First, a moment of confession, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend.
I want to tell you about a time I cried in public.
Its fine to cry in public, of course.
Its just that this particular experience was rather emotional for me.
It was either my last year of High School or my first of College
and I was watching a film
on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement.
The film was moving, and it captured the protests and the marches
the vitriol and the efforts by law enforcement to keep things contained
using dogs and fire hoses and intimidation through batons
And I remember seeing Dr. King and others, chin up
speaking truth to power
witnessing to God’s love for all of God’s children
regardless of the color of their skin
or any other condition of their birth.
And I remember the discussion about King’s famous letter from the jail cell
in Birmingham, Alabama.
Injustice anywhere….a threat to justice everywhere.
Amos was an extremist….for Justice
Jesus an extremist…in love.[i]
And I heard this, and I took in the images, and I wept.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a witness.
He testified to God’s powerful word of love and justice and freedom.
I always looked to him as a sort of hero,
someone who did amazing things inspired by the love and the truth
he found in Jesus the Christ.
I was always amazed by his courage and his abilities
and perhaps even more so, by the way HUMILITY fills some of his work.
King understood that HE wasn’t the show,
at least I am convinced of this by reading his works.
King knew that he was pointing to something more important than himself.
He was pointing to Justice. He was pointing to Freedom.
He was pointing to the promised land
where all of God’s children can dwell together in harmony.
He was pointing, too, to Jesus Christ, and what God was doing through him.
King was a witness.
There is this tendency in our faith lives to strive for perfection.
Generally, this can be a good thing, in that it is a motivator
and it helps us keep focused on what we might need to do
or what God wants us to become.
But sometimes we can be confused, I think, about what it is we are doing
and what we ought to be striving for.
I came across this poem this week
that might begin to get to what I’m talking about:[ii]
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.
These words are attributed to Teresa of Avila,
a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic.
She penned these words in a letter sent to her nuns
around the end of her life.
Here we have one understanding of what we might call
an incarnational theology: we are to BE Jesus Christ to the world.
At its core, this understanding of INCARNATIONAL theology
reminds us that God became incarnate—became flesh—in Jesus Christ
to fully bring God’s love for the world.
Teresa of Avila takes this incarnational theology one step further,
and calls on US to incarnate Christ in our own selves,
to BE CHRIST for the world.
But if you look closely at our text for the day,
we are being offered a somewhat different understanding
of our role a disciples.
Here, John the Baptist sees Jesus, the one of God,
the one filled with God’s presence
Emmanuel, God with us,
and John points to him and says: Look! See! There he is!
There’s the one!
John calls attention to Jesus, witnessing to all within the sound of his voice
that THIS is the one who baptizes with the holy spirit.
Later, when John is standing with two of his disciples,
Jesus walks by and John shouts out again
“There he is, the Lamb of God!”
And look what happens:
John’s disciples…they follow Jesus.
And Jesus begins to call his own disciples…
And so, throughout this text, John the Baptist plays a vital role:
he provides testimony, witness, as to who Jesus is,
and points the way so that others may come to recognize
the light and love of God in Christ Jesus.
Do you remember those bracelets that were the fad several years ago
part of the What Would Jesus Do campaign, WWJD.
I was reading about another pastor
who was doing youth ministry around that time
and one of his youth had been given a WWJD bracelet.
And she was wearing it, but it troubled her.
After youth group one night,
she shared that she was struggling with the concept of the bracelet.
The pastor, Rodger, tried to make her feel better about it:
for many, it’s a tangible reminder that we are followers of Jesus,
he said to her,
and that we should try to live our lives guided by his life
in all that we do….
She assured Rodger that she got all of that.
Her problem was that she did not see how it was possible for us
even to know what Jesus would actually DO in any given situation,
let alone try to follow that faithfully herself.
Rodger tried to explain
that we have the Bible and the wider community of believers,
the church, to help us…and she interrupted him, in an exasperated tone…
“Yeah, but don’t you see! I am not Jesus!
I’m fully human, but I’m not fully divine!
I just don’t think it’s fair to even assume that I could imagine
what Jesus would do, because I am not God!”
Rodger would later go on to earn a higher degree
and to teach at a seminary, which suits him well.
He reflected on this encounter with this youth, and with this passage in John,
and offered this wisdom:
“I teach at a seminary and love what I do.
I feel tremendously privileged to journey with these students…
as they prepare for a call to ministry.
I enjoy that there is a clear starting point—
the beginning of each school year in the late summer—
and an ending point—
the end of the academic year in the last spring.
This kind of rhythm fits my soul.
Here is the problem: graduation.
The great majority of our students,
when they finish their academic work,
are conferred the Master of Divinity degree.
Even on the best of days that is a rather audacious claim:
Master of the divine!
Some of them, I can tell, actually believe it!
They are the ones who make me the most nervous.
If I had my way, as soon as they received that parchment
with their name and degree and gold seal on it,
I would like to be standing there to scribble something like
“in progress,” or
“by the grace of God” on the edge of the diploma.
While I fully understand what Teresa of Avila is saying to us,
and even the Apostle Paul,
when he says that we are the body of Christ,
and our lives ought to embody Christ,
it is equally important that we not
take on some messianic identity that says
WE ARE Christ to the world.
It was just a few years ago when a friend and colleague of mine
here at the seminary, someone who saw me working
and was concerned enough with my schedule and commitments
and the hectic pace of my life….
she insisted on taking me out to lunch.
She said it was urgent!
When we sat down at the table, I asked what was going on.
She told me she had some good news for me.
Perplexed, I asked her what the good news was.
She smiled, and said, “I want you to know the Messiah has come!”
Now I was thoroughly confused,
so she told me she had even better news for me:
You are not him!
The real danger, Rodger said, in a distorted theology of incarnation
is that we come to believe
that if we truly are Christ’s body in the world
then if the world is going to be saved, WE have to do it.
But what if, instead of just asking WWJD, What would Jesus Do,
we also asked WWJBD, what would John the Baptist do…
To challenge ourselves to be more like John
to call attention to Jesus Christ
and then say to those within hearing distance:
Hey, Look, See! God is alive! God is in our midst!
The holy spirit is at work
in us and through us and for us and even in spite of us!
Behold! The Lamb of God!
But don’t we have choices?[iii]
Isn’t it true that what we chose to do, matters?
Of course it does.
Choices…about what we will believe and how we will act
…about where we will live and whom we will love
…about what we will do for a living….
…these are all IMPORTANT
and we would be nuts to take them lightly.
As Barbara Brown Taylor has said:
“Belonging to God is NOT a matter of going limp
in God’s arms, after all.”[iv]
We are CALLED to love,
In ancient language—we are indeed called to IMITATE Christ,
and to make choices that resemble the choices Jesus made.
But if we AGONIZE too much over these choices,
we EITHER agonize at our inability to actually fully wholly live like Jesus lived
OR, we fall into that ancient trap of “works-righteousnesss”—
–the fancy way of talking about the old delusion that we can,
by our good decisions
and our good actions—SAVE OURSELVES.
If we will just work hard enough, we tell ourselves,
if we just pray enough
if we just help enough
if we just serve enough
if we just volunteer enough in thankless jobs
if we just strive in service of enough good and “right” causes,
if we give enough — THEN God will claim us in the end.
Jesus will recognize us as his own true disciples because of all the GOOD
we have accomplished.
“Well done, thou good and faithful servant”
is how we might hear it in the Bible
“Oh, what a good boy or girl you are”
is how we hear it as a child.
“Good job, couldn’t have done it without you”
is how we hear it as an adult.
But this is a particularly American form of idolatry—
we have had it drilled into our heads
that God helps those who help themselves!
God does NOT help those who help themselves!!
That is NOWHERE in the bible
(though in a survey, 72% of Americans say it is)
God does NOT help those who help themselves…
…God just helps — all the time, in all situations.
–if you will let God,
no matter how hard you may
or may NOT be working in that particular moment!
A colleague Mark Ramsey puts it this way:
“…what we may have LOST along the way
is a full sense of the POWER of God—
to recruit people who have made terrible choices,
to invade the most hapless or aimless lives
and fill them with light,
to sneak up on people who are thinking about brunch
and smack them upside the head with GLORY….!”
All of this, All of this, is about what GOD is doing in us and through us.
Our choices, our work, our actions, our living as Christ’s body in the world
are so important, because that is indeed how Christ is manifest here.
But it is God who redeems, gifts, empowers, and saves us….
The messiah is here! You are not him! I am not him!
And thanks be to God for that!
So, where is it, in our lives,
where can WE witness to God’s gracious actions in the world?
WHO can we tell,
that might be captivated by the story of God’s love for all people?
WHAT is the injustice that WE can point to and say, Look,
God has something to say about that!
What would John the Baptist Do?
He would point to what God was up to in this hungry, hurting,
and call us to follow.
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, in I Have A Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. Ed by James M. Washington. Harper:SanFrancisco, 1992. pp 83-100.
[ii] “Pastoral Perspectives” for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1. (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky), 2010. pp. 260-264.
[iii] I’m indebted for this section to a sermon delivered by the Rev. Mark Ramsey entitled “Choices” from 2006
[iv] Indebted to and drawn closely from Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way Roman and Littlefield: Lanham, Maryland. 1999. p37-38.
Image: The Witness of John the Baptist by The Master of San Torpé, accessed from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Master_of_San_Torp%C3%A8_-_The_Witness_of_John_the_Baptist.jpg on January 19th, 2014.