2 Epiphany, January 14, 2018 1 Samuel 3: 1-10
St. Paul’s, Lynnfield, Massachusetts 1 Corinthians 6: 12-20
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling John 1: 43-51
Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17
Let us pray: Speak Lord, for your servants are listening. Amen.
I’m happy to be here with you today at St. Paul’s in Lynnfield, having just finished a year of serving at our Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. Before coming to Boston, I had served as a priest in Connecticut for 15 years, mostly in suburban parishes, and I found ministry at our cathedral and life in the city of Boston to be different. Now I am not unaccustomed to working with people who struggle with addictions or housing or poverty or life in prison, for none of these challenges are limited to city folk; however, I am unaccustomed to working in highly political environments. As you know from listening to the news lately, both locally and nationally, the political environment is hot right now. Often times, I find it hard to tell who is speaking the truth or what the truth actually is.
In St. Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth, he wrote to them about legalities. He claims that while it may be lawful for him to do whatever he wants with his body, it may not be the best thing for him, not only physically but as a temple of the Holy Spirit. He also claims that each person is a member of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, and therefore as individuals we are also responsible to the Body as a whole. You know, one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch….or one bad story can ruin a reputation for a lifetime, whether the story is true or not.
For me, St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is an encouragement for my new year’s resolutions. I have three of them this year: (1) to let go of my anger and resentment (2) to restore my physical well-being through more active exercise and (3) to deepen my spiritual well. I believe that my individual choices will also benefit the larger Bodies to which I belong: that is my family, my Church, and my country.
I have been reminded recently about my core values. My integrity is important to me, and returning to my core values is a spiritual exercise that helps me to maintain the health of my body, mind, and spirit. I ask myself, “Am I loving God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, and with all my strength? Am I loving my neighbor as myself? Do I love myself and others similarly, whether it’s behind closed doors or in public spaces, whether or not my collar or my cross is hanging around my neck? Could Jesus point to me and say, ‘Here is truly a Christian in whom there is no deceit?’”
Like all of you, I have some besetting sins. I also have some marvelous gifts. One of these double-edged swords is a core value of mine, which is to be honest, or to “speak the truth in love” as St. Paul encouraged the Ephesians. My son calls it an ‘acquired taste’. I don’t tell the truth very well sometimes. I lean too heavily on the truth, and forget the softening blow of love. Or I lean too heavily on love, and forget the need for truth. I forget sometimes that there are many truths that lead to the Truth.
I have discovered that silence is not only golden but also deadly, and so, it is imperative for our health as individuals and as a Body politic that at certain times and in certain situations, we speak up. There has been an explosion of revelations recently about abuses of power, ones that have gone on for years because people were afraid to speak up. Sorting out the truth, however, is an ongoing and ever present challenge.
The power of kings is part of the Epiphany story. Today, in this very first chapter of the gospel of John, Nathanael proclaims, “Rabbi you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” And yet, there are also stories about King Herod. Like my journey from Boston to Lynnfield, the Holy Family had traveled from Jerusalem to the little town of Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, and then later to Nazareth for his upbringing. But first, they traveled to Egypt, in order to escape the slaughter of innocent children by King Herod. Although the king had claimed that he wanted to pay homage to Jesus, his true intentions eventually became clear. Anyone who might threaten his power was ordered to be killed.
But, I wondered, how did people know that Jesus’ intentions were good? That Jesus was a man of integrity? That Jesus would use his kingly power for the good of God’s people? And not for Himself. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus makes a decision about his own journey. He leaves Jerusalem, the seat of political and religious power, to go to Galilee where he calls his first disciples. He goes to Bethany, then Bathsaida, and soon after to Cana, where he turns water into wine at the wedding feast. He called Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and then Nathanael; athough from the jump, Nathanael was skeptical about Jesus. He asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (verse 46).
“This skepticism was understandable”, the author of Got Questions writes; for “at that time Nazareth was an obscure little hill town, remote and of no consequence. It was not sophisticated or glamorous, quite the opposite—it was not a place that anyone expected the Messiah to come from.” (end quote) With intending no disrespect to you, I wonder, “Is Lynnfield like Nazareth?” a little town outside of Boston, perhaps where Jesus can be found calling disciples to follow Him?
