January 14, 2018 The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

 

1 Samuel 1:3–10, Psalm 139:1–5, 12–17, 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, John 1:43–51

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus, the Light of the world. Amen.

You hear me speak a lot about our call as Christians to have a heart for the poor and the marginalized among us, more than you want to hear, perhaps, but understand, I believe this message to be at the very heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I preach in this way for a number of important reasons. First, as I preach to you, I preach to myself, for as a priest—one of the ecclesiastical “elite,” a professional “God-person”—I also need to be reminded frequently of this central core of the faith. Second, I preach this way in order to keep us from focusing in on ourselves. In order not to turn in on ourselves and thereby atrophy as a congregation, it is necessary always to keep our focus outward. We are not primarily here for our own personal spiritual growth, but for the sake of those in need. Third, the Bible is quite clear that God has a special heart for the poor, the lonely, sinners, the troubled, the marginalized. Where God’s heart is, there should our hearts be. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I preach in this way for our sakes; for only by reaching out to those in need can we actually find God. The Gospel writer Matthew reminds us of this in a very stunning way: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) The writer of the letter to the Hebrews, writing in the same vein, says this: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2) In short, we reach out to those in need because that is where God chooses to be and where God may be found.

Still, we are hesitant, or perhaps I should speak only for myself. Some of those in need do not look good, or smell good; some are socially awkward or challenged in other ways; some, frankly, are not in as much need as they present themselves as being; some lie and cheat and steal. Yet, this is where God chooses to be present among us; this is where, if we want to see Jesus, we are bidden to look. God comes to us in unlikely ways, in unlikely places, and through unlikely people.

We are reminded of this today in our texts. In the first reading from First Samuel, we read the call of Samuel. The boy Samuel was the miracle child in his mother’s old age, and in thanksgiving for God’s gift to her, she dedicated Samuel to the service of the Lord. This is how Samuel came to be in the Temple working for Eli the priest. But he is a child, unassuming and untested; surely in an age when “the word of the LORD was rare” and “visions were not widespread” God would choose a much more impressive person through whom to speak once again. If not Eli the priest, then perhaps a fiery prophet who would not hesitate to speak truth to power. Yet, in the quiet of the night, God comes to Samuel, calling his name. Samuel is a boy; he has no experience of divine visions and thinks his master, Eli, is calling him. Eli denies that he has called the boy, but it does not occur to him that the voice may be God’s until his sleep has been interrupted three times. Perhaps the rarity of God’s voice in those days is behind Eli’s confusion; or perhaps it is his own assumption that God would not use such an unassuming person as the boy Samuel to get the divine will done. In any case, Eli finally realizes what is happening and instructs Samuel about what to do the next time he hears the voice.

When Jesus invites Philip to follow him, Philip immediately finds his friend Nathanael, proclaiming, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth.” We can almost hear the disdain in Nathanael’s voice when he replies, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a small, back-woods town in Galilee, far from the centers of power. Likely most people lived and died in that town without much notice from anyone; and surely the long-awaited Messiah would not come from such an out-of-the-way place. Yet, Philip is so convinced of what he had found that he encourages Nathanael to “[c]ome and see.” When Nathanael finally meets Jesus, he is impressed with Jesus’ foreknowledge of him: “Where did you get to know me,” Nathanael asks Jesus. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Jesus replies. “Rabbi! You are the Son of God!” Apparently, God is present in insignificant people in out of the way places. Nathanael, like Eli, never thought to look there.

And so we are back where we started. The miracle of the incarnation is that God chooses to dwell in our very midst rather than remain aloof and distant; God assumed human form that God might understand what it means to feel joy and pain, to face triumphs and trials in life. And apparently, God is partial to showing up in out-of-the-way places—like Nazareth, or perhaps Haiti or any number of African countries—and can be found hanging out with the most unusual and unassuming of people. This is why we bother to reach out to the poor, the marginalized, and the merely tolerated—on the off chance that God will show up with a new word or an amazing vision for us and the world around us. Perhaps this is also why people are surprised that God is present among and does amazing things through us, both as individuals and as a community of faith. After all, there is a sense in which we are not unlike Samuel or Jesus of Nazareth: we are a small parish in a small West Central Nebraska city, far away from the halls of power. While many of us are well-known in this community, our reputations likely do not precede most of us into other communities. With regard to size, or finances, we cannot compare with many other places. Yet, God is doing amazing things among us. No other parish in the diocese is able to pull off the feeding ministry we do each and every Wednesday evening in this place; we have a solid reputation in this community as a place that is willing to reach out to all comers with God’s love; and we are a vital place that is growing disciples of our Lord through creative worship, formation, and prayer. Some may (and have) asked, “Can anything good come out of North Platte?” The answer is a decisive YES, for God deigns to be found even among the likes of us. Amen.

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