Sermon from 2nd Sunday after Epiphany + Commemoration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

That Spirit of Love Descending
Commemoration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
on 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 1.15.2023
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
Rev. Sergio Rodriguez, Homilist

I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him (Jn 1:32).”

I want to talk to you today about Dr. Halcyon Sadberry-Watkins. Not many of us know who she is or what her contribution was to our beloved city. But we should. She, together with thirteen other Texas Southern University students, prayed at the University Flag Pole with Rev. Bill Lawson of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. It was March 4, 1960, and like polished arrows in a quiver, they were ready and filled with courage. They walked down Cleburn Avenue, with a new song in their mouth, and hunger in their bellies. They wanted to eat. Specifically they wanted to have lunch at a white’s only counter (Weingarten’s on 4110 Almeda Avenue). And as they filled the lunch counter that after, justice began to roll on like a a mighty stream (or like Buffalo Bayou). There’s an image of Mrs. Halcyon at the lunch counter. She makes the words of St. John Baptist true: “I [we, Houstonians] saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on her (Jn 1:32).” As we commemorate the life, words and word of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we ought not fail to learn about how his spirit inspired the spirits of the TSU fourteen. We ought not fail to see how the Spirit breathing Justice and Truth then, breathed and breathes live and love in us.

We share this Spirit. Look at our Mission Statement: God’s mission of love and service especially to the oppressed and poor. We aspire to live in the Spirit. The same Spirit that hoovered over the Chaos of the world, anointed Priests and Kings, Spoke through the Prophets, showed Jesus to be God’s beloved and in these days, raised up prophets like Martin Luther King Jr. If this is the spirit we received in baptism, we have received a tall order. How ought we understand the Spirit remains with us as she remained with Jesus Christ, even if we fail to live so? To this end, I will first show you that when John says, “that Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” he intends for us to see entire ministry of Jesus as one led by the Spirit of the Prophets; the spirit of truth and love. From this vantage point, we may see how this very Spirit breathed/s truth and love in Houston and how it may rest upon us today. The prophet Isaiah testified that upon the shoot of Jesse, “the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the lord (Isa 11:1-2).”

John the Baptist bore witness to the appearance of this seven-fold gift of God, defining the character of Jesus’ ministry. The religious leadership came to the baptizer asking simply, “Who are you? (Jn 1:19b).” They heard of his call of repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins and assumed naturally; he must a) have the Spirit foretold by Isaiah and b) must be the Messiah or if not, at least Elijah comes back. John replies as a matter of fact, “I am not the Messiah….I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord (Jn 1:20b, 23).” His was a ministry of preparation, of baptizing with water from the river Jordan, and of calling the people of God to return back to their covenant with the Lord. And that out of this preparation, “Jesus might be revealed to Israel (Jn 1:31b).” And here the writer of the Gospel of John, makes a masterful comparison, which I will expand further. The following day after his exchange with the religious leaders, the baptizer sees Jesus appear as the, “one who takes away the sin of the world! (Jn 1:29).” His is a ministry of the Spirit, the one foretold by Isaiah. And this is the meaning of the phrase, baptizes with the Holy Spirit:” This Jesus will pour out the Spirit in our lives that we may have wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, and courage.

Here is my first point: To be baptized by Jesus in the Spirit is to be led by the Spirit and live in the Spirit into all truth. Nicodemus, as he carried spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial (Jn 19:39), saw and understood the kingdom of God through the signs of Jesus because he had been born anew by the Spirit (Jn 3:3-5). When Jesus was raised from the dead, “he breathed on his disciples the Spirit (Jn 20:22),” that they may be driven by what he had promised them. Before his crucifixion, Jesus announced to them that the Spirit, herself, would descend upon them. This Spirit, “is the Spirit of truth….whom the Father will send…[to] teach us everything, and remind us of all that he said to us (Jn 14:17, 26)….and when this Spirit comes, she will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment (Jn 16:8).”

It is not difficult for us to imagine that this Spirit descended upon our city on March 4, 1960. Nor is it too challenging for us to hear how this Spirit works through the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., through the Black Lives Matter movement, and through the movement for LGBTQIA+ equality. I think it wise, then for us to take the opportunity to learn about the history of this Spirit in the TSU sit-in movement and how this Spirit moves and breathes among us today. And I want to end my time with you today by recounting this story. Eldrewey Stearns came to Houston in the late 1950s from Michigan State in order to study Law at Texas Southern University. On one August night, 1959, a police car pulled him over for a traffic stop; this, of course, did not turn out to be a routine stop and frisk. As Mr. Stearns pulled out his wallet, a picture of his White Lady from Michigan fell out. Subsequently, he was beaten by police. Emboldened by this injustice, he appealed this traffic stop before the court. Much to his chagrin, he lost but in the process garnered much media attention. Attention which ultimately led to his dismissal from his job. But the Spirit was on the move. He found employment at the South Central YMCA where Mr. Quentin Mease, the executive director of this Y, encouraged him to make his movement like that of the Student Sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina.

To catch the Spirit of Rev. Mr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thus led to the first sit-ins in the city of Houston. And through the efforts of Black and White Civic Leaders, guided by the Spirit in these students, Houston quietly began the process of desegregating lunch counter on August 25, 1960; Hotels and Major Series on April 1, 1962; and restaurants and movie theaters on May 23, 1963. And I had the pleasure of getting a behind-the-scenes look from one of the students from this movement: Dr. Halcyon Sadberry-Watkins. I asked her, “What sort of support did you have through all of this, deeply emotional work?” She simply replied, “I believe in the power of prayer. We prayed, we sang before everything. It took courage. We needed this courage.”

And so we pray in the same spirit of these ancestors:

Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right side or on your left side, not for any selfish reason.
I want to be your right side or your best side,
Not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition,
But I just want to be there
In love and in justice, and in truth
And in commitment to others,
So that we can make of this old world
A new world. Amen.