Saturday, September 2, 2017

Inevitable... AND Necessary.

Matthew 16:21-28
September 3, 2017

I.

Last week we heard Peter make his famous confession that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Christian faith will be founded upon this confession.  But left to our own understanding of what that means, we invariably miss and distort the point.  We fall back on our own ego-centric, self-serving ways of understanding who God is and what it means to be a “Messiah.”  And we ignorantly assume that what Jesus means is exactly the kind of power, wealth, and popularity that Jesus himself rejects back in chapter 4 when Satan offers them to him.

Even Peter does this.  Which means that Jesus has to unpack what it really means to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.  What it doesn’t mean is that Jesus would take political power for himself in a successful violent revolution in Jerusalem.  Instead, Jesus knows what he’s really in for when he gets to Jerusalem: he tells his disciples that he will “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Jesus knows that his ministry is so profoundly counter-cultural and so threatening to the religious and political authorities, that they will not allow it to continue.  In order to preserve their power and prevent people from following him and organizing in his Name they will have no choice but to engineer his death.  It is inevitable.  

The Lord knows that there is nothing more offensive and dangerous to powerful leaders than people who are awake and gathering together in support of one another.  Nothing is more alarming to them than that people start living according to Jesus’ teachings of sharing, forgiveness, welcoming, healing, and non-violence.  Because if people start living that way, if they start following Jesus, the power of the rulers — which is maintained by fomenting fear, anger, and hatred between people — is over.

Human leaders will do everything they can to prevent this from happening.  Where Jesus teaches welcoming and acceptance, they said that those disgusting, lazy Gentiles — which is to say, anyone different — should be feared and excluded.  Where Jesus teaches non-violence, they said a huge Roman military is necessary to protect from terrorists.  Where Jesus enacted an economics of sharing together in God’s abundance, the rulers said that the only system that works is when rich people continue to get richer.  Where Jesus includes and elevates women, they said that women should stay subservient and powerless.  Where Jesus embodies liberation and forgiveness, they insisted that slavery, torture, and mass incarceration were necessary to deter crime.  Where Jesus teaches that the Law is about love, they made it about control and the preservation of their own power.  

Jesus also knows that human rulers have always rid themselves of people like him by means of the legalized murder of the death penalty.  Many of the prophets end up as enemies of the elite, and so will he.

II.

Hearing Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death, Peter objected.  He even rebuked Jesus!  Maybe he thought Jesus was being cynical and negative about his prospects, and it was Peter’s job to build him back up into a more positive attitude.  Maybe he thought he would be Jesus’ cheerleader or self-esteem coach.  In any case, Jesus snarls back at him that he is no less than Satan.  “You are a stumbling block to me;” he says, “for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

In other words, Peter saw things from the perspective of his ego and conventional thinking.  He was thinking like everyone else.  He was thinking according to the standards of fallen humanity.  And that made him a stumbling block.  He was getting in Jesus’ way.  He was obstructing Jesus’ mission.  It becomes clear that he didn’t understand his own confession of faith, which he made just a few verses earlier.  

Peter did not understand that not only is Jesus’ death inevitable given what he is doing, it is also necessary.  As Jesus says elsewhere, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Jesus here predicts that he will die… and be raised on the third day.  Peter apparently neither heard nor understood this last clause about being raised.  But it is of course the key to everything.

There is a famous quote about revolutionary movements: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”  Jesus would amend that saying adding the words “then you die” before “then you win.”  Because the winning for Jesus comes only after death.  Otherwise it is not a real transformation or change, just a new adaptation and adjustment in the old power arrangement.  Which is what most revolutions are.  For all their lofty propaganda, they simply catapult a different group of self-important, self-serving leaders up into the palace.  They may have a slightly different narrative justifying their rule, but because they have done no spiritual work, which is to say, they haven’t died, the effect on the ground is largely the same.  As Pete Townsend once sang, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”  

Only the finality of death closes the book on the previous identity sufficiently enough that the new thing that emerges is really different, higher, and better.

But, you know, even this has been self-servingly misconstrued by the powers-that-be to push redemption, liberation, healing, freedom, forgiveness, and joy way ahead into the afterlife or even to the end of time.  Such an approach reduces Christian faith to at best a matter of spiritual procrastination where instead of embracing God’s Kingdom now we wait patiently biding our time for the sweet by-and-by.  Indeed, many people, generation after generation, have accepted this watered-down, domesticated, neutered, vapid as what Christian faith is.

III.    

That’s because we are deliberately misled about what death really is.  Our egos are terrified of death because they think it is utter annihilation and obliteration.  But if Jesus’ analogy of the grain of wheat is correct, then that’s not what death is at all.  Death is a transformation into a new kind of life.  here is even some continuity between the seed and the plant, the acorn and the oak tree, say.  They have the same dna.  The oak-tree is simply the final form of the acorn.  It is the acorn’s destiny.  But in order to get there the acorn-self has to die so the oak-tree-self can sprout, emerge, and grow.

