe an additional $212 billion in federal taxes. This amount exceeds the combined state budgets of California, Virginia, and Indiana.

Application: Dishonesty -- in the house of Eli, in the house of Trump, in the houses of the Fortune 500 companies, and in our own homes -- must be judged.


There has been a lot of discussion about “fake news.” There has also been a lot of discussion about whether the possible acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T would create a monopoly in the dissemination of news. In an op-ed essay in the New York Times, Jonathan Taplin made the case that the real monopolies in news distribution are Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon. These internet services, with their economic value far exceeding that of the proposed merger, have moved “from creators of content to owners of monopoly platforms.” By their use of algorithms, they dictate what a viewer sees as news. And the algorithms are dictated by their advertisers. These internet companies do not report the news, they distribute the news solely for financial gain. Taplin quotes an executive form Google as saying: “If you control the menu, you control the choices.”

Application: We read that “Samuel was a trustworthy prophet.” In evaluating our news today, we need many trustworthy prophets.


John Hayes served for 26 years as a judge in York County, South Carolina. This included the city of Rock Hill, which borders Charlotte, North Carolina. On his retirement, Hayes said that sentencing was the most difficult part of his job. Even if the media is not present, the judge said, “The community knows what someone received for their transgression.” And, the judge noted, no matter the sentence everyone in the courtroom leaves unhappy, as some consider it too lenient and others consider to too harsh. Yet sometimes a message needs to be sent to the defendant and to the community that some behavior is not only illegal, but it is also intolerable. Hayes went on to say, “Where rehabilitation does not work after repeated offenses, sometimes the only option is to impose punishment.”

Application: Eli was judged by God for his repeated disobedience to God. Let us be sure that we are a Samuel and not an Eli.


Wyoming has the highest suicide rate of any state in our nation. After the state cut funding for suicide prevention, the Episcopal diocese began to fund suicide prevention programs. Though the bishop, John Smylie, considers the funding of suicide prevention to be a responsibility of the state legislature, he could not allow the beneficial programs to cease. Smylie said, “It’s become a moral priority for the diocese.”

Application: When we answer the call to “follow me,” we can never be sure where it will lead us.


Without telling customers, Apple sent a fix to their older iPhones to slow them down. The purpose for this was to preserve the phones’ battery life. Without knowing the truth, customers thought it was a direct attempt by Apple to force them to upgrade to a more expensive phone. Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly apologized for this error in judgment. He also said that the cost of a new battery, which had been $79, would now only be $29. Despite this, Apple stock dropped 2.5 percent after the revelation.

Application: The psalmist is excited that God knows and understand him. We should hope for such openness and understanding in all of our relationships.


Ellen DeGeneres is hosting Ellen’s Game of Games, a new game show on NBC. In the hour-long show, contestants must answer certain questions in order to receive a $100,000 prize. If they answer incorrectly there are consequences, such as being drenched with something gooey or launched airborne or being dropped through the stage floor. In discussing her show, DeGeneres said, “It’s hilarious to see the panic and fear on their faces if they get the answer wrong.”

Application: It cannot be funny to see someone with a look of panic or fear on their face. The psalmist said we are “wonderfully made.” Paul wrote that something may be lawful, “but not all things are beneficial.” Let us be sure we treat everyone with dignity and respect.


Alt-right conservatives are condemning the newest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. Their complaint is that it elevates minorities above whites, that it confuses gender roles since women have equal leadership roles as men, and that if you look hard enough it promotes homosexuality. A Facebook group calling itself “Down with Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and Fanboys” posted a comment that men should be “reinstated as rulers of society.” Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page took issue with this line of thinking, noting that one of the greatest aspects of the Star Trek and Star Wars series is their elevation of women and minorities. Perhaps, Page wrote, in science fiction we can see a better world to come. Page wrote: “Positive images matter.... The biggest value to science fiction, in my view, is its ability to free our minds from present-day realities to experience a taste of how much better things could be.”

