Sermon 7.1.18 Peer Pressure

Scripture Lessons:  Matthew 13:33 and 16:5-12                                                       Pastor:   Rev. Kim P. Wells

We have three dogs.  One of them is new to us.  Stephanie, a 6 year old Newfoundland, came to live with us in March.  We have another 6 year old dog, Andre.  He is small, about 50 pounds, with short black hair.  And our third dog is Nahla, a golden retriever/German Shepherd mix, who is about 15 years old.  So, this spring, Stephanie joined Andre and Nahla in our household.  

Every night when I  take my vitamins I give the dogs a fish oil pill.  Andre and Nahla LOVE them.  They hear the rattle of a bottle of pills and they appear in the bathroom wagging and panting for their fish oil.  When we first got Stephanie, she didn’t know about this ritual so she would remain wherever she was, usually lying like a rug, in the middle of the living room.   Each night, I would find her and offer her a fish oil pill.  She sniffed the thing and left it.  She was not interested.  This went on for about a week.  

Then one night Stephanie appeared in the bathroom with the other dogs when they heard the pill bottles.  She stood and watched as Andre and Nahla eagerly devoured their fish oil.  I offered one to her as I had each night for the previous week expecting her to reject it as usual.  But no.  She gulped the thing down.  And she has appeared in the bathroom every night since for her fish oil pill along with Nahla and Andre.  

To me, this was clear evidence of pack behavior, or what in the human realm we call, peer pressure.  You see others doing something and you join in.  To fit in.  You think that is what you are supposed to be doing.  You follow the lead of those around you.  

We tend to associate issues around peer pressure with children and youth.  We think of a scene, perhaps on the playground, where kids are harassing or taunting someone, and everyone pretty much joins in; even those who would typically not engage in such mean behavior.  Maybe you have been part of such an episode.  I am reading a book with a scene where a group of kids coming home with bats from a ball game, find an injured horse lying on the ground and one kid takes a swing at the horse and, as expected, the other kids join in.  We reflect on such experiences and see how we are taken in by the crowd, allowing ourselves to blindly join in what is going on around us.  This happens partly because in childhood and youth fitting in is so important.  Loving, responsible adults try to teach children to think for themselves, make good choices, and not get taken in by the crowd.  

Then come the teenage years and loving adults hope and pray the message has gotten through because the stakes can be higher.  Teens are at a party and someone brings out alcohol or a joint.  Today, that is tame.  It could be a bowl of pills, mixed.  Or some kind of powder.  Or who knows what.    And then, it could be a sexual situation without mutual consent.   Or a hazing of some kind that turns very violent.  There are limitless possibilities.  So, we parent types, hope the teens we love know that they don’t have to go along.   Though they desperately want to fit in by going along, we hope they have learned that they have choices.  

So many times, we hear stories of people who do bad things, bad for themselves and others, because they followed those around them.  They succumbed to peer pressure.   And people with bad intent know how susceptible we are to peer pressure.  They know if they just start something, and apply little motivation, like shaming those who are resisting, they can pretty much get others to participate.  And it doesn’t stop in childhood or adolescence unfortunately.  Adults, too, are extremely vulnerable to peer pressure.  They, too, want to fit in, to be part of the group, to be accepted.  Especially if they did not feel a part of things growing up.  

Jesus knew about this tendency to want to fit in; to go along with things so that you feel a sense of belonging.  And he knew about our human tendency to want to exploit this to our own advantage.  Numerous times in the gospels we see Jesus accusing religious leaders of manipulating people, exerting peer pressure essentially, toward ends that are not consistent with the intentions of God.  In the verses we heard from Matthew this morning, we hear Jesus lambasting the religious authorities for leading the common people astray for selfish gains:  “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 

In this story, Jesus uses the image of yeast in the typical way.  Yeast had negative connotations in Jewish tradition.  Going back to the story of the Passover and leaving Egypt without time to make leavened bread, the image of yeast was a symbol of corruption.  It was very bad.  It was an image used to show how a little of something bad can have a huge negative influence.  Jesus draws on this tradition in his accusation.  One person or a few people start something bad and it is easy to get others to go along, to get along, to belong.  Very effective means toward harmful ends.  We see this again and again and again throughout history from Nazi Germany to college hazing.

