Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
– John 1:46
(Preached on Sunday, January 14, 2018)
We live with this illusion that people had it made in the good old days of the biblical stories. Those were the days, when the voice of God was the voice of God and believers could hear it plain as day. The gospel stories suggest that the disciples easily recognized Jesus as messiah and Son of God and had no real problem with letting go of their lives and following him. After all, Simon, Andrew, James and John all drop their nets and follow Jesus when he calls them; Matthew gets right up from his tax table; Philip responded immediately; even Nathanael, though skeptical at first, once he actually meets Jesus, he is quickly convinced that he is someone who needs to be listened to and followed. Sure, we have Thomas taking a little longer, not fully believing until after the resurrection, but everyone else had no trouble at all hearing the call and falling into line. Such is the seduction of literature and story-telling.
What John records in a few lines, as he remembers it fifty years or more after the event, was probably experienced in similar fashion to our own experience of the calling and life of Martin Luther King, Jr. If a modern scripture writer were telling the story of Dr. King, it would probably read something like this:
In those godless days, when the children of light skin were persecuting the children of dark skin, God raised up His servant Martin. God said to him, “Say to the powers that be, ‘Let my people go.’” Martin, his throat tight with fear, said, “Lord, what can I say to them they have not already heard?” And the Lord said, “I will give you words of fire that will kindle the dreams of your people, and furthermore, I’ll put you on commercial television.” And so Martin, full of the spirit, let his people to freedom until his martyrdom.
That is a fairly accurate description of the story of Dr. King, such as it is. We who lived through that time realize there is a whole lot more detail that could go into that story. For instance, Dr. King had his moments of serious doubt about what he was doing and whether God was really with him. One such moment Dr. King once related in a sermon when he told how he was unable to sleep after receiving a late-night call threatening to bomb his Montgomery home. While contemplating whether to go on or give up, he bowed his head at his kitchen table that night and (in his own words) “it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’”
That was a seminal moment for Dr. King. It was a moment that he drew on for strength many, many times when the way did not grow easy, but even more difficult. Yet he had heard the voice of God and that moment enabled him to stay true to the mission and message he was called to proclaim; it enabled him to live fully what he believed and knew to be true.
On the night of January 30, 1956 Dr. King drew on that moment to stay true. While preaching at a rally in support of the Montgomery bus boycott he received the news that he had most dreaded. “Your home has been bombed.” Were his wife and child all right? “We are checking on that now.” Dr. King rushed home to find hundreds of angry black people, many of them armed, standing in front of his home. The front porch was broken in two where the bomb had exploded and the living room covered with glass from the front window. Inside he discovered his wife and daughter uninjured in the bedroom. At that moment he was able to compose himself, collect his thoughts, and step back outside to address the unruly crowd. Dr. King told them: “If you have weapons, take them home … Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”
More than sixty years later the world is still filled with manifestations of the violence that hate, greed and lies beget. Violence is present everywhere that peace, justice, and the integrity of creation are threatened. As people of faith, we are called upon to speak truth to the lies, to respond to hate with love, and to practice nonviolence in all that we do.
But to live that out with integrity and strength is not easy. To do so we need to be tuned in to the voice of God to continually be strengthened for the struggle. There are several things we can do that are spiritual practices that will help us tune in to the voice of God. First, we can make sure we spend time in silence. The old saying, “Silence is golden” is very true, for God often comes to us in the silences of our lives. Unfortunately, today there is less and less silence in our hectic lives. All the space around us is clogged with multiple sounds. The radio, TV, DVD, CD, or MP3 player rule our waking hours. You go to the beach and see people sunning themselves with earphones plugged in. Most people I encounter on my morning walks, whether they are walking, jogging, or riding a bicycle, all have earphones plugged in. Noise is no longer an affliction for many, it is an addiction. Silence is one of the ways in which God can approach us, address us, soothe us, stir us, and renovate us. In the silence the Word can speak and be heard. Because silence does not come readily in our noisy, frenetic world, it takes self-discipline to create space and silence in our lives. We can practice making space and time in our lives for silence a little bit every day and open ourselves more readily to hear the voice of God.
We can also check our prejudices and assumptions about how, where, and through whom God can speak. Jesus often confronted the prejudices of the day, by using the unlikely person as the hero of his stories, such as the Good Samaritan. Nathanael almost missed his encounter with Jesus because he bought the common view of the day that nothing of any consequence could come out of little backwater Nazareth, a real dump of a place. So often our assumptions about how and where God speaks get in the way of our hearing and seeing God’s presence and activity in our lives. But the truth is: no place or person is too humble, no situation so murky, shrouded with despair, and no circumstance too secular for God to use in speaking to us to get across God’s message. Keeping our minds and hearts open to the great variety and diversity of God’s messengers will allow us to be ready to hear God’s message to us.
UCC pastor Lillian Daniel tells the story of an American church group that was visiting Haiti. The Haitian church leaders were leading the opening introductions to facilitate the bonding of the two groups who had never met before. They asked everyone to go around the room and introduce themselves by saying their name and their age. The Americans were surprised by that second question. We are not used to being asked our age and some people consider it rude. But they recognized they were in Haiti and that it was asked in kindness, so they went along. When it came time for one retired person to introduce herself, she gave her name and then her age, 76 years old. The Haitian group broke into applause. Now the Americans were really puzzled. But in the laughter and conversation that followed, the two groups learned something about each other. The Haitians learned that American adults aren’t used to being asked their age in public and we certainly are not used to getting applause. The Americans learned that the Haitians were not used to meeting someone who was 76 years old. The average life expectancy in Haiti is 63, while in the United States it is 79. “Turning 76 is a great accomplishment!” they said. “So of course we are clapping.”
The world is filled with people of faith and good will, who are kind, happy and loving. They come from countries all around the globe. God speaks to us in many ways and through many, many people. If we will lower our prejudices and judgments about where and when and through whom God can speak, opening ourselves to a variety of messengers, then we will tune into the voice of God. We will begin to hear and find the strength and power to speak truth to the lies, to respond to hate with love, and to spread the message of acceptance from God to all who need to hear.