Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland — January 18, 2015
Epiphany 2B: 1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
Prophets are funny things. We tend to think of them as bearded old men who can see the future, wise spiritual guides with some sort of extra sensory perception and power. You may be surprised to learn that this cultural image has very connection with prophets in the bible. Biblical prophets focused more on the present than the future. Rather than mystical seers, biblical prophets were social critics, reporters who described what they saw going on right in front of them and how what they saw matched – or didn’t match –God’s vision of the way life should be. Though they looked to a better future, their hope came from returning to core values and forgotten fundamentals of faith, not just by following the letter of the law but the spirit that is underneath it. They held up a moral mirror to the leaders to their day, both warning about judgment and calling for justice. They knew they might suffer because of their actions, yet they spoke the truth that needed to be heard.
Samuel was that kind of prophet. The story of the call of Samuel is often used at ordination services. That is interesting when you look at what God asked Samuel to do. God asked Samuel to give Eli the message that his ministry was over. Something bad had happened on the Eli’s watch, which Eli had done nothing to stop. (Think of all those who knew sexual harassment was going on around them but didn’t say anything until Weinstein and the #MeToo movement.) Samuel’s message was that God was going to punish Eli as a result. Notice that instead of getting defensive or denying what had happened, the old priest seems relieved that his secret has been revealed. We could talk further about Eli but this passage isn’t about him. It about Samuel and Samuel’s willingness to speak the truth, despite any fears that might have gotten in the way. It is when Samuel has the courage to say what needed to be said that God’s healing for Eli finally started to happen. It is when Samuel dared to speak the truth that his career as a prophet began.
This same thing happened to Nathaniel in the passage we heard a few moments ago. While preachers often put much emphasis on Phillip’s words to Nathaniel “come and see,” they tend to skip over the question that inspired them: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Easily identified by their accents, people from the northern part of Israel were written off as country bumpkins by city dwellers from Jerusalem. (See Mark 14:70) Jesus’ response to being called a redneck is interesting. Instead of condemning Nathaniel, Jesus commended him for putting his biases on the table. Notice that it was when Nathaniel admitted his prejudice that his prejudice disappeared… and he became a believer in the one he originally despised just because of the town in which he was raised. It was when Nathaniel was honest about his need for healing that healing occurred… and he was able to follow Jesus.
This week, this sort of hidden prejudice was brought out in the open, with a specific focus against people from African and Haiti. As Christians, we need to condemn both the words and the spirit behind them. Rather, however, than just looking at one person, today’s scriptures challenge us to look a little closer to home – even at ourselves. Almost every day I meet Mainers who grumble about immigrants who don’t speak English or have skin color different than their own. Despite an almost 10 year relationship with the parish of St. Simon and St. Jude, the successful construction of a school, and a whole series of visits back and forth to Duny, I get comment from people who feel we should focus our efforts at home and ask how long our partnership with Haiti needs to go on. When it comes to Haiti, we forget (quoting my friend Maria Hoecker) the bigger picture, that the largest diocese in The Episcopal Church is the Diocese of Haiti and almost one tenth of The Episcopal Church’s members are either Haitian or of Haitian descent. We forget that the connection between Haiti and the Episcopal diocese of Maine has existed since before this cathedral was built. The first bishop of Maine not only planted congregations in Haiti but died coming home on a visit there. We also forget that both before and after the civil war, the United States intentionally shunned Haiti because it was a black country – and that in the 20th century, the United States manipulated Haiti’s power structure and even for a time occupied the country with US Marines. As with the countries in Africa, and the struggling inner cities and rural areas right here at home, some of the responsibility for the problems in Haiti is our own. Like Nathaniel, we carry our own internalized biases. Like Nathaniel, recognizing them is the first step needed for healing to begin… and the first step needed if we are to follow the Jesus whose name we bear. The question asked more often these days is not can anything good come out of Nazareth but can anything good come out of Christianity or the church? People are waiting for us to stand up, to say something, to do something, and to honestly look at ourselves. I visited Port Au Prince two years after the earthquake. I saw the tent cities and the devastation that were still there. I saw the dome on one of the wings of the presidential palace, literally cracked and falling down. Imagine that in the Capitol in Washington. Imagine seeing nothing left standing in a cathedral this size except the ruins of some walls and the foundations of where pillars once stood. In the midst of all that were people filled with joy, doing everything they could do to make it all work.. Imagine what it was like to walk into a school, barely held together with sticks and corrugated metal, and be greeted not by people who were defeated but by smiling kids in uniform who couldn’t wait to learn and teachers excited to teach. On this week of the anniversary of the Earthquake, the answer to the questions “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and “Can anything good come out of Haiti” is yes. I know that many are here today because the same is true at St. Luke’s. For those who are wondering, I would quote this morning’s gospel, “come and see.”
In a few moments, we will share an affirmation of faith and prayers celebrating Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King was kind of prophet I have been talking about, the kind of prophet each of us are called to be. It is important to remember that Martin Luther King was the Rev. Martin Luther King. His passion for justice, for equality, for dignity and empowerment came from the church and the family in which he was raised. His dream was of a world where that faith was truly lived. His dream was of a world that would reflect the kingdom – and values, and justice and love of God. He knew healing was possible and had the courage to say what needed to be said so it could begin. Like Martin Luther King, God is calling us to be stones of hope standing in front of the mountain of despair. Like Martin Luther King, and like Nathaniel and Samuel, God is calling us to speak the truth that needs to be heard, let ourselves be changed in the process, and change the world at the same time. It isn’t easy. It takes faith, takes work, takes prayer, takes a struggle but with effort the dream, God’s dream, can become reality… and prophets we can be.