January 18th, 2015
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome, Italy
On December 1, 1955 an African-American woman named Rosa Parks decided that she was ready to take a stand.
She had been told by bus driver Fred Blake to vacate her seat in the front row of the colored section of a Montgomery bus, which had separate sections for whites and blacks, in order to accommodate the overflow of white passengers.
She refused to comply with his request, and in 4 short days, the beginnings of the famous Montgomery bus boycott were born.
After being visited in jail by fellow civil rights compatriots and lawyers, Rosa Parks received a visit from Ray Abernathy, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Montgomery.
It was Abernathy who called the city’s African American pastors to a special meeting on the Friday night following Park’s imprisonment, and he made a special overture to a young pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
That 26-year-old pastor was Martin Luther King, Jr.
By word of mouth, by an all night session of making and distributing 15,000 flyers, and by those 50 pastors preaching to their congregations on Sunday, the Montgomery bus boycott was born.
It signaled the beginning of a sustained civil rights movement in America that led to changes to America’s segregation laws, and MLK’s rise to prominence as a national figure.
This Monday, the third Monday in January, is a national holiday in the US to remember The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is a worthy holiday, set aside for a worthy human being.
But on this Second Sunday of the Epiphany, I find myself wondering about how Martin Luther King got involved in the struggle that would define his life?
How did one significant act, done by Rosa Parks, become the seed of transformation for many?
It took people saying, “Come and see.”
It took people willing to tell the story of her refusal to give up her seat, and it took pastors and parishioners willing to see in her struggle, the marks of the struggle in which the people of God have always been involved.
It took people deciding to move from experience into action.
Today’s Gospel from John tells the story of how the earliest disciples came to follow Jesus.
A few verses earlier, a young Jew named Andrew overheard John the Baptist telling the world gathered around him that Jesus was the Messiah for which they had waited, and Andrew brought his brother Simon Peter to come and meet this Jesus face to face.
Immediately afterward, Jesus found Philip and asked him to follow.
They were all from the same town in Galilee, Bethsaida, meaning “house of fishing,” and Philip….like Andrew before him, concerns himself with inviting his friend Nathanael to come meet this new prophet.
In this manner, the disciples were formed…and I dare say, this model of invitation, acceptance, participation and re-invitation remains the building block of this movement we call Christianity even today.
Rosa Parks called attention to an entrenched social issue through her actions…like John the Baptist, who pointed the way toward repentance and justice in his time.
And it was Andrew and Simon Peter, like Abernathy and King, who found Jesus in the midst of that call and gave their lives to pointing others to him and to his reign becoming real on earth as in heaven.
Philip got called by Jesus and brought his friend to come and see what was going on, like the thousands who read those flyers and heard those sermons that Sunday December 4th in 1955, and who refused to ride those Montgomery buses on the following day.
Maybe the world doesn’t remember that much about the Andrew’s and Abernathy’s of the world, or the Philip’s and Nathanael’s…but because of their work of invitation and transmission, their movements remain strong and survive to this day.
Come and see.
It is an invitation to encounter something so transformational and powerful that it just has to be shared.
For all Christians, the transformational source…the someone is Jesus, and in this season of Epiphany, we are right to focus on how we may come into deeper contact with his light, message, and salvation.
But that invitation to come and see… to witness who this Christ is as he is born in Bethlehem, as he is visited by wise Gentiles from the East and presented with lavish and symbolic gifts, and as he emerges from the waters of Baptism into active ministry… remains incomplete if it doesn’t transform us enough to turn us into inviters as well.
I know that the word evangelism may frighten you, and that it can be difficult to talk cogently about your faith in an increasingly secular world that wants to debate and argue everything from God’s existence to the latest celebrity hairstyles.
But if you are simply content to experience the joy, the peace, and the salvation of Jesus Christ just for yourself, or for your immediate family members or neighbors in the pew, then something is missing.
Each Sunday I stand up here and see a body of faithful parishioners…I see you who sacrifice on behalf of the body and who regularly come to this place to be fed at the table of God’s welcome, and to be nourished by the Word of God that invigorates and empowers you to face a new day and a new week.
You are the ones who have “come and seen” and that is a wonderful thing.
However, I’m not sure how often the transformation and nurture you receive in this place is translating into invitations for others to “come and see” what God is doing among us.
In the case of the civil rights movement, the draw was the Jesus of justice, and what people interpreted as participation in the Spirit’s healing arc of action in the world that leads to more justice, peace and love among people of all races, creeds, and languages.
For the early church, the draw was the miraculous presence of Jesus, and the way his challenge to the Empire’s authority was accompanied by self-sacrifice, deeds of power, and the reality of a life that extended beyond the power of the grave.
How about for us?
Do you see yourself as part of something, as part of a movement that is worth inviting others to come and see?
Some have met Jesus in the justice and human compassion struggle of the global refugee crisis, and have invited volunteers to come and see how they might be part of the solution, one act of service at a time in our church’s Joel Nafuma Refugee Center.
Some have found in this worshipping community a place of acceptance, where the divisions that so often exist in the world are brought toppling down by the might and majesty of God, and where the living God can be encountered.
What is it that has brought you to seek out the Messiah who has transformed the world, and who inspired a movement that has stretched over two millennia?
If those 50 pastors in Montgomery, including Martin Luther King Jr. had “come and seen” what injustice was happening to Rosa Parks, but had refused to invite others to witness it and join in opposing it as well, the civil rights movement may never have gotten off the ground.
Without Andrew inviting Simon Peter, or Philip inviting Nathanael, the movement that grew into the church might never have been able to withstand the death of its founder upon a cross in Jerusalem.
And likewise the movement called St. Paul’s Within the Walls needs people who will come and see, and people who will invite others to come and see, if we are to keep witnessing completely to the life of Christ among us.
How will you mobilize and invite others into this experience this week?
How will you turn your passion for Christ into action that leads to us all witnessing “the greater things than these” that Nathanael could only imagine upon first meeting Jesus?
How will you spread the gospel and invite people longing for a better world, to come and see what God is up to at St. Paul’s?