I’m not always a fast learner. You know, the definition of insanity, right? “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Sometimes, it takes repeated words, or repeated actions, for me to get a message or to change my life.
Eli and Samuel were slow learners like me. It took them three times before they realized that it was God talking to Samuel. Now Eli had two sons who were scoundrels. They had “no regard for the Lord or the duties of the priests.” They treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt and took from others what wasn’t rightfully theirs. They slept with prostitutes and did not glorify God in their bodies or in the temple. Samuel, the temple intern, however, did; and so God wanted Samuel to speak for God.
Unfortunately, the message that God gave to Samuel was not good news for Eli. The Lord said that he would hold Eli accountable for not restraining his sons, who were abusing the power that had been entrusted to them. In an article called “The #MeToo call to action”, the editor of Christian Century wrote, “The target of reform must be those who wield power and too often look the other way. More workplace forums on the evils of harassment are good, but not likely to have as much effect as seeing a colleague dismissed or disciplined for his (or her) harassing behavior.”
In this same article, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of FaceBook, told the New York Times, “People need to be afraid not just of doing these things, but also of not doing anything when someone around them does it. If you know something is happening and you fail to take action, whether you are a man or a woman - especially when you are in power - you are responsible too.” (end quote) (Christian Century, November 22, 2017)
Power is good or bad, depending upon the purposes for which it is used. Is it for self-promotion or for God? Jesus emptied himself of divine power in order to descend to earth in order to show us what God’s power might look like, up close and personal. In perfect harmony, Jesus spoke words of truth and love. He manifested God’s love in his actions. He gave us signs that God intends our human lives to be healthy and to flourish. When faced with violence and betrayal, Jesus responded powerfully with grace and beauty, even sacrificing his own life for the benefit of others.
“What are you looking for?” Jesus said to Andrew and Simon Peter, who became his first disciples, and then Philip and Nathanael soon after. If we don’t know what we are looking for, we may take roads that lead us to dead ends and dark alleys, or follow leaders who may have become misguided themselves. We might also ask ourselves this very same question. Are we looking for Jesus or for something else?
“Come and see,” Jesus said to his first disciples, and they do. What do we see, I thought to myself. I see people struggling with addictions and leading double lives, and then I see Jesus inviting them into recovery. I see people seeking a new Way of life, and then learning to follow Jesus. I see people deeply wounded by the lies, betrayals, and deceptions of others, and Jesus healing them. I see people who seem to be spiritually dead, and then they find the light of Christ, and stumble out of their own darkness into new life.
I used to believe whatever people told me, without much filter. Some people might call me trustworthy. Others would say that I am naive, even gullible. Even today I wonder about some of the things that I say and do. What is needed from me at this time? Am I being faithful? Or just plain foolish? Like Pilate at the trial of Jesus, I ask “What is truth?” Skeptically, like Nathanael, I wonder about God, about people, and their motivations. I question my own.
The disciples didn’t follow Jesus foolishly, however; for although they had their doubts and their questions, they tested his integrity. And they followed him faithfully. They trusted in the words spoken through the prophets, and came to believe in Jesus, as their prophet, priest, and king. Over time, I’ve learned that God will repeat God’s words and God’s actions until I get it. God’s Word is still speaking even today.
Like Jesus, we are called to speak truth to power, even when the words choke in our throats, our voices quiver with anger, our hearts pound in our chests, and our knees shake with fear. Even when it means we sacrifice our life for the sake of others, we are called to speak truth with love and act with integrity in our bodies, minds, and spirits, for the sake of the good, for the sake of God.
Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” A New York Times ad recently stated, “The truth has power. The truth will not be threatened. The truth has a voice.” And people are wearing pins that proclaim, “Times up on silence, on waiting, on tolerating discrimination, harassment, and abuse.” Times up!
God will speak to us through the voices of others and in the events of our lives. And so, we must pay attention. A friend often claims, “Show up. Pay attention. God is doing something good. Try to be a part of it. “ Can anything good come from Lynnfield? That, my friends, is up to you. Amen.