I have mentioned before the famous quote from The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  “When Christ calls someone he bids them come and die.”  It is not what we want to hear any more than it is what Peter wants to hear.  Yet it is the core of discipleship.  There is a sense in which in order to be faithful to Jesus we have to embrace and even love our own death.

To some this makes Christianity seem incredibly depressing and morbid.  But when Bonhoeffer hears Jesus say, “Come and die,” it is not an invitation to slit our wrists or jump off the Driscoll Bridge.  Real discipleship is about being called by Jesus to “come and die…” so that in the process God’s Kingdom may emerge in us here and now.  Real discipleship is about letting go of our acorn-self, our grain-of-wheat self, so that our new, amazing, apparently impossible self, our oak-tree-self, which was always our real Self and true destiny, can emerge.  

What has to die is our old self, the self that finds its meaning and purpose in wealth, power, and popularity; the self that expresses its existence in what it can consume, own, control, keep, and demand; the self that is primarily motivated by fear, shame, and anger; the little ego-self driven by our personality, that is limited in vision by ignorance, crippled by desires, deaf to the voices of others, and defiled by sin.  In other words, it is maimed by all the conditions Jesus explicitly heals in his ministry, when people come to him with bodies broken by them.

Here Jesus intentionally connects his death with the death he is requiring from his disciples.  He goes right from a prediction of his own execution to the demand that his disciples also “deny themselves and take up their cross and… lose their life for [his] sake.”  He clearly does not want anyone to come away with the wrong idea, as if he is dying so we don’t have to.  What is really going on is that he is dying to show us the pathway to resurrection.  He is dying so we can too, and emerge with him in new life.  That’s the whole point.  That’s why the initiation ritual for entry into the Christian faith is… Baptism: a symbolic dying with Christ and rising again with him.  It is the pattern of growth into resurrection life

IV.

So, yes, Christianity is focused on “life after death.”  But that life after death begins to happen now, in the giving up of our old, ego-centric, selfish existence in practices of repentance and discipleship.  Jesus even warns us to get busy with this work now, because if the Son of Man comes in his Kingdom before we taste this death, that is, before we know who we truly are, it could be too late.  We will not recognize him because we will still be trapped in our old, shallow, fearful identity.  The oak-tree will appear and we will not be able to imagine that it has anything to do with us acorns.  In fact it will scare the living daylights out of us.

Paul writes that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  The point is resurrection.  The goal and destiny of human life is…. life!  With that as our future, it almost doesn’t matter what we have to go through to get there.  Our old self only sees the death part.  It can’t imagine anything on the other side of it.  The Christian life is about cultivating a better and truer imagination, convincing ourselves that, though we may be acorns today, will be oak-trees.  And the Christian life is about losing, releasing, giving up, letting go of our acorn-selves, which die… so that the new Self, Christ-in-us, the Image of God in which we are created, emerges into its fullness and glory.
+++++++ 
 



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?

 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Solid Rock.

Matthew 16:13-20
August 27, 2017

I.

Jesus and the disciples are still sort of on retreat, way up north in Caesaria Philippi, outside of Jewish territory.  It is almost as if they have to be away from their own people and their leaders, institutions, and traditions, in order to get a clearer perspective.  For one thing they are more anonymous up here, with less distraction from either needy crowds or judgmental Pharisees.  Jesus is an alien in Gentile territory, a stranger and a foreigner.   

And it is up here, far from Jerusalem, on the top edge of most Bible maps of Palestine, that Peter makes his confession.  Not only would it have been safer to proclaim Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” in a place where no one would have batted a theological eye about it, but this confession requires some emotional distance from Judaism as well.  Because it is going against the direction in which Judaism was evolving, which was towards an increasing emphasis on studying, keeping, and commenting upon the Law.  In Jesus’ movement the direction is just the opposite: the letter of the Law, while certainly not being rejected, is subordinated to Jesus himself “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  

Peter and the confession of faith he now embodies becomes the solid rock upon which Jesus chooses to build his new community, the church.  His confession is something Peter receives directly from God.  Not because it is unprecedented and unheard of, but Peter is not a scholar but a fisher, a laborer.  He is speaking not out of years of careful study of texts.  He is simply reflecting on what he has experienced in the time he has spent with Jesus.  What Peter has witnessed Jesus doing are things that to his mind can only be done by “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Peter does not get this confession out of a book.  It is not handed to him by some religious authority to read aloud in public.  He doesn’t learn it in Sunday School or even at Princeton Seminary.  In fact, he doesn’t even get this terminology directly from Jesus!  There is no evidence that Jesus taught his disciples, “by the way, don’t spread it around, but just so you know, I am the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

No.  Jesus does not teach by delivering facts for memorization.  He teaches by doing things and letting his disciples reach their own conclusions about who he therefore must be.  This is the way he dealt with John the Baptizer’s disciples back in chapter 11.  They ask if he is “the One who is to come,” and Jesus doesn’t say “you betcha!”  He shows them what he is doing and lets them decide for themselves.

The basic insight here is that we know Jesus only through experience.  Stories and theology and doctrine can help us know what to look for… but they can’t help us know Jesus.  We only know Jesus when we see what he does for people we know, and we feel what he does for and in and with us.

