Light and Fuel for the Long Haul

TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Amos 5:18-24
Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Prayer of the Day: O God of justice and love, you illumine our way through life with the words of your Son. Give us the light we need, and awaken us to the needs of others, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:13.

By the time Sunday rolls around, one of three things will have occurred. Donald Trump will have been elected to a second term as president of the United States, in which case we can expect four more of the same. Or, alternatively, Joe Biden will be elected president by a solid electoral majority and we can hope some semblance of order will return to the White House. Or the election may not be decided tomorrow or the next day or the day after or the week after. The legitimacy of the election might even be cast into doubt and held captive to litigation. That would place us in uncharted territory. Worst case scenario, the election will be decided by the courts leaving a substantial part of the country feeling that it has been stolen from them.

I considered delaying my normal Monday publication date until Wednesday following the election so that my reflections would be more “contextual.” But I decided against it. After all, the gospel lesson speaks directly to uncertainty: uncertainty over when the bridegroom will show up; uncertainty over when, if ever, we will know who won the presidential election; uncertainty over what the future holds regardless; uncertainty over when this pandemic will subside; uncertainty over how many more lifetimes God’s people must wait for God’s reign of justice and peace to unfold. Jesus’ parable seems directed to people living in times of uncertainty. And let’s face it, those are the only times there have ever been. The ground under our feet has never been as firm as we tell ourselves it is. When the sun is shining, the sky is clear, systemic racism remains invisible and no pandemic looms on the horizon, it is easy to convince ourselves otherwise. But in days like these, the fragility of our world and of our very lives is hard to deny. Whatever the political weather, Jesus’ word is the same. Be prepared at all times for the appearing of God’s reign-but expect delays.

I have made no secret of my hope that the upcoming election will bring an end to the Trump presidency and the demons of racial hate it has raised up. But to those of you who share this hope, understand that it might not come to fruition. If we must face four more years of Trump’s dark and suffocating shadow, do we have enough oil in our lamps to get through those years? Are we so thoroughly convinced that the reign of God prevails in the end that we can stubbornly persist in speaking truth to power and advocating for the rights, safety and security of the most vulnerable among us without giving in to despair? Have we got what it takes to keep picking up trash on the shoreline even as regulatory repeal opens the floodgates to global pollution? The real test of discipleship is faithfulness even when faithful action appears futile. Are we up to that testing?

On the other hand, Donald Trump’s electoral defeat is hardly the end of the church’s struggle. My greatest fear is not that Trump will remain in office, but that he will lose to Joe Bidan and we will declare victory and go home. Getting Trump out of the White House will not rid our country of the evils his presidency has uncovered. Trump is the symptom, not the cause of systemic racism, patriarchy, sexual violence and idolatrous nationalism. If, as I hope, Trump is defeated in 2020, we cannot ignore the fact that a substantial piece of the American population will still be inflamed with the same racial hate that brought Trump to the pinnacle of power. Indeed, they will likely become more angry, more desperate, more energized and therefore more violent and dangerous. Our schools, workplaces and government institutions will still be laced with systemic racism and patriarchy. The gap between the rich and the ever shrinking middle class will still be growing. The shocking number of people living with food insecurity will still be there the day after the votes are all in. None of this will change automatically after the election. The new occupant of the White House will be beholden to big money and corporate interests despite all his protestation and rhetoric to the contrary.

So once again, the question is the same: Do we have enough oil in our lamps to continue on when it becomes clear that the reign of God has not yet come and our work has only just begun? Do we have the stamina to begin pushing Joe Biden on day one to take concrete steps toward dismantling systemic racism, extending health care to all people within our borders, addressing the disparity in wealth that falls most heavily on people of color and renew the country’s involvement in the international community’s efforts to combat climate change? Are we prepared to continue being gadflies goading our bishops toward racial reconciliation within the church that goes beyond preachy-screechy social statements and involves substantial financial support of Black churches and their ministries, thereby modeling the cry for reparations from a nation that was built on uncompensated Black labor? Are we prepared to keep pressing American church leaders  jointly to condemn American exceptionalism and Christian nationalism as nothing short of heresy?

And what if the third possibility materializes? What if we have no winner and no clear path toward resolving the electoral battle? I strongy suspect we will muddle through somehow. But then again, maybe not. Could this be the beginning of the end of American democracy as we know it? Could this impending crisis be the death rattle of an empire? Has our country had its day in the sun? Is it time for the United States finally to go the way of the Byzantine, Macadonian, Persian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires? God’s people throughout the ages have seen nations and empires come and go. “Crowns and thrones shall perish/kingdoms wax and wain” as the hymn goes. Does the American church, as symbiotically bonded with the American dream as it is, have enough of its soul left to carry on after that dream has been extinquished? Do we have the spiritual resources that enabled  the ancient church with its parishes, convents and monasteries to continue the gospel witness and care for the poorest of the poor in the wake of civilization’s collapse?

Whatever the outcome tomorrow, the church’s task is the same: to bear witness in word and deed to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims. Though it does not yet appear in its fullness, the light of that reign breaks in through the darkness to enlighten, encourage and inspire those who wait for it, long for it, stay awake watching for it and do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to bear faithful witness to it.

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes pondering the destiny of a dream deferred. Could the same observations apply to our longing for the reign of God, which at times appears hopelessly out of reach?

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Source: The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, (c. 2002 by Langston Hughes; pub. by Harold Ober Associates, Inc.) Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

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