Matthew 16.1-12

Peril and Promise

1969:  That Was The Year That Was

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Since their inception in 1978, the Kennedy Center Honors have celebrated musicians, movie stars, jazz luminaries, symphonic conductors, choreographers and others in the field of the performing arts who have made a lasting contribution to American life and culture.  But until this year, no television program has ever been honored.  That all changed at the most recent awards in June.   Does anyone recall what TV show was the first to be recognized by the Kennedy Center?  It is a program that premiered fifty years ago, in 1969, on public television – can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?  Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster and Kermit D. Frog, along with all the people in the neighborhood, were acknowledged for the positive effect they have had on the children who continue to grow up with them.

I’ve long had a soft spot for Sesame Street.  When I was in high school, some of my church buddies and I put together weekly worship services for our Church School, a brief 15 minute worship service for our kids before they went off to their classes, and one year we tailored our children’s worship around Sesame Street themes.  We had a mailman who nobody ever saw – his arm would just come through a partially open door and deliver the mail, which was actually part of what we called “God’s Mailbox.”  The collection was taken by a character we named Offering Monster, and Sesame Street gave us a number of good ideas to keep the children’s attention while teaching them about the love of Jesus.  The program was a wonderful inspiration.  And if I may add a personal note, most of you by now that our daughter Blythe is being married here next Saturday afternoon at 4:00 – and you are all invited to join us at the ceremony – well, Sesame Street had a place of pride in our older daughter’s wedding seven years ago. I walked Clare down the aisle to the tune of Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection,” – “the lovers, the dreamers and me” - and her recessional was a wonderful rendition of “Manamana.”  So for us, the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street takes on an extra special meaning.

But the lessons over those fifty years have been consistent, and they have been formative, lessons like, Families come in all shapes and sizes; Sharing is a way of life; Let your imagination soar; Too much of a good thing is not a good thing (thanks, Cookie monster); Children are a vital part of the world; Everyone matters.  And if we looked hard enough, I’m confident we could find a Bible verse for every one of Sesame Street’s lessons.

Our reading from Matthew this morning seems, at first blush, to call out the Pharisees and the Sadducees for their hypocrisy; they asked Jesus about signs and portents in an attempt to discredit him.  But Jesus’ reply, as it so often did, turned the tables on them and revealed their own lack of understanding.  “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.’”  We’ve heard this before, right?  “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”  “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”  And it isn’t just Jesus’ adversaries either; the second half of the reading reveals that the disciples were nearly as confused as the Pharisees and Sadducees. 

But the reading also says something about the nature of biblical prophecy, that is as true of the Old Testament prophets as it is of Jesus’ words here in Matthew, as it is of some of the events from fifty years ago we have been looking at this summer.  When most people think of prophecy, they think of a mystical ability to predict the future.  For those of you who remember her, I was a big fan of Jeane Dixon when I was young; I thought it was incredible how she could foresee events yet to come.  She claims to have predicted John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  But her trick was to predict a whole slew of possible historical events while remaining vague about the details, and then to crow about the few that she got correct, or at least kind of correct.  Dixon also predicted Richard Nixon’s 1960 election, but failed to explain how President Kennedy could have been killed with Nixon as President.  In the Bible it is very different.  Prophecy is not the ability to predict the future.  Prophecy is the ability to recognize signal events and decisions in the present, and to understand the effect and implications those events and decisions will likely have down the road.  Using Jesus’ example, a red sky in the morning means clouds are moving in, and a storm is likely to be on the way; a red sky at night means they are moving out and fair weather is approaching.  So it is in this biblical sense that some of the events of 1969 have predictively shaped the world you and I live in today, some for better, some for worse; some for promise, some for peril.

We’ve already seen how the election of Richard Nixon, inaugurated in 1969, paved the way for the brand of political race-baiting that is still being practiced today from the White House.  We’ve also seen how a small riot outside a bar in Greenwich Village led to the gay rights movement and marriage equality in our own day.  We’ve seen how the tangential benefits of the Apollo space program have gone on to leave a lasting impression on contemporary living and conveniences.  In May of 1969, an anonymous gay man named “Robert R.” became the first known victim of AIDS; and because it was a disease that first surfaced among the gay community in the US, it was largely ignored, a willful ignorance that led to the deaths of thousands before the government and medical community took any meaningful action.  In June of 1969 Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire – incidentally, not for the first time – which led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act, both of which are under siege in the current national climate.  In 1969, the same weekend that saw the first moon landing also saw the beginning of end of the Kennedy political dynasty, when Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in Martha’s Vineyard, killing a young campaign aide named Mary Jo Kopechne.  And as the new Quentin Tarantino film, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” describes, the murders of Sharon Tate and four others at the hand of the Charles Manson “family” both presaged and hastened the decline of the Hollywood studio system.

Of course, there were many lighter moments in 1969 as well.  Monty Python’s Flying Circus premiered, which brought a twisted kind of British humor to our shores.  1969 saw the release of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, their last, and in my opinion, finest musical effort.  The January Super Bowl victory by the New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts showed that the new American Football League could go toe-to-toe with the older National Football League, and paved the way for a mergr between the two.   And of course, what baseball fan will ever forget the New York Mets’ World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the fall of 1969?

In ways large and small, the events and decisions of 1969 continue to both reverberate and in some ways shape the way we see and understand ourselves, and the dynamics of the ways our faith calls us to engage with the world around us.  Racism and sexism, homophobia and climate change continue to beset society, and the church of Jesus Christ, in its best moments, stands in the forefront for justice and equality.  And at the same time we reap and enjoy the benefits and developments of NASA technology, the internet, careful stewardship of creation, and the endurance of art, music and theater and their integration into the way we worship God.

All summer we have been insisting that there are multiple points of connection among history, literature, the arts, politics, and the places where our faith and our witness call us to stand.  For some the connection is obvious, for others it is a vision still waiting to form. “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”  But through prayer, through living out the imperatives of our calling, I am confident that someday we will find it – call it the Rainbow connection – the lovers, the dreamers and me.





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