Sermon for 14 January by Rev. Rilla Barrett

 

                                                                                                                                    SSE 1/14/18

Epiphany 2B

1 Samuel 3:1-10

Psalm 139:1—6, 13-18

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

John 1:43-51

 

 

Can anything good come out of Oak Harbor? Or Coupeville? Or Nazareth?  Can anything good come during a time like Samuel’s in which “The word of the Lord was rare…: visions were not widespread,”? Can anything good come during a time like ours when prejudices sometimes keep us from vision and truth? Can anything good come when we don’t seem able to hear God’s call to us?  Can anything good come? Anything good?

A Presbyterian minister, serving an inner-city church in a mid-west city wrote that on her first week of full-time work as clergy, she was summoned into court to assist a family from the neighborhood around the church. This young pastor was asked to serve as a translator for a Spanish-only-speaking father, because his 11-year old son was on trial for shooting another child in the leg with a BB gun.  Violence and trouble were part of life in this neighborhood, and so the pastor accompanied the weary father and more-than-likely belligerent son to court. Though she was a freshly ordained pastor in a new setting, a time when hope and newness generally rein…. a sense of hopelessness accompanied her into court as well.   Can anything good come out of such a story?  The word of the Lord is rare in these days and visions are not widespread.

Samuel, though he was divinely selected, didn’t know that something good could come out of his situation.  He thought the voice that he heard was Eli’s. . . and, of course he did. . .but it was really God calling to him.  God saw the hypocrisy in the situation with the sons of Eli.  The leadership over Israel was corrupt.  Eli’s sons had been using their status as priests to satisfy their own desires: by consuming the better pieces of meat and other foods given for the sacrifices and by lying with the vulnerable women who, like Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had come to worship the Lord at the tent of meeting.  All heinous sins in Israel’s moral universe.  God saw that the sons of Eli were blaspheming God by what they did in their lives, and God called to an unlikely person, a boy, an apprentice to Eli, to be God’s agent…but Samuel struggled to hear the voice of God in a time when the word of the Lord was rare;  and visions were not widespread, or so it was thought.  Samuel, the boy certainly didn’t expect to have God call him.

The gospel writer of John gives an account of God’s call, with a much-the-same message.  An enthusiastic Philip, from Bethsaida, went to tell Nathanael that the one they’d been waiting for was found…the very one that Moses in the law had written about…the one the prophets predicted, and he was Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.  And Nathanael said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  . . . certainly not the comeback Philip had expected, for Nathanael’s eyes may have been clouded by perceptions in his own society.  We call them prejudices, and they can lead us sideways.

            Nathanael reflected the accepted thought of the time...and that was the problem. Nazareth in Galilee was a village of about 200-400 people.  Like several other villages in the area, it was dependent, economically, on the city of Sepphoris, which was the capital of Galilee.  Hebrew Scripture never mentions Nazareth, much less associates it with messianic expectations.    Nazareth offered no special status to its inhabitants, so when Philip told Nathanael that Jesus was the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Nathanael concluded that Philip must be mistaken.  In Nathanael’s view (and probably the view of most folks of the time) nothing more than a simple Jew could ever come from an insignificant village like Nazareth in Galilee.  The Messiah, for whom they’d all waited…would certainly have more prestigious parentage than carpenter and come from a much more significant town.   Nathanael reminds us all that first impressions and prejudices can be very, very flawed.  Sadly, we heard an example of this sort of prejudice from the leader of our country this week. 

With all good intentions, our pre-conceived notions about other people and events can cloud our vision.  But Phillip did not remain silent.  He spoke. . . “Come and See,”  Philip’s invitation was vital…don’t be stopped by your pre-judging, your prejudice.  Has anyone ever said to you, “Come and see!”?  Have another look…consider again.  Have you ever invited anyone else to do the same?

And Samuel . . . went and waited and listened and followed God’s command when it came again.  He was the first in a long line of Kings in a time when Israel had begun to long for a king…like the nations around them.  Samuel came and saw…he listened for God’s voice when he didn’t think it was possible. And God didn’t say to the boy, Samuel, “I will make you a  famous prophet!” God didn’t promise to make Samuel great, though he did become a great prophet.   No, God called and, after a time, Samuel responded and said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”….in other words, “Here am I” and you have my attention.  And, in those words…Here am I”, in the listening, the transformation began.