What is surprising from Jesus, what is new and unexpected, is the other verse we listened to this morning; the one about a woman baking bread with yeast.  First I want to let you know that the Jesus Seminar, a group of highly respected brilliant Bible scholars, consider this verse one of the few in the New Testament to be authentic to the voice of Jesus.  The gospels were written well after Jesus’ death.  Much of the teaching associated with Jesus had been passed down over the years.  And, like any oral tradition, there were changes along the way to make the teaching applicable to the circumstances.  The Jesus Seminar was an academic initiative to try to determine what may be actually attributed to the historical Jesus.  The result was a book called The Five Gospels.  It includes Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as the gospel of Thomas, a gospel that, for a variety of reasons, was not chosen to be included in the canon, the church-authorized New Testament.  In The Five Gospels, the words attributed to Jesus are printed in different colors.  If the quotes are in black then the scholars pretty much agree that this was not actually spoken by Jesus.  If the words are in gray, there is the possibility that this could have come from Jesus.  If the words are in pink, then there is more of a possibility that they may be attributable to Jesus.  And if the words are in red, then the group of scholars is in close agreement that those words are very likely words that were actually spoken by Jesus.   There is very little red print in the book.  In The Five Gospels, the words, “Heaven’s imperial rule is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened” are in red.  [The Five Gospels:  The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, p. 195]

Part of the reason they are in red is that Jesus was known for taking tradition and twisting it on its head.  Here the commonly used negative image of yeast as a symbol of corruption is turned around and used in a positive way.  That is characteristic of the historical Jesus.  

There are two other features of this teaching that are unexpected.  One is the amount of flour.  Three measures.  About 10 gallons.  Maybe the equivalent of 50 pounds.  Probably enough to make bread for 100-150 people.  So this image of the woman adding yeast to flour and baking bread is a common image but the way the symbol of yeast is used is a turn around.  It only takes a little to have a big influence, that is yeast, but this yeast is having a HUGE influence, and that HUGE influence is positive, it is good, it is of God.  Jesus is imbuing common images with new meanings.

And, there is something else unexpected in this teaching.  It is lost in the New Revised Standard translation and in the Inclusive Language translation we heard this morning.  But the original language tells us that the woman hid the yeast in the flour.  She conceals the yeast in the flour.  This is done surreptitiously.  Not out in plain view.  The realm of God can surprise.  It may not be an attention grabbing spectacle.  It may sneak up on us.  It may sneak into us.  Just a bit.  To huge effect.  Who knows?

This teaching is a beautiful image for the church today, for us, as Christian people.  It reminds us that we can be the yeast.  Just a little.  Making a big difference.  Perhaps without anyone even noticing.  Maybe we ourselves don’t even know the effect we are having.  

But look how easy it is to manipulate people with negative peer pressure.  Just a little shame and the enticement to fit in and you can get people on board.

This teaching of Jesus about the yeast is meant to motivate us to use positive peer pressure.  Do the good.  Quietly.  In the background.  Without a lot of fanfare.  Stand up for justice.  Help others.  Serve the common good.  Wherever you may be involved, in whatever your sphere of influence.  And trust the rest to God.  Trust that what you do will make a difference and may even influence others to make a positive difference.  

This positive modeling is what led to the burgeoning of the early church.  About Christians, people said, “see how they love each other.”  That is how Christians were known.  And people were attracted to that.  They weren’t attracted by the fear of rotting in hell.  They weren’t originally attracted by the glories of heaven.  It wasn’t about money or status.  It was the love.  The care.  The compassion.  The sharing.  The looking out for each other.  And this approach was not limited to just those in the faith community.  The first Christians shared this love with others out in the world who then were attracted in to the church because of what they saw.  Here we see the yeast.  A relatively small group of people, making real the realm of God, in their context.  And it has literally changed the world.  

