Sermon for Epiphany 2 – January 17, 2021

Duane Larson, Senior Pastor

 “Called from a Nightmare to Act on a Dream”
1 Sam. 3: 1-20; John 1:43-51.

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Samuel 3:1). It is clear why. Through their regular bad choices, the leaders had become deaf to the word of God. The head priest Eli was not only going physically blind. He chose to be blind to the chronic lying and corruption of his priestly sons. God would punish them. They would lose their place of presumed privilege. And God would find new ears to hear in the young boy Samuel. And to this Samuel, whose name means “God hearer,” God said “I will do something wonderful that will make your ears tingle.”

What counterpoint!  On one hand: “The Word of the Lord was rare in those days.”  On the other: “I will make your ears tingle.” The points in the counter are a corrupt generation that lusts for control and one young boy learning to listen for God. It should not surprise.  As Rowan Williams observes, if throughout our lives we make choices that regularly desensitize us to truth and make us “more and more incapable of opening [our] clenched fists in the presence of love,” we will make ourselves unable to tell truth from lies. Insurrection against truth destroys the life that is in us and then turns to destroy the life in others. Listening for God, however, is to listen for truth, including the truth of one’s self.

Now skip over millennia. The Word of the Lord is in places rare these days. For over a century certain fundamentalist writers have worked most intentionally to build a white Christian evangelicalism that would so fuse with government that finally no difference should be seen between Christianity and nationalism. I am not being fantastical in so asserting. For decades I’ve studied this long game of bad theology that has grown hand-in-glove with anti-evolution Creationism. Its goal always has been to develop a vast communication and education network to rebrand Christian faith as fundamentalistic, nationalistic, racist, and dedicated to worshiping a Warrior God who looks more like John Wayne than Jesus.

There’s more complexity. As David Brooks just outlined this past Friday, all this fuses with America’s chronic conditions of anti-intellectualism and males stuck in adolescence. This false theology has framed Cabinet Bible Studies and innocent looking political prayer breakfasts for decades. So when I see and hear ambitious politicians on the national scene refer to theological names like Kuyper, Rushdooney, Wagner, and many more, then I realize that the fascist Golem is out of the closet wearing fake Christian clothing. It is not the first time Christianity has been profaned. It will not be the last. We are, after all, as Luther said, both righteous and sinful.

What happened the Wednesday before last in our nation’s capital should not surprise., Members of our own congregation have shared that people of color expected something like this. Daily they suffer barbs of racism that we whites hoping to be “peaceful” often have chosen to ignore. Like Eli’s blind eye toward his sons’ corruption. Like choosing silence over love. Like choosing to become insensate to truth. We should not be surprised then to see that corruption and heresy exploded into insurrection against country and against true Christianity.

Thank God, we have prophets still, counterpoints to our dis-ease. We have real prophets who have ears for God, would we but hear them more than the foghorns of base culture. This weekend we recognize one of our greater prophets in The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  His “Letter from The Birmingham Jail” is a prophetic and philosophical masterwork that deserves routine deep study. Were we serious, each of us could become well-trained in anti-racism and Christian practice if we just studied the Letter inside and out.

Of the many words to hear well is Dr. King’s call to seize the time to act with love.  Answering a white pastor who wrote that blacks should just be patient because even Christianity takes time, Dr. King answered, “More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation…Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Brother Martin’s dream was not compromised by the nightmare he with millions lived then and still. He dreamed even so *and* his ears tingled, just as they did when God spoke courage into him at the kitchen table after his family received a bomb threat. Now almost four score years since shots rang out in the Memphis sky, is God’s Word rare? Do ears tingle?

Mine do. Because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and still shows up calling people to follow him, not just “believe” in him. But there is also more to it than Jesus simply issuing marching orders. Somethings happens beforehand. Jesus, the Son of God, comes to know the persons he meets. He brings reality to those he calls, like Nathanael. He announces “I know you! You have no guile.” Here there is a liberation. That liberation happens when one is truly known and the known person trusts that the knower knows truly. What a freedom! What truth, so much healthier and whole than the patinas of lazy answers that unknowing ideological reactivity pastes on persons who are not known. Liberation, and so reality, happens to people when someone sees and hears and knows and cares for them…and so also reality comes when those same known people recognize themselves in the knowing acceptance of the knower.  When we accept ourselves under the gracious rule of the one who truly knows who we are, then we can and do follow that knower, the Christ. In so following, we are Christ who sees, hears, knows, and cares for others as persons. We are co-liberators and co-healers with Christ. That is the divine plan, totally opposite to what has happened to much of Christianity unto this day.  We are called from a nightmare to act on a dream.

When Jesus spoke of seeing Nathanael in the shade of a fig tree, Nathanael knew that Jesus knew him, as Jesus knows all his followers. Jesus calls his followers out of the nightmare of false self-knowing, out of the nightmare of suppression and just trying to survive; out of the nightmare of bigotry from and against others. But Jesus calls followers not so they could turn the tables to gorge on their own Schadenfreude. He calls instead to know and show angels ascending and descending, of the direct connection to God that transvalues daily life with beauty, grace, justice, and sufficient abundance for all beyond mere stuff.  Jesus must have made Nathanael’s ears tingle and his eyes blaze with better than dreamy possibility. Nathanael heard from Christ that life could be charged with the angelic grandeur of God now if Nathanael just seized the time and started practicing Christ’s way of open hands and heart with graciously true words.

Jesus Christ graciously shows up still. He cares personally for you. He knows you even as you do not yet know yourself. He releases you from the hell of self-absorption. In being so known, we are free to follow Christ for the sake of others, the only true freedom. We follow because the Word of God is alive in the world, walking among us, full of grace and truth, tingling our ears and stoking sparks in our eyes.

Duane Larson     Christ the King Lutheran Church     Houston, TX         January 15, 2021