17 January 2021
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In his 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously concluded that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The current state of affairs in our country might prompt even the most optimistic among us to raise our eyebrow at Dr. King’s assertion. The violence and discord we are watching play out in our streets and in our statehouses seems, if anything, to be bending the moral arc of the universe in the wrong direction. Indeed, a powerful critique of King’s hopeful refrain can be heard in Ta-Nehisi Coates, who counters that, for him, the universe’s “moral arc ben[ds] toward chaos then conclude[s] in a box.”
We are in the middle of great uncertainty as a nation right now. I’ve spoken from the pulpit before about the triple crises battering our country this year: racial, economic, pandemic. And now, in recent days we add a democratic crisis and a crisis of truth to the mix. It feels like we are in the middle of a storm – a violent and deadly storm. We don’t have radar for this one – we don’t know how long it’s going to last, how strong the winds will be, how high the flood waters will rise, how much destruction and debris it will leave in its wake. You may feel blown and battered. You may feel like the wind is howling on all sides – certainly news and media inputs are howling on all sides. You may be feeling a bit helpless, a bit hopeless. In fact, if you’re like me, you may find resonance in the “chaos” part of Coates’s moral worldview.
This, this is what we’re carrying as we encounter our scripture passages for today. In every line, it seems, something jumps out as being relevant for consideration in our context. There is so much richness in today’s lectionary. If I boil it down, though, for us, for today, I hear us being invited to hope.
If you’re looking for a “Three-step plan to finding hope,” I am definitely not your person. Stepwise programs have never been my strength. There are some important insights in today’s passages, though, some thoughts worth teasing out and remembering.
- For starters, in such a noisy time as ours, it’s interesting to note that Samuel hears God’s word at night, alone in the temple, when everyone is asleep. In the stillness, God calls out, “Samuel. Samuel.” In Hebrew, the name Sam-u-el means God has heard. Given the context of this particular passage from the first book of Samuel, when God calls, “Sam-u-el, I have heard,” it’s easy to imagine God calling out to say, “I am here. I have heard my people calling out for justice. I have heard.”
For Samuel, God is made known in the stillness. For Moses, too: alone on a mountain. For Elijah, God didn’t appear in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12). Maybe we need to find calm in the chaos in order to hear God’s voice. Maybe we need to quiet the swirl of news and media and information to hear God assuring us, “I have heard.”
This I notice in today’s scripture: God comes to us in the stillness.
- I also notice that Samuel doesn’t recognize God without help. Three times Samuel mistakes God’s voice for that of Eli. Each time he rushes to Eli’s room: “Here I am! You called?” Samuel heard the call, but Samuel doesn’t know how to recognize God. It takes Eli’s wisdom and experience to help Samuel understand what he is hearing.
In stillness we can hear, and in community we discern meaning.
- Finally, I hear in today’s scripture a reminder to be open to new things – a call for us to trust in the promise that God can create something new. Or, as Richard reminded us last week when we renewed our baptismal vows, God always offers the possibility for new beginnings. If we kept reading today’s story from Samuel, the next verses reveal why God roused Samuel from sleep: God is planning to remove Eli and his sons as the temple priests. God sees their abuse of the temple and of the people, God has heard the cries for justice, and has decided to rest authority in a new leader, Samuel. A new thing is coming into being. The old is passing away.
Today’s gospel promises a new order, too. Calling upon an image his audience would have been familiar with, Jesus offers this vision: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus is offering himself as a bridge between heaven and earth, as the means by which a new kingdom, God’s kingdom, will come to be.
So, from the middle of this storm in which we find ourselves, with chaos swirling all around, scripture speaks to us: if we can bring ourselves to a still, silent place, God will meet us there; there is power in a community’s care and love, even when we can’t be together in person; we are promised that God hears our cries for justice and is able to bring about new things. We may not see it very clearly right now. We may not see it at all. It may look more like chaos than a smooth arc bending with purpose. Dr. King…he did proclaim that the universe bends toward justice, but he never said the path would be smooth. We feel farther away from his vision today, perhaps, than we have at any time since his death. Today, as then, we are heartbroken, the wounds are deep. We are in the middle of the storm, and we don’t yet know what damage will be left when it subsides. We do know that it will take us a long time to clean up the debris and rebuild.
So, what distinguishes a viewpoint in which a moral force sweeps away injustice from one that sees history as chaotic and ending in a box? As I read today’s scripture, and indeed, the whole of the Christian tradition, the difference is hope, hope in things not seen. The difference is knowing that God reaches out to us; knowing that we are in community, knowing that God can bring about new things…even when we can’t see it right. now.
An author whose work I admire, Professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School, Richard Lischer, writes of Dr. King: “No portrait of King that neglects his ministerial identity and commitments will do justice to the true character of his achievement…he discovered his identity and calling in the church, fashioned his world in the image of the Bible, trusted the power of the spoken Word, endeavored to practice Christian love at all times, and couldn’t shake the preacher’s chronic infatuation with conversion.” In short, in a world of jagged edges, King chose love. King chose hope. May God give us grace to do the same in our own time.