Martin Luther King Jr. Day Sermon – A Call in the Night

A Call in the Night

1 Samuel 3:1-20

John 1:43-51

American religion scholar Diana Butler Bass tweeted this week that it was almost as if the lectionary was trolling the president. It’s crazy how passages assigned many years ago for this particular Sunday line up with current events. We hear that the President said – in a family friendly paraphrase, “Can anything good come out of Haiti? Or Africa? Why not let in more Norwegians instead?” and then we read about Nathanael asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Yes, Nathanael. Yes, President Trump. Good can and will and does come out of the very communities we have marginalized. Yes, indeed. The gospel demands that we see those on the edges, those who are vulnerable, those who are different from us not as objects of pity, not as inconveniences, not as burdens to society, but as beautiful, beloved brothers and sisters from whom we have much to learn.

It’s not the first time in the past year that the lectionary passages have seemed to anticipate and critique the politics of the day. A few times people have asked me if I intentionally chose a provocative text, but I can blame it all on the lectionary. Why is it that our scripture readings have seemed particularly challenging this year? They didn’t have the same sting when we read them three years ago. I wonder if it is because we are waking up. The dark is being brought into the light. Sometimes it is uncomfortable to see and acknowledge what is being exposed, but paying attention is good, waking up is good, the light is good – even when it makes us cringe.

Our Old Testament passage today is about the inbreaking of light and justice. The days when the boy Samuel served in the house of the Lord were dark. The high priest was Eli, and his sons were corrupt. In the previous chapter we read, “Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.” They were stealing from the offerings. They were demanding more and more and more from the working class people. They were sleeping with the women who served in the courtyard, and while the Bible doesn’t use this language, it seems clear it was not consensual. It probably didn’t feel dark to Eli’s sons. They were skimming off the top and living in luxury. They were sexually assaulting women who worked for them without any consequence. They were at the top of the priestly caste and they took full advantage of their power and privilege.

Eli spoke to his sons and asked them to stop. When this didn’t work, he shrugged and took comfort that at least he wasn’t participating in their evil and corruption and violence. Eli went about his usual business in the temple, pretending it wasn’t happening, imagining that he did not have the power to stand up against it, ignoring the very real pain and suffering his family was causing, maintaining the systems and structures that protected and privileged his sons and himself. Eli was not the perpetrator, but he was a complicit bystander. He let boys be boys. He did not stand up for the vulnerable.

It was into this darkness and apathy that God gave Samuel a message to declare. “Time is up. Eli and sons, your time is up. A new day is on the horizon! “ (Well, maybe that was Oprah. But I think she has been reading her Bible, because it’s a pretty close paraphrase). [1]  

This message came to Samuel in the middle of the night. You know that feeling when the phone rings in the middle of the night – jolting you out of sleep, mentally scrolling through which loved ones are travelling, who might be sick, imagining what could have gone wrong. Here in Deer Isle, I assume the worst if the phone rings after 9:00 p.m. In other places, it might take a midnight call to get the adrenaline flowing. Samuel wakes up, pulse racing, at the sound of a voice urgently calling his name – “Samuel, Samuel!” The boy assumes it is his mentor, Eli, and runs to his room. Eli says, “I did not call you, my son, go and lie down.” God calls again, Samuel runs to Eli again, Eli sends him back to bed. The third time, Eli realizes what is going on. Eli, the old priest, unwilling or unable to stand in solidarity with his people, discerns that it is God speaking to Samuel. This time, he sends Samuel back with instructions on how to respond.

The boy Samuel goes back to his room, God calls his name, and he responds, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And God says, “Time is up. A new day is on the horizon for Israel. I am about to do something that will make the ears of anyone who hears it tingle. Time is up for the sons of Eli. Time is up for Eli, who allowed their behavior to go unchecked. It is time for a new voice. It is time for an end to injustice. The light is dawning.”

Samuel lay awake all night. How could he sleep after that? He was woke. And he was afraid. He was going to have to deliver this difficult message to Eli. It turns out listening to God is dangerous. It would be much easier for Samuel to stick to the routine – sweep the temple, light the lamps, straighten the pews, stay in his lane. Listening to God means speaking truth to power, standing in solidarity with the vulnerable and the marginalized, creating tension, bracing for conflict.

It is an appropriate story for the weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Samuel, Dr. King had a call in the night. Like Samuel, he found that listening to God was dangerous. In January of 1956, when Martin was 27 years old and had been leading the Montgomery bus boycott, he received yet another threatening phone call. This one touched a nerve and left him shaken. He sat in his kitchen at midnight and prayed, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.” King later explained what happened next: “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.’”[2]

Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up to the perpetrators of racism and violence and inequity – the sons of Eli. But he also stood up to the bystanders – the Elis. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King responded to clergy who were urging him to stand down. He writes, “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”[3]

King went on to say, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”[4]

Time is up. A new day is on the horizon. Time to examine the ways we tacitly support racist structures and policies. Time to fight for equity. Time to reject policies that rob the poor and line the pockets of the rich. Time to hold perpetrators of violence against women to account. Time to welcome strangers from Haiti and Africa and Syria and Central America. Time to feed the hungry. Time to care for the sick. Time to visit the prisoners. Time to end the gross injustices of mass incarceration and police brutality. Time to ensure there is clean water for the children of Flint, Michigan and the children of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The time is always ripe to do right. The time to speak up is here.

Are we Samuel in this story? Or are we Eli? Samuel is young, inexperienced, open-hearted, and brave. Eli is old and fearful and protective. He has stood silent for years. And yet, Eli is the one who helps Samuel discern the call of God – even though it imperils his own security. Eli, bless him, encourages Samuel to speak his truth, even though he knows the message will turn his world upside down and strip him of power. Are we Samuel, or Eli, or are we a little bit of both?

God is still speaking. God calls each and every one of us, young and old. Wakes us from our slumber. Opens our eyes to the new day dawning. Calls us to stand up for truth, stand up for justice, stand up for righteousness. May we listen to that dangerous voice, calling us to side with the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. May we listen to the call to follow Jesus in the way of love, the way of welcoming the stranger, the way of standing with the disenfranchised. May we, like Samuel, stay woke all through the night and speak truth to power in the morning. May we, like Eli, encourage our young people to follow God’s call, even when their voices will shatter our complacency. May we, like Eli, realize that it is never too late to do the right thing. Time is up. A new day is on the horizon. Thanks be to God. Amen.

This sermon was preached by Amy Vaughn at the Deer Isle Sunset Congregational Church on Sunday, January 14.

[1] Inspired by Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards on January 7, 2017

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Chapter 8

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

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