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"Back Here, Again?" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - August 20, 2017

posted Aug 22, 2017, 10:21 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Aug 23, 2017, 11:07 AM ]

Last Saturday, as my family wound up our vacation in Spain, we decided to go hiking.  We try to get out hiking wherever we go.  And this last weekend, in the Sierra Nevada's, the compelling landscape of rugged mountains called to us.

Without a car, though, getting to a trail-head can be complicated.  We took a taxi out to a small hill town called Cartajima - a village no bigger than our congregation.  The driver dropped us off at the bar, the only one.  In Spanglish he made sure we knew the bar was closed.  I think he doubted our plan to hike over the mountain.  But the map made clear the trail only took about three hours.  We’d be back in Ronda for lunch.

We set out. The map seemed so clear but we struggled to find the first trail marker.  Many people would have taken this as a bad sign.  But we like hiking.  So we pressed on once we found an initial trail marker, marveling at the majesty of the mountains and the abundance of goats.

The second trail marker took us onto the property of a goat herder, along a nearly abandoned road, beside a stream bed.  But then we came to fence; after a while we found the nearly faded paint that marked a sort of gate we could open to get into another field.  The goats scattered as we approached.  We followed the path further up and into the mountains, not realizing that would be the last trail marker we saw.

Somewhere along the way it didn’t seem right.  Our path didn’t seem to match the map.  So we backtracked and found what seemed like rocks piled on top of each other; a classic way to mark a trail.  So we followed the new path until that petered out into scrub brush.

Certain that the path could be found just around the bend, we decided to climb up to the ridge; we just needed perspective.  But one ridge led to another ridge and to another ridge.  We climbed high enough that we couldn’t even see goat poop; even goats knew not to go there.  I realized all the pictures we’d taken on the way up would be broadcast on some Spanish TV show about the dumb American hikers.  “Estaban muy perdidos,” the announcer would say, shaking her head.

A family vote settled the question of what to do next: we started the scramble down the mountain.  Somehow the goat trails we followed up the mountain turned into briar patches and rocky drop offs on the way down.  Finally, five hours after we started out on a three hour hike, we stumbled back into Cartajima.  At least the bar was open now.

For much of the hike it seemed like we were getting somewhere; but in the end, we ended up right back where we started: tired, scratched up, and thirsty.

This week the roiling of news from Charlottesville, Virginia, kept reminding me of my failed hike.  I thought our country, our society, was making so much progress; hard, difficult, but progress.  But watching neo-fascists carry torches while shouting “blood and soil” made it feel like we’ve lost our path and stumbled down a brier patch back to the 1950’s or the 1930’s.

So many awful moments stand out in what happened in Charlottesville and in the reaction since.  Not the least of them the tragic killing of Heather Heyer [“higher”] by a white terrorist.  But I also think of the Congregation Beth Israel: while they gathered for prayer, men dressed in fatigues and armed with automatic weapons looked on from across the street and white supremacists marched by chanting Nazi salutes.  As a precaution, the Torah scrolls were removed for safekeeping and the congregation left worship in groups by a back door with a security guard.

We’re here again?  No wonder I find myself so drawn to the poetry of Langston Hughes.  The great poet gave us a testament this morning:

I am so tired of waiting,

aren't you,

for the world to become good

and beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

and cut the world in two--

and see what worms are eating

at the rind.

This week - terror in Charlottesville, terror in Barcelona, we saw the worms of hate eating the rind.


While I struggled with what happened in Charlottesville, I happened to be reading an essay by a conservative theologian - a theocon - named George Weigel.  His essay noted all the ways he felt our society and politics were broken by divisions: between cultural traditionalists and cultural progressives; between the economically empowered and the economically disempowered; or even between the responsible and the irresponsible; but by any measure, divided.


Weigel felt our divisions were evidence of a deeper moral problem.  As he said, “We have no horizon of moral judgement against which to settle our differences.”  And as a solution he suggested a “New Awakening.”


The New Awakening turned out to be, as Weigel went on to describe it, the rest of the country adopting his particular moral horizon of right and wrong.  He described it more subtly than that of course; but basically he suggested all would be well with democracy if we agreed with his particular understanding of Biblical Law.


He didn’t convince me.  But I got intrigued by Weigel’s argument.  I’ve had many conversations with many of you about the problems in our country, the kind of problems evidenced by the deplorable hatred on display in Charlottesville by white supremacists.  We can talk about our divisions as issues of race and class and resentment.  But what if we framed it as a spiritual crisis?  What if we look at this as a spiritual problem?

Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew speaks to the spiritual challenges we face in our country, the kind of problem evidenced in Charlottesville and afterwards.  This story about Jesus comes after some of his most famous miracles: feeding five thousand people and walking on water.  Both of those miracles were meant to mark Jesus as another Moses, a leader and a law-giver.  Now, in today’s reading, we get just that: Jesus giving the new law.


