February 17, 2019 – Black Panther – A City on a Hill


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“Black Panther – A City on a Hill”

By Rev Victor Kim
Matthew 5:13-20
(02-17-19)

Not too far from the Sea of Galilee, just up the hill from the town of Capernaum, is a place where Jesus is purported to have given his famous Sermon on the Mount.  As with just about any place in Israel that is associated with something about Jesus, there’s a church built on top of it.   You can look down from the Mount of the Beatitudes and see Lake Gennesaret, which is another name for the Sea of Galilee.   If you walk inside the beautiful church, you will see under the golden dome of the church, 8 windows for the 8 beatitudes.  The beatitudes are perhaps the most famous part of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount, but they are only just the beginning.

The Sermon on the Mount continues for three full chapters and contains some of the most famous of Jesus’ teachings.  This morning’s text is among those well known sayings.

You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, says Jesus. 

A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,but rather puts it on the lampstand so it can give light to all the house. 

So in the same way, says Jesus, let your light shine before others,so that they see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  If you sit on the Mount of the Beatitudes, you can look around and see a number of places which Jesus might have been referring to when he spoke of a city built on a hill.

This is a picture of a city called Susita, (picture not available) located across the Sea of Galilee from where Jesus would have given the Sermon on the Mount.

Today all we have left are the ruins of the city, but in Jesus’ time, it would have been highly visible, this city on a hill.  Or maybe Jesus was thinking of Tiberius, just down the sea from Capernaum.   Tiberius, as it is today, would have been a major city back in the time of Jesus, home as it was to the Roman garrison in the region.

The area around Galilee was probably my favorite part of Israel.  Yes, Jerusalem is amazing and there’s so much history and significance in that great city, but modern day Jerusalem is so different from the city as it would have been back in Jesus’ day.  But Galilee, well, you can almost picture Jesus walking around the lake,calling his disciples to follow him to fish for people.  You can still visualize the movement of Jesus as he walked from Capernaum up the hill, followed by the crowds.  You can look out and see what Jesus might have seen, Tiberius, maybe Susita, and imagine him speaking of a city on a hill which cannot be hidden. His point is pretty simple.

Jesus says to those who would follow him, you are the salt of the earth.  You need to keep being salty, to keep being that which seasons and preserves.  You are the light of the world; you are like a city built on a hill which cannot be hidden.  You don’t light a lamp only to hide it; you put it where it will give light to the whole house.

So, you who would follow me, says Jesus, you are to be like salt and light, you are to be like the city on a hill, able to be seen by all, bearing witness of God’s love to all, living lives of good works, letting your light shine before others so that they will give glory to God. 

It seems that Jesus understands that the temptation is to blend in, to hide in plain sight, that for those who followed him, there was a temptation to keep their faith private, not to cause a commotion, and in doing so, there was a danger of losing that which made them unique, their flavour, their capacity to impact the world for good.

 I think it’s a temptation that’s as real for us modern followers of Jesus today as it was back then.  For some of us we’d like to compartmentalize our faith, we’d like to have a private faith in Jesus, but in public we’d rather not cause a commotion.  It makes us uncomfortable to publicly declare our religious beliefs, our faith convictions.  It’s enough that we know we are followers of Jesus, why is it so important that everyone else should know it?  Isn’t it enough that I believe in Jesus with my heart, that I support the ministry of the church, that I pray in private, that I read the Bible and do my devotional time at home every morning or evening?

Nobody likes a fundamentalist who goes around all religious-like, all Bible thumping, all soapbox preaching!  Every so often I meet someone who makes me a bit nervous.  They’ll greet me and say something like, brother, have you been saved?  I’m not at all sure that even if told them I am, that they’d believe me, at least until I’ve been saved like they think I should be saved. We, intellectual, reserved, proper Presbyterians, we like to be seen as more respectable, more reasonable, after all our motto is doing everything decently and in good order.  Jesus says we are the light of the world, but we’d prefer to think of ourselves as being on a timer, we know when to shine and we know when we’d prefer to be more discreet.

