“Strong Medicine: Adult Dosage”

Matthew 16:21-28

Strong Medicine: Adult Dosage

What is the metric, the standard by which the value of our lives will be determined?   I cannot imagine a more fundamental question.  It quickly brings up a second question: if the right metric is applied, and as I look back on my life, I see that there are problems, is there still time to fix them, or is it too late?

“How Will You Measure Your Life?”

First, to the question of value and the right metric, I just read an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen (July 2010).  Dr. Christensen makes the observation that over the years he has observed the lives of the smart, successful people he graduated with from the Harvard Business School class of 1979.   He says,

Clayton M. Christensen

“I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them.”

By the metrics our culture generally uses to assess the value of life, these people have it all: they are highly educated, highly successful, highly respected.  Is that all there is?   Dr. Christensen reflects on his own stellar career.  He says, as a professor of business and a consultant:

“I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research; I know I’ve had a substantial impact.”

But then, this:

“This past year I was diagnosed with cancer and faced the possibility that my life would end sooner than I’d planned…. the experience has given me important insight into my life.

Here is the insight:

“… as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars….”

Yes, as is now clear, this Harvard Business professor is a man of faith. He concludes his reflection with this:

“This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”

Matthew and the Metric

The text before us, from Matthew’s gospel, is precisely about the metric by which our lives will be judged.  It is also about the question, what if things have not gone well so far: is it too late?   Let us look at this text together.

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There are two crosses in this text; one that Jesus is anticipating for himself, and one that he calls his followers to take up.

First, some context: we are still with the disciples where we left them last week, in the region of Caesarea-Philippi, near the Palace of Herod-Phillip and the great temple complex of the goat-god, Pan, at the base of an enormous rock. There, Simon has just been named “Rock” or Peter, by Jesus, because he has just confessed the faith that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God.”

That confession is the very foundation of the church.  Jesus congratulates Peter for the God-given clarity of his statement.  Peter, Jesus indicates, is going to have the ministry of unlocking the doors of the Kingdom of God for Jews and non-Jews, in effect, for the world.

From Rock to stumbling block

And now from the heights of that happy moment, Peter suddenly sinks down into the depths of the worst thing Jesus ever said to anyone:

23But he (Jesus) 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.”

From the rock of the foundation of the church to a stumbling block; from a God-given revelation to a Satanic temptation – what was that all about?  Simple.  Jesus had said, right after accepting the label “messiah, son of the living God”

21From 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.”

Success and Suffering

By the standard metrics of success, Jesus, as messiah, should march right into Jerusalem and get himself enthroned as the new King (that is why people were anointed – which is what “messiah” means).  The metrics of success could not, would not include suffering, according to the common view, which Peter just expressed.

But of course, for Jesus, suffering death on a cross was exactly what he was going to do.  That suffering, that death on a cross, was the defeat of the powers of evil arrayed against the purposes of God.  Jesus knew “he must go” as he said: it was a God-given necessity.

Jesus believed that God would vindicate his suffering in resurrection, but the suffering had to come first:

 “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering… and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Peter objects, saying,

 “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

and then has to hear those horrible words:

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 “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.”

The “Prosperity Gospel” 

We need to pause right here to notice something.  There are a number of people preaching that God’s will for everyone is to remove all suffering.  They teach that if you have enough faith, you will be healthy and become wealthy.  They are on TV, they look like their message works for them – straight teeth and perfect suits.

I have no idea where they get their teaching.  It is not from Jesus.  It is just about as opposite Jesus’ teaching as a person can get.  If this isn’t abundantly clear already, it will become so, very soon.

Let’s continue with Matthew’s story.

Too Late?

So, Peter has just been cast in the role of Satan, a stumbling block, an obstacle to God’s will.  Is that it?  Is it all over for him?  Is following Jesus like a sudden death play-off in which one loss leads to elimination?

The question is important for people who have already lived a lot of life.  For most of us here, most of our lives are behind us.  What if we use the Jesus-metric and realize we come up short?  Is it too late?

No, it is not too late, but it is seriously dangerous.  If it was not too late for Peter, after being called Satan, it is not too late for us.  But it is serious.  The next part is crucial.

The Call

24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

I cannot believe he said that; it must have sounded horrible.  Who would “want to become” a follower at that price?

I know who. People who believe Jesus, when he says,

 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For 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?”

You can be a super-successful Harvard Business School graduate, but what metric is going to matter when you get the diagnosis, and it’s all over?  What will

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look important to you from the end?

Time for Re-evaluation

This is the moment for re-evaluation.  No matter what metric we have used throughout our lives, today we can choose to become followers of Jesus.

The cross was the consequence Rome imposed on insurrectionists; people who were unwilling to accept that Roman domination was a settled, unchallengeable fact.

Today, there are consequences for refusing to accept modern cultural domination too.  There are consequences for refusing to accept that success as the only metric by which to value our lives.

We may end up with less money to spend on ourselves; so be it.  We may end up with people who misunderstand us and even reject us;  small price to pay.

Costs, both ways

But the alternative is not without cost too.  Our success-driven culture has produced the world we live in: huge divorce rates, families split by alienation; even common meal times are increasingly rare, depression, isolation, loneliness; who could call this success?

And on a broader scale, as our culture has embraced the success metric as the only valid measure of a life, so it has given up trying to find permanent solutions to poverty.

We have allowed the nightmares of our inner cities to develop, with their 50% dropout rates, their gangs, their drugs, their violence, and hopelessness; this is  a ticking bomb.  The gap between those who make it in our success-metric world and those who never will is growing; is our culture so blind as to think there are enough police and prisons to contain what is coming?

