Proper 28 (November 13-19)
Texts: Matthew 25:14-39;
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
A GRACE-FILLED SENSE OF URGENCY
A sense of urgency! We are shocked at the Penn State University news, wondering how no one could have stepped in with a sense of urgency to stop the evil. And heaven knows how many young boys suffered because of it — lives forever altered because no one, over a fifteen year period, could shout, “Stop! What’s going on here! This is wrong!” It’s another horrific example of how evil has its way when good people fail to have a sense of urgency to stand up to it.
Today’s Gospel is the second of three parables Jesus tells just before his execution. You can hear his sense of urgency in all three. Just before telling these, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple and a time of terrible disaster for his people. They refuse to listen to him and follow in his way of peace, so the Romans will crush them. That’s exactly what happened within a generation of Jesus’s prophecy.
Immediately after telling these parables, Jesus is delivered into evil. No one, not even his closest disciples, speak up on his behalf. He is whipped, humiliated, and executed as an insurrectionist. Jesus came to bring us God’s way of peace, but no one is willing to follow until after God’s Easter vindication and forgiveness.
It should not surprise us that Jesus’ parable is about servants who must act with urgency with the gifts given them. The servant who doesn’t suffers consequences: his master takes the gift and throws him out. We are tempted to see the master as God or Jesus, and what will happen to us if we fail to use our gifts. But this parable is set in a context where hard taskmasters — the Romans — are in charge. Jesus knows his people will suffer dire consequences under the Romans if they do not respond to the gift given to them — God’s gift of a way of peace in Jesus. No one responds with a sense of urgency, not even his disciples; yet they receive many second chances. The consequences will not be dire just for Jesus, they will also be earth-shattering for all Jews. Their Temple will be leveled and Jerusalem reduced to rubble. People will be slaughtered, and their leaders carried off to Rome in humiliation for execution. Their way of life as Jews will never be the same. Yes, there are consequences when God’s people fail to have a sense of urgency in standing up to evil — but it is not at the hands of God. This parable is not about what God will do to us if we don’t shape up. It’s about the very real consequences of what we do to each other if we don’t follow Jesus’ way of peace.
History is filled with those consequences. Thursday we attended a screening of Traces of the Trade,1 a film about the DeWolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. They brought at least 10,000 enslaved people to the Americas, and at his death Senator James DeWolf was the second richest man in America. The DeWolfs created what is known as the “Triangle Trade” — shipping sugar and molasses from their Cuban sugar plantation to their Bristol rum distillery; sailing from Bristol to West Africa’s Ivory Coast using rum as their main currency for purchasing and enslaving African people; sailing back to Cuba to leave some African people to work the plantation and pick up more sugar and molasses; then finally sailing back to Rhode Island where they engaged in selling enslaved African people. Rhode Island – Africa – Cuba . . . over and over and over.
The film follows ten DeWolf descendants who in 2001 retraced the Triangle Trade route and confronted their family legacy. In present day Ghana, several 18th and 19th century slave fortresses still stand. As they retraced their ancestors’ steps at one of these fortresses, they entered a church that stands in the middle of the grounds over the dungeons. There they learned that prior to being led to dungeons to await being herded onto ships, the captive African people were forced to be baptized and given Christian names. The 21st century DeWolf family members were then led from the church to the dark dungeons, that at times held one thousand people in five 30×30 rooms. As they stood there, one of the cousins said:
“The thing that I guess strikes me more than anything right now is that we’ve talked, when we were in Bristol and Providence, listening to historians and scholars. We’ve heard people say, ‘You’ve got to place it in the context of the times,’ and ‘this is the way things were done,’ and ‘this is how life was.’ And I sit in this dungeon and I say bull–. It was an evil thing and they knew it was an evil thing and they did it anyway.”2
You can’t experience that place and not know it was evil. They knew the Africans were fellow human beings — they bothered to baptize them, for heaven’s sake! — and they — followers of Christ, members in good standing in their Episcopal Church in Bristol — they did it anyway. How? How was there no one with a sense of urgency to say, “Stop! What are we doing? This is wrong!” One slave trader, John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, finally did, and he became part of the movement in England to stop slavery. But, like Joe Paterno this week, John Newton could also look back and say, ‘Why didn’t I do more, sooner?’ Yes, there are consequences when God’s people fail to have a sense of urgency in standing up to evil.
