This sermon was preached at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC on Sunday, January 18, 2015, the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The text was 1 Samuel 3:1-11.
The new movie Selma portrays the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. not just as a civil rights leader but as a man with a calling from God. Dr. King is remembered today as a political figure and an activist, but the creators of Selma remind us that he was also a pastor, a man of God.
One scene in the movie drives this home in a particularly moving way. It shows Dr. King at home the night before he and his colleagues return to Selma, Alabama. Members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have begun to organize a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. If tensions are high in Selma, they may be higher in the King household. He is tired and knows he has been away too much, and his wife Coretta is weary of enduring the constant threats on their family’s lives, including the lives of their four children.
Before going to bed that night, Dr. King, played by David Oyelowo, picks up the phone and makes a call. A woman answers, and Dr. King says, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” The woman replies, “Surely, Martin, surely”—and then she begins to sing:
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home
The woman on the other end of the line is Mahalia Jackson, played by Ledisi Young. In this scene, the Lord’s voice comes in a pleading spiritual. “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was said to be Dr. King’s favorite song. His last words before being shot in 1968 were a request to have it played at an event that evening. Mahalia Jackson sang it at his funeral.
Dr. King’s sense of calling was what actor David Oyelowo focused on as he prepared to play the role in the movie. Oyelowo, who is actually British, did not try to imitate Dr. King’s speech and mannerisms perfectly. Rather, he concentrated on embodying the content of Dr. King’s personality and message. That is what came through to him most as he studied this great man’s legacy: as Oyelowo puts it, King was “moving in his anointing.” To play the part, Oyelowo did not worry about whether he looked or sounded exactly like Dr. King. Instead, he tried to let God flow through him as he saw God flowing through King.
For Oyelowo, portraying Dr. King was itself a calling. Long before the movie Selma was made, Oyelowo heard God tell him he would play that role. Oyelowo said in an interview, “I do know the voice of God.”
In our Scripture passage this morning, we see a young man receiving a calling. Samuel is to become a prophet and a leader of Israel, but at this time, he does not know the voice of God. Three times, he hears someone call his name, and he runs to Eli, saying, “Here I am, for you called me.” Three times, Eli tells him to go back to bed.
Samuel does not know the voice of God because, as the Hebrew Bible tells us, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Eli’s physical vision has begun to grow dim, and it seems as if his growing blindness could be a metaphor for the spiritual vision of God’s people at that time. We learn earlier in 1 Samuel that Eli’s sons have perverted the office of the priesthood; they are taking for themselves portions of sacrifices offered to the Lord. God has promised that they will be struck down, and he will raise up a new priest. The major flaw in this plan is that this new priest, Samuel, does not even know the voice of God.
The events depicted in the movie Selma occurred after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act made segregation illegal and gave blacks the vote, but of course, things did not change overnight. The vision that Dr. King had cast in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 was not magically made reality by the enactment of a law.
In Selma, as in many other places in the South, local officials instituted poll taxes or arbitrary tests to keep blacks from registering to vote. Those who did register were often threatened with violence. Many African-Americans grew impatient. Some young black activists began to push back against Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence. Visions were not widespread, but frustration, resentment, and anger certainly were, on all sides.
We have experienced similar frustration, resentment, and anger in recent months in this country. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford—these are the names of unarmed black men killed by white police officers in Missouri, New York, and Ohio just in the second half of 2014. The failure of grand juries to indict the officers involved in the first two men’s deaths sparked protests across the country. A national debate erupted over police brutality and race relations. Then, in December, NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were shot dead by a lone gunman, causing shock and sadness on all sides and complicating the debate even further.
Much of the “conversation” has grieved me, mostly because it seems like no one is really listening to anyone else. We are all just waiting to share our opinions, to find someone to blame, and to air our often very understandable griefs.
But listening is what is needed most, and listening is what God calls Samuel to do. Notice how Samuel’s response changes when Eli tells him it is God calling him. Once Samuel realizes it is God’s voice he has been hearing, he goes from the commendable yet perhaps self-centered “Here I am!” to the humble, open, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Roger Nam says this passage moves us from Samuel’s “Here I am” to God’s “See, I am.” Samuel is to become a prophet, and the Greek work for prophet means “advocate,” or one who speaks for someone—but before Samuel can speak for anyone, he must first listen for the voice of God.
