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John 1:43-50 & 1 Samuel 3:1-20
Every Christmas there is at least one carol that fails to make the cut. This year, for me, it was, Do You Hear What I Hear?, which is a pretty recent Christmas song, written in October of 1962 during what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time of great stress and anxiety in our country. I’m kind of surprised it slipped past me, since now is a time of great stress and anxiety, with the shadow of nuclear war perhaps not as imminent, but much more present that it has seemed in a long time. Maybe it would have been a good time to hear these words again:
The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light, He will bring us goodness and light!
That little rendition will have to do, because we didn’t sing it…not in our caroling, nor in church, nor at the Christmas Eve service. We have before, and the memory of that is what comes back to me now as I hear the chorus over and over again, and this phrase – do you hear what I hear?
Over the past few days, I have had deep conversations with a friend and colleague, a preacher and teacher, a black man who experienced early in this new year what so many people of color have experienced at the hands of law enforcement. His experience of “Hands up, don’t shoot” was very real, horribly sobering and a difficult encounter, full of miscommunication, despite it’s ending without even a ticket – particularly hard for his wife and young son, who both witnessed an aggressive, panicked officer shouting at their beloved while his hands were raised. It was a disturbing display of two people speaking very different languages.
I continue to hear the accounts of Dreamers here in our city, young adults seeking to make it in the only life they’ve ever known, reeling from the roller coaster of legislative games and judicial blocks that keep their future in limbo, never knowing whether or not there is a place for them in the only home they’ve ever known! It’s very hard to hear what people say and then see what they do.
Then, on Friday morning, we all got wind of the latest outrage out of the White House, where the President of the United States apparently asked gathered members of Congress why, when discussing protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, why we would want anyone coming here from these…well, you know the quote, I’m sure. It’s a word I will not repeat in the pulpit, but I honestly don’t know why anyone is surprised. It makes me think, do you hear what I hear, but not in a sing-songy kind of way, like “Do You Hear What I Hear?, but more like – do you HEAR what I hear? I know what “state’s rights” means, or what disparaging Haiti and Africa before praising Norway means. I know what it means to say that “there are good people on both sides” and to relentlessly pursue baseless assertions about a birth certificate. The question is – Do you hear what I hear? And, if you do, do you wonder what I wonder? How, in the midst of all of this profound miscommunication and division, will a child, a helpless little baby, possibly bring us goodness and light?
In John’s gospel, the author announces in the first few paragraphs that Jesus is the light, that the light is here in the flesh, and that we’d best be listening. Philip was among the first to be called by Jesus and he set forth to spread the word to his friends, eventually coming to Nathaniel announcing that they have found the one they have been waiting for in this guy from Nazareth…and Nathaniel’s response? Man, nothing good comes out of Nazareth. That place is a “you know what”-hole. And maybe Phillip is wondering – Nathaniel, do you hear what I hear? Man, if that’s your attitude, we many not even want you. But he pauses a moment and finds the tenacity to give to Nathaniel the same invitation that Jesus gave to him, “Come and see.”
We are faced with at least two choices in front of us, my friends. One way says that difference is to be feared and controlled. Another says that diversity makes us better. One says that strength comes through power and victory. Another says that strength comes through relationship and learning to be vulnerable. One way says that giving yourself to Jesus means saying the right words, joining the right church and continuing one with your life. Another says following Jesus means dying to one life and taking up another one.
And what I’d like to suggest to us this morning is that Jesus still invites us to “Come and see” , but these days that invitation comes as discipleship, through our willingness to engage in the way of Jesus that pushes us beyond our boundaries, places God squarely in the location we think God cannot be and asks us to begin each encounter guided by love. This is quite an alternative lifestyle in our algorithm-based world, where we can not only live in our bubbles but are absolutely orchestrated to do so. In our context, the way of Jesus means that “resistance” is more than partisan, more than just opposition to the things we already disagree with. Resistance in the way of Jesus must mean resistance to our own proclivities, a struggle against the ultimate enemy, which is the battle for our own souls. It takes a willingness to not only say that God is still speaking, but also to listen, for the way of Jesus constantly asks us – do you hear what I hear?
Samuel was setup to be the ideal listener for God. Raised from birth as a holy man, he spent all of his time doing the prep one might consider necessary for a good spiritual foundation, and yet when God comes calling to him, he hears his teacher’s voice. In keeping with the standard format of ancient Hebrew stories we get the familiar three-fold repeat of the encounter before something new happens. It is a way of saying that we, as human beings, can be pretty thick-headed. It sometimes takes us awhile. So, while the praise may not be there for Samuel’s interpretive skills, one has to admire his tenacity. After the second time of being interrupted in my sleep, I’d probably just throw a fit.
Please note that it is not Samuel’s wisdom, nor his training that develops him into a person who does not let the words of God fall to the ground, or creates in him this reliability as a prophet. It is his obedience to something that he clearly does not always understand and sometimes doesn’t even recognize or hear. The same is true of the disciples of Jesus who are often portrayed as dufuses, but keep following Jesus. Even after they flee from the authorities at the foot of the cross, they come back, still seeking, still looking, still hoping. It is as if the greatest tool we need for spiritual enlightenment is the willingness to seek spiritual enlightenment, for it does not drop into our laps.
And what I wish to convey this morning is that it is not enough to simply curse the darkness. We must light a candle. And that cannot come from the habit of scapegoating, or the always oversimplified identification of an enemy. It has to come from dedication to walking a certain path. This morning we remember Dr. King as a great leader and moral authority now, but when he was alive he was everything from a troublemaker to an insurrectionist to an Uncle Tom, often accused by the very people for whom he fought of being too placid, too weak in the face of evil, too soft when the times called for aggression. He walked a very different path than the world around him. He heard very different things that the world shouted at him. He listened as that voice called to him, “Martin! Martin!”, and he answered.
The Martin Luther King birthday is associated with a day of service, a chance to give back to your community. I’m going to ask you to commit to a little more. Would you make with me a pledge this morning to take the next two weeks and seek a kindness to do each day? I mean make it a goal of the day…open a door for someone, make a call to a friend you know is down, buy the coffee of the person behind you in line. Would you pledge that with me? It does not have to be something big. Just do something intentionally kind every day for the next two weeks. And then listen. Listen for how that changes what you hear, and see and know. And we’ll share our experiences in a couple of Sundays.
The news is full of all kinds of awful things, my friends. And we have leadership issues…serious leadership issues. And we seem to be doubling down on all of the things that we were beginning to work through but…do you hear what I hear? Do you hear the voices of the resistance? Do you see the helping hand of humanity through the mud and the ice? Do you hear the people who have come to see a new, diverse and vibrant world say we will not go backwards? And do you also hear these words again, like an echo across time and space:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
…the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.
Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice
or for the extension of justice?
Let those who have eyes see…and those with ears, hear. Amen.