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1 Corinthians 1:18-25, from the Common English Bible
The movie “Black Panther” is about many things: the historical and ongoing oppression of African and African-American peoples. The innate strength, intelligence, and beauty of African and African-American peoples. It is about archetypal struggles between good and evil, fathers and sons. It is about mistakes and wounds, strong and brilliant women, revenge, solidarity, how secrets weaken us, our need for heroes, and our never-ending quest for heaven on earth
All this and more—namely a great cast, impressive special effects, almost non-stop action, and an inspiring story line—have the film breaking box-office records. But beyond the story and the filmmaking, it is the film’s almost all-black cast and its portrayal of black superheroes that has African Americans and black Africans flocking to theaters—because it gives them them an all-too-rare opportunity to see themselves portrayed in a positive, awesome, and empowering light on the big screen. And that is why I tagged along with several kids from our Youth Group (and their adult chaperones) to see the movie last week.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to find sermon material in the film—any more than I expected to be preaching about an action movie during Lent. But God moves in mysterious ways her wonders to perform. Because, while I haven’t seen a single reference to it in the many articles I’ve read about the movie, I think “Black Panther” has something to teach us about how to follow Jesus and how to understand some of the paradoxes of our faith—things like the hope of the cross, which the world sees as utter foolishness.
(If you’ve seen the movie, I ask you to bear with me as I do a little stage-setting. If you haven’t, well, spoiler alert.)
The heart of the movie is a place: the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Unlike the rest of Africa, Wakanda was never colonized, meaning that its own people have been able to sustain their culture, develop their land’s natural resources, create a form of government that served them well, and prosper in peace. The nation’s thriving economy, hyper-advanced technology, and purely defensive military all are based on its status as the world’s only source of the extremely powerful (and fictional) metal vibranium. The rest of the world doesn’t really know who Wakanda is or what it has, and this has enabled Wakanda to live peacefully in isolation. But that is beginning to change. Shortly after the Black Panther, otherwise known as Prince T’Challa becomes king, he learns that evil world players have gotten their hands on some vibranium. He must get it back. Much fast-paced, high-tech, violent, super-hero action ensues. But the mission fails.
What the king gets instead of the vibranium is an unknown cousin and a powerful rival—an alter-ego of sorts. Eric Killmonger, a Wakandan by birth, grew up in Oakland, California—not as a royal African but as an oppressed African American. His life has been shaped by the injustices of white supremacy, his opportunities limited by the color of his skin. His father was killed by T’Challa’s father, and all his life he has harbored hatred and revenge in his heart. Now that he has made it to Wakanda, he successfully challenges T’Challa for the throne and, as king, begins to remake Wakanda. He wants to use Wakanda’s resources to wage war, to foment violent revolutions around the world.
Until Killmonger showed up, the people of Wakanda took no notice of the suffering of peoples in other nations. They cared only for themselves. Killmonger brings a radically different perspective: He wants to liberate and empower oppressed peoples by wiping out their oppressors. But before Killmonger’s war on the world is successfully launched, there is civil war in Wakanda: a deadly battle between those loyal to the new king and his warmongering ways and those desperately trying to hang on to the old ways. I won’t tell you exactly how the Black Panther saves the day, but resurrection is involved.
In the end, Killmonger and his violent plot are foiled—but Wakanda has been forever changed. Before, the people of Wakanda had seen only two choices: to engage the evils of the outside world, or to live in wealthy isolation, caring for no one but themselves.
In the end, they choose to follow the foolish way of the cross: They stop worshipping themselves, and begin to consider the welfare of others. They cross their borders, move out of their comfort zone, and share their resources and compassion with a hurting world.
In the end, the Wakandans reject the wisdom of the world, which worships wealth and power and says that power is gained and sustained through violence and war, for the foolishness of the cross—the counterintuitive reality that we save our lives when we lose them for the sake of others, that when we forfeit our self-centered hold on power and give freely of ourselves for others we discover joy and a new, real life.
