Lord may we be illumined by your Word and Sacraments and shine with the radiance of your glory. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Historically, credit card companies have had some pretty memorable advertising campaigns. Amex may be the first one that comes to mind. American Express: Don’t leave home without it. VISA had VISA: it’s everywhere you want to be. There was It pays to Discover when Discover card introduced its money back idea. And MasterCard had a whole series of successful campaigns. The first: I’ve got clout. Then Master the Possibilities and more recently the itemized list ending with a priceless encounter: Some things money can buy. For everything else there’s MasterCard.
The card that owns the airwaves these days is Capital One with a series of ads featuring the actor Samuel L. Jackson or Jennifer Garner. Every ad ends with the now very familiar Capital One tagline – Now tell me, “What’s in YOUR wallet?”
I was thinking about that this holiday break as I culled through my wallet wanting to take only needed items with me to travel. Have you been through your wallet lately? Mine was a veritable repository of my life; so many slips of paper and pieces of plastic that spoke of who I am and where and how I spend my days and money. There was a Stop & Shop card, Palmer’s card, CVS, Heights Pizza, Darien Library, REI rewards, Costco, Triple A; there were insurance cards, appointment cards, 3 depleted Starbucks cards, a license and a lucky Irish punt I’ve carried forever. About the only thing that wasn’t in my wallet was a Capital One credit card!
Which of those things though, I began to wonder, was my calling card? The card I’d leave behind to mark my spot in the world. Well that card wasn’t there, as it doesn’t come in 2 X 3 inch lucite packaging. No one rummaging through my wallet would find evidence of my most important identity. That calling card comes with a splash of water and a mark upon my brow.
As Christians, Baptism is our calling card. By it we are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever. Now to be clear, I believe that baptism is bigger than the liturgical rite we’ll experience here today, that by our very being, having been imagined in the depths of God’s love and in the expanse of eternity, having been grafted onto family trees and made in the image of our creator – all that is part of our baptism. We are from our very beginnings baptized into Christ’s body, born children of God and inheritors of the Kingdom.
What the sacrament of baptism does for us is to allow us to mark and remember those blessed beginnings and to claim our calling card. To listen for God calling to each of us as he called to Samuel and Nathanael whose callings we read about this morning and to Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life we celebrate this weekend.
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Today’s readings are among my favorite of all the lectionary pairings [and a perfect for this baptismal Sunday.] First there is the beautiful nighttime calling of young Samuel. Can’t you just picture that? I imagine Samuel as a ‘tween, maybe 10 or 12, his body not yet changed but his voice beginning to crack, his features moving all over his face. What was he dreaming about there on his mat at Eli’s house, having been brought there as young child, dedicated to God in thanksgiving for the miraculous gift that he was to his once barren mother. Did he lie spread-eagle, owning the world, dreaming of skipping stones and catching fish, or was he curled on his side, missing his mama, wondering what was in store for him.
What did God’s voice sound like, do you think? Was it a forceful Samuel! Samuel! We might think so from the exclamation points, but those were added later; the original Hebrew would not have had them. Could it have been a conspiratorial Samuel? Samuel? Gad had an adventure in mind! Or was it a matter-of-fact Samuel. Samuel. We know that Samuel will be tasked to deliver harsh news to Eli; does God’s voice reflect that? Does it sound the clear call to take up his cross and follow. Samuel, c’mon man, you know you have to do this.
The idea of hearing God’s voice calling us is an interesting one, isn’t it? The closest I’ve come was when reading a passage from Isaiah, right here in this church, at that lectern, when the Spirit was roiling my waters and I was just divining a call to the ministry. The reading was from Isaiah 6 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” I felt like God was asking me the question and the voice that answered came from somewhere deep within; it was mine but it wasn’t. It was more forceful, more clear, it was God’s spirit within that spoke for me.
I’ve learned over the years that when we get ourselves out of our own way, that’s when we best hear God calling.
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This weekend we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr., [and this morning we welcome the choir from St. Paul’s Choir School; we’re glad to have you with us again.] Well Martin Luther King had a very Samuel-like encounter with God. He recounts this moment in his book, Stride for Freedom, and commentators have subsequently come to call it King’s Kitchen table epiphany. It happened on January 27, 1956, so it was in fact a word in due season as the Bible says.
King was in Montgomery Alabama, having come to be pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. As the new kid on the block and at the urging of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, pastor of the First Baptist Church, King reluctantly had become president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the pastors’ group that was behind the bus boycott that began with Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white man.
When I read about this again this week in preparation for today, I was particularly struck by the fact that King at that point was only 26 years old, the age of my boys. He was still a boy, really, not far from young Samuel. He wasn’t looking to be bold and courageous; he just wanted a simple pastoral gig before completing his doctorate, before a presumed career in academe and the heady world of philosophical theology. Proverbs tells us: A man’s heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps. (16:9) King’s heart was in the right place, and the Lord’s direction soon became clear.
As the bus boycott continued, and its economic impact began to be felt, King was besieged by hateful phone calls, death threats, ugly words of hate and bigotry. Some days he’d get upwards of 40 calls, threatening his life, his wife’s, his little 10 week old baby girl’s. Mostly he could let the fear roll off his back, but on January 27, 1956 it all felt too much, way too much. After a particularly menacing call in the middle of that night, King retreated to the quiet and dark of his kitchen.
In Stride Toward Freedom he writes:
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.1
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Like Nathanael whose skepticism was turned instantly to commitment by his encounter with Jesus, King’s encounter the Lord that night gave him the courage needed for the hard work ahead.
That courage is available to each of us every time we remember our baptism. Every time we retrace our calling card. How do you know me we ask God? And we hear him answer, I saw you under the fig tree, I saw you at the lectern, I saw you at the kitchen table, I saw you held by your parents at baptism, I saw you prayed for by your godparents night after night, I saw you in the midst of the great congregation.
As it happens today’s gospel includes the best advertising slogan there is, not for a credit card but for God, for a life lived in faith, for making church part of your and your children’s lives. It’s spoken by Philip. The camera zooms in, Philip starts to pull out his wallet and then shaking his head he puts it back in his pocket. He holds out his hand, instead. Looking for a life of joy and wonder? Come and see, he says. Come and see. In the name of God who seals us and marks us as his own forever. Amen.
1. Martin Luther King Jr, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1st edition (Harper & Brothers, 1958), 124–125.