A sermon preached on August 2, 2020, by the Rev. Teri Daily on Matthew 14…
You may download a pdf version of the sermon below.
I was fascinated with daredevils when I was younger. I thought they had such courage. My favorite daredevil was Evel Knievel. He attempted many jumps through the years – be it over the fountains of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, or fifteen Ford Mustangs, or thirteen Pepsi delivery trucks, or thirteen Greyhound buses, or a tank full of sharks. And, of course, there’s the ever-famous Snake River Canyon jump. Some jumps were successful, some weren’t. But successful or not, America was entranced with Evel Knievel, from movies to TV specials to the over $300 million grossed by Evel Knievel toys. And I was entranced, too. The scar on my right cheek is evidence – the result of a failed landing after having used a huge root from an oak tree in our driveway to become airborne on my bike.
But somewhere along the way, courage came to take on a very different face for me than that of Evel Knievel. Courage is no longer the daredevil attitude born of an inadequate assessment of the risks, or an undervaluing of life, or the desire for notoriety. Instead, true courage is always born out of a recognition of one’s own vulnerability.
Now some of the faces that speak to me of courage are those of people like the great John Lewis, humanitarian aid workers in Syria, Oskar Schindler, doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When I think of Dr. King’s courage, I think especially of a night in January 1956. It was a few days into the struggle for freedom in Montgomery, and Dr. King began to get telephone calls threatening his life and the lives of his family. One night a call came at midnight. The voice on the other end called him a name and then said “We are tired of your mess now. If you’re not out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”
It wasn’t the first time Dr. King had heard these things, but that night he couldn’t shake it off. He went to the kitchen and made some coffee. He tried to think of all the philosophical and theological reasons he learned in school for the evil that exists in the world, but the answers didn’t come. He sat at the table thinking about his one month old daughter and his wife, both of whom he loved. He got to the point where he couldn’t take it anymore. Something said to him that he had to call on “that power who can make a way out of no way.” King said, “I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself.” He bowed and prayed: “God I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think this is right, I think the cause is right. But I have to admit I’m weak right now, I’m faltering, and I’m losing courage.” At that moment he heard an inner voice saying “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And I will be with you even until the end of the world.”
It’s been said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important.” In that case, Martin Luther King, Jr. was very courageous – his desire for justice, his compassion for those who suffered, and his faith in God were stronger than the fear he felt that night. The same is true for Jesus in today’s gospel passage.
Just before today’s reading, we hear about the beheading of John the Baptist by the ruler Herod. You may remember that John the Baptist condemned the relationship between Herod and his partner Herodias. The Bible calls Herodias the wife of Herod’s brother Philip; some scholars say that Herod was actually Herodias’ half-uncle. Whatever the case, John the Baptist spoke against the relationship, and it landed him in prison. But Herod was afraid to kill John because some of the Jewish people regarded him as a prophet. During a lavish banquet celebrating Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced so beautifully that Herod vowed to give her whatever she asked. On the recommendation of her mother Herodias, the daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. John was beheaded. After burying the body, John’s disciples told Jesus what had happened. Matthew writes that “when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
Matthew doesn’t say exactly why Jesus needed to be by himself. Did Jesus need to grieve the death of his cousin John? Was he scared? Did he need to talk to God? Did the risk he faced suddenly become vivid and real to him?
But if Jesus as a human being felt fear (and I can’t imagine that he didn’t at times), fear didn’t have the last word; compassion did. When Jesus came ashore, a great crowd met him. And when Jesus saw this huge crowd of people, “he had compassion for them,” scripture tells us, and he began to cure those who were sick. Hours later the people became hungry, and the disciples realized there wasn’t enough food for everyone. Should they send the people away? Instead, in an action reminiscent of the Last Supper and of our Eucharist, Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish, blessed them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples who then gave them to the crowds. All ate and were filled, with twelve baskets of crumbs left over.
We have in this chapter from Matthew the tale of two meals. While Herod’s birthday banquet smacks of decadence, power, elitism, and retaliation, Jesus holds a different kind of feast – one where all are welcome, including peasants, the lame, the sick, those who are hungry both physically and spiritually. And all are filled. Richard Rohr has said that the best criticism of a current system is just to do something new, to do things in an entirely different way. Well, Jesus’ whole life reveals a new way of being in the world, one that trusts abundance and shows compassion for those who are forgotten.
After witnessing what had happened to John the Baptist, and knowing that the message he himself proclaimed would also step on the toes of socially and politically prominent people, Jesus must have known what lay ahead for him. But fear didn’t have the final word. Fueled by compassion and sustained by faith, Jesus found the courage to act anyway that day. And in that act, the abundance and love of God in which he trusted so much was made real, both for himself and for the crowds gathered there.
We live in a culture of scarcity and fear – we did so even before the coronavirus pandemic. We live in an increasingly stratified society; we are afraid of those different from ourselves; we spend loads of money under the mistaken idea that we can buy security; we are so scared that our rights will be taken away that some of us refuse to wear a mask; like Herod and Herodias, we would rather silence criticism than to allow ourselves to be changed by it.
Maybe we’ve heard about God’s world of abundance, and deep in our souls we’d love give it a try. But it seems so risky. Instead, we continue to take part in a culture of fear and scarcity. What would it take for us to do things in new way?
If we look at Martin Luther King, Jr. and at today’s gospel, it seems the answer is faith in God and compassion for those who suffer. Even when we have faith, though, it’s usually compassion that has a way of pulling us out of ourselves and out of our fears enough so that we can act.
Compassion doesn’t have to only be directed toward others; it’s OK to have compassion for ourselves, too. There are many times when moving from fear to action is necessary for us to be healed, to be made whole, to experience the abundant grace of God. Real life is full of actions that take courage – entering into another relationship after we’ve been hurt, the first day of a new job with all its unknowns, putting one foot in front of the other when we’re depressed, answering a call to discipleship even though we see ourselves as anything but worthy and capable. If God is a God who provides enough for all people, sometimes our call is to have for compassion for ourselves, too.
So this morning, we are faced with these questions: What are your deepest fears, the risks you’re too afraid to take, the insecurities and worries that keep you from acting? How are these fears keeping you from living a life that not only proclaims a trust in God’s abundance, but that shares that abundance with those around you? How are these fears keeping you from experiencing that abundance in your own life? And can compassion and faith bridge the gap between paralyzing fear and action?
 From an address delivered at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 27 August 1967. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/why_jesus_called_a_man_a_fool/.
 Attributed to Ambrose Redmoon.