“Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” I’m not sure, Jesus. Maybe if you gave me a hint about the present time, or asked me a leading question on interpretive methodology, I could answer you better. I mean, I realize these are sarcastic and academic answers but what am I supposed to do, here? Jesus seems to think the “present time” should be obvious. I’m missing something.
People are good at missing the obvious. They did it in the Prophet Jeremiah’s day. We do not know the exact date on which Jeremiah spoke the words of the First Reading. We do know that during Jeremiah’s lifetime Judah has become half puppet state and half banana republic. They go through kings pretty quickly. Babylon propped up the king, and deposed him if he got too uppity. Nonetheless, the Judean elites were convinced of their Judean exceptionalism. Kids grew up learning that God protected Judah, and that while Judah’s fortunes waxed and waned depending on how well they obeyed God, a Davidic king would always reign in Jerusalem. So the locals got uppity. They were convinced they would defeat Babylon.
Jeremiah’s message was, “Babylon is a double-trailer Mack truck and Judah is a bicycle that wandered onto the Toll Road. We are not going to win this. There was more to his prophecy than that; there was still an awful lot of, “How do you not see this?!” Jeremiah’s prophecies were anti-patriotic, treasonous, and really depressing. So they ignored him. When Jeremiah preaches against “those with dreams” he preaches against those oblivious to reality, who promise speedy, painless, easy victory, who say that the bicycle will defeat the Mack truck. It is obvious for anyone who cares to see that Judah has no chance against Babylon. That’s ancient history, though. Jesus’ words sound urgent and contemporary. They sound dangerous.
Jesus is dangerous. Jesus has come preaching division from the outset, siding with the poor, oppressed, and outcast, and declaring that he plans to die at the hands of the state and be raised by God in triumph shortly thereafter. Jesus deals with the dangerous. Is there any topic in America today more obvious, more ignored, and more dangerous than racism? I grew up learning in school that racism was something that once happened in the deep south in the 1950s but Martin Luther King defeated it. My parents were careful to teach me that all people are equal—they didn’t want me to have the prejudices they had been taught. So as far as I was concerned, everyone was equal, The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done, let’s get on with life. I could not understand why people of color would still be upset. The story of my coming to know better is still being written, and I don’t know about you but in my life while I have my share of “Aha!” moments I have a lot more agonizingly slow realizations, and this is one of them. I don’t have a powerful example.
Well, maybe I do. You know, in 1988 when the ELCA formed we set the goal of having a membership of at least 10% people of color by 1998. We started out at 2%. Today, in 2016, we are at 1%. Now we can argue about the efficacy of quota systems, but we’re left with a church that remains a racially homogenous community. I mean, look at us! And the thing is, there is nothing racial about what we believe. There is nothing racial about justification by grace through faith. There is nothing racial about Christ being present everywhere but only being of value to us when he is in the flesh, especially in bread and wine. There is nothing racial about the Church being present in word and sacrament, in solidarity with the suffering, in forgiving the sins of the world and in calling forth leaders for God’s people. Those things, which mark us as Lutherans, are real. I’ve staked my life on them, have the fancy degrees and the awesome color coordinated vestments to go with them. And they are the province of an ever dwindling community of people of north European extraction. Something is wrong, and it is as obvious as Judah being smaller than Babylon.
I don’t think the theology is what is wrong. If anything, we ignore it along with the racism we ignore. Maybe our theology has something to say. Look at Hebrews. The list of the faithful runs the gamut. You get judges and kings whose stories became legend, women whose children were raised from the dead. And then, you get Jeremiah stoned to death. Others don’t hang around for the stoning, and run away and live on the edge of society and the edge of survival. This whole list represents all the faithful. For every faithful king there is a faithful stoning victim. For every faithful judge, there is a faithful vagabond.
All of them are faithful, but handed different scenarios in life. God did not love Jeremiah less than God loved David, nor did God reward Jeremiah less than God rewarded David. David does not have the authority to tell Jeremiah what is good for him. He certainly doesn’t get to tell Jeremiah how to feel about getting stoned to death. God doesn’t love Samuel more than God loves the nameless faithful who live on the edge of society and the edge of survival. God has not favored Samuel with being the last Judge over against those nameless wanderers. Samuel has no authority to tell them how to function, what stories to tell each other, or how to discern what God may be doing in their lives. What can Samuel and David do? They can let go. They can do that most Lutheran of things that Lutherans often have such a hard time doing: they can let go of being in control of themselves and the world around them, and trust that God might just be qualified to handle this. Stop trying to justify yourself and be justified by the grace of God! Trust that God and Jeremiah can figure out how Jeremiah feels and what he needs. Trust that God and the nameless wanderers know what’s important, and can speak up if they need anything.
It’s not a solution to all of life’s problems, any more than it’s a reprieve from all responsibility in life. We have plenty to do in the Spirit. We just don’t get to call all the shots.
And I think that is how Lutherans will make any headway on our obvious and ignored race problem. We can’t just cry, “Justification by grace through faith!” like a swindler throwing a smoke bomb when his mark realizes what’s happening. And I can’t stand here and say, “Hey, folks! Christ says we don’t have to do anything anymore!” We can let go of exclusive control of our world. We can let go of having all the answers and measuring all the results and determining what is best for everyone. And if we’re not the ones pretending to have all the answers and demanding control over the situation, we can call out those who are. Because ultimately the only guy with any good answers is Jesus. And last I checked none of us are him. That’s not abandoning our Lutheranism; it’s embracing precisely what Hebrews calls us to do when it says, “let us…lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
For it is a matter of faith. Christ calls us to have faith that Christ and Jeremiah have got Jeremiah figured out. Christ calls us to have faith that Christ and the wanderers have the wanderers figured out. And Christ calls us to have faith that Christ and people of color in the United States in general and Valparaiso in particular have themselves figured out. Christ calls us to let go of pretending to have control (because that is all it ever is: we’re just pretending to be in control), to drop that weight. Because the race set before us is long.
Christ is calling us to a long distance race. It’s a slightly odd event: the distance isn’t quite specified and it isn’t clear exactly who is racing against us. Some of that might become clear as we go. In fact, it is not entirely obvious to everyone that we are at a race. While it might be as obvious to some of us as it is that Judah is smaller than Babylon, not everyone agrees. But we’re still at a race. And most of us get that. Christ has noticed something, though. Christ has noticed that we seem to be carrying a huge weight. It is the weight of thinking that we are in complete control of the race. This is odd, as running with weights might be a good conditioning method but is usually a good way to sabotage your own chances. And, you don’t usually put competitors in charge of their own events. Christ is calling to us: Let him hold that weight for you. Let him carry it. You’ll run faster, and you’ll run freer. And you might just notice the turns, the signs of the present times, as Christ guides you on the way to the finish line.