Happy MLK weekend to you all. Tomorrow would have been the 95 th birthday of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., the Christian martyr who gave his life to pursuing righteousness and justice in this country. Fueled by the gospel of Jesus Christ and nourished with the prayers, hymnody, and community of his church, Dr King was able to stand forward and to stand strong in the face of such tremendous opposition. It seems so self-evident today, what Dr King stood for and was trying to show people – that all people are created equal, in the image of God, that all God’s children of every color and class deserve opportunity, rights, and protection in this life. And yet as we know, in fact if not in name, some of the same evils of his day continue to persist in ours. Racism is persistent; too much wealth corrupts; we are quicker to divide than to unify. True equality is so very difficult to attain. It is so much easier to objectify those who get in our way, so much easier not to care, so much easier to stay with our own, than to do the work to change ourselves and our structures so that all people can be free. But that, in fact, is our call – not just the call but the demand that the gospel places on us. We are called to freedom.
But the thing with freedom is that it’s actually quite hard to live with. Americans love our slogans about freedom – the land of the free, the home of the brave. But it is hard to actually live in true freedom, and protect it for others. Because freedom demands that we grow up.
Now there’s much in our scriptures today that speaks to this demand. There’s the story of the young boy Samuel, who is called by God to speak hard truth to his mentor and father figure Eli. There’s the psalm reminding us how intimately and thoroughly God knows us and is with us in all of our ways. There’s the gospel that shows how Jesus knew Nathanael, and called him to follow on his way. And then there’s the epistle. Such a marvelous epistle reading.
For Paul writes to the people of Corinth: Shun fornication. Are you paying attention now? Not too hard to see what Paul is going on about in this letter! He is writing to the Corinthian church, a community of people who are just on fire for Jesus. They’re so spiritual, they’re speaking in tongues, prophesying, healing, all of it. The Corinthians think they’ve really taken hold of the gospel Paul preached to them, but instead, they’ve run off in all the wrong directions. In the course of this letter, Paul has to remind them of a few basic things: to share their food with each other, to stop mistreating their poorer members, and to think a bit before they go jumping in the sack with just anybody. Developmentally, this community is oh, around 15 years old – one moment an adult, experiencing all kinds of profound spiritual gifts and wisdom, and the next a thoughtless child in need of reprimanding, and apparently, full of hormones throughout. Paul loves them, it is clear, but they exasperate him.
So Paul has to have The Talk with them. Time to talk about sex, baby. Apparently the Corinthians had decided that since they were saved by Jesus and set free spiritually, they could do whatever they wanted with their bodies. Paul writes several chapters of this letter on sex. (Probably a large part of Christianity’s issues with sex come from this section of Paul’s writings – he proudly states that he himself is celibate, and considers that to be the highest calling, while acceding that sadly, not everyone is called to that elevated state. Paul’s personal view of sex, if he had one, was apparently pretty negative. But we’ll set that aside as his own issue, and focus on the larger message here.)
So in the part we just heard: Paul quotes slogans the Corinthians were using, and then argues against them – ‘all things are lawful for me’ – well, yes, but that doesn’t mean you get to just do anything you want. ‘Food is meant for the stomach’ – but no, sex isn’t just another physical need like food. You have a right to make your own choices, he says, you are an adult, in the Christian faith, this is not about a set of rules to follow. But there is a responsibility that comes with that adulthood, to consider how what you do affects you and the community around you. What you do with your body does matter, because God sanctifies you as a whole person, body and soul. And what you do in the community matters, for you are not an atom separate from those around you. Paul is offering this vision of total connection and coherence – each one of us in ourselves, and all of us together as a body. Whatever we choose to do, sexually or otherwise, bears with it the effect it will have on our own selves and on others around us. And when you sleep with someone, Paul is saying, you put yourself under that person’s power – particularly in that context, speaking of temple prostitutes, a part of the actual worship of another god. You’re becoming one with something you say you don’t believe in, something that could hurt you. You are free, Paul says. And when you are free, why would you want to enslave yourself again?
See, it’s worth going to church, because you never know what you’ll hear from the pulpit! But what Paul is saying goes far beyond sex. He is not speaking as a parent to a child, reinstating strictures and laws and rules for how to be good – he is speaking to the Corinthians, and to us, as adults. He is telling us to think, to seek to live our lives with integrity. To become a real adult means aiming for that coherence in our lives, seeking in every way to bring all of our actions and thoughts and behaviors into congruence with who we believe we are called to be. Our decisions, whether sexual or financial or political, all must be in congruence with our faith…or we should be trying to get there, anyway. Not because there is a rule that says so, not because some preacher told me that from the pulpit, but because our focus on relationship with God and real freedom in that love call us to do so.
And sometimes, maybe often, seeking that total integrity in our lives means making very hard decisions, decisions that go against to the world around us, or even to our apparent self-interest. Which brings us back to the other stories of today – the young prophet Samuel, who hears and speaks God’s word even though it means telling his beloved mentor Eli of terrible consequences to come. Samuel has to grow up, to say what it is he is called to say; he has to become an adult, to live in integrity with his God. Dr. King, who stepped forward to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery when he could have just stayed safe with his small congregation. Instead, he responded to the community’s need for a leader and to the growing sense of justice within himself. He could not play it safe and live with integrity. He had to act.
And the supreme example, of course, is Jesus, who lived his life in absolute integrity regardless of the cost. And who set free those around him to do the same – setting them free from sickness, from death, or like in the story of Nathanael today, setting them free from their own cynicism (‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’). Jesus, who sets us free; free to be who we are called to be by God, beloved, grown-up children – free at last, thank God almighty, from everything that enslaves us and dominates us in this world. And when we are set free, Paul would ask us, why would we want to live otherwise?
Why? Because we are afraid, like Samuel was before Eli urged him to speak. Because we are cynical, like Nathanael. Because we are foolish and full of ourselves, like the people of Corinth. Because of a whole host of reasons. We just can’t seem to accept what has been told us over and over again: that we are loved, that we are free, that we are made in God’s image. It’s hard to live this way. But the world around us needs it of us. Our own hearts demand it of us. We can’t just play it safe, stay home, stick with our own kind, ride along on the bandwagon. We have to do the hard work of listening for God’s word to us in the night. We have to follow after Jesus and see what he’s up to. Because God whispers to us in the night, stirs something up in us, speaks to us in the voice of others around us. Some of us may be called to big heroic lives like that of Dr. King. More of us are probably called to smaller, more everyday actions of integrity, that add up to things that change the world. But God is always about raising us up, getting us grown into the full stature of Christ. Human beings, fully alive, the glory of God.
We were made to be free. Be set free by the Holy Spirit dwelling in you. Grow into who you are called to be, and shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.