Alled In The Night
Earlier this week one of the office staff brought in an article that she had down loaded off the Internet. It was written by some character who thinks that he knows what the next twenty-five or thirty years will bring in the history of the world It was a five or six page diatribe, all very detailed, about what will happen in the years leading up to what the writer thinks is the dramatic end of history. Well, people have been writing those kinds of scenarios for about as long as there has been written language. I wasn't too terribly impressed by this particular writer's slant on the coming "end of the world" as he envisioned it, but he started me reflecting on the role of the religious community in anticipating and participating in the future. What is our role as a religious community? The chap who wrote this epistle about the end of the world on the Internet is, perhaps, a little demented and crazed. Nevertheless, doesn't the religious community have a role to play in the interpreting of the times and the unfolding of the future? I also reflected on the fact that while the chap that wrote the Internet epistle seems very convinced he knows exactly the Word of the Lord, for most of us the Word of the Lord is a little hard to pin down. What is the Word of the Lord for our day? Our time? Our troubles? Our personal and social situations? Is there any word from the Lord?
As I reflected upon these things that sprung out of this Internet message, I reflected on the two texts that are called for us in worship today. For both of these texts, in their own way, deal with the time when people thought there was little message from God. The first of these texts is the Old Testament story taken from the early chapters of the Book of I Samuel. The Book of I Samuel is one of the most extraordinary pieces of writing in the ancient world. The author of the Book of I Samuel, writing about the same time as the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey, wrote this wonderfully crafted tale of intergenerational trouble and of the unfolding of God's work in the midst of a time when it seemed like God was absent or silent.
Indeed, at the beginning of the lesson, as I read it from I Samuel, it said, "The Word of the Lord was rare in those days." It sounds to me like today, doesn't it? The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Then the author goes on to tell the story, first of all, about an aging priest named Eli. Eli is presented to us as a good and faithful priest, honest in the conduct of his work. But Eli is also presented to us as a flawed human being whose greatest and most significant flaw is his inability to direct and control his children. For the priest, Eli, has two sons who are following in his footsteps as priests. But these two sons are both wicked. They accept bribes. They're engaged in all kinds of unsavory behavior. And the people are distressed because the good old priest, Eli, is old and not long for this world. All they are going to have left when Eli dies is his rotten sons. Beautifully, in this story, the author of I Samuel, with these characters who are really minor transitional characters in the story, presents for us the theme that is to be the theme for the book. For I Samuel begins with the stories of Eli and his rotten, rebellious sons and ends with the story of King David and his rotten, rebellious sons. It is marvelous crafting of literature.
But more than that, it is the story of how God was at work in a time when the Word of God seemed rare. For in this time when everyone was going their own way, when no one seems certain what the will of God was, there was a foster child being reared in the home, in the temple, of old Eli. A little boy named Samuel who, in the lesson for today, receives his call from God. Though the people of that moment do not realize it, they stood at one of the great hinges of their nation's history. For prior to Samuel, the Israelites lived as scattered and loosely organized groups of clans and tribes, but by the end of Samuel's life, Samuel is to anoint two kings, Saul and David. These two kings are to organize the Israelites into a nation state. What had previously been just a confederation now became a unified nation with a capital and a king and a temple. It was a revolution in the way the Israelites organized their social, economic, and political lives. Even in this time, when the word of the Lord seemed rare, God was still there bringing a transformation that hardly anyone anticipated or had foreseen. They stood, unknowingly, on the brink of a new day. And they thought God was silent and distant.
In many ways, the same was true as we come a thousand years later to the New Testament story for the week. It is the story of Jesus calling to his early disciples: Nathaniel and Philip. But it is in the context of a broader social situation where the Israelites believe that there was hardly any word from the Lord anymore. A time when Israelite society was divided into camps and groups, largely segregated from one another, hostile and mistrustful of one another. It was a time when people were suggesting that the Jewish people ought to go this way or go that way, or go some other way; but there was no consensus about the will of God for the time. It was a time when the Roman overlords kept the Jews under the boot heel of their oppression. It was during that kind of era that Jesus stepped onto the scene of history, this unknown person from Nazareth. "Can any good come out of Nazareth?" Nathaniel asked. Though the people did not understand or know it; though it seemed the Word of the Lord was rare in those days, nevertheless God was at work transforming the world. This unknown itinerant from Nazareth was the person around whom all of human history pivoted. The whole western world and, indeed, increasingly the whole world's history has been written in light of the coming of the One.
