A Matter of Identity


I got a note on Thursday about the possibility of being in the pulpit this Sunday. So I prepared this message. It turned out that I wasn’t needed after all. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10, 10 – 20; 1 Corinthians 6: 12 -20; and John 1: 43 – 51.

There is a certain degree of symmetry, if you will, in the Scripture readings for today. For as a boy of twelve, I heard God calling me. Perhaps I wasn’t certain that it was God for it sure felt like my mother’s elbow jabbing me in the side to keep me awake during the sermon. But the message that I received suggested something else.

And when my family moved that summer that I was twelve from Montgomery, Alabama, to Denver, Colorado, I made the decision to pursue the God and Country award in the Boy Scouts. In about four weeks, when it is Boy Scout Sunday, I will post some thoughts about that award and what it meant to me then and still does today. But the symmetry isn’t about the call that a boy of twelve received some fifty years ago; it is about the call that boy received a few years ago.

One of the things that I have done over the past few years is “borrow” tricks and techniques from some of the pastors I have worked with and whom I may call friends. Sometimes it is the inclusion of song in the sermon; sometimes it is the use of my background in chemistry and science education. Acouple of years ago, following the lead of a friend, I began to explore creating pieces that centered around Nathaniel Bartholomew, one of the twelve disciples and the center of today’s Gospel reading. When I began looking at the history and tradition of this individual, initially skeptical that Jesus was the One and True Messiah, I felt that I had made the right choice.

For Nathaniel Bartholomew (he is identified as Nathaniel in John and Bartholomew in Matthew; we assume that they are the same individual) was the scholar of the group and the one who would go to Georgia to carry the Gospel message to the world. Since I too am a scholar and one who grew up in the South, it made sense to find ways to use Nathaniel Bartholomew in my preaching persona. And while the Georgia that he would travel to was not the Georgia that John Wesley would visit; it should not take much of a leap for a southern boy such as me to put the two places together.

As the saying goes, I am southern born and I am southern bred and when I die I shall be southern dead. But just because I grew up in the south and was raised by a southern born mother, do not presume that I hold to many of the traditions and characterizations that come with the southern label. One of the things that one has to know is that church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began to think about my identity in and with God was a Methodist Church and one of the better known members of that congregation was George Wallace, then governor of Alabama and in the process of putting his stamp on American politics.

For me to say that I am a Southern boy may cause some to think of one of many stereotypes. I will be honest; I could easily be like so many of my classmates of that time and era who still hold on to a view of the world in which one’s identity is predicated on one’s birthplace. But I grew up in more than one place and it allowed me to see the world in many different ways, ways that would allow me to pursue an identity that is my own and not the product of a time or place.

It does not help that I consider my home town to be Memphis, Tennessee. For some, it comes as quite a shock when they find out that I have really never been to Graceland. It strikes many that anyone from Memphis would naturally have been to Graceland at least one and perhaps twice a year. But, while I may appreciate Elvis for his music, and I do know where Graceland is (having been by it on a number of occasions), such is not sufficient for me to visit. Besides at something like $30.00 per ticket, it is not something I can afford to do.

The first thing that Nathaniel Bartholomew said when Philip told him about Jesus was, “what good can come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was never the place to be from and it certainly never fit into what the prophets were saying. Nathaniel’s response was the normal response.

But Jesus changed Nathaniel’s view when Jesus told him that He, Jesus, had seen him, Nathaniel, under the fig tree. Tradition has it that Nathaniel was reading and studying the Scripture so that he would know what to expect when the Messiah did come. Of course, the Messiah’s arrival was not what he expected but then again no one expected Jesus to be the Messiah at first. Jesus looked at who Nathaniel was, not what he was.

And on this weekend, I cannot help but remember that I was a senior in high school the year Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. Nor can I forget that he came to Memphis in support of sanitation workers who were on strike for better wages and, more importantly, for recognition that they deserved better working conditions as well. There was in this country back then, and is still persistent today, a perception that because someone is of a particular race or economic status then they are not worthy of equality. (My thoughts on this date in history are found at “Where Were You on April 4, 1968?” and “On This Day“)

We have in this country an assumption even today that the poor are shiftless and while we should give them something to eat, we better not give them the “good stuff.” And we best not put out our fine china and good silverware because they are only going to steal it. It would be better if we simply gave them something second class and act as if we were doing them a favor. And yet, what did Jesus say about this? Who would Jesus have invited to dinner? It amazes me when someone tastes the food that my wife prepares for the breakfasts that we host on Saturday and Sunday morning and finds out that this is the food the “poor” people eat. I hate to say it but I am utterly but not completely surprised when someone acts as if the world is coming to an end because we are willing to give a good meal to a homeless person instead of just slopping something on a paper plate and expecting them to like it.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians can be used, I supposed, in many different ways but I think he points out that when our lives are superficial, when our relationships have no depth, our lives have no meaning. And if our lives have no meaning, how can we expect to have any future?

Samuel heard God calling not one time but three times. It is not easy to get to the truth immediately. In a world where superficiality is the norm and not the exception, in a world where we have no desire to look at things in depth because it takes too long, we are willing to except artificial as real and false ideas as the truth. There was a note in The New York Times the other day that pointed out that the economic ideas being put forth in New Hampshire last week as the way of saving the economy of this country were actually the reason why the economy was in trouble.

I would also argue that those who call themselves Christian but turn a blind eye to the suffering of the poor and helpless are a reason why this country is in trouble. Right now, the United Methodist Church is seeking to change the direction that it is headed. The numbers say that the UMC will be dead in twenty-five years. Unfortunately, from where I stand, I don’t see the answer that others may see. Because what I see are many churches that are blind to the condition of the people in their communities. Oh, there are food banks in practically every church in town but there are afterthoughts and if people in the churches were pushed, they would tell you that they would rather not have them.

But I remember that John Wesley saw the condition of the people and the response of the church and he worked to change the perception and the outcome. The first Sunday school, the first credit union, the first health care clinic were all products of the Methodist revival of the 18th century. And because John Wesley and those who followed and walked with him choose to go into the mines and the prisons, the factories and the streets, the violent revolution that ravaged France did not occur in England.

If you say that you are a Methodist, then you lay claim to that heritage that changed the world some two hundred and fifty years ago. If you say that you are a Christian, then you claim to follow Christ, to do the things that he did when he walked the dusty roads of the Galilee.

The Old Testament reading is about God calling the young boy Samuel to service in His name. And for some, those first few verses are all that matters. But those who prepared the lectionary also included the next set of verses, verses that are not often read. But I choose to include them today because I am concerned that church is in the same situation today as it was some three thousand or so years ago. There are those who have and are destroying the church; they have taken the name Christ but only superficially. It is not just the television evangelists who would have you send in a couple of dollars for a small vial of oil or a piece of cloth but those who come to church on Sunday and then leave Christ tucked away in a storage closet until they come back the next week.

Jesus promised Nathaniel that he, Nathaniel, would see great things before he was through. And that is a promise that is given to us as well. Just as Samuel was called, just as Nathaniel was called, so too are we called today to follow Christ. We do not have to answer that call but if we are to be who we say we are, we have to. It is a matter of our identity, of saying and being who we are.

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