Samuel, Nathanael, and Me 01/14/18

Samuel, Nathanael, and Me
Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-20; John 1:43-51
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
January 14, 2018 ~ Second Sunday After Epiphany ~ Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday

Artwork: Calling Disciples by He Qi (2001)

He was standing at the podium in front of 250,000 people, and the next line just wasn’t quite right. He couldn’t say it. And in that terrible pause, the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” As he pushed his prepared remarks off to the left side of the podium and looked out over the crowd, his adviser and speechwriter Clarence Jones leaned over to the person standing next to him and said, “These people out there – they don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.”

“I have a dream today,” he said, and the extemporaneous words that followed became one of the most famous speeches of the Civil Rights era.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, but I’m not going to tell you any more stories about him this morning. Sometimes I wonder how he would feel about us – particularly those of us in predominantly white churches – lifting him up as a saint once a year and then more or less forgetting about him on all the other 364 days. But that’s not why I’m not going to tell you stories about King today.

I don’t want us to make the mistake of telling stories about King but forgetting to talk about what he envisioned. I don’t want to make the mistake of lifting up the man but allowing his dream to crumble in the dust. I don’t want us to make an idol of this man who never wanted to be idolized; I want us to gaze not into his eyes, but rather to turn our gaze to the horizon he saw. I want us to look past his familiar face in order to see the world he believed was possible.

So, no, I will not be telling you any more stories about King today.

Instead I want to tell you about Amzie Moore.

It was a dark time in America. The triple evils King spoke of – the evils of poverty, racism, and militarism – abounded. And into that dark time Amzie Moore was born, in the year 1911. He was just a regular man. He grew up on the Mississippi Delta, the most impoverished and racist of all the poor and racist parts of the poorest and most racist state. Since he had worked in many jobs and was involved with countless organizations over the years, he had forged relationships with all kinds of people. He was committed to a better America, and what made Mr. Moore indispensable to the Freedom Movement was his ability to connect people. If the Movement needed to contact people, they went to Mr. Moore, who would know how to find them. If they needed a way into some of the counties where outsiders were mistrusted, Mr. Moore got them in. If they needed a place to work or stay, they went to Mr. Moore’s house. [1] He didn’t set out to change the world; he just did what he did best: he met and forged relationships with all kinds of people, and then he introduced the right people to each other at just the right moment. Without Amzie Moore, a regular man with no little fame or public appreciation, and without thousands of people like him, the Freedom Movement likely would not have succeeded.

It was a dark time in America. Poverty, racism, militarism all had the upper hand.

And into that time walked Septima Clark of South Carolina. She was a typical woman born in Haiti in 1898 who grew up in Charleston. She couldn’t afford more than 2 years of college, but even with that she was able to pass the teachers’ examination. Of course, Black teachers weren’t allowed to teach in public schools, so Mrs. Clark moved to an island off the coast, where she and just one other teacher had the task of teaching 132 children of all ages. Mrs. Clark soon began to teach adults in the evenings. Eventually, Black teachers were allowed to teach in Black schools, so Mrs. Clark returned to Charleston to teach. Over the years that followed, she developed the famous Citizenship Schools, where illiterate Black adults learned to read and pass voter registration exams. By 1961, she had trained over 80 new teachers to go out and teach adults. [2] She changed the world, this woman who had expected to live a very normal life. She didn’t set out to do anything particularly extraordinary; she just did what she did best: she taught people to read. Because of Septima Clark and people like her, thousands of people were finally given the chance to become voting citizens, and the world was changed.

Now, let me tell you about Samuel. But to tell you about Samuel, first I have to tell you about Eli. Eli was an aging priest who had lost all moral and spiritual authority. After all, everyone knew what Eli’s sons were up to. They were, as one commentator has said, self-centered, immoral, sacrilegious thugs. Greed-driven as they were, they took whatever they wanted from the offerings people brought to the Temple, effectively lessening their worth. Never mind that they were priests; they blasphemed God and they disrespected those who came to worship. They sexually assaulted the women who served in the worship area – women who couldn’t complain to anyone, who needed their jobs, who were powerless to protect themselves from the lecherous sons of Eli.