Application: The psalmist said we are “wonderfully made.” Let us treat all people with equality.


Martin Luther King Jr. was an avid fan of Star Trek. King was especially pleased that the creator of the show, Gene Roddenberry, decided to integrate the crew of the starship Enterprise. Star Trek was the platform for the introduction of an African-American woman to the American audience. This was Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyot Uhura. After the first season she decided to quit the show to pursue other interests. This necessitated a phone call from King, who told her that he was “your greatest fan.” King then went on to talk Nichols out of leaving the show. King said, “For the first time we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.” Nichols remained on the show from 1966 to 1969.

Application: The psalmist said we are “wonderfully made.” Let us treat all people with equality.


In a Family Circus comic for New Year’s Day, husband and wife Bill and Thelma are sound asleep in bed. Bill has a pillow covering his face and Thelma’s hair is all disarray. It is obvious that they are weary from a long holiday season. Seven-year-old Billy is standing on his mother’s side of the bed, tugging on the sheets. Billy says, “C’mon, Mommy, get up! You kept sayin’ you couldn’t wait to be done with 2017 -- it’s all done!”

Application: Despite any hardships, when we are called to serve Jesus we get up out of bed and keep moving forward.


The Frank & Ernest comic strip had an appropriate message for the coming new year. Frank and Ernie are two motley characters who never seem to be in sync with life. Frank is always the dominant one over Ernie, and Frank is always portrayed as the advice giver. It is a cold winter day, and the duo are sitting on a park bench. They have on winter coats, winter hats, and their hands are tucked deep into their pockets. In a square to the right of the caption appear the words “a surprisingly challenging resolution.” Frank is looking over at Ernie, saying, “This year my resolution is to leave well enough alone.”

Application: Paul was trying to dispense some wisdom when he wrote “but not all things are beneficial.” Paul is trying to tell us “to leave well enough alone.”


At the end of each year Lake Superior State University, located in northern Michigan, issues a list of tiresome words and phrases that have been overused during the previous year. The 43rd publication of the annual list of Words Banished from the Queen’s English had 14 listings. Some of the words and phrases listed were: “let me ask you this,” “unpack,” “nothingburger,” “drill down,” “pre-owned,” “let that sink in.” The leading candidate was “fake news.” Another word was “covfefe.” This word came from the fragmented tweet President Donald Trump made on May 31. Covfefe is a word that has become shorthand for a social media mistake.

Application: It was said of Samuel that “none of his words fell to the ground.” Let us be sure that when we speak that we don’t use tiresome words and phrases.


At the end of each year Wayne State University in Detroit publishes a list of words that should be reintroduced into our vocabulary. They call their annual campaign attempting to bring back worthy words that have fallen out of favor the “Word Warriors.” This year’s list included “blithering,” which means senseless talk or babbling. Another word was “gauche,” which means a lack of social experience, a lack of grace, an inability to be tactful. Another word was “mugwump,” which means an independent or an undecided person. These words were chosen because of how divisive our politics have been this past year.

Application: It was said of Samuel that “none of his words fell to the ground.” Let us be sure that when we speak that we use words that are bold and strong.


Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer announced his retirement after 15 NFL seasons. Palmer played for a number of teams over his career, but his best year was with the Cardinals in 2015. In that year he set single-season franchise records and career highs of 4,671 yards passing and 35 touchdowns while leading the Cardinals to a 13-3 season. In his retirement announcement Palmer wrote, “When I entered the league I was a 23-year-old kid. I’m leaving a 38-year-old husband and father of four with memories and experiences that I will treasure for the rest of my life. And like most things in life, it feels like it all passed in a blink of an eye.”

Application: Samuel was called into the service of the Lord as a young boy. But if we follow his life we know he continued to grow and mature and become a strong and convincing spokesman for the Lord. Let us be sure that as we are called into service for the Lord, that we continue to grow and mature.


