Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
It was a 17-minute speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. had been so preoccupied with the logistics of the historic March on Washington he hadn’t given much thought to what he’d say. He began to write less than 12 hours before. He titled early drafts “Normalcy, Never Again.” Eyewitnesses say it wasn’t until the end of his famous speech that Dr. King stopped reading his notes, looked up and began to preach, after the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, prompted him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Tell them about the dream. The rest is history.
The miracle of the incarnation is God’s promise to move and speak through us. Epiphanies come in human shapes and sizes. When Dr. King set aside what he prepared to say God began to speak through him. He went from being a speaker to being a prophet. God spoke to the American people and to the world that day. He preached a message for then and for all time: God has a dream and invites you and I to inhabit it. Come and see.
Sadly, this is not 1963. I’d wager there are more police and National Guard on the national mall today than regular people. 10-foot high “unscalable” barricades surround the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other monuments. I’ve read only 1,000 people will attend the inauguration in-person. That’s 1/200dths of normal. After 10 months of pandemic, nationwide protests, a contentious national election, a bloody insurrection, two impeachments, and continued threats of political violence, cynicism, disillusionment, and exhaustion rule many American hearts and minds. Alcohol and marijuana sales are soaring. Last night, I received an email from Bishop Curry warning that so-called, ‘liberal churches,’ might become targets for extremists.
These feel like the days of Eli from our first reading. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b). Eli was a priest down on his luck, feeling guilty because he couldn’t stand up to other priests, in particular his own sons, who habitually dishonored God through extortion, greed, and sexual assault. Eli no longer expected to see or hear anything from God because he didn’t have the courage, will, and moral fortitude to do what God desired.
Fast forward about a thousand years to our Gospel reading. We read about Nathanael. We can relate to Nathanael. Upon receiving the good news of the Messiah from Philip his first reaction is skepticism. The disillusionment of Roman occupation and the corruption of religious leaders is not easy to dislodge. Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree—was he social distancing? Was he moping? Does he dare to dream about a better life? Nathanael dismisses Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
Jesus says, to us and to Nathanael, Follow me. Come and see. God has a dream for the world as it should be that requires each one of us. “Who me?” we ask. “You mean right now?” We, too, are incredulous. We can relate to Eli and Nathanael.
The French existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, tells that when she was caring for her dying mother, it was as if the entire world shrunk to the size of her mother’s hospital room. In times of grief and high anxiety, we can lose track of our dreams. We mistake realism for reality. It can take all the energy we have to look beyond our misfortunes and failures, to behold again the larger vision, the big picture—the power of holy imagination, the lure of an alternate reality—that Jesus called the kingdom of God. Yet within what we perceive to be limitations are possibilities for renewal and growth.
As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call is to fall in love with Love itself. Through encounter with Christ, we learn to be lovers of people, because as Christian people, we are called to invite others into the dream, to become members with us in the beloved community. Nathanael wasn’t changed so much as he was set into motion by Jesus’ call. That’s really all that is required to become a disciple. Follow me. Come and see.
Eli’s first and second response to God’s prompting of the boy, Samuel, was confusion and not a little annoyance at being needlessly awakened. Yet, finally, he recognized there was another possibility. Eli put aside his own self-interest. He wasn’t worried about keeping his job or motivated by loyalty to his sons. When Eli realized what might be happening with Samuel, he could have tried to trick him, or to shut him away, or even to have killed him. Yet Eli was faithful to God. Eli is an unsung hero. He proved his faithfulness to God by stepping aside, by passing the baton, by nurturing the next generation of leadership in the story of God’s ongoing mission.
We need more Eli’s today. Can you and I be like Eli? Now that our complacent slumbers have been repeatedly disrupted by violence against black bodies, by a worldwide pandemic, by a culture of subordination and sexual assault against women, by extreme income inequality, and mass extinction will we recognize it is finally time to stop doing business as usual? Can we finally acknowledge the many ways we have participated and/or acquiesced to these wrongs? Despite that, can we step forward, following after Jesus, and like Nathanael, like Eli, walk the way of the cross? Can the vast scene of American carnage stretching be an epiphany for us? Come and see. Follow me, Jesus says.
Jesus invites you and me to dream again like you did when you were a child. As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call we must cultivate a holy imagination, because to be Christian is to tell people about the dream that God’s kingdom may come here on earth as it is in heaven.
In 1959, after the successful completion of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King went on a pilgrimage to India. He desired to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi, the philosophy of nonviolence, and about the people and culture that inspired it. He was received by large crowds as a national dignitary. Yet he was not prepared, when at a school full of admirers, he was enthusiastically introduced as ‘an American Untouchable.” You may know there is a very old caste system in India. It ranks some people ahead of other people. Dalit is a name given to people of the very lowest class. They are literally, considered untouchable, by those of higher classes. The school for Dalit children immediately recognized Dr. King as a hero of their own. Rather than recoil from this loss of face, Dr. King came to embrace the title as a badge of honor.
Like Eli, and Nathanael, and Dr. King we are led on the path of renewal and discipleship by listening to the voice of the Samuel’s of the world, the witness of those on the margins, the no-accounts, the unprivileged, and invisible. It is not a command but a call. It is an invitation to dream again. Come, follow, seek and find healing for your wounds and a purpose to dignify your life. Jesus invites us to walk the path to wellness that will not be easy, and possibly even dangerous. Come, follow me, Jesus says, Let me teach you how to dream again and how to live.