Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy
I am going to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in this sermon. I feel this year’s Martin Luther King Day is critical for our nation because we are experiencing a new outbreak of racism. In the most powerful corridors of our government, old racists and their new converts, feel empowered to once again denigrate people for being different and I don’t care who you are, or what your power, position, or wealth might be, if your talk, your actions suggest racism, I am compelled to speak out.
American leaders seem to have lost the ability, as we would say in Louisiana, “to talk right.” I believe that we must recover our dignity, our decorum, our sense of what is right and wrong and this is especially true when it comes to how we talk about fellow members of the only race on this planet: the human race. After all, our own Scripture insists that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” (KJV).
We are a people that have a deep and lasting record of God speaking and calling folks to radical, dangerous missions. If you have seen Mission Impossible, you have a sense of what the call of God entails. We don’t get a telephone call or a tape recorded message that self-destructs in 15 seconds, but we are called by God. Yet we are not even sure God is talking to us these days.
One of the problems is the way the Bible tells the stories of God calling people. The writers use a bold method of telling the story as an actual conversation with God, as if God spoke out loud in Hebrew to Samuel. These conversations occur only to certain people at certain times.
So what are we to do with this story? We can get the idea that since God hasn’t spoken out loud to us, we don’t have a call from God. So what if the storytelling skills of the biblical writers are giving us an imaginative interaction between God and Samuel? What if God is not thundering out loud from Mt. Sinai? Looking at it like this doesn’t change anything at all except our tendency to believe in magic. I do not want you to think you are off the hook because God has never spoken out loud to you in English. We need these dramatic stories, these imaginative interactions to tell us who we are and what we are meant to be: a people called by God.
Samuel is a precocious little boy, raised by a priest, in the house of God. It was far more likely that Samuel would respond to the call of God because of his environment. “The best possibilities for a person who has responded positively to the divine presence and persuasion all of his or her life will differ radically from the best possibilities for someone who has consistently resisted the divine persuasion.” Samuel, growing up in a devout faith tradition, was well suited to receive the call of God.
“Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of the God was.” This is why I tell parents who have quit the church that they should not raise their children outside the church. This idea that you will let them make up their own minds about God is a mistake. Children don’t have minds worth making up about God unless they have some God-knowledge. A child sent into the world without God is a blank slate and every magician, idol, false god and con artist in the world will have them for breakfast.
The first time God called, Samuel thought it was Eli. Speech communication theory tells us that there’s more to communicating than speaking and listening. In between the speaker and the listener there’s “noise” or “interference.” Noise can drown out the speaker or distract the listener. There is a lot of “noise” keeping us from hearing the call of God. If we don’t know God’s voice, we will take advice and guidance from the wrong people and even make them the gods of our lives.
What happened? Samuel ran to Eli. I love the idea here that the voice of God, to the young boy, seemed to be the voice of Eli. It’s a good thing when children relate us to God. The second time and the third time we get the same results. Samuel is running back and forth between the ark of the Lord and Eli’s room and finally it dawns on Eli that the boy is being called by God.
Eli says, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'” Have we forgotten how essential listening is to a prophetic vocation? We can’t be prophets until we listen to the word from God. Do you think that almost no one hears God speaking today because we have paid so little attention to teaching our children to listen to God’s call? Is this our problem? Is this why we encourage our children to go to good schools and pick a major that will pay them big bucks rather than introducing the ministry as a possible vocation to them? A church that has no young people called to ministry has probably not been encouraging young people to even consider the ministry.
There was a time when discerning church members would whisper to certain youngsters, “Have you ever thought about being a preacher?” “Do you think God might want you to go to seminary?” This call language has disappeared like a lost language. I go to church because if God speaks, I want to be as close to the source as possible. I think the church is the listening post for God’s voice across the cosmos. Astronomers have invented all these listening devices to attempt to catch any communication from out there in the universe. Well, I believe the church is the cosmic listening post for God’s voice and leaving church and giving up church can cause you to hear many false voices and follow many false gods.
Samuel’s story is our story. God is calling us. God is always calling us â€“ patiently, tenderly, softly, constantly calling us to move from the doldrums to the glory. There have always been people who have responded to that call. There is one Baptist saint that we honor as a nation: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Make no mistake. God called Martin. During the Montgomery bus boycott, in January 1956, God’s voice was heard by Dr. King. He received a threatening phone call late at night. He said:
“I hung up but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point. I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” When he finished praying he says that he heard the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Martin was now ready to face anything and believe me he then went on to face everything. Martin received the call because he was listening and praying. Is this why we talk so much and stay so busy because we are afraid that listening and praying will cause God to get our attention and give us a task that scares us?
Three nights later Martin’s home was bombed. Sometimes we get the call of God when people start leaning on us and threatening us and acting unjustly toward us. Sometimes we get the call of God when we hear the uplifted cries of the oppressed.
God speaks and we, his people, need to start being better listeners. I’m no Martin Luther King, Jr. but on the night in 1980 when a group from the KKK burned a cross on my parsonage yard, some of the white-cloaked members were deacons in my own church, I gathered my children in my arms and stared into those flames and right there I knew that I had changed sides forever. I would never again be reluctant to speak hard truth to people who needed to hear hard truth. I heard the words of Eli pleading with Samuel: “What was it that [the Lord] told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”
Martin faced opposition at every turn. He was excommunicated by his own denomination. He was made unwelcome by his own brothers in Christ. One of them, a preacher no one remembers or respects or holds up now as an example of godliness, said in a jealousy-riddled voice: “He’s got everything; on the cover of Time. In the newspaper every day. On the television every night. Give us something.” I can’t imagine a minister’s life sinking any lower or becoming any smaller. That preacher was a disgrace to our grand calling.
When Martin announced that he was moving to Atlanta, the governor called a press conference and said that King was not welcome in Georgia. He was born in Atlanta and his home town rejected him. One African American leader was quoted: “We’ve already got enough leaders in Atlanta.” He was not wanted in his own hometown. “So, bombed in Montgomery; jailed in Birmingham, Albany, and St. Augustine, stoned in Chicago; invited out of town in Cleveland; unwanted in Atlanta;” gunned down in Memphis.
There are hundreds of reasons to honor Martin. I have one deeply personal reason. On August 28, 1963 Martin preached in front of the Lincoln Memorial. That speech claimed my thirteen-year-old mind and heart. I was going to an all-white school in the land of segregation and had stood with my classmates at recess chanting: Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate” and Martin’s voice broke through that noise. Sometimes I don’t know what it is that sets people free from the prejudices, illusions, assumptions and beliefs of a severe religion, but in my case, I can still hear Martin’s voice:
“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!“
God is calling us just like he called Samuel and Martin and me. God’s calling us to have a prophetic word to speak to the despicable racism of our time. Speak for truth, justice, righteousness. Speak for the human race. Drown out the voices of hate and the voices of denial. Do it every day for you are the called prophets of Almighty God.