During the January 20 inauguration of Donald Trump as our 45th president, his predecessor, Barack Obama, sat closely next to him. Obama was asked what was he thinking during the ceremony. In response to that question, Obama said there was a “satisfying feeling that was mixed with all the work that was still undone.” Obama went on to say, “But overall, there was serenity there.”

Application: As disciples of our Lord we should always be aware that there is more work to be done; but we must also have a satisfying feeling for what we have already done.


Coach Dabo Swinney has been able to lead the Clemson Tigers to a number of winning seasons. He is able to do this for what has come to be called “the process.” The process is Swinney’s emphasis on correct play over wins and losses. It is also a result of Swinney’s understanding of what it means to coach a land-grant university in the nation’s 23rd-largest state. Swinney does not have the funds to compete against his chief rival in the state, the University of South Carolina, and the other major universities that the Tigers compete against. To counter his lack of funding, Swinney has created a family atmosphere for his assistant coaches and players. It is about a peaceful and quiet workplace, much like the lake near the campus. In the Allen N. Reeves Football Complex there is a map showing the hometowns of all his players. There is also a slide so assistant coaches can bring their children to football practices.

Application: We must always find creative ways in which we can serve the Lord. Philip was not a person of means, but he did understand what it meant to be a part of a working family of disciples.


Mike Houston has had great success coaching the football team for James Madison University. This past season his record was 14-0. But he lost the FCS championship game on January 6 to North Dakota State by a score of 17-13. This also ended the Dukes’ 26-game winning streak. In an interview several days before the championship game against the North Dakota State Bisons, Houston was asked what made him the most nervous during a game. Houston replied, “About every play.” He went on to say as a coach your biggest fear is that “anybody can beat anybody.” Regarding this Houston said, “You never want to lose a game you should win.”

Application: As disciples of our Lord, we should always be nervous that what we are doing is best and proper. We should keep in mind that Jesus said, “You will see great things.”


Vincent Asaro was the godfather of the Bonanno crime family in New York City. He has repeatedly gone to trial for murder, racketeering, and other crimes; but the trials always ended with an acquittal. Asaro was also the mastermind behind the infamous Lufthansa heist in 1978. During this robbery Asaro and his associates made off with $6 million in cash, gold, and jewels from a high-security vault at Kennedy Airport -- a crime for which he was brought to trial, but was never convicted. (The Lufthansa heist was portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s movie Goodfellas.) But the simplest of all his crimes has sent the 82-year-old to prison for eight years. After the sentence was pronounced by Judge Allyne Ross, Asaro said: “What you sentenced me to is a life in prison.” The conviction came on a case of arson. A motorist cut Araso off in traffic in Queens. Araso, who has a fiery temper, recorded the license plate number, and then used his connections to locate the driver. He then sent his underlings to the driver’s home, and they set the car on fire. Araso pleaded guilty to the crime, assured that he would receive a minor sentence. Judge Ross refused the lesser sentence, and imposed the maximum on a man whom she said had a “desire to carry out revenge” and whose criminal career reached back to the years of Richard Nixon.

Application: If we choose not to be judged, as we read in the account of Eli, let us be obedient and faithful servants of the Lord.


The Pittsburgh Steelers were uncertain if they would make the playoffs as their top wide receiver, Antonio Brown, was injured in a December 17 game against New England. Brown has set many records with the Steelers. In his first six years with the Steelers, Brown has the most receptions (526), receiving yards (7,093), and all-purpose yards (9,911). About Brown’s injury quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, “I’ll be honest, you can’t replace him with one man.” But the Steelers must have been able to do so, as they made the playoffs in his absence. And fortunately for Pittsburgh, Brown is now well enough to participate in the playoffs.

Application: Jesus called Philip, Andrew, and Peter to “follow me.” Jesus needed twelve disciples for his team. As we read the scripture all twelve were indispensable, but as the church has continued for centuries, no one is more important than another.   


