Mark 13:24-37; Isaiah 64:1-9; I Corinthians 1:1-9
Last Sunday, a few of us gathered for the Adult Forum and watched a video featuring Walter Brueggemann as he talked about the role of the prophet in addressing the pharaohs of our day. In order to understand the role of the prophet today, Brueggemann went back to Biblical times and reflected upon the role of the prophets during the era of the monarchy and following the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. According to the prophets, while those in power would oppress their people and justify their violence as ordained by God, the people also became so apathetic that they would turn a blind eye to the oppression and corruption of their day and would not grieve over the violence being waged against their own people.
The prophets were the ones who could name the injustices, inequities, and hostilities of their day and who would warn the people about the realistic consequences of these atrocities while offering a word of hope to the people based upon the promises of God to forgive their iniquities and bring salvation to their entire nation. Mordecai Schreiber in his article entitled “Rethinking Prophecy” puts it this way: “The prophets did not see the world through rose-colored glasses. They were always brutally honest with their people, which is why they were routinely persecuted. But their faith in their people and in the future was stronger than that of anyone who ever lived. Notwithstanding Isaiah’s prophecy of the end of days, or Jeremiah’s prophecy of the return of the exiles, it is wrong to refer to these men as ‘prophets of gloom and doom.’ Rather, they were prophets of faith and hope.”
Similarly, Jesus assumes the role of a prophet in our gospel lesson for today. Earlier in this 13th chapter of Mark, Jesus is brutally honest with his disciples and tells them about the persecution that they will suffer as the result of their proclamation about the good news of God’s realm on this Earth. He then warns his disciples about the false messiahs and false prophets who will appear as in the days of the monarchy and will declare that everything is just fine throughout the land and that the people don’t have to worry about all of the suffering that they are enduring. The only thing that Jesus has to offer to his disciples is the promise that the Son of Humanity will appear at some time in the future and will restore God’s creation where there will be no more wars or even rumors of war and all the nations of the world will be at peace.
Brueggemann went on to say in this video that we are living in times today that are similar to the times of Isaiah and the times of Jesus. In this context, he suggested that the church is the place where the truth can be told about all that is wrong within our society and about what all of our relationships could be like if we would live according to the promises of God and abide by the words of Jesus that, as Jesus says in our gospel lesson for today, will not pass away. Earlier this fall at our Adult Forum, we also had the opportunity to listen to several lectures by Sister Joan Chittester as she spoke the truth and named many of these injustices, inequities, and atrocities that exist in our nation today and that need to be addressed before we will ever be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this regard, the events of this past week remind us that the original sin of racism is still alive and well in our society and that the use of force or violence still has a way of winning the day. While some people were quick to condemn the decision by the grand jury, others were delighted that from their perspective, justice had been served. This whole episode of the past 3 months raises the question once again as to whether or not we are awake to the truth of what actually is going on in this country in regard to the treatment of people of color, especially African-American men, who occupy a disproportionate number of beds in our prisons and who remain the highest percentage of any category of people in our country who are unemployed. There is a connection between going to prison and being unemployed. As we allow more and more African-American men to be incarcerated, the number of African-American men who carry the stigma of having a record will increase so that they will have a very difficult time getting a job, let alone have the right to vote.
The truth of the matter is that none of us is off the hook for this injustice. As Isaiah says today, “We all have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds—not our evil deeds—all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all are fading like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Granted, we have come a long way from the time when African men and women were forced to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to serve as slaves on our American plantations, or from the time prior to the 1960’s when African-Americans were forced to use separate drinking fountains and separate bathrooms as well as sit at the back of the bus. However, we still have a long way to go to make things right with our sisters and brothers in whom the Spirit of God dwells just as we claim that God’s Spirit dwells in each and every one of us.
Therefore, we are invited by Jesus today to be aware, to stay alert, and to keep awake, for we do not know the next time that we will have an encounter with a person of color and be challenged to put aside all of our prejudice and racial scripts that run through our minds, and then relate with them for who they are—children of God, equals with us in the realm of God, and people who are not lacking in any spiritual gifts, unless, of course, we allow structures and systems to exist that limit and control their use of these gifts or unless we establish these same restrictions ourselves.
Oh, we can offer all kinds of excuses as the people in Isaiah’s time did, and blame God for this kind of injustice and hostility. Back then, the people said to God, “We sinned because you were angry with us, and we transgressed because you hid yourself from us.” Actually, the reverse probably was more accurate if the people would have been honest with themselves. More likely, God was angry with the people because they had sinned against God. Although it appeared to the people that God had disappeared on them because they had transgressed against God’s commandments, the people actually were the ones who had separated themselves from God as the result of their disobedience. Regardless, on behalf of the people, the prophet never loses hope that God will set aside the anger that God holds against the people and will remember their iniquities no more because the prophet knows that God will be faithful to the end and that God will be the one who will hold all people blameless through the forgiveness of all of their sins.
So, what kind of excuses do we use to justify our prejudice and the racism of our culture? It is so easy for us to point the finger at others or at the system and say that it is all their fault while we avoid admitting that all of us are a part of the fabric of this system. Our hands are not clean. We cannot escape from the anger of God just because we are progressive, open-minded, faithful, and accepting of all people. Not to say that all of these characteristics don’t matter, but as long as any person of color has to endure the suffering of racial prejudice, discrimination, or violence in this country, we all are held accountable to the standard of God’s commandment to love our neighbor and to do everything in our power to counteract and overturn this evil system.
While we live in the hope that this transformation can and will take place within our society, we also have to fight off the guilt and despair that comes with knowing that we contribute to this racial injustice and violence every time that we look at a person of color and react in some way differently than we would to a person of our own ethnicity. I had that experience yesterday. Gabe and I went to see the movie, “Interstellar,” in which 4 people fly off into outer space—3 white people and 1 black man. When the black man started to demonstrate an intelligence comparable to the 3 white people, I caught myself being surprised by such competence. That is how racism raises its ugly head and continues to infect not only our perception of people of color, but also our behavior towards them.
Therefore, we also live with the hope that, as Isaiah puts it, God will forgive our sin of racism and remember our iniquity no more so that in the end, we might be blameless in the sight of God, not because of anything that we have done to earn this forgiveness, but rather because of the gracious gift offered to us by Jesus when he prayed on the cross, “God, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” When it comes to the original sin of racism, we have to admit that we often don’t know what we are doing to contribute to this dynamic within our society.
Therefore, we also pray to God for forgiveness as well as for the spiritual gift of transformation within our hearts and minds so that the next time that we encounter a person of color, we will recognize our prejudice, put aside our racial biases, and respond with the same compassion and mercy that was revealed in Jesus, our Christ, whenever he had the opportunity to relate with someone whom others would tend to treat as inferior or exclude because they had been told by their ancestors or religious leaders that these people could not be trusted. People of color are not inferior, as our ancestors may have determined, and they can be trusted to have the same compassion and mercy toward us as we might have for them. Will we be awake and ready to respond with this kind of love the next time that this master of the house and child of God and humanity comes into our lives? As we stay alert for this next opportunity, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Amen.