A city built on a hill cannot be hidden, says Jesus.  There’s no hiding for those who would claim to be disciples of Jesus.  Last week I spoke about Lady Gaga, this week I am going to speak about a move made from a comic book character, Black Panther.  The movie, based on the Marvel comic, has become one of the most popular of all time.  It’s nominated for Best Picture this year, almost a first in that it’s a movie that people have actually seen!

The premise is this: there’s country in Africa called Wakanda.  It’s a nation that’s built on the remains of an asteroid that contains a metal called vibranium.  Vibranium pretty much does anything and the Wakandans use it to power their cities, their weapons, their flying vehicles, and the Black Panther’s suit.  Over time the Wakandans have become the most advanced nation on earth but they have chosen to keep their treasure to themselves and have built a force field like device that conceals their country from the outside world. Their city has been effectively hidden.

The Wakandans send spies to live among other nations and the king’s brother is sent to live in Oakland.  But he is suspected of helping a spy smuggle some vibranium out of Wakanda.  When confronted by the king, he tells the king that he has seen the struggles of his people, the people of African descent, who live in poverty and oppression in places like Oakland.  The king’s brother sympathizes with their plight and wants to use some of the power of Wakanda and the vibranium to help the people overcome their oppressors and find the dignity they deserve.  When he refuses to return with the king to face justice in Wakanda, the king ends up having to kill his own brother.  The brother, however, has fathered a child with an American woman and this child discovers his father murdered. He grows up vowing revenge on those responsible and trains to become a merciless assassin.  Eventually he finds himself in Wakanda challenging the son of his uncle the former king, who had killed his father.

The son, named T’Challa, is now the new king, the new Black Panther.  He wants to uphold the tradition of keeping Wakanda hidden from the world, but his cousin, named Killmonger, would rather use the power of Wakanda and vibranium to foment revolution all over the world to empower and free the people of African descent.  Here’s trailer from the move, Black Panther…

(you can find the trailer on YOUTUBE)

One of the key themes in the movie, and there are many, is that of responsibility and identity.  What do the powerful owe those in need?  What value is strength unless you’re using it to help others?

As Wakanda pretends to be just another struggling African country, it hides is true identity and ability.  What is the obligation of nations like Wakanda to the poor and oppressed of the world?  Can a city built on a hill be hidden?  Killmonger asks the question, with everything that’s wrong in the world, with his people suffering and given the vast ability of Wakanda, why didn’t they do anything to help?

Shouldn’t Wakanda be the city on the hill, letting its light shine for all to see, instead of keeping to themselves, hidden, concealed from the world, for their own benefit?

T’Challa understands that the answer isn’t as simple as Killmonger makes it out to be.  Wakanda can’t just reveal itself to the world, especially if in doing so; it unleashes chaos, destruction and uncontrollable violence.  And it can’t merely impose its superior technology and its will on the less advanced nations of the world.

There are competing narratives at work here, one being that of Wakanda using its superior technology to bend the rest of the world to its will, and the other being that of Wakanda offering its knowledge and ability to a world which must choose whether its wants what’s being offered, not being forced to take it.  The movie, in presenting the choice between the two options, may also help us to understand something about the way God acts. 

Jesus calls on his disciples to be like a city built on a hill which cannot be hid.  He says that we are the light of the world, the salt of the earth.  We are to let our light shine before others, to allow our good works to be seen so that people will give glory to our Father in heaven. But the question could be asked of God, why do you call for your people to be so open about our faith when it seems that you, God, have been less than forthright about your power and identity in the world? 

 If you are God, given all the suffering and evil in the world, if you have all the power and if you are all love, why haven’t you done something about the evil and suffering in the world?  Why do you call us to be the light of the world when you are supposed to be the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness has not overcome?  Why is it that when you are supposed to be light that there’s still so much darkness in the world? 

