[Sermon from Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012]
Over the last few weeks at St. Andrew's, you may have noticed a theme emerging from the sermons you’ve heard –- a theme of discipleship, or following where you’re led. Two weeks ago, I talked about following the star of Bethlehem, with the magi, so that we, too, might follow Jesus and draw the world to him. Last week, Mtr. Anne preached about following Jesus into the waters of baptism and out into the world, as bearers of justice and peace. This morning, I want to tell you three stories about people who heard the voice of God and chose to follow where it led them -– and in so doing, helped change the world.
The first is about the prophet Samuel. As we meet him in the first reading today, Samuel is a boy who serves with the chief priest, Eli. One night, he’s awakened by a voice calling out, “Samuel, Samuel!” The boy runs into Eli’s room and says, “Here I am. What do you want?” And Eli, like many a tired parent, squints at the boy through the haze of sleep and says, “I didn’t call you; go back to bed.” Samuel obeys, but the voice returns; and Samuel and Eli go through this scene another time, with Eli (no doubt more than a little annoyed) firmly sending Samuel back to bed. When it happens a third time, Eli is awake enough to realize God’s up to something here, and he tells Samuel to stay in bed and pay attention if the voice comes again. It does, and Samuel dutifully offers the response God was looking for all along: “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).
I can only imagine what must have been going through Samuel’s mind. Who am I, that I hear the voice of the Almighty calling in the night? I’m just a boy, just an assistant at the altar. I’m not important enough to get a personal call from God. Why would the Lord of the universe waste precious, divine time on me?
Well, Samuel didn’t get just one personal call. This was the start of a career. Samuel became the last of the judges of Israel and the nation’s first major prophet, which means someone who speaks for God. As God’s spokesperson, Samuel was also God’s conduit for choosing Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. From a boy who simply to listened to God calling in the night, Samuel became the political and spiritual leader of his people. Samuel listened, and he followed. And through him, God changed history.
The second story of people heeding God’s voice is the Gospel reading we just heard. Jesus has just begun calling his first disciples; and among them he finds Philip -– a normal, local guy. Philip then runs and finds his friend Nathanael, which is where the story gets interesting. Nathanael isn’t exactly one of the stars of the Gospels. In fact, he’s mentioned only in the Gospel of John, and he’s mentioned only twice in that book. But Nathanael makes a comment here that suddenly brings life to the story. Philip tells Nathanael that they’ve found the one “about whom Moses … and also the prophets wrote” (1:45), Jesus of Nazareth, who would bring to fulfillment the story of God’s relationship with humanity. But Nathanael isn’t impressed. Nazareth? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46). Nathanael sees himself as experienced and sophisticated; his fishing village of Bethsaida is much more impressive than Nazareth, that hill-country dump. But Philip isn’t taking the bait. “Come and see,” he says (1:46).
And then Nathanael finds himself face to face with the supposed hick from Nazareth. Jesus smiles and says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (1:47) –- which is a nice way to say Nathanael’s been caught. Somehow, the country bumpkin overheard Nathanael’s wisecrack about Jesus’ home town. But wait -– Nathanael has never met Jesus before. “Where did you get to know me?” he asks (1:48). And Jesus captures him with a single sentence: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (1:48). With that, Nathanael is hooked. “Rabbi,” he says, suddenly deferential, “you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” (1:49). Nathanael must be thinking, “Who am I, that the Son of God has been watching me? I’m just a guy from a fishing village. I’m not important enough to be on his mind. Why would God’s anointed king waste precious, divine time on me?
And Jesus’ answer is, basically, “Just wait -– you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Nathanael and Philip and Peter and Andrew and the rest will follow Jesus as disciples for the next three years. And in the process, they’ll see him turn water into wine, and make blind people see, and heal the sick, and feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, and offer himself up to death, and destroy death with an empty tomb. Filled with the wonder of that story, even a wise guy like Nathanael will take the Good News out to the world and help create a movement. Nathanael listened, and he followed. And through him, God changed history.
The third person I want to tell you about is the one whose birthday we’ll remember tomorrow, Martin Luther King Jr. You know King’s story. You know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the “I Have a Dream” speech, and the march from Selma to Montgomery. You know about the Nobel Peace Prize and his refusal to embrace the violence that would eventually kill him. But like Samuel and Nathanael, Martin Luther King also had a moment of encounter with God when the Almighty spoke -– and the man of words listened.
It happened during the difficult days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956. It had been almost two months since Rosa Parks broke the law and sparked a movement by refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Her act of defiance galvanized local black leaders to organize a boycott. They came together in the basement of King’s church in Montgomery, and the young man found himself elected leader. The boycott dragged on; and in mid-January, King and the other leaders extended it indefinitely, refusing to be bullied back into the city’s racist policies.
Two weeks later, King was at home with his wife and two-month-old daughter.1 It was late, near midnight, when the phone rang. Late-night phone calls were nothing unusual, but this one put a chill in his heart. An evil voice on the other line called him the “N” word and said, “We’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”
It was more than he could take. Two months into the boycott, and two months into life with a new baby up at all hours of the night, King felt his resolve slipping away. Looking for a little extra strength, he made some coffee to get him through the long night, but he was at the end of his rope. He sat at his kitchen table, held his head in his hands, and offered the prayer of desperation. The gist of it was this: Lord, I’m trying to do what I know is right. I’m trying to lead these people. But now, I’m afraid. I’ve got nothing left, and I can’t do this on my own.
And in that moment, Martin Luther King experienced the presence and power of the living God. He felt a voice speaking within him, bearing him up and saying, “Martin: Stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. And I will be at your side.” King later described it as the most real and palpable experience of God’s presence he’d ever known -– enough to keep him following God through the boycott and throughout the next 12 years of the movement.
Now, Martin Luther King was not perfect, as history has clearly shown. Neither was Samuel or Nathanael; neither is any one of us. King was a broken man called to heal a broken situation; and he knew better than anyone else the poverty of his own power. I imagine him, in his kitchen that night, amazed that God had come to him so vividly. Who am I, that I hear the voice of the Almighty calling in the night? I’m just a young preacher at a small church in a small city. Why would the Lord of the universe waste precious, divine time on me?
Of course, filled with the power of that encounter, the broken young preacher would confront the racist powers of Montgomery, and the South, and the nation -– and defeat them without raising a hand in his own defense. God asked him to lead others to overcome evil through nonviolence –- and he created a movement. King listened, and he followed. And through him, God changed history.
So, who’s next? It could be any of us. It could be all of us. Jesus calls every last one of us to the path of discipleship. It’s sometimes a difficult path, hard to see, twisting in discomforting directions, full of stumbling blocks to trip us up. But the call is always to take a step and then trust that the next one will be revealed in God’s good time. For this path of discipleship, God doesn’t seek flawless people who have all the answers. Instead, God calls us -– even me, even you. We’ve all been given ears to hear that voice calling our names in the night. So, may we breathe deep and muster up the courage to say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” And then, may we receive the strength to follow God’s path where it leads and change the world God gives us to change.
1. This account of King’s epiphany during the Montgomery Bus Boycott is told in his memoir Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958). The book apparently is out of print, and I couldn’t obtain a copy in time for use with this sermon. Two blog posts recall the story of King’s midnight encounter with God: “Civil Rights Family Trip: Montgomery” (http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2010/08/civil-rights-family-trip-montgomery.html) and “Martin Luther King’s Defining Moment: A Kitchen, in Montgomery, Alabama, Past Midnight” (http://americandetours.com/2010/01/18/martin-luther-king%E2%80%99s-defining-moment-a-kitchen-in-montgomery-alabama-past-midnight).