The deification of maleness and masculinity has consequences more far-reaching that we can even imagine. We desecrate the very image of God when we limit its expansiveness in this way, and God is w…
1 Corinthians 16:13-14 (NIV)
13 Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 14 Do everything in love.
I humbly come before you today well aware that I am standing on the shoulders of a giant, my Morehouse Brother, my Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity brother, my brother in the struggle, but most importantly my brother in Christ, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And if indeed it is a King’s broad shoulders that I stand on, I do not do so alone – for it is the King of Kings that props me up on every leaning side when I tire, when I grow weary. You see to be lifted up…to be elevated is to be at war with the forces of nature be it the earth’s gravitational pull or the forces of evil – there’s always something or someone waiting to knock you down. And so we must be on guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong, as Paul writes in his first epistle to the Corinthians.
Dr. King understood the art of war. He understood the adversarial relationship between good and evil and he understood that to be a proponent of justice – incessantly met by the resistance of the opposition – would possibly be to sacrifice life itself. Yet he committed his life to be a guardian of peace, a drum major for Justice, a general in the fight for racial reconciliation – standing firm in his faith, being courageous, being strong. And he fought, to his death. He died on the battlefield for a dream that we would one day live in a nation where we would not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. And today, January 17, 2016 I sometimes wonder if Dr. King died in vain?
I wonder because as a young black man in America, I can’t breathe. I can’t swim. I can’t drive. I can’t walk on the sidewalk at night or down the street during the day. I can’t play outside with a toy gun or inside where they are sold, I can’t listen to music too loud and I can’t even pray. And so I wonder; I wonder where it’s safe to be me anymore. Not outside of a convenience store selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. Not at a swimming pool or driving in your car in Texas. Not on the sidewalk or the street in your own neighborhood in Ferguson. Not at a park or inside a Wal-Mart in Ohio. Not at a gas station in your own car in Florida. Not at church for bible study in Charleston; and not on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Yet society tells me that all I have to do be safe is get an education, speak well, wear a suit, and I’m covered. But I remind society that Dr. King was well educated, well spoken, and was killed and buried well dressed. And sometimes I wonder if his living was in vain?
Dr. King died for a dream but I’m afraid it was a dream deferred; a dream not fully realized as we’ve come far by faith but not far enough. I was reminded of this nearly one year ago when I took my seat in the movie theater on opening night of the MLK biopic, Selma. I thought I knew what to expect; after all, I know black history. I’ve studied the Civil Rights movement. I idolize Dr. King. I thought I knew what I was walking into. I expected the violent resistance to peaceful protest for progress in the Jim Crow south. I expected the noncooperation and inaction of the U.S. government in enforcing voter’s rights for disenfranchised Blacks. I even expected the most intimate, personal, and sometimes uncomfortable glimpses into the humanity of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I expected these things. What I did not expect was the eery feeling that while I was watching history play out before me in major motion picture, what I was witnessing felt a lot like yesterday instead of 50 yesteryears ago.
I thought I knew what to expect when I took my seat in the movie theater on the opening night of Selma, but I was wrong. I didn’t expect for Selma to feel like yesterday. I didn’t expect the image of unabated violence against black bodies by law enforcement in 1965 to resonate yet and still in what was then 2015. I didn’t expect we’d still be marching for equal rights under the law for people of color. I certainly didn’t expect that yet another small U.S. city – Ferguson, MO would be the epicenter of such a big movement to combat racial inequality and injustice in America just as Selma was.
Michael Brown, an unarmed black man shot and killed by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, is Jimmie Lee Jackson relived: an unarmed black man shot and killed by white Alabama State trooper James Fowler in Selma 1965. Fowler was a significant player in escalating the acute racist conflict that ultimately led to the Selma to Montgomery march, just as Officer Wilson became the villain that catalyzed the #blacklivesmatter movement in 2014.
The parallels between Ferguson and Selma – now and then, are quite startling and downright discouraging when viewed through a “progressive” lens; and yet there’s hope in history. Our past informs our present, and history tells us that before we can cure cancer, we must first identify and address its symptoms. The cancer is the same in Selma and Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Cleveland, and New York City, and Oakland and Charleston – systemic racism. However the symptoms that exposed this cancer in 1965 and present day are decidedly different.
While it’s clear that there were a myriad of issues surrounding systemic racism in America in the 1960’s, it’s unclear as to which issues were of greatest priority to the leadership of the civil rights movement, as depicted in one scene of the movie Selma where members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) intensely debated why they should coalesce around a particular issue. With the support of key civil rights actors, it was ultimately Dr. King’s assertion of voter’s rights as the “symptom” to focus their attention on attacking the much larger cancer of systemic racism.
Whereas King and others had the luxury of choosing which issue they’d organize around and where they would stage their protest, we didn’t choose Ferguson, MO or the killing of unarmed black men as our issue; it chose us. The criminal injustice system, that is: police brutality, excessive use of force by law enforcement, racial profiling, and mass incarceration, is the symptom that has chosen us and it’s what we must continue to mobilize around in order to cure America’s long suffering from the cancer of systemic and institutional racism. So if criminal justice reform is our voter’s rights act, who will be our King; our general to be on guard, to stand firm in the faith, to be courageous, to be strong on our behalf as we line up side by side shoulder to shoulder prepared for battle?
It’s my belief that our success as a movement hinges upon our ability to lead not as individuals, but as a unified front. A unified front united by faith. Such leadership has proven to be effective as just last year we celebrated marriage equality for the LGBTQI community; a movement which made positive strides despite not having a definitive identifiable leader. The success of this movement was in the collective voice of LGBTQI and alleys and their ability to coalesce around pointed issues, using their strength in numbers to leverage change. We are better together. But before we can move together, we’ve got to first stay together, and before we can stay together we’ve got to do some difficult internal work. We’ve got to unpack some of our cultural baggage and leave somethings behind, both whites and people of color, because we can’t take everything with us. The journey is too long, the road too rough, a war not yet won. We’ve got work to do.
One of my favorite analogies about how racism works comes from Dr. Beverly Tatum, former President of Spelman College. She describes our society as being on a moving walkway headed in the direction of oppression and racism. Some folks, likely those we consider racists, are walking or running more swiftly in that direction, but most of us are just standing. We are non-racists. But there’s a funny thing about standing still on a moving walkway…you’re still headed in whatever direction the walkway takes you, whether you agree with it or not.
