“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
If I were a betting man, I would put a lot of money on the bet that you could hear a lot of sermons this morning in Episcopal churches on this question from the 46th verse of the first chapter of the Gospel of John: Can anything good come out of that dump Nazareth? Frankly, what could be easier this morning than preaching on this text? We are, in this nation, in the midst of an uproar over immigration, and over racism, and over (in a sense) the national soul. And sometimes weak and inadequate leaders make themselves easy targets by virtue of their many and obvious inadequacies. And who doesn’t love an easy target? I do. And who doesn’t love to preach to the choir? I do. What sweeter music can be heard from a pulpit than the anthem that you already wished to sing? Maybe you were humming the tune on your way here? How gratifying to hear that tune harmonized from the privileged perch of the preacher!
And no doubt there are powerful and important sermons that will be preached this morning on the rude question that Nathanael asks about why anyone would have anything to do with someone from a place like Nazareth. There are words that need to be spoken, and that need to be heard. But Nathanael didn’t get what he was expecting when he asked that question, and maybe we we shouldn’t get what we are expecting either. If we go another way, perhaps we will see greater things than these....
For, if you ask me, much of the church is sleeping most of the time. Take this comment any way you like. There are places, I believe - like in Africa, and in Haiti - where this is not the case, and the church is alive to the persistent call of God, where the poor awaken every morning to their poverty, and have no particular need to be otherwise woke. The Gospel of Jesus has a way of thriving among the poor who can ill afford the idols that the rest of us take for granted, and who sometimes plate those idols in gold.
But in so much of the Christian church in America - in any denomination and all - and certainly in Europe, and across the continent of Australia... in these places, the church is sleeping, rousing herself for an hour or two on Saturday nights or on Sunday mornings for a dose of something a little less bracing than aftershave, before going back to her slumber, during which her members accomplish all kinds of things that are fun, or demanding, or gratifying, and sometimes even noble, and that are making a lot of people rich, more or less, but which have little or nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I don’t make this comment with bitterness. If getting rich (or at least well-to-do) had been a goal of mine, I was in a reasonable position to choose such a path as a young man, but I felt called to do otherwise. So why should I spend my time in the pulpit doing what the op-ed writers of the New York Times can do nearly as well as I could, when they will get paid a lot better to do it?
Meanwhile, the church is sleeping, prone - her activity level greatly diminished, her heart-rate slow. If she dreams she can do nothing much about those dreams and maybe not even remember them in the morning. In some places perhaps she even has sleep apnea, and appears to be be dying or dead. But she is sleeping.
The sitz in leben of the Gospel story, in which Nathanael delivers his famous and provocative zinger about Nazareth is reported by St. John simply to be “Galilee.” But the context of the passage we heard from the First Book of Samuel this morning is much more interesting. The reporter of that remarkable story tells us three important things:
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days;
“Visions were not widespread...
And, more locally, in the temple of the Lord, where the ark was located, and where young Samuel was sleeping, the writer tells us that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”
Sleeping. Samuel was sleeping. And so was his mentor, Eli - sleeping. Both of them were sleeping.
And the word of the Lord was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread. Sound familiar?
But, but, but - and this is vitally important - but, the lamp of God had not yet gone out. Not yet!
And the LORD called Samuel by name. Three times. To rouse him from his sleep.
Now, the first thing we can take away from this story is that even if the voice of the LORD calling you from sleep wakes you up, it’s easy to go back to bed.
And, the second thing we can take away from this story is that sometimes you need to seek guidance from someone older and wiser than you - especially in spiritual matters - and that you are not always in a position to hear, let alone to understand what God is calling you to, nor how you should respond.
But the third thing we can take away from this well-story is contained in a detail that I have hardly ever noticed before. In my memory and in my retelling of the call of Samuel, which was instrumental in my own discernment of my vocation to priesthood, I have always appreciated the triple call of God to Samuel. Additionally, I have appreciated the writer’s very specific description that “Samuel did not yet know the LORD,” even though he had been sleeping right there in the temple, in the presence of the lamp of God, having been lent by his mother to the temple priests for the service of the LORD. But still, Samuel did not yet know the Lord. So, three times, God calls, and three times, Samuel - even with Eli available to consult - three times he misses it.
But, after the third time, and now that Samuel has been told by Eli what to do, has been instructed in the way to respond, is prepared again for the voice to disrupt his sleep... It is not just that God calls again... It is not the mere repetition of the call that brings Samuel into sacred conversation with God... It is not that Samuel keeps one ear open when he returns to sleep... No, the LORD does not just call again... Not by a long shot. The writer of this account is very clear that God does something different this time. No, the LORD does not just call again.
We are told, “Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before.” The LORD came and stood there. God comes and stands there by Samuel - who may not even realize the the LORD, the great I AM, is standing there by his side. But it is not just the voice of God that awakens Samuel this time, it is the living Presence of the LORD that Samuel cannot ignore, and to which he is prepared to respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
The LORD came and stood there, calling as before.
Here we are on a cold Sunday morning, following an Eagles victory in the playoffs, with the question ringing in our ears, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” On a day when, oh, I could set that question to the music of the current political climate and sing it with the choir! But the church is sleeping! Maybe not you, maybe not any of us here at this moment, per se. But we’ve got to be careful that our message is not aimed at the choir, so to speak, lest we sing ourselves back to sleep! And I am pretty certain that, yes, much of the church throughout the world is still sleeping, even in their pews.
The church is asleep in so many places. And I can’t speak for anyone else, but in this moment of sleepiness, God is not calling me to chastise the President, who isn’t listening anyway.
If anything, God is reminding us how easy it is for us all to go back to sleep, even after we have heard him call; how easy it is for us to decide not to seek or to heed the advice of older generations, who have been down these paths before... and to choose instead just to go back to bed.
God is reminding us that we will see greater things than anything we can imagine... but only if we are not still sleeping!
And above all God is coming to us to stand here, in the midst of us, so that we may at last heed his call - moved to do so by his living Presence, of which we may not even be aware!
The sermons that are being preached elsewhere this morning will, in fact, remind us why it is so important that the church must not remain sleeping. Because the very meaning of justice has been forgotten. Because the very possibility of telling the truth is being discarded. Because the virtue of mercy is being denied. Because the pursuit of wisdom is being abandoned. Because the possibility of hope is being dampened. Because the desire to help the poor and confer upon them the respect and love they deserve is being squelched. These are virtues of the Christian Gospel that the church has spent the better part of 2,000 years pursuing: justice, truth, mercy, wisdom, hope, and sincere and loving care for the poor.
At this particular moment, when the church’s values are so much in doubt, and so undervalued by those who would lead this nation, it will accomplish little if I wag my finger at Washington from here on Locust Street, other than to assure me of my own self-righteousness… which is always gratifying: to me.
But there is no more urgent message for the church right now than that the LORD is standing here, calling as before! Which means that God has something for you to do, something for us to do. God is calling us to get up, and to stay awake! And there is no greater danger than that we, the ones whom God is calling, will simply go back to sleep!
For the lamp of God has not yet gone out! Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
14 January 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia