Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines: Here’s What I Know

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.

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Pexels.com

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.

Text Study for 1 Samuel 3:1-10 — Close Listening

Speak,” Samuel says as he was instructed, “for your servant is listening.” The word for listening is shema, the same root word we get in Deuteronomy 6:4 – “Hear, O Israel…” Let us, therefore, meditate on “listening.”

Listening is inherently receptive. We can turn our heads and tune our perceptions, but we cannot go and get the sound. It comes to us, and we can accept or reject it. Reading is a different experience. Reading is more like hunting. It can be invasive, acquisitive, almost greedy to take and hold and manipulate information.

I think about the different ways we can access books. I am a pretty steady reader, and I prefer reading to listening when I am interacting with nonfiction work. That’s mostly what I read, so I don’t listen much. When it comes to fiction, however, I find listening more effective and much more pleasing. Stories are meant to be heard, received, and accepted.

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If you are a parent, you may know the joy of reading books to your small children (and the mild agony of reading the same favorite book a hundred times aloud in the course of a month). I have never outgrown the pleasure of being on the receiving end of such experiences.

If you have read some of my “Throwback Thursday Books” posts, you’ll know that some of my lifetime favorites first came to me as beloved teachers read them aloud. I could close my eyes, take a deep breath, and be carried to a world not of my own construction. I could be swept into a reality greater than myself and beyond my control. “Ecstasy” is the experience of being taken beyond oneself. Listening to a good story can be, for me, an ecstatic adventure.

Paul’s letters were read aloud to his house churches long before they became written “scripture” in a codex. “So faith comes from what is heard,” Paul writes to the Roman Christians, “and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Those Christians heard that word of, or about, Christ before they read it. In fact, nine out of ten of them likely could not have read it if they wanted to do so. Scholars estimate that about ninety percent of Romans were illiterate in the first century.

“Most believers in the early communities of faith did not encounter the Word of God captured in ink on paper as we do today,” writes Phil Ruge-Jones. “Rather, they heard God’s Word spoken with a multitude of inflections traveling from the mouth of one believer to the ears of another, or to a whole community of believers at one time. The Word made flesh,” he notes, “was delivered by flesh and blood” (page 17).

Ruge-Jones notes that the gospel story, at least in Mark’s version, was likely first transmitted by story-telling and ecstatic listening. He is one of a number of contemporary scholars and preachers who have committed the gospel to memory and can present it at one telling, taking approximately two hours. Many of us have experienced such a dramatic re-telling of the story. I find it compelling in ways that reading the gospel story does not produce.

It is perhaps not surprising that Martin Luther called the church a mundhaus, a “mouth house” or a house for speaking. It is a house for speaking and hearing the Word of God. When Luther explains the commandment on Sabbath-keeping in his Small Catechism, he describes our fear and love of God as not despising preaching or God’s word but rather keeping that word holy and gladly hearing and learning it.

Speak, Luther says, for your servant is listening. The illustration of this commandment included in the 1536 Wittenberg edition shows Mary at the feet of Jesus, listening as he teaches (see Luke 10:38-42). In fact, Luther says in his Large Catechism, it is the Word of God that sanctifies the day, not the other way around. “At whatever hour then, God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read, or meditated upon, there the person, day, and work are sanctified thereby, not because of the external work,” he says, “but because of the Word which makes saints of us all” (page 29).

This speaking of the Word and our listening is used by the Holy Spirit to transform us day by day. The Word is the incarnate power of God, enacted by the Spirit to create faith. Luther writes, “such is the efficacy of the Word, whenever it is seriously contemplated, heard, and used, that it is bound never to be without fruit, but always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devoutness, and produces a pure heart and pure thoughts” (page 30).

Luther echoes the promise of Isaiah 55:10-11 – “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Samuel’s obedient reply to the Lord’s call is the end of today’s lectionary reading. 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. The Word of God will not return empty, but sometimes the purpose is judgment rather than salvation. In either case, Samuel’s response is the listening that leads to obedient trust.

However, judgment is, according to Luther, the “alien work” of the Word. We will hear things that cause us to babble and blush, to tremble and trip, as our brokenness is revealed. That strange work is necessary to clear the way for the Word to do its proper work in our hearts – to convert and save us. The Holy Spirit creates in us the faith we need to have a living relationship with God through the cross and resurrection of Christ. We’ll look more closely at the Spirit’s work in this regard in the comments on the second reading from 1 Corinthians 6.

The proper work of the Word is salvation. That Word comes to us as a gift, as the Word made flesh in terms of John 1. In that gospel reading we witness the drama of not hearing and then hearing that Word. When Nathanael hears the Word made flesh, he is then equipped to see the world with new eyes. But Jesus cautions him at that point as well. Are you impressed by the special effects, Nathanael? You ain’t seen nothing yet! We who have heard the story know, of course, that the place where angels descend and ascend will be the empty tomb that comes only after the Word of the Cross.

“The word of the cross is not just a doctrine,” writes Phil Ruge-Jones,” 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). That last sentence is as good a summary of John’s gospel as one could hope to find. In the gospel reading, Nathanael is just beginning the journey toward that conclusion.

Speak, your servant is listening.” This is a text that holds a large place in my own spiritual journey. Samuel has instructed me many times on how to wait and listen for the Word necessary for my time and place. That listening has been life to me literally on more than one occasion. And it is life to me again in The Pandemic.

It is so easy to take for granted our access to hearing the Word in more “normal” times. For some of us, however, The Pandemic has been a bit of a famine of the Word. I find myself almost desperate for good preaching Sunday in and Sunday out. I confess that I often hear half a dozen such sermons online on any given Sunday. I must thank Merle Brockhoff, Tobi White, Carm Aderman, Susan Friedrich, and Victoria Parker-Mothershead for their messages over these past months. We have been sustained for the journey.

So Nathanel’s question is replaced by Samuel’s answer. That seems like progress to me.

References and Resources

https://history.nebraska.gov/blog/lest-we-forget-lynching-will-brown-omaha%E2%80%99s-1919-race-riot.

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Glaude, Eddie S. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York: Crown, 2020.

Kashdan, Todd. Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Luther, Martin. Martin Luther’s Large Catechism. Bente and Dau, 2012.

Luther, Martin (Timothy Wengert). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Morris, Jerome. “Can Anything Good Come from Nazareth? Race, Class, and African American Schooling and Community in the Urban South and Midwest.” American Education Research Journal, Spring 2004.

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Ruge-Jones, Phil. The Word of the Cross and The Word of Glory. Minneapolis, Mn.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2009.

Wessel-McCoy, Colleen. https://kairoscenter.org/can-anything-good-come-nazareth-sermon-celebrating-martin-luther-king/