To be anti-racist, we must actively turn around and run in the opposite direction on this walkway. Have you ever tried to go the opposite direction on an escalator? Or better yet have you ever stepped foot on a treadmill? It’s tiring, right? The whole phenomenon of a treadmill is to force you to go against the grain. And as the exhaustion grows, it almost feels impossible to carry on. But the point of a treadmill is not to tire you; it’s to strengthen you, so that you become stronger and stronger along the journey. If we want to change our society we can’t just stand still, pointing fingers and yelling at all the racist bigots running towards an unjust society. We must, ourselves, change our direction, go against the grain, and hopefully bring some other folks with us. That’s anti-racism. Its hard, ACTIVE work, and we all have to be held accountable, starting with my beautiful black brothers and sisters. We’ve got some baggage to unpack.
While I’ve never believed that racism was for people of color to solve, I have to acknowledge that we’ve played a role in perpetuating it. Sometimes the greatest apologists for white supremacy are black people and specifically black Christians. Nobody forgives people with more expediency than black Christians. It’s what we’ve been taught to do; but it’s been a disguised forgiveness – not as forgiveness for our sake, but for the sake of others. We forgive to set others free without having grieved properly ourselves, rendering us captives of our own despair. We give our oppressors permission to live with a clear conscience while we continue to harbor anger, resentment, and grief in unhealthy ways.
Now don’t mistake this for what it is not – a “forgiveness cease and desist” mandate for black Christians everywhere. I am black and Christian too, and a key tenant of my faith is the act of forgiveness. This is however, a plea to black Christians everywhere to reform our forgiveness. Proper forgiveness is a process, one that involves prophetic grief, prophetic guilt, and prophetic relief.
When black people are oppressed at the hands of the powerful and the privileged, attention is not given to the culpability of the oppressor, or to the fight of the oppressed to overcome their situation; no, attention to those at fault would require society to hold accountable those who have long been held above reproach, or even worse – highlighting the resilience and might of the oppressed would only further empower those who society has intentionally continued to render powerless. Instead, attention is given to blacks’ ability to continue to turn the other cheek almost immediately after being slapped in the face, only to be slapped again. This is not by coincidence, but by design.
It’s the perpetuation of a history of systematic oppression dating back to slavery, with Christianity at its core. Faith is passed on from generation to generation. Because many of today’s black Christians inherited their faith from their parents, who inherited it from their parents, who inherited their faith from those who were introduced to Christianity by “Master” as slaves on the plantation – our idea of forgiveness is rooted in the liberation of our oppressor and not of ourselves. Mark Galli writes in Christianity Today’s The Inconceivable Start of African-American Christianity:
“The gospel presented to slaves by white owners, however, was only a partial gospel. The message of salvation by grace, the joy of faith, and the hope of heaven were all there, but many other teachings were missing…the master or mistress would read, ‘Servants obey your masters,’ but neglect passages that said, ‘Break every yoke and let the oppressed go free.’”
With that kind of history of pathological theological indoctrination, it’s not by coincidence that today’s black Christians forgive so easily. It’s by design, to continue to absolve the oppressor of any responsibility of wrongdoing and the guilt that accompanies it. The forgiveness process should involve the processing of guilt. Prophetic guilt is an impetus for contrition, and contrition is the currency for which amends are paid between each other – both oppressor and the oppressed – and to God. Our ability to not only feel regret for our actions, but to express regret is a byproduct of guilt processing. Forgiveness without due process is forgiveness absent of prophetic guilt. When black Christians forgive prematurely, we excuse our transgressors from penitence, subsequently inviting repeat offenses – leaving everyone stuck in a perpetual cycle of oppression.
When we think about oppression, we often only think of the oppressed as being stuck and therefor, the only ones in need of liberation. But the truth is, both the oppressor and the oppressed are stuck, and their liberation is bound. Imagine someone pinned down on the ground unable to move because someone else is holding them there. Our first mind says that the one being held down is the only one in need of freedom, but the reality is, both are stuck. The oppressed can’t get up, and for that to remain true, the oppressor can’t let up. In order to end oppression, both the oppressed and the oppressor have to be liberated – bound liberation.
Proper forgiveness is a lot like oppression; it requires that both be liberated in order to experience prophetic relief. Whereas with oppression, the one in need of liberation is obviously the one being pinned down, with the oppressor being the unlikely candidate in need of freedom as well. The inverse is true for black forgiveness; black forgiveness liberates the oppressor without also freeing ourselves from the confines of anger and resentment. Black forgiveness allows the oppressor to let up, but we don’t get up – continuing to be pinned to the ground by a “pathetic” grief.
To quote Dr. Cornel West, “Forgiveness is not an utterance. It’s a process. We are a loving people. We’ve taught the world so much about love because we’ve been hated so.” Let our black love continue to teach the world how to love even when being hated; and let our black forgiveness be the kind of forgiveness that allows us to love our neighbor as we have first loved ourselves.
To my white brothers and sisters in Christ and those who enjoy a certain level of privilege, I understand that sometimes when you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. And I’m well aware that the overwhelming majority of whites are not racist. But those who are loud to a deafening sound – and they’ve been amplified; it’s called the US Presidential race. We need for you all to be much louder than them and I want to offer 4 ways in which you can do that:
- See race, don’t ignore it. A common phrase I hear from White allies is, “I don’t see race; I don’t see color. I only see people.” In fact, Black America needs you to do exactly the opposite. We don’t want to be invisible. We don’t want to be neutral. We want to be Black, because our Black is beautiful, just as your White is beautiful. I believe God created us in all different shades and forms, not for us to ignore our diversity, but to celebrate it! We absolutely want you to see color but we need you to acknowledge it as equally beautiful and valuable and non-threatening as every other color. Likewise, see racial injustice, don’t ignore it. It’s not good enough to only see color; you must also see injustice against people of color. The two principles go hand and hand and one cannot be an ally without acknowledging both race, and racial injustice. So adopt a new phrase: “I absolutely see race; I absolutely see color. And I see them as being absolutely equal in beauty and in value; therefore all races should be treated as such.
- Hear the outcry of Black America. Listen to the stories. Hear our grievances without disagreement. Listen for understanding of what Black America needs from White allies to accompany us on this pilgrimage of racial justice. Understand what’s being heard not as an indictment of White America, but as an opportunity to reconcile the unfortunate past and present of this country, for a better brighter future. I frequently have conversations with my White brothers and sisters about the White privilege they enjoy that Black and Brown people don’t benefit from, and they often receive it as an opportunity for debate and defense. It’s not. It’s an opportunity to hear and learn of the Black lived-experience from a Black perspective, not to be challenged by unrecognized White privilege. If you aren’t willing to hear the voices of the oppressed, your deaf ears won’t absolve you of your role in oppression, your deaf ears make you an accomplice in it.
