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Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; John 1:43-51; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
As we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Call of the Prophet Samuel is an appropriate reading for today. In reading Samuel’s story, we can find the story of all prophets who have been called to speak out for God’s ways of justice and righteousness. We find the story of many who have heard the call of God but have had that call questioned by others (in this story, Eli questions the call, but not God, and when Eli is certain it is God calling Samuel, he encourages Samuel to listen to God). God calls Samuel to do something that is not easy: to speak out against Eli’s own sons, that they can’t skate by doing whatever they want to by offering sacrifices afterwards, that they can’t get off because their father is a priest. Samuel has to stand up to the family of the very person who has taken him in and cared for him, the very person who has instructed him how to listen to God’s ways. It is not easy to follow the call of the prophet.
For many church leaders, in the past and present, we have been called to speak out for God’s ways of righteousness and justice, and sometimes we have to speak out against the very institutions that have nurtured us in our call. We have had to overcome the voices of fear inside us or the voices of doubt outside of us that tell us we haven’t heard God’s call and we should go lie back down. It’s not an easy call to follow. As we honor and remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we remember King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he writes to some of the very clergy who have supported him but have also tried to stop him, in an attempt to avoid conflict. Prophets are called to speak to conflict, to address it and not run from it, to speak and act out despite their fears and the fears of others. Dr. King certainly did this in his life and ministry. While one can argue for or against calling Dr. King a prophet, it is clear the Dr. King lived his life as many of our Biblical prophets did, speaking and acting out for God’s ways of justice and righteousness. I call him a prophet.
Psalm 139 speaks to the closeness of the relationship between the individual and God. In the story of Samuel’s call we hear how God specifically called Samuel by name. This close relationship between the divine and the individual is not reserved for only the prophets or the “holy” as seen by society; Psalm 139 makes the relationship so personal that we all can relate–we all are known by God personally, intimately, and there is nothing we can do to change that. God knows us. God knows you.
John 1:43-51 tells the story of the call of Nathanael, a disciple not mentioned in the other Gospels. Nathanael is skeptical. Nathanael is up-front and honest about his thoughts–he doesn’t hold anything back, and so when Phillip comes to tell him about Jesus, Nathanael is doubtful. But Jesus, when he sees Nathanael, tells him “Now here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael is a bit dumbfounded–how did Jesus know so well that Nathanael would be skeptical, that Nathanael, who was honest and upfront expected the same of others? Jesus tells him that he saw him under the fig tree before Phillip called to him. Jesus knows Nathanael so well because Jesus has known Nathanel all along. However, Jesus also tells Nathanael that he will see greater things than these.
1 Corinthians 6:12-20 is a passage that is often taken out of context. It is important to understand the context of the church in Corinth, which all of chapter 6 pertains to. In Corinth, a very Greek city in the Roman Empire, pagan sexual practices were rampant, especially the practice of worship at the pagan temples by having sex with a temple prostitute. For these Corinthians, who were Greek pagans that had come to follow Christ, they were being called by Paul to leave behind their old ways. While these Corinthian Christians were now worshiping Jesus, some still went to the temples to have sex with the prostitutes. Paul denounces this for two reasons: the first is that they are playing the prostitute themselves by not committing to Jesus, and the second is that Christianity is concerned with the body, for Christ’s resurrection was a physical resurrection. The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. One should not go to other temples to worship, but we worship in and with our own bodies. There is no separation of body and soul, as the Greeks believed, but rather, as Paul will argue in chapter 15, we take on heavenly bodies in the resurrection. Our body is a temple, and therefore, we worship God in and with our body. Going to other temples in itself to worship is a prostitution; going to the temples, claiming to worship Christ, but having sex with the prostitutes is not only prostitution but an act of unfaithfulness to Christ in worship.
This passage is clearly not about sex between couples in love, for verses 16-17 refer to the fact that the believer should not be united with the prostitute but with Christ. It is about acts of worship with our body, in a culture specific to Corinth. However, there are lessons for us to learn today about how we ought to use our bodies. In our culture today, many seek self-satisfaction without regards to the other, without commitment, and without concern for their partner. If we are the body of Christ and all members of it (chapter 12), we have to have concern, care, respect and love for our partner. Anything other than this makes our body for fornication (in verse 13) and not for the Lord. Paul does go on in chapter 7 to speak about marriage, and makes it clear that it is his own opinion. Paul does not offer a great theological discourse on sex within marriage or coupled relationships, but does in terms of prostitution and the temple practices. But chapter 6, which is often cited to be about marriage, is not about marriage, but about prostitution in the temples as practiced in Corinth in the time it was written.
