Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42
Good morning. Tomorrow we celebrate the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To be honest, I’m always a little nervous about preaching on this particular Sunday. I wonder what I could possibly say. I’m a 40-something white guy; I’ve never experienced racial discrimination. I’ve never been on the receiving end of racism. And I was born after Dr. King was assassinated. It’s not like I can point to things I did during the civil rights movement and share the story of how I participated in that work.
I can stand up here and tell you racism is bad, but you already know that!
I don’t think any of you are posting racist rants on Facebook.
I highly doubt that any of you are going to Klan meetings.
So why can’t I just let this be? As I said, Dr. King was murdered before I was even born. The civil rights movement succeeded in changing a lot of unjust laws. It seems like the work has already been completed. But it hasn’t. Racism and prejudice still exist. There is still a racial divide in this nation. We are also divided by wealth and social class. And we are called to mend the breaches in our world.
There’s a lot going on in our reading from the Gospel of John. Among other things, it’s a call story. That is, this passage ends with Jesus calling two of his disciples, Andrew and Peter. Jesus calls them into his work, which is, according to John the Baptist, taking away the sin of the world. John testifies, saying: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Notice that John the Baptist says “sin,” not sins. This is really important.
We tend to think of sin as a collection of bad actions. All the little things and all the big things that we do that hurt others or offend God. All the bad things we do and all the good things that we fail to do. Which makes it all about us and all about individual behavior.
That is NOT how sin works in the Gospel of John.
In the Gospel of John, sin is anything that separates us from God. Sin is a category of relationship. Sin is separation from God. Sin is a lack of relationship with God or a fractured relationship with God. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus takes away that sin and restores the relationship. This is accomplished through the incarnation—through the very existence of the human Jesus in the world: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, therefore, takes away any separation from God and makes it possible for all to be in the same kind of relationship with God that Jesus has with the Father.”
In last Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist actually baptizes Jesus. In today’s reading, John the Baptist announces that Jesus has been baptized with the Holy Spirit—that is, John doesn’t do the baptizing. Instead, the Holy Spirit equips Jesus for his work of reconciliation.
John says: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” The word that is translated as “remained” is the Greek verb meno. It can also be translated as dwell or abide. This is really important. It’s so important that it appears in the Gospel of John over forty times. This is how the gospel writer understands the relationship between God and Jesus—God abides in Jesus through the Holy Spirit, which descended on Jesus and dwelled in Jesus. This is the essence of “the relationship between Jesus and God, between Jesus and his disciples, between the believer and God.”  We are also baptized into this same relationship.
As we are baptized into this relationship, we are charged with carrying on Jesus’ work of reconciliation. But sometimes I wonder if we really want to take on that work. Over the last few years, I’ve heard lots of people ask why there hasn’t been another civil rights leader like Martin Luther King, Jr. A lot of well-meaning people say they would like to get involved, if only there were another leader of Dr. King’s stature.
That statement misses two inconvenient truths. First, a lot of well-meaning, middle-class people from all across this country had the opportunity to get involved in the civil rights movement. A lot of people had that opportunity, and chose not to get involved.
My parents went to Penn State in the 1960s. My mother told me that Dr. King came to campus to give a speech in 1965. She chose not to attend. She wanted to hear him speak, but she was afraid—afraid of telling her father that she had gone to hear Dr. King.
My grandfather Bohannon was born in Tifton, Georgia in 1919. It’s about sixty or seventy miles north of Florida. We’re talking about the deep South. I’m told that my grandfather had all the attitudes about race and all the prejudices you’d expect in a white man, born in rural Georgia. He also had a bit of a temper.
So, my mom was afraid that my grandfather would yell at her or shame her. She didn’t want to hear the stream of awful words that might have come out of his mouth. It was easier to go to the library that night, or just stay in her dorm. She missed a great opportunity. Many people saw the unjust laws in the South, yet many fewer people actually got engaged in the work of reconciliation.
That work continues to this day. And yes, there are leaders who have picked up Dr. King’s mantle. In the last couple years of his life, King launched the Poor People’s Campaign. King recognized that poverty was a barrier to justice for black and white people, and that poverty contributed to racial segregation. A few years ago, the Rev. William Barber II, an African-American pastor from North Carolina, reconstituted the Poor People’s Campaign. That’s one example of a contemporary civil rights leader, but there are many others. The question is, are we actually looking for leaders to follow?
Last Monday, I was scrolling through Facebook. One of my mentors in ministry, Dave Carver, posted his sermon from last Sunday. He preached on Isaiah 42:1-9. We heard the same passage in worship, and it’s a lot like today’s reading from Isaiah. Both texts are referred to as servant songs, but the identity of the servant is not specified.
Lots of scholars, both Jewish and Christian, have debated the “true” identity of the suffering servant. Some have argued that the servant must be some historical figure. Many in the Christian tradition believe that these servant songs point toward Jesus, but even Christian scholars have offered other possibilities for the identity of the servant.
My friend Dave suggested that the reason the identity of the servant is left unspecified is because it applies to all of God’s chosen people, Israel. But we don’t want that to be the case. We want the servant to have a very particular identity, because then the servant isn’t me. Or you. Or any of us. The work is already done. By someone else. Sound familiar?
If there’s no great civil rights leader in our society right now, if we don’t have someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead us, then we don’t have anyone to follow and we’re off the hook. Or, if we had another Dr. King, then, well, there would be someone else to do the work. Either way, we’re off the hook, right?
Though the laws in our country have changed greatly since the 1950s and 60s, racism and poverty still persist. Racism and poverty still separate us from one another. Sin is a category of relationship; separation is sin. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to eliminate that separation. That’s the work of reconciliation.
Having said all that, I know that many of you participate in this work. I know that you volunteer for the Open Door, the Sanctuary program, Family Promise, and youth mission trips. I know this. Those are important things, holy things. But are we abiding in those places, or are we just visiting? Are we mere tourists in these ministries, or are we partners? Are we trying to relieve our own guilt, or are we abiding with the people we serve? Are we building lasting relationships? Are we listening to the stories of people who don’t look like us? Are we open to hearing their pain?
I can’t answer these questions for you. If you feel like you’re already abiding with people who don’t look like you, with the poor and the hungry, the widow and the orphan, the prisoner and the stranger, that’s great! May God bless you in your ministry. And if you feel that you are fully engaged with the work of reconciliation, then go and make disciples. Recruit others into your ministry.
And if you are looking for new ways to participate in this holy work, let me suggest some baby steps. First, come to Bethel AME this afternoon for the worship service in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Listen to the speakers, and then engage in fellowship and conversation with the other guests. These are all ways to engage in the work of reconciliation. Let us follow Jesus and abide with the poor, the needy, and the people who don’t look like us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to continue Jesus’ mission of reconciliation among all people. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 29.
 Lewis, p. 30.
 Dave Carver, “Naming Names,” retrieved from: https://castyournet.wordpress.com/2020/01/12/naming-names/