- Speak out against racial injustice. If racist White bigots are the loudest amongst White Americans (and they are indeed loud), the perception becomes that they speak for all of White America. Perception is reality. If we are to recognize that racism continues to be carried out by a very small minority of noisy bigots, the voices of White allies must be louder than those who continue to spew hate into the conversation. The investment of White allies to end racism in America must be larger than the investment of White bigots to continue it. My Facebook timeline should be inundated with loud, enraged White allies drowning out the noisy racists with cries of defiance, reaffirming that those hateful few do not speak for the compassionate whole. Utilize what you’ve seen and heard as tools to articulate the positive change you want to realize. In doing so, America – Black and White, will no longer be able to discern those few voices of discrimination among the many voices of liberation. Dr. King once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” We should all be so wise as to listen.
- See, listen, speak, and then act. Actions speak louder than words, and words without actions are meaningless. Act at ALL times of injustice, not just when it’s convenient. Black America doesn’t get to take a day off from being Black; White allies cannot take a day off from being advocates for racial justice. Act not just at rallies for Mike Brown or the next unarmed Black person to be gunned down by police. Act in your homes in the guests you invite over for dinner. Act in the schooling of your children in choosing the environment in which they learn. Act in deciding which church you will worship in. Act at your workplace where you have the authority to make decisions about personnel. Act as if your liberation is bound to that of Mike Brown, because it is. Act as if your life depended on it, because it does. As long as one of us is oppressed, all of us are oppressed. Act.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that no groups of marginalized people have ever overcome oppression without accompaniment from allies at the center.
The abolition of American slavery could not have been realized without the accompaniment of White abolitionists using their white privilege to enact change.
The end to South African apartheid would not have been achieved without the partnership of White South African allies willing to get behind Mandela and others to liberate S.A. from segregation.
The Holocaust would have been far graver if not for German allies willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of oppressed Jews.
The LGBTQIA movement for equal rights under the law would not be experiencing the success it has enjoyed if not for cis-heteronormative allies lobbying alongside them.
Women will not benefit from the gender equality they deserve without the accompaniment of male allies using their male privilege to fight for gender justice on their behalf.
Palestinians won’t be liberated from Israeli occupation without Israeli advocates.
Black America will continue to be victims of racial injustice and all its atrocious byproducts, without the eyes, ears, tongues, and the hands and feet of our White allies.
So as we leave behind that which ways us down culturally, socially, spiritually, and take with us that which sustains us on our journey for justice together, we do so united in faith which gives us courage to press on. But most importantly we do so IN love and WITH love. Even as Paul gives these military like commands to the Corinthians he ends with a different sort of command, “Do everything in love.” You see even in warfare, be it physical or spiritual, love always has the last word. Love is what makes all of our dreams come true. Love is what makes I have a dream come true. Loving thy neighbor as we love ourselves but remembering Jesus’ new commandment to love our neighbor as he first loved us – because he knew that sometimes we don’t even know how to love ourselves. Love is what binds us. Love is why Dr. King did not die in vain.And love is the reason why we don’t have to wait 2nd coming of King to realize his dream.
The leadership is in the love. “People need to know how much you care before they care how much you know.” And while good leadership can be defined by the number of followers you amass, great leadership is measured by your ability to develop and cultivate more leaders. Never has there been a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of men and women, children and adults, of every race, gender expression, sexual identity, class, and faith pouring into public spaces to die-in and live-out the American dream: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” We are the leaders of the new movement, and united by faith we are better together. Amen.
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
“No one man should have all that power; the clock’s ticking I just count the hours…no one man should have all that power” – famous words rapped by Kanye West in his 2005 Hip Hop hit “POWER”. “No one man should have all that power.” Now of course Kanye is referring to himself; you would be hard-pressed to find him talking about anyone other than himself. Kanye’s hubris aside, however, we’d be naive to believe that there isn’t some level of truth to Mr. West’s declaration. Given his celebrity and public profile, coupled with his wealth, Kanye enjoys a certain level of power, and though we might not share in that power, we have to admit that we share in his infatuation with power. No one (wo)man is immune to the allures of power. Look at your neighbor and say, “No one man should have all that power.” Now look at your other neighbor and say, “Unless it’s me.”
Perhaps the best indication of our infatuation with power is in what we watch on television. Just look at some of the most popular (read most viewed) dramas of the last 5yrs: House of Cards – a political drama about State Representative and House Majority Whip Francis Underwood who connives, kills, and conspires his way to the United States presidency; Game of thrones – a medieval drama with the largest cast on TV and the most deaths per episode, all for rule over the Seven Kingdoms and the Iron Throne; or Empire – network television’s most popular new drama where music mogul Lucious Lyons looks to pass on his empire to one of his sons as they vie and compete for dad’s approval; and finally 50 Cent’s Power – a narco-drama about James St. Patrick “Ghost”, a prominent NYC nightclub owner by night, a drug kingpin to the elite by day who struggles with the decision of getting out the drug game to go legit, while his life crumbles around him. All of these dramas have 1 of 3 things in common: the perpetual pursuit of power, the resistance to relinquish power, and the struggle to retain power. We love power; to have it, to watch it – we love power. But these dramas about power aren’t the first of their kind.
Many biblical scholars affirm the gospel of Mark to be an “apocalyptic drama” of sorts given the nature of the events leading up to the climatic end to the life of Jesus. Our text this morning begins with an appeal for power from two of Jesus’ disciples. It reads again: (Read scripture above). No one man should have all that power, the clock’s ticking for Jesus as he recounts the hours until his crucifixion.
Now to put this in context, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to confront the temple-based aristocracy and he knows exactly what awaits him when he gets there. We know this to be true because Jesus has already predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection 3 times: 1st in Mark chapter 8:31 and again in 9:31, and finally in the verses immediately preceding our gospel this morning where Jesus gives his most detailed account of the crucifixion: The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again. Jesus is fully aware you see, of what’s about to go down, but time and time again the disciples display that they just don’t get it.
You’ll recall in Mark 8 when Jesus first predicts his death, Peter rebukes Jesus for doing so and Jesus in turns reprimands Peter saying, “Get behind me Satan! You do not have the concerns of God in mind, but merely human concerns.” The disciples don’t get it. The 2nd instance of Jesus’ fatal prediction in verse 9 is followed by the disciples arguing over who is the greatest among them. Really? Jesus just told you for a second time that he would be crucified, die, and rise again, and you respond by having a popularity contest?? The disciples don’t get it. Then Jesus, for a 3rd time, predicts his death beginning in verse 32 of the 10th chapter of Mark, and here comes Zebedee’s sons, James and John requesting privileged places of authority in seats at Jesus’ right and left. The disciples just don’t get it.
