The Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Church of the Annunciation Oradell
January 17, 2021
Second Sunday After the Epiphany
1st Reading - 1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
2nd Reading - 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel - John 1:43-51
May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
Well, good morning everyone! Today marks the beginning of our journey together as priest and parish, and I anticipate that it will not be without its twists and turns, but the best journeys have them, right? None of us know for certain the future of things, but that’s what makes the journey worthwhile...not really knowing what will happen.
See, that’s the thing about journeys – they are never about the destination, but about the traveling. But one thing we do know, the best ones are usually life changing, and this journey will be one rooted in a covenant of loving relationship with one another, and with Christ, and therefore it will be something good and filled with hope. And so it is timely that our first two Sundays together have gospel readings about call, and starting a journey.
Jesus in the gospel today begins his post-baptism life in earnest, and he is asking others to “follow him.” And while they don’t know it fully yet, they sense this is an invitation they should answer.
Now, you gotta love this gospel story, well...I do – I love the snarkiness of Nathaniel. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" And not to be outdone in the quick wit category, Jesus says, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" – now, you might not think that is all that snarky of our Lord and Savior, but if you think about it, it is kind of a back handed compliment. Then Jesus throws in the bit about seeing him under the fig tree in a sort of “I got my eyes on you, dude” kind of thing.
I think it’s a funny way for us to hear of Jesus beginning his ministry with off comments about his hometown and the chosen people, but we do know that this story is a lot like the one we heard in the Hebrew text today, a favorite lesson for many, myself included. There the child Samuel hears a voice, and as many seem to do, can’t imagine it is God calling. But, when he is finally told it must be God, he answers, “Speak, for your servant is listening,” and his life from that point forward is never the same.
God called. Samuel heard and responded. Jesus called, Nathaniel, Phillip, and others followed.
These are call stories. Stories about responding to something – something we hear, see, or sense in some inexplicable way.
Now, I always think the word “call” as somewhat funny these days. I mean, I suppose now God would text or tweet. We walk around all day with these devices which can do all sorts of things - monitor how many steps you take, tell you where to find the nearest restaurant, or give instructions on how to properly prepare a gourmet feast. And sometimes it is almost surprising when the darn thing rings – hey, look...it’s also a phone! Go figure. The thing is – the calls from God are also generally a bit of a surprise too.
I remember a guy at my home parish that related the following story. Serving at the parish was a sister of the Episcopal convent in Mendham, the Community of St. John Baptist. Her name was Sr. Shane. And this fellow, George, said to her “ya know Sister Shane, I just don’t get this whole call thing. I mean, you just gave up everything and entered the convent? I don’t get it. How did you know it was the right thing?” She listened and said that perhaps one day he would understand. About a year later, another sister came to speak at the church. She was the founder of a Cameroonian orphanage sponsored by the convent and many churches in our diocese. Her name was Sister Jane Maanka, she came to talk about her life work. Later, the church decided to send a delegation of 7 over there (which included me). George decided to go, and before he went, he told Sister Shane “I just knew I had to go – when I heard Sister Jane talking – I just felt something. So I am going to Cameroon.” And Sister Shane looked at George and said, “Ya know, that whole call thing, did ya think it was gonna be on the phone?”
In some ways, maybe God would have a better chance of reaching us today if God used a Twitter account. I can see it: #great-I-am with 2 billion followers. The funny thing is, there is a twitter account God@TheTweetofGod, and one of the things God apparently tweeted was “Elvis Presley would have turned 80 years old today if he were alive, which he is.” Perhaps if God did tweet or call us on our cell phones, we might actually pay attention, because we so often do not. Instead, we usually like to do all the talking when it comes to God, and if we are to actually hear what God calls us to do – we have to actually listen. Maybe we don’t, because as the comedian Lily Tomlin once said “Why is it that when we talk to God, we call it prayer…but when God talks to us, we call it schizophrenia?” But the truth is – listening is the only way we will actually hear, isn’t it? And we need to because God is, as the UCC church likes to say, “Still speaking.”
Still, even when we do listen,whether we get a phone call, or a voice in the night like Samuel, or even a tweet, often “when God's call comes, in whatever way we perceive it, our initial inclination is not to respond as Samuel did, but to say, "Here am I, Lord... Send someone else."”
Maybe that’s because, as one commentator put it, “there are three rather uncomfortable, uncontrollable characteristics of being called: 1) that God often calls us to do the very thing we have said we would never be caught dead doing; 2) that God often calls us to do the very thing other people are better at doing than we are; 3) that God often calls us when and where we least expect it.”
This weekend is a holiday dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And, I have no doubt that back in 1955 a young Dr. King heard a call from God - one that Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin had heard earlier. (Colvin having refused to give up her seat a few months before Parks). It was a call that he had seen others respond to in the works that he had read by Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi.
Looking back now, we can all think, of course – he was perfect for the role, and we owe a debt to him – and that is true. But, did he know that? Deep in his heart, this Birmingham preacher, all of 26 years old, a fairly new leader at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, could not truly have known fully where this would take him when he stepped forward to lead the Birmingham Bus Boycott planned by his colleague E.D. Nixon. And in taking that first step, we were all led by his prophetic voice to a new call to justice.
But this was not, for King, nor for many who followed his lead, a political thing. It was a religious call. In a speech in 1967, King said, "Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry.”
And it is clear in his life that call is about two things: It is about responding to God’s voice, rather than earthly voices, and it is not about getting to a particular destination, but about stepping forward on the journey of a lifetime.
While he could not have foreseen the affect his ministry would have on this nation and the world, he did know that he would not see “the promised land.” He made that clear in his Mountaintop sermon the night before he was killed. And how could he have seen the promised land...we have not yet seen it ourselves. Just a look at the events of January 6th and that point is made abundantly clear. We know that if those people who stormed the US Capitol had been people of color, there would have been a far different reaction than what we all witnessed. There is still far too much work to do before we get to the promised land King dreamed about, and oh how I pray we get there some day. But King did know that his call wasn’t to complete the job, but to follow Christ and see where the journey with him would lead.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a call that thank God he didn’t refuse. He didn’t say “I’m not good enough, or someone else will do it, or I don’t know what will happen if I go there.” Thank God because we can all say “Come and see – come and see how he changed the world. Come and see how following Christ changes everything.”
I love that our first Sunday together falls on the weekend we celebrate King’s life in a time when we cannot gather together inside our churches, because it is a reminder to us that the business of this church is NOT about packing the pews, but about emptying them. Emptying them as we follow Christ to come and see the work of God in the world – and to be a part of that work. Emptying them as King did – when thousands upon thousands joined him in marches all over our country.
This parish has a long history of outreach – of following Jesus into the world – of serving the Jesus found in the stranger, the homeless, the poor, the hungry, and the forgotten. This is why I am so happy to be here with all of you today.
Because you seem to understand what I have often said – Church is NOT the destination. Church is where we are given strength for the journey.
The journey Christ calls each of us to walk.
The journey so many others before us have taken, and yet the one that is uniquely ours.
The journey that begins with a single step, but once taken, we and the world are forever changed.
So I invite you to “come and see.”
Come and see in the weeks and months ahead what God is up to here at the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell.
Come and see where we have been.
Come and see where we are.
Come and see where the Holy Spirit may be calling us next.
Come and see.