January 14, 2024, Second Sunday After The Epiphany. Sermon preached by Rev. Andree Appel

Sermon for Second Sunday After the Epiphany       January 14, 2024

Rev. Deacon Andree Appel

Sometimes the Old Testaments readings can be pretty inaccessible- the warring tribes, the sacrificial altars and burnt offerings. But I find today’s reading from Samuel to be one of the loveliest stories of the Old Testament.  It makes me think of when I was a child, when my mother would call us in for dinner as the sun began to set, hoping that we were with earshot, hoping that we would hear- and hoping we would respond- to her call. 

It is not hard for me to imagine Samual- a young boy of 12, lying in the dark, hearing a voice call his name- Samuel, Samuel….and the boy, responding obediently, still half asleep…..what must he have been thinking, realizing it was God, not Eli, calling him by name?  What did he understand of that call at the time?

There are other kinds of call, too- like a telephone call from a friend, calling to check in, knowing you’ve been going through some tough times-  they call, hoping you will pick up…

And then there is the call we associate with being drawn to ordained ministry…

People often tell of the details of that call, when it happened, their life circumstances at the time, and their response.

These are all calls- a gesture awaiting a response….

I believe that we are all called, every single one of God’s children, all of us, but especially those of us who are part of the church, the ecclesia- a gathering of people who have been called by God to be and do something in the world.

You’re in church…. How were you called?

Do you remember a time, a person or an event you associate with feeling drawn to come to church? Were you like Samuel, not quite sure what you were hearing, or from whom?

For me, the call to Jesus started young- but I did not understand it. I wanted to be in the choir and so my parents would drive me to church and drop me off. I was happy to be in church…but did not feel myself to be called.

As a young adult, I continued to feel a spiritual tug but would not even entertain the notion that I was being called by Jesus.  

Until I met an angel- well, a guy on a train- but I am pretty sure he was an angel. His name was Frank.  He was on his way to seminary and he challenged me to get a Bible when I got home and turn it to any page in the NT and start reading. I did- and it was only then that it became clear to me that this was the call I had felt all along.

What took me so long???? 

It is perhaps our human nature to be skeptical- look at Nathanael! His friend comes along and says, We have found the one Moses and the prophets wrote about- Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanel is shy of belief,       to say the least, and answers rather snidely, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? He’s not of a mind to take anything on faith….

Or perhaps it is fear that keeps us from hearing or answering a call….One of my favorite theologians is a woman named Verna Dozier, a Black woman who was a high school teacher and Christian educator who wrote a book called, The Dream of God: A Call to Return.

The book is a call to return to the faith of Jesus.

In it she writes, the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is fear. It takes courage to have faith. It is not easy to suspend all the ways of “knowing” that we have been taught, and allow ourselves to trust our

hearts or whatever it is in us that longs for answers to the BIG questions- is there a God, is God for us, how can we know God, do our lives on earth have a purpose?

Faith takes courage…it always has. In our day and in this country, we are not likely to encounter persecution or threat of death for proclaiming our faith. But as Eugene Petersen writes in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, neither are we who proclaim to believe in God always applauded or congratulated on having found our faith.  More often, even if we can be frank with our friends, acquaintances or family, that kind of pronouncement is often met with puzzled skepticism or what Petersen termed, “agnostic indifference”.

Have you ever seen those decorative signs with inspirational messages painted on faux barnboard?  Around Christmas, they are often seen at TJ Maxx or Walmart…Several times this year during the “holiday shopping season” (the secular name for Advent), I came across signs that said, Believe……just,  “Believe”…

I wonder, what is it shoppers are being asked to believe in?

We know what we are being asked to believe in, to trust, to take on faith- that there is a God, that God is a loving God, that God is with us in Jesus, not far removed from our lives and our fears-  a God with a hope, a vision, a dream for their Creation born of Love-  

This is our faith…that we are here for a purpose- to work with God toward God’s dream of peace and justice for all creation.

But the Way is not easy…..

Today we remember Martin Luther King, Jr who might have turned 95 years old tomorrow had he lived.

Dr King was the son of a Baptist minister and was raised in the church- but it wasn’t until he was in college that he felt a call to the ministry born of what he said was, “an inner urge to serve humanity.”  King was ordained at 25 and sent to pastor a church in Montgomery, Alabama.

In 1955, King organized the Montgomery Bus boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a municipal bus for a white person.  The boycott lasted 385 days during which King was subjected to harassment and his house being bombed. In 1959, he moved to Atlanta to co-pastor the Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father, which he did until his death.

In April 1963, King was involved in a non-violent protest in Birmingham AL. He was arrested, his 13th arrest out of 29, and put in jail. From his cell, he wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, a passionate plea to white people who would be allies in the struggle for racial justice.

The letter is 6 single-spaced pages full of the abandonment King is feeling, with references from Socrates to St Augustine, and Martin Buber to James Meredith.  If you have never read it in its entirety, I hope you will.

The letter details King’s frustration with the slow pace of justice and the lack of support for the cause of Black equality, especially where he said one might reasonably expect to find it- among white Christians. 

He notes that sadly the worst enemies of the civil rights movement were not the hooded Klansmen but “white moderates” whom he claimed were more devoted to “order” than “justice”, who preferred a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace- the presence of justice.

Some white allies accused King of being an agitator and advised him to be patient, and let the courts adjudicate the injustices he and others were protesting, to which he replied, Justice delayed is justice denied. 

Some called King an extremist, to which King responded,

I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”

Was not Amos an extremist for justice?….. Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ?….

Was not Martin Luther an extremist? — “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love?

In 1963, King and Bayard Rustin organized the March on Washington to protest the deplorable condition of Blacks in the South, and the government’s failure to protect Black protesters and civil rights workers. (just as an aside- there is a powerful and moving new film on Netflix simply entitled Rustin) It was there that King gave his famous, I Have A Dream speech in front of a crowd of 200,000 gathered on the National Mall.

In May, 1964 King came to Brunswick at the invitation of Bowdoin College and spoke to a crowd of over 1000 at the First Parish Church. He spoke of the movement to transform society and his commitment to

ridding our country of the idea of superior and inferior races through non-violent protest.

On April 3, 1968, King travelled to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. The following day,  King died after being shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel while waiting to join friends for dinner.  He was 39 years old.

The last sermon Dr King gave at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was re-played at his funeral. In it, he said,

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

That was Dr King’s call- and it is God’s call to all of us, a call we may hear and answer in a myriad of ways.  We are in the season of Epiphany, an epiphany being, among other things, like a light bulb going off, an illuminating discovery or realization.

My hope for us is that we may all hear the voice that calls us to love more clearly and that, through the grace of God, we may experience an Epiphany of our own. May we hear, in whatever way it comes to us, Jesus’ voice saying, Follow me.