Pr16A Blessed are the woke

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20


“A new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”  Exodus 1:8

About 400 years before the new Pharaoh arose,[1] Joseph had been kidnapped, transported to Egypt, and sold into slavery. (Gen. 37) He survived enslavement, false accusation and unjust imprisonment and became a manager in the Pharaoh’s household. Anticipating a world-wide famine, he prepared ahead by warehousing food and grain. Later, he saved Egyptians from starvation by selling the food and grain.  When the famine was over, thanks to Joseph, Pharaoh was rich, owning all of the goods and land in Egypt as his personal property.  (Gen. 47)

The new Pharaoh who arose 400 years later did not know the truth about where his wealth came from.

For us, 400 years ago was 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to an English colony in the Americas. We do not know much about the 20 people in that first ship. We know a bit more about their descendants – how they lived and died, what they suffered and endured but we do not know what that has to do with us now, 400 years later.

It has everything to do with us now.

  • The enslavement of those Africans and their descendants made American capitalism a success.[2] Africans enslaved in America were tortured and threatened with torture to increase the amount of cotton they harvested. That cotton was what built the United States into the second greatest industrial economy in the world by 1840.[3]
  • After “Emancipation,” private vigilante violence alongside state and federal policies (g., segregated public housing, racially exclusionary zoning laws, racially discriminatory FHA appraisal standards, judicial tolerance of restrictive property covenants) systematically prevented African Americans nationwide from accessing the wealth-building and educational opportunities available to white people.[4] And the wealth black persons did acquire could be plundered without out consequence. Think Tulsa in 1921 or Rosewood in 1923 or the federal interstate highway system which isolated and destroyed black neighborhoods.
  • Racial discrimination in housing was finally outlawed in 1968. As if in response, in the 1980’s the “War on Drugs” was used to label people of color as “criminals”, giving new life to legal discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, jury duty service and voting rights – all used by an increasingly militarized, government-funded policing industry to manage Black persons and communities. [5]

White Americans do not know these things. They learn a version of history which hides these truths. White supremacy is a system designed to keep white Americans asleep and ignorant of the ways in which it has moved our history, shaped our nation and perpetuated white privilege, power and protection.[6] Coming to learn the truth is, as they say, becoming “woke.”

The new Pharaoh was not woke. In the gospel, Peter looked beyond the accepted history and its traditions and gained a new insight into who Jesus was.  Peter was becoming woke.  And Jesus said, blessed are the woke.


Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash

[1] Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, William H.C.Propp. The Anchor Yale Bible, Yale University Press, (New York & London, 1999) 135-136.

[2] The Half Has Never Been Told, Edward E. Baptist (Basic Books, New York, 2016) at 421.

[3] The Half Has Never Been Told at 413.

[4] The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017) at 215-217.

[5] The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (The New Press, New York 2010 & 2020.)

[6] Me and White Supremacy, Layla Saad (Sourcebooks, Naperville, IL. 2020).


Pr15A Seeing an alternate universe

nick-fewings-1zJkgcOS0is-unsplashGenesis 45:1-15
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

In the classic “text of terror” (a biblical genre identified by theologian Phyllis Trible) a woman is the victim of patriarchal oppression and/or violence and there is no one to protect or seek justice for her.  In variations, the victim may be male or the perpetrator may not be human. Sometimes the perpetrator is God as in this week’s first and second readings, and almost in the third.

In the first reading, Joseph says that God, not his brothers, was responsible for selling him into slavery.  It was all part of God’s plan for saving “a remnant” (a few) from a future famine. God had a plan and Joseph knew what it was.

In the second reading, the apostle Paul says God has yet another plan: staggering salvation as between  Jews and gentiles.  First the Jews, then the gentiles, then the Jews who didn’t get it the first time.  Do the gentiles get a second chance? Maybe not.  But God has a plan and Paul knows what it is.

God’s plans sound terrifying: innocent people are destined for misfortune and suffering so that God can be good to someone else.

We ought to go verrrrrry slowly when we hear someone talk confidently about God’s plan. They are probably talking about their own hopes and dreams, which may or may not be worthy and may or may not be of God.  Jesus nearly ignores the only person in Matthew’s gospel who is said to have “great faith” because Jesus thought the plan was for  “the house of Israel” to come first. Thankfully, Jesus was going slowly enough to see the woman’s faith and change his mind.

In the first reading, Joseph ultimately saved many people from starving during a seven year famine. But the notion that God planned to use slavery — evil, violence and injustice — to accomplish a good result is problematic. It leaves no room for an alternate universe of possibilities that might also have accomplished that good result without the evil, violence and injustice.

Faith, like the Canaanite woman’s faith, is what brings an alternate universe of possibilities into view.

Sharon Salzberg is a teacher of Buddhist meditation and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.  In her 2003 book, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, she writes that faith is that quality which impels us to look for possibilities other than suffering or brokenness. It enables us to seek what is constant and whole and become connected to it.

The faith of the Canaanite woman saw in Jesus an alternate universe in which a foreigner could offer healing to her daughter.  Having “great faith” she kept calling him until he could see it too.


Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash