Of all my homilies, this one's the most about science fiction. But it's also a true story about a rickety contrivance of doing good. (Yep, those old Star Trek sets were as rickety as it gets!) Whenever I tell this story, people love it, and I think we could all use some cheering up right now.
I gave this on January 15, 2006. The readings are 1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51.
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Epiphany is the season of revelation. The word “Epiphany” is derived from the Greek word for manifestation, and the season of Epiphany is about how God becomes manifest to humans. Epiphany invites us to think about how people become aware of God’s presence. When have we seen or heard God, and what made us realize that God was with us?
This morning’s lessons suggest some answers to those questions. In these stories, people first become aware of God indirectly, through other people. Only in hindsight do they realize that God has been with them all along. These stories also suggest that God becomes manifest to us when God has a job for us to do. God doesn’t drop by just for the heck of it. In fact, this sense of calling may be one of the surest indications of God’s presence.
In the story from 1 Samuel, the boy Samuel – who by tradition was about twelve years old when this happened — is serving in the Temple under Eli. “The word of the LORD was rare in those days,” the passage tells us; “visions were not widespread.” Even though he is in the Temple, Samuel no more expects to hear God speaking to him than he expects the lamp to get up and dance a jig. And so, each time the Lord calls Samuel, the boy goes to Eli, thinking that his master has called him. Eli, who has not spoken a word, finally realizes that God has been calling Samuel, and he tells Samuel what to do. “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” And Samuel obeys.
Samuel grows up to become a great and beloved prophet. But I suspect that in this first encounter with God, Samuel listens and obeys as much because he loves and trusts Eli as because he loves and trusts God. Before the boy can hear God, he has to listen to his human master.
In the Gospel reading, we see a similar pattern. Jesus calls Philip, telling him, “Follow me.” Philip, in turn, finds Nathanael, and when Nathaneal dismisses Philip’s claims about Jesus, Philip answers, “Come and see.” Philip follows Jesus; Nathaneal follows Philip. Although Nathaneal quickly decides to follow Jesus himself, he got there by following another person.
In these two stories from Scripture, the gap between listening to another person and listening to God, or realizing that God was the one speaking in the first place, is very short. It takes practically no time at all for Samuel and Nathaneal to recognize their true master, to recognize whose they are. But sometimes it takes much longer. Sometimes it takes years for us to realize who we were really hearing when someone said something that changed our lives. These stories can be very long and winding indeed. I’m about to tell you a story like that. Please bear with me, because the pieces do all fall into place.
Tomorrow we will celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a safe bet that a lot of preachers are talking about Dr. King today. He lived in a time when the word of the LORD was rare, when visions were not widespread. But King had a vision. He had a dream, and he passed it on to others. His assassination, when I was seven years old, is the first national event I remember. I watched people on television holding hands and singing “We shall overcome.” I didn’t know who Dr. King was, but I knew that a lot of people were very sad.
Two or three years later, I started watching Star Trek — already in reruns, since the series had ended in 1969 — and by the time I was twelve, the same age Samuel is in today’s Old Testament lesson, I was a fervent fan. Star Trek portrayed a future where people worked together, even if they didn’t all look alike. That was a vision I needed to see. There had been race riots in our New Jersey town in the late sixties, and my middle school was very uneasily integrated. In my school, you were either white and Jewish and going to college, or black and not going to college. Most of the black students had internalized the message that they weren’t college material, no matter how many caring adults tried to convince them otherwise. Black kids who got good grades were ostracized by other black kids.
I was white and not Jewish. My best friend, Nadia, was black and brilliant. I met Nadia when she started defending me against the bullies who beat me up in the halls between classes every day. We became friends because we were both misfits and because we both loved Star Trek. We talked about the show for hours on the phone every night. In February of 1973, when I was twelve, we went to our first Star Trek convention, in New York City, where my father and stepmother lived. At that convention, we heard a speech by Nichelle Nichols.
If you aren’t Trekkies yourselves, you may not remember that Nichelle Nichols was the black actress who played Lieutenant Uhura, the Enterprise’s communications officer. She was the first African-American to have a major role on a TV series, and Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on television, between Uhura and Captain Kirk. Only as an adult did I learn that during Star Trek’s first season, Nichols had been ready to walk off the show. She was sick of endlessly repeating her only line: “All hailing frequencies open, Captain.” The person who convinced her to stay was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who told her that her people, and young black women in particular, needed role models.
I didn’t know any of this at that convention in 1973. All I knew was that I was in a hot, crowded ballroom with several hundred other Star Trek fans. Most of us were adolescent, pimple-ridden, and somewhat socially challenged. If you’ve seen the movie GalaxyQuest, you can imagine the scene. And the lovely Nichelle Nichols looked out over this sea of acne, and here is what she said. “All of you are here because you love Star Trek. People make fun of you for that. All they see when they look at Star Trek is the bad makeup and cheesy special effects. But you know more than they do. You’re the people who know that Star Trek is about more than cheesy special effects. You’re the people who know that Star Trek is about love, and truth, and peace, and justice. And that’s why it’s your job to go out and change the world.”
Everyone in that room was electrified. Nichelle Nichols had just told us we were worth something. Nichelle Nichols had told us that we had a calling. I decided to become a writer that year, although it took me a while to connect my career choice with what I’d heard in that crowded ballroom. Nadia told me later that Nichols’ speech inspired her to become a NASA scientist; she didn’t quite achieve that goal, but she did get a master’s degree in biomechanics and a doctorate in physical anthropology. When I last heard from her, she was the director of research and development for a company that manufactured artificial joints.
Three years ago, I told this story as part of a conference paper at a meeting of the Popular Culture Association in Philadelphia. When I’d finished, the woman who runs the science-fiction and fantasy area of that very large academic organization stood up and said, “I’m a little older than Susan is, but I was at that same Star Trek convention in 1973, and I heard that same speech by Nichelle Nichols. And here we both are.” Nichols’ speech that day changed the lives of at least three people. When I was researching this homily, I learned that Dr. Mae Jamison, the first black female astronaut, was inspired by Nichols’ career. So was Whoopi Goldberg.
And now I wonder whose words I was really hearing, in that crowded ballroom. Nichols was speaking, yes, but her message of love and truth and peace and justice is surely one that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have applauded. King was a Baptist minister. In a sermon on Loving Your Enemies, he wrote: “We must discover the power of love . . . the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. . . . Love is the only way. Jesus knew that.” The message King proclaimed was God’s.
It has taken me thirty-three years, but I think I finally understand that what I heard, in that crowded ballroom in 1973, was the Word of God. It came to me very indirectly, through many human intermediaries. Only now am I close enough to Jesus to recognize his voice in Nichelle Nichols’ words. But I believed those words the minute I heard them. I believed that Star Trek’s promise to discover “strange new worlds” was really about remaking the world where I lived.
And now, thirty-three years later, I believe the same thing about the Good News Jesus proclaimed, the Good News Christians celebrate during Epiphany, and all year long. We are the people who know that the Gospel is about love, and truth, and peace, and justice. And that’s why it’s our job to go out and change the world.