Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Greater Things: 1 Sam. 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51
You never know who God is going to call or where they are going to come from. I mean, look at the Bible. Time and again, people think they know where God is going to show up. And, then God does something they don't expect... calls somebody that surprises people... shows up in places deemed unimportant and backward... brings people together who had once been torn apart. Over and over, scripture tells us that just when people think they have God figured out, God happens differently, teaching us something new and powerful each time. Our scriptures for today tell us two of such stories.
I mean, who would have ever thought Samuel would become a prophet for the Lord? He was just a kid working for the priest, Eli. Heck, he hadn't even gotten this job with Eli on his own. His mother had promised him to Eli as a way to thank God for her being able to become pregnant with him. In all likelihood, the closest Samuel probably ever expected to get to God was priest-adjacent. You see, Samuel was born during tumultuous times. There was no central leader to guide the different tribes of the people. The nation wasn't working as one body, but as several groups that were, as scholar Valerie Bridgeman put it, doing right by their own eyes. You heard in our reading for the day put it this way: "The word of the Lord was rare in those day; visions were not widespread." It's not even clear how often the priest heard from God. But, the priest still knew how to teach someone to listen.
One night, Samuel, who is still a kid mind you, hears someone call his name and assumes that it's Eli and runs to his bedside to see what he needs. It wasn't Eli. Eli sends him back to bed. It happens again. And, Eli sends him back to bed again. It is on the third trip that Eli's God-listening muscles finally kick in. He remembers what it can mean to hear a still small voice that is so insistent that it keeps you from going back to sleep. He wonders if maybe it was time for Samuel to start paying attention to this repeating voice. So, Eli told Samuel, who had never heard from God before, to pay special attention. This voice wasn't Eli, but it might be God. The voice was God. And, because he had a good teacher, Samuel was ready to respond to that call. He replied, "Speak, for your servant is listening!" God spoke and Samuel became a great prophet.
Our second scripture is another great example of God surprising someone. There are several short stories in a row here at the beginning of John where people begin to follow Jesus in this Divine domino effect. It starts with John the Baptist who sees the Holy Spirit in Jesus and knows he is the Son of God. John, who is always quick to speak of God's revelations, tells his own disciples about the surprising way he has seen the Spirit. Two of these disciples begin to follow Jesus. After spending time with him, they, too, were confident that in Jesus they see something new of God. So, one of them told his brother what he had seen. After Jesus seemed to know the brother, even without ever having met him, the brother grew convinced that there was something special about Jesus, too.
The pattern continues at least one more time, into our reading for today. People share that they have seen something Divine in Jesus. Someone hears them and believes. In this case, Philip was a particularly quick study. He didn't even need three chances to respond to God like Samuel did. Jesus just said, "Follow me," and he did. But, Philip's friend Nathanael, the next domino in the story, needed a little more convincing. You see, even though we don't know much about Nathanael, we know one important thing. It seems like Nathanael was pretty sure he knew where and how God would show up.
Times were probably tumultuous during Nathanael's life, too, like they were in Samuel's. Rome had conquered Israel and they no longer had a king who had faith in their God. They had a Emperor who kinda thought he was God. But, Nathanael had faith that their God would send them a leader, a messiah, who could restore their nation's fortunes. The messiah be royalty. He would probably definitely lead the military. He would never come from a dinky town like Nazareth, where this guy Jesus came from. I mean, can anything good come out of Nazareth? That's a backwater town. We need a messiah from an impressive city, like Jerusalem. Why on earth would God work through someone from a community that everyone else thought was insignificant?
Then, we find out one more thing about Nathanael. He trusts Philip, maybe not as much as Samuel trusted Ei, but enough. He was willing to come and see Jesus himself. Jesus was forthright with Nathanael, telling him a truth that Nathanael alone seemed to understand. In that moment, Nathanael realized he was wrong. Something good had come out of Nazareth. Jesus had. And, Jesus assured him that he would come to know even greater truths if he would follow him. Jesus said, "You will see greater things than anything I have already told you." But, you must follow me. And, he did. He became one of Jesus' first disciples.
As I studied this week, I read a third story that seems worthy of sharing. In 1956, a young anti-racism organizer traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to help a young pastor and local community groups to organize a bus boycott. The organizer was Bayard Rustin. The pastor was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They initially worked well together, first on the boycott, then on the development of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In fact, it was Rustin, a Quaker pacifist, who introduced Dr. King to nonviolence strategies of Gandhi, strategies that would become part of the bedrock of the Civil Rights movement. But, not everyone saw a hopeful future in working with Rustin. Some people believed that only certain kinds of people could do the Holy work of the Civil Rights movement. They didn't think Rustin was the right kind of person.
Bayard Rustin had several strikes against him in the eyes of some so-called "respectable" organizers. Since he had been an anti-racism advocate and agitator since he was a teenager, he had been arrested many times. He had also been a conscientious objector during World War II. At one point in his life, he had been affiliated with a communist group because of their anti-racism work. By the time he came to work with King, he had long since left that group. However, in the 1960's in the United States, any ties, former or current, with communism was a great burden. And, the final reason many people didn't want to work with him was because he was gay, openly so, in a time when a man could still be arrested for being in a relationship with another man. In fact, he had been arrested once for that, too.
In an article by the scholar Louis Gates, Jr., I learned that Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., an important Civil Right leader, did not want to work with Rustin at all. In 1960, when Powell learned that King and Rustin were planning a march in Los Angeles outside the Democratic National Convention, he threatened King, saying that he would tell the press that King and Rustin were in a relationship, if King didn't cancel the march. Now, this wasn't true, but Powell knew that it could damage King's reputation and make it more difficult for him to do the organizing he was doing. Unfortunately, Dr. King bowed to the pressure. He called off the march and distanced himself from Rustin. Rustin even resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This could have been the end of their work together, work that I am sure was Holy even as the workers were imperfect.
We are fortunate that this wasn't the end of the Spirit moving through these two leaders. First, the unrest in Birmingham shocked the nation. Then, Rustin's mentor A. Philip Randolph, began to wonder if there needed to be a national Civil Rights demonstration in Washington, D.C. Notice that his name is Philip. Aren't we lucky to have all these Philips who are ready to help share the Good News? Randolph brought in Rustin. Together they approached King, and many others. Some people still were uncomfortable with Rustin, insisting that he not be the lead organizer. Rustin, putting the movement before himself, agreed to allow Randolph to serve as the director. But, Rustin was still the primary coordinator for the whole march. Rustin helped figure out everything from how many bathrooms they'd need, how many doctors should be on hand, and what people should bring with them for lunch.
Even with all this hurtful history between them, they knew they could see Greater Things, like those greater things Jesus' was talking about with Nathanael, but only by working together. Dr. King would give his most well-known sermon at this March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Bayard Rustin would also stand up and read out the demands of the marchers. The next year, when Dr. King was given a Nobel Prize, it was Rustin who organized the trip to Norway for him. According to Dr. Gates, in 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated while fighting for economic justice for sanitation workers, Rustin participated in the memorial march and took up the cause himself. He had his eyes on the Greater Things, and he helped get us one step closer to the Kindom of Love and Justice that God is inviting us to build. Now, the question is: Are you ready for God to work in surprising places and surprising people in your life? Are you ready to see Greater Things with this surprising God?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources in writing her sermon:
Resources about Bayard Rustin
1 Sam. 3:1-10
Valerie Bridgeman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3556
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.