Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 27, 2017
“Why We Rise Up”
Matthew 16: 1-12 – The Message (alt.)
(Note: This is the reading just before today's gospel from the lectionary. I found it too interesting to skip. It does not appear in any of the three cycle readings even though it is present in Matthew, Mark, and Luke)
Some Pharisees and Sadducees were on him again, pressing him to prove himself to them. He told them, “You have a saying that goes, ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.’ You find it easy enough to forecast the weather—why can’t you read the signs of the times? An evil and wanton generation is always wanting signs and wonders. The only sign you’ll get is the Jonah sign.” Then he turned on his heel and walked away.
5-6 On their way to the other side of the lake, the disciples discovered they had forgotten to bring along bread. In the meantime, Jesus said to them, “Keep a sharp eye out for Pharisee-Sadducee yeast.”
7-12 Thinking he was scolding them for forgetting bread, they discussed in whispers what to do. Jesus knew what they were doing and said, “Why all these worried whispers about forgetting the bread? Silly! Haven’t you caught on yet? Don’t you remember the five loaves of bread and the five thousand people, and how many baskets of fragments you picked up? Or the seven loaves that fed four thousand, and how many baskets of leftovers you collected? Haven’t you realized yet that bread isn’t the problem? The problem is yeast, Pharisee-Sadducee yeast.” Then they got it: that he wasn’t concerned about eating, but teaching—the Pharisee-Sadducee kind of teaching.”
Bryan Fischer wrote last week about an event “bringing on us a dark night of the national soul.” I couldn’t think of a more apt description of the Friday night before the rally in Charlottesville. It was truly “a dark night of the national soul” as neo-nazis, the KKK, and some other “really fine people” marched toward a church with their tiki torches burning wildly, menacingly.
Rev. Traci Blackmon was in that church. She is the UCC’s Executive Minister for Justice and Witness. Here is how she described it to Joy-Ann Reid on MSNBC:
“We were inside the church having a multifaith worship service in a standing-room-only capacity church with children, with mothers, with the elderly. Close to the end of our worship service, we received the message that we could not leave the church because a mob was approaching with torches. They were chanting, ‘Blood and soil.’ They were chanting, ‘You will not replace us.’ They were chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us.’ They were chanting, ‘White lives matter.’”
As “two hundred white nationalists approached, no one was allowed to leave and we were held hostage in that church for about 30 minutes, including Cornel West who also spoke at the service. It was like something from the ’60s. It was something I had heard about. But I had never thought I’d witness such a thing in my lifetime.”
“When we were finally allowed to leave, we couldn’t use the front door for fear that we would be assaulted. We were ushered out the side door and into back alleys.”
Doesn’t that sound terrifying? An event bringing upon us the “dark night of the national soul.”
Except that Bryan Fischer wasn’t describing Charlottesville. He was talking about… the eclipse. “The eclipse,” he said, “is a sign of the work of the Prince of Darkness, obscuring the light of God’s truth. Satan and his accomplices are seeking to repress the expression of Christian faith in our land, and are bringing on us a dark night of the national soul.” For context, Fischer’s radio show claims to be the “home of muscular Christianity.”
Billie Graham’s daughter Anne agreed, saying the eclipse could be a signal of darker things, a possible warning from the deity.
Events in nature always seem to trigger dire warnings by one evangelist or another. Remember how it was the “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America…” they are the ones to blame for, remember it? 9/11. They said the same thing about Katrina. And Hurricane Bonnie. The tsunami in Japan, and with each new earthquake, fire, and flood. Surely someone is making that claim this morning about Hurricane Harvey.
Regarding the eclipse, Mark Creech agreed. “It is a sign from the heavens calling upon our nation to turn from its sins and to [follow] Christ or suffer the consequences. I don’t really know how,” he wrote, “but we would be wise to treat it as though this very well may be the case.”
You heard Claire read that Jesus said “You have a saying that goes, ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.’ You find it easy enough to forecast the weather—why can’t you read the signs of the times? An evil and wanton generation is always wanting signs and wonders.”
Matthew continued, “On their way to the other side of the lake, the disciples discovered they had forgotten to bring along bread. Jesus told them, ‘Keep a sharp eye out for the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’”
The disciples hadn’t been present for the encounter with the them, so they were confused, “thinking he was scolding them for forgetting bread. But, silly! he said. Haven’t you caught on yet? Don’t you remember?” And he reminded them: “‘We just used five loaves of bread to feed five thousand people. And seven loaves fed four thousand. And how many baskets of leftovers did you collect afterward? Bread isn’t the problem. The problem is yeast; the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’” Oh!
In light of this week’s eclipse, or rather, the momentary absence of light, I found this pre-lectionary passage too interesting to just skip over. Because, if we had been paying attention to the signs, we would seen Charlottesville coming from a mile away. It doesn’t matter who is in the White House – whether he emboldens domestic terrorists or not. We may find a semblance of satisfaction in blaming one man and those enable him, but he didn’t create the conditions. He simply exposed the “dark night of our national soul.” If afterward he had spoken the right words, some “magic” words of apology and condemnation, and then stuck with them, we would have moved on. He did the country a favor by extending the conversation a little longer. Which might also explain why the eclipse was such an emotional experience for people. But more on that later.
After Charlottesville we heard dutiful denunciations. Tweets from all sides of the aisle like “There is no place in this country for racists.” What about Joe Arpaio? No tweets? We heard variations on Ivanka’s statement: "There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis. We must all come together as Americans -- and be one country UNITED." Tweets that thereby absolved themselves of any guilt. Cheap grace.
