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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, March 09, 2015

Learning to See and Learning to Listen

This dialogue sermon was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC, on March 1, 2015.

Matthew 16:1-26

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red. ’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening. ’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.
 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Today we are going to try an experiment in dialogue.  Those of us who have studied about preaching have been taught that good preaching is not a one-sided lecture.  Good preaching is a dialogue between the pulpit and the pew.  In the tradition of black churches, we practice that dialogue in part through a kind of call and response.  When the congregation appreciates the preaching, they speak back to the preacher.  When the preacher gets a response, it affects how the sermon continues to unfold.  A quiet congregation may be giving a message as well.  Nowadays, when I go to a white congregation to preach, it’s a bit of a struggle for me.  I’ve grown used to having you help me out.  So today I am going to ask you for some help, but in a different way than usual. 
I’m going to ask you to have a conversation with others who are around you in the pews, considering a set of questions relevant to the sermon.  These questions relate to our life as a congregation on mission in this community.  They also relate to our church’s alliance with other congregations and community groups in Durham, through the community organizing group Durham CAN.  Mt. Level has been a part of Durham CAN from its very beginning, almost 20 years ago.  We want to continue strong relationships with our friends across the city and county.  We have accomplished many important things in the past, from improving after-school care opportunities for young people, to getting sidewalks and streetlights fixed, to promoting a living wage for workers, to helping arrange a means for poor people to get access to specialized medical care, to getting the schools and the local governments to hire bilingual staff and interpreters, to pressuring the city and police to respond and change their ways of relating to minorities in the community, and so many other ways.
There is not a head honcho of Durham CAN who decides what we will work on next.  There is not a backroom board that sets the agenda.  In organizing of this kind, the agenda rises from the people.  It happens in listening sessions.  Today, we want to listen to one another, to have a listening dialogue in this sermon.  Over the next month or so, at least a couple thousand people in member organizations across our city, including many congregations, will gather to discuss what is on our hearts and minds, each in their own ways.  At Mt. Level, we are having this discussion as part of this morning’s sermon during our 7:55 am service.  Don’t think you came to the wrong place and have ended up at the PTA meeting.  No, this is still church, and I am bringing a sermon, but you will also have a part of the sermon.  So let’s press on with it.
Not everyone gets caught up in the latest fad story on the news or on the internet, but I would not be surprised to find that at least some of you have heard about people arguing over the color of a dress in the past few days.  Is it white and gold, or is it blue and black?  Physicists, computer programmers, psychologists, and all kinds of people have given expert opinions about “the dress.”  I am not sure why it is such a big deal, but I bring it up because it illustrates an aspect of what this sermon is about.  Although we all may be in the same space and time together here and now, that does not mean that all of us see and hear the same thing at the same time.  What you and I may see as we look around us may be very different.  That’s in part because of the way that we look at things.
Sometimes we call this having a different perspective on things.  From my point of view, and from your point of view, the world may look different.  Sometimes we call this our vision of reality.  And part of what Jesus, his friends, and his opponents are dealing with in this chapter from Matthew is that they see the world differently.
There is more than just how they see at stake in this chapter.  Also, when someone is speaking, they are not always hearing the same thing.  I can bet many of you have been in a conversation in which one person thought she said one thing, but the other person heard something very different.  Listening to one another is often harder than we think.  Husbands and wives, parents and children, long time friends—even people who are close to one another often struggle to agree on what is being communicated between them.  

You said this. 
No, I said that. 
No way! I distinctly heard this. 
Well, you distinctly heard wrong, because that is not what I said.  

If you’ve never been in one of those conversations, I would be very surprised.
So today I want to consider the proposition that we all need to learn to see and learn to listen.  A good example of this difficulty happened just a week ago on national television.  On a program called “This Week,” hosted by George Stephanopoulas, two authors were pitted against each other concerning the way to overcome the wrongs of racial injustice which go back across centuries through slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination in housing, employment, and society in general.  Ta-Nehisi Coates argued for actual financial solutions to previous financial damages.  Shelby Steele said that government efforts to help black people had only hurt them.  These two well-known intellectuals saw a different world and heard very different things being said.  They agreed on the wrongs of slavery.  They disagreed on what has happened since that time in the lives of blacks in the United States.  They saw different histories unfolding.  They did not hear the same message when they listened to the cries of the black community.  Something like that went on in our text from Matthew’s gospel as well.
Let’s walk through this complicated series of events.  They happen across different geographical settings as Jesus and his followers travel and carry on conversations on a whole range of matters.  I think there is a lot to observe here about how we see and how we listen.
It begins with an argument between some of the community leaders and Jesus.  The Pharisees and Sadducees come with a chip on their shoulders.  They don’t like Jesus.  They are the ones who know “what’s what.”  They don’t approve of Jesus’ talking to so many people and having so much influence.  They don’t think he has the right credentials.  They see an opportunist and imposter.  They come at him demanding to see a sign from heaven.
Jesus turns it all back on them.  He points out that they know how to interpret the weather and plenty of other things around them, but they can’t see the signs of the times.  They are supposed to be the spiritual leaders who know what’s what.  But they can’t see what everyone else seems to see.  Crowds of people are following Jesus around, listening to every word he has to say and watching every movement he makes.  These crowds are convinced that something great is happening in the world and that Jesus is at the heart of it all.  They believe that God is doing something momentous through Jesus.  But the Pharisees and Sadducees can’t see it.  They are so fixed on what they already see as the way of God, that is the way that they like to do things, the way that keeps them in the dominant class of society, that they can’t see something new happening. 
Jesus says, repeating something he said earlier recorded in chapter 12 of Matthew, that the sign they get is the sign of Jonah.  Now of course, there is an allegorical meaning here related to Jonah’s being dead to the world in the belly of a fish, then sort of resurrected when the fish spit him out, a story that parallels the coming death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  But the meaning of the sign for this moment is more focused on the ability to see and hear what God is doing in the world. 
Jonah himself could not believe that God would do something new in Ninevah.  Yet when the Ninevites heard the word of God, they received it with repentance, thanks, and joy.  God was doing something new in Ninevah, and the prophet who should have known about it did not see it coming at all.  In the same way, the people all around the countryside and in the towns and cities can see that God is doing something great, but the religious leaders don’t see it at all.  The crowds listen and hear the possibilities, but the leaders hear only interference with their plans and their power.
Which are we?  Are we able to see a world of possibilities in which God is working for our good?  Do we hear the words of life and respond in faith?  Or do we see only the same old same old, day after day, nothing changing, so we are just settled in to wait out this life until its over?  Do we shut out the sounds of fresh beginnings because we have become comfortable where we are?
This same kind of drama keeps playing out in various ways throughout this chapter.  When Jesus, upset about his encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees, makes comment in figurative language to the disciples, they completely miss the point.  All they can think about is that they forgot to buy some lunch.  So when Jesus mentions “yeast,” they think he is talking about bread for lunch. 
This makes Jesus even more frustrated.  They seem not to have been listening to him at all.  He starts telling them some stories to remind them of all that has been happening.  He reminds them of days when many thousands were fed from only a few bits of food, and all the many baskets of leftovers that were collected.  The twelve baskets of leftovers, like the twelve tribes that make up the whole of the nation of Israel, and the seven baskets of leftovers, like the seven days of creation and Sabbath, represent completeness and abundance.  The work that God has been doing is the ushering in of a new age, the age of God’s reign, the Kingdom age.  It is breaking into the world right before their eyes.  Don’t they remember?  Yet the Pharisees and Sadducees “yeast” was their teaching which supported the status quo, the existing power relations, the economic disparities and injustices of their world.  Jesus said to look out for those who only can continue to prop up the world as it is and cannot hope for and see a world as it should be.
What are we seeing as we go about our lives?  Are we seeing a world that cannot change?  Is it a world of injustice that will always be bad or even keep getting worse?  Or is it a world in which Jesus has put thrones, dominions, powers, principalities, and authorities under his feet?  Can the way that power and economic life is arranged be turned upside down?  Can God bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly?  Are we able to hear what Jesus is telling us, or are we just trying to get our lunch and forget about making a difference?
In the next part of the story, we read that they arrive at their destination of Caesarea Philippi, a place bearing the names of the current and previous empires that have dominated Judea, the Roman Caesar and the Greek Emperor Phillip.  In this place, Jesus decides to have a listening session of his own.  He has a set of questions for the disciples to discuss.  The first one asks them what they have heard and what they know.  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  They had a range of answers.  At least two important findings emerge from this conversation.