The point of church life is not getting people to say what Peter says here.  It is to bring people to the kind of experience Peter has, leading them then to say what Peter says.  Way too much of Christian evangelism has been about getting people to say the words; real evangelism is about bringing people into the relationship and experiencing for themselves the life of the Lord Jesus.     

II.

The first thing that has to be cleared out of the way is the confusing and contradictory popular ideas and theories about Jesus.  That’s what Jesus asks here: “Who do people say that I am?”   What’s the scuttlebutt?  What’s the general opinion of observers? 

The disciples, who apparently have more contact with people than Jesus himself, testify that the general view is that he is “one of the prophets.”  Not that he was like a new representative of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, but actually one of the old prophets come back to life.  Almost as if he were reincarnated, or something.  Some even thought he was John the Baptizer somehow resuscitated (with his head reattached).  In other places he was called things like “Son of David.”  So the general view was that he is a figure from the past.  That’s what people were able to understand.  That’s how they framed him.  That’s the definitional box they placed him in.

And that makes sense because people from the past are easily defined and dispensed with.  We know them.  We know what to expect from them.  They don’t surprise us.  And they are very unlikely to say anything new and different, or demand anything out of the ordinary from us.

This ought to challenge us.  We live in a democracy.  People’s opinions are supposed to matter.  If we put it to a vote, and the people decide Jesus is really one of the prophets, then that’s what he is. 

But Jesus doesn’t appear to be moved by what people say about him.  He proceeds to ask the same question of the people who know him best.  He wants to know if they are influenced by popular opinion, or if their experience of him.  Jesus knows that the views of uninformed supposedly objective observers are irrelevant.  The only perspectives that matter about Jesus are those of people who are in relationship with him and following him.  

Peter, answering for the whole group of disciples, says something completely different from what the people said.  For Peter, Jesus is not from the stable, controlled, well-defined past.  Jesus is from the future.  He is the Messiah, the Promised One, the One Who Is to Come.  He is even the Son of the living God, which is also a title about God’s coming to dwell with and in us as eternal King.

Peter witnesses Jesus’ activities.  He experiences Jesus’ ministry.  He knows Jesus voice and touch in his own life.  And to him, this all points to and proves something emerging that is infinitely larger, greater, deeper, higher, and broader than just a few private moments.  Peter knows that in Jesus he is touching ultimate Reality.  He is in touch with what is True and fundamental about the world.  

It is like through and in Jesus, Peter is allowed to see the Source Code of the universe.  What he experiences is not just for him.  It is not just for the disciples.  But it is for everyone everywhere always.  Jesus pulls back the curtain and reveals what is most basic and fundamental about creation and life, which is that it is all about God’s overflowing, cascading, exploding love.

III.

Jesus commends and blesses Peter for rejecting the opinions of “flesh and blood,” which is to say the view of the majority of mortal, temporal people.  Knowing Jesus in this experiential way, directly and sensorily, is to know God’s living Presence among us.  And this is something that only God can communicate to us.  It happens by grace in the course of actively listening to and following Jesus.  We know Jesus by following Jesus, and in following Jesus we are led to the confession that Peter makes, that he is the life and destiny of the world.

This confession is the rock that will serve as the foundation of the new community of disciples.  We are a gathering of those who affirm that Jesus is the revelation of God’s love; he is our future; he is the way, the truth, and the life of the world.  Whatever God builds upon this foundation-stone will last even though it be attacked and assaulted by the gates, walls, fences, divisions, separations, judgments, and condemnations which characterize the realm of death and hatred.  Hell is apparently a “gated community,” artificially separating people by relative wealth, power, and status, by race, ethnicity, and gender.

But in Jesus Christ we touch the oneness and unity of everything.  He is the open gate leading the receptive to a place of abundance where there are no divisions, and where no one gets rejected except those who reject themselves by judging, condemning, and rejecting others.

Only disciples who know themselves to have been accepted and forgiven, who have removed condemnation from their behavior, are qualified to manage the keys of binding and loosing in heaven and earth.  Only those who have crucified their ego, and accept that Jesus is One who is to come, the promised future of the world, and who follow him and find themselves in him, may judge others, because in him their judgment will always be his, which is always Yes!  In him judgment is always welcome.  It is always peace and non-violence.  It is always forgiveness and renewal.  It is always humility and compassion.  

IV.

If we think that having these metaphorical keys is going to make us more powerful, then we are not following Jesus at all.  We have merely appointed ourselves the guards at the gates of Hell, keeping people in.  

No.  The keys Jesus talks about are given for opening the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven!  He gives us the power to bind the “strong man” of selfishness, greed, hatred, gluttony, fear, and violence.  If we constrict these evils in our own earthly lives, they will fall everywhere.  We who follow Jesus are at the same time always releasing into the world the love, healing, acceptance, communion, and love of God.

This confession that Peter makes is not just words.  It means that our submission to Jesus is so complete that his will becomes ours, his actions are expressed in our actions, his love shown in the compassion we have for all, beginning with the powerless, excluded, marginalized, and hated.  That is what it means to proclaim of Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”           



+++++++

Of Dogs and Bread.

Matthew 15:10-28
August 20, 2017

I.

Jesus proceeds up north, out of Jewish territory, to the district of Tyre and Sidon, as a kind of retreat.  He goes to an area where no one would know or care about him or what he is doing, so he can get a break to catch his breath, and regroup for the next phase of his ministry.  But his reputation as a healer precedes him, and he is approached perhaps by many people, one of whom is a woman whose daughter is ill. 

The story says she “came out.”  Maybe she simply comes out of her house as Jesus passes by.  But “coming out” has several meanings for us; usually it has to do with some kind of change in our status or position, as with a “coming out party” recognizing maturity, or a matter of “coming out” by going public with something about us that we had kept hidden.  

In order to come to Jesus at all the woman has to come out of her pagan, Gentile culture.  Just knowing who Jesus is, and imagining that he could and would do something for her, a non-Jew, is a huge step away from her own background, community, and religion.

Trusting in Jesus necessarily means not trusting in yourself or anything you have.  You have to come out of all that.  You can trust Jesus or you can trust in your own abilities, rights, skills, gifts, background, ethnicity, religion, class, or that belongs to you.  In order to trust Jesus you must “give up all your possessions,” as Jesus himself says several times.  “Give up all you have, take up your cross, and follow me,” he says.  That’s the recipe for salvation.  You have to come out of who you think you are.

Perhaps this is what allows Jesus to see her as worthy of testing.  For he doesn’t just send her away explicitly by saying “Go away!”  He does ignore her at first, which means she has to show some persistence and dedication, so he can see that hers is not just an idle interest. 

Then Jesus quips that he is sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Jesus is sent to the lost.  The ones who imagine themselves to be privileged, card-carrying, charter members of the Chosen People were not interested in what Jesus is doing; he is not sent to them.  If you think you’ve got it all under control then you have no need for Jesus.  Before Jesus can find you you have to realize you are lost. 

At the same time, Jesus’ movement begins within the people of Israel and their specific history, theology, and ritual.  The word “Israel” is the name given to Jacob by an angel who wrestles with him in Genesis 32.  It means, “one who strives with God.”  The very name given to Jacob, which is extended to his descendants, indicates this centuries-long cage-match between humans and God.  That is Israel’s identity.  Maybe Jesus comes into the world first to minister to the casualties of this struggle, those who have been dismissed as “lost.”
II.

Not deterred by this dismissal, the woman kneels at Jesus’ feet and continues to plead for him to heal her daughter.  At which point Jesus gives that difficult retort about how “it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  The actual, literal word used for food here is bread, which connects the story to the feeding of the 5000 a couple of weeks ago.  Bread means Jesus’ teaching, it means his new economic reality based on abundance and not scarcity.  But apparently it’s not for “dogs” like this woman.  That would not be what people normally consider “fair.”     

She could have just left in anger or sorrow at this point, figuring Jesus to be just another self-righteous, exclusionary Jewish teacher.  She could have given up in defeat.  I mean, he calls her a “dog,” which was a racial slur that Jews would often direct at Gentiles.

This part of the story makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  First, it makes many Christians uncomfortable because it seems to show Jesus in a bad light.  Jesus, who is known for accepting, receiving, welcoming, and healing everyone who comes to him, after not responding to this woman at all, suddenly and inexplicably has downright nasty and insulting words for her. 

It is so widely out of character for him to do this, that commentators for 2000 years have tried to figure it out, explain it, rationalize it, reframe it, or just ignore it.  Everyone else who comes to Jesus gets healed.  Even Roman soldiers.  Even his enemies.  Jesus is famous for accepting and welcoming people whom the establishment in society rejected.  He even forgives his own killers while they are in the act of killing him!

Yet here comes this woman, whose only crime as far as we know, is not being Jewish, who has a daughter at home who is sick and even dying… and Jesus’ can’t be bothered.  It is so different from the Jesus we know and love that sometimes our brains just go into a kind of automatic denial mode and we just don’t hear this story at all. 

Second, it makes uncomfortable many readers who are members of oppressed and excluded populations.  They are offended that Jesus gives away his gracious benefits for free to his own people, but from this poor foreign woman he seems to demand abject groveling.  It reminds them of churches that serve their long-time members and their families really well, but newcomers?  Especially those from a different racial, class, or generational background?  Not so much.  They know what it’s like to watch an insider who knows someone go to the front of the line for special treatment, while they have to produce reams of paperwork and live up to much higher standards and requirements to receive the same benefits.    

III.

But then she proceeds to deliver this brilliant line about how “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  It is an amazingly humble, submissive and self-effacing answer… but it also indicates at the same time that she will not take no for an answer.  So it shows kind of amazing stubborn, in-your-face humility.  What she says proves her deep trust in him.  She trusts him even when he is showing no sign of being trustworthy!  I wonder if the real point here isn’t that profound humility and submission both unlocks and reveals our true nature.    

