The Narrative Lectionary Text for today is Revelation 3:14-22. It is my almost daily habit to click over to clergy stuff and get the text for the day to begin my quiet time. This morning I read this passage through the lens of having to preach tonight and tomorrow morning on the topic of love while the events of Charlottesville are still reverberating in the social atmosphere.
This passage is one of the seven letters sent by Jesus, through John, to the seven churches surrounding Ephesus. Read this message slowly and carefully.
‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’
It seems to me that the people of Laodicea were wealthy and comfortable and thought that was good enough. As I read these words, they connected with my week-long meditation upon and struggle with my own white privilege. I read a really good post by Anna Madsen this week that reminded me that those in power have a different kind of voice and responsibility than those who have been oppressed by the power structures for generations.
One of the most influential professors in my seminary experience at Bethel Seminary was Dr. Ralph Hammond (may he Rest In Peace). He was a black Baptist minister who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. back in the day. I took two classes with Dr. Hammond that changed my life: Ministry in the Urban Context and Minorities in American Christianity. It was in those classes that I first learned about institutional racism and the 20/20 principle.
Institutional racism is what happens when an industry requires a certain level of experience in order to get a job, but the only people who have ever been allowed to get that job have been white men. The system itself does not allow women of any race or any non-white person from getting the job.
The 20/20 principle was a prediction that demongraphers were making twenty years ago that by the year 2020, 20% of the U.S. Population would be white, thus making white people no longer the racial majority. However, white people would have 80% of the power. When 20% of the people hold 80% of the power, that is called an oligarchy, and that does not work well in a democratic system.
When this happens one of two things emerge within the established power class.
First, it breeds fear and violence. I believe that the upsurge of white supremacist groups and racial violence is a sign of this prediction coming true. It is the violent lashing out of a drowning person. White men are losing our long-held monopoly on power, and that creates fear. Fear breeds violence.
Second, it also breeds complacency. I believe this is the more epidemic, and possibly the more dangerous. When you have the power and the privilege, you don’t actually have to do anything. You already have it. You are safe and you can hide behind your gated community and pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. This is the way of the Laodicean.
It was in Dr. Hammond’s class I learned that I am, by default, a Laodicean. I would not consider myself a racist. I believe in my core that all people are created and being created by God and are equal in every way. However, the very fact that I am a white, middle-class, highly educated, straight, married, male citizen of the USA makes me one of the most powerful people in the world.
I don’t feel powerful. Most days I feel helpless, and even hopeless, in the face of the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). I feel like there is nothing that I can actually do to stop the hatred and the violence in our world.
Think about this. If I feel powerless, the one who is, by default, one of the most powerful people on the planet, imagine how powerless a person must feel who actually has little to no voice in an oppressive system.
My wife and I watched a movie called Gifted last night. Octavia Spencer plays a character who lives next door to the main character in a run down, low-income apartment complex in Florida. The court system is demanding that a child be removed from the main character’s home and it is breaking Octavia’s heart. There was one scene that really got to me. She was frustrated that she had absolutely no power to stop the court from making a really bad decision regarding this child. Octavia stood there, a black woman who had no power or voice in the court, and said, “I don’t matter.”
That is powerlessness.
And here I sit in all my power and listen to voices that cry out “Black Lives Matter!” I think, “of course they do.” My natural tendency is to respond, “and white lives matter, too.” While this is a true statement, it misses the point.
Here’s the point. White lives have mattered for centuries. White lives have been the only lives that mattered in society. White lives have even had the audacity to say that white lives are the only lives that do and should matter.
This makes Jesus want to puke.
Right now, in this moment in history, I believe white lives matter for one thing. It is our job to make sure that our power gets channeled into the energy of God’s Love for all people. It is our job to stand against the forces of evil that seek to kill and destroy the weak and powerless. It is our job to realize that God’s love is action. God’s love is not a personal possession and fire insurance policy. God’s love is action that stands against injustice and demonstrates grace and forgiveness and restoration for all people.
Jesus told the Laodiceans to shift their focus from gold and fine linens and power and comfort to the kind of riches that can only be found in the Kingodm of Heaven. They can only be found in the Way of Jesus. They can only be found when we realize that the same John who wrote the Revelation wrote these words in 1 John 4:18-21,
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
When we do this we will conquer evil in this world…
And Jesus’ stomach will feel much better.