Instead of acknowledging Jesus’ anticipation of suffering and death, they imagine a triumphant, regal scene with themselves sitting in positions of honor and power at King Jesus’ right and left hand. They recognize that glorification awaits Jesus. The authority he has exhibited in his ministry will lead to something big, perhaps to a royal rule, and they conspire to capitalize on that. No one man should have all that power; no one man is exempt from the allures of power, not even the disciples. Perhaps James and John may have been thinking of something along the lines of being with Jesus in glory like Moses and Elijah were at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8), but we know that’s not how this story ends. In this drama, the only ones to be at Jesus’ left and right will be the bandits crucified with him when he is “enthroned” as “The King of the Jews.” (15:27)
Now in James’ and John’s defense, they’re not the only disciples enticed by visions of a triumphant reign, for the rest of the Twelve fume over the brothers’ bid to outflank them in prominence. Verse 41 reads that “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” But Jesus quickly corrects their vision by addressing their desire for power and prestige and holding up the conventions of Roman sociopolitical authorities as negative examples. He comments on the nature of human power–the kind of power that will soon crush him in the political spectacle of his trial and execution. “They regularly “overpower” and “tyrannize” others (10:42)” Jesus says. They rely on coercion and control to maintain their dominance and prerogatives. Jesus puts his life and death, along with the lives and sufferings of his followers, in complete opposition to such expressions of power.
In absolute contrast, greatness among Jesus’ followers is measured by their ability to live as servants and slaves, even if that life means suffering oppression at the hands of those who wield power. Jesus’ final line–“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”–connects to his preceding words about service and enslavement, indicating that his death will be exemplary for such a way of living. His death will exemplify the violence and resistance his teaching and ministry elicit from those who hold power over society, and it will exemplify a radical renunciation of authority and privilege as we know it. Jesus’ death delivers us from the constellations of social and political power that human beings concoct to control each other. But perhaps even greater than that, Jesus’ death defeats the power of death itself.
Now if you’re like the disciples, so enticed by proximity to Jesus’ power, that you still don’t get it, let me help you out. In the 45th and final verse of this morning’s Gospel, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 3 simple clarifications about ransom and I’ll take my seat:
- When Jesus said “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all”, he didn’t mean whips and chains and bondage and suffering. (Talk about slavery, and plantation capitalism or the commodification of [black] suffering) Rather, it’s better to think of Jesus as one who takes the form of a slave himself and was obedient to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-8) thereby providing the ransom that frees us who were slaves of this world and captive to death. When Jesus gives his life as a ransom, he frees us not to become great as the world understands greatness, but to serve others as slaves of Christ.
- The act on the cross was not just about the atonement for our sins. Don’t get me wrong, Christ’s death and resurrection was certainly about the forgiveness of sin, but that’s not all it was about. Jesus’ mention of a “ransom” indicates that his death will be more than just an inspiring example or a martyr’s tragic protest against an unjust system. The word in question, ransom – in its Greek form – indicates that his death does something; it secures a release. The meaning of the word “ransom” here is historically misunderstood to mean a specific type of payment as it’s used in other readings. In those readings, Jesus’ death is transactional, a payment made to satisfy the penalties accrued by human sin or to repay something owed to God. However, the explicit context in which this statement appears is about power and servitude, not the problem of sin or the need to secure forgiveness; a liberation wrought by divine strength, not by payment. Jesus therefore declares that God, through Jesus’ death, will free people from oppression and captivity to another power, restoring them to membership in the community that corresponds to God’s reign. Repentance and forgiveness are part of Jesus’ proclamation and ministry (1:4; 2:5; 3:38), but Mark presents these topics as subordinate pieces in a more comprehensive apocalyptic episode where human existence is transformed by the incursion of God’s reign and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ –liberating us not just from the enslavement of our own sin, but from the enslavement of the sins of others who wield oppressive power.
- Jesus didn’t give his life just for you and only you. The mention of Jesus as a ransom on behalf of many emphasizes again the cosmic implications of Jesus’ death. Here, “many” has the sense of “all” or “everyone”. (Talk about selfish faith, accompaniment, My story vs their story vs God’s story, oppressed people).
So the next time you tune into HBO to watch the dynasties sacrifice as many people as necessary to win the Iron Throne on Game of Thrones, remember that drama is not this drama, because in this drama only one sacrifice was necessary for the ransom of many by the King of King’s who sits on the most high throne. The next time you log into your Netflix account to watch Francis do whatever it takes to be first on House of Cards, remember that drama is not this drama, because in this drama to be first means to be last and to be first of all means to be servant of all. When you skip bible study on Wednesday to watch the Lyon’s sons compete to sit at their father’s left and right hand on Empire instead, remember that drama isn’t this drama, because in this drama those spots are only for those it has been prepared for by the divine. And when you turn to Starz to watch Ghost struggle live a double life on Power, remember that drama isn’t this drama, because in this drama the only true power is possessed by the Holy Ghost. Now look at your neighbor and say, “No one man should have all that power”; now look at your other neighbor and say, “unless it’s Jesus”. Because power in Jesus is power to the people. Amen.
From a friend.
I’ve written before about my beloved albeit broken community; about my church and why I continue to be engaged with a community of faith. I am a member of and leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), one of the largest Protestant denominations in this country. My church has approximately 3.8 million members in around 10,000 congregations across the U.S. and the Caribbean. This church is a historically white church, founded by a German Catholic monk named Martin Luther. He never wanted to start a new church, he wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Luther felt like the church was not speaking in the language of the people and that the church had lost it’s prophetic voice and leadership within society. His 95 Theses marked the beginning of what we now call the Protestant Reformation. In 2017, Lutherans around the world will mark the 500th anniversary of…
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I can’t breathe. I can’t swim. I can’t walk on the sidewalk at night or down the street during the day. I can’t play outside with a toy gun or inside where they are sold, I can’t listen to music too loud and now, I can’t even pray. When did being black become the number one risk factor for violent death?
In the wake of the murder of 9 black churchgoers in Charleston, SC by a neo-Nazi, white supremacist terrorist, I wonder where it’s safe to be black anymore. Not outside of a convenience store selling loose cigarettes. Not at the swimming pool. Not on the sidewalk or the street in your own neighborhood. Not at a park or inside a Wal-Mart. Not at a gas station in your own car. And not at church for bible study.
The stipulations for being black in America require a study guide; one that is updated daily. According to society I must run fast, jump high, sing pretty, put my hands up, put my hands behind my back, sit down but never sit-in, stand up but never for what I believe in, lay down but never in protest, die but don’t die –in, and be quiet – all at the same time. The qualifications are so many that we’re not even sure who is black anymore, so much so that the most talked about black person leading up to the AME shooting, isn’t black at all.
