Hearing the Call to Justice
Scriptures: I Samuel 3:1-20 & John 1:43-51
Given On MLK Sunday, 2018
There is this place that I go to in my mind from time-to-time because it is so movingly beautiful that I smile anytime I think about it. A place in a far off land that I had the privilege of traveling through many years ago but that left an indelible mark on my heart and my soul. It is a little fishing village called Ussisya on the shores of Lake Malawi in the central part of Africa where a group of subsistence fisherman go out every morning hours before the sun has arisen in canoes that are no bigger than about a foot wide and several feet long but that look like would flip at a moments notice if anyone but the most skilled of mariners found themselves in it. A place where the lake looks like the sea with current and waves and sand. A place with a large rock rising several hundred feet about the surface of the water covered in crags and trees and seeming to have been there since God first formed the heavens and the earth. It was there that I was out walking with a group of Malawian men, giving us a tour of the area. I was there as a missionary of sorts, I guess. My father, a doctor and member of the board of the Medical Benevolence Foundation of the PCUSA had gone there to visit the various hospitals that were sponsored by MBF and the PCUSA. The third member of our group was an expert on non-profits and was there to help several of the non-profits organizations also sponsored by the church and I, a pastor, who spoke pastor, and could move back and forth between the congregations that were in Central Presbyterian Church of Africa. Because that was the only way that I could possibly conceive of me being there, I spent a lot of time with the religious leaders of the towns and villages that we visited, preaching and being translated into native languages (which was just about the coolest thing that I’ve ever gotten to do) and hearing about the work that they were doing for their communities. On this day, I was walking with Rev. Tembo, the Presbyterian pastor in the village and we were speaking about the AIDS crisis in Africa and so I wasn’t paying overly close attention to my surroundings as I was really getting a different view of the African experience and so I didn’t really notice until we had walked along the coastline for a little while that we had made our way into what was a lakeside hotel and bar that someone had built into the side of the rock but that had been abandoned years prior due to lack of business. And though it is a bit difficult to describe in a way that captures it in the light in which I saw it, suffice it to say that it looked like the remnants something out of an Ernest Hemingway novel. Like somewhere where the elder Santiago might have gone to drink a beer or have a meal while other younger fishermen pointed at him and wondered aloud whether it was time for him to hang it up. But it was one of those moments in which the breeze coming in off the lake, combined with the warm mid-morning sun and the vision of what used to be in that place, and it just all struck me as completely transfixing and for many months after the fact, I harbored a fantasy that what that place really needed was for someone to come in and fix it up, put a new shine on it, and fishermen and tourist would flock from near and far to come and stay at this 5-star resort on the shore of Lake Malawi. Of course my dad, ever the realist and some might say, downer, pointed out a couple of things to me. One, the town only had three light bulbs and a few hundred houses. Two, the only line of communication in and out of the village was at the police station and my cellphone had long since given up the ghost when it came to finding a signal. Three, I was a pastor and I would have no idea what I was trying to do running a hotel and bar. Four, I would have to move my wife and son to this remote African village and did I think that Lesley was going to go for that. And five, really?? Like I said, I held on to that fantasy for several months after the fact and even to this day, I think about the sheer and utter beauty of a place like that and wonder if folks would just spend a few days exploring this country if they, too, would not fall as deeply in love with it as I did.
We had arrived in the country some three weeks earlier. I had been living in the Caribbean at the time and had flown up to travel with my dad and the third member of our group and we had flown from Raleigh to New York to Johannesburg to Lilongue, the capital of Malawi, and if all that sounds exhausting, add to it the fact that I had yet to sleep on any of those flights and so at hour 42 or so without sleep, I had become a total zombie. We spent the first three weeks or so visiting several hospitals in the country, spending the most time in the village of Nkoma before traveling to Mzuzu, and finally to Ussisya. At every stop along the way, the people of the villages were exceedingly kind. From the lady who was selling some kind of fried cornmeal rolls from whom I sought to by one and, because all I had was a 20 Kwatcha note (about 25 cent), ended up buying her entire day’s worth of wares and she left happy and I left with a couple bags of rolls, to the guy I met who, when I said I liked to chew on sugar cane, went out into the field and brought me an entire bushel that he had cut himself, to our driver Godfrey, who drove me from one Mountain Dew to the next and fought of the urge to make fun of me constantly. But it was in Ussisya that my entire perspective changed. My home church had formed a sister church relationship with the church in Ussisya and had just sponsored a new sanctuary there and we were going to see it and visit with them. We had started the day in Mzuzu and had been warned that it was a long drive from there to Ussisya and we had better get started if we were going to get there by nightfall. And it was a long drive. 35 miles that took 4 and a half hours. Most of the drive was spent cresting the mountain range that sits just to the west of the coast on Lake Malawi on roads with no pavement, or guardrails for that matter, and 3,000 foot drops that one could look straight down. My love of heights being well established at this point, this was not my favorite part of the trip. But as we crested the last of the hill and could look down on the village and the lake for the first time, I began to be filled with the wanderlust that comes with traveling to new places. And as we neared the village, an even more incredible sight. The women of the village, dressed in all white, were lining the street on both sides to welcome us. And sing to us a song that they had writing in Chechewa, the native language, thanking God for our arrival. So it was that we would hear a couple of lines of native tongue and then our names. Over and over again this went. As we made our way down to the pastor’s house, we were treated with Coca-Colas, a expensive delicacy for a place like that where it wasn’t always easy to just feed the village. The night concluded with a worship service all together, lit by two old Coleman lanterns that looked like they had fallen of the back of the truck a few times, where we were seated in the place of honor and showered with native gifts and more food than one would think it possible for a poor fishing village in central Africa to procure and prepare. We were given blessings upon blessings upon blessings all from a people that ostensibly we had come to help. They call Malawi the Warm Heart of Africa and on that trip we discovered a thousand times over why.
The nation has spent the better part of the last few days engaged in a conversation about the condition of living in other parts of the world and what the proper way to speak about them really is. Places we, too often, dismiss as of less importance because of the poverty, because of the difficulty that comes with just traveling around the continent, because of the lack of many of the things that we take for granted on a day-to-day basis. Because throughout a lot of the continent, it really is like stepping back a few hundred years in history. Villages that are only seldom even visited by people from the outside world. And it is easy to wash our hands of any responsibility to the people that live there, to the countries that make up that region of the planet, to the poor and the destitute there because we know that we have far too many poor and destitute people here. And yet. And yet, those who live there are every bit as much of the beloved of God as are we. They are every bit as much our brothers and our sisters as our own family. They are faithful believers, and stewards of God’s creation, with hopes and dreams and visions for their future, too. And we do a great and troubling disservice to them when we view their lands and their lives as being somehow less than our own. When we depend on gross stereotypes instead of actually looking our brothers and our sisters in the eye. When we use vulgarity, yes, but also the implication that comes with that vulgarity, a caustic dismissal of people whom we are called to love. And more importantly for the church of today, when we do not speak up, decry, respond when others tear down our brothers and sisters. That is the call that is on all of our lives this morning.
In both scriptures for this morning, we see the call of God come to persons who drop everything they are doing in order to hear the word of God come to them. We are first told of the call of Samuel the prophet and we are told that he is laboring under the watchful eye of Eli the prophet. And the writer of Samuel goes as far as to say that this was a time within the history of Israel in which the word of God was seldom heard, in which visions were not commonplace, in which the nation of Israel surely must have felt somewhat abandoned in this new promised land. It is not difficult for us to understand what that must have been like. Many of us cast our visions out over the landscape of the world and find ourselves heartbroken as it seems like our planet is continuously descending into the chaos of war and violence. In which the need of most people is growing and not shrinking. In which the powerful possess military might and monetary might while the rest of us are left to feed ourselves from the scraps of their tables and our perennial hope is for one to rise up out of the muck and mire to bring us a new word, a new vision from God, about how things can and should be different. So maybe we too are waiting for a new Samuel to emerge from our number with a new message for the world. For Samuel, to serve Eli was to wait on him hand and foot. To deliver the words of the prophet to their intended recipients. To sleep within earshot of him because he could call out at any point. “Samuel, Samuel.” “Here I am,” as he comes running into the room in which Eli slept. Was it an audible voice? Was it a voice that spoke only in the depth of his soul? Was it a gathering sense of dis-ease that God was calling him to be and do something more? “Samuel, Samuel,” a second time. “Here I am.” Was this annoying to Eli who was trying sleep? To have his servant coming in now a second time to disturb his slumber. “Samuel, Samuel,” a third time. By now one has to imagine that Eli was growing quite bothered by this whole exercise until it becomes clear to him. The word coming to this young protege isn’t from a human source but rather, a divine one. “Samuel, Samuel.” “Speak God, for your servant is listening.”
The second story comes in the midst of Jesus gathering together his earliest followers. When we come to the story, Jesus has already called Simon and Andrew and, empowered by the Holy Spirit begins to reach out to others. And Jesus’s encounter with Phillip is stark and singular. “Follow me.” The immensity of this moment cannot be overstated. What must it have felt like to leave your house one morning, assuming that you know all the things that are going to transpire in between now and when you return home at the end of the day. Assuming you are going to work, or to have coffee with a friend, assuming that your parenting or grandparenting is what you are going to be doing with your day, and then you meet someone and the whole of your world is forever changed. “Follow me,” was all he said, and Phillip’s world was completely and irrevocable altered. I suppose there is a season in each of our lives in which the impetuous and unencumbered life holds some degree of romance. There is maybe a season when to be able to drop everything that we are doing and do something radically different with our lives might seem appealing, and that is the time that Jesus can come in and disrupt our existence. But then we begin to grow up. To accumulate stuff and kids. To have a job and a mortgage and little by little the degree to which the course of our lives is allowed to be wholly changed diminishes until there is little that surprises us each day, little that we can’t anticipate. And we say to ourselves, there was a time that I could have done that but that time has passed. And we slowly close ourselves off to the movement of the spirit in our lives. But notice this brief interaction between Jesus and Phillip. Jesus doesn’t come to him and ask him what stage he is in in his life. Jesus doesn’t ask him if he is heading to a job or has a family to take care of. Doesn’t ask him if he believes that he is too young or too old to serve God. Jesus isn’t concerned with all the ancillary details of Phillip’s life. He merely says, “follow me.” and everything else becomes unimportant. And look what happens next. Phillip, infected by this new life, in which nothing else matters but serving God, immediately begins to reach out to his friends and invite them into this new life. Because when you have tasted the new life in Jesus, when the good news of the gospel is standing in your midst with an extended hand and the invitation to drop everything you are doing and be a part of something that will alter the course of human history forever, when you have touched the face of God, you are thrust out into the world, excited to share what you have seen and heard, what you have experienced with everyone you meet. And so maybe you run to your best friend, the one person in the world that you can share your struggles and your triumphs with, the one person who knows you better than you know yourself. And Nathaniel is incredulous. He cannot believe that his friend has done this, cannot believe that he is following some guy from Nazareth, really, can anything good come out of Nazareth? But, this is Jesus, the Christ, the one through whom all creation came into being. Nathaniel, since before you knew who I was, I saw you. When you were sitting under the fig tree, I saw you. You are good and great and if you follow me I will show you things that will blow your mind. You will see the heavens ripped open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the chosen one of God. Follow me.
Today, that calling to follow God still emanates from the faithful of God. The call to follow God still arises from the prophets of God. On this weekend, we cast our vision back only a few years behind us and we hear the voice of God’s prophet Martin as we hear his words call us to set aside any differences that emerge from the color of skin or the origin of one’s birth. To reach out to the downtrodden and the disposed, the lonely and the disinherited, the ones who feel like no one ever cares anymore. To see the movement of the spirit in our midst that is taking not just you, not just me, but the whole of the world, the whole of creation, and closer and closer to the arrival of true justice, true mercy, and a love the redeems all people. Indeed, the moral arc of the universe is long but it always bends towards justice. Sure, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Truly, the time is always right to do what is right, until that day when we all walk hand-in-hand white, black, man, woman, American, African, brothers and sisters all, into the promise land and back home. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all peoples. Alleluia, amen.