Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
The story of my baptism and the story of Jesus’ baptism, at a glance, look nothing like each other. I said nothing at my baptism, did nothing, didn’t ask to do it, did not walk down to the river amid the throngs of other people. But in my defense, I was only 2 months old. A pastor sprinkled water on my head and while my parents beamed and a congregation made promises to raise me to be a disciple of Jesus- to love me and forgive me and show me what grace looks like. They kept their promises. While Jesus baptism may have looked different, the work of it was the same. It was a declaration that Jesus was beloved God, precious in God’s sight. It was a turn toward a very particular way of living- a life that follows the Gospel. This is the part we sometimes forget when we talk about baptism, is that baptism is a commissioning. It was true for Jesus and it’s true for us- my baptism was a commissioning for me but also for the church that promised to raise me.. For Jesus it was the beginning of his public ministry. He starts it by being named beloved and receiving the Holy Spirit. This is still what we do in Baptism. We name one another beloved of God and then commission them in the name of the Holy Spirit. It’s our commissioning for ministry. We have a long history of baptized people living out that baptism, that belovedness in public ways, and we celebrate one of them tomorrow- Martin Luther King.
King started young, a prodigy of sorts. he went to college at age fifteen, sailed through seminary, and finished coursework for his doctorate before most young adults have figured out what they want to do with their lives. Long before anyone accused him of being a Communist, King had read and critiqued Marx and Lenin. Before he sought to lead a nonviolent struggle in Montgomery, Alabama, King had studied Gandhi. But he had first studied Jesus, and knew that the heart of Jesus’ teaching was justice, peace and hope. It was knowing Jesus, from the Sunday School classrooms of Ebenezer Baptist Church to his seminary classes, that led him to fight for racial justice on behalf of those who were deemed less than human by inhumane laws. He fought for economic justice, working on behalf of the poor and died fighting on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis, TN as part of the Poor People’s Campaign. He called for peace and an end to the Vietnam War. Dr. King was indeed a “drum major for justice.” But what many tend to overlook is the spiritual foundation for that particular drumbeat.
We think of him as a great leader. We remember his speeches, the sit ins, the letter from Birmingham jail, the turmoil in of our country at that time. But it all started in little churches around the south, with King and others bearing witness to what they saw, and what they believed to be true about their God-namely that God was in the business of liberating those who were shackled by injustice, that waters of baptism meant that every person was a creation of God and deserving of God’s mercy and justice. King’s work was deeply rooted in his faith, not in political ideology. He knew the story of God’s freedom, and the new life that was possible not only for the oppressed in American society, but also for their erstwhile oppressors, who whether they knew it or not were trapped in a system that was killing their very souls. King brought a different witness.
Today’s texts are about witness and testimony– John the Baptist proclaiming who Jesus is and how God will be in the world. The New testament lesson is the story of Peter first sharing the Good News that God does not show partilaity but has come that all might follow. He tells the crowds gathered that the waters of baptism are for all people and invites them through his own testimony to follow Jesus into new life.
My guess is that if I told you we were going to have a time of testimony, or go forth to share about Jesus with the people gathered to watch the marathon this morning, many of not most of us in this room would suddenly have somewhere else really important to be. But at some of the most crucial moments in our history, witness and testimony shaped the course of events that lead to dramatic change in the world as we knew it. King’s story is not just one of protest and upheaval against injustice, but the story of one who brought Good news where there was little to be found.
It came at a cost to be sure, but because of his deep faith, King knew where to turn when the cost seemed too high. He tells of one such instance in his book Strength to Love. In January 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott, he received a threatening phone call late at night. He couldn’t sleep. He went to his kitchen and took his “problem to God.” He was at a breaking point of exhaustion and about to give up. He spoke to God and says that he experienced the Divine and “could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’” This gave Dr. King a steadfastness in the midst of chaos, an assurance we could all use a bit more of if we are going to be the kind of disciples that follow the example of our Lord Jesus and his servants like Martin Luther King. It’s exactly what the voice from heaven told Jesus at the Jordan River. You’re mine. I love you. You give me joy. I’ll be with you. Go.
Part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s genius was his recognition that the passage of days, weeks, and years, no matter how long or short, no matter how trivial or important — is no match what God can do. He knew that since racial reconciliation and justice for the poor are part of the Gospel- that God had called him to shine a light under the floorboards of the country, to expose it for what it was and offer new life for both oppressed and oppressor–that ultimately God would triumph.
Our world still seems to miss the mark on the dream often- still filled with brokenness and injustice. But I think if he were still with us, Dr. King will advise that we not lose heart, that we stand strong in the One who we trust to redeem and restore everything. As we remember Martin Luther King this week, let us remember him not just as a political leader, but as a prophet, a disciple, a martyr of the faith we share.
King reminded people when they were most beleaguered, that they were God’s beloved. And what’s more, who worked daily so that what he termed the “Beloved community” could become a reality. It’s not just that we are named beloved as individuals in our baptism, its that all of us together are named beloved by God. And because of that, Dr. King knew that systems and circumstances that oppress cannot stand in the beloved community…so he raised up a generation to try to overturn those systems that oppress and that would say that God does show partiality to one group over another. King and the civil rights movement did incredible work, but that work continues. As we have started the new year, I have been inviting you to do one thing each week to help us remember that we a part of a beloved community, and to strengthen our commitment to be people of compassion and justice. On New Years day, we read the story of the Holy Family fleeing violence in their home country and recommitted ourselves to pray for refugees, and we were invited to make health kits for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. They are due back next week- list is on the table in the back. Last week, we were invited to sign up through the Houston school district to be volunteers in public schools in the North side neighborhood. Today, on the weekend when we celebrate Martin Luther King, I invite us to take a page from his book and consider how you can be an advocate for people in our community who are marginalized. There are lots of ways to do that, so I offer you this one that is an effort of several churches in Houston and beyond. A group of pastors and lay leaders are forming a coalition called Texas Children First. The Texas legislature began their session this week and as they do, we want to be sure the faith based community makes our voices heard. We serve diverse churches, with huge swings along the political spectrum. But all of us felt that our people could connect around issues the primarily impact children in our communities. It has been the moral imperative of every generation to try to leave the world a little better for our children. So Texas Children First is taking up the cause of advocating for our kids around public education, juvenile justice, human trafficking of minors, reform for Child Protective Services and healthcare for children. As of right now, the group is using Facebook as its primary means of communication. The Texas Children First group will link you to other faith based advocacy groups, tell you how to contact your representatives and offers a full description of the groups legislative priorities.
There is a good chance you will not agree with all the priorities listed. I have yet to find a group of people that agree readily on any 5 things when it comes to public policy. But what I have observed is that we tend to want our own opinions to be treated with nuance and understanding with appreciation for the complexity of our own stories that form those opinions. But when we listen to other people’s opinions, we are mostly assessing the purity of the argument, trying to figure what side they’re own and how we can be right at the end of the conversation. I think we can do better. We live in a complex world with no quick and easy fixes to the problems we face. But we make promises to our children when they come for baptism in this place, that we will surround them in grace and love and live before them a life that proclaims that Gospel. Those promises extend to all children in God’s beloved community.
Baptism is a commissioning. It was for Jesus- this moment began his public ministry and public witness. It us for us- it demands of us both inner devotion and a public faith. King knew this and called his callings to account for that in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail- reading I highly recommend if you want to honor Dr. King’s legacy this weekend. It is in that letter that he says “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We are all connected, whether we like it or not. And though our world today feels nearly as divided and divisive as it was in the 1960s, we know like he did that God has showed us another way. So we join in his hope that he shares at the end of the letter:
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.