All of these passages are about God’s intimacy with us–that God knows each of us, to the hairs on our head. Jesus knew Nathanael, knew exactly what kind of person he was, before Nathanael had even met Jesus. The Psalmist tells us how intimately God knows every one of us. 1 Samuel in the story of Samuel’s call speaks to the difficulty of being in relationship with God, for when we are close to God, God does call us to do and say things that are not easy, that might even cost us our very lives. And 1 Corinthians 6 speaks to the fact that our greatest acts of worship are in how we live our lives, in these very earthly bodies that God has given us, and that our body is created to worship God. In the mainline church we don’t like to talk about sex much; in the progressive/liberal strains of Christianity we still don’t like to talk about it much and when we do we seem to brush off concerns as if there are more important things to be concerned about. But it is clear God is concerned about how we use our bodies, how we worship God, and how we relate to others; for Christ’s greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (or body) and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are called to be in relationship, to love and care for others (and my personal belief is that should be in a committed, caring relationship between two people, marriage if possible).
As we remember and honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us continue to remember and honor all the prophets who have come before and after him, who have spoken and acted in God’s ways of love, justice and righteousness; let us nurture the calls of the prophets among us, knowing that each of us has a calling from God, and that God knows us, our strengths and our weaknesses, very intimately. Let us live into God’s ways of love, justice and righteousness for all people, including all people. (And I personally cannot wait for the day when all people means all people, and I don’t have to list out age, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, economic status, political persuasion, or any other category that has been used to keep people out).
Call to Worship:
Leader: God of the prophets, call to us today
People: Call us into Your ways of love, justice and righteousness.
Leader: God of the poets, remind us again how much You love us
People: Sing to us Your ways of love, justice and righteousness.
Leader: God of the disciples, teach us how to follow You
People: Teach us Your ways of love, justice and righteousness.
Leader: God of all creation, help us to know Your ways
All: We gather to hear Your call, to sing Your praise, to teach each other, to pray and worship as the Body of Christ.
Prayer of Confession:
Mother and Father, Parent God, You know each of us. You know our inmost wounds, our deepest hurts. You know where we have been wronged and You know where we have wronged others. Forgive us when we have held on to hurts rather than sought healing. Forgive us when we have harmed others. Forgive us when we have used You and Your Sacred Scriptures to harm rather than to heal. Forgive us most of all, when in the name of Jesus, we have caused pain and suffering. Call us into healing and teach us how we might bring Your message of hope and healing to the world. In the name of Jesus the Great Physician, we pray. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon (adapted from Psalm 139:7-12 and Matthew 3:17)
Where can we go from God’s Spirit? Where can we flee from God’s presence? If we ascend to heaven, God is there. If we descend to the depths, God is there. If the darkness covers us, God makes the night bright as day, and God’s hand shall lead us. We are forgiven, for we are loved. You are forgiven, for you are loved. You are precious to God. You are God’s child, the Beloved; with you, God is well pleased. Amen.
God of Deborah and Samuel, God of Anna and Simeon, God of all the prophets, we honor our prophets of old and our prophets of today. We honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who called out for Your justice and righteousness for all people, but especially those who were oppressed because of their racial and ethnic identity. We remember how he put his own life on the line, dying in the struggle for freedom from oppression for all God’s children. We remember all of the prophets, from Biblical times to today, who stood up for the oppressed:
*for women, for children, for the disabled, for the Irish and Italians of New York and Boston, for Jews, for the poor, for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, for transgender individuals, for those of different racial and ethnic minorities, for those who speak different languages and have different cultures–for all people who have been marginalized.*
Lord, we give You thanks for the prophets who have spoken up and put their lives on the line on behalf of Your people. We mourn their loss and pray for all of our prophets. God, stir in us the call to speak out when we see injustice, to act where there is injustice on behalf of all who suffer from oppression. Grant us Your courage and strength to do Your work, for You know each of us, You know our strengths and our challenges, and You call each of us to a unique ministry, and all of us to justice, forgiveness, and love. In the name of Christ, we give honor and thanks for those that have gone before us, and we pray for our prophets today. Amen and Amen.
*Another option is to use this prayer, and in the place between the asterisks, invite the congregation to name the prophets they’d like to lift up and remember besides Dr. King–some examples to begin with are Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, or Mother Teresa, among others.
Any music that speaks to freedom or to the call of prophets would be appropriate. “Here I am, Lord,” would work very well as a hymn of commitment or closing hymn to send forth the congregation.
***One personal note: I know a lot of Euro-American congregations will choose this day to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” or other African-American hymns and spirituals; my caution on this is that sometimes this becomes the token day to sing those hymns and songs, when they should be sung throughout the year as part of our collective American-Christian tradition, along with songs that have originated in Spanish or Native American languages and tunes and other cultures and identities. Just my personal opinion, but I think we are called to recognize and celebrate our diversity in worship throughout the year. Revelation 7:9-10 refers to all people of every nation, tribe and language worshiping God before the throne in John’s heavenly vision; ought our worship reflect this every week? Even if our congregation is not very ethnically diverse, let us remember that we are part of the Body of Christ, and the whole Body of Christ is diverse, so let us sing into our diversity and remember we are part of the greater body.