I had a sobering experience earlier this week. On January 1, Christ Church Cranbrook changed insurance providers to take advantage of the savings offered by participating in the national church’s denominational health plan. I needed to refill a prescription, so I called it in to CVS in Birmingham and went to pick it up. When I got there, I was charged not be the usual $6 co-pay but the full $88 cost of the prescription. The higher cost was due to our not having received our insurance cards yet. I was a little grumpy about this—it’s since been resolved—but at the time the young pharmacy assistant was trying to help me out. She looked at me and said, “Pardon me, sir, but can’t you get Medicare to pay for this?”
Now this was not the first time a young person has thought me older than I actually am. I routinely get senior tickets at movies even without asking for them. And this perception problem extends beyond the obviously text addicted and smart-phone distracted young. When people hear how old Kathy and I are, they always say to Kathy, “What? You couldn’t possibly be that age!” Then they turn to me and say, “You know, for your age you don’t look too bad.”
All this thinking about age this week helped me remember, with a shock, that today, January 15, is the 35th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. Along with five other young deacons, I was ordained a priest on Saturday, January 15, 1977 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. It was a beautiful 80-degree winter day in Southern California. The cathedral was packed because one of our number, Victoria Hatch, would be the one of the first women regularly ordained to the priesthood after the canonical change approved by the General Convention of 1976. There were protesters and bomb threats. The church was filled with plain-clothes policemen and FBI agents. Just another typical day in the Episcopal Church.
Now I bring up my ordination anniversary not because I’m fishing for gifts. (But just for your information, I’m a 44 long.) I bring it up because the memory of that event connects with two issues in our common life this weekend. One is the Gospel for today. The other is the holiday we observe tomorrow, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
I’ve always admired the way Jesus operates in today’s Gospel reading. He demonstrates a marked ability to read people and to treat them in ways appropriate to their personality. This passage shows the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. He wants to gather a group of companions around him, the group we will come to call his disciples. He spots Philip and simply says, “Follow me.” It seems Philip doesn’t need much persuasion, so Jesus doesn’t offer any.
Then Philip gets Nathanael to come and see Jesus, and this is where Jesus really goes into operation. He spots Nathanael and says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Clearly he’s referring to Nathanael’s smart-alecky remarks about his home town (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”), but he also plays up to Nathanael’s vanity. As when someone who’s trying to butter you up tells you, “You are naturally smart, perceptive, good-natured, and generous. Everybody likes you.” How can you respond except to say, “Yes, that’s right, you’ve described me perfectly?”
And then as if this strategic flattery isn’t enough, Jesus trots out his superhuman abilities. Nathanael says, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answers, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael relents. “Rabbi,” he says, “you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” Jesus, of course, gets the last word. "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." [John 1: 43-51]
What’s wonderful about this encounter, I think, is the way Jesus gets two very different people to follow him. One, Philip, responds simply by invitation. Another, Nathanael, takes a little bit of asking. But the point is that they both follow. As the prophet Samuel, in the first reading, says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Something about God’s offer to come and follow is irresistible to those who are called.
And yet we live in a world where God’s call seems to many eminently resistible. One of the big mysteries to me is why some people follow God’s call to come into faith communities like this and why others seem perfectly content to live their lives without any visible reference to the divine. I don’t say that to be judgmental. I could not have lived my life without the church, and yet I know many folks for whom religion is simply a tiresome bother. This is a real mystery to me.
Some of us hear God’s call and follow. Others don’t. Answering that calling brings some burdens, but doing so is mostly a privilege and a gift. Philip got it right away. Nathanael took some persuading. They both spent their lives traveling with Jesus and then leading the community that gathered in his name. What kind of life could be better than that?
So one thought this morning is about the Gospel story and about its mysterious, gracious implication that God has called each and all of us into fellowship with Jesus and each other. The other thought has to do with Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday is today and whose holiday we celebrate tomorrow. The six of us priestly ordinands chose January 15, 1977 as the day on which we wanted to be ordained precisely because it was King’s birthday. You may remember that there was a rather ugly debate going on then about whether or not it should be a holiday. In the intervening 35 years that debate has subsided, and King has become an American icon, but we should remember that there were those even in the late 1970s who thought King a dangerous subversive.
I love King’s writing, and I’ve taught several of his pieces in high school and college. As great as the “I Have a Dream” speech is, though, its over-use tends to obscure the sharpness of King’s intelligence and make him sound like a greeting card. The great Cornell West refers to this process as the “Santa Clausification of Martin Luther King”. Sentimentalizing King blunts some of his force; he had, after all, one of the great, prophetic minds of all time, especially in the Christian tradition. If one point this morning is God’s call to us to follow, the other point is that God is always calling us to follow toward some place specific. And Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and witness give us a good image of that specific place toward which Jesus asked Philip and Nathanael to go then and you and me to journey today.
One of King’s greatest achievements was the letter he wrote to the Birmingham, Alabama clergy when he was imprisoned in the Birmingham jail in April of 1963. The white clergy had criticized his methods, calling him that favorite phrase of the 1960s, an “outside agitator”, and he replied with a defense of civil disobedience grounded in a profound analysis of Christian history. The letter is usually referred to as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Here is one bit of what he says near its end:
I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. . . . We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. . . . If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. [Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, April 16, 1963]
Like Jesus, like Philip and Nathanael, like the prophet Samuel, Martin Luther King, Jr. answered God’s call to follow. Like them, King understood that the call was not only to follow but to go with God toward a specific place—the place Jesus called the “Kingdom of God”, a zone of blessedness, peace, compassion, and health, a place where we experience the world on God’s terms, a place where the blind see, the lame walk, the prisoners go free, and the poor have good news preached to them. King knew that the Kingdom of God was less about his own personal salvation than it was about building a world where wrongs are set right and all of God’s precious children can share in the abundant blessings God holds out to everyone.
God called Samuel and he answered. Jesus called Philip and Nathanael and they followed. God called Martin Luther King, Jr., and he gave himself up to a vision of America and humanity that continues to inspire and bless us today. A vision of justice, equality, compassion, and love. This vision is more than a dream. It’s a picture of how the world really, finally is. God calls you and me into this church and out into the world. Not everybody hears that call. But we do. Hearing it has brought us here. Living in response to it will bring us forward with God into God’s future. For that future, and for people like Martin Luther King, Jr. who see it and lead us toward it, we now proceed to give thanks. Amen.