Sermon Jan 14, 2018

“God Is Still Speaking”
Rev. Michael Caldwell
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
I Samuel 3.1-20, John 1.43-51
January 14, 2018

Friends, one of the greatest disciples of our Lord of all time was alive during many of our lifetimes – Martin Luther King, Jr. His faithfulness to our God and to Christ was unfailing. His attentiveness and responsiveness to the Spirit’s moving among us were creative, prophetic, and ground-breaking. His life and faith and ministry and martyrdom changed hearts, changed lives, and changed society in a way that was and is revolutionary.

He is known for many profound and pithy sayings, including one we’ll know by heart today:
“Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.” Today within the sermon, whenever you hear me say “everybody can be great,” please respond: “because anybody can serve.” (REPEAT)

A few years ago, the MLK monument was dedicated in Washington DC in the Capitol Mall adjacent to the FDR monument. This April, in conjunction with a visit to my son Noah in Washington (where he works as a producer for All Things Considered at NPR), I will pilgrimage to the King monument and the FDR monument and pay my respects… why?

I grew up in a working class blue collar family in Pennsylvania. Racism and homophobia were part of the deal, and I thank the little college just down the river from here for saving me from my sins. It was King and his legacy (I learned in college) which liberated not only black folk from their oppression, but also preached liberation for white folk who’d been taught to look down on black folk. It was also there that I learned that King’s legacy was not only confronting racism; it was also linking, as Eisenhower did, our country’s sins of militarism with the scourge of poverty… all of this is why I am excited to finally make a pilgrimage to King’s monument.

“Everybody can be great… (because anybody can serve).”

In the last year, we’ve seen a return of racism and bigotry to our great nation – not making America great again, but rather taking America backward. Maybe what we should do is just dismantle the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. “Give me your tired and poor and huddled masses yearning to be free” is a joke to the new Herods of the new Feudalism trying to deter any and all from entering or staying here who have a different skin color than white, any and all who have a different religion than sectarian Christianity. Lady Liberty grieves in New York harbor with the sorrow of a motherless child…

But as King said, though there are a lot of fits and starts and relapses, “the arc of God’s intentions always bends toward justice.” God’s work is not finished. The kingdom in the Lord’s Prayer has not yet come. And so we look to scripture and to King for inspiration for our part in bringing the Kingdom “on earth as in heaven.”

King said what he said and did what he did because he was tuned into the Word of the Lord “still speaking” and not confined to the pages of the Bible. Like Samuel and Nathaniel, he practiced listening for God’s Word, hearing it, understanding it, responding to it, and acting on it…

“Everybody can be great… (because anyone can serve).”

In the days of the prophet Samuel, the text says, “ the word of the Lord was rare; visions were not widespread.” So it’s understandable that it took the boy prophet a while to learn to hear the word of God, the Spirit’s call to him, and for him to find the nerve to interpret its uncomfortable message to Eli – the weak priest who refused to reign in his corrupt sons who exploited the people.

What Samuel did, King did, and we are called to do… listening for God’s word of justice and carrying out a program to bring it as core part of our discipleship – especially in days when the word of the Lord seems so rare to us when we look at the world and see such heinous corruption all around us…

And to come to the New Testament text, we all may relate to the hesitation of Nathaniel when his friend Philip claims to have found the messiah in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Nathaniel’s response was bitingly sarcastic: “Can ANYTHING good come out of NAZARETH?”

When you go to Nazareth on a Holy Land trip (as I did 5 yrs ago in 2013 with a group from East Corinth) the guides emphasize that Nazareth was historically a place we’d call “backwater,” other side of the tracks, East Podunk, where the hicks in the sticks come from. Remind you of anything? How ‘bout the fact that Joseph was indeed such a poor carpenter (and Mary but a teenage girl) that they were seen to be like white trash to the innkeeper who turned them away tho Mary was in labor. As the baby Jesus in our recent celebration of Christmas was born in a barn and grew up son of a poor carpenter, Martin King, too, grew up humble.

Rephrasing Nathaniel’s question for now: “Can anyone be great growing up humble?” We know the answer, and Nathaniel gets it too, as soon as he hears the first words out of Jesus’ mouth and sees the light of the divine in him, hears the word of the Lord in his words.

“Everybody can be great… (because anyone can serve).”

In conclusion, as Samuel and Nathaniel heard and responded to the clear word of God, so does Martin King, who is so tuned in to God’s righteous indignation toward the hypocritical and heretical Christians who held slaves or were effectively white supremacists that he channels that Word powerfully to a new generation. The people who hear him have hope. The people in power resist him, as tyrannical forces of history always do. And he is martyred as President Lincoln was martyred – martyred and made more powerful by the force of his fearless stance against injustice, racism, and corruption of all stripes, risking his life, sacrificing his life, as Jesus did.

What about us? What does God say to us who hear these stories of people of faith listening for God’s word in the face of the world’s injustice and corruption? What specific word does God have for you this morning, as you reflect on your gifts and your call to discipleship? And what specific action can you take?

Could be relatively small, like challenging the teller of a racist joke.

Could be so humble as to seem insignificant – but not – like visiting a lonely elderly marginalized member of this church in need of a friendly face after a life of hardship and loss.

Could be simple acts of humble serving – like volunteering with the local restorative justice center to sit with offenders in need of justice, yes, and and openness by neighbors to repentance and recovery from compassionate ears of someone who listens, hears, and understands where the offense has come from, and how the harm can be repaired, beyond the world’s tendency toward punishment and revenge and retribution.

Our lives as Christians are not static… neither is the word of God… for God is still speaking. Are we hearing? Are we responding? Do we have a contemplative practice that can gear us toward serving as King served, changing the world as disciples do, bringing the kingdom as Jesus prayed…

And don’t forget: “Everybody can be great… (because anybody can serve).” Amen.

“Amen, Amen” (“Lilies of the Field”) – coming into the sanctuary – then breaking into “We Shall Overcome”