The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2021
Imagine discovering that everything you think is true is…not. Klete Keller won a silver medal and two golds in Olympic swimming from 2000 to 2008. You might think that would open the doors of celebrity and acclaim, of wealth and privilege for Keller. But it didn’t. Instead, by 2018, Keller was divorced, jobless and homeless. He spent ten months living in his car. He sank into depression and despair.
Last week, Keller was one of the hundreds who invaded the nation’s capitol as part of an insurrectionist mob. Some members of that mob planned kidnapping and even execution as part of the day’s festivities. I have no idea what level of involvement Keller had in those despicable visions, but he was there.
Imagine discovering everything you think is true is…not. Imagine discovering that white men are not the standard of success for humanity. Imagine discovering that white men are not entitled to every opportunity and excuse at the expense of women and people of color. Imagine discovering that white men are not the pure paragons of virtue portrayed in films and on television. Imagine discovering that white men are not the center of everything, owed everything, controlling everything. Imagine that things aren’t working out the way they’re supposed to.
Imagine discovering that everything you think is true is…not. Despair, depression, and destitution might be one set of responses. Rage, recrimination, and retribution might be another set of responses. We saw it all on display in the United States capitol on January 6, 2021. Klete Keller was one of many who at least came along for the ride.
One thread in the lectionary readings for January 17, 2021, is this experience of the failures of entitlement. Eli, the priest, does a good job of helping little Samuel discern the identity of his midnight caller. Eli gives Samuel the right words to answer the call. “Speak,” the young man dutifully repeats, “your servant is listening.”
If we stop at verse 10 of that reading, we have a happy ending to a charming story. Many readers will do just that. That may be just as well. The next paragraph has news, we learn, “that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”
The Lord will punish the house of Eli for the systematic theft and arrogant abuse committed by Eli’s sons in the course of their priestly offices. Eli is held responsible, we learn, “because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” The punishment “shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
Tingling ears and all, Samuel goes to Eli and – at Eli’s command – repeats all the judgment he has heard. It is the end of the House of Eli and the beginning of the career of Samuel the Great. Eli discovered that everything he thought was true was…not.
Eli and Sons were not entitled to skim the best stuff off the top of the pot. They weren’t called to be the Hebrew Godfather and his muscle. They weren’t put in positions of power so they could pad their own bank accounts while the small ones starved. That’s what they believed was true, but it’s…not.
I’ll bet Eli wished he’d just sent Samuel back to bed with a swat on the seat.
What Samuel hears is what we Lutherans would call “the word of the cross.” The word of the cross always tells the truth as it is. Samuel was called to be a theologian of the cross. In Thesis twenty-one of the Heidelberg Disputation, Martin Luther says this. “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” That’s the word of the cross that Samuel received.
“The word of the cross is not just a doctrine,” writes Phil Ruge-Jones in The Word of the Cross and The Word of Glory, “though it is grounded in doctrine. It is not a theory about what happened between God and Jesus on the cross, although that event shapes it radically. Above all,” he concludes, “the word of the cross is a way of seeing the world from the perspective of the brokenness caused by our quests for glory” (page 88).
Eli and Sons constructed a profitable ministry by taking meat from the mouths of the needy. No matter what they deluded themselves into believing, that was the truth. No matter how they spun the spin, no matter how they shaped the narrative, no matter how they cooked the books, they were thieves and liars. Everything they believed was true was…not.
This is the constant danger when the Word of the Cross collides with our pet perspectives and settled self-interest. We may plunge deeper into self-deception to maintain our power, privilege, and position. The only way to do that is to commit violence against others – whether it is spearing extra meat out of the tabernacle pot or erecting gallows on government property.
We can maintain that violence for a long time – for generations, for centuries, even. But the theology of glory – the worship of self-serving lies – always extracts a price. The system of White supremacy, for example, eats white people hollow, morally, and spiritually.
“The white southerner had to lie continuously to himself in order to justify his world,” writes Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. in Begin Again. “Lie that the black people around him were inferior. Lie about what he was doing under the cover of night. Lie that he was a Christian. For [the author James] Baldwin,” Glaude concludes, “the accumulation of lies suffocated the white southerner” (page 49).
“Lie that he was a Christian.” I feel that sentence as a knife to the heart because I know it was true in 1957. And it is even more true in 2021. Domination is no longer a means but rather the end in itself. We saw that lie consuming itself in homicidal rage on January 6, 2021. Fear masqueraded as faith under “Jesus saves” banners. Nothing will produce greater violence than the fear that everything we thought was true is…not.
“In a culture of fear, the short answer to ‘What is going on?’ is ‘We are at risk’ or ‘We are in danger,’ writes Scott Bader-Saye in Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. “Insofar as we accept that answer as our dominant description of the world, our lives will be shaped by…self-preservation…Our moral vision becomes tunnel vision. Fear becomes the ambient background to our lives,” Bader-Saye concludes, “rather than a proper response to a concrete and passing threat” (page 27).
What if everything we thought was true is…not? And what if that’s the good news? Now we come to Philip and Nathanael in the gospel reading. “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” Philip gasps, “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Confronted with a destabilizing bit of news, Nathanael goes on the rhetorical attack. Fortunately for Nathanael and for us, Philip appeals to the small nugget of curiosity still resting in Nathanael’s guts. “Come and see!” This is the first step in answering the call to “come and follow.” Curiosity requires at least a small dose of courage.
What Nathanael gets is a whole new understanding of the cosmos and a promise that he ain’t seen nothing yet. What he gets is the call to be a disciple. “Christian discipleship, that is, following Jesus, will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger,” writes Bader Saye. “It will mean avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good” (page 22).
Avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good – can “anything good” come out of Nazareth? Apparently so – the Word made flesh and living among us, full of grace and truth, revealing the loving heart of the Divine Parent to a world trapped in depression and despair, rage and violence. Loving the neighbor and welcoming the stranger are not safe paths as we challenge personal and systemic white supremacy. But they are good.
We walk in this good way because the Holy Spirit fills us with the freeing power of Christ for lives of meaning and purpose. We are made for loving service, and living that way makes us most fully alive in Christ.
“Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor,” Luther writes in The Freedom of the Christian, “just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary to my neighbor,” Luther concludes, “because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ” (page 524).
Can anything good come from Nazareth? Come and see! Come and see Who that “good” is as the Christ overflows my heart and empowers my hands for loving service.
That much I know is true.