But the answer, of course, is that God has indeed done something about the evil and suffering in the world, just not in the way we expected or wanted.  We wanted the symptoms to be dealt with, all the pain, all the suffering, but God chose to deal with the cause of the problem, God chose to attack it at the root.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is how God “did something about it.” With that one act, the root of the problem, sin, was dealt with.

Now you may be saying, “Well if the root of the problem was dealt with, why aren’t things any better?” 

 Fair question, but just as the Wakandans didn’t think the right solution was to force their help upon the rest of the world, God isn’t about to do that either.  

There is a solution for what ails the world, sin, and it’s salvation through the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.  However, that’s a solution people have to choose and accept for themselves.  So the interesting thing is, there is a solution, but people would rather debate whether or not it’s the “right” solution, or one that would “work for them,” and in the meantime, the symptoms of the problem rage on and on.[1] 

When we as followers of Jesus Christ are to shine as the light of the world, when Jesus calls us to be like the city built on a hill which cannot be hid, what we are doing isn’t to make the world conform to our wishes, to our beliefs.  What we are doing is to model the same gracious, generous, invitational love of our Lord Jesus Christ to the world. 

 To let our light shine isn’t about demanding conformity to our beliefs or our ways. It’s not to condemn those who don’t believe as we do as being evil or corrupt, but to continue offering them the way of love, of grace, of hope and mercy. It is to continue to let our light shine before others so that they will see God in what we do and give thanks to God for it.  We can’t force people to believe, but we can offer every reason for people to choose to believe.  And we can offer it with sincerity, with integrity, with authenticity, with compassion, with love. 

I completely get it that it’s hard to be a public Christian sometimes.  It’s hard because Christians have taken some hard knocks in public these days.  You may have read just yesterday that the Pope defrocked an American Cardinal accused of sexual abuse.  Sadly, he’s just one of too many religious figures whose hypocrisy and failures have reflected so poorly on the whole of religious faith.

A Chicago area mega-church just fired their founding pastor who was recorded saying some highly inappropriate comments, including trying to frame his opponents by planting child pornography onto their computers. The disillusionment, betrayal and loss has been be devastating for those who placed their trust in such leaders.  It’s hard to be a Christian in public when it seems so many followers of Jesus are willing to suspend their ethical and moral convictions to elect someone who thoroughly represents everything that is the opposite of what Jesus stands for, but who will enact their political agenda.  But my sisters and brothers, we cannot hide our light under a bushel; we cannot conceal a city built on a hill.  We must let our light shine before others, we cannot seek to be selectively Christian, Jesus didn’t ask for 25% of us or 50% of us, he asked for all of us, 100%, all the time.

Jesus is very clear about what discipleship means. He says that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  But that’s not a statement that’s meant to terrify us, but rather make us understand that if we will trust him, if we will obey him, if we will follow him, despite our failings and weaknesses and imperfections, he will, as the one who lives in us, make our righteousness beyond anything we can imagine because it will be his righteousness in us.

At the end of the movie, King T’Challa speaks at the United Nations saying to the gathered delegates, for the first time in our history, we will be sharing our knowledge and resources with the outside world.  Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows, we cannot, we must not.  We will work to be examples of how we as brothers and sisters on this earth should treat each other.  Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence.  We all know the truth; more connects us than separates us.  But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.  We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe. 

It’s a pretty good speech; it’s a speech that could be preached from any pulpit, not just in a movie theatre.  The world needs more disciples who will let our light shine, who will be like a city built on a hill, who will not hide our faith, our convictions, our passion for God and the people of God.  Don’t get me wrong, we don’t have to change the world, that’s not our job, that’s God’s.   But Jesus does command that we let our light shine, that we be like salt which remains salty, useful, true to our purpose and God’s intention for us.

Friends, we are the body of Christ, the people of God, we are a city built on a hill which cannot be hidden.  So let your light shine!

Thanks be to God, Amen.

 Written by Rev. Victor Kim
Preached on 17 February 2019
at Richmond Presbyterian Church.

 

[1] Hollywood Jesus, Black Panther.  February 16, 2018.  https://www.hollywoodjesus.com/black-panther-2/