It begs the question: What effect has racism and specifically, white supremacy, had on black identity? It’s difficult to maintain a positive identity when every aspect of your blackness is pathologized. Even as we refer to Dylann Roof and his violent assault on black lives that mattered, we immediately attribute his actions to his mental stability or lack thereof. Had he been Arab or Muslim? – Terrorist; Latino? – A drug dealing, illegal alien; Hired gun? Some of you saw the movie American Sniper – They called him a Hero; and Black? – Most assuredly a thug bred in a culture of violence.
When a white person commits a crime they are given the benefit of doubt and taken first to a hospital before being taken to jail like we saw last week in Virginia when a white man made death threats to black churchgoers just one day after another white man had killed 9 black churchgoers in SC; the authorities took him to a hospital for 72hr mental evaluation and no charges were brought against him.
In this country, when a white person commits a crime they are given the benefit of doubt and taken to Burger King before they are taken to jail as we witnessed in Charleston when the killer declared he was hungry after being apprehended by authorities. I suppose he’d worked up an appetite after slaughtering 9 innocent people the night before. This is America.
And in America if you are black and committed NO crime other than being black, the chances of you making it to jail in one piece are diminished as we saw in the Freddie Gray case where he suffered a severed spine in route to jail. No hospital, no lunch, just death.
These are the effects of racism. Racism is what white supremacy looks like out loud. Racism is not a mental illness; Dylann Roof is not insane – just good ole-fashioned confederate racist nurtured in a lifetime of white supremacy teachings. Those teachings have spread through societies like an infectious disease. White supremacy is a virus that has infected the black identity.
Viruses generally originate from a host which can infect a completely new host species, spreading the virus throughout diverse populations. The virus no longer needs its original host to thrive as it continues to evolve and mutate to manipulate resistance and defense mechanisms against it. Eventually it kills everything it infects until either an antibody is retrieved from the original host, the infected host develops a natural resistance, or an antibody is synthetically manufactured. White supremacy is like a virus, and the host is generations of white, Jim Crow, freedom obstructionists of the confederacy, and it has infected the black identity.
In one of the worst weeks in recent memory for people of color, we saw white supremacy (aka white privilege) that was so strong it afforded one woman the choice to be black; white supremacy in the form of racism that killed 9 innocent black people, and white supremacy in the form of internalized oppression in the Dominican Republic. The latter is the best example of how white supremacy has spread through the black diaspora like a virus, infecting black identity far downstream of its original host. Here we have black people – on the same island, deporting other black people – to the same island, for being too black. And it’s void of your traditional white, Jim Crow southerner host; yet this ethnic cleansing has white supremacy written all over it. Because white supremacy is a deeply seeded sickness that has spread, evolved, and mutated throughout history and it has infected black identity.
On last Sunday, Father’s Day, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III preached with his father the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr. on the subject “Prophetic Grief” in response to the tragedy at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Prophetic Grief. And in their sermon they preached about the historical trauma suffered by blacks at the hands of white supremacy, and that our grieving must not be pathetic – angry, resentful, vengeful grief; or sympathetic even – where you just hurl disconnected empathy across the room to the suffering; but prophetic grief – where we actually stand in the other’s pain as if it were our own. Prophetic grief. The Rev. Dr. Moss Jr. closed by saying that healing must accompany prophetic grief.
It’s in that same vein that I want to preach for a few more moments on the subject: Prophetic relief: 3 ways to treat white supremacy and save black identity. White supremacy is a virus that has infected the black identity; a virus that infiltrated black faith almost 2 weeks ago; A virus that has attempted to separate black love. And we need relief. Our modern day prophets have taught us how to grieve, and now we need prophetic relief. Miracle medicine. Anti-hate antibodies. Prophetic relief.
Now, I’m not a prophet. And I’d push back on being called a healer even, though some might say otherwise given my vocation. But I’m not your guy. Oh but I know who is! I know a guy! A prophetic healer! He treats viruses. Brings life back to the lifeless. Relieves years of hemorrhaging. Prophetic relief! I know a guy. I know a woman too. Not a prophet. Not a healer. But a believer. Verse 25 of our gospel reads:
25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?’ ” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
What can a prophetic healer and a suffering believer teach us about prophetic relief of the infection of white supremacy in black identity?
- We’ve got to be honest with ourselves and each other. Verse 33 says, “she fell down before him and told him the whole truth.” We’ve got to come clean and tell the truth. (Talk about the effects of slavery, suffering, colorism, black forgiveness and white guilt, existing pains in the black experience). The truth will set us free.
- We’ve got to keep the faith. In verse 34 Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Talk about the history of Emanual AME church and the attack as an attack on Black Faith). Peace and healing comes to us when we stay faithed-up.
- Sometimes we’ve got to interrupt the regularly scheduled program to usurp power. We can’t wait on others to empower us, we have to take it even when it’s inconvenient. The gospel begins by saying in verse 22 that “one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
(Talk about the juxtaposition of Jairus and the unnamed woman, who was impure and unclean and had suffered at the hands of physicians. Talk about how Jesus didn’t offer healing she “stole” it.)
The U.S. constitution was written over 2 centuries ago. If you recall slavery was written into the original constitution and was later ratified with the abolition of slavery. Slavery wasn’t the only thing against us in that piece of paper. We’ve been operating in a system that was never designed to work for people of color! And yet we press on… Earlier I gave 3 ways to treat an infection. One of those ways was the body building a natural resistance against infection. We’ve got to build our own resistance against this infectious disease that is white supremacy. But we can’t do that without strengthening our union under the banners of justice and equity.
We must continue to seek small yet significant victories like the removal of the Confederate flag where yesterday we saw activist Bree Newsome, in a Joan of Arc moment, climb the flag pole at the SC state capitol and snatch down the confederate flag “in the name of Jesus.” However we must remember in the process, not to ignore the atrocities carried out under the wave of the American flag (poverty, HIV, Mass incarceration, illiteracy, etc.).
We have an obligation to our children and children’s children to continue to protest streets named after Confederate generals so that these hurtful symbols don’t linger to subliminally infect black identity, remembering in the process however, that black lives are lost every day along every street in every ghetto in America named after Martin Luther King Jr.
#blacklivesmatter must not be just a moment in time, but a movement in history, remembering in the process however, that black lives cannot survive or thrive when divorced from black love; we cannot expect the rest of the world to value our very existence when we don’t first love ourselves and each other.
