Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 17, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

1 Samuel 3:1-20+Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17+1 Corinthians 6:12-20+John 1:43-51

For most of my adult life (indeed for most of my life, period), I never imagined that I would live in New Jersey. Having spent 30+ years living in the Philadelphia suburbs, the idea of living in New Jersey was unthinkable. Except for the little oasis that is Princeton where my aunt and uncle lived, New Jersey was a mass of highways, drivers who don’t understand the concept of a turn signal, Jersey Girls, concrete, and exits on the New Jersey Turnpike. I mean, really, can anything good come out of New Jersey?

And then, three years ago, I moved here. And I didn’t just decide to pick up and relocate from Charlottesville; I was called here. Called by God. Called by the vestry. Called by this parish to serve as your rector, your priest, with the solemn responsibility to care for the spiritual life of each person in this parish, and to continue to live into the ministry to which God has called All Saints for almost 40 years.

Can anything good come out of New Jersey? Little did I know.

Our readings today are all about being called. The boy Samuel, living in the household of Eli the priest, hears God’s voice calling, but he doesn’t know that’s what it is. He thinks it’s old Eli, but it dawns on Eli that God, who has long been silent, has something to say, and God has chosen Samuel as the one to hear it.

Psalm 139 could not be more explicit about God’s call:

You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me. (139:4)

There is no escaping God’s claim on us.

And then we have Jesus, beginning to gather a community about him. In the verses preceding the ones read this morning, Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, followers of John the Baptist, inviting them to “come and see” (John 1:39). Making his way to Galilee, he encounters Philip and invites him to follow. Philip, in turn, goes to Nathaniel and says, “You are not going to believe this.” And that’s when Nathaniel utters those famous words, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Recall for a moment that John’s gospel is unapologetic from the beginning about Jesus’ identity, with God and of God from the beginning of time. So that Jesus knew all about Nathaniel and what he thought about Jesus and Nazareth should come as no surprise to us. And Jesus doesn’t care. What Nathaniel thinks of him is not relevant. In fact, Jesus seems a bit amused by it, and he still invites Nathaniel into relationship, into community.

Now, I don’t normally preach a traditional three-point sermon, but there are three things I want you to take away from our readings today.

The first thing is Philip’s response to Jesus. He didn’t pride himself on being called. He didn’t just fall into line behind Jesus. He did not keep this invitation to himself. No, he went and told Nathaniel, and even though Nathaniel scoffed at the idea, Philip invited him to “come and see” (1:46). There are plenty of people in this world, in this country, and in this city who would scoff, just as Nathaniel did: can anything good come out of the Christian Church? What we have witnessed among those who call themselves Christians, especially over the last couple of weeks, is damning and damaging to the Christian message. The latest statistics about declining church membership, especially among those under the age of 30, is that the Church is full of hypocrites. And I have to tell you that the images of a cross standing adjacent to a noose on the grounds of the Capitol last week affirm that. What we witnessed among those gathered under the Christian flag in Washington last week is antithetical to everything I know to be true about the gospel.

Can anything good come out of the Church? Our job as part of that body is to continue to invite people to come and see. Which brings me to my second point.

Jesus will take it from there. All that Philip knew about Jesus was what he experienced of Jesus. He barely knew him yet believed Jesus to be the messiah. When Nathaniel poses his question, Philip, wisely, does not try to convince him. I mean, what would he say? “Yeah, I met this dude along the road, and I don’t really know anything about him, but he’s cool, so there’s that.” No, he just says, “come and see.” And Jesus takes it from there.

No matter where you are in your faith – questioning, doubting, believing, sometimes-believing, fully committed – you do not have to justify Jesus to anyone. Your job is to invite people to come and see, to experience what you have experienced that keeps you coming back to church, keeps you involved in deepening your faith and living out the gospel in the world. You do your part, and Jesus can handle the rest.

Finally, we have to recognize that Good News is not always going to sound like Good News for everybody. Returning to our story from 1st Samuel, it begins by telling us that

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1). When Eli realizes that God is speaking to young Samuel, he knows that it is a big deal, so of course he wants to know everything. But Samuel doesn’t want to tell him. Why? Because God’s message was not good news for Eli and his sons. The sons were wicked, and Eli did nothing about it. In the very next chapter, God’s warning is fulfilled: the sons die in battle, the ark of the Lord is captured by the Philistines, and Eli keels over and dies when he hears the news.

To those in our nation who claim the cross of Christ but have aligned themselves with power and have taken up arms to hold onto power, this word from God will not be Good News. Jesus is not and was not a White American flag-waver. Jesus was not built like Rambo – an image I’ve seen far too many times. Jesus stood in solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed and called it God’s reign. Jesus’s commitment to non-violence was so complete that he even subjected himself – God’s very self – to torture and murder at the hands of the state. To say otherwise is heresy.

But before I get too far up on my high horse, as much as I might like to say that those aren’t real Christians or God has not called them, if Jesus calls a scoffer like Nathaniel and a tax collector like Matthew and consorts with all kinds of unsavory people, if Jesus still says, “come and see,” then I have to believe that Jesus can still say the same to those I’d rather judge and look down on.

Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we honor this weekend and tomorrow in observance of what would have been his 92nd birthday, wrote to clergy colleagues in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” saying  

The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

Our challenge is to speak that difficult word into a world that doesn’t want to hear it, a world that believes that we are an irrelevant, hypocritical social club, to live as faithfully as we can, and to answer when Jesus says, “Follow me.”

Can anything good come out of that mob we witnessed last week?

Maybe if we say, “come and see,” Jesus can take care of the rest.

ASEPSermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 17, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas