A Homily for the Second Sunday after Epiphany
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who calls us to follow him. Amen.
In seminary, my Old Testament professor would almost always open class with a devotional prayer, and almost always that prayer was a contemporary song based on a passage of Scripture, and almost always one of two songs in particular: “Thy Word” by Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith (inspired by Psalm 119) or “Speak, O Lord” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend, which is largely inspired by today’s reading from First Samuel.
Speak, O Lord, as we come to You
To receive the food of Your Holy Word
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us
All Your purposes for Your glory
We were encouraged to sing along with this prayer, and I have to say, I did not care for it the first time. Or the second. Or the third. By the fourth time, I rolled my eyes. By the time my roommate started singing it in the living room, I would turn up the volume of the television to drown it out. But, what can I say, it did eventually start to grow on me – sappy piano melody and all – and now I can’t read the words Eli handed to Samuel without thinking of Dr. Strawn and a hundred seminarians singing along.
What I missed in the lyrics, though – and what the professor, I now realize, saw in them – is how radical an invitation it is to say, “Speak, O Lord.” What a dangerous prayer it is. “Speak, O Lord, for your servant is listening.” To heed the Lord’s call is to suddenly be launched into a struggle between cosmic powers, between sin and death and goodness and life. The word of the Lord is not a mirror, sanctifying that which we already hold dear, but rather it reorients us to love what God loves. To be a prophet, then, to be one who speaks the word of the Lord, means we must occasionally renounce identities and beliefs we hold dear and even to speak difficult truths to those we love.
Consider the call of Samuel. By the time we join the story, Hannah, Samuel’s mother, has prayed to God of Israel for a child – and then dedicated that child to the Lord. Samuel resides with Eli, an old priest, and has lived with him for almost his entire life, and when the Lord calls Samuel, the first prophetic message he has is not news of some glorious victory over the enemies of Israel, not about the coming of King Saul or King David. He’s not dramatically confronting a king with promises of divine retribution and calls to repentance. No, it’s bad news for Eli and his wicked sons – a coming judgment upon the priest for the evil that his children have done.
Or consider Christ’s call to Philip: “Follow me.” The call to follow Christ is not an invitation into the halls of power or a luxurious palace. To follow Christ is not to seize what we will by force. No, following Christ leads to the Cross, and ancient competing traditions hold that Philip was either crucified upside down or beheaded. (Perhaps, then, Nathanael was correct to be skeptical that anything the world considers good could emerge for Nazareth.)
Indeed, how many of the Apostles, those first messengers of the Gospel, died peacefully of old age? The Good News of Jesus Christ is in conflict with the sinful powers of this world, and to faithfully proclaim repentance of sins and the coming Kingdom will invariably bring us into direct confrontation.
Consider the great martyrs of the 20th century – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero – faithful servants of the Gospel murdered for living out the true faith even though it meant dangerous confrontation – even though it meant speaking against members of the Church. And on this weekend as we celebrate the life of Rev. King, let us remember the difficult truth he speaks to us:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
And so today, as our nation sits at a turning point, our Lord is calling to us, saying “Follow me.” It is time to respond, “Speak, O Lord, for your servant is listening.” At this moment, we are being called to the difficult ministry that the so much of the Church has ignored for too long: to do the difficult work of dismantling white supremacy and so-called Christian nationalism. To build up a society that cares for the least of these and not just the wealthy and powerful. To build up a society that affirms the worth of Black lives. To build up a society where we work together for justice.
It won’t be an easy message, not if we prefer the comforts of this fleeting world to the glory of the coming Kingdom. Yes, the Gospel of our Lord will put us in direct conflict with the powerful – but also with friends and family. Yes, it’s easy to denounce racism, nationalism, and totalitarianism when we, sitting safely at home, see televised images of armed mobs storming the US Capitol, but it’s so much more difficult when it’s a friend telling a racist joke, a coworker railing against immigrants, or a family member spreading baseless conspiracy theories. It’s so much more difficult to actually do something – to make a sacrifice, to give up our own positions of privilege, to risk relationships. We should not be under any delusion that everyone will be so accepting as Eli was, saying “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.” No, if we’re lucky, we may only risk a few tense dinners; but the more we push for what is right and just, the more we risk the same fate as Bonhoeffer, King, and Romero: the hangman’s gallows or the assassin’s bullet.
“Follow me,” our Lord says. And yes, that will lead us to the Cross. Yes, it will be costly. Yes, it may even be painful.
But the Cross is not the end. The grave is not the end. Sin is not the end. Death is not the end. We have this consolation: that Jesus of Nazareth has already risen victorious over sin and death, and he assures us of a more glorious triumph still. What ever the sufferings of this world, whatever the cost of striving for justice, is nothing compared to the glory of Christ and the coming Kingdom of God.
Remember, dear ones, that in the waters of Baptism, you have already died the only death that matters. Remember that you have been united through the Font into the Body of the Risen Christ, and God has poured out grace upon grace, strengthening you for the time to come. Remember, and cling to the promise. Remember, and renounce sin and death. Remember, and strive for justice. Remember. Come. Follow Jesus.