Friends, I don’t need to tell you that the world is in desperate need of the yeast of the realm of God.  The church is needed to exert a positive example.  We are called to model another way.  We must speak for love in the many circumstances of our lives and trust the rest to God.  Let the love grow how and when it will.  But people need to see love, to feel it, to experience it, even if they don’t know what it is.

You can barely open a newspaper or check social media without seeing something about how uncivil our society has become.  People are confronting others in mean and hostile ways.  People of various political and social perspectives.  It isn’t limited to only one group.

I attended my book club last week and this topic came up.  One woman, an outspoken liberal, and a Catholic, got very heated.  Her complaint was that liberals are too nice.  The Democrats are too nice.  That’s why things are so bad.  That’s why our country is going down hill.  In her view, the people who are right are just being too nice about it.  She feels they need to be more devious and scrappy like their opponents.   I found this view alarming.  Since this was not a church setting, and I was not there in a pastoral role even though the woman saying this is Christian, I didn’t feel I could respond referring to Jesus, like what about “love your enemies.”  So, I turned to another authoritative source.  I said, “So much for Michelle Obama: ‘When they go low, we go high.’”  Well, that quieted things down.  

It’s not that we can’t disagree.  We SHOULD disagree when we see people treated with inequality, with hatred, with degradation, and when we see the Earth abused and harassed.  We should be saying something.  We should be strong and convicted about our values in defense of human life, human rights, human dignity, peace, and care for the Earth.  We should be saying something.  But to do it in a way that is degrading to those with differing opinions, to be mean, uncivil, and demeaning is to do the very thing we decry:  It is to diminish the value of the life of another person.  When confronting someone with differing views, it’s one thing to say, “This is what I think” and explain why.  It’s quite another to say, “You’re a bigot and an idiot.”   

What is needed in America and in the world today are bold people of conscience and principle who are not afraid to be the yeast in a positive way; in content and in style.  We are needed to model service, generosity, and reconciliation.  We are needed to be the people who help someone that is having a difficulty, not laugh at the person or scorn them.  We are needed to be the people who offer comfort to the stranger sitting crying in the waiting room at the doctor’s office instead of sitting as far away as possible because it is embarrassing and we feel uncomfortable.  We are the people who are needed to offer help, to say yes, to reach out in compassion and kindness.  We are the people who are needed to speak up and to speak out for human rights and human dignity.  We are needed to show love for our enemies.  

And then, see what others do.  How do they respond?  It’s likely that other people, seeing the example, are going to join in.  Your example is going to work like positive peer pressure, enticing people to do the right thing.  To join in a good cause.  To lift a finger to help.  To offer a word of comfort.  To change hearts and minds with love.  Use that peer pressure for good.  That’s what we need to be doing.  

And we don’t have to make a big deal about it.  We don’t have to get any credit.  We don’t have to be thanked.  Remember the hidden part of the yeast story.  The woman hid the yeast in the flour.  We just need to do what is right and neighborly and good.  We just need to see that every human being is treated like a human being.  We just need to show that all life is sacred.  But we need to do it.  To involve ourselves.  And with that quiet example, well, we just have to let go of the outcome.  In the Jesus’ teaching a bit of yeast made bread for 100 to 150 people.  That is a ridiculous outcome.  A woman could not manage that much dough at once.  So we have to let go of our expectations around the outcome.  We just have to do what is Jesus-like and let go of the rest.  

I heard a story this weekend about a woman who saw a bored boy outside her church on a summer day.  She had pity on him and invited him inside.  She had one game, Monopoly, so she asked him if he wanted to play.  Then she went to the corner store and got him some snacks.  The next day, he was back with some friends.  And this has turned into a neighborhood youth program that now has 75 students involved.  And they are not only playing games but getting help with homework and getting into college.  And the woman who started this program swore that she would never work in the church, her parents are pastors, and that she would never work with kids.  

And then there is the yeast.  Open yourself to the Love.  Let Jesus live and grow in you.  The world is hungry for your witness.  Amen.  

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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