It was just dinner. Simple food. Chili and cornbread. Everyday bowls and dishes around the everyday kitchen table. A couple of cousins, parents and grandparents. Equal parts giggling and whining. The soup bowls emptied and filled again, Then one of the adults asked one of the children, “what was the best part of your day?” “Umm… going to the park!” On we went, around the table, hearing the highlights of each person’s day.
This ritual happens each evening at my brother and sister-in-law’s table. What they do together is a simple version of the Examen, a form of prayer which we have been using here at First Church. The Examen was developed by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit movement. Igantius instucted his followers to look over their days for what he called “consolations” and “desolations”, then, in prayer, to give thanks for the joys and seek healing for the pain. The purpose of the Daily Examen is to point us toward the presence and guidance of God in our everyday lives.
Our practice of the Examen and our reading of scripture raises the some questions. What does God’s voice sound like? How do we know when God is speaking? Our story about Samuel and Eli begins with this introduction: “The word of God was rare in those days and visions were not widespread.” Samuel, Samuel! God called. And called again. And again. And still, all Samuel heard was the voice of his mentor, Eli. Samuel, whose life was dedicated to God before his birth, whose only home was the temple– ironically, did not yet know God. Eli knew God. But his eyesight had grown dim. He looked the other way while his own sons abused the priestly role. Given that the priests in those days also served as rulers, the corrupt leadership of Eli’s sons threatened to destabilize the whole nation.
Yet the storyteller assures us that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out”. Despite Samuel’s inexperience and Eli’s unfaithfulness, together, they heard God’s word. Eli’s family would no longer serve as priests. Instead, this mantle would pass to Samuel and his descendants. Eventually, Samuel would aid in the transition from priestly rule to monarchy, anointing Saul the first King of Israel. Again and again in Samuel’s priestly, prophetic career, he would be the one to stand up to those who abused the vulnerable, to insist that leaders use their power justly. Samuel, with Eli’s mentorship, went on to do great work, courageous work, work that guided the moral compass of his nation.
This weekend, we honor those who, like Dr. King, in their lives and their deaths, have done such great work. We rightly revere those who have given their all to make God’s dreams of justice and equality real in our time. But consider what Dorothy Day once said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” I don’t know the context of that remark, but it is a reminder that God calls us to stand with our prophets rather than standing on the sidelines or standing at a distance. The purpose of their integrity and strength and faithfulness is neither to belittle our efforts nor let us off the hook. God calls all of us to be great. But for most of us, our greatness emerges In the context of our ordinary, everyday lives.
On the Time Magazine website, I came across a collection of photos of Dr. King’s life at home. Here is the explanation provided with the picture on our bulletin cover:
“King said in an interview that this photograph was taken as he tried to explain to his daughter Yolanda why she could not go to Funtown, a whites-only amusement park in Atlanta. King claims to have been tongue-tied when speaking to her. He remembered: ‘One of the most painful experiences I have ever faced was to see her tears when I told her Funtown was closed to colored children, for I realized the first dark cloud of inferiority had floated into her little mental sky.’” (http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1952031_2021405,00.html)
In this photo, Dr. King is not giving a speech to a crowd. He’s not leading a protest march or sit in or getting arrested. He’s simply a parent, having a difficult conversation with his daughter. Her downcast eyes and hand on the cookie, say to me: “I’m pretending not to listen. I don’t want to hear this.” In his face, I see frustration and sadness as he attempts to explain the realities of the world to her. His heart is broken with her heartbreak. He’s searching for words to offer the hope she’ll need to navigate her journey. Here, Dr. King does great work that is also quite ordinary. Parenting is one example of everyday ministry that shapes the world in profound ways. For we still raise our children in a racist society, a society of terrible inequities. In teaching them to understand both the pain of that truth and the promise of a different world, we equip them for their own ministry.
At the heart of our faith is an invitation. The Gospel, the good news of Jesus, is the simple, but wondrous claim that God calls us. Each of us. By name. Just as God called Samuel. To ordinary work. To great work. To great play. Jesus said to Philip, “follow me” Philip went to his friend Nathanael and told him about Jesus. Nathanael had his doubts. Nothing good could come from Nazareth, he thought. Philip didn’t argue with his skeptical friend. He just replied, with simple elegance, “come and see”. Come and see how the way of Jesus unfolds in your everyday life. Come and listen for God’s voice amid the consolations and desolations of your daily travels. Come, follow Jesus in your own ordinary way.
I’ll close with words from Dr. King’s sermon, The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life: “When I was in Montgomery, Alabama, I went to a shoe shop quite often, known as the Gordon Shoe Shop. And there was a fellow in there that used to shine my shoes, and it was just an experience to witness this fellow shining my shoes. He would get that rag, you know, and he could bring music out of it. And I said to myself, “This fellow has a Ph.D. in shoe shining.” What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” If you can’t be a pine on the top of a hill be a scrub in the valley— but be the best little scrub on the side of the hill, Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway just be a trail. If you can’t be the sun be a star; it isn’t by size that you win or fail— Be the best of whatever you are.” (April 9. 1967; from the online archive of Stanford’s King Research and Education Institute)