Reginald Heber (1783-1826) was a bishop in the Church of England. One of his avocations was writing hymns. Before his unexpected death at the age of 43, he wrote over 50 hymns. One of the last hymns he wrote was for Trinity Sunday. But unsure of the quality of the stanzas, he placed the finished work in a drawer and went about his other duties. After his death, as his wife was sorting his belongings, she came across the desecrated manuscript titled “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” She took the lyrics to a friend, John Dykes, who put the words to music. A bishop who felt a hymn he had written was too unworthy to be sung created what is now one of the most popular hymns we have in worship. This is why we can so robustly sing:
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

Application: We can never be sure of the impact of the words we speak on behalf of our Lord. Certainly Samuel never knew that his words would “never fall to the ground.”


Actress Ann Jillian’s struggle with cancer and her resulting double mastectomy has been much publicized. The inducement for Ann’s openness was to encourage and support others who are enduring a similar ailment. Ann’s husband Andy extends the same sympathy to the public. His sentiment is best expressed in a comment he made after viewing President Reagan on television. The newscast showed the president lugging a potted plant to his wife Nancy, a patient at Bethesda Naval Hospital who also had a mastectomy. Observing Ronald Reagan’s concern for his beloved spouse, Andy concurred, “I felt sorry for him simply a guy, just like you and me. He may be the president of the United States, but at that moment he was a husband worried about his wife.”

Application: Each of us is wonderfully made, and each of us is equal. We all share the same hope and concerns.


by George Reed

Call to Worship
Leader: O God, you have searched us and known us.
People: You know when we sit down and when we rise up.
Leader: You discern our thoughts from far away.
People: You are acquainted with all our ways.
Leader: We praise you, for we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
People: Wonderful are your works; that we know very well.


Leader: Worship the God who created us and knows us.
People: We praise our God who knows us completely.
Leader: Listen for the voice of God calling you today.
People: We will attend to God’s voice here and out in the world.
Leader: God calls us to be loved and to love others in God’s name.
People: We rejoice in God’s love and will share it with all.

Hymns and Sacred Songs
“Holy God, We Praise Thy Name”
found in:
UMH: 79
H82: 366
PH: 460
NNBH: 13
NCH: 276
LBW: 535
ELA: 414
W&P: 138

“From All That Dwell Below the Skies”
found in:
UMH: 101
H82: 380
PH: 229
NCH: 27
CH: 49
LBW: 550
AMEC: 69
STLT: 381

“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”
found in:
UMH: 139
H82: 390
AAHH: 117
NCH: 22
CH: 25
ELA: 858, 859
STLT: 278
Renew: 57

“Every Time I Feel the Spirit”
found in:
UMH: 404
PH: 315
AAHH: 325
NNBH: 485
NCH: 282
CH: 592
W&P: 481
STLT: 208

“Take Time to Be Holy”
found in:
UMH: 395
NNBH: 306
CH: 572
W&P: 483
AMEC: 286

“Jesus Calls Us”
found in:
UMH: 398
H82: 549, 550
NNBH: 183
NCH: 171, 172
CH: 337
LBW: 494
ELA: 696
W&P: 345
AMEC: 238

“Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life”
found in:
UMH: 427
H82: 609
PH: 408
NCH: 543
CH: 665
LBW: 429
ELA: 719
W&P: 591
AMEC: 561

“The Voice of God Is Calling”
found in:
UMH: 436

“God, You Are My God”
found in:
CCB: 60

“Your Loving Kindness Is Better than Life”
found in:
CCB: 26

Music Resources Key:
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal
H82: The Hymnal 1982 (The Episcopal Church)
PH: Presbyterian Hymnal
AAHH: African-American Heritage Hymnal
NNBH: The New National Baptist Hymnal
NCH: The New Century Hymnal
CH: Chalice Hymnal
LBW: Lutheran Book of Worship
ELA: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
W&P: Worship & Praise
AMEC: African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal
STLT: Singing the Living Tradition
CCB: Cokesbury Chorus Book
Renew: Renew! Songs & Hymns for Blended Worship

Prayer for the Day / Collect
O God who knows us better than we know ourselves: Grant us the wisdom to listen for your voice calling us as we listen to the voices of need in our world; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.