Everyone - from Jesus’ time to ours - worries about the effect of what we eat on our bodies.  Jewish tradition long prohibited “unclean” foods - pork, shellfish.  It’s not unlike the way many of us try low-sugar diets, obsess about wheat-bellies, and go gluten-free.  We focus a lot on what goes into us.


Jesus makes fun of our obsessions.  “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  And as he explained: this is because what goes in the mouth goes out to the sewer.  And what comes out of our mouth comes from our heart.


We saw this week how words and actions that come out of someone’s lips can defile.  Photos of the protests in Charlottesville captured many angry men shouting awful things. One of them was Peter Cvjetanovic, a white supremacist from Nevada.  He was horrified when the photo of him went viral; he didn’t think of himself as a racist.  How odd: he traveled 2,500 miles to carry a tiki-torch and shout “Jews shall not replace us” and offer Nazi salutes but somehow wants to pretend this wasn’t racist?  He discovered that words defile because they disclose what’s in the heart.



But there’s more to Jesus’ statement than just this idea of what really defiles us.  Jesus wants to make clear our proper moral horizon.  As one scholar explained, “Jesus calls us from a self-centered consideration of what might harm our bodies to a broader concern of how our actions and attitudes hurt others.”  And here’s the point behind Jesus’ teaching: he didn’t long to eat “forbidden” foods, but rather he wanted to keep everyone focused on what mattered.  He gave a moral horizon on which to measure what we say and do: how do our actions and attitudes hurt others.


Which makes the second half of our reading all the more difficult and important.  A Canaanite woman - that is, one of “those” people - asked Jesus to help her daughter.  Jesus’ people looked down on the Canaanites, saw them as their ancient enemies and as followers of a cursed religion.  Good people didn’t associate with those people.


Even more, Jesus called her a dog.  A man calling a woman a dog.  A word he spit out at her.  I think the translation is just being polite by using “dog.”  He certainly said it differently.


All of this didn’t stop the woman from asking for help.  But she didn’t just ask but shouted, demanded, and implored.  The woman’s actions broke all the social taboos of her day, most especially that of women speaking loudly in public to men.  The disciples got frustrated; “Send this shrill woman away!”  Jesus fell silent.  The silence of complicity.  No one knew how to respond to the scene this woman made.


But she would not accept Jesus’ uncomfortable silence.  She kept demanding, “Lord, be merciful to me.”  We often think of mercy as a noun - a thing.  But this woman used it as a verb - an action.  She wanted Jesus’ actions to make clear God’s inclusive, transformative, expansive love.  And in particular, she wanted Jesus’ actions to live up to his own rhetoric.  Perhaps she even heard Jesus quote Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

Her words held a mirror up to Jesus.  Most of us don’t react well when we’re shown the impact of our words and attitudes.  But Jesus didn’t react out of a place of fragility; no messianic fragility.  He recognized his own prejudice towards the Canaanites, heard the dissonance in his own voice, and knew in his heart the need for change.  In that moment, Jesus realized the harm the careless words on his lips caused.  He saw the disconnect between his lips and his heart.  Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And more importantly, from this point on, he included Canaanites, foreigners, and outsiders in his work.  This more expansive vision of his work culminated in sending his disciples out to share his message with all the nations of the earth.

This Sunday, after this week when hate seemed so powerful, I treasure this story of Jesus realizing the error of his bigotry, of Jesus coming to practice the expansiveness of the love he preached, of Jesus coming to not just speak of mercy but to enact mercy.

The re-emergence of neo-Nazi’s sent me back to something Albert Camus once said after World War II.  Camus, most known as a writer and philosopher, fought fascists as part of the French Resistance.  After the war he spoke to a Benedictine monastery about the responsibility of Christians.  He didn’t identify as a Christian, but he said:

What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally. . .

This is the move Jesus made because of the Canaanite woman: from abstract language about the content of our hearts to living the radically inclusive love of God.  He spoke up and paid up.

And we need to do the same.  The violence in Charlottesville was nothing new; but in a powerful way it revealed the worms eating the rind.  We can respond by speak up and acting out in clear ways against white supremacy.

Last week, when I got lost in the Sierra Nevada, my family walked a long way only to come back to the very place we started.  It felt like our nation has done the same.  We missed one particular thing on our hike: trail markers.  We needed trail markers to show us the way over the mountain.  And that’s what I think we need to become in our lives in Milwaukee and America at this time: trail markers showing the way over the mountain of racism that divides us all from each other.  Often we think what we most need is trail-blazers, daring people of tremendous courage.  But I want to claim the importance of trail-markers too, people who make clear their own journey and who help people along the way.  We might not all be able to be trail-blazers, but we can be trail-markers, finding ways to stand up and stand out for racial justice.

Alleluia and Amen.


  • Weigel, George, “The Next Awakening,” National Affairs, Spring 2017

  • Christian, Jack and Warren Christian, “The Monuments Must Go,” Huffington Post