Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; John 1:43-51; 1 Samuel 3:1-20
The story from 1 Samuel is a story often heard at ordination ceremonies. Samuel is called by God, again and again, he needs interpretation from his mentor to understand it is God, what to say in response. Finally he is ready to hear God’s message and follow God’s call. Often we hear about this and rejoice in someone being able to respond to God’s call in a good and faithful way, we look forward to the positive impact they will have. But Samuel’s story does not end with God speaking to him, and calling him. He then must repeat the terrible message to Eli the priest. Eli whose sons have been abusing the sacrifices made to God and taking advantage of women serving at the temple entrance. God sends a word of judgment through Samuel, who is still just a boy, and wants him to tell Eli, his mentor, the father figure in his life since his mother has dedicated him to God and he now lives in the temple and sees his family only rarely.
The scripture even tells us he was afraid to tell Eli, but Eli insisted so he did. Why did Eli get a warning if there was nothing he could do? He could at least prepare himself for what was coming. But it was more about Samuel. A chance for him to understand himself in a new way, that in a time when there weren’t many visions or messages from God, that God could speak to him and through him. Even to Eli, the priest who has been with him and taught him and probably cared for him since he was weaned from his mother.
The writer of psalm 139 talks about God seeing us and knowing us, knowing us intimately. Being with us so close to know the word we are going to say before it makes its way out of our mouths.
God saw Samuel and knew him, and called him to be a trustworthy prophet, one worthy to speak the messages God had for the people, eventually choosing Saul and then David as Israel’s first kings. The very first message was one of denouncing abuse of power, corruption in his own mentor and in what was happening in the main center of faith of the people. Samuel found the courage to speak those words.
When Jesus, centuries later, is beginning to gather his group of disciples, Nathanael has a sense of prejudice that nothing good can come from Nazareth, a small town. But when he meets Jesus, Jesus tells him he is seen for who he truly is, and known. That he is without deceit- he didn’t hide his prejudice from his friend Philip. And that he was under the fig tree- which was a way of saying he put time into studying God’s word, discussing with rabbis and scribes.
Nathanael, knowing how Jesus sees him, accepts him as God’s very own son and king of Israel. The messiah, in other words, the one God would be sending.
Jesus could have used other phrases that also would have been true of Nathanael, that he was prejudiced and quick to judge. That he preferred to be cynical rather than trying to make a difference around him. Those things also seem to be true.
But Jesus saw into the soul of Nathanael and saw the best of him. Then he called him to be a follower. Seen, known, challenged and called.
Martin Luther King Junior was a pastor and a doctor of theology. He was seen and known by God and called into those roles, in his own church, but also to public ministry to reveal some of the deep evils of our nation’s soul. He instructed people in non-violent action, he helped his community develop boycotts and plan marches and he spoke some of God’s hard words to powerful people in elegant ways.
His call was to challenge his homeland to repent of the evils of racism and systems that lead to poverty and suffering and we remember him today.
We remember him today, Friday would have been his 92nd birthday, think about, just about the same age as some of our eldest beloved members Aiko, Florence. Imagining him alive I wonder, What would Dr. King have to say to us today?
More importantly what does God say to us today? How is God challenging us and calling us to faithful ministry in these times?
These days right now between an insurrection in our nation’s capital, and authorities now know now – allegedly- planned by white supremacist groups with some kind of cooperation with advisors or previous advisors to our president- between January 6 and January 20, when people from those same groups are warning of violence in all 50 state capitals. There are rumors of attacks on churches as well beloved.
These days right now when the conspiracy theories and lies have captured the imagination of too many of our fellow americans.
These days right now when the depth of the sin of our racism is so evident but still not a big enough problem to make real changes, or make us have uncomfortable conversations.
I am sure Dr. King, and God, call us away from violence. I am sure Dr. King, and Jesus, call us not to hide ourselves from the pain all of this causes, but to be brave in looking at the whole situation for what it is. Some have told me they have relatives or friends who are repeating some of the lies about a stolen election or other conspiracy theories. It’s easy to write those people off, disengage. But that is not going to help anything. We need people of faith to be bold in showing love that overcomes hate. I am not saying you need to argue with all of your loved ones and try to convince them they are wrong. I don’t think that works very often. But how to love people right out of these lies- That is the challenge. Martin Luther King is known to have said, darkness doesn’t overcome darkness, only light can do that. Hate doesn’t overcome hate, only love can do that. But brave love. Reinforced love. God calls and challenges us today to figure out how love can win the day, now.
My colleague in Portland Lenny Duncan wrote this week that he is going to preach a sermon, based on Samuel’s call story to his people telling them this is a time that God is ordaining all of them into ministry. Not as reverends per se, but calling to join in this urgent work we need today.
Not to steal his idea but- yeah. God needs workers and pastors aren’t the only ones. This world needs healing. This world needs the truth. This world -this nation needs Jesus- who sees into the heart, who sees us as we really are, loves us and calls us. Calls us with a challenge.
In my prayer time this week God spoke to my heart, about this calling that I have, and that you have, and said, don’t take it too lightly. The real work there is to do, don’t take it too lightly. This historical moment we are living through- don’t take it too lightly. Don’t just carry on like nothing is happening. Take this moment with all it is, the many ugly sides and also the beautiful possibilities- because with God they are always there- take the time for the soul-work you need to do. Take this moment and take it deep within you.
But know you are not alone. If God calls you God equips you, and a big part of that is having a family of faith to work with you. and know how God sees you. if that disquiets you, scares you, I challenge you to sit with that and pray about it until you can sense God seeing you and loving you. we know that is always true. But also, God loves everybody too much to just let this all continue on.
Maybe today, maybe sometime this week, take time. Sit in God’s presence, knowing God sees you and knows you. Then wonder, how might God be calling you or challenging you today?
In the end, these stories are hopeful stories. Samuel would speak the hard message the Lord gave him that day, and then grow up to be known all around as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord, “the Lord was with him” the Scripture says. The psalmist speaks of thinking through all of God’s plans, coming to the end and realizing, God is right there with him or her. Nathanael the skeptic responds positively to Jesus’ seeing of him as he is, and Jesus promises that he will see angels coming down and going back up- and remember angels are messengers of God.
I don’t know what Jesus was talking about exactly there. But I think it is a promise that somehow, even if it seems to be a time like in Samuel when there was no vision or message from God, God was just waiting for someone to heed the call. God does not give up on us. God still sends the messengers, sometimes allows us to be the messenger.
God still sees us, God still knows us. Sees you. knows you. and calls and challenges. God loves us too much to leave things the way they are. Just like Samuel was called to speak what was true, to call out Eli overlooking his son’s actions, we may have to examine what we have overlooked in our midst. What ways it is necessary to do what we already know is right, and is God’s way. Like real accountability, rooting out racism and white supremacy, speaking truth, defending the vulnerable.
This is, too, work and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though he is gone from our sight his words and actions live on to inspire us. Love is the way. Hate is the easy response. Rejecting those who look different from us or think differently from us would be the easy way. This is a time to see ourselves as God sees us and see others as God sees them. With imperfections and needing to grow, yes, but with great potential, too. Listen, God is calling. Let us heed this calling, together.