Racism and the black identity crisis are co-infections of white supremacy and they must cease to co-exist; our lives depend on it. In the meantime, I’ll continue to contemplate where it’s still safe to pray anymore, but I remember the words Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Don’t worry about anything instead pray about everything.” And so I will not stop praying. Nor will I stop being unapologetically black because I’m the son of a mighty god who doesn’t mind being interrupted by the nameless regardless of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. I will pray, I will be black in public, we shall overcome and that my brother’s and sister’s in Christ is prophetic relief. Amen.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Elocution – the skill of clear and expressive speech. I consider myself to be an exceptional speaker. But it has not come with ease. In fact, when I was a child I stuttered profusely. Speech therapists said my mind was moving faster than my mouth, and I just needed to slow things down up there, to allow my mouth time to catch up down here. I hated for people to ask me what my name was because I had the most trouble with the “U” sound. “Myy myy my name is UUUUUUUB.” That’s okay y’all can laugh, I’m over it. My brothers and sisters made fun of me all the time, because kids are cruel. There’s home video of us at a birthday party and their interviewing each kid, name and age. And there I was on tape stinking up the place smh. I was so embarrassed to speak that I only did it when absolutely necessary. In the process of not speaking, I became very proficient in listening.
Today, I consider myself to be a pretty exceptional speaker, but even more so, I consider myself to be a phenomenal listener. It’s why I did so well in school. I listened, and listening is learning. The greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” In leadership, the person in charge should never be the one doing the most talking; he/she should be the one doing the most listening, because listening is leadership. You can neither learn nor lead effectively if you’re always running your mouth and never listening to what’s being taught or the concerns of others around you who look to you for guidance. Possibly my most favorite proverb, is an Arabic one, “Open your mouth only if what you are going to say is more beautiful than silence.” We talk a lot! And listen a little. When it should probably be the other way around.
So what does any of this have to do with this morning’s text? This familiar story of the good shepherd? This gospel narrative that highlights all of the positive attributes of the risen savior Jesus Christ our shepherd, and all that is not of a good shepherd in the hired hand? Oh and lets not forget about the wolf. Just in the first 3 verses of this gospel reading we get a clear understanding of each:
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
So right away we know who the good shepherd is and that he lays down his life for the sheep. We also know who the hired hand is and that he runs away when he sees the wolf, who came to steal and scatter the sheep. But we as Jesus’s flock, as the sheep to the good shepherd, what can we glean from this? The answer to this question is one of the most fascinating realities of this text and it’s in plain sight but is rarely addressed. Jesus’ claims point to one key fact that permeates this passage: recognition of the shepherd’s voice (verse 16). It reads again,
“16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
Of the 4 primary characters in this gospel, the good shepherd, the hired hand, the wolf, and the sheep, Jesus only attributes one characteristic to the sheep: their ability to recognize his voice, their ability to listen.
Embedded in this statement is a basic fact that is recognized and studied in the field of speech communication: listening. Prior to recognizing and responding to a sound, one must listen. In their pioneering research work entitled “Listening,” co-authors Wolvin and Coakley identify five basic types of listening: discriminative, comprehensive, critical, therapeutic and appreciative. These interrelated types start with the very basic ability of an individual to hear sounds and then move to other tiers of analysis, critique, concern, and appreciation. If the link between Jesus and his flock is mediated by recognition of the Master’s voice, what does that mean for the kind of spiritual listening involved in responding to him?
In a culture and church which is heavily focused on word and speaking, the emphasis on listening as a prior condition and state can be overlooked. Yet, listening has a rich spiritual and personal biblical history in the area of spiritual formation and discernment. Listening is the prior requirement for any type of effective speaking environment. The Wolvin and Coakley paradigm offers some interesting possibilities for the way we hear God; and when I say “hear” I say that with the understanding that listening is far more than merely hearing, listening is also responding to what is heard. So, what does the herd hear?!
Certainly the ability to recognize the shepherd’s voice at all is what preaching the Gospel is about. But this attitude of listening predates the gospel. In the Hebrew scriptures, a sound proceeding from some invisible source was considered a heavenly voice, since the revelation on Sinai was given in that way in Deuteronomy 4:12: “Ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice”. In this account, God reveals himself to man through his organs of hearing, not through those of sight. Even the prophet Ezekiel, who sees many visions, “heard a voice of one that spake”; similarly, Elijah recognized God by a “still, small voice,” and a voice addressed him; sometimes God’s voice rang from the heights, from Jerusalem, from Zion; and God’s voice was heard in the thunder and in the roar of the sea.
Martin Luther would later write in his Smalcald Articles, that the effective functioning of the means of grace is mediated by the ear! In other words, without the prior attitude of listening to the Lord’s voice through preaching, the sacraments, the words of forgiveness, and the church itself, our relationship to the shepherd would be rendered meaningless. We daringly claim to speak for God, by our voice to bring the Voice which calls us to life, salvation, new hope, and safety. It is a voice which the Church has had the wisdom to recognize must be spoken repeatedly without cessation to all who recognize it and to those who are unfamiliar with it. It is that same shepherd’s voice that prompts Christians to say to one another, “We have heard the Lord!”
Jesus’ statement in verse 16 prompts as much thoughtful discussion today as it did in centuries past. The fact that this text is preached as part of the Easter season begs the question that If God in the risen Christ speaks even yet, in what ways do we listen to that voice? Are we even listening to the right voice? Can you recognize Christ’s voice? Discern his voice from that of the enemy or even that of your own?
Consider this: the story of the good shepherd is a story about relationships. A relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father; a relationship between Jesus the shepherd and we the sheep; the lack of relationship between the hired hand and the sheep. Verse 13 says, “The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” He didn’t know the sheep and therefore did not care about their wellbeing. The hired hand had no deep relationship with God’s flock. Relationships are important in the listening process. This dynamic can be seen in perhaps the most intimate relationship within humanity, the bond between mother and child.
Research reveals that fetuses can hear sounds as early as 30 weeks. In particular, fetuses actively listen to the mother’s voice in the final 10 weeks of pregnancy. A study was done where 60 women in the final stage of pregnancy were tested. All the mothers were recorded as a they read a poem out loud. Then the mothers were divided into 2 groups. Half the fetuses heard the recordings of their own mothers, the other half heard another mother, but not their own. In both cases the poem caused a change in the babies heart rate. The heart rate accelerated among those who heard their own mother’s voice, and decelerated among those who heard a voice other than their mother’s. The acceleration in heart rate is a result of excitement and joy in hearing what’s familiar. It’s like “oh hey I know who that is!” On the other hand, deceleration of the heart rate signifies an “attention mechanism.” The heart beat among fetuses who heard an unfamiliar voice slowed down because they were paying close attention to a voice they did not recognize. In other words, they were trying to figure out who was talking because they knew it wasn’t their mom.
