Sunday, January 18, 2009

Co-workers with God: How we Got from Martin to Barack

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 18, 2009: 1 Samuel 3:1-17; John 1:43-51

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.[1]

I find these words of Dr. King extraordinarily helpful at this time when we look forward in two days to the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. I find them helpful because of what they say about the past. I find them helpful because of what they say about where we go from here.

“Those who are willing to be co-workers with God.” The concept of being co-workers with God may seem to err in making us too important. Wouldn’t it be better to say, “those who are willing to be obedient servants of God?” But Dr. King had a great deal of respect for the God-given human capacity to make choices and take particular actions out of God-given human freedom. And in that I think he was precisely right. God calls us to be co-workers.

The religious among us might say that nothing happens without God and that would be true. But the humanitarian among us might also say that nothing happens without human beings making a choice for good or for ill, and that would be true as well. The whole secret to life is learning day by day to work hand in hand with God so that together we might change the world for good.

In our first reading this morning, God calls the boy Samuel to be just such a co-worker. Samuel, we are told, does not know the Lord and so when God calls him he believes it is the one he does know, Eli, his earthly master. It is Eli who steers him in the right direction and tells him to say the only thing one can say when God calls, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Notice that then God calls Samuel to do God’s work for him. If God wanted to get a message to Eli, why didn’t he just speak to him directly? Because he needed a co-worker. It is God’s preferred way of acting in the world. Notice also that God even needed a co-worker in speaking to Samuel. It took Eli to discern that it was God calling the boy. God always needs one of our hands to work with him to accomplish the purposes of God.

What God asks of Samuel is very difficult. The message he has to deliver to Eli through Samuel is a hard one, even a harsh one. Eli’s priestly line will end. Eli’s sons are not God’s co-workers, they work their own works paying God never any mind at all. God will find someone different with whom to work. A new initiative from God begins with Samuel.

Then we have the somewhat different call of Nathanael in John’s Gospel. Nathanael jumps to a quick judgment. Nothing good can come out of Nazareth. Yet curiosity gets the best of him and he follows Philip to “come and see.” Jesus reaches out to him despite being fully aware of his skepticism. And Nathanael reaches back through his judgmentalism and professes new found belief. He becomes a co-worker of Jesus, what we would call a disciple.

That’s what disciples are. That’s what they are called to be: co-workers with God. And it takes all kinds, including those who “do not yet know the Lord,” and those who approach with extreme skepticism. Neither Samuel nor Nathanael were particularly well-qualified to be God’s co-worker, but they are called nevertheless. God calls them because he wants to call them, not because they are qualified.

That means each one of you is called to be a co-worker with God, and, among other things, that means, as Dr. King said, that the time is always ripe to do good.

Doing good sometimes means doing the hard thing, as Samuel had to do. Doing good sometimes means having to eat a little crow, like Nathanael did. Sometimes in order to do good we have to admit that we’ve been wrong. Sometimes it means that we have to tell people we love that they’ve been wrong. Sometimes we are called to do these things in word, sometimes in deed. But called to do we are.

I find it humbling to speak in the foreshadow of this great moment. I am not a veteran of the 1960’s civil rights movement. I, like Samuel, was just a boy. And I grew up in a racist world and still, of course, survive in part by the privilege given me simply because of the color of my skin. Some, if not most, of you are more qualified than I to speak in this moment.

I believe you are the heroes of this moment. How we have gotten here is by ordinary men and women, black and white, struggling to witness to and live out a different truth than what has prevailed in our culture—the truth of equality.

It is significant to me that since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. there has been no one to fill his shoes. True, there have been some who wanted to do so and even perhaps thought that they were, but no one has ever regained that prophetic voice of Dr. King’s. If that is the case, then how have things changed?

Things have changed because folk like you were willing to be co-workers with God, acting against the demon of time, of what Dr. King called “social stagnation.”

I hope and pray that our new President has a clear sense of this, that he takes the oath of office standing on the shoulders of literally millions of people of good will and determination who chose against great odds to live out their God-given freedom and participate in a different way of being that pushed against the racism that is still so prevalent in our culture. It has been those millions who have gotten us from Dr. King to President Obama.

It is a great testimony to how God works, by choosing us to be his co-workers, asking us to love our neighbor as ourselves no matter who those neighbors are, and to respect the dignity of every human being no matter what the color of their skin or even the content of their character.

I am so grateful to be alive in this moment and if I feel that way than I know some of you must be absolutely overwhelmed. My Lord, what a time, what a time. To see a piece of the dream realized, or, as I said right after the election, actually to see the arc of justice bend. It makes this act of thanksgiving that is ours to make every week all the sweeter today.

After this moment there will be work ahead, as our President-elect knows far too well. These are difficult and dangerous times. The world needs some steady hands, themselves committed to seize the moment to do good.

And a large part of the good left to be done is the work Martin Luther King left us to do—to eradicate racism and prejudice of every kind from our land, a task made all the more urgent, I believe, by this great moment. And just as much, that great task to which Dr. King had committed himself in the last months and days of his life—the eradication of poverty among all of God’s children. The twin devils of racism and poverty remain for us to diminish and defeat, and we are called to continue playing our decisive part as the ordinary people of God, to be God’s co-workers in this endeavor, to continue to change the world one small but courageous act at a time.

This is how we got from Martin to Barack and it is how ever greater freedom will continue to ring through this land and around the world.

Let us continue to be co-workers with God, for the time is always ripe to do good.

[1] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from his last Sunday sermon, March 31, 1968 at the National Cathedral, “Keeping Awake through a Great Revolution.”

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