Of course, racism is far more than cross burnings and statements like “whites are the superior race.” That is simply overt racism. Why should Richard Spencer and 200 of his tiki-torch bearing friends be excoriated any more than the person who insists “But what about reverse racism?” “But what about black on black crime?” Or who always has an answer for “If only he had just…” Who maintains, “I am not privileged because my parents were poor.” They are all forms of justification for racism.
But racism extends further to well-meaning people who are outraged and offer to help, “but,” add, “if they want our help, they should be more appreciative and more respectful.” More… something else. Excuses. Racism even extends to such statements as “There is only one race. The human race.” Who says, “I don’t see color?”  That is racism. It is a form of white supremacy that sees whiteness as the norm and diminishes everyone else.
Statements like these are certainly not as heinous as “we’re here to take back our country,” but they’re just as emblematic. And Charlottesville wouldn’t have happened without them.
John Blake wrote a provocative piece. “It’s easy to focus on the angry white men in paramilitary gear who looked like they were mobilizing for a race war, but Charlottesville could not have occurred without the tacit acceptance of millions of ordinary, law-abiding Americans. We are a country of a few million passionate white supremacists – and tens of millions of white supremacists by default.” You can’t have one without the other. Nice people who look down on those who do violence, even denounce them by name, but the underlying assumptions remain the same. And, I’d add, the structure that supports it.
It’s like Dr. King’s frustrating conclusion that the real block in the stride toward freedom wasn’t the KKK but the white moderate more devoted to “order” than justice; “who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods.’”
Stapleton. You can hear the defensiveness in conversations about the name. “Well, he later recanted.” And statues. “But you can’t eliminate history.”
Local pastor Jasper Peters spoke of another frustration. “I'm convinced that part of the problem is that most of the white people I have spoken to in the last two weeks have no functional definition of racism or white supremacy other than using the n-word or folks in white hoods.” That’s not me, so I’m good. “They might willingly engage in conversations, but their limited definitions leave them without the means to see things from a different, more complex or complete perspective. It’s like trying to engage in a senior level class discussion with a vocabulary list from 6th grade.”
What a great image for the need to continue self-education and outward engagement with things like Soul2Soul and SURJ. And the Denver Justice Project.
So I go back to Jesus’ words to the disciples: Haven’t you realized yet that bread isn’t the problem? The problem is yeast.” Haven’t we realized yet that torch bearing white supremacists aren’t the problem. It’s me. Whenever I excuse someone by saying, “Well, they didn’t mean to be offensive.” Whenever I think, “Well… he did kind of ask for it…” When I roll my eyes at something but refuse to engage.
But wait, even those things are still really just focused on the bread. Remember: It’s the yeast. The yeast of “law and order” and the norm of whiteness upon which our society rose up. Yeast is what makes bread rise or fall. For evil. Or, for good. We can be a different kind of yeast.
The New Testament letter assigned by the lectionary for today is from Romans 12. And my favorite line, verse 2, says: “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good, acceptable, and perfect.” (NRSV)
Eugene Peterson translates the verse “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. And you’ll be changed from the inside out.” (The Message)
You know, there are a few things I actually agree about with some of those kooky evangelists (sorry, I shouldn’t call them that!). Perhaps we would do well to consider Charlottesville a possible warning from the deity. A sign of the work of the Prince of Darkness in obscuring the light of God’s truth. Except that God’s truth isn’t about the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the eternal fires of hell and everlasting damnation for those who don’t accept Jesus as their personal savior.
The light of God’s truth is justice and reconciliation. Not cheap reconciliation, not cheap denunciations on Twitter or clever Facebook memes; not without the hard stuff of truth, like the model of South Africa – truth and then, reconciliation. Until that is done, the United States will not escape the sin of slavery and the pattern of this world it created, upon which our country arose. Which was, and is still, maintained by the rule of law and the force of terror – embedded in a million small ways and large.
So speaking of the eclipse, I think it revealed the extent of our country’s hunger for this – a yearning for the Common Good instead of whatever is going on right now. A desire for national spiritual renewal. It’s why it was such an emotional experience.
Kathleen Parker wrote “Even though a total eclipse of the sun occurs somewhere on Earth every 18 months, this one was extra-special because it was ours – stretching from sea to shining sea. We needed it. Not to make America great again but” in this age of narcissism and isolation and bubbles and alienation and blame, “the eclipse provided a rare moment when all of us turned our faces together to the moon and remembered there is something out there far greater than ourselves. And what a relief!”
That’s what we need to make America great. A spiritual renewal – from the inside out. But first… Anthony deMello – the renowned Jesuit priest and spiritual writer – said “Spirituality is waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed their family in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing we call human existence.”
Our country must first wake up. Although, actually, Trump did awaken our country from its slumber in a way that Trayvon, Tamir, Sandra, Michael, Eric, Walter and countless others began.
The church has just as often been asleep. We need to wake up too and listen to Jesus say, “Don’t pay attention to the bread but to the yeast which makes it rise.” Not to the orders and structures of our traditions but to be the yeast that helps our country rise beyond our current state of affairs.
