Revelation 7:9-24 “. . . the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd”
I am going to tell you what I see in the American world of black and white. I am going to relate my vision to you. This is not a vision that I once had and which passed. This vision has stayed with me continuously ever since it was born, and is how I see the world and the people in it, in real time, now.
This vision had a birth, yes, a gradual birth that became and remains today fully present to me. It started rather early in my dark American journey, when I found myself before dawn on the Lord’s Day walking the deathly city streets of a great metropolis, not this one. The city was foreign to me at first but became my home.
As I stepped out onto and through its streets that day, the dawn broke. No one stirred at this early hour of the Sabbath, so for a little while I had the lonely buildings to myself, with their blank windows and empty doorways in the poorest part of the city.
I wandered for a while, being early for church, without purpose or particular destination. With the advancing sun, I expected that soon, out of the tall and crowded apartment buildings, would flow the aggrieved people of this metropolis, bearing all the signs of their rancorous relation with the powers that be, showing the fatigue in their postures, the world-weariness in their faces.
Then I awoke, not from sleep because I had already shaved as usual and dressed while I had my coffee—I awoke from my pedestrian life which I shared with all Americans, amidst the noise of racial enmity, the competition for bread and gold, and the hype of this entertainment nation. Strangely, though, I found that, as people began to fill the streets, everyone was dressed not just for church, what can I say except that they were dressed—for heaven!
The scene could have been from the Book of Revelation, which is why I picked this passage for you this morning, where the multitudes were dressed in robes, but here these were purple, beautiful, floor length velvet robes draped over azure satin tunics, flowing gowns, every one of them, with full sleeves and elegant ribbons streaming out.
I recognized that, being people of color, these were of course all the descendants of the enslaved. And being dressed in purple, which I knew was the ceremonial color for suffering and for royalty, they projected outward the history they carried in their bones, a history that made its tortuous way from auction block to lynching tree to northern public housing tracts—“Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod. . .”
They moved into their streets with dignity, with determination, with the solemnity of knowing the secrets that only pain divulges. And each was making their way in the same direction as I was going, but they were not the only ones, other people of color came into the thoroughfare from other avenues, to join this river of spiritual solidarity.
I recognized another group as workers, some from the SEIU and the UAW (I was a member for the two summers in college when I did factory work), others were day workers. These moved splendidly along dressed in silken blouses with matching blousy pantaloons and capes from their shoulders that caught the breeze.
Their heads were graced by headdresses—what I saw were stylized imitations of the bonnets that women wore in the 19th century, bonnets that Mother Jones always wore to the organizing events in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and Colorado where she helped those men and their families face down the mill and mine owners. The flouncy purple and violet hats were emblems of the soft hand that Mother Ann Jones brought up against the iron fist, and they carried themselves with dignity and determination and solemnity.
Then I saw more coming from another direction into our stream, I guessed because of their candy-cane red gowns of humorous academic design that these were people who sacrificed their educations to care for aging grandmothers, or their own children, or jobs they needed just to eat. Heads high, they flowed along, assured of their place in the universe although displaced in time, having earned not just knowledge but wisdom from the altered path of their intentions, all of them radiating dignity, determination and solemnity.
I went along with the multitude into a church, though it was only a storefront church whose name was Mt. Zion Tabernacle of Love. I witnessed multitudes and multitudes that Sabbath morning, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, gracefully approaching the sanctuary door, over which were the words, “Victory to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
I saw, as everybody entered without crowding, each one being given a palm branch, the sign of victory over death carried by pilgrims on the Passover day Christ entered Jerusalem for the last time. Thousands were gathering in a room that could only seat 50, approaching the dais where sat the elders and deacons of this church on either side of a great throne which I could not see but radiated light. My view was obstructed but I plainly heard the words the choir sang--
Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor, power and might be to our God forever! Amen.
By then, I had time to notice that their outer robes had somehow turned pure white. I was told that, having passed through the great ordeal, through the daily depreciation, daily denigration, daily underestimation, how they had washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb in the holy sanctuary.
The next day I just had to return with a friend and see if it happened again, and people in the street were going about their business on the way to work or school, again dressed just as I saw them yesterday, only in their original robes. I said to her, see how everybody is robed, just like I told you, except she said what did I mean, they look like people going to work.
Somehow, I had new eyes.
Henceforth, so it was to be, that I would always see people from the vantage point of their ultimate triumph over death—death which had undone so many people of color for so long in our country. Now I had been given always to see the descendants of the enslaved, the workers, those who sacrificed for their family’s subsistence, fully dressed in their dignity, their determination, and the solemnity of knowing the secrets that come with pain. And then I saw them going out from the sanctuary, warmed by the ardor of their devotion to the Lamb who will shepherd their march on “till victory is won.”
That’s what I see, when I teach my GED classes, when I see you the congregation of Eliot Church—I see everybody dressed in the hardships and conflicts that people endure and dressed in the triumph that awaits them.
America is certainly getting an education lately in the unseen lives of the African-American people. We are having to reckon today with the raw emotions of a community regularly traumatized by the American Way of Life.
To think people had no idea! They are getting an idea now from the outpouring in the media of black passion and suffering. The testimonies of black intellectuals, artists, writers, movie makers, poets, rappers, politicians, fathers, mothers, working people should shame and educate us.
Shame upon America, not even to guess what systemic racism costs the souls of black people and whites as well. And shame, to side with armed police against unarmed black men. But a nation went to the streets, thank God, over the latest violation of a black body.
Americans just can’t seem to see past the conditions of poverty that we ourselves have put African-Americans in. Americans only see the surfaces, and they are either too frightened or appalled or disgusted to see the reflection of their own policies.
We should be ashamed. Why should it take a Poor Peoples’ March on Washington, whether in 1963 or last week, to make the point--we live in the aftermath of slavery.
In a moment, we will sing these words:
O shame to us who rest content while lust and greed for gain in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain, and bitter lips in deep despair cry, “Christ has died in vain!”
Americans can change how we see African-Americans, and must. We can triumph over the living death of systemic racism in America, if we learn to see all people attired in the colors earned by their suffering and act accordingly.
That’s what I see.
In a moment we will be singing these words and let it be our most earnest prayer:
Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that has stayed too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose ways are your own ways, and where the sun that blazes is your grace for all our days.