Monday, January 21, 2008

Come and See: A Sermon

Here is the sermon I preached yesterday at HappyChurch. I used Martin Luther King quotes and bits of liturgy throughout the service. I read the scripture and then the choir sang the spiritual "Give Me Jesus" (usually the anthem comes before the scripture). I preached, and then we all sang the spiritual again, from the UCC hymnal. Surrounding the Word with song in that way was very effective.

The text of "Give Me Jesus" in the UCC Hymnal is:

1. I heard my mother say (repeated twice)...Give me Jesus.
2. At midnight was my cry...Give me Jesus.
3. Oh, when I come to die...Give me Jesus.
4. In the morning when I rise...Give me Jesus.

Refrain: Give me Jesus, Give me Jesus. You may have all this world, give me Jesus.

This set of verses was slightly different from the anthem, so I decided at the last moment to sing the opening verse to begin the sermon.

I had heard the choir rehearsing "Give Me Jesus" the week before and it started working on me together with the John reading, and by early last week I had a simple outline in my head. This was one of the hardest sermon-writing processes I've ever had, though, as I found myself thinking about the spiritual, and Dr. King, and then the trial and then just getting lost in all the emotion and memories and fears about the trial and protest. So difficult to stay present to the task at hand. I didn't want the sermon to be some sort of therapy session for me (although if you read between the lines, you know all that experience is there). So it was a long haul.

But here it is.

January 19, 2008

Text: John 1: 29-42

I heard my mother say
I heard my mother say
I heard my mother say
Give me Jesus.

Imagine the mother.
Imagine that her husband was sold away that day.
Or that her children were sold away that day.
Or that she was sold away that day.

Imagine the mother.
Imagine that she picks cotton until her fingers bleed, and then is forced to pick more.
Imagine she is barely allowed time to give birth to her own babies.
Imagine her driven back into the fields the day after childbirth.

Imagine that she has scars on her back from being beaten by the slave owner.
Imagine that she has been raped by the slave owner.
Imagine this has happened more than once.
Imagine her watching her children be beaten, her daughters raped.

Imagine the mother.
Imagine the dark night enveloping the shack where she lives with the other slaves, out behind the plantation house.
Imagine her rocking back and forth, huddled under a threadbare quilt to keep out the cold, her voice moaning a low song...quietly, hushed, so that the slave owner won’t hear. Even still, her voice carries strength, a power that is rooted in the ground under her tired, bare feet.

Give me Jesus, give me Jesus, you may have all this world, give me Jesus.

The slave song, born out of hundreds of years of suffering, is both a plea and a cry of resistance. You may have all this world, the mother sings, but give me Jesus.

You may have all this world. All this world, she sings, with its slavery and violation. This world, with its slave masters beating on her back and selling her children and treating her like cattle and insulting her. You may have this world, she sings. Give me Jesus.

Jesus, who is nothing like these slave owners, nothing like these supposedly Christian white men violating her body, nothing like these supposedly Christian white women who order her around as if she were less than human. No, this Jesus, called upon morning and midnight by slave mothers and grandmothers, slave fathers and grandfathers, in songs such as this one, is a Jesus much different from the captors who bound them in chains. So they sing about this Jesus and imprint this Jesus on the ears and hearts of their children and grandchildren.
Give me Jesus.

Look, says John the Baptist. Look, here is the one I have been telling you about. Here is the one who liberates and delivers us from oppression. Look, he is filled with the Spirit, the very breath of God, right here with us.

John’s disciples start following Jesus right away. Jesus turns and asks them what – or whom – they are seeking. The disciples skip over the expected answer in their eagerness: Where are you staying? they ask instead. Come and see, Jesus replies. Come and see where I stay.

And so the gospel unfolds, as we, drawn in by the invitation to “come and see” for ourselves, join the disciples in accompanying Jesus on his journey. We are invited to see where Jesus stays, and so the gospel unfolds.

Come and see this Jesus, who creates abundance where there has been none, so that all may eat their fill.
Come and see this Jesus, who reclaims the temple as a place for worship, not for profit.
Come and see this Jesus, who talks to women he is surely not supposed to, and empowers them to preach the gospel message.
Come and see this Jesus, who heals all, no matter their poverty or status.
Come and see this Jesus, who refuses to condemn those society condemns.
Come and see this Jesus, who weeps because of human suffering.
Come and see this Jesus, who washes the feet of his friends.
Come and see this Jesus, who insists that weapons be put away, even in the face of violence and arrest.
Come and see this Jesus, who embodies the love of God among us.
Come and see this Jesus, who prays fervently that his friends will embody love, as he did.
Come and see this Jesus, who even after his death encourages and strengthens a broken and frightened community.

Come and see. Come and see this Jesus, love made flesh, this Jesus who is nothing like the violent and corrupt movers and shakers of the empire. No, this Jesus embodies the values of a different kind of community, the beloved community of God. This is the Jesus who is justice, who is love, who is kindness, who is compassion. This is where Jesus stays.

Come and see. Come and see this Jesus.

Oh, you may have all the world. Give me Jesus.

Imagine the mother.
Imagine her rocking back and forth, wrapped in a threadbare quilt, singing this song with a quiet intensity. Imagine the child in her arms grows up knowing the song in his bones. He sings it into the heart of his own daughter, and she in turn sings it to her son. Give me Jesus.

Imagine her son is Martin Luther King. The great-grandson of slaves, and the grandson of church folk and sharecroppers, Dr. King knew this Jesus. One can imagine this slave song, and many others like it, being passed on generation to generation and settling in his bones. When he was just twenty, he would write:

..the kingdom of God will be a society in which all men and women will be controlled by the eternal love of God. When we see social relationships controlled everywhere by the principles which Jesus illustrated in his life--trust, love, mercy, and altruism--then we shall know that the kingdom of God is here. To say what this society will be like in exact detail is quite hard for us to picture, for it runs so counter to the practices of our present social life. But we can rest assure that it will be a society governed by the law of love.

Oh, yes, Dr. King knew this Jesus. With the songs of plea and resistance from his ancestors running through his veins, Dr. King took up that invitation to “Come and See” Jesus, and like Jesus’ original disciples, Dr. King lived out what he saw. In 1956 Dr. King said, “Jesus says in substance, I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love, yes, the Kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace--a peace embodied with the presence of positive good. The inner peace that comes as a result of doing God's will.”

You can have all this world. Give me Jesus. Dr. King lived out that song in his life and work. Give me the Jesus who demands true, committed discipleship. Give me the Jesus of trust and love and mercy. Give me the Jesus who desires real peace. Give me the Jesus who insists on justice and nonviolence. Give me the Jesus who integrates me, no matter who I am, into the work of building the beloved community.

We, too, are invited to come and see. The question is, what will we do after we accept the invitation – once we see where Jesus is staying, where he is standing and moving and teaching and healing and loving? Will we be content to return to “this world” – this world full of war and racism and violence and corruption and injustice? Or will we try to live out what we see? Will we stay were Jesus stayed, in the beloved community of God, embodying God’s values of justice and wholeness and life and love, singing songs of plea and resistance?

Tomorrow we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King chose to stay with Jesus. Our suffering communities – local, national, global – are in dire need of people – of us – to do the same.

In the morning when I rise
In the morning when I rise
In the morning when I rise
Give me Jesus.