In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wanted to share the sermon I preached this Sunday. I was reminded yesterday that there are places in this world where people do difficult work amongst sometimes difficult people and manage to love their neighbors and work for justice. Sometimes this happens within the church some times without. Wherever such love in action happens, most often unnoticed and in unlikely places, it is amazing. I would also like to dedicate these words to such as these.
(The following sermon references scriptures from 1 Samuel 3 wherein Samuel hears the voice of God but does not recognize who is speaking, and John 1:43-51 where Nathanael meets Jesus for the first time.)
The Creator of all, the ground of all being, God of all that has been and all that is and all that is to come, likes to come to us in most unimpressive packages. We read of Samuel, a touch slow on the uptake, an inexperienced boy of little faith, uttering his first prophecy. We read of Jesus growing up in the small rural village of Nazareth. And we read of God coming to Nathanael, who could be the patron saint of snark and blunt honesty, and whose most auspicious moment at this point was being seen under a fig tree. Furthermore, Samuel might have missed God entirely had it not been for his mentor, Eli, who gives his sage guidance in the midst of being called on the carpet for getting fat off benefits gained through the corrupt practices of his sons. Nathanael is brought to Jesus by the evangelist, Phillip, whose evangelical treatise consisted of “Oh, just come and see for yourself.” Somewhat unimpressive vessels for God’s wondrous power.
This week we celebrate the life of a man whose words seem more fitting for a revelation of God. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words have rung majestically and inspiringly through the years. Words like: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” and “When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’" These words ring forth with glory and truth which causes us to forget the speaker was just a young preacher and from an era in which his skin color would have made him an unlikely prophet to many. And while honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is appropriate, it is important to remember God often shows up in even more surprising places. When we hear the stories of the blood of black youth spilled on our streets and analyze the character of those youth before we take the story seriously we forget God has not chosen only the pure and lofty for the work of prophecy. When we hear of horrors in far away places with difficult to pronounce names, like the school massacre in Peshawar, girls kidnapped in Boko Haram, child refugees from Honduras, and dismiss them as things that happen in places like that amongst people of those other religions, we forget the story of the Good Samaritan, the Syrophoenician woman, the magi, the Nazarene and all those beloved by God of unlikely faiths or from unlikely places. If we are looking for glitz and glory, purity and perfection, or only people who look and believe just like we do, we will fail to see God.
Phillip says to Nathanael, “come and see.” If we say these words to others what will they “come and see?” Will they see the love of God made manifest through feeding, healing, clothing, and caring for all people? Or will they see much fodder for snarky Nathanaels who might say, “What good could come from the church: a place of hatred and segregation, anti-homosexual, consumed by capitalism and self-justification, a place where attendance numbers trump justice.”
Such Nathanaels might ask: “What should I come and see? Come and see a bunch of people singing? Come and see some person talk about a book more than a thousand years old? Come and see how many hypocrites I can spot? Come and see people do nothing but pray while children are dying?” There is truth in these harsh words. The church has too often well earned such snarky skepticism. Nathanaels are notorious truth bearers.
And yet God comes in unlikely places. Perhaps amidst the rubble of a church gone far astray, in a place of insignificant attendance, in the middle of nowhere, amongst a people of little wealth, doing work of little glamor, who pause just long enough to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."