The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Epiphany 2B 2021, January 17, 2021
1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Faith, Openness, Love, Listening, Obedience, Watchfulness
Over the last six weeks, through Advent, Christmas, and the Epiphany, we’ve heard a lot about Jesus, about his coming and birth, but no words or utterance directly from him. Finally, after this rather long dearth, the silence of our Savior is broken. And what are the first words he speaks to us this morning? Did you hear it in the gospel?
Two simple words, yet how great is their sum (Psalm 139:16). For myself, it’s as if Jesus has thrown out a lifeline to hold fast to—a mooring in the turmoil of a deadly pandemic and political chaos—a plumb line to measure veracity with.
In the Greek, Jesus’ summons to follow him—akoloutheo—means to walk the same road as he does, to go in the same direction as he does, to be in the same way as he is, and to join him as a disciple. His call to “follow” is in the present tense, meaning now, in time, not theory; and in an active voice, meaning that without a doubt Jesus is doing the calling. Lastly, his call to follow is in an imperative mood, meaning Jesus issues a command to the hearer that the action be taken.
So how is it that we follow Jesus? Do we trail behind, walk alongside, dart ahead, or wander off? Probably all of the above. Because the road we walk with Jesus will be both familiar and foreign, an even plain and a rocky winding way. To go the same way as Jesus is to follow the light—his light—light that will lead us into new life, but not before we pass through the shadows of the world and self. To join Jesus as his disciple means we follow him through the kingdom of this world as the kingdom of God—the Beloved Community—is revealed.
To follow Jesus is to have faith, be open, love, listen, obey, and be watchful. Faith, openness, love, listening, obedience, and watchfulness are each a facet of what it means to “follow” Jesus. To follow Jesus isn’t merely an idea or intellectual pursuit but an embodied incarnate, visceral, and sacrificial path. As St. Paul writes: Glorify God in your body.
F is for Faith: I would imagine that some of us might prefer to think of our bodies as muscular and robust rather than flaccid and weak. The better to glorify God with, perhaps. And the same goes for our faith, that it’s rousing and strong, carrying us through the best and worst of times. But faith is often weak in the knees or like a cloud of unknowing. Poet Emily Dickinson writes that we believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, but it keeps believing nimble. Being light on our feet might be of help in following our ever -on-the-move Lord, but I don’t think that following Jesus has as much to do with what kind of faith we have or how much faith we have, as it does with: is the faith we have enough? If the faith we have is enough—and it must be because Jesus tells us it has only to be the size of a tiny mustard seed to move mountains (Matthew 17:20)—then it is by faith that we take the first following step, followed by all of the rest until we come to the end of our footfalls and days.
O is for Openness: To follow Jesus, we must be open to seeking God and not our own advantage. We must be open to change, and to being changed: by the Holy Spirit, by each other, by the Word and Sacrament. With open hands, we receive the body of Christ, that our body, mind, and spirit may be opened to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We pray with opened hearts for the Lord to lead us, to guide us in the way he wants us to go, as individuals, as the Church, as a people.
At the heart of our being open is the willingness to know ourselves, and to be known by God through and through. This innocence of openness and vulnerability of being known is akin to intimacy as our psalmist sings: Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.
In our Old Testament passage, the Lord knows Samuel before Samuel knows the Lord, who whispers and calls to him in the quiet of the night over and over: Samuel! Samuel! In our gospel, Jesus knows Nathanael, and his deepest heart, before Nathanael knows him, asking about Jesus: can anything good come out of Nazareth? no sooner to ask: Where did you get to know me, Jesus?
L is for Love: As Julian of Norwich professes, love is the meaning of the Lord. Simply, without love, nought has meaning, as St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians (13:2-3): if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. If we follow Jesus without love, we go against God. Can we follow the light with forbearance, without conceit or arrogance or keeping score? Can we accept others on a different path with love and kindness? Can we follow Christ in all?
L is for Listening: Theologian Paul Tillich says that the first duty of love is to listen. We will hear of this first duty of love at the end of Epiphany-tide, at the Transfiguration of Jesus atop the mountain when God commands the stunned disciples: Listen to him! my Beloved Son, Jesus, the Christ.
In our Old Testament passage, so too Samuel struggles to hear, and thus to listen. But finally, Samuel hears and says: Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. To hear God, to hear God call our name, we must first listen—deeply, silently, reflectivity, reverently— without distraction, strategizing, or composing an answer, a defense, or an argument. Our first duty of love is to listen so that we can answer: Here I am, Lord.
O is for Obedience: In the most basic sense, following Jesus means saying “yes” to Christ. But with this response comes new response-ability: the ability first to hear and then to obey, as the etymology of the word implies. To listen is to hear is to obey or respond. But our response and responsibility to Jesus is not meant to be blind but deeply discerning. A great follower of Jesus himself, the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whom we commemorate tomorrow, put it this way: That old law about ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind. But the time is always right to do what is right. On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” Sometimes, it seems easier to know what is wrong than what is right, and easier to do nothing than to do what is right. But obedience to God is never as simple as bending the knee, nor do we ever follow Jesus in lockstep.
W is for Watchfulness. The last words we heard from Jesus before this morning, way back on November 29th, Advent 1, were “keep awake”; what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake (Mark 13:37). To follow Jesus, we can only be awake, attentive, and aware. Our paying full and tender attention to ourselves, to the world, and to God is indeed unceasing prayer, and the rarest and purest form of generosity or gift, as writer Simone Weil asserts. Wakefulness is the deep internal work of the light that casts out the darkness of fear, hatred and violence within, so that we may walk with Jesus in freedom and peace. Watchfulness is counterpoint to the “graceless will” by which we all sometimes endeavor to follow, or lead.
Follow me, Jesus says. Yet not only is our Savior in the lead but bringing up the rear: You press upon me behind and before, and lay your hand upon me (Psalm 139:4).
May we feel the touch of Jesus’s hand upon our shoulder. May our faith be enough, and our hearts and minds be open and clear. May we love, love a little more, and love yet more in ever widening circles and spheres. May we listen to the One who died and rose for us. May we humble ourselves to the Word made Flesh in obeisance to the Prince of Peace. May we be alert to the presence of the Lord, and ever watchful for his coming.
Let us shine, sisters and brothers, with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth (the Collect of the day). May the Beloved Community—the Kingdom of God—be manifest here and now with justice and equality for all. Amen.