In her response she gives up her pride and ego-centricity… but she is also giving up something else: her exclusion and her marginalization.  She doesn’t let Jesus throw her out.  She does not let Jesus get away with not healing her daughter.  She refuses to let Jesus not be Jesus.  She trusts in him too much for that.  She shows us that real humility entails a renunciation, not just of the positive, self-important, self-righteous labels we are pleased to wear for ourselves, but also of these negative, degrading labels other people force us to wear.  

So she totally reframes the derogatory label of “dog” and turns it inside out.  Dogs are not viewed very positively in the Bible.  But she remakes it from a term of exclusion and rejection, into an alternative path to the children’s table.  It’s almost like she says, “God made dogs too, and gave them as well a way to the table.” 

When I was serving the Martinsville church, we did a Blessing of the Animals during the morning worship service.  We had about a dozen dogs.  The miracle of the day was that there was no growling, no snapping, no “accidents,” not even any barking, just a lot of interestedly looking around and panting.  Some even went to sleep during the sermon, so they fit right in.  And when communion time came and I lifted up the bread and broke it, several of the dogs jumped up and lunged towards the table.  Fortunately, they were on leashes and were able to be hauled back.  But I have never witnessed such an enthusiastic desire to receive the Lord’s Body from any humans.

The way of the dog is simplicity, enthusiasm, persistence, and humility.  And that is what the woman displays in her response.  Jesus is quite satisfied and impressed with her answer.  She has suddenly made being a dog into a virtue.  She has turned the nasty epithet into a label to be worn with dignity.   

And he says, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.” Because she is willing to receive only the crumbs like a dog, she finds that even here her daughter receives healing.  In effect she is not under the table, but has a seat of honor as recipient of divine blessing.  Simplicity, enthusiasm, persistence, and humility are the way to the table.  They are expression of deep faith and trust in the Lord Jesus.   

IV.

It is one thing to trust in Jesus when he is being all Jesusy, full of love, gentleness, acceptance, peace, and compassion.  It is another far more demanding thing to trust him when he appears to reject, ignore, judge, and condemn you.  Sometimes that’s what this mortal, temporal existence throws at us.  Sometimes we even hear Jesus himself saying things that challenge us, that humble us, that critique us, that even seem to condemn us.  Sometimes his words in the gospels convict us at the core of our being.  Sometimes Jesus sounds like he is just echoing the taunts of those who hate us.

We can take it that way.  Or we can hear him in a new way.  We can hear him through the self-emptying love we know he has for us, and enter into that self-emptying ourselves, coming out of who we were, receiving those words not according to the nastiness of our experience, but according to the hope that has been poured into our hearts in him.

For Jesus Christ is the One who is always transmuting evil into good, hate and fear into love, anger into gratitude, darkness into light, and life into death.  And everything he does, and everything he says, is all about this transforming, transfiguring blessing. 

This Canaanite woman could be thought of as the mother of Gentile Christianity, and thus the forebear in the faith of all of us.  She is the one who, even though she does not appear to belong here, nevertheless persists.  She comes, not claiming, appropriating, or demanding that Jesus serve her as if she earned some some entitlement.  She comes with abject humility, complete submission, and great faith or trust in him.  And she finds herself seated indeed at the table of healing, wholeness, blessing, and peace.
+++++++ 

"Take Heart! I Am! Do Not Be Afraid."

Matthew 14:22-33
August 13, 2017

I.

After feeding well over 5000 people on the hillside, Jesus sends the crowds home.  He puts his disciples in a boat and sends them ahead across the lake.  He is finally alone, and he may fulfill his original intention, which is to pray.  He trudges up the mountain.

We are supposed to remember how Moses goes up Mt. Sinai, leaving the people on their own.  In Moses’ case, things down below quickly spun out of control.  And a similar thing happens to the disciples.  Without Jesus, they soon face violent turbulence on the water.

The people of God are sent into the world.  Jesus sends his disciples, among whom are we.  Jesus sends us.  He promises he will be with us even to the end of the age… but that is often hard to maintain.  Often it feels like, lacking Jesus’ physical presence, we are on our own.  And things get confused, wonky, chaotic, and difficult.  

One could say that the situation of the disciples in that boat, proceeding across the lake against the wind, with Jesus left behind on the mountain, is like our own.  For we are not all that different from 12 well-meaning but essentially clueless men, trying to navigate a vessel across stormy seas, with nothing to go on but memories of Jesus.

Why does Jesus do this?  Why does he send them across the lake while he engages in meditation on the mountain?  Maybe he is doing his mother-bird thing and kicking the chicks out of the nest to fly on their own.  Maybe he is beginning to get them accustomed to figuring things out without his being with them physically.  Maybe he is teaching them how to manage, what to look for, how to find his presence with and within them, even after he has been resurrected and gone on to his Father’s throne.

I think we can all relate to the disciples here.  We live in a time of turbulence and risk in which our context, our environment, our whole world, seems to be hostile and/or indifferent to us.  We experience instability and change.  Our boat, which is to say the church, seems to be in danger of being swamped or capsized.  That relates to our denomination as well as to many if not most particular churches.

Matthew’s use of the term that gets translated as “battered” would have reminded his contemporaries of Roman abuses of power.  I remind you that Caesar claimed all such bodies of water, and the fish in them, for himself.  

