John Lewis, a Congressman from Georgia, has written memoirs of his days working with Martin Luther King, Jr. These books reflect Lewis’ deep spirituality and describe how faith, hope, and love have been the guiding principles of his life. In his book, “Across That Bridge, Life Lessons and a Vision for Change” Lewis tells a story from the early 1960’s, which I paraphrase here:
On day Lewis entered a restaurant and ordered a meal. As a black man he was not allowed in the restaurant and was asked to leave. He gently refused and tried again and again to order his meal. Finally the waitress brought him his meal. Just as he was about to take his first bite, the waitress proceeded to pour disinfectant down his back. She then poured water all over his meal. The restaurant owner proceeded to spray Lewis with an insecticide intended to kill cockroaches. The owner sprayed Lewis until his skin was burned. All the while Lewis offered no resistance. Instead he looked them in the eye, reminding them that he was a human being. Lewis believed that the sheer act of putting his body on the line, in peaceful resistance, manifested the reality that the love in his soul, had already overcome hate.
Lewis extended love to these two because in his mind’s eye he was seeing them as the innocent babies they once were. He saw them as one of God’s beloved. Grounded in that deep love of God, Lewis understood that the hatred they were exhibiting was a shell, something learned over time. This shell of hate and anger covered their inherent goodness – a goodness equally bestowed by God on all human beings. Lewis lives to this day with the deep belief that:
“Life is like a drama, and any person who is truly committed to an ideal must believe in the authority of a divine plan. Not a rigid, micromanagement of human behavior that predicts every step of every individual, but a set of divine boundaries that governs the present, the past, and the future—a set of principles humankind does not have the capacity to override, no matter how far we attempt to stray from its dictates.” (Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change).
In the early 1960’s members of the Civil Rights Movement, were actively and consciously learning how to utilize the power of their faith to move society forward. They used faith as a shield that literally protected their spirit and sense of integrity against the false notion that anyone had the power to inflict pain, limitation, despair, or any condition upon anyone else.
They decided to actualize the belief that the hatred they experienced was not based on truth, but was an illusion in the minds of those who hated them. Through intentional spiritual formation from the teachings of Gandhi and Thoreau, Lewis and others like him, learned to access a deep and abiding sense of love, patience, and hope. This spiritual practice was based on teachings about the nature of God and God’s call to the faithful who practice God’s teachings.
Our readings this morning all focus on the idea of being called by God, and our response to that call. Samuel, although a small boy, is called to become a "trustworthy prophet of the Lord." The Gospel of John tells the story of Philip and Nathanael leaving everything behind to follow Jesus. And in the way that scripture has of aligning itself with the times we live in, where God’s word remains relevant and active, we hear in the Gospel reading, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Can anything good come out of poor people?
Can anything good come out of rich people?
Can anything good come out of black people?
Can anything good come out of people of color?
Can anything good come out of white people?
Can anything good come out me?
Can anything good come out you?
Can anything good come out of these times we live in?
Take a moment and ponder this. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? That real Nazareth where Jesus lived 2000 years ago, and the symbolic Nazareth which is the image of God calling us out of our comfort zones and into the deep waters of real life and ministry.
Do you think that anything good can come out of this church?
Do you actually believe that God calls us and works through us?
Do you believe that God has called you to this time and place?
And that as a result God is calling something good to rise up out of you, out of me, out of us, out of this church? That we have a God given purpose and calling to this place and time?
I believe that with every breath I take and every prayer I say and everything I do.
Still it’s true that sometimes one needs help discerning the authentic voice of God amongst the cacophony that seeks to distract one from one’s true path.
Samuel seeks the guidance of Eli. People discerning a call to ordained ministry need to have that call confirmed by a community of people who, after spending a number of weeks and months in prayer and conversation, can affirm a call or redirect the person toward another understanding of their call. Each of us has a calling, and for many of us it manifests in the work we do every day, whether that is our paid profession, our volunteer work, or our role as a parent or grandparent, lawyer, doctor, nurse, teacher, musician, or priest.
Martin Luther King, Jr. who will commemorate later today, knew his call from God. A minister and an activist for social justice, particularly as one who spoke out against racism and prejudice, Dr. King literally put his life on the line to follow God. King worked hard for the survival of people of color, to strive to form the beloved community - for all of society to recognize the inherent value of all human beings – loved by God and worthy of equal opportunities in all avenues of life. Dr. King points us to consider how our call, like his call, is a movement toward the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, or what it means to love God, love self, and love others, that good did come out of Nazareth, and good can come out of us.
Our call may not look as extreme or as intense as Martin Luther King, Jr’s, nor as personal as Samuel’s, Jesus’, or the disciples’, but that doesn’t mean it is less important to the kingdom of God. How we manifest God’s love in the world by bringing forth as much good as we are able, good that manifests as equality for all, dignity for everyone, respect and kindness, deep listening and honoring the integrity of one another, by willingly putting ourselves on the line, in love, God’s love, will allow God to reveal in and through us, that good does indeed come out of Nazareth, out you, out of me, and out of this parish in this place and time. Because anything to the contrary of this belief is an illusion. God’s will always prevails and that truth is found in love.
A reflection on the readings for Epiphany 2B: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51