The first important finding is that many people think that Jesus may be John the Baptist.  That is a dangerous political idea.  What has happened to John the Baptist, who was once the same kind of popular traveling preacher that Jesus is now?  John has been arrested, imprisoned, and executed by beheading—that’s what happened to him.  So if powerful people believe that somehow John the Baptist, or someone just like him, is still out there, they may be soon on their way to arrest, imprison, and execute Jesus, too.  What else did the first question bring out?  They say that people compare Jesus to the great prophets.  They recognized that he is bringing the same kinds of preaching today that the prophets did of old.  They believe Jesus is calling Israel back to faithfulness to God.  They see him as challenging injustice and demanding a change in the way the powerful and wealthy treat the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants.  So the disciples report that Jesus’ message rooted in the prophets of old is getting through.  People recognize that he is bringing God’s word and the possibility of a new age.
Then the second question asks for the disciples’ own judgments, their own heartfelt answers.  “Who do you say that I am?”  We don’t know what all of them said, but I suspect this was a long and interesting conversation.  Different disciples must have shed different light on how they had come to understand who Jesus was.  We only get the report of Peter’s answer in the gospel text.  Peter gives a great answer for which Jesus commends him.  Peter has expressed, perhaps in summary of what all the group had to say, that Jesus is the Messiah.  To say in his day that Jesus is the Son of God was not the same as we use that term in the post-resurrection, post-Pentecost era of the church.  Peter’s saying he was the Son of God was pretty much the same as saying he was the Messiah.  For the Jewish monotheistic faith, Son of God did not mean that Jesus was a divine being.  That would be blasphemy to them.  Son of God in the Old Testament generally means something like calling someone a messenger directly from God.  An angel, for instance, might be called the Son of God for delivering a vital word directly from heaven to earth.  So Peter says in two different ways that we believe God sent you and that what you bring to us comes from the very heart of God.  Jesus was so happy to hear that answer.  He was not, to his disciples, just a magic show, a gravy train, a crackpot orator, a charismatic figure.  To them, he was from God and doing God’s work.
It was a high point, followed by a very low point in the career of Jesus.  Because they acknowledge this valuable understanding of who he is and in doing so express their willingness to follow him further into his mission from God, Jesus starts having a strategy session with the disciples.  He begins to talk to them about what he needs to do.  In the tradition of the prophets, he needs to speak the truth to power.  He needs to confront the powerful and the oppressors, to challenge them for their injustices, and to press for them to change their ways.  Because he has already heard his enemies talk about wanting to get rid of him, and because of what has happened to John the Baptist, he realizes that what he needs to do next will be risky.  In fact, he does not believe he will survive it.  He is, in fact, expecting that he will help get the movement started, but that when he gets arrested and executed, his followers will have to continue the work.  God will vindicate their sacrifice, and he is confident that even if he dies, God will raise him up again.
Hearing this, but not really listening, Peter jumps in and contradicts Jesus.  Wait a minute, Jesus.  Let’s not rush into anything.  There are other possibilities.  Like you reminded us, there were lots of baskets of food left over before.  You can afford to wait awhile.  Maybe we don’t need to go to Jerusalem just now.  Let things calm down a bit.  Take another lap around Galilee.  Let’s build up the base of support a little more.  Don’t go inviting disaster when things are going so well.  You don’t have to say everything you know to people who don’t want to hear it.  There’s lots of work to do besides confronting the powerful.  Go heal someone else’s mother-in-law.  That went over well before.
Jesus was crestfallen.  He was so disappointed.  And apparently he was troubled.  He knew what Peter was saying.  Those thoughts had probably passed through his own mind.  Maybe he didn’t have to face down the people in power.  Maybe he could just keep things straight in his own backyard, his own household.  This is what we call temptation, and Jesus was tempted just as we are.  It’s like the first temptation he experienced in the wilderness, linked to his conversation about the baskets of leftover food. 
That’s why he responds to Peter’s words with the command, “Get behind me, Satan!”  He’s not calling Peter Satan.  He’s calling out the tempter.  He’s saying like the song, “Get out of my way!  Get out of my way!”  Get out of my way, Satan.  I’ve got a job to do.  So he tells his disciples not to be a stumbling block.  They need to understand the mission.  They need to do the power analysis.  If God’s mission is to be fulfilled, then the fight has to be taken to those who are in the way of God’s work.  They need to believe that change is needed and that it is possible.  They need to listen to what they are saying to one another and listen to what Jesus is saying to them.
Do we really believe that God has a better way for our world?  Can we let the joy of knowing God, the hope of God’s will being done on earth, the love of one another to stir our passion to take on the challenges of our time?  Is the Messiah God has sent to us the one who leads us into a more livable, loving, just world?  That’s what the first invitation is today. 
I want you to get a partner, just two or three of you together at the most, and talk about the questions on the half sheet of paper that you received from the ushers.  Open yourselves up and be willing to have this holy conversation.  What has made you proud to be part of this church?  What pressures are bearing down on you and your family?  On what matters should our church take a stand?  As you carry on this blessed conversation, talk about what really matters to you.  You are in the presence of God and of brothers and sisters in the family of God.  When you get to the last question, jot down in a few words what each of you would believe to be priorities to continue the work of God that Jesus was starting and that we are continuing even today.  We want to collect your notes on that last question especially to begin this process of listening to one another, right here in our congregation and all across Durham.  So start now to talk with one another.  I’ll be doing the same thing right here in the room with you.  After a few minutes, we will come back together to finish this sermon.  Don’t be timid.  Start right away.