The powerful waves rocking the boat foreshadow the wrath of the violent and corrupt system the disciples would face.  And even today we share the same metaphorical meaning for going “against the wind”.  It means riding in opposition to the general trends and movement in society and culture.

The powers and principalities were against them.  Jesus has, in effect, thrown his disciples into the deep end, perhaps trying to teach them by the “sink or swim” method.  They should not get the false idea that this mission is going to be easy, or that people will receive them with open arms, or that they can count on the government or business or any part of the establishment to assist them.  Indeed, the mission of Jesus Christ will almost always be one of going against the wind and battered by high waves.  Get used to it.

II.

This goes on all night.  I imagine the disciples are tired, seasick, frustrated, angry, disappointed, disgusted, and afraid.  I don’t know about you, but I find I am describing my own life in some of those terms a lot lately.  (Not seasick, though; so there is that anyway.)  I know a lot of people express these kinds of emotions when talking about the church.  We’re just trying to keep it afloat, for heaven’s sake; we don’t have energy for a whole lot of innovation or exciting initiatives.  We’re basically hanging on for dear life.

It is a stressful situation, and I imagine that the 12 disciples exhibit at least 12 different ways of dealing with it.  Which creates inevitable conflict.  Maybe someone thinks it best to try and sail with the wind; another might think no we’ve got to face into it.  Four of these men had fished in boats on this lake for a living, remember.  Even with such professional experience, the project is at risk.  They can’t seem to get any closer to the safety of dry land.

On top of it all, they see some strange apparition in the grey light of early dawn that they interpret as a ghost.  So not only is the weather bad but now they are under attack my supernatural beings!  And they all cry out in fear because they are clearly doomed.

Just as they are about to dissolve in hysterical panic, the figure coming at them on the water speaks.  “Take heart!  It is I!  Do not be afraid!”  And they recognize the voice of Jesus.  He is apparently walking on or over the water.

Now, I have yet to find a good translation of this.  They all have Jesus saying either the formal “It is I!” or, more colloquially, “It’s me!” which my English-major self still cannot stand, by the way.  But what Jesus actually says, according to Matthew, is “I am!”  And “I am,” of course, is the Hebrew name for God, as delivered to Moses in Exodus 3.  

So Jesus basically says 3 things here: first, he tells them to have courage, take heart, buck up, get a grip, snap out of it, or, as some would say today, “chill!”  Second, he simply says, I am, which means I am God.  And finally he tells them not to be afraid.

In other words, they have to lose their mindless, terrified panic and show some backbone.  They have to realize that in Jesus God is coming to them, the God who is the ground of all things and Lord even of weather.  And they are not to be afraid.  Fear is toxic and corrosive.  They are, in short, to trust him.

The situation may look like it’s a disaster, but in reality God has everything under control.  And the fact that the person saying this is walking on stormy water lends a certain credibility and legitimacy to his words.  The same words said my someone while puking over the side of the boat would not have the same effect.

III.

Peter calls out to the figure.  “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Which is certainly an interesting response.  I would have said something like, “So could you do something about the weather?”  Is Peter testing to see if it really is Jesus?  I mean, the word for “if” could also mean “since.”  Maybe he wants to see if Jesus’ I am power is transferable.  Is this walking-on-the-water thing just something Jesus alone can do for himself?  Or is it something the Lord extends to all disciples?  Can Peter do it too?

This is an important question.  If we’re going to be disciples, if we’re going to be followers of Jesus, it at least implies being able to do what Jesus does.  Jesus himself says elsewhere that his disciples will do even greater things than they see him doing.  It’s not about fancy supernatural tricks like literally walking on water; we need to start with basic discipleship.  Such things do happen figuratively and metaphorically for us when we follow the Lord.  

When Jesus says to Peter that he should indeed come to him on the water, it means that we do not get to claim exemption from real discipleship.  We do not get to say that loving enemies, or giving up all our possessions, or not committing adultery in our hearts, or healing people of diseases, or welcoming the outcast, or any of the other things Jesus commands are really just for him, not for us as well.  We don’t get to say that Jesus keeps these difficult commandments for us, since they really are impossible for us sinful mortals.  He commands us to do them ourselves.

Because here is one of those sinful mortals, Peter, who steps out of the violently rocking boat and starts walking on the turbulent water to Jesus.  He starts doing it.  He’s walking on the water.  Jesus tells him to “come;” and as long as he keeps his eyes on Jesus and moves in his direction, he stays above and passes through the turbulence.  

This is the key to the Christian life right here.  We focus our attention on Jesus and come to him.  We respond with wholehearted trust to his call.  For when we keep the Lord and his commandments at the center of our consciousness, we are accessing in and through him our own true selves, and in doing so finding our own union with God and everyone.  For in Jesus Christ true humanity is revealed once for all, the humanity we share with him but have not realized.

