2 Epiphany, Year B, the Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman, January 19, 2015
“Lead Gently, Lord, and Slow”
Our lessons today are all about God finding us and being found by him. And two people in today’s lessons, Samuel and Nathaniel, help us see how that happens.
First, Samuel. This is the boy who will grow up to be the last judge in Israel; the man who will anoint Saul and David as the first kings of Israel; the man who will be called back from the dead by the Witch of Endor; and the son of Hannah, the woman who prayed so hard for a child that the priest at the local temple thought she was drunk.
In return for the great gift of a son, Hannh has kept her part of the bargain she made with God, and has returned Samuel to the care of the priest, Eli, to be brought up for service in the Lord’s temple. And one night, as a small boy, Samuel hears his name being called. “Samuel! Samuel!” He runs to Eli the priest, saying “You called me!” Three times this happens. “You called me! You called me! You called me!”
“No, it’s not me calling you,” Eli says. “Go back and listen. And say: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And Samuel does. He listens. He discerns what God would have him do and he grows up to be an incredibly important God-centered figure in the violent, pre-monarchy days of ancient Israel.
Fast forward to our our Gospel story about Nathaniel. This disciple is only mentioned in John’s Gospel, not the other three, and this is his big moment. We see that he’s a bit of a cynical guy. And all we know about him at first is that he has a friend named Philip, who encourages him to meet this man named Jesus, different from all others.
“C’mon,” he says to Nathaniel. “Come with me to meet this amazing guy named Jesus. And Nathaniel, being a bit cynical–like the disciple Thomas–responds with his famous line: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And then, like Thomas he puts his heart on the line.
“I’ll go,” he says.”I’ll go.” He sees Jesus and starts to walk toward him. But before Nathaniel can say anything, Jesus says: “Here is are an Israelite in whom there is no guile…Here is a Israelite in whom there is no guile.”
“What? How do you know me??” says Nathaniel. “We’ve never met!”
“I saw you,” says Jesus. “Even before Philip invited you here. I saw you under the fig tree.”
Fig trees are symbolic. Bible scholar Charles Barkley tells us that for a Jew, a fig tree always meant peace. “Their idea of peace,” he writes, “is when a man could be undisturbed under his own vine and his own fig tree. (1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4).
Leafy and shady, it was a place to meditate, to seek God, to seek God’s direction. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Had Jesus seen him there, say that morning, visually? Or perhaps he had seen him in his mind’s eye, years ago? It doesn’t really matter when he saw him, but that he knew the kind of man he was. Jesus may well have used other senses that we are unable to call upon.
The point: Jesus knew Philip. Before he had even said a word, Jesus knew Philip. As Psalm 139 today says so eloquently:
“Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up. You discern my thoughts from afar.”
“For you yourself created my inmost parts, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.”
Intimate stuff going on here. God knows us before we are born, Jesus knows our hearts before we even speak…wow.
Notice, that Samuel and Nathaniel were both ready to receive visitors, as it were. Samuel could have stayed in bed rather than seeking to respond to the One calling his name. Nathaniel could have stayed under that old fig tree instead of going to meet Jesus. But, instead, they somehow made their souls ready to be found by God.
And that’s what Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians confirm in us today as well. On one level he is talking about the issue of prostitution. On another level he is saying that unless we take care of our whole selves and keep them ready for the work God would have us to, we are useless servants, distracted by others, our energy spent, unable to respond when God needs us to do his work.
So what about that sense of preparation, of being ready, of listening and discerning? In Standing in the Need of Prayer, Coretta Scott King tells this story of her husband Martin’s struggle to continue in his difficult mission of bringing equality and reconciliation to a divided and agonized country.
“I remember one very difficult day when he came home bone-weary from the stress that came with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the middle of the night, he was awakened by a threatening and abusive phone call, one of many we had received throughout the movement. On this particular occasion, however, Martin had had enough.
With his head in his hands at the kitchen table he prayed aloud: “Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
Later he told me, “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: ‘Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever.'” When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything.”
Like Samuel and Nathaniel and Martin, may we always be vigilant, seeking God’s voice. Like Samuel, may we respond: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Like Nathaniel, may we make a point of walking toward the Lord. And like Martin, let us pour our souls out in prayer to the One who knew us even before we were born.
As the choir will sing in a few minutes*:
Lead gently, Lord and slow
For oh, my steps are weak
And ever as I go,
some soothing sentence speak;
For lo, the way is dark;
Through mist and cloud I grope,
Save for that fitful spark,
The little flame of hope.
Lead gently, Lord, and slow,
For oh, my steps are weak,
And ever as I go,
Some soothing sentence speak.
May it ever be so. And may we always have this sentence on our hearts: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Sermon preached at St. David’s, Minnetonka, Minnesota, January 19, 2015
Lead Gently, Lord, and Slow, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Pulitzer Prize winner Maya Angelou said that Dunbar’s works had inspired her “writing ambition.” Angelou titled her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), from a line in Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.” She returns to his symbol of a caged bird as a chained slave in much of her writings.