Note: this sermon involved a good bit of congregational singing. I have put in YouTube videos in the appropriate places, but to get the real flavor of the sermon, you can listen to it at http://ndumc.org/media.php?pageID=22.)
John 1:29-37 (NRSV)
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
I’d like to build my remarks today around the theme of “Freedom: Not just a promise, but a prayer.” Not just a promise, but a prayer. For it is important to remember that the struggle for civil rights was a profoundly Christian one, IS a profoundly Christian one, and we can trace its origins back even before the time of Christ. This is a little bit of a musical sermon, so let’s start here--finish this line for me: “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go. Oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go.”
The struggle for freedom is a deeply Biblical one, for it has always, always been the case that the world is full of things that weigh us down, that keep us from reaching our full potential as children of God, that keep us from being in relationship with one another. In the church, we call those burdens “sin,” for they keep us from fully loving one another and fully loving God.
John the Baptist sat by the side of the road and saw Jesus coming, and declared, “Here, here, is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John was saying, “I am not the guy. This is the guy who will teach us how to love.” And two thousand years later, Martin Luther King came along, like John the Baptist a voice in the wilderness, saying essentially the same thing: I am not the guy. Jesus is the guy. And you can struggle all you want, but the struggle for freedom is properly attached to Jesus, who came to take away the things that keep us from properly loving God and one another. For the struggle is hard, and unless you attach yourself to that which is life-giving, you are going to find yourself spent.
I think it is important to remember that this weekend, we are celebrating the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior. It is noteworthy that the civil rights movement was led by a Christian minister. After all, freedom is not just a promise, but a prayer. King knew—and John the Baptist knew—that Jesus came to take away the sin of the world, that anyone connected to Jesus would find himself or herself refreshed, more ready to love, more ready to serve. This is the kind of love that binds people together. It is the kind of faithfulness that keeps us connected to God. And it is the kind of grounding that keeps us firmly planted in the soil of righteousness.
Martin Luther King spent his life, like John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus, reminding others that following Jesus required action, required grit. And so, considering that legacy, it has always been interesting to me that Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn was “Precious Lord.” I suppose that I would have thought that he would have favored a protest song with some teeth, with some energy behind it, something that would drive the troops forward, but regardless, Precious Lord was his favorite hymn. In fact, on the night he was killed, his last words were to request this hymn be played at an event that was to be held that evening. It is likewise the case that when he died, it was his request that this song be sung by Mahalia Jackson at his funeral, and so it was.
And I will tell you, the more I have thought about this, the more reflected upon this beautiful hymn, the more I realize that in many respects, it is a protest hymn. It is a song that talks about the troubles of life, which all of us face from time to time, but the most counter-cultural words are found in its last verse, reminds us that God holds our hand and leads us on even after we die. Not even death can stop the work of God, of which we are a part.
I’m sure that in the emotion of Dr. King’s funeral, it felt like more than the death of one man. And, yet, as Mahalia Jackson stood to sing, she did not stop with death. She did not sing, “when the day is past and gone, isn’t it nice to be remembered.” She sang, “when the day is past and gone, even then guide my feet. Hold my hand.” That’s a protest against the culture of death, of oppression, for the promise of God is that the worst thing is not the last thing. I may be tired, I may be weak and work, I may even die, but the worst thing is never the last.
Yes, the worst thing is never the last, but this isn’t just about death and Heaven, as if the whole purpose of living is to get to death so we can go be with Jesus or whatever. Heaven is important, but the defeat of death and the lamb of God taking away the sin of the world are not just about the afterlife. I don’t know about you, but I have to believe that God expects more of me than just biding my time until I die. I have to believe that God doesn’t just want me to die and go to Heaven, but to be a partner with God in the work of bringing a little bit of Heaven to earth. Your eternal life doesn’t begin when you die; it’s already begun. It starts when you accept God’s call on your life. And so your responsibility begins there, too, for the Resurrection is not just about what’s ahead, but it’s about what is here, now!
The great anthem “We Shall Overcome” wasn’t always called We Shall Overcome. Some early leaders of the movement took an old hymn that said, “I’ll Overcome someday,” which was about, you know, just waiting to die so you can go to Heaven, and changed it to “We Shall Overcome,” which is about bringing a little Heaven on earth, about recognizing that we have responsibility to work for freedom now, that we have hope now.
It became the anthem of the movement, and its words ring true now, for we’re not in the promised land yet. We haven’t fully trusted that Jesus came to take away the sins of the world, or, at least, let me speak for myself here, I haven’t let him remove all the barriers that keep me from fully loving God and fully God’s children.
In his last sermon, in Memphis, Dr. King quoted this great hymn, and then he ended this way:
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment—figuratively speaking in biblical words—the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.”
So where does this leave us? I will be honest, when I look at the state of things, I am sometimes prone to despair. We sing about overcoming, and it is nice, but we’re not there yet. After all, some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met still struggle for food. Some of the most faithful people in the world are marginalized simply because of their religion or ethnic status. Some of the most loving people I’ve ever known don’t have their relationships recognized by their own families, let alone the government--or the church. In 2014--2014!--I still somehow find myself on the receiving end of racist jokes about the President of the United States. And, of course, it remains the case that 11 o clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. Knowing it is so is one thing. Recognizing the ways in which my own behavior must change is something else entirely.
Maybe this doesn’t seem like such a big deal. I get that. Look, I’m a young, straight white guy. It is easy for me to look at the world and say, eh, things are not so bad! Things aren’t perfect, but I get along ok. But as I have been in relationship with people who find themselves with their backs against the wall, I realized how easy it is for me to assume that freedom is ubiquitous because I experience it, when it is often the case when that is not so. And when my brother is not free, I am not free, because I am not fully myself unless I am in relationship. This is what it means to be Christian. Christ took away the sins of the world so we could love each other, not so that we could ignore the problems of the world.
Forgiving sins is not about giving you a free pass; it is about relieving the burden that so weighs you down that even dreaming of a just world seems like folly. It’s about relieving the kind of burden that keeps us so weighed down that we stay cynical, so weighs us that talk about this kind of world seems like some liberal fantasy, as if any sermon addressing this stuff is some kind of communist manifesto. But you know what? This stuff isn't conservative or liberal. It's not capitalist or communist. What it is, is "Christian." For this is what Jesus calls us to; it is why the lamb of God came to remove the sin of the world. Taking away sins is not simply a promise, but a prayer, for the removal of sin means the removal of barriers, and that means we’ve got work to do. Freedom isn’t just a promise, but a prayer, for it is always, always being challenged by those who profit from others’ pain. Loving others isn’t just a promise, but a prayer, for if the church excludes others simply because of the gender of those they love, well, the church knows no love at all. Studying war no more isn’t just a promise, but a prayer, for if we will just lay down our burdens and do the work of love, the business of following Jesus, the business of living together as the family of God is not a fantasy, but rather a great dream, and that’s something else entirely. And thanks be to God.