Peter has to let go of his ego-centric, fearful, ignorant self, which he does for a few seconds when he steps out of the boat with his eyes on Jesus.  He has to lose all conventional safety and enter the storm.  Unfortunately, he can’t sustain it, and he gets distracted by the heavy wind, which brings back his fear, which snuffs his trust, and he starts to sink.  We have to leave the relative safety of the boat and walk into the turbulence.  But if we allow ourselves to focus on the turbulence instead of on the One who calls us in and through it, it will drag us under.

IV.

So what, or who, are we going to focus on?  Are we going to do the rational, logical thing and stay hunkered down in the boat of convention, tradition, habit, and convenience?  Are we going to fret about the storm, worry about the wind, and get anxious about the waves?  In other words are we going to focus on our own fear first of all?

Or are we going to do the irrational, insane things that Jesus calls us to do?  Are we going to get out of the boat at his behest, and imagine we can ride through and above the turbulence, holding only to him and his words, and his example of grace, peace, and welcome?

Are we going to get out of the boat by accepting and forgiving people, even those who are not like us or who we don’t really like much?  Are we going to get out of the boat by refusing to resort to violence, hatred, threats, fear-mongering, or retribution?  Are we going to get out of the boat by standing with oppressed, excluded, sick, and suffering people as their accomplices when they are battered by the exploitation of the wealthy and powerful?

In the end, Jesus gets in the boat and brings the wind down to a calm.  He makes the boat a safe place again.  And the disciples worship him as “the Son of God.”  Jesus doesn’t ask for their worship.  He asks them to follow him.  

That’s always what he asks of us.  To follow him.  To come to him amid and through the turbulence of our existence.  To keep him at the center of our consciousness, and so to find our true selves.

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"Take, Bless, Break, Give."

Matthew 14:13-21
August 6, 2017

I.

Just before the story we are going to look at, we hear about King Herod’s ghastly, murderous, lecherous, debauched banquet.  You know, the one where he gathers all the wealthy and powerful people in the kingdom for a sumptuous party and feast, has his step-daughter do a sexy dance, after which he is so aroused and impressed that he blurts out how he will reward her with anything she wishes.  So she demands the severed head of her mother’s nemesis, John the Baptizer, imprisoned in a dungeon below, on a platter.  And Herod has to do it just to save face with all these important people.  That banquet.

That’s what Jesus heard about, which causes him to go off in a boat by himself to this and pray.  John the Baptizer is his cousin (according to Luke) and probably his teacher and mentor.  John is the one who recognizes, validates, and facilitates Jesus’ calling at his baptism.  With John gone, perhaps Jesus feels that the torch is passed to him now.  Which means he has the responsibility to continue this ministry on his own… and also that now he gets to be Herod’s target as rabble-rousing trouble-maker.

Jesus proceeds to present a very different kind of banquet among the common people on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  What we see represented in these 2 meals is a contrast between 2 diametrically opposed economies.  One was based on wealth, power, violence, licentiousness, gluttony, lust, greed, fear, and hatred.  The other is about sharing, simplicity, community, generosity, and love.  One was an assembly of the elite; people who had earned invitations to the king’s glamorous table, who had grasped their high positions by the standard means of cut-throat deals, by having success in military, political, or business matters, and whose bellies were full of the fruit of the hard labor of poor and working people.  The other gathers poor and working people themselves, over 5000 of them, who manage to produce between them for dinner 5 discs of pita bread and 2 dried fish.

My favorite part of the parable is when the disciples come up with a conventional market-based solution and recommend that Jesus send the people to the local villages to buy food from vendors.  Perhaps the shop-owners had heard there all these people out on the hillside who needed dinner and were already baking bread and raising prices in anticipation.  Supply and demand, you know. 

But Jesus rejects that approach.  Market-based solutions get us Herod’s banquet: a sumptuous feast for a few, and everyone else left with almost nothing, and no other obvious option than to buy from the same system that created the imbalance in the first place.  The whole economy was explicitly designed to funnel wealth from the people actually doing the work to people they have already made rich.  

Jesus wants no part of it.  It’s an anticipation of his throwing the merchants out of the Temple, in chapter 21, when he gets to Jerusalem.  He says to the disciples, “Forget the markets.  You give them something to eat.  Figure it out.  What do you think we’ve been doing for 13 chapters?  Is my mission just a hobby, a verbal exercise, an arcane philosophical conversation, but when people need something real you send them to the store to buy it with Caesar’s money?  Seriously?”

II.

This story is one of the few that appears in all four gospels.  In two gospels it actually happens twice.  In John it is a major turning point where Jesus explains the centrality of the eucharist, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  This story of feeding hungry people with almost nothing is the single most characteristic story about Jesus and his ministry.  It is the one act of Jesus that the disciples and the early church find it necessary to remember and repeat at least every week when they gather for worship: in his name and following his example we still take, bless, break, and give bread to each other.  It is the act in which we most clearly recognize him with, within, and among us.  It is the essence of Christian worship and discipleship.  It is constitutive of his gathered community.

In none of the stories, including this version, do we find out what actually happens.  We don’t know exactly what Jesus does or how he does it.  It’s like there’s this huge gap between verse 19 and verse 20.  It feels like a page is missing or something.  No matter how closely you follow it, you get to the point where, okay, he gives the pieces of bread and fish to this crowd of thousands… and the next thing we hear is, “all ate and were filled.”  There are 12 baskets of leftovers, for heaven’s sake!  How does this happen?  