We offer our praise to you, O God, for you know us better than we know ourselves. You are with us and calling us to be at work with you in our world. Help us to listen to you and to those around us so that we may discern what you are calling us to do today. Amen. 

Prayer of Confession
Leader: Let us confess to God and before one another our sins, especially closing our ears to God and to the world God is working to save.

We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. We have failed to listen to the world around us as it cries out in need. We have not listened to you and your voice as you seek to bring salvation to all creation. We have listened instead to our own needs and wants. Open our ears, and call us once more to join you in your great work of redemption. Amen.

Leader: God is calling us and rejoices when we listen. Hear God’s words of grace and of commission to ministry.

Prayers of the People (and the Lord’s Prayer)
We praise you, O God, for you know us and love us. You come to us in our need and allow us to join in your saving works. 

(The following paragraph may be used if a separate prayer of confession has not been used.)

We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. We have failed to listen to the world around us as it cries out in need. We have not listened to you and your voice as you seek to bring salvation to all creation. We have listened instead to our own needs and wants. Open our ears, and call us once more to join you in your great work of redemption.

We give you thanks for calling us to yourself. We thank you for your grace that enables us to grow into your likeness. We thank you for those who have listened to you and been able to share your love with us and with others throughout the centuries. 

(Other thanksgivings may be offered.)

We pray for those in need. We remember before your face the ones who cannot seem to hear you because of the difficulties of their lives. We pray for those who struggle against the noise of poverty and sickness, violence and hatred. 

(Other intercessions may be offered.)

All these things we ask in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray together, saying:
Our Father . . . Amen.      

(or if the Lord’s Prayer is not used at this point in the service)

All this we ask in the Name of the Blessed and Holy Trinity. Amen.

Children’s Sermon Starter
Who knows you the best? Is it your parents? Do they know what you like to eat and don’t like to eat? Do they know what you like to do and what you don’t want to do? It is nice to have people who know us and love us, people who look out for us. God is like that. God knows all about us and God loves us completely. God is always caring for us.


Paying Attention
by Dean Feldmeyer
Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20) and/or Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Items needed:
* a tray with several everyday objects on it in plain sight of the children
* a handkerchief or towel to cover the tray

Have you ever had an adult say to you “pay attention”?

What does that mean, to pay attention?

If I see you paying attention to me, what will I see you doing? (Sitting up straight, looking at me, leaning forward, etc.)

Why is it important for us to pay attention? (We might miss something that’s important. We might not remember something that we need to remember. So we can avoid danger, like when we cross the street.)

(Now, without warning, cover the tray.)

Okay, let’s do a little test to see how well you all were paying attention for the past few minutes. There were ten items on that tray. If you were paying attention you should be able to name at least five or six of them.

So let’s see how we do. What did you see on the tray?

(Keep count as the children volunteer answers.)

If they do well at remembering the objects on the tray:
Congratulations! You all were paying attention, weren’t you? And by all of us working together, we were able to name just about everything on the tray. 

If they don’t do well at remembering the objects on the tray:
Well, we didn’t do very well at remembering, did we? Why do you suppose that is? Maybe because you were paying attention to me and not to the tray? It’s hard to pay attention to two things at the same time, isn’t it?

It’s important to pay attention, isn’t it? We pay attention so we can learn things. We pay attention so we can remember important things. We pay attention so we can stay safe. And we pay attention for one more reason...

