II Epiphany – January 18
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
I’m going to give you a little gift this morning. Something most people in the pew only dream of when it comes time for the sermon. I’m going to ask you to close your eyes. Yes. Close your eyes. That way, the preacher won’t know if you’re nodding off – taking a well-deserved nap during the next 12 minutes or so while the preacher ‘does her thing”. She won’t know if you are listening intently or taking a little snooze. So, g’wan. Close your eyes.
I want you to close your eyes and imagine that you are the young boy Samuel. You are on duty in the temple. Your job is to lay down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God is kept. The old man, the priest and prophet Eli, is in his room nearby. His eyesight has failed him as his years have advanced. Your job is also to serve him.
As for you, you are beginning to think you are hearing things that are not there. Two times you think Eli has called you. And two times, Eli says to you, “I did not call. Lie down again.” The third time you think you hear Eli call you, Eli perceives that it is the Lord who is calling you and he says to you, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
I want you to keep your eyes closed and imagine now, that you are no longer Samuel. You are Nathaniel. You friend Phillip has just come to you. Phillip has just been found by the man named Jesus, a man from Nazareth; a rabbi some claim to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews.
Jesus has found Phillip, a man from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter who have already been called by Jesus to be his disciples. Philip has found you, a young Jewish man named Nathaniel, and says to you with great excitement, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
And, you are astonished. You can hardly believe what your friend Phillip is saying to you. You think to yourself, “He must be mad!” Instead, you say to your friend, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And Philip, brushing aside your obvious sarcasm, says to you, “Come and see.” So, you run to see this Jesus, but you hid behind a fig tree, watching. Waiting.
Now, I want you to move from imagining yourself in ancient Palestine, from being Samuel in the temple and Nathaniel hiding behind that fig tree. I want you to imagine yourself in Baltimore, Maryland. Yes, Baltimore, Maryland.
It is centuries later. It is the early 1960’s. You have fallen in love with a person whose race is different from your own. You know this is real. You know this is love. You know, but you do not understand, really, that this love is against the law. Interracial marriage is against the law in the state of Maryland at this time in history. And yet, you love this person enough to risk all of the scorn that will bring upon you. You love this person enough to break the law. It is 1960.
And so, you decide to do so. You tell one of your friends about it, and she says to you (like one of the characters from ‘Hairspray”),“You're about to see a whole lot of stupid coming from a mess of ugly." You don’t care. You love this person enough to be married. And so, you do.
Now, keep your eyes closed. It is now January, 2009. You are still in Baltimore, Maryland. You are almost 50 years old. You are the child of an interracial couple who could not get married in the city in which you now live. You have married a person of another racial and ethnic background and have two beautiful interracial children who do not know – could never know – the prejudice and oppression known by their grandparents and great grandparents. Oh, racism rears its ugly head, from time to time, but there is no doubt that times have change. This is a whole new time. This is a whole new world. A world your parents couldn’t have imagined 40 years before.
Barack Hussein Obama and Joe Biden are ridding the Inauguration Train through Baltimore – the oddest interracial couple ever. Never could your parents or grandparents have imagined that in the place where slaves were sold in the open market, the son of a nation whose people were once were sold off in slavery is making his way to Washington, DC to become the 44th President of the U.S.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Baltimore, MD? Or, Wilmington, DE? Or, Honolulu, HI? Or, Chicago, Illinois? Or, Chatham, NJ? Or, the place of YOUR birth? I suppose it must be asked: Can anything good come out of Washington, D.C.?
Okay, you will need to open your eyes and your ears now and listen.
On Tuesday, the day after we remember the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., together, we will inaugurate a new era in our common lives of faith. Together, we the people will make history. So, it is no coincidence that our scripture lessons have to do with the call of Samuel and the call of Nathaniel. It is not even a surprise that St. Paul is talking to us about the holiness of our bodies, exhorting us to know that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, and that ‘you are not your own.’
“You are not your own,” says St. Paul to the church in Corinth. Yes, yes. It’s easy to lose that message in the midst of all that talk about ‘fornication’ and ‘prostitution’. “You were bought with a price,” says St. Paul, “now glorify God in your body.”
You are not your own. Neither was Samuel. Neither was Nathaniel. Or Phillip. Or Andrew. Or Peter. Or George. Or Barack. Or you. Or me. We are the Lord’s, and we, like them, are called to glorify God in our bodies, with our whole lives – our whole hearts and souls; our whole minds and bodies – not to cheapen the gift of our freedom by compromising our integrity.
We are called out of the places we were born: Fall River, MA. Chatham, NJ. Staten Island, NY. Philadelphia, PA. Sioux City, Iowa. Bayonne, NJ. Chicago, IL. Jackson, MI. Atlanta, GA. Beijing, China. Denver, CO. San Francisco, CA.
As Christians we are called out of places of dubious distinction to places where we can make a distinct difference. We are called to be vehicles of hope. We are called to be agents of change. We are called to be Christ’s representatives of God’s unconditional love for all humankind. We are called to make our own unique mark in history. Which is why, as Christians, as followers of Christ Jesus, we are called to make a difference in this world.
We are brinked on an amazing time, my friends. There have been fewer times when we have been more fragile as a nation. Our economic status is still precarious. There is talk now of ‘Iraqi good enough’, as in ‘we are outta here.’ The future of Afghanistan is still bleak. Violence continues in the Gaza Strip. At home, Social Security, Health Care and Education are in need of serious reform. Immigration, along with concerns about our national security and the environment continue to need serious attention. America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, needs to stop the torture of detained suspected war criminals. Now.
One man cannot do it all. As a matter of fact, two men can’t do it all. Indeed, a whole congress full of men and women cannot do it all. We don’t need a Messiah. We already have a Savior. What we need is a nation of people who know they are called to be vehicles of hope and agents of change, envoys of compassion and ambassadors of love.
Now, more than ever, we need each other. Now, more than ever, we need strong leadership. Now, more than ever, we need accountability. Now, more than ever, we need to listen to the voice of God. We need to humble ourselves, and keep watch by the temple. We need to keep ourselves close to the ark of the Covenant and, with Samuel, our ancient brother, stand ready to say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Now, more than ever, we need to know that even if we hide behind the fig trees in our lives, Jesus knows. God will find us. Jesus sees us. Jesus will call to us as he called to Nathaniel and Phillip, Andrew and Simon. And, if we answer, it is promised that ‘we will see greater things than these.”
Just as Jesus saw Nathaniel under the fig tree before Phillip called him, God sees us where we are even before we can see ourselves. God meets us where we are. Loves us as we are. Calls us to be more than we think we are or could ever dream to be.
We are not Samuel or Nathaniel or, for that matter, Barack or Joe. We can only imagine what their lives were – or are –like. Our job is not to spend our time living other people’s lives. Our job – our call – is to imagine the life God imagined when God first conceived of us. Before, as the Psalmist tells us, we were ‘knit together in our mother’s womb.
Our job is to work on the ‘content of our character’ of which Martin Luther King spoke, so that when we are judged, not by the color of our skin or our ethnicity or our social class status or the place of our education or the content of our bank account or stock portfolio, it can be said that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit who is within us.
It begins with taking the image inside our hearts, allowing those images of the call of Samuel and Nathaniel to find their way and implant themselves into the fertile ground of our souls so that we, too, may know when God calls us in the cold, dark days ahead to do a mighty work for Jesus.
We are all called. That’s not the question. The question is, will you listen? Will you answer?
Together, we will make history on Tuesday. Historians will write about these times, these days. But, today is tomorrow’s history. What will history say about you? What will history say about us? What will history say, of these times, about ‘we the people’? Amen.