Which reminds me, I need to say just quick a word about the Pharisees and Saduccees in this story because we have to be careful not to read too much into their encounter, trying to equate them with false teaching. We can walk a little too close to a line that crosses into anti-Semitism. Jesus, like prophets have always done, was trying to illustrate that they were too focused on maintaining and defending a structure that they cared more for order and tradition than the needs of the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the foreigner in their midst. That’s why when people heard his message, they flocked to Jesus. To be included and participate in this vision, just as we continue to proclaim and commit ourselves to the same vision of an open, inclusive, just and compassionate world. To the healing of our nation’s wounds.
And that’s why, in the name of Christ, we resist the urge to be simply well adjusted to the patterns set long ago upon white supremacy but which still remain. That’s why we will persist in its dismantling. And that’s why we will remain vigilant when it pops up like a wack-a-mole in its quiet, lawful ways as well as its tiki-torch bearing terrifying ways. It is for this “yeasty” purpose that we rise up.
And that’s why I am a Christian. An awake Christian rising up with hope and purpose for justice and reconciliation. For the Common Good. For the healing of our nation. And that’s why invite you to be awake too. And rise up.
 Tweet by Ivanka Trump
 https://medium.com/@harterhealing/how-america-spreads-the-disease-that-is-racism-by-not-confronting-racist-family-members-and-friends-effb68da7e97. See the “Racism Scale: Where do you fall?” chart at the end of this sermon.
 Letter from Birmingham Jail
 Showing Up for Racial Justice https://www.facebook.com/SURJDenver/ and around the country
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 20, 2017
“Actively Evil, Mildly Hateful, Willfully Ignorant... And Other Choices.
What Does the Heart Reveal?”
Matthew 15: 10-20 – The Message (alt.)
Jesus then called the crowd together and said, “Listen, and take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up.”
12 Later his disciples came and told him, “Did you know how upset the Pharisees were when they heard what you said?”
13-14 Jesus shrugged it off. “Every tree that wasn’t planted by God will be pulled up by its roots. Forget them. They are the blind leading the blind. When a blind man leads a blind man, they both end up in the ditch.”
15 Peter said, “I don’t get it. Put it in plain language.”
16-20 Jesus replied, “You, too? Are you being willfully stupid? Don’t you know that anything that is swallowed works its way through the intestines and is finally defecated into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, slander, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing. That’s what pollutes. Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands—that’s neither here nor there.”
I have started and re-started this sermon over many times this week. I struggled with the question: In the wake of Charlottesville, where do we go from here? What can I say that I haven’t already said? I finally remembered the old admonition, start with the text – not with what I want to say but with what the gospel says. And, as I said last week, not looking for some good advice but for the Good News.
For those who don’t know, I follow the lectionary. It is a 3 year cycle of prescribed readings for every Sunday from which to choose: a passage from a Gospel, a New Testament letter, Psalm, or the Old Testament.
So, you heard Brian read today’s gospel, assigned by the lectionary decades ago. But not surprisingly, once again, the reading is quite relevant. Two verses, in particular, spoke out. Verse 11: “It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up” – a slightly more colorful interpretation of the same verse in the New Revised Standard Version: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Secondly, verse 17: “What comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, false witness, slander, etc.”
Our president revealed what is truly in his heart this week when he vomited up his defense of some “really fine people” who hang out with crowds of tiki-torch bearing neo-nazis, white supremacists, and members of the KKK. “They’re not all bad, believe me.” We saw what is in his heart when he contradicted the words carefully scripted for him to call racism evil, but which you could see, wasn’t what he truly believed. And I think knowing the truth is better. I’m glad he shared his truth.
In many ways, it’s too easy to take pot shots at the president – and to give him the attention he so desperately craves. But I can’t help that the Bible said, “What comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, lies, etc.” To stand and defend Nazis and domestic terrorism is an evil argument – it defiles you and it defiles the presidency.
Now, of course, we have to careful. Evil is a dangerous word. It’s important not to casually throw around accusations that so-and-so is evil. But we can certainly identify evil arguments, one of which was on blue-light-special this week. But we can also be distracted by it.
But, before we go any further, we have to put the words of Jesus in their context. What’s he talking about? Gary Charles identifies that one theme running throughout Matthew chapter 15 is the role that tradition should play in religious life, which curiously mimics the question being debated today: what role should heritage and history play by their representation in public life?
In a commentary written several years ago, not this past week, Charles wrote that, “many battles are fought ‘for God’ in the name of ‘tradition.’ Tradition can provide a solid foundation for faithfulness, but it can also function in the opposite way. In this text, Jesus chastises the official keepers of tradition for having squeezed the life and liveliness out of their tradition until it has calcified into an irrelevant relic – or,” he said, “worse.” This week we saw what “worse” looks like when it comes to tradition.
In the gospel right before today’s text, the keepers of tradition pointed at the disciples and claimed they are ritually impure for not washing their hands. It was simply an attempt to distract and delegitimize Jesus and his disciples. Similar to when the keepers of tradition questioned Jesus about healing a man on the Sabbath. But Jesus throws it back. What is more important? Clean hands or a clean heart? Was the Sabbath made for humankind, or humans for the Sabbath? The keepers of tradition were incensed. How dare you?
Now, I don’t know whether the disciples did or didn’t actually wash their hands. It seems clearly to be a pretext, meant to throw Jesus off, to obfuscate – like, rushing to condemn the so-called “alt-left” when the real issues are about the actions of neo-nazis, white supremacists, KKK members… and maybe a grandma or two with some cookies.
Instead, Jesus asked why the scribes and Pharisees broke the commandment to honor their mother and father. It doesn’t say what Jesus was referring to but he got their attention. Especially when he concluded: “You hypocrites! Teaching human rules over the worship of God.”  Jesus looked over at the crowd and then went on to quote the prophet Isaiah, “They act like they’re worshipping God, but they don’t mean it.” The keepers of tradition were incensed at the accusation, appalled, righteously indignant. How dare you?
Tradition can serve as a stabilizing force, especially in a world constantly undergoing change, all of it accelerated exponentially by technology; a 24-hour news cycle. There is something comforting about rituals that never change, the predictability of creed and ceremony. But we also know how stale and irrelevant religion can become – or worse – when the work of the Holy Spirit isn’t allowed. How faith must be made real in every generation. Pride in our history, our traditions, can be a wonderful thing. And it can become an idol more highly revered than God.
Which is more important? Washing your hands before you eat or feeding people who are hungry. But, similarly, which symbol is it really? Heritage, or hate? And is there any difference? Cue the righteously indignant.
Sympathizers beg us to understand that they’re just trying to hold on to symbols of their heritage. They mean no hate. They have no hate in their heart. I take their question seriously: do we want to eliminate history? But, seriously, there is no denying that the majority of those symbols of “heritage” were erected not out of pride but as visual objections to rights gained by African Americans.
Like the words of Jesus, “They act like they’re protecting tradition, but they don’t mean it.” Or at the very least, they’re ignorant of their history.
You’ve probably seen the Southern Poverty Law Center report that explains: “Two distinct periods saw a significant rise in the dedication of monuments and other symbols. The first began around 1900, amid the period in which states were enacting Jim Crow laws to re-segregate society and disenfranchise the newly freed African Americans. This spike lasted well into the 1920s, a period that saw a dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.”
Also, noting their influence in Denver, including electing a mayor named Benjamin Stapleton. “By 1925, Klan members and their sponsored candidates controlled the Colorado State House and Senate, the office of Secretary of State, a state Supreme Court judgeship, seven benches on Denver District Court, and city councils in some Colorado towns.”
The SPLC report continues regarding the erection of memorials, “The second spike began in the early 1950s and lasted through the 1960s, as the civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists.”
When was the Confederate flag was first displayed over the State Capitol in South Carolina? 1961. The Confederacy ended 96 years earlier. But gee, what was happening in the world in 1961? What isn’t clear about that?
And what’s happening now? Racists hate the Black Lives Matter movement. Racists hate the truth being revealed one cell phone video at a time. Therefore, false accusations and pretexts are created to delegitimize them, equating mobs attempting to take rights away to attempts to fulfill the US Constitution that all men are created equal. And if confederate flags are morally neutral, then why would anyone allow swastikas and nazi flags at the same rallies? What does that say? What tradition does it honor?
Mitch Landrieu wrote a masterful speech explaining his reason for removing the Confederate statues in New Orleans. I highly recommend it. He makes several persuasive arguments. Among them,
The Old Testament reading today is from Isaiah 56. Verse 1 says “Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right.” “Maintain” justice is also translated “Guard justice.” But I like how the prophet Isaiah simply said, “Do what is right.” However, how is that done when what’s in someone’s heart is not right? When the heart reveals evil arguments. I guess it falls to the rest to do the other thing. Guard justice. Resist. Persist. Be ever vigilant.
It occurs to me, however, that there is something more important than debating statues. Statues can become a distraction from such things as watching what is actually going on in places like the office of the budget director. For example, “Countering Violent Extremism” sounds pretty important. But funding for the part that monitors white hate groups has been eliminated. As well as federal funding for such groups as Life After Hate, the only organization in the country to help people disengage from neo-nazis and other right-wing extremists. Where you put your money reveals your heart, regardless of words.
What is more important than the name of a street or a school? It’s watching what is going on in the office of the Attorney General, ramping up the War on Drugs, increasing sentences for non-violent infractions, increasing the role of private profit-making prisons, eliminating consent decrees with police forces found guilty of excessive violence, or even anything that might conclude fault of any kind in law enforcement.
Lindy West wrote in the Washington Post: It is easy to denounce Nazis. But, if you truly repudiate their violence, then repudiate voter-ID laws. Repudiate gerrymandering. Repudiate the Muslim ban. Repudiate the wall.
Jesus asked, which is more important? And, if we must choose, is it a metal statue of a man on a horse or the metal bars of more prisons? We can’t let statues be distractions from that which is behind them.
In moments of hesitancy and doubt, I try to remember the inspiration of Dr. King who lived through much worse, but who also agonized over the resistance of white moderates to actually do anything. Who kept saying “Slow down.”
He gave the speech “Where do we go from here” exactly 50 years ago this week. Chaos or community. Which do we choose? He laid out changes that had been enacted in the previous 10 years: access to city parks, city libraries, lunch counters, voter registration, black legislators. Things are different, he argued, yet we must remain dissatisfied. In the beautiful cadence only Dr. King can offer: “Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” Deeds over creeds.
But, he said, it won’t be easy, nor, 50 years later, obviously quick. Eerily reminiscent of Heather Heyer, he said, “We may, with tear-drenched eyes again, have to stand before the casket of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. But we must walk on with an audacious faith in the future.”
What shall we choose? To actively defend evil, to be reluctantly tolerant of hate, to be willfully ignorant of history’s impact today, to watch it all casually from the sidelines, or get up and out and guard justice. Resistance. Persistence. Vigilance.
The Good News is that the heart reveals our true intent. As well, the Good News proclaims that, whether it be evil, hate, ignorance, or nothing at all, “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” I find that, perhaps oddly, hopeful.
Speaking of hope, I want to play the end of Dr. King’s speech in his own voice on this clip (find it on YouTube):
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. (Well) It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. (Yes) When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair (Well), and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights (Well), let us remember (Yes) that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil (Well), a power that is able to make a way out of no way (Yes) and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: "Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again." Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: "Be not deceived. God is not mocked. (Oh yeah) Whatsoever a man soweth (Yes), that (Yes) shall he also reap." This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, We have overcome! (Yes) We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe (Yes) we would overcome."
 Gary Charles, “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 15,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, page 356
 Mark 2: 27
 “Human rules” refers to the fact that this admonition was only an oral tradition as opposed to written in the Torah. Honoring one’s parents is one of the Ten Commandments.
 Galatians 6: 7
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Whkvt3uLblA onward from 1:05:28
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 13, 2017
“To the Vacationing Caesar in Bedminster”
Matthew 14: 13-21 – The Message (alt.)
As soon as the meal was finished, Jesus insisted that the disciples get in the boat and go on ahead to the other side while he dismissed the people. When the crowd dispersed, he climbed the mountain so he could be by himself and pray. He stayed there alone, late into the night.
24-26 Meanwhile, the boat was far out to sea when a fierce wind came up against them and they were battered by the waves. At about four o’clock in the morning, Jesus came toward them walking on the water. They were scared out of their wits. “A ghost!” they said, crying out in terror.
27 But Jesus was quick to comfort them. “Take courage, it is I. Don’t be afraid.”
28 Peter, suddenly bold, said, “Master, if it’s really you, call me to come to you on the water.”
29-30 He said, “Come.” And jumping out of the boat, Peter walked on the water to Jesus. But when he looked down at the waves churning beneath his feet, he lost his nerve and started to sink. He cried, “Master, save me!”
31 Jesus didn’t hesitate. He reached down and grabbed his hand. Then he said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
32-33 The two of them climbed into the boat, and the wind died down. The disciples in the boat, having watched the whole thing, worshiped Jesus, saying, “This is it! You are God’s Son for sure!”
I loved watching Saturday morning cartoons when I was growing up. The Jetsons, Flintstones… But it was really all about the Bugs Bunny characters for me. Remember them? Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Tweety and Sylvester… And of course, today’s gospel story reminds me of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. When you think of Peter attempting to walk on water, you too naturally think of the Coyote, don’t you? Every time he chased the Roadrunner over a cliff, he would be half way across when he looked down and realized there was nothing below his feet. But it wasn’t until he stopped to look down that he sank like a rock. Every time. Meep. Meep.
Or I imagine Peter is like a child just starting to walk. You can see the look of joy on their faces as they take their first steps toward someone encouraging them – come on! You can do it! But then they look around and realize nothing is holding them up and collapse in a heap. Is that fear? Is that doubt? I can’t do this! A lack of faith?
Amy Hunter said this text leads to a lot of bad theology. One of her classmates became a Christian during college. She told everyone she met, “Now, when I step out of an airplane, I know God will catch me.” Amy’s response to her was “God has better things to do than catch people stupid enough to step out of an airplane.” Such bad theology will cause people to take stupid risks, she said, but worse, it will lead people to believe that when something bad happens, and bad things do in fact happen even to good people, the fault lies with our lack of faith. If only I believed harder. Or blaming God. God wasn’t there for me.
So, to explore the meaning of these stories, I always start by looking at the characters involved – imagining with whom we might identify. Oftentimes one option is that we are part of the crowd watching things unfold. Perhaps one of the Pharisees or a soldier, steaming under our collar at something Jesus is saying, or we are among the poor who listen to Jesus’ message of an upside-down world and gather up hopes for liberation. But there’s no crowd in this scene. We’ve left the crowd behind.
If you remember last week’s story, Jesus heard the news of how his cousin John’s severed head had been served up on a platter at a birthday party because Herod promised his step daughter she could have anything she wanted. That news reached Jesus who immediately looked for a way to go off and be by himself for a while. However, while he was looking for a boat, someone saw him and soon a crowd of thousands came surging toward him. He was overcome with compassion and set aside his need to be alone. Late in the afternoon, the disciples of Jesus told him to dismiss the crowd so they could go get something to eat. He replied, “You feed them.” And with nothing more than 5 loaves and 2 fish, 5,000 men, not to mention women and children too, ate until they were full, after which 12 basketfuls of left overs were gathered up.
You heard how today’s passage began, “As soon as the meal was finished…” To me that sounds like, “After the dishes were washed and everyone had gathered in the living room to watch TV…” You know, lounging at the end of the day. But no, today’s passage comes at the conclusion of Jesus trying to get away but sidetracked instead by his compassion for the thousands who sought him out. Then, it was only after that meal was finished, that exhausting delay, that Jesus sent his disciples off so he could finally be alone.
Meanwhile, those disciples, must have been chatting nonstop. “Can you believe what just happened? Can you believe how many people were fed? Can you believe how many baskets were left over?” Chatter, chatter, chatter – finally noticing, “Hey, the wind is getting a little stronger.” Until the force of the winds was full on. Some of these guys were fishermen, yet even for the hard core, hour after hour, by 4 in the morning, they were all worn down and on edge; so, no wonder they all cried out in terror at the sight of Jesus.
So, out in the middle of the sea, there was no crowd watching this scene unfold. Therefore, if we’re looking for someone with whom to identify, all there is left is Peter or a generic disciple. Our options are limited to 1) when we act as impetuous as Peter, or 2) we’re as incredulous (what are you doing!), or 3) as cautious (you wouldn’t catch me doing that!), or 4) if you’re like me, preoccupied with my head hanging over the side of the boat and you can just tell me about it later.
Well, speaking of impetuous, the thing that gets me every time is how Peter was only scared once he saw himself doing it. Literally the scripture version of Wile E. Coyote. Or an infant learning to walk spooked only by her ability to walk. Why? Why does that happen? Why do we doubt what we’re already doing? What makes us afraid of success?
It occurred to me that this might be an example of self-sabotage. So naturally, I turned to the ultimate spiritual guru for advice on this matter – Oprah. And I found a treasure trove of O Magazine articles from which I could now share with you this newly acquired wisdom. But funny enough, along the way, one of those biblical commentary-type articles I’m supposed to read instead of Oprah reminded me that the gospels, and in particular, our preaching, is not about offering good advice but rather the good news. So, sufficiently chastised, I printed off the self-sabotage articles for later.
If our text today is more about good news than good advice, then perhaps trying to find ourselves in one of the characters might not be as important as considering the only other character left in the story – Jesus. And if so, then what is this story about?
But first, frankly, we have to say, the story of Jesus walking on water is kind of absurd. And it’s led to some rather absurd attempts at explanation. For example, all that fiercesome wind had simply pushed the water to one side, therefore, he could just walk out on sand. Or that it was a really shallow lake. Or that it had been a really cold night so a layer of ice had formed. That was National Geographic!
I sympathize with such attempts. And all the attempts made to explain other miracle stories, such as, that the blind man hadn’t really been that blind or the lepers skin wasn’t really that bad or that Lazarus had only been in a coma and wasn’t really dead. But the gospel writers believed all those things to be true – bread multiplying, water walking, and everything in between. What’s the point of trying to explain away their worldview?
Yet where does that leave us? How do rational people in the 21st century deal with stories like these? How do people who believe in and value science handle this? Especially at this, as Al Gore calls it, very inconvenient moment in history. It is more important than ever to lift up climate science; not that we will be saved by a miracle. Alaskan villages are sliding off the tundra into the sea. And Jesus hasn’t been there to hold them back. Is our plan for global warming to learn to walk on water?
And due to a lethal combination of political instability and global warming, this morning, a mounting famine in Yemen, South Sudan, northern Nigeria, and Somalia is threatening the lives of more than 20 million people. And even more alarming is that an estimated 1.4 million severely malnourished children will likely die in the next few months if bolder action is not taken. Not a single word on the news while we watch two of the most unstable people in the world dare each other into nuclear war. Please, Jesus take the wheel!
I may have veered off track a little bit…! But that’s not surprising because as I followed the news this week I kept thinking, what does Jesus walking on water have to do with anything happening in Guam or Seoul or other places of violence, fear and famine? It all seems a little self-indulgent. And leads to some rather trite platitudes such as “Without faith in Jesus, you will sink.” Or, “With faith in Jesus, even you can walk on water.”
But my insistence on what walking on water means in the context of world events today has to be considered in the larger scheme of things. John Dominic Crossan said, when you ask the meaning of a parable or a story, you must consider three things. “What is its meaning – for then, for now, for always.”
So, what did this story mean then? What did the original audience make of this story? Three things seem pertinent. First, their ears would no doubt have been triggered by memories of hearing Psalm 107:
“The stormy wind lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths.
The courage of those in the boat melted away in their calamity;
They reeled and staggered like drunkards,
And were at their wits end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
And God brought them out of their distress;
God made the storm be still,
And the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
And God brought them to their desired haven.” (verses 25-27)
As part of the wisdom writings like Job and Jonah, the seas were mysterious and threatening forces opposed to God. But God had mastery over the sea. As part of the liberation story of the Exodus, God parted the waters for the Hebrews to escape slavery in Egypt. The claim that Jesus could calm the seas meant that he had the power of God.
Secondly, when Jesus came to the disciples on the frightening, churning sea, he told them, “take courage, It is I.” But, actually, scholars point out the original Greek is closer to “Take courage. I AM.” As we know, God is the great I AM.
And, third, remember, as the passage began, while the disciples got on a boat, Jesus climbed a mountain. Where did one go in the Hebrew Scriptures to be with God?
Water-walking Jesus was a theophany – an appearance of God. Like God in a burning bush, God appears in Jesus. Like God is the master of the sea, Jesus can calm it. Which is why the passage ends with the disciples exclaiming “You are the Son of God!” That is the “then, now, and always” meaning.
Whether bread multiplying or water walking, whatever miracles or healings and all the rest, all of this is a narrative that concludes: Jesus is the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Master, Savior and Lord. Which all happen to be things that the great Caesar Augustus claimed about himself. And when his followers called Jesus the Son of God, it drove Caesar crazy. This may be the character in the story I had never considered before…
An inscription was found in which Caesar Augustus said of himself in the third person: ”The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…” 
Sound familiar? In other words, only I can save you. “I alone can fix it.”
Caesar sought to create order and control by means of threat and violence. He welcomed it. He used fear, intimidation, bluster and bloviation. But, we have a choice. To seek peace through that kind of violence and imposition of the dog whistle known as “law and order” or keep insisting on the pursuit of peace through justice and reconciliation.
What I offer today is not some good advice. The Good News, however, is that in the “then, now and always” scheme of things, Caesars fall. And so: To the Vacationing Caesar in Bedminster, I say, “We know what you are doing.”
And we’re going to keep resisting. We are going to keep the narrative on justice and compassion. We’re going to do it across partisan lines to stand with any people who choose to follow the Son of God, the One who loved the hungry, the sick, the incarcerated, the stranger, the refugee and immigrant in our land. And we’re going to keep calling out your insane fascination with white supremacy; your concern and compassion for not hurting the feelings of the KKK.
We’re going to stand alongside Cory Gardner and tell the truth: “Mr. President - we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
The resistance of Christians, for whom Jesus is the Son of God, not Caesar, is driving him crazy. And it is working. Right now, in the middle of this week’s double down crazy, we may be feeling doubtful and unnerved. That continues to be the point. But, we’re going to keep going. We’re going to keep Showing Up for Racial Justice, this afternoon and every day after, because Black Lives Matter. We’re going to keep standing outside ICE detention centers and rush to the airport when necessary, make phone calls and attend town halls.
To the Vacationing Caesar in Bedminster, I say, that’s not a threat. That’s good news for the world.
We’re going to need some water walking skills. When Peter started to sink it was because he doubted what he was actually already doing. In response, Jesus said to him, “You of little faith.” We could read that in an angry tone, “You of little faith,” or a sympathetic one. Because, remember: Jesus talked about the power of faith even the size of a mustard seed. That may be all we have today.
But keep going and don’t stop to look down. “Take courage, I AM. Don’t be afraid.” Which is not so much good advice, it is good news!
 Amy Hunter, “Stepping Out,” The Christian Century, July 26, 2005
 David Lose
 https://sojo.net/articles/how-would-jesus-respond-famine. Contribute through such organizations as The World Food Program http://www1.wfp.org/fighting-famine
 Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Harper Collins, 2001, page 208
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 6, 2017
“When We Say There’s Not Enough”
Matthew 14: 13-21 – The Message (alt.)
When Jesus got the news, he slipped away by boat to an out-of-the-way place by himself. But unsuccessfully—because someone saw him and the word got around. Soon crowds of people from nearby villages came walking toward him. When he saw them coming, he was overcome with compassion and healed their sick.
15 Toward evening the disciples approached him. “We’re out in this isolated place and it’s getting late. Dismiss the people so they can go to the villages and get something to eat.”
16 But Jesus said, “There is no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”
17 “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said.
18-21 Jesus said, “Bring them to me.” Then he had the people sit on the grass. He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples. The disciples then gave the food to the crowd. They all ate their fill. They gathered up twelve basketfuls of leftovers. About five thousand men were fed, in addition to women and children also.”
Three mice died and went to heaven. A few days after they arrived, St. Peter stopped by to see how they were doing. “How do you like heaven?” he asked. “It’s beautiful,” they said, “but it’s so big, it’s hard to get around on our little legs.” St. Peter thought about it and decided to give all the mice in heaven roller skates so they could get around easier.
A few days later a cat who had exhausted all nine lives arrived. As was his custom, St. Peter checked on him to see how he was doing. “Do you like heaven?” “Oh yes. I especially love the meals on wheels.”
Everybody knows the story of the feeding of the 5,000. It’s in all four gospels – in fact, it’s the only miracle story recorded in all four gospels, which should make it clear how important it is in the Christian faith. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have some minor differences in details. In John, it was a little boy who came forward with five loaves and two fish. But they all reported that everyone ate until they were satisfied, until everyone had their fill. Out of so little, everyone ate. When all anyone could see was “There’s not enough,” in the end, there was so much abundance that it had be gathered up by the basketful.
One notable difference is that only Matthew mentioned women and children were fed also. Every gospel reported 5,000 men had eaten. Only Matthew added, 5,000 men, in addition to women and children.
Sister Simone, of the Nuns on a Bus fame, said the other three gospels were probably right to leave the women out. Women didn’t see it as a miracle; every woman, or man, who is expected to put three meals on the table every day. Women regularly perform a miracle every time there isn’t enough money to buy groceries – yet everyone still eats, although minus those times when everyone eats except the one who made it so everyone else can have their fill. What miracle? There was no miracle. Women do it all the time.
Besides Sister Simone though, another prophetic woman, Barbara Lundblad, argued that it was a miracle – it was a miracle that everyone ate without going through a means test first. A Texas congressman wrote a food stamps bill that quoted scripture.
No, this congressman quoted an obscure 2nd Thessalonians 3:10: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” That was his argument, even though:
Some may wish to argue whether this was a miracle or just an example of people sharing what they already had. I’ve done that before.
But engaging in such debate misses the larger point – that this is what God is like. When we say there’s not enough, God says, “Yes there is.” Miracles are signs that point to God, that describe the nature of God, such as,
The miracles of Jesus are not for us to marvel at his supernatural powers but for us to marvel at the mystery of God. And inspire us. Inspired, not just by the increase in food, but by the willingness of Jesus to keep going even when he had nothing left to give. This story is not just about how there was enough food, but how he had enough compassion to give even when his heart, mind, body, soul and strength were empty.
It's so important to remember the context of these stories. Especially the context of stories that are so familiar we think, “Oh, I’ve heard that one already.”
The passage began as Patty read “When he got the news, Jesus slipped away by boat to an out of the way place by himself.”
That should have been our first clue to go back and see what “the news” was that Jesus had just gotten. But instead we can get so enthralled with the idea of feeding 5,000 men, not to mention women and children too, that we can get entangled with questions and debate about whether it was a miracle or not…
We can get so invested in that part of the story that we often miss the whole paragraph about how Jesus attempted to slip away but someone saw him and word spread and soon a flood of people from nearby villages came surging toward him.
Jesus was trying to do the right thing – when you are spiritually exhausted, stop to rest, take time to renew. Yet just as he was trying to get away, 5,000 men, not to mention women and children too, came pressing up on him. He didn’t even get a chance to process “the news.” When Jesus saw thousands coming toward him, however, he was overcome with compassion.
But wait. Again, context. What, in fact, had been “the news” that caused Jesus to say “I need to be by myself for a while?” It was the death of John the Baptist, who in some traditions was his cousin. However, it wasn’t just his death that was shocking but the method.
In the story that leads into today’s text, Herod Antipas was having a grand birthday party. In a kind of drunken state, he was feeling particularly generous so he said to his step-daughter, name anything you want and it will be yours. He figured she would ask for a jeweled necklace, a dowry, a house…
Well, she didn’t know what to ask for so she asked her mother for advice. Her mother said, tell him to give you the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. Why? The girl’s mother held a grudge against John because he had called Herod’s and her relationship “adultery.” Furious, Herod arrested John but since he had so many followers, he didn’t want to kill him so as not to stir up trouble for himself. But now Herod’s hands were tied. He had made the promise to give the girl anything she wanted in front of a whole crowd, so he couldn’t risk losing face. He ordered what the girl requested.
Imagine being at that party when John made an appearance, in the form of his head on a platter. Oh, “that news!” reached Jesus. Who then decided to look for a boat so he could go off and be by himself.
You know, we often say that Jesus was just as human as the rest of us. But we don’t always act as though we believe he was just as human as the rest of us. We’ll say things like, he was much more patient than I ever could be. He was much more forgiving than I ever could be. He was much more understanding and loving and self-giving than I could ever be. Isn’t that maybe just our way of letting ourselves off the hook? He was human, sure… but somehow better. Therefore, I can’t be as good as him…
But whatever he might have been, I can’t help but imagine that in that moment he seriously, very humanly, panicked. If you heard that news, wouldn’t you want to run as far as you could in the opposite direction. To hide out. Maybe become Amish for a while. And I can’t help but think that when Jesus saw all those people coming toward him, just as he was trying to get away, he looked at them and thought, NO! Leave me alone! My cousin was just murdered! Don’t you get it? Give me a break! But no, the gospel says, he looked upon them and had compassion.
Now, if Jesus was just as human as me, I know I would have been resentful. Annoyed. Exasperated. Irritated. And that’s just one way how I know that Jesus is more than human, although exactly what, I don’t know.
Yet, that’s also why he’s the one I follow because I want to be more than my first instinct. I want to be more patient than annoyed. I want to be more forgiving than irritated. Don’t you? Especially in today’s divided and polarized world, I want more than anything to be more understanding and loving and self-giving than I am. And that would be, I suggest to you, the real miracle of this whole story.
The real miracle is not that 5,000 men were fed, not to mention women and children too, but that Jesus didn’t turn away from them. He had compassion. He didn’t give an excuse. I’m too tired. I’ve got compassion fatigue. That’s not to say those aren’t absolutely real and unquestionably essential to our health and wellbeing. I mean, seriously, my last sermon was about the need for activists to rest and renew their spirits. We even have these Rise Up: Spirituality for Resistance devotionals to keep our activist spirits going. And Jesus did in fact go off by himself on other occasions to fast and to pray – to reflect and refuel and reconnect. This is not an anti- “take some contemplative time away” message.
Yet, here is the growing edge, the other point I want to make: Jesus didn’t act as though this depended on himself alone. Jesus didn’t personally deliver all that bread and fish. And therefore, I have to ask: In those moments when we are stretched thinnest, most bereft of energy and passion, what is the reason? Is it because I figure I have to do it myself because others will let me down? Is it because we don’t allow other people to be partners in our work? Is it because we trust more in our own abilities than we do in the sure provision of our God? And then what happens?
When are you stretched to your max? Most ready to just walk away from everything?
Because, remember, this story teaches us that God is a God who feeds. God is like a woman who can look into the empty cupboard of our soul and still prepare a feast out me.
Because, remember, this story teaches us that God is a God of compassion. God doesn’t look at us and say, “Where’s the proof you looked for work this week? Can you speak English? Do you have a degree in computer programming? Do we need you?” Rather, God is a God who, when we say there’s not enough, She says, “Yes there is.”
So give and receive compassion and you will receive and give and give and get back again. And it is out of that that we can expect a miracle. Although, probably not mice on roller skates.
When love and forgiveness and understanding and patience and compassion are nearly empty because we’ve been trying to do it all alone… When you say there’s not enough, what does God say? Yes, there is.
When you say there’s not enough, what does God say? Yes, there is.
When you say there’s not enough, what does God say? Yes, there is.
That’s the kind of spirituality we need to keep fighting the resistance against the cruelty of people in leadership today. To never stop calling out white supremacy, Islamophobia, and just plain mean-spiritedness against people who are poor.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and a Travelling around the world