We pay attention so we can know God. We pay attention like Samuel, so we can hear what God has to say to us because sometimes God speaks to us in a whisper. Sometimes God speaks to us in ways we don’t expect -- through other people, through poems or songs, through nature, through books we read -- and we’ll miss what God is saying if we don’t pay attention.

So what are we all going to do? “Pay attention!” That’s right.

End with a prayer asking God to speak to us like God did to Samuel and like the psalmist describes, because we are now prepared to pay close attention.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Immediate Word, January 14, 2018, issue.

Copyright 2018 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to The Immediate Word service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons and in worship and classroom settings only. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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New & Featured This Week

The Immediate Word

Thomas Willadsen
Dean Feldmeyer
Mary Austin
Christopher Keating
Katy Stenta
George Reed
Bethany Peerbolte
For May 9, 2021:
  • One Nation Under God? by Tom Willadsen — What would the United States look like if we truly were “one nation under God?” What would it be like to live in a place where everyone was treated as one who has been “born of God?”
  • Dying Is Easy by Dean Feldmeyer — Dying is easy; living the gospel is hard.


John E. Sumwalt
Frank Ramirez
“Waking Up to Racism” by John Sumwalt
“Twists and Turns” by Frank Ramirez

Waking Up to Racism
by John Sumwalt
Psalm 98

Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
 at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
    to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
    and the peoples with equity.
(vv. 8-9)

Emphasis Preaching Journal

David Kalas
In the mid-1960s, a popular song declared, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It's the only thing that there's just too little of.”1 It was an era of both national and international unrest. And the American landscape was reeling from the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and opposition to both. Amidst headlines so marked by unrest and division, therefore, the sentiment of the song struck a chord with an American audience. 
Bill Thomas
Mark Ellingsen
Frank Ramirez
Bonnie Bates
Acts 10:44-48
Prejudice is always wrong. Nat King Cole is a well-known artist who was the first African American to host his own national television program. In 1948, he purchased a beautiful home in an exclusive Los Angeles neighborhood. When the local neighborhood association confronted him and informed him it didn’t want any undesirables to move in, Cole responded, “Neither do I. If I see any coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.” He lived in that house until his death in 1965.


John Jamison
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (vv. 9-12)

Hi, everyone! (Let them respond.)

The Village Shepherd

Janice B. Scott
Call to Worship:

Jesus gave up his life for us. In our worship today let us explore how to love one another as he has loved us.

Invitation to Confession:

Jesus, sometimes our love for each other is thin and pale.
Lord, have mercy.

Jesus, sometimes we pretend to love but fail to care.
Christ, have mercy.

Jesus, sometimes we don't know how to love.
Lord, have mercy.


John E. Sumwalt
Jo Perry-sumwalt
One evening, when I was 26 years old, beleagered by guilt for acknowledged sins, I was deep into an hour-long prayer of repentance. In despair, I grieved that I had broken the commandments and that I was not worthy of God's love.

Near me lay the Bible, unused and unfamiliar. I had never, ever read from the Bible. Yet my hands reached out and took the Bible to open it. I knew not where, nor why. But my hands knew the way. They opened to John 15:9-11 and as my eyes began to read, my mind knew the meaning with clarity. My eyes read verse 10 first:
Mark Ellingsen
Theme of the Day
God's love brings us together.

Collect of the Day
It is noted that God has prepared great joy for those who love Him. Petitions are then offered that such love may be poured into the hearts of the faithful so that they may obtain these promises. Justification as a reward for our deeds (love) is communicated by this prayer.

Psalm of the Day
Psalm 98
Stan Purdum
(See Christmas Day, Cycles A and B, for alternative approaches.)

Richard E. Gribble
Once upon a time a great and powerful king ruled over a vast territory. There was something very strange about this kingdom, however -- everything was the same. The people ate the same food, drank the same drink, wore the same clothes, and lived in the same type of homes. The people even did all the same work. There was another oddity about this place. Everything was gray -- the food, the drink, the clothes, the houses; there were no other colors.

Special Occasion