January 18, 2015
Prayer: God, who called Abraham and Sarah, who called Moses to deliver the people of Israel from slavery, who called the prophets to preach truth to power, who called Jesus to show the way to your kingdom of love, reconciliation, justice and non-violence-may we be mindful of your call to us to join in the feast of the new creation. Amen.
This past Thursday evening Nancie and I skipped choir and attended the concert that Keith recommended last Sunday. He was inviting us to hear the SOAR choir that he is in and mentioned that the Spirituals Project was also part of the concert. How interesting, Nancie and I thought. We will go to support Keith and the choir he is in and it will be good to hear the Spirituals Project. So we arrived at the Newman Center, purchased our tickets and found our seat. There was a lot of energy there and the audience was more black than white, more non-Caucasian than not. We looked at the program and found out that the Rocky Mountain Children’s Chorale was there to perform as well.
It turns out that this evening was more than a concert. It was a celebration and remembrance of the Selma march and the events leading up to the voting rights act. Present at the event and concert were people who were in Selma all those years ago and there was soulful music that spoke to social and racial justice. At the end of the evening, as the combined choirs sang an arrangement of “We Shall Overcome,” a dramatic re-enactment of people gathering for the march was performed in mime just below the stage, so we could see the choirs and the drama unfolding before us. Signs were held up, including “I Can’t Breathe” and someone was signing up people to register to vote. There were two outstanding pianists, both now working in local churches but carrying national credentials. We were overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude for having been there. Martin Luther King was honored, of course, and one of the speakers had shared the podium with him some 50 times. It was living history, full of love and the spirit of Martin Luther King, whose life was so rooted in the Bible, the black church and the stories of Jesus and Israel. An arrangement of his “I Have a Dream” speech was both sung and spoken. A rock the house version of “Wade in the Water” started the evening with the Spirituals Project. What an experience it was. The music came from a place normally hidden from view, deep in the belly somewhere.
But what they celebrated on Thursday evening began years ago much more humbly. It began with a divine spiritual call to service. And when Martin Luther King first heard the call to serve his people, he had no way of knowing what would come after the first step.
Today’s texts are about Jesus calling rather normal people into extraordinary service. In our first reading today, a very young man, Samuel, is called into service while his boss, the old caretaker, whose name was Eli, was effectively fired by God after a poor performance review. He had given up, you see, and new energy was needed. A new call was issued. Samuel becomes the one to carry the torch of renewal for Israel, though in the moment of his all he had no idea where this call would lead. Eli represents the dormancy that characterized the situation at the time among the people of Israel, who under David a generation or two later would gather as a united kingdom, with Jerusalem its new capital and looking forward to the building of the first Temple in Jerusalem. Samuel could not have seen what was to come.
In the gospel reading Jesus calls Nathaniel, another unexceptional human being, after “seeing him under a fig tree.” Nathaniel, too, could not have known what was to come after that first step into the world of Jesus.
I suppose we, too, had no way of knowing what we would discover last Thursday evening after we took the first step to our seats. The Spirit of God keeps secrets rather well, I’d say. We are led, but one step at a time. No peeking.
Telling a story is about the only way to discuss the call of God. Scripture is full of them. God calls the most unlikely people, often flawed people, though we might ask who isn’t. Sometimes God calls spectacularly flawed people, world-class fumblers. David, for example. Or Moses. Or Solomon. All had clay heals that tripped them up. Martin Luther King was no exception. And in his case human and electronic spies made sure that every flaw was recorded in some way or another.
Still, I am deeply moved by what King did and who he was. He took each step in faith, walking and marching into an unknown future. There is a new book by Travis Smiley, the TV interviewer on public television, which focuses on King’s last year of life. King, who had achieved so much with the voting rights act and other civil rights legislation, who even received the Nobel Peace Prize, had given a speech, written by Vincent Harding, an emeritus professor at the Iliff School of Theology who died within the past year. In that speech King took a stand against the Vietnam War, renewed his commitment to non-violence and became a strong critic of the Johnson administration, which had been his ally in the civil rights struggle. But he was becoming, many were saying, irrelevant. Racial justice was to be the continued focus of the movement and that meant staying out of the war controversy. And there was a sense that militancy was more effective than non-violence against the resistance to racial justice offered by white culture in America. King, however, was not called to fight racial injustice only. He was called to confront injustice everywhere. In his later years, poverty was on his agenda. Remember the Poor People’s March on Washington? When he called out the Vietnam War as a war of injustice, he found himself very alone in the world, but it was consistent with the call he heard so many years before. Smiley says that after King’s assassination, his doctors observed that his bodily organs were those of a 65 year old man, though he was 39 when he died. Such was the stress of following the call of the Spirit.
We say, rather glibly, that we are all called by Jesus in our baptisms. Actually we are called no matter what, but baptism is a public confirmation of that call. Still, we interpret that call of God in largely domestic ways. We can too easily become like old Eli, burned out and ready for a nap. Old Eli stopped watching or caring years before. When he stepped down, it wasn’t a very long step.
I will repeat a story that I know I have previously shared. I read it years ago and I believe it was by Walter Wink. He was speaking with his spiritual director, who said to him “Walter, you are very sincere. But you are not serious.” When I read that I gulped a bit, swallowing tightly. It did hit home. I received a call alright and I have been sincere, but have I been serious? How much is it worth? How about you? It’s hard, isn’t it?
Here is perhaps an aid to put our call in perspective. We know that the call is hard. We know that it means work. We know that it means the sacrifice of things we would rather be doing. We know that we have and will have a difficult time keeping the call front and center. So return for a moment to old burned out Eli and young energetic Samuel. Eli forgot who this was for in the first place. It became about him, but it never was about him. It was about the next generation and the generation after that. Think about it. Young Samuel will carry the torch, not Eli. Eli did nothing to help Samuel move forward. If anything he discouraged Samuel by not being any kind of mentor to him. He had become self-absorbed. Look, I understand Eli. Any of us of a certain age can understand old El and it is not a pretty picture. But the call is for the next and the next generation. Isn’t that so? Each step, for the next generation and the world being born. If it were last Thursday evening I would say, “Do I hear an amen?” Do I hear an amen to the call of the Spirit for the next generation? Do I hear an amen to work for justice and peace for those who come after us? Are we ready to work for the world they will inherit? Are we serious?
So, and this is actually the end of the sermon, “Do I hear an Amen?” Amen! And thanks be to God!