And so I challenge you this morning saints, what do you feel in your heart when you hear the voice of God or what you think is the voice of God? Does your heart speed up in excitement and joy of hearing a familiar voice? Or does it slow down because the voice of God is unfamiliar and unrecognizable to your spiritual ear? If the latter is true, then you might not be in a deep enough relationship with God and you might be following a hired hand, or even worse a wolf. If you neither know Christ nor follow Christ, you will not know how to hear Christ’s voice. So before I take my seat I’d like to offer 3 ways to recognize God’s voice from that of the hired hands and the wolves.
Knowing God’s Voice by The Approach
1. God calls and soothes us with the gentle, confident and comforting voice of a shepherd who leads his sheep. Like a ravening wolf, Satan seeks to drive the sheep into panic. He threatens, demands and intimidates.
2. The Lord’s voice is quiet and deeply internal. Satan’s voice is intrusive.
Knowing God’s Voice by The Content
1. God always speaks in ways that concur with major principles of Scripture and His revealed attributes.
2. God’s voice drips with mercy and grace toward us and toward others. He does not condemn our personal worth.
3. The Lord’s voice usually focuses on changing us rather than on urging us to change others.
4. God’s voice is grounded in truth and hope in contrast to being grounded in past, negative experiences.
Knowing God’s Voice by The Effects
1. We will have more hope rather than less when God speaks to us. Satan’s voice speaks hopeless despair.
2. Hearing God’s voice produces more empathy for others. Satan wants us to despise and/or envy others.
3. Listening to God brings a greater sense of peace even when our outward circumstances do not change. (Story about mother’s passing).
You know years ago a show called American Idol took the country by storm. Who would be the next great vocal talent? Since then many other shows like it have emerged, the most recent and now most popular show being, “The Voice.” I like The Voice because The Voice is uniquely different from the other shows in that it sheds the judges of all their biases and prejudices and prejudgements to where they are blind to the singer’s appearance and must make a decision to turn their chairs around in favor of a singer based only on what they hear. The singer then chooses who they’d like to build a relationship with to compete for the show’s top spot. My brothers and sisters in Christ, we sit in those judges chairs daily, with only what we can hear and blind faith. And there are many voices to choose from: good for nothing family members, disloyal friends, conniving coworkers, prosperity preachers, hired hands, and wolves. But only one of those voices is THE Voice. Only one can be THE Voice of God, and THE Voice desires to be in relationship with each and every one of you. Shed yourself of the doubt, the confusion, and fear and turn your chair around for The Voice, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord who lives and reigns among us. Amen.
This morning the sun rose and brightly shined through your window, halting the production and circulation of the hormone melatonin in your blood stream signaling you to wake up. Subsequently, the level of melatonin in your blood will remain almost undetectable throughout the rest of the day; that is until the sun goes down and darkness falls upon us as it does every night. And as it does every night, the darkness will trigger the production of melatonin in your body, making you drowsy, ultimately leading to what we hope will be a good night’s rest.
Doctors recommend an average of 8hrs of sleep per night, but let’s be honest, although that’s the recommendation most of us fall short of that mark and some of us even exceed it. Science has identified a small sect of the human population that just naturally functions off of less sleep, but majority of us don’t fall in that category and we should strive for the recommended 8hrs.
There are those of us who believe there just aren’t enough hours in a day to get everything done, so we exchange sleeping hours for waking ones. Some of the world’s most successful people are self-proclaimed workaholics who only sleep an average of 4-6hrs a night and credit their work ethic to their material success. I personally slept only about 3-4hrs a night when I was in school but find I need at least 6 now to not be totally miserable the next day.
Then there’s the growing number of people who would like to sleep 8hrs a night but just can’t do so whether it’s biological, or you haven’t quite figured out your sleep number on your mattress, or you’ve just got a racing mind that you don’t know how to shut down at night without some assistance. Oh this group of people, doctors love to see coming! By the end of 2012 sleep medicine had become a 32 billion dollar a year industry with no signs of slowing down.
Then there’re those of us who are on the other end of the sleep spectrum. Oh you know who I’m talking to: the ones who get 8hrs a night and still have a hard time rolling out of bed. The ones who will sleep through a marching band even if they performed a halftime show right there in the bedroom. I dated a young lady in college who could literally sleep 12hrs straight without interruption and then would have the nerve to get an attitude if you called to check on her and woke her up in the process. “Well excuse me, I was just making sure you were alive.”
Nonetheless no matter how much or how little sleep you need to survive, we all have to sleep at some point. And if you think about it in the grand scheme of things, no matter how much or how little sleep you get, on average we all sleep about 1/3 of our lives away. Just to put that in perspective if you’re 75 years old you’ve probably spent somewhere between 18-25yrs asleep. Now you’re probably thinking, “My my, that’s a lot of sleep! Oh what I could do with an additional 20yrs of wakening.” I can see some of you now are gonna go home and try to stay up past your bedtime tonight like, “Oooh child I’ve been sleep for 20yrs I need to stay up.” Which is fine but don’t be mad at me when you’re sleepy at work tomorrow!
Fact is, much of society has adopted the attitude that “sleeping” whether literally or figuratively, is a bad thing; especially here in America where we measure our life’s value by our productivity. Less than 2 weeks ago the ABC news program 20/20 did a segment about people “sleeping on the job.” And while you never want to be caught sleeping on the job, most of the employees negatively profiled were people who are probably overworked, underpaid, and sleep deprived. But none of that matters in today’s society. Sleeping on the job is a sign of weakness. Falling asleep at the wheel is a metaphor for being unaware, unready, and unprepared.
Our text this morning, is yet another Matthean tale where the setting is a banquet, and Jesus teaches a lesson like only Jesus can, through a parable about the consequences of sleeping on the job; about the penalty for falling asleep at the wheel; about the repercussions of being unprepared for the coming of the Lord. The gospel reads thusly,
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Nestled in what is sometimes called Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Matthew 24:1-25:46), the parable of the bridesmaids stands second in a series of four distinctly Matthean parables, all bearing upon the relationship between the return of Jesus and a final sorting (24:43-25:46). The entire section of eschatological teaching is addressed to the disciples in private as they sit with Jesus on the Mount of Olives (24:3) in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy that the LORD will stand on the Mount of Olives and be recognized as king over all the earth (14:9, 16-17).
Immediately preceding these four parables at Matthew 24:42 stands Jesus’ instruction, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” The coming of this day is certain, and this parable illustrates this certainty with the coming of the bridegroom.
