Rev. Shayna Watson

As the Episcopal Church, we observe liturgical seasons, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Advent, and Epiphany. We now find ourselves in Epiphany. It is during Epiphany that we observe God’s revelation as shown in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is also on this Sunday, that we commemorate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his prophetic witness to the pursuit of peace and racial equality, in the midst of this season of divine revelation. 

The passage in the Gospel of John, which we read today, talks about God incarnate, and  is filled with ways in which God revealed Godself to a particular community at a particular time. The community in the text, rested at the intersection of despair and hope, similar to what we experience today, but hopeful for 

  • a Messiah that will come and turn their dire situations into liveable circumstances, 
  • a Messiah that would be a powerful voice on behalf of the oppressed, the needy, and heartsick, 
  • a Messiah that would save them from themselves.

They were looking for rescue…
There are various words and themes in the excerpt from the gospel we read today. I invite you to look and see the words or phrases that are stand out to you the most and consider how God may possibly be revealing Godself to you in this moment.  Do words and phrases such as: 

  • Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 
  • We have found the Messiah!
  • The idea of the spirit remaining or the word Remain
  • Baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
  • Son of God
  • they followed Jesus

What do they mean to you and how do they serve to guide you this year? What was most striking to me in the text were two verses

“38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39 He said to them, “Come and see.’ “ 

So in this season of divine revelation, Epiphany, and as we embark on this New Year, as Justin Michonski pointed out to me, “This is the Year of perfect vision, 2020,” I ask you “What are you looking for?” If I had to title this sermon for today, it would be “What are you looking for?”

In the text, the community of Jews and Gentiles were looking for the Messiah. 

  • Today we look for social change. 
  • Today we look for economic change. 
  • Today we look for cures for terminal diseases. 
  • Today we look for our pain to be eased and for the depressing news to cease. 

What are you looking for?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. looked for a racially integrated America, where access to opportunities were based on a person’s character and not the color of their skin.

  • He looked for peace attained through non-violent actions
  • He looked for the advancement of people of color who experienced centuries of enslavement and oppression. Martin did not just have a dream, he had a vision, a plan, and a movement. 

Dr. King looked for ways to unite all groups of people, not despite our differences, but because of them. Recognizing that while we are all made in the image of God, we all bring various gifts to the table. 

  • Many know Dr. King from his Letters from a Birmingham Jail, when he challenged predominantly white churches, to not just talk about the Gospel, but to live out the Gospel with integrity, equity, and inclusivity. 
  • He is known for his “I have a dream speech,” when he visualized how “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
  • He is known for his “Mountaintop Speech,” where his famed “if I had sneezed” letter was talked about. In case your not aware of it, Dr. King suffered a stab wound that was close to his heart, and the doctors told him if he had sneezed, we would have died then.  He received a letter from a 9th grader that said, “”Dear Dr. King,I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.” 

There are many speeches and quotes from MLK, but one that I think adequately fits our current social context is the speech he gave in Philadelphia titled, “What is Your Life’s Blueprint?”

In summary, he shares that the Blueprint of our lives should help us realize 

  • that our past should not define our future, 
  • that who society told us we should be, 
  • we should feel liberated from assigned behaviors, 
  • and to identify for ourselves who God has called us to be-not who our parents tell us we, not who the laws tell we are, not who our friends think we are, but who do you see yourselves as.

The speech is powerful, because it also acknowledges that for Black people, for people of color, that our race should not be a stumblingblock, but rather our history of resilience and survival for centuries, should be what propels us forward. As I mentioned, it is a blueprint, and while it is not a one size fits, there are principles of forward movement and progress that informs all communities of people.  

He said, “And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.” “Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

What are you looking for, people of God? 

I know life has not been easy for us, but we have the opportunity to turn things around.

Last year we commemorated 400 years, since the first enslaved African set foot in the colonies of America in 1619. MLK was not the only prophet, for he stood on the shoulders of many. We look to other prophets and pioneers, and over the course of our history, where others died, so that we could live:

  • Absalom Jones the first Black Priest in the Episcopal Church
  • W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Ovington, Henry Moskowitz, Ida B. Wells- people of color, white, Jews and Christians were among the founders of the NAACP.
  • Bayard Rustin, a black man, who was gay, and Quaker, raised in West Chester, PA was the key to urging Dr. King to adopt a non-violent and pacifist approach to his movement, because when Rusting arrived to King’s home, he found that it was filled with guns.

In the timeline of history we can see where God moved on behalf of the oppressed, because people were looking for triumph.

  • In 1863 We celebrate the emancipation proclamation where enslaved blacks in America were freed from the chains of slavery, only to face the bondage of racism
  • In 1955 schools were desegrated, allowing for children of all races and economic status to have access to quality resources
  • 1965 The Voting Rights Act gave blacks the right to vote without legal ramifications
  •  And 2020 the struggle still continues, but we can see how far we’ve come, so that we know where we ought to go

What are you looking for?
Pick a period in time to look, and you will see a divine revelation of God in these prophets.

There are many things that are up to God, but these human constructs are our doing and we each are called to undo them.

Although The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not survive to see all of his dreams and visions realized, as many prophets don’t, we have the opportunity TODAY, in this hour to live into them. We can create a better and more just society together.

We are called by God into a life of faith, to practice repentance, to practice forgiveness, and to practice love. While these steps might be challenging for some, in the words of Dr. King, “we have to keep moving forward

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

What are you looking for?

Let the church say Amen.

“Why MLK’s Right-Hand Man, Bayard Rustin, was Nearly Written Out of History” June 1, 2018. Updated January 15, 2020.