And Eli knew. He knew all these things. He did speak to his sons, it’s true, but when they ignored him he refused to take any harsher measures. He chose instead to turn a blind eye to their despicable and outrageous behavior.

Corrupt leadership. Economic exploitation. Sexual assault. Unchecked power. The complicity of silence.

It was a dark time.

And into this dark time came Samuel. Samuel: just an apprentice, and a young and inexperienced one at that. A boy who “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” An insignificant child.

Yet to this insignificant child the voice of God came, calling clearly, “Samuel, Samuel.” So untrained was Samuel that he did not recognize the voice for what it was, mistaking God’s voice for Eli’s. The third time Samuel awakened Eli, the old priest figured out what was going on: God was speaking to this insignificant little boy.

God didn’t send Samuel out to do anything. No, God just confided in Samuel, telling him that Eli and his sons would pay for what they’d done to the people they were supposed to be taking care of.

God didn’t tell Samuel to do anything, but God knew Samuel well. God knew that when Eli asked Samuel what God said, Samuel would honestly and forthrightly tell him. And so God spoke to Samuel, and then God waited. Samuel expected to serve the Lord in the Temple in quiet and unremarkable devotion. He didn’t set out to change the world; he just lived the normal life of an apprentice. But when Samuel spoke, Eli’s entire world was overturned in the cause of justice. A new priestly lineage would begin.

“I have a dream,” King proclaimed. In so many ways, these are dark times, times when it sometimes seems that the word of God is rare and visions are not widespread.

Poverty; racism; militarism: those evils didn’t end with Amzie’s connections or Septima’s teaching. They changed the world, and yet there is still so much to be done.

Corrupt leadership; economic exploitation; sexual assault; unchecked power; the complicity of silence: those evils didn’t end when Samuel confronted Eli. He changed the world, and yet there is still so much to be done.

It can feel overwhelming. We need to hear the word of God. We need a vision.

So now let me tell you about Nathanael. I don’t know much about him, but I do know this: he lived in or near Bethsaida, which was a fishing village along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. I don’t know if he had a family, but I do know that he knew Philip. I don’t know how educated he was, but I do know that he knew enough of the scriptures to be familiar with prophecies about the Messiah and to know none of them included the place called Nazareth. I don’t know how well-traveled he was, but I do know that he knew Nazareth was just a tiny, insignificant village. I don’t know what he was doing that day, but I do know that when Philip said, “Come and see,” Nathanael went.

Nathanael wasn’t a sinner being saved as he knelt at Jesus’ feet. He wasn’t paralyzed, possessed, or sick. He was, as far as we can tell, a good guy who knew his Scriptures and who was just going about living his life. He was “an Israelite in whom there [was] no deceit.” But still, he went when Philip invited him. And when he saw Jesus, he had an epiphany. He realized immediately who Jesus was: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

“This is not one of those cases,” says one commentary, “where God takes a miserable sinner and turns him into a saint. This is one of those equally remarkable cases where God takes a person who is humanly praiseworthy in every way and makes him something even more – a disciple.” [3]

And isn’t that how it often is? We do love our “amazing grace” stories – the spectacular healing of the broken-hearted, the dramatic conversion, the up-from-the-ashes tales of new beginnings after all has gone wrong. But those aren’t the only ways God works. We do love our heroes, but the world is also full of “unsung heroes,” ordinary people who are simply living their lives the best way they know how and who thereby are instrumental in changing the world.

There’s still a lot of work to do. But we are disciples of Christ, and therefore we cannot give in to despair. Maybe we already have heard the word of God. Maybe we have already been given a vision. We may feel like there’s nothing we can do, but if God can use Samuel, and Amzie, and Septima, and Nathanael, then surely God can use you and me, too. We don’t need to be superheroes. We don’t need wealth or fame or power. We are disciples of Christ, and disciples need one thing above all else: the willingness to follow.

Shall we?

Amen.

[1] Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. (Berkeley: University of CA Press, 1995) p.62.

[2] Payne, p.68 ff.

[3] Elton W. Brown, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) p. 262.

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