Sermon: Discerning God’s Will

“Discerning God’s Will”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
August 19, 2018

1 Kings 3:3a, 5-12
Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David. …At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’

 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

Matthew 6:5-15 – the Message 

5 And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?

6 Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense God’s grace.

14-15 [Because i]n prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.

7-13 The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Creator you are dealing with, and God knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:

Our Creator in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—
   as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and from evil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
   Yes. Yes. Yes.

I love that our Hebrew Bible passage this morning talks about God being pleased by Solomon’s decision to ask for wisdom over riches or status. I mean, have you ever imagined God being pleased by something, God’s face lighting up in a smile? I imagine it might be similar to how a parent feels watching their child be spontaneously generous, or how we feel when a stranger unexpectedly helps us out of a bind – a mix of surprise and delight that a human being chose what was good for another, not just what was good for themselves.

Because as you’ll notice, God’s expectation was otherwise. God clearly has experience with humans in positions of power, noting that we tend to ask for things that will benefit just ourselves – long life, riches, the destruction of our enemies. In fact, it reminds me of our modern-day political leaders, so focused on reelection, placating powerful lobbyists, and taking down those in their way.

It must have been refreshing for God to hear the greatest man in the land ask for something that would make him a good leader, something that would help him responsibly govern those who had been placed in his care.

It makes me wonder how we might be refreshing to God through our prayer requests and our daily actions – how we might surprise and delight God.

I’m deliberately using words like “refresh, surprise, and delight” to get at this dynamic, because it’s not much of a leap from God being pleased by Solomon’s request to trying to figure out how we might go about pleasing God. And that’s some tricky territory, because the idea of God as someone we need to placate or satisfy is a dangerous one. It implies that we are responsible for the happiness of the Creator of the universe – and thus that we’re also responsible for incurring the Creator’s wrath.

If you’ve ever been in a toxic relationship, or if you were raised to always please other people, you know how dangerous this dynamic is. It stifles your spirit and ultimately leaves you dried up, depressed, and constantly stressed about whether the other person in the relationship is happy with you. It’s no different with God – or maybe it’s even more dangerous with God, because with God we can end up constantly questioning our spiritual worthiness and wholeness at the deepest level.

This simplistic view of “pleasing God” is not that far from the idea of “doing God’s will” – a sort of deterministic, authoritarian phrase that at best comes off sounding like the spiritual equivalent of eating your vegetables and at worst is manipulative and abusive. Maybe you’ve been told it’s God’s will that you miscarried, or it’s God’s will for you to be straight, or it’s God’s will that abjectly poor people stay poor. “God’s will” is so often used as a detour around discomfort, or a shorthand for someone else’s agenda.

That’s why I used a different translation of the Lord’s Prayer for this morning’s Gospel passage. New-to-us translations shake us out of the way we always hear things, opening our ears and our hearts to a fresh take on beloved scripture. So instead of “Thy will be done” – quite formal, definitely authoritarian, almost fatalistic – we get “Do what’s best,” which reminds us that God’s will (literally in Greek “God’s desire”) isn’t authoritarian or capricious, but is inviting each of us, indeed the whole of creation, to what’s of ultimate good.

We talked about this on Wednesday night at Learning to Pray – if you haven’t been to one of these yet, I’m telling you you are missing out. So much good stuff happens there! Our topic was discernment, and this quotation from Jesuit priest James Martin seem to hit the nail on the head: “trust[] that God is part of the process, because God desires your happiness and peace.”

Mmm. God desires – God wills, God wants – our happiness and peace. Doesn’t that just feel good – like relief, like a truth you can relax into? The Creator of the universe doesn’t have some arbitrary plan we’re supposed to conform to, but instead is constantly on the lookout for ways we can thrive at our truest, deepest level. And that’s how the world changes, because out of that fulfillment and wholeness is where we get the energy to help others and pursue justice in a sustainable way instead of burning out.

Lest you think God’s desire is all that comes into play, though, this translation also reminds us that we have an equally important role. If it’s not just “Thy will be done” – “over to you, God” – then we’re a part of the process – a vital part.  

As the scripture says, “In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.”

Shifting from “doing God’s will” to actively living into the desire God has for our wholeness and thriving is liberating, for sure – but it also comes with the responsibility to get our hands dirty, so to speak; to look for ways to refresh and surprise a God who might have gotten used, at this point, to the way we’ve been doing things.