And that young Presbyterian pastor…  accompanied her young charge and his father to court where the boy was given twenty-five hours of community service.  Since the boy’s neighborhood was where the church was, it was determined that the first of these hours would be served at the church where the pastor served.  His first task was to help clean up an unused youth room on the third floor.  It was hot, dusty and messy up there – not particularly a congenial setting for someone trying to maintain moussed, spiked hair.  The boy took the task seriously for some reason, and reassured her he could make a difference in the room.  She told him that the room could be used as a youth room for him and his friends.  He set to work.  Among other odds and ends in the room, he found an old cross and a table, which he fashioned into an altar and moved over next to the window.  He told her, “Every church should have a cross in the window so those of us on the outside can see it.” Mind you, this boy was no longer on the outside looking in. . .  As he continued his work, he invited several of his street-savvy friends in to join him.  They could have been too cool for such work…., for what fun can come out of such activity? But, one day… during the VBS week, one of these friends asked her, “Pastor, you know those community service hours that my friend has?  How can I get some of those?”  And the pastor realized that all those pre-conceived notions that had been rattling around in the back of her mind, those connected with stereotypes and potential outcomes…those voices were now silent.  Instead, was now the voice of God calling, the insistent beckoning…just as it was for Samuel.   She said she wondered through the court case, the grieving father, the belligerent son, through the crime evident in the neighborhood surrounding her church… Can anything good come out of this?  God, who crosses boundaries – real or perceived - replies “yes.”

Kathryn Stockett wrote a novel a few years back that many of us read titled The Help.  Later made into a movie, it detailed the story about a community in which domestic help, all African American, worked and served in the homes of white families in the South during the middles years of the last century.  The book is an indictment of the injustices and prejudices in place…accepted, or so it seemed, because they were part of the culture…accepted by both Caucasian and Black people…accepted and not outwardly questioned.  The fact that there could never be meaningful human relationships between The Help and The Families was a given…because there seemed to be a line between them…an invisible line that severed the two groups just as certainly as it would have if it had been a brick wall…that line was there.   Can anything good or blessed or holy come out of this situation?  And then, a conversation of grace, and through it the voice of God.   Consider another idea.  In the dialogue between two characters (both African-American “help”), Aibileen, who has served all her adult life, taking orders quietly, but who now is having trouble holding back her understandable  bitterness, and Minny, who has always spoken her own truth but is now in the unfortunate position of keeping a dark secret about her boss….and here, they discuss the accepted lines in society: (The Help, p. 367-8)

Minny:  “…some people don’t see ‘em.   The lines…”

Aibileen:  “We are talking about something that doesn’t exist.”

Minny:  “oh…not only is they lines, but you know good as I do where them lines be drawn.”

Aibileen:  “I used to believe in ‘em.  I don’t anymore.  They in our heads.  People always trying to make us believe they there.  But they ain’t.”

Minny: “I know they there ‘cause you get punished for crossing ‘em…least I do.”

Aibileen:  “Lot a folks think if you talk back to you husband, you crossed the line.  And that justifies punishment.  You believe in that line?”

Minny:   I scowl down at the table.  “You know I ain’t studying no line like that.”
            Aibileen:   “Cause that line ain’t there…except in Leroy’s head.  Lines between black and white ain’t there neither.  Some folks just made those up, long time ago.  And that go for the white trash and so-ciety ladies too.”

Minny:  “So, you saying that ain’t no line between the help and the boss, either?”

Aibileen:  “No, they’s just positions, like on a checkerboard.  Who work for who don’t mean nothing.”[1]

In times of darkness, God calls to us to consider another way…consider a way of life outside the perceived lines, consider a life of love and justice. Samuel heard it and so did Nathanael.

Nathanael’s initial response reminds us that pre-conceived notions and societal norms can be seriously flawed, and it is only when he does listen, respond, when he allows himself another possibility…that he sees the reality that this man from Nazareth, this previously conceived no-account, is certainly the Son of God, the King of Israel.  Just imagine if he had walked away from it all. 

Tomorrow we remember the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who himself was not bound by societal norms, but recognized their existence and the part they played in injustices of the time.   With passion, Martin lead others to deny those prejudices and to hear God’s call to newness. Martin resisted the accepted oppression of the day and acted, in the name of God’s love, to secure a more just path for God’s children.   His work cost him his life. And we continue on with it today. Our lives, the lives of our children depend on this.   

When God calls to us, good can come out of this place, this person, this situation.   For us, to whom God calls, the response is simply, “Here I am,” with an eye toward to a new relationship, a new possibility.  Then can our ears be opened to God’s insistent call to us, and we will hear God’s intention for mission and ministry in places where we least have expected them.  What cause for celebration!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Stockett, Kathryn, The Help, p. 367-8