In the end, they reject the worldly value that us that there is nothing more honorable than to die to protect our country. Instead, they embrace the foolishness of the cross: that there is no greater honor than to lay down our fear-driven lives, our false selves, our self-centeredness, and all that separates us from God and one another for the love of God and the fulfillment of God’s dream of extravagant love, healing, and wholeness for all people.
And, in the end—by the end—the people of Wakanda have discovered a whole new way of being, and an entirely different and life-giving kind of power.
Friends, this is not just a movie. This is the mystery of our faith: not only that Christ lived and died and rose again, but also that we are transformed, we are born into new life when we follow Jesus on the way of the cross—lovingly giving of ourselves that others might also know the fullness of life, the promise of redemption, the hope of peace, and the glory of God’s love.
The Christian life is built on such foolishness—on hard-to-grasp mysteries, hard-to-believe paradoxes, counterintuitive truths, and values that both contradict and challenge the ways of the world.
The world says: Look out for Number One.
Jesus says: The first will be last, and the last will be first.
The world says: The one with the most toys and the most power wins.
Jesus says: The servant of all is the greatest of all.
The world says: You’re on your own, and you don’t owe anyone else a thing.
Jesus says: I am with you. Love your neighbor as yourself.
The world says: Make America Great Again.
Jesus says: Seek first the reign of God, and everything else will take care of itself.
The world says: Build a wall to keep the “other” out.
Jesus says: Open your doors and welcome the stranger. My feast of love is prepared for one and for all.
The world says: Might makes right.
Jesus says: Turn the other cheek.
The world says: My rights are more important than your needs. Give me my guns.
Jesus says: You who live by the sword will die by the sword. You who want to save your life will lose it.
The world says: If you could just change the policies and personalities of your government, all would be well.
Jesus says: It is your own heart that must change, then all else will follow.
The world says: Nothing is more important than your happiness.
Jesus says: True joy and wholeness is found when you come back home to the Heart of Love.
The world says: Other people are the source of your problems.
Jesus says: Take the log out of your own eye.
The world (and even the apostle Peter) says: Our hero is the one who conquers others.
Jesus says: We save the world by getting over ourselves.
The world says: Blessed are the rich, the beautiful, the powerful, the white, the heterosexual, and other people like us who have it all.
Jesus says: Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the bullied. And blessed are you when people call you fools for following me.
The world says: Life is hard. Hang onto what you’ve got with all your might.
Jesus says: I have come that you might know life abundant. Examine your hearts and put down your baggage, let go of all that separates you from Love, and follow me.
Sounds foolish, doesn’t it? Scandalous, even.
Friends, we know how this movie ends.
We follow a poor, homeless healer, teacher, and troublemaker who was executed by the state because his way was so revolutionary, because his way threatened the powerful—not with weapons but with a love that included and lifted up the least, the lost, and the left behind.
We know that the ways of the world—death, might, oppression, violence—did not, will not win in the end.
Yes, it can be hard to believe, hard to keep believing, especially in these times. But we are good at suspending disbelief; we do it every time we go to the movies. Jesus asks us only to suspend our belief in the lies of the world, and to open our hearts to the life-giving truth of the cross. Put down the weight of the world, Jesus says, and take up your cross. There you will find true life—“not by what you hold, but by what you release, not by what you lose, but by what falls from your open hands,” 1 not by protecting your heart, but by opening it to the pain and suffering of the world; not by setting your mind on human things but by seeing with God’s eyes; not by saving yourself, but by letting yourself be loved.
This life of discipleship may not be as exciting as a Marvel superhero action movie, but there are great adventures to be had. We have wonderful companions along the way, and there are countless blessings to be discovered. It will require all we think we can do and more, and it will give us healing and power like none we’ve ever known. It will take our self-centeredness and give us love. It will take our death and give us life.
So, let us keep to the path. Let us be followers of Jesus and fools for love.
Let us say, as they do not say in the movies: Jesus forever!