It’s hard even to visualize.  Movie-makers have used different strategies for depicting this, usually involving deep baskets so you can’t see the loaves actually multiplying, but people who reach in keep finding food.  There was a secular-rationalist theory that what really happened was that the people actually had more food with them and they were inspired to share with each other.  Or there was the more common supernaturalist affirmation that the bread was materialized from thin air, reminiscent of similar miracles done by some ancient prophets.

These interpretations are fine, as far as they go, I suppose… or not.  Both are distractions that miss the point.  The text pointedly and stubbornly refuses to explain it, which means that so should we.  Often, whenever there is some key point missing in the gospel narrative, it is you, the listener, who has to provide the answer.  You are the crucible where the transformation happens. Jesus is not to be explained, but followed.  

And we follow Jesus by rejecting ideologies of scarcity, giving thanks for what we do have, then breaking it to share with others.  We begin, not with the convenient and debilitating lie that there just isn’t enough to go around, and that the best we can do is institutionalize greed and hope for the best, a practice that inevitably leaves some with too much and most with too little.  No.  We begin with the good news that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” that God created this planet as a place of miraculous abundance, with more than enough for everyone to take, bless, break, and share together.

The real mystery here is not what Jesus does.  He’s participating in God’s truth.  The real mystery is why we continually choose the model of Herod’s gaudy, bloody banquet as the essence of economic efficiency, and dismiss Jesus’ hillside communal meal as a naive, unrealistic fantasy.

III.

The methodology Jesus uses here with the bread is simple: take, bless, break, and give.  Jesus uses the same words at the Last Supper in chapter 26, as he does in all the other gospels.  Paul uses the same words in 1 Corinthians 11, explaining the Sacrament.  We use the same words every time we celebrate Holy Communion.  It’s one of the few requirements in the Presbyterian Directory for Worship.  Take, bless, break, and give is Jesus,’ and therefore our, MO.  

When he says “take,” he does not mean grab, steal, or extract.  It is more like receiving something freely given.  There is a difference in attitude between selfishly taking and consuming, as if the world were a private entitlement for us to do with as we please, and humbly receiving something with thanksgiving.  Bread itself already involves the taking of land, grain, labor, water, leaven, and fuel.  Bread is not natural, it is manufactured. We take it from the earth by a labor-intensive, communal process.  When we receive bread we are also receiving the work of many, many people organized in a system of production.  

The taking is defined by the gratitude implied in blessing.  The Lord gives thanks to God, not just for these 5 loaves, but for all that went into these five loaves.  Gratitude changes everything by turning the focus away from yourself and towards the others who provide for us.  Jesus takes the bread in humility, awe, and wonder, not just because bread is itself a miracle of human ingenuity and organization, but because some in that crowd contribute what little they have to the common good.

In Herod’s banquet, the attendees would have given thanks out of a kind of forced regime of obligation and indebtedness that bound people to each other under Roman rule.  They would have given thanks to Herod, who paid for the feast, and to Caesar, whom Herod paid to be king.  But they would not have thanked God, and they certainly would not have thanked the countless workers, peasants, and servants from whose land and through whose labor the food actually came.  That would be ridiculous.

Jesus does not idolize or worship the bread of course.  In fact, he proceeds to break it.  This breaking is not destroying or wasting, but a refusal to own, keep, hoard, store, save, maintain, or preserve it.  He does not take it all for himself, with no thought for anyone else.  Jesus breaks the bread for the sake of sharing and distribution.  Bread only does good when it is spread around.

Finally, Jesus gives the pieces of the bread and the fish to the people, empowering them to take, bless, break, and give to others.  Giving completes and renews the circle of generosity and blessing.  So in contrast to the artificial, centralized, pyramidal system of distribution from the top down that prevailed at Herod’s banquet, Jesus’ banquet is flat, networked, spread out, egalitarian, and free.  Everyone is giving thanks for and to each other and God.

IV.

This is what Jesus’ economy looks like.  This is his understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It starts with gratitude and ends with generosity.  It is a communal process of mutual nourishing.  It receives, blesses, breaks, and gives away to all.

This cannot be done from an egocentric, selfish, acquisitional perspective.  It cannot be about stealing and hoarding and protecting to keep goods for you and yours alone, disregarding the truth that we are given everything by God’s grace in creation, and maintaining instead the self-serving lie that we are each “self-made” by our own “hard work,” and that people who have less are inherently undeserving and lazy, which was the attitude of our ancestors who came to this land, and continues to characterize our economy based on the kind of lewd greed and sour competition we see in Herod’s feast.

The Lord gives us the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as the model and pattern of his economy.  What begins with the bread and the cup in this room, is extended into the world as we who are fed here all continually receive, give thanks for, break, and share what God gives to us.  Whether it be wisdom and insight, acceptance and forgiveness, joy and peace, or the daily bread mentioned in his most characteristic prayer.  It is all about the self-giving love exemplified by the Lord Jesus to feed the world.

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