“Call: Follow Me”
A meditation based on John 1:43-51
January 14, 2018 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday
Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista
Dr. Sharon R. Graff
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One of my favorite Christmas and Epiphany solos is the popular song, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” It begins with the night wind asking the little lamb, “Do you see what I see?” I see a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite. Then the little lamb asks the shepherd boy, “Do you hear what I hear?” I hear a song, high above the trees, with a voice as big as the sea. Then the shepherd boy asks the mighty king, “Do you know what I know?” I know that in your warm palace, there is a Child who shivers in the cold…we must bring him silver and gold. The song concludes with the king saying to people everywhere, “Listen to what I say! Pray for peace, people everywhere, Listen to what I say! The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night, He will bring us goodness and light.” Beginning with the light of a dancing star, just barely observable in the dark night sky, the song becomes more and more embodied. With each successive verse, the star becomes a song becomes a voice becomes a Child whose life makes all the difference in the world.
Why? Because this little baby, all grown up, shows us what it looks like—literally, physically, tangibly—to practice the love of God. Jesus shows us in his life and his choices and his teaching and his words and his actions…Jesus shows us what it looks like for him to be the very best Jesus he can be…and in so doing, he shows you how you can be the very best you as well. And that journey begins with call.
We are fortunate, I believe, to be part of a religious tradition that has always understood that the call of God is not just for clergy, but God calls each person. For the next few weeks, we’re going to explore what that call looks like for you, and today we begin with that familiar scene that, for the disciples, started it all.
The Baby Jesus is all grown up and we hear Jesus’ voice, “Follow me.” Jesus is calling together the rag-tag band of followers that would eventually change the world. In that general process, Jesus issues a very specific call to Philip, who immediately goes home and enjoins his brother Nathanael to come and see this prophet of God. When Nathanael hears that the so-called prophet is from Nazareth, he really does not want to hear anymore. Nathaniel’s view is clear: No good can possibly come from Nazareth, that poor town of destitute carpenters and low-scale laborers. They are beneath the dignity of him and his brother, and all of a sudden,
Nathanael is no longer interested in hearing.
The same discomfort at hearing is sometimes true for us, is it not? We can talk with great conviction about the generalities of peace, of justice, of compassion, yet when it means money out of our pockets, or time out of our already over-committed schedules, or efforts beyond what we are already doing, well, then, we may not want to hear anymore. You see, answering the call of God in our lives, begins with hearing that call. And I’m proud of our United Church of Christ, which has always been at the forefront of hearing God’s call and then bravely acting on that call, even when the cost was great.
Today, this weekend, our nation honors the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pastor, prophet, political figure, one whose Christian faith was rooted in seeing the movement of God, and listening for the ever-present call of God. As a result, Dr. King’s action was confidently settled in knowing and proclaiming the truth of God; his every speech and sermon moved from the generalities of justice and peace to the particulars of just how those could be accomplished within the lives of the people in King’s audience. I can remember that there were those who really did not want to hear what Dr. King had to say, sadly, some within my own family.
Yet, throughout his public life, Dr. King spoke out, tirelessly, against injustice as it was variously dressed in mid-20th century America. The right to ride on a bus, the right to freely vote, the right to strike for a living wage, the right to live in a better neighborhood, the right to send one’s children to the best schools, all of these very specific issues of justice received Dr. King’s attention. He spoke from the deepest places in his Christian soul, convinced that it was Christ himself who provided the prophetic model for such preaching and such action.
Can we do less? This morning, as difficult as it may be, I invite you to hear the words of Dr. King, delivered in our nation’s capitol, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And as we contemplate our call to follow in the ways of Christ, hear these decades-old words from a brother in Christ, words that we may not really want to hear.
“…I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all [people] are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope…With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood and sisterhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from
the curvaceous slopes of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
What an inspiring restatement of the call of God in King’s life. And the fact that it is steeped in and supported by King’s own thought, word and deed, motivates us to hear and respond to God’s call in our lives. But how to get there? How to get to that place of freedom, that place of justice for all people, not just the wealthy? How to get to that place where brotherhood and sisterhood really is the law of the land?
We followers of Jesus know the answer to that! And Dr. King, as our Christian brother, later preached the answer of how to get there…I invite you to hear these words, from his much-less popular speech, delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, just one year to the day before he was killed. There, King spoke of the only pathway that will take us toward that dream of justice and peace…that pathway is love…
“When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response…I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme
unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one
another, for love is of God. And everyone that loves is of God and knows God…’
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation…We are now faced with the fact, my friends that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now… Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.
This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response…”
Now, 50 years after Dr. King preached at Riverside Church, hate and fear are loud voices…far too loud. And we may not want to hear Dr. King’s words because like Nathanael, we may believe that no good can come from namby-pamby nonviolence fueled only by love. We may not want to hear Dr. King’s words, because they will require us, like Jesus, to hear and respond to God’s call to love despite it all. Yet I believe on this day, we are invited by God to hear precisely what we may not want to hear. The world Dr. King described is still a dream. But we know how to make that dream a reality. The answer is simple but it is not easy. I believe we do our part by stepping out in faith, one step at a time. We hear and realize the dream intoned by Dr. King by intentionally thinking peaceful solutions, by consciously taking actions that bring justice, one attentive step at a time.
Popular author Ann Lamott once observed that stepping out in faith is like driving at night with your headlights on. You never see the entire road laid out before you. But you eventually get from Point A to Point B because the headlights provide just enough illumination to move forward from moment to moment. And the foundation of all our action is our faith in Christ as One who gave and loved and listened to even words he did not want to hear. Our faith is in Jesus, who shows us the way, one step of justice followed by another, one courageous act of resistance followed by another, one loving word and one compassionate
deed followed by another and another and another.
Years ago, our Presbyterian sisters and brothers, in answer to the question of how to hear and respond to God’s call, wrote these words. I share them with you in closing as a kind of mantra, a personal statement of faith you may wish to use yourself.
“I refuse to believe that we are unable to influence the events which surround us.
I refuse to believe that we are so bound to racism and war, that peace, brotherhood and sisterhood are not possible. I believe there is an urgent need for people to overcome oppression and violence, without resorting to violence and oppression. I believe that we need to discover a way to live together in peace, a way which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of this way is love. I believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. By the goodness of God at work within people, I believe that brokenness can be healed.”
Amen and Blessed Be!
Gracious God, you create us and love us; you invite us to live together in a community.
We acknowledge our slowness to do good, our blindness to injustice, and our complicity in deferring the dreams and hopes of the oppressed.
We condemn racial injustice in our pronouncements, yet we cling to the privileges derived from inequity. Forgive us, Gracious God.
On this day, we thank you for Martin Luther King, Jr. and all your children who have been filled with your vision for life and who have worked to bring your vision into reality.
May we join them on the journey of faith.
Fill us with your vision of love. Guide us to live by your vision of compassion and justice, and empower us to work to build the beloved community where everyone is welcomed, all are valued, power is shared, privilege is no more, and all your children know wholeness and well-being. In accordance with the commands of Jesus Christ, shake us from our sleep with your imperative to do justice; move us to action with the compassion of your grace; and give us courage to pay the price, however painful or costly, that the justice you intend, may be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Hear us now, as we pray this prayer with one voice…
Benediction from John Wesley:
Do all the good you can, By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can, In all the places you can,
At all the times you can, To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
Amen and Blessed Be!