In our discussion on Wednesday night about different ways to discern – to make a wise, grounded choice that invites God into the process and ultimately leads to what’s best for us – we talked a lot about how the right decision isn’t something you can outsource. It can help, of course, to have wise voices who know you well reflect with you on the situation – but ultimately, where God wants you to go, where your best self longs to go, is something you find deep inside yourself – often buried under layers of fear, anxiety, social conditioning, and other people’s opinions. Despite what Christianity has sometimes told us about how human flesh is untrustworthy or evil, I am convinced that the knowledge of the next right thing, whatever our situation, is inside us because we were made that way, in the image of a God who, after completing creation, watched the first human discern names for all the animals and called the process “good.” It’s not easy at first, but it turns out that the more we listen for the choice that feels peaceful, right, and fitting, the more we become in sync with God’s “will” – God’s desire for thriving for us and all of creation.

Of course discernment isn’t just about making a choice inside ourselves – it’s also about acting on our choices, which can sometimes bring us face-to-face with fierce resistance: other people’s disapproval, the inertia of company culture or social systems, or our own uncertainty. That’s when it’s useful to remind ourselves that going against the grain can be pleasing, even refreshing, to God. If we are rooted in the truth that God has given us the gift St. Ignatius calls “consolation” – that peaceful, grounded feeling that this is the right choice for us, that this is where God is drawing us – then we can follow that truth into any wilderness, confident God is with us.

So what I’m curious to know this morning, friends, is how you’ve been surprising God lately – how you’ve been refreshing the Divine with a new way of being or doing that just feels right to you, that brings out the best in you and ultimately in the world. Maybe you’ve decided to contribute to a cause or get politically active instead of succumbing to the seemingly easier choice of bemoaning the state of the world. Maybe you’ve chosen to pursue a new job or career that lights you up instead of sticking with something stable but also stifling. Maybe you’ve caught yourself just as you were about to nag your spouse who didn’t put the dishes in the dishwasher the right way and instead thanked them, remembering your delight that they are part of your life. Maybe you’ve pushed yourself to check on a downcast stranger or help someone carry their groceries even though you’d feel more comfortable minding your own business.

Because here’s another truth about discerning God’s will – one which Solomon would soon discover as he tried to decide, among other difficult judgments, whose baby was whose: choosing what will help us thrive isn’t always – or even often – the same as doing what’s comfortable.

I have a secret no pastor wants to publicly admit: sometimes pastoral visits are a struggle for me. Not once I’m inside your door, listening to you tell me what’s on your heart and mind – that part I unabashedly love. But convincing myself to get out my own door means pushing past, to some extent, the fiction I’ve created that I’ll be more comfortable staying at the office or at home, working on my sermon or sending emails – that if I go outside myself, it will sap all my energy. It’s like the Siren Call of False Introversion – “Stay in, it’s easier!” Like persuading Davie she’s going to love school again today – she’s always beaming at the end of the day even though she regularly begs to stay home – I have to remind myself that I love connecting with people and that I leave pastoral visits feeling filled up, rather than depleted. I think of it as eating my spiritual vegetables – always good for me, and always ultimately enjoyable, even if I can’t seem to consistently remember that I love Swiss chard.

So one day this week I decided to surprise God – who, after all, is probably a little tired of this pattern. I decided to get excited about a pastoral visit, not dreading some phantom emotional exhaustion but rather savoring how balanced and invigorated I would feel for the rest of my work and how good it would feel to connect with the people God has given me to care for. After all, it is my actual job to brighten people’s days just by showing up, listening, and praying. (And usually there’s laughter involved.) How amazing is that?

It sounds almost too simple, or even silly – but it worked. I left without dragging my feet, enjoyed the drive in my car, and was already thanking God for the privilege and delight of the visit before I even found the room I was looking for. I don’t know that it made a difference for the person I was visiting – but it certainly made a difference for me. I felt purposeful and open-hearted, whole and happy the whole way through.

Discerning God’s will – listening for the ways God is inviting you to thrive – is key for life-changing, watershed decisions, but perhaps it’s even more important in everyday, ordinary moments like the one I just described. Because – and I say this from experience – the more we practice it, the more we are apt to celebrate God’s will, God’s desires for us, instead of shying away from them. Do it often enough, and you might even find yourself ending prayers this way:

You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
   Yes. Yes. Yes.