According to the success-metric:

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25 …those who want to save their life will lose it,”

Those words are an adult dose of strong medicine to a sick patient.

There is another way.

“…those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Jesus has taught us what the “blessed life” consists of.  This is why we say the Beatitudes.  This is the metric of the Kingdom of God:  poverty of spirit, mourning over evil, meekness, longing for justice, mercy-giving, pure-heartedness, peace making, and willingness to suffer for the things that are right.

“…those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

It’s not too late: but it is urgent.  Time is short.

 

” The Foundation of our Hope” Sermon for Ordinary 21A/Pentecost +10 on Matthew 16:13-20

Matthew 16:13-20

 The Foundation of our Hope

There are many great, inspiring, helpful texts of scripture.  There are a few, however, that are so crucial, they make all the difference.  This text we just read is one of those.  Encountering this text is like finding the light switch that makes

Gary Locke at Starbucks

sense of all the shadowy shapes in the room that we keep tripping over in the dark. This is not only important, its foundational for everything – the very foundation of our hope.  So let us look at it carefully, because all of it is significant.

A Man Buys Coffee at Starbucks

I want to begin this way: This past week there was a photograph that made a huge stir in China.  It a picture of a nicely dressed man standing at the counter in an airport Starbucks carrying a backpack over his shoulder.  Who was this man?

Apparently, for Chinese people, he’s got to be nobody special.  A Chinese man reported that “even a township chief, which is not really that high up in the hierarchy, will have a chauffeur and a secretary to carry his bag.”  He would never go up to the counter and order his own coffee, much less carry his own backpack.

The picture caused a stir because the man turned out to be the new U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke.  “How in the world could a man of such high rank from such an important country be acting so humbly?” they wondered.   It was not what they expected to see.

But the truth is that the simple act of wearing his own backpack and buying his own coffee had everything to do with what he represents.  We are a democracy, not a monarchy nor a totalitarian state.  For us, leaders should be servants: the power they wield in our name comes up from us, the people.  Everything about what Mr. Locke did that day in the airport was hugely significant; the Chinese were right to notice.

Messiah and the Coming Revolution

Everything in our text today is important; included for a reason.  Our text from Matthew’s gospel is also about someone who appears in a way that confounds expectations.  What will Messiah be like?  People in Jesus’ day expected him to come with power; swords drawn, a war horse and a battle cry.

But Jesus had come differently.  He hailed from a peasant family, from an obscure town a long way from anywhere important.  He had not been educated by a famous  rabbi.  He had not gathered a credible opposition force nor had he put forward a plan for the post-Roman period.

Instead, he had come announcing that the Kingdom of God had come already.  He had fed hungry people, he had healed diseased people, he had restored lost souls to the community.   This was not what the people had expected Messiah to look like.

The “Who” Questions

Pan's Temple

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself was as the “Son of Man.”  We could re-phrase the question, “Who do people say that I am?”

The disciples have been listening to the crowds; they are aware of a variety of opinions.

 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

All three were important for what they said.  All of them got in trouble for what they said.  All three confronted the reigning “powers that be” in their times.  But none of them was the messiah, or we would say, the one anointed, or to make the meaning of anointing explicit: the newly invested King.

Jesus presses the issue with his little band of former fishermen and civil servants:

 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

That is exactly the question.  We have to feel the sharp edges of that question against our skin.  Who is Jesus to us?  The answer is going to make all the difference.

Location, Location, Location

Caesarea Philippi
region of Caesarea Philippi


Before we get to the answer, let’s notice were we are in this story.  We are not at the temple; we are not even in Jerusalem, the seat of power of the Kings in David’s ancient line.  We are way north of the sea of Galilee in the foothills of Mount Hermon.  It’s a place of flowing water that comes down from that mountain, eventually becoming the Jordan River.

What doe we see there in “the region of Caesarea Philippi”?  Well, there is the huge palace-complex that King Herod’s son Phillip built and named after himself and after Caesar in Rome – to show allegiance.  But also in that region we see a huge face of rock sticking up importantly.  At the base of this huge rock face is a huge cave out of which water flows (in Jesus’ day; now, after earthquakes, it comes out different places).

The Temple of Pan

There, carved into the rock and built up all around the base of the rock face is the temple to the goat god Pan.  There are places for worship and sacrifice, places for ritual washing – the place was probably swarming with the devoted faithful.

There, among the monuments to political power and the temple of a pagan god, Jesus asks the question: “But who do you say that I am?”

In one of most climactic moments of the New Testament, we hear Peter say the words of his confession of faith that make all the difference.

 6 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

the Sacred Goats

Right next to the palace of political power, Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, anointed as God’s King.  Right next to the shrine of pagan worship, he proclaims Jesus as the Son of the God who is alive and Living.

Did you notice that Matthew calls him “Simon Peter” to remind us that Jesus is the one who had changed his name to Peter.   And so right in front of this amazing face of rock, Jesus says to the man whose name means “rock:”

 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

Solid Rock Foundation

This rock is the solid ground on which we stand.  The very foundation of the church is this confession: Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed King; the Son of the Living God.

The church has no other foundation.  We are are not a group of people who gather because we are all similar in our views, our politics, our economic condition or any other human reason.  The foundation of the church is our common confession that Jesus is the King of the Kingdom of God,  the Son of the Living God.

The Keys of the Kingdom

Peter has a critical role to play as a leader among the original disciples.  He is going to preach the Good News on the Day of Pentecost that unlocks the doors of the Kingdom to the Jewish world (Acts 2).

Peter is going to take the Good News to the Samaritans, the mