“Find a voice in a whisper.”
When I was ten years old one of my best friends was a girl who was bused to my school from across town. I don’t remember much about how or why, I just knew there was a bus that brought kids to my elementary school that did not live in my neighborhood. Deborah and I enjoyed playing together at recess, but she didn’t come home to play with me, and I never went to her house after school. I didn’t know it, let alone understand it, and we didn’t talk about it – only perhaps in whispers. It was a time of desegregation in the cities in Connecticut, and all across our nation. It amazes me that it was fifty years ago. How times have changed – or maybe not.
How many of you have seen the recently released movie “Selma”? If you haven’t – go. If you’ve got middle schoolers – bring them along with you; give your high schooler the cash to go with their friends.
In a nutshell, “Selma” begins in 1963, when local African Americans, who formed the Dallas County Voters League, joined by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, launched a voters’ registration campaign in Selma, Alabama. They renewed the effort to register black voters; most of who had never been able to vote because of discriminatory requirements and practices. These local leaders invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to join them in their regional protests. A pivotal scene in the movie depicts an event on March 7, 1965, when hundreds of peaceful civil rights demonstrators set out for Montgomery, fifty-three miles away, to march for voting rights. Only a few blocks in, as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were beaten back by Alabama State Troopers. The incident and the images carried in newspapers and on television shocked the nation and the world. It became a turning point for the civil rights movement.
For the violence against them didn’t stop their call for justice, Dr. King put out a call for anyone throughout the nation to join him in attempting to cross the bridge again. Thousands showed up of all races, creeds, and ages. However, when they reached the point where they were about to face the state troopers again, he stops, and kneels down, head bowed. Everyone behind him follows suit. He then gets up, turns around, and walks away. He received a great deal of criticism for not marching ahead, and we are left wondering, what was going on in his mind at that point?
King organized. King marched. King preached. King prayed. It is the latter that is not usually discussed when we talk about the legacy of Dr. King. But Dr. King reveals what the prophet Samuel affirms: prayerful listening leads to prophetic proclaiming. He had a relationship with God that came first. When speaking out, he always stopped and bowed his head in silence before he acted. King believed “that activism prefaced by prayer can be most effective.”
He was praying. And listening. That’s what he was doing on the bridge. And God told him to turn around. At that point in time, there was no need to go forward. The nation – the world – had seen and heard the truth.
When have you been still in order to listen to God? Has God ever told you to turn around, turn the other cheek, speak out against an injustice? The Gospel and Old Testament passages for today focus on listening to God’s call to us. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians outlines the responsibility of living out such a call, once we have discerned what God is telling us to do.
The Epiphany season is a time of call and discernment. We learn who Jesus is and how we are called to follow him and God’s Way. We hear a variety of stories of how he called the disciples; this morning was the call of Nathaniel, a friend of Philip who was found sitting under a fig tree. Jesus knew the type of person Nathanial was. He knew whom he was calling. You see, in biblical times a fig tree was a favorite shady place for personal prayer, a place considered to be a place to meditate on God’s mighty works. Jesus knew that Nathaniel had the capacity to listen; to listen to God.
Listening is important for developing one’s personal spirituality. And that provides fertile ground for social transformation – the kind of transformation that Jesus proclaimed and taught through his words and actions. To truly follow Jesus requires the capacity to listen, question, and ultimately respond.
God speaks and calls Samuel four times, “Samuel! Samuel!” (vv. 4, 6, 8, 10), but three of those times, Samuel thinks it is the elder priest, Eli, who is calling him. It is not until the fourth time, after Eli tells Samuel that it is God, that Samuel responds to the call with, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (v.10). At first, Samuel does not know God’s voice, but he soon realizes that God is the foundation of his future prophetic work.
It takes practice to listen well and discern that God is speaking. We may not get it the first time, or the second, but we need to be prepared for that moment when we do recognize the voice of God. This past week I participated in a training regarding having “constructive conversations,” especially in times of anxiety and conflict. One of the key skills involved “active listening” – not getting ready to respond when a person is speaking, but truly listening to what they have to say. Listening so well that you would be able to repeat back to them what they said if needed. Speaking, listening, and hearing go hand in hand.
Hearing God’s voice was critical for the prophetic witness of Dr. King. In January 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott, he received a threatening phone call late at night. He couldn’t sleep. He went to his kitchen and took his “problem to God.” He was at a breaking point of exhaustion and about to give up. He spoke to God and says that he experienced the Divine and “could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’” His fears and uncertainty ceased because God spoke and gave him “inner calm.” Sometimes God came through the voice of others who prayed with him; through the Gospel that Mahalia Jackson sang over the phone in the middle of the night to him. He knew he couldn’t do it alone. God provided the interior resources for him to do his social justice work. But he needed God to speak first. By listening, Dr. King heard the voice of God and knew what he had to do – speak out against injustice in our society, and act when necessary.
Our time today is not that different than the Civil Rights movement of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Those were times of civil unrest, which we are seeing around the world today. Nationally and globally our news has been full of violence, hatred, and disregard for the dignity of human beings. It is a time when we need to listen to the voices of the prophets who are among us. Perhaps he or she is listening now, waiting to act and lead. Perhaps there is a Martin Luther King, Jr. in our midst, a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness.
The roots of social and civic engagement are listening skills. Before speaking into situations of injustice in the world, silence is required with an open ear to the One who loves the world. God speaks, but do we listen?
Dr. King stated, “The ultimate measure of a [person] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
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 – through prayer and through action. How we use our gifts, body and soul, to proclaim the Good News, means to follow in the Way of Jesus.
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 today. Know that each of us has a calling from God, and each of us is known by God down to the hairs on our head – our strengths and our weaknesses.
As we celebrate the birthday of Dr. King tomorrow, I invite you to reflect upon one of his quotes, in relation to following the Way of Jesus: “Find a voice in a whisper.”
Find a voice in a whisper.
Note: “Find a voice in a whisper” is from “Why We Can’t Wait” by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964) and includes his letter from a Birmingham jail.
This sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, Connecticut on January 18, 2015 (Epiphany 2: Year B)