What might change in our world if we really listened for the voice of God? Would we know it if we heard it? I don’t mean just a voice in the night—we can hear the heart of God in the stories and experience of other people. We might well look around us and say of our world today, “The word of the Lord is rare in these days; visions are not widespread.” But we are always being offered the word of the Lord in relationships with our neighbors. We see visions wherever the truth that leads to reconciliation is spoken and heard. We can find hope in thousands of small acts of kindness and justice every day—we need only to learn how to look and how to listen.
We learn how to listen for the voice of God when we know that God has a dream. This dream is for all of us, a calling for all God’s people. Desmond Tutu was an Anglican bishop in South Africa during the dismantling of apartheid. He wrote a book called God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time. Bishop Tutu believes that God is saying this to all of us: “I have a dream… Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that My children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, My family.”
Bishop Tutu believes that an end to hostility is not enough for God. Tolerance is not enough for God. Equality is not enough for God. Bishop Tutu says, “An equal you can acknowledge once and then forever thereafter ignore. God’s dream wants us to be brothers and sisters, wants us to be family.”
God’s dream is not fulfilled when we simply stop hurting one another. God’s dream is that we would begin to love each other as brothers and sisters. Tolerance is easy. Equality is easy. Love and reconciliation are hard.
Bishop Tutu says, “Love is more demanding even than law.” This is what the Bible teaches us. The laws of Scripture are just the low bar: God’s dream is that we would aim so much higher. God’s dream is that we would not settle for a lack of rancor but instead reach for true reconciliation. God’s dream is that we would not stop at tolerating one another, at putting up with one another, but instead learn to love one another as family, God’s family.
Howard Thurman offered a word of caution and encouragement in his 1965 book The Luminous Darkness. The hard work of ending segregation was well underway at the time, but he said that was only the beginning. “When the walls are down,” he says, “it is then that the real work of building the healthy American society begins.”
That work began long ago and continues even today. Right now, a group of youth from our church are in San Francisco visiting GLIDE Memorial United Methodist Church. GLIDE calls itself “A radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.” It was there, 10 years ago, that the vision for Love Thy Neighbor was born. Love Thy Neighbor is the monthly meal where our youth welcome our homeless neighbors into this church. Our neighbors come come not only to be fed and to have access to a medical clinic but also to be known and to be loved.
I was able to visit GLIDE the summer before I came to Winston-Salem. One of the things that has stayed with me was how they sang the old protest song, “We Shall Overcome.” It usually goes like this:
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome someday
But at GLIDE, they sing it like this:
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome today
Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome today
We do not have to wait for anything in order to live out God’s dream. We do not have to wait to respond to God’s calling. We are going to get it wrong—Samuel misheard God’s voice, and Dr. King was no saint. It took Eli 3 times to realize it was God calling Samuel; it took 3 demonstrations for protestors to march from Selma to Montgomery; and it took 3 tries before the movie Selma was made and David Oyelowo fulfilled his call. It may take us more than 3 tries to overcome—in fact, we’re probably well over 3 tries already. And still, we cannot wait. The voice of God is calling each of us to take part in the kingdom work of justice, reconciliation and love, not next week, not next year—today.
Remember when I started off by talking about “Precious Lord, Take My Hand?” It was sung at the funeral of another man portrayed in the movie Selma: President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The film highlights the tension between the conflict and cooperation that Dr. King and President Johnson shared. Despite the complexity of their relationship and the complexity of both of their legacies, each of these men were eulogized with the same spiritual about perseverance and trust in difficult times.
God has a dream, and it was reflected in the dream of a man whose life and legacy we celebrate this weekend. This was Dr. King’s dream, and dare I say it is God’s dream, too:
“I have a dream…[that] little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. […] I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’ This is our hope, and this is [our] faith […] With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discord of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. […] And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black […] and white […], Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thanks God Almighty, we are free at last!”
May we all learn to listen so that the whole world might wake up with both ears tingling. May we all learn to respond so that when we do wake up, we might find that God’s dream has become a reality for all God’s children—today. “Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.” Amen.