Sermon preached on January 14, 2018 – Epiphany +2 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend)
1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Called into Truth and Beloved Community
I’m feeling pretty lucky to have escaped the ice event predicted for this weekend, given the images the 1998 ice storm fresh in my mind from all the 20th anniversary remembrances just last week. Ice is deceptive, isn’t it? Doesn’t take much to cause a great deal of damage. That’s what makes ice storms so dangerous, and why of all things, that’s the weather that brings us to our knees here in Maine. It treats everyone equally – devastatingly so.
Hate-filled words are similar – they are deceptive in scope of damage. We may dismiss them as “just words,” or we argue about context, tone; tempted to whitewash the comments as “unhelpful.” All while missing their devastating effects on the fabric of our society, damaging our trust in one another, our willingness to extend kindness and compassion, to care for our neighbors, to be generous of spirit, to be our better selves.
Hate-filled speech erodes and degrades, not just those who speak it and those they speak it against – but all of us. And we’ve gotten so used to it, that we rarely notice it. Or perhaps, we think if we ignore it, we’ll rise above it; when I fear it’s rather that we’re suffering from some sort of collective learned helplessness.
Abusive actions are similar, in that we are all degraded by them, not just the victims. And to ignore those who speak up, or to wish they would remain silent because we’d rather not deal with the difficult truth they speak, is to allow all of us to continue to be victimized. And maintains the oppressors’ hold on us all. Behind the famous names coming forward in the MeToo movement there are thousands of others, women who work in every area of the workforce, at every economic level of our society. In November, in the wake of the sexual assault scandals rocking Hollywood, Time magazine published an open letter of support and solidarity, (a MeToo letter if you will) from 700,000 female farmworkers.1
Friends, as uncomfortable as it is, this is a long overdue moment of awareness and compassion. The creator of MeToo, Tarana Burke, began this effort over a decade ago, calling it “empowerment through empathy.” In her words, “It’s the start of a larger conversation and a movement for radical community healing.”2
I realize this is difficult, troubling stuff for a Sunday morning. But this isn’t new, this struggle to be liberated from those who would oppress, bully, abuse, and degrade all of us, eroding the fabric of our community. God’s people have faced oppression and have cried out for liberation across the generations: the people of the Exodus; the people of Isaiah’s Diaspora; and those in first century Judea, in this moment in John’s Gospel, who are looking for the one who will save them, the Messiah. Who hope they are living in the days when God will send the Savior, and are ready to follow him, if they can just find him.
Which makes Nathanael’s reaction in our text so interesting – he’s not exactly jumping on the bandwagon. He could be a Mainer, don’t you think?! He’s a little cynical, to say the least. When he hears
about Jesus from his friend, he comments: ‘Really, can anything good come out of Nazareth? (Can anything good come from “away”?) Yet Nathanael is willing to be dragged along, if reluctantly.
When he is still far off, Jesus sees him and says, ‘Well this one calls it like he sees it, doesn’t he? This is a straight-shooter.’ Nathanael is curious – shocked even, ‘How do you know so much about me?’ Jesus answers, ‘I saw you standing there, earlier… when you were leaning under the fig tree,’
And something snaps into place for Nathanael. Who knows what, or why? But he has an epiphany, he simply knows that Jesus is exactly who his friend claims he is, and he confesses that new revelation, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus is as surprised as everyone else by the outburst. Because this is pretty unexpected from someone like Nathanael.
How did he get to this place? The faith of his friends really. Just the day before, when Jesus was walking by John the Baptist, John pointed him out to those gathered as the Lamb of God. Two of John’s disciples decide to follow Jesus and ask him where he is staying. Jesus says to them, “Come and see.” One of the two, Andrew, gets his brother Simon, telling Simon, “We have found the Messiah.” Then today, Jesus finds Phillip and says, “Follow me,” and Phillip finds Nathanael and drags him along too.
Consider the chain of events – Andrew believes John the Baptist, and he gets his brother Simon Peter. Jesus calls Phillip; Phillip hauls Nathanael. Jesus has called one of these four, the rest are called by one another. Three out of four are called by their friends, by those who believe. That’s a lot of agency, a lot of responsibility, a lot of the “Come and See” placed on those who would be disciples, right from the very beginning. These disciples are those who will follow Jesus and become apostles – who will form the community that lives on after the resurrection, who live out his teaching for the world, who will take the Gospel to the ends of the earth… these disciples mostly called each other.
For those who come after, those who would be disciples, that’s a lot to take in. Calling that kind of following together and living into that kind of community – that’s on us. For that has been on the shoulders of those who follow Jesus, who claim discipleship from the very beginning. Forming that kind of community has always been our call.
In the African American Lectionary, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is called Beloved Community Day. It’s less a commemoration of a great man in the past and more a call to participate in his ongoing movement. For this Community to come into being, we have to do more than wish for it, we have to engage the world and its issues, and be fully active participants in creating the kingdom, it’s on us.
In the words of a famous Bates Alum, the incomparable Rev. Peter Gomes:
“The question should not be “What would Jesus do?” but rather, more dangerously, “What would Jesus have me do?” The onus is not on Jesus but on us, for Jesus did not come to ask semi-divine human beings to do impossible things. He came to ask human beings to live up to their full humanity; he wants us to live in the full implication of our human gifts, and that is far more demanding.”3
The onus is on us, my friends. To find and call others, saying, “Come and see.” ‘See what I have found, this love, this life of faith, this abundant (though not easy) life in Christ. We are called to become co- creators of Beloved Community in the here and now; to bring the Kingdom into being, for all people.
And I believe that truth-telling and truth-receiving are essential to that effort. We begin to combat the corrosive and devastating effects of hate-filled speech and abusive actions, by speaking our truth. And receiving and honoring the truth of those long forced into silence. In her remarkable acceptance speech for the lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes last Sunday, Oprah Winfrey said, “what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”4
Remember – Jesus commends our cynical Nathanael for being one in whom there is no deceit. And Samuel is given a difficult truth to tell, but is honored as a true prophet for telling it. Tell your truth, empower others to tell theirs, and listen to them; and together we will create a culture that values the truth and values one another. A culture that creates a way forward for reconciliation and redemption; that builds a hope-filled future.
In the words of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method, … is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method, is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies — is the solution to the race problem.”5
Following Jesus, called into discipleship, and calling others, called to create the beloved community. Speaking truth, holding the truth of others, and living into the truth of God’s LOVE, is all part of our call.
It’s on us, it’s who we are called to be as disciples, those who create the Beloved Community in which all might live abundantly, delighting in God’s love and grace. Roll up your sleeves my friends, we’ve got some living in love to do. The world needs us -desperately.
- Open letter from Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization comprised of current and former farmworker women;. (700,000 Female Farmworkers Say They Stand With Hollywood Actors Against Sexual Assault), November 10,2017, Time.
- Tarana Burke, from her Twitter feed, @TaranaBurke, Tweet posted on October 15, 2017, 7:22pm. #metoo.
- Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, 2007.
- Oprah Winfrey, Oprah Winfrey acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes Ceremony, January 7, 2018. Transcript online: http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/08/entertainment/oprah-globes-speech-transcript/index.html
- Martin Luther King, Jr., (Ebony Magazine: IV, 306, November, 1957.)