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