Trinitarian Congregational Church Second Sunday after Epiphany
Anthony S. Kill January 14, 2018
Texts: I Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51
I’m often amazed at the “coincidence” of how certain scripture readings assigned by the lectionary for a particular Sunday tie in so well with other themes of the day.
Today, on Martin Luther King weekend, is certainly one of those Sundays.
Today, we hear of the call of the child Samuel to be a special servant of God and a great judge and prophet in Israel, and the call of a surprised and unsuspecting Nathanael to follow some unknown teacher from backwater nowhere.
The story of the call of Samuel opens with a summary of the times:
–”The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not frequent.” The eyesight of the old priest Eli had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, but the lamp of God had not yet gone out, then the child Samuel is called by name with these disturbing visions in the night, and he’s called to a special mission. It takes awhile, in the night, in the dark, roused from sleep, to understand who it was who was calling, and to learn how to listen. But the old priest Eli gave Samuel wise council: “Go, lie down again; and if he calls you again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” When Samuel does hear the Lord’s call, he learns that his first mission was to witness against his people and their leaders, to condemn their corruption and unfaithfulness. As God’s judge and prophet, the adult Samuel was required to resist the rise of empire in Israel, then finally to acquiesce and anoint the nation’s first king. And when that king, Saul, proved unworthy, (as Samuel knew he would), Samuel was commanded by God to seek out and anoint the young David while Saul was still in power. All his life, Samuel was called upon to confront and resist popular political movements and national policies, and to spearhead unpopular causes and even revolutions, all because he dared to say “yes” to God’s call in the night.
The second reading is from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel also begins with a summary of the times: “The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
But John the baptizer recognized Jesus, and he instructed his disciples to follow him. And then the Gospel tells us how one disciple found another and declared “We have found the Messiah”. And Andrew found Simon, and brought him to Jesus, then Jesus found Philip, who found Nathanael, and then Nathanael came to Jesus.
The word “found” appears five times in the first chapter of John, and it’s usually accompanied by conversation, and questioning exchanges.
Nathanael’s suspicion and skepticism about Jesus still echoes through the ages: “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “There? Can anything worthwhile, anything good for our country (or for our church, or for our world) come out of there?” (that country, that continent, that ethnic group?) “Them? We’re supposed to be looking for God’s grace at work among the likes of them?” from that Blankity blank country? Yet in the end Nathanael followed, and became one of the twelve apostles. He came to see Jesus as one specially chosen by God, and he followed Jesus to his untimely death, and beyond.
The other disciple who’s life and ministry we are honoring this weekend, of course, is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is also one who was found and turned and transformed in a very powerful way.
Let me remind you of a bit about his “call.” King was barely 26 years old, still a wet-behind-the-ears young graduate of Boston University’s School of Theology when the Montgomery Bus Boycott started in 1955. He later recalled, “When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis …. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman.” Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 101.
Thinking back later about that time, King wrote, “The first twenty-five years of my life were very comfortable years, very happy years. I didn’t have to worry about anything. I have a marvelous mother and father. They went out of their way to provide everything for their children … I went right on through school; I never had to drop out to work or anything. And you know, I was about to conclude that life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package. “Now of course I was religious, I grew up in the church. I’m the son of a preacher…my grandfather was a preacher, my great grandfather was a preacher, so I didn’t have much choice, I guess. I had grown up in the church,and the church meant something very real to me, but it was a kind of inherited religion and I had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must have it, if you’re going to walk the lonely paths of this life. Everything was done for me, and if I had a problem I could always call Daddy —my earthly father. Things were solved.
But one day after finishing school, I was called to a little church, down in Montgomery, Alabama. And I started preaching there.
Things were going well in that church, it was a marvelous experience. “But one day a year later, a lady by the name of Rosa Parks decided that she wasn’t going to take it any longer. … It was the beginning of a movement, … and the people of Montgomery asked me to serve them as a spokesman, and, as the president of the new organization that came into being, to lead the boycott. I couldn’t say no. “And then we started to struggle together. Things were going well for the first few days but then, about ten or fifteen days later, after the white people in Montgomery knew that we meant business, they started doing some nasty things.”
(King doesn’t mention it here, but as soon as King’s leadership of the movement was announced, he was arrested for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone and thrown into the Montgomery city jail overnight, till his bail was paid the next day.)
King continues “They started making nasty telephone calls, and some days more than forty telephone calls would come in, threatening my life, the life of my family, the life of my child. I took it for a while, in a strong manner.” But then came this particular night when Dr. King feared he could take it no longer. King wrote, “It was around midnight. You can have some strange experiences at midnight”.
A threatening call came in from the KKK saying, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” King said, “I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born…. She was the darling of my life. “And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about my dedicated, devoted and loyal wife who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, ‘You can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something … that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.”
“And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it. …. I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night.
I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage they will begin to get weak. “And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ “…I heard the voice of Jesus saying ‘Still to fight on.’
He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.”
Three nights later, as promised, a bomb exploded on the front porch of King’s home, filling the house with smoke and broken glass but injuring no one. King took it calmly: “My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.” King’s kitchen table experience was a breakthrough event.
It was the most important night of his life, one he always would think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed to be too great. He committed himself to the movement completely despite his growing realization, more certain as the years went by — that it would cost him his life. Quoted from David J. Garrow in Bearing the Cross, p. 58 (1986)
That was the night of Martin Luther King’s “call”. That was the night that he found Jesus, and was found by Jesus. King knew he was facing more than he could handle alone. King asked for help from something greater than himself, greater than his family to help him face his fear. And a voice in the night answered. It told him to keep moving forward, to act in the name of righteousness, justice and truth. That night Martin Luther King heard the voice of Jesus telling him to fight on and telling him that Jesus would be with him all the way. What King found that night was tha he was part of something greater than himself, something greater than anything he had ever known before. King came to know that something as God, and his faith in God became the driving force in his life.
The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, “Faith means being grasped by a power that is greater than we are, a power that shakes us and turns us, and transforms us and heals us.” Samuel, and Andrew and Peter and Philip and Nathanael each had that experience of being found and grasped, turned and transformed and healed. And so did Martin Luther King Jr. And so do we, so can we in our lives. If we are willing to listen with faithful open ears in the darkness, to listen to the cries of pain and injustice, as well as to the prayers of hope and the promises of faith, we too can be grasped by a power that is greater than we are, a power that shakes us and turns us, transforms and heals us.
We’re not living in the time of the prophet Samuel, and we’re not living in the deep South in the time of the civil rights movement in the 60’s. But we are living in our own time of crises and injustice and blatant bigotry. Just this week we all learned of the grossest possible maligning of people of color, and advocacy for white nationalism coming from the highest office in the land. And way too few leaders of the party in power even expressed dissent, much less outrage, at those remarks.
For all the progress that has been made in civil rights since the time of Martin Luther King’s leadership, we still have far to go, and the forces of prejudice are more emboldened and brazen than ever. We are living in a time when basic principles and ideologies are clashing nationally and globally – in such essential areas of human rights as racial profiling, gender bias, and freedom of speech and expression.
We don’t all need to be out there on the front lines, marching or waving placards or chaining ourselves to concrete barriers. But as citizens and as Christians, nor can we sit back with our heads in the sand or our voices silent, and presume that these issues have nothing to do with us. They have everything to do with us, with our society, with our future and the future of our children.
Like Martin Luther King’s call, we have a call – a call to arms, a call to mind, a call to heart.
Each of us is called, in our own unique way to stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth.
And to each of us also is given God’s promise to never leave us alone no never alone. No never alone.
God promises never to leave us, never to leave us alone. Amen.