They stood on the brink of a new age, and they did not know it. They stood in a time when they thought it was dark all day, but there was a new light coming. They stood in a time when it seemed that the Word of God was rare, but Jesus was about to speak.
In our time, we have lived through similar days. Whether it's the messages on the Internet or whatever it may be, we too live in a time when it seems that the Word of God is rare. And we gather this day on the weekend of a National holiday, the only National holiday dedicated to a private citizen who never held any public office. This is the only National holiday dedicated to a person whose life was primarily rooted and grounded in the church. And we remember, again, a time when, in the dark of the night of segregation and discrimination., God called another Samuel to be the spokesperson for a new day, a new time, a new era in American history. And the word of the Lord seemed rare in those days, but God was present in ways that people could not see.
I have always been a little bit angry at God for choosing Martin Luther King, Jr. to be the leader of the Civil Rights movement. It seems to me he ought to have chosen a Methodist instead of a Baptist. I have never quite forgiven God for that, and I want to say with Nathaniel, "Can anything good come of Ebenezer Baptist Church?" But it did. And the Word of the Lord seemed rare in those days, but it only seemed so. So I wonder today, as a religious community stiff called and compelled to have a part in creating and shaping the future, if we don't still live in days that are pretty dark, and that it seems that the Word of the Lord is rare in our own time. Now we would have to reflect, on this weekend of holiday, this weekend of Human Relations Day in the United Methodist calendar, upon the state of things and the level of the light in our time and place. For we still, as a religious people, have roles to play in the shaping of the future.
This has been a year in Columbia, Missouri, where race relations have been much the talk of the town. Early in the year our mayor appointed a task force to study the state of race relations in Columbia. He did so because there was a feeling abroad in the city that things were not as they should be. As the year unfolded there was more and more evidence of fractures and divisions around issues of race in Columbia and in our broader society. The way in which the white citizens and the black citizens of our nation seemed to see the 0. J. Simpson criminal trial so differently is evidence of the tremendous gap that exists—the fracture, the chasm between the communities. The mayor's task force reported in the summer. Has anyone thought about the report since? Or read it even? It seems to me that we in the religious community still have a task to do. We still live in a town, in a city, that is not at peace, that has not arrived, to which the new day has not come entirely. Don't we all always have a role in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods and as a church, as a community, as a body of Christ, in shaping the future for good? It has been the role of the religious community for thousands of years. Even in the dark of our own life, do we hear a calling in the night like Samuel did? Do we understand that there is a word from the Lord for our time and our city?
If we were to take another example, actually somewhat related to our own city's time, it is, I think, that we in the religious community have a role to play in shaping the conversation about the future of public education in Columbia. We are rightfully proud of public education in this city. We have every reason to be tremendously proud of public education. But we know, if we are honest, that we still have a journey to travel in public education. We know, if we're honest, that issues of race and socioeconomic situations still play on education in a harmful way. We know that the elementary schools of our community are not the same. We know that the elementary schools of this community vary greatly in the socioeconomic resources available to each particular attendance center. We know that some of our elementary schools have a significant majority of their children receiving reduced price or free lunches because of economic hardship in their homes. We know which schools these are. And most people in this community, if they can, try to live in neighborhoods so that their children don't go to these schools. At the same time we have other elementary schools in our community whose constituency is so affluent that its auxiliary organizations, like the PTA, can raise thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to enrich the experience in that school, while other schools have little or nothing of the same kind of resources. These are problems that are still at a level that is manageable. They have not become issues around which we have polarized and quit listening to one another. For that we have every reason to be thankful. But they will polarize and become issues around which we, no longer listen if they are not addressed. Addressed directly, vigorously. We are still too small a community not to make every effort to see that every child in every school in Columbia really has an equal education.
Don't we, in the religious community, have a message to bring, have a voice to raise, have a word from the Lord, even in this time when the Word of the Lord is rare, when it comes to issues like race and education and other important issues in our own city. For, you see, it is the business of the people of God to shape the
future. Samuel shaped the future. Nathaniel and Philip following Jesus shaped the future. Dr. King shaped the future. Yes even that unknown correspondent on the Internet predicting the end of the world was trying to shape the future. It is our calling. The people of God are still in the business of bringing a new day, a better day.
On this day, this holiday, this weekend, will we hear the voice of the Lord calling us in the night? Amen.
Dr. Carl L. Schenck, Senior Pastor