A Sermon for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday


Epiphany 2
Year A
Come and See


Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42


Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
He couldn’t get it out of his head. The crowd was there as always: the devout older women, mumbling prayers quietly; the younger ones, the ones with bloodshot eyes from the working the long night before; the men: sweaty traders, polished businessmen, the occasional lawyer or scholar, and all manner of assorted drunks, thieves, pickpockets, and politicians. They brought their tales of faith and fortunes lost and gained, of trysts in the dark with somebody else’s spouse, of petty crimes and grand larcenies. It was the same, day after day. He would pray with each one and pull them into the muddy water with him. He pushed them down, holding them beneath the sacred flood and then pull them out, just as they began to panic under the water. They would smile, every last one of them, as they turned back to the rocky shore. And he would motion for the next.

Then one day came someone he would never have expected. It was impossible—this could not be. For he was not like the others, he was pure. John knew him as well as he knew anyone on the earth. But he insisted and John, struggling against the core of his being, relented. They didn’t pray first. There was no confession. John watched him, below the water for what seemed like forever. And when he stood, his white linen robe dripping mud, John took his hand. From out of nowhere, a white dove fluttered and lighted on the man’s shoulder. John stumbled back, blinking his eyes. As he walked away, this one whose life was so intertwined with his own, John suddenly realized that he had never known him at all. He looked back at John from the shore and nodded, slipping away into the crowd. In that moment, John realized his work was ending.

The following morning, he was walking along the path back down to the River, he caught sight of Jesus meandering slowly down the river road. John found himself shouting: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  I’ve been telling you that someone was coming after me that was far more important than I am. This is the one—the one that I’ve been doing all this work for. When he came to me to be baptized I saw the Spirit land on him just like a dove. God told me this was going to happen, that one day the Spirit would come and mark the One who would baptize you with Spirit instead of water. I saw it, yesterday. I’m telling you: this is the Son of God.” The man in the white linen looked at him silently, and walked away.

The next afternoon John stood on the shore, telling two of his followers, Andrew and a friend, what had happened when Jesus came walking back by. “There he is,” John shouted, pointing through the crowd: “The Lamb of God.” But Jesus didn’t even seem to hear. He just kept walking.

Andrew nudged his companion. “Let’s see what he’s up to.” They nodded their goodbyes and trotted along through the street, toward the city, a few paces behind. The man in the white linen turned. He looked them up and down. “What are you looking for?”

For a moment they were speechless. What were they looking for? Andrew blurted out: “Where are you staying?”  

The man in the white linen said simply, “Come and see.” And they spent the first of many a remarkable night with the man who would change the universe. Andrew left for awhile and his found his brother. “We have found the Messiah, come and see.”

As he and Simon entered the house, Jesus rose to welcome them. “Simon Johnson, I’ve been waiting for you. Around here, you’re going to be called Rocky.”

It’s Year A in our Lectionary cycle, which means that most of our Gospels this year will come from Matthew. But this week, we hear from John, the last of the Gospel writers, and in some ways, the most important of all. For John’s version of the Jesus story is not written as a biography, or even as history in any meaningful sense of the term. It is written with a single, defining purpose, as he writes in the epilogue: “So that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” It is a Gospel of questions, and questions answered with questions, from “What are you looking for?” to “What is truth?” and “Do you love me more than these?”  

Well, you might say, we answered those questions when we showed up here this morning, so give us something else, preacher. Of course we are here because we believe, at least on most Sundays between 8AM and noon. But this brief little story of the two days after Jesus’ baptism shows that there’s a whole more to believing than just saying “We believe.”

Let’s start with Jesus’ first words in the John: “What are you looking for?” Now there’s a question to ponder on your bed at night. What am I looking for? True love? A better job? A fix for a broken heart? The replacement of treasure vanished when the banks melted? You’re here, in this place, singing all the songs, repeating the psalms, amening the prayers, eating the bread and drinking the wine, and there’s that little voice inside that moans: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

Because, as Andrew, Peter and their unnamed friend discover, there is a whole lot more to believing than simply believing. First you have to find out where Jesus is staying.

John uses one of his favorite words here: the Greek verb μενω: which means, to stay, abide, last, remain, endure, continue, dwell. It implies a sense of permanence. John the Baptist recognizes Jesus when the Holy Spirit remains upon him. When Jesus provides enough food to feed 5,000, with bushels left over, he tells the crowd to seek food that does not spoil, but that lasts for eternal life. He promises that he will dwell in those who dwell in him. And every time that Jesus stays somewhere, people faith pops out all over.