The DeWolf descendants had many chilling experiences. I think the example of baptizing people in the midst of preparing to sell them was one of the most poignant. It illustrates precisely that for centuries Christians have been getting Jesus’ message wrong. Jesus’s message was not about going to heaven when we die, but about becoming part of the heaven-coming-to-earth movement that he was launching. This is a perfect example of the going-to-heaven focus being used in the name of evil. The slave traders insisted on baptizing enslaved people to assuage any trace of guilt — they were saving souls for eternity, after all — even in the midst of condemning them to lives of hell on earth. Their sense of urgency was to save souls for the afterlife — not to answer Jesus’ call to save people for this creation, the only Creation God has given us.
A sense of urgency on what happens after we die and saving souls for an afterlife leads to a misplaced sense of urgency. Jesus’s sense of urgency was for the standing up to evil and its consequences in the here-and-now, to save God’s creation on earth. As we see with the DeWolf’s, a sense of urgency that focuses on saving souls for heaven can become an excuse for turning a blind eye in this life. There are dire consequences when God’s people fail to have a sense of urgency in standing up to the evil that infects God’s good Creation.
If you have any doubt about Jesus’s sense of urgency, please return next Sunday when our teens lead us after their 30-hour famine against world hunger. The Gospel Reading is the final of the three parables when he uses a story about the afterlife to light a fire under us to address the evil in this life. “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.” Every day we don’t do enough to feed the hungry, an estimated 16,000 children die. Is it more important to baptize them before they die, or to feed them so that they live another day? I believe Jesus is trying to teach us urgency for today, and that through Baptism we receive the gift of God’s Spirit to transform and empower our lives now. It is the gift you and I need to be able to stand up to evil in this life.
So where is the grace? Isn’t this saving the world business a tremendous burden? Yes, as long as this world is burdened with evil, we are burdened with doing what we can to stand against it. The grace today is that we, like the servants in the parable, receive the gifts we need to get the job done. God is a far more gracious master than the one in the parable. God proves through the forgiveness of Jesus that we will get plenty of second chances (even after we die?). Unlike the servant who failed to use his talent, we are promised the grace of God’s Spirit to do our best with what we have each day.
Have you known saints who have been able to live with both the passion and urgency to fight evil and yet with the grace to persist with love? We lost a saint like that on All Saints Day, our friend Art Hoekstra. Art lived on the corner of Paterson and Cobb in Kalamazoo for many years. He saw how much poverty weighed against his neighbors, so he was Director of the Deacon’s Conference for 20 years. While working there, he saw how much racism was integrally a part of the poverty, so he spent the last 15 years of his life fighting racism.
And here’s the clincher that typifies Art’s passion and sense of urgency: when he began to fight a rare form of melanoma found under his toenail, he didn’t just fight against his own cancer. Have you seen any of the billboards in SW MI raising awareness about nail cancer? Those come courtesy of Art. He made sure that even though cancer would soon take his life, he would fight in hopes that others wouldn’t have to die from it. And Art was not a person who forgot to enjoy the blessings of life. He found a way in Jesus Christ to take those blessings from God and be a blessing to others.
Let’s you and I be part of the grace of making a difference in this world to fight evil. We don’t all have the same gifts as Art to do the same things he did, or in the same way. But we all have been given gifts to use. And we are all promised the same Spirit to empower us to use them. God gives each of us blessings to share, talents to use. With a grace-filled sense of urgency, let’s respond to Jesus’s call to make a difference. Let’s not end-up like Joe Paterno this week, wishing we had done more to stop evil. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 13, 2011
1. Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North is a documentary film produced by Katrina Browne (herself a descendant of the DeWolf family) for the PBS series Point of View, originally airing June 24, 2008; Browne also co-directed and wrote the film with Alla Kovgan.
2. Thomas Norman DeWolf, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History [Beacon Press, 2008], pages 117-18. Another member of the DeWolf family wrote of his experiences in the making of the film.