This particular one discriminates between wise and foolish virgins (translated “bridesmaids” in the NRSV), half of whom miss out on the party on account of their unpreparedness because the door has been shut while they were seeking oil (25:10).
The scene involves delay, evoking the delay of the Lord’s return, along with the motifs of sleeping and being ready. Early Christians reminded one another that Jesus’ return might happen suddenly, so that alertness is necessary.
The parable opens with a familiar phrase, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this.” The kingdom is like the whole scene portrayed by this parable where some bridesmaids are prepared for the groom and enjoy the banquet and others are excluded by their own lack of preparation.
This is the only distinction between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids. It characterizes five as wise because they bring extra oil, and it renders five as foolish for failing to do so. Otherwise, all the virgins act the same. They arrive on time. They wait. And due to the delay of the groom and the late hour they all tire and fall asleep. (early Christian discourse typically regards falling asleep as a bad thing, when it comes to Jesus’ return, as often seen in scripture (Matthew 24:42, Mark 13:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:6.) However, their sleepiness is not the problem because they wake up at the same time, and in time to trim their lamps. But when the bridegroom arrives, the foolish virgins find their oil going out. The five wise virgins, claiming they have only enough oil for themselves, will not share. So the foolish five go out for more oil, finding the door shut upon their return. They knocked on the door of the house, but their entrance to the wedding banquet was denied by the groom and they miss out. Preparation marks the only distinction between the virgins.
Although these bridesmaids were chosen to accompany the bride and groom, their role as bridesmaids did not guarantee them a place at the banquet. They had initially played the part of wedding attendants. They had waited with lamps lit, for a while, but they did not plan for the long dark time of waiting. As a result, they were shut out of the banquet. The maids’ plea (25:11) recalls Jesus’ warning in (7:21-23) that not everyone who cries “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Our discomfort with the parable of the virgins likely arises from self-awareness. Most of us know ourselves as wise in some contexts and foolish in others. On an imaginary scale of wilderness readiness, some people are more likely to prepare for every eventuality, but most of us vary from context to context. Preparation seems an arbitrary distinction.
The parable of the virgins isn’t necessarily arbitrary, but it is challenging. It calls Jesus’ disciples to a state of constant alertness, of perpetual openness to God’s dramatic future.
The parable is summed up in verse 13. The imperative often translated as “keep awake” might best be rendered, “be vigilant.” In this parable, the bridegroom’s arrival was certain but the uncertainty of the timing illustrates the need for constant vigilance. The earliest readers of this Gospel have already entered the dark days after the crucifixion and resurrection and have begun waiting for Christ’s return. This parable teaches all would-be followers of Jesus the importance of vigilance in an uncertain time and challenges them to “endure to the end” (24:13), living in anticipation of the Lord’s coming.
Someone might argue that this parable discloses exactly one thing, the importance of being “ready” for the Lord’s return even if it is delayed. According to this line of thinking the metaphor stops there. But this parable about preparedness also connotes a message about judgment.
This parable, along with the other “watchful” parables in the preceding chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, challenge our quickly made assumptions about judgment, grace and the end times. It would be too easy, as we have witnessed in the history of interpretation, to allegorize the characters in this parable in terms of simply good and bad. The definitions we give “good” and “bad” have always reflected our own prejudices more than they have faithfully represented Gospel truth. Even the oil in the lamps has been denominationally interpreted as works (you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without good works) or faith (you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without faith). We are challenged to move beyond these simplistic bipolarities.
You see what is striking in this parable, is that while preparation marks the only distinction between the bridesmaids, judgment denotes the only distinction between the braidsmaids and bridegroom; the confinement of judgment is to one character — the bridegroom. Judgment is reserved to the only one who can judge (see Romans 14 but also Matthew 7). Even the wise young women do not judge the foolish one; they merely refuse to share their oil and send the foolish women to the shopkeepers. The history of interpretation, of course, has not remained faithful to this reserve. It has quickly assigned qualities to the foolish and the wise and lifted these qualities up as virtues and vices. In other words, the tradition has continually judged who is good and bad.
The young women were all waiting for the bridegroom. They all belonged to the same community, the same group of friends. They all fall asleep waiting for the bridegroom to come. Within the community, it is impossible to tell who has enough oil in their lamps, who has been more faithful. This is not for us to see or to judge. The church remains always a mixed community and making the center of interpretation the issue of foolish or wise would miss the point of the parable.
You see living or waiting or maybe even sleeping with enough oil in our lamps, when set in the context of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven, suggests that it is the spirit of the beatitudes that, above all else, characterizes those who recognize the bridegroom, the Lord. This spirit is the spirit of the cross that disrupts all of our categories, all of our judgmental predispositions. The life into which the beatitudes invite us is a life not centered on our works, not on our faith, but on the cross and how God is glorified through our lives.
The holy possession of the cross is not really a possession at all, as if we “owned” the cross or some special access to God. It is a life that is characterized by choices that make it clear God is the actor and the giver of life.
Those who are enduring misfortune, even poverty, for Christ’s sake are not the ones who will be quick to judge others. You know who I’m speaking of: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted because of righteousness. Judgment is purely reserved for God who alone knows or recognizes each individual. Grace is in the cross that lets shine forth a light, a light so unique that people do not praise our good works but rather praise God who is acting and giving life in the midst of suffering, life in the midst of death, opening the door to those who have engaged the way of the cross, who have engaged the way of death. The world cannot understand this way. It does not recognize the Lord though it continually cries out, “Lord, Lord!”
The coming of Christ therefore becomes not a one-time event at some “end point” but rather a continuous event that involves us, the community of Christ, in our baptismal vocation: living in the light of the cross, in mercy not judgment. Being vigilant. Staying woke! To live in vigilance means for the disciples to do the tasks that they have been appointed to do in preparation for the Master’s coming. So you ask well preacher what are these magic tasks that I need to prepare for the coming of the lord, I wanna be invited into the banquet too! Well Jesus explains right here in Matthew’s Gospel:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Those tasks include bearing witness to God’s kingdom by welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned (25:31-46), and making disciples in all the world (28:19-20) without judgement.
“Wake Up Everybody”
Wake up everybody, no more sleepin’ in bed
No more backward thinkin’ time for thinkin’ ahead
The world has changed so very much from what it used to be
So there is so much hatred war an’ poverty
Wake up all the teachers, time to teach a new way
Maybe then they’ll listen to whatcha have to say
‘Cause they’re the ones who’s coming up and the world is in their hands
When you teach the children, teach ’em the very best you can
The world won’t get no better
If we just let it be
The world won’t get no better
We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me