We would love to believe that Jesus stays in places like this: beautiful buildings given,as the brass plates say, “the Glory of God.” But Jesus didn’t take his new followers into a building like this. He took  them into the city, into the beating heart of humanity and revealed to them that there is where he was staying. Over the next three years, time and again, he would plunge into the muddy waters of people, baptizing himself in their daily lives, giving them small glimpses of what the world could be like if they would only come and see it.

Jesus may come here when we gather in his name, but he stays in the world, a world which he has come into to transform, a world that, in the end, all too often rejects his message. He is staying, not among the religious, but among the rest: a Samaritan woman who had gone through three lousy marriages; another, naked in the city square, on trial for her life, because she had committed adultery, beggars blind and lame, swarms of hungry and sick people. Come and see, he says. This is where I stay. If you’re looking for something, something real, something eternal, you are only going to find it out here, among the people. He disciples learn, slowly, that finding Jesus means looking in the places where no one would expect him. Like John the Baptizer, they would only come to know him when they discovered that that everything they knew about him was wrong.

A year ago this past week, the island nation of Haiti was destroyed in an earthquake that killed a quarter million people. The world responded with huge promises of aid. Haiti, we vowed, would be rebuilt. This time, the rich nations of the world wouldn’t make the same mistakes that plagued Haiti for centuries. This time we knew what to do. But a year later, a million people are still homeless, and Haiti remains as wrecked as ever. The criminal elite that still rules the nation has worked devilishly to stall or stop or steal the help that has come. Rich donor nations have not paid more than 80% of their pledges. Rebuilding a nation means more than just believing that it needs to be done. It’s tempting to believe that Jesus, if he ever was present in Haiti, has surely gone on to more promising fields.  When we ask, “Jesus, where are you staying?” He answers, “Come and see.”

During the past year, Episcopal Relief and Development provided shelter for 10,470 Haitians, medical service for nearly 60,000, food for nearly 30,000, non-food supplies to more than 40,000, water and sanitation to nearly 50,000, and jobs for thousands more. Jesus hasn’t left Haiti, even if others have, and we can find him, if we will only come and see.

On a cool spring evening, April 4, 1968, Martin King was hungry. He was in Memphis, where a sanitation strike had paralyzed the city. He knew he had to speak to the workers, the city leaders and to preach a sermon the following Sunday. In room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, he got up from the desk where he  had been working on his sermon. He shaved, put on his coat and stepped outside his room onto the balcony where James Earl Ray had him in the crosshairs of his 30.06.

Two weeks before that, King had spoken to the sanitation workers and told them: “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. I can hear the God of the universe saying… ‘The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security, and you didn’t provide for them. So you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness’.” The people who heard Martin speak thought Jesus had left them and it was time to take things into their own hands. Following his sermon, riots broke out across the city. The violence broke Martin King’s heart. So he had requested a chance to come back to Memphis, to speak to them again, and this time he would urge them to follow him in a peaceful march, protesting in silent witness the injustice of their lives and livelihood.

He had done that the day before, April 3. That night, at the Masonic Lodge, Martin preached peace and justice like he had never preached before:

We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles, we don’t need any Molotov cocktails, we just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”

And then came the prophetic moment, for Martin had been staying a long time with Jesus. And he knew that staying with Jesus changes you, just like changed Andrew and Peter and their friend.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

At 6:01 PM, on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray squeezed off a single, perfect shot from his hunting rifle. In the days and weeks ahead, some people thought that Jesus had gone on to more promising places, as the cities of the America burned. But Jesus just said, come and see.

This weekend we remember the life and witness of Martin Luther King, Jr. When Jesus asked him what he was looking for, he answered  “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’..That my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And Jesus said to Martin, “Come and see.”

Today, an African American man is the President of the United States of America. A young Indian American woman is the Governor of the State of South Carolina. Because there were people who were willing to stay with Jesus and finish the work that Martin started. It’s not finished yet, and Jesus is still here, bidding us “come and see.”

Yes, Jesus is here in this beautiful place. But more importantly, he is outside those doors, patiently staying, working alongside us to bring his kingdom to our city, our state, our nation, and our world. The work of justice is holy work, and it is not easy work. Sometimes the enemy comes in, sowing seeds of hatred and discord. Sometimes a madman picks up a gun and sprays death into the fields of innocence. Sometimes, we get tired. Sometimes we forget what we are looking for.

But Jesus keeps calling us to come and stay with him and see. If we do, we will find what we’re looking for. Amen.

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