[Conversations began all over the sanctuary using the following listening guide.

Mount Level Listening Sessions:
Contributing to a Common Agenda for
Durham CAN

Tell a story about one time when you were most proud to be part of Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church.

What are the greatest pressures that you and your family are having to face at this time?  Can you give an example of how this has affected you?

If there was one issue that Mount Level should stand up for and strive to make a difference in now, what would that be?  Why is that such an important issue for us to take on?

After giving a reminder and a few minutes to complete the conversations, we returned to the more traditional part of the sermon.]

All right.  I hope that most of you were able to talk through the three steps of this conversation.  If you are still jotting down what you heard from listening to one another, finish that up.
Jesus went on to explain to his disciples how important the work they were about to do would be.  He said, in anticipation of his confrontation in Jerusalem, that following him would be like taking up a cross.  That means being willing to be mistreated and suffer because you stood up for the weak, the oppressed, the poor, and the outcast.  He said if we are not willing to do that, it is as if we are throwing our own lives away.  Clinging to our own comfort and selfishness rather than giving of ourselves for brothers and sisters means that we lose the true meaning of life, the true joy of fellowship, the true communion with God.  But if we can put aside our self-centeredness and count the lives of others as of infinite value to God, then we can find what God has made us for, what God has made us to be.  What is the profit of winning a pointless, worthless life?  Nothing is worth throwing away what God wants for us just to get a moment of comfort.  Nothing is worth a life without knowing God. 
Have you met the Lord Jesus?  Have you seen the world Jesus offers to us?  Have you heard his call to loving community and mutual service?  Today is the day to follow Jesus with your life.  If you have never taken the step to join Jesus on the road to victory over sin, oppression, and death, there is not better time than now to join yourself to him. 
Are you in Durham and not united to a congregation?  We at Mt Level want to be a people who follow our Lord wherever he may lead.  If the Spirit is telling you that this is the place, that these are the people, that this is the mission to which you should join your life, come and become part of this congregation.  Follow Jesus with us.  Help us become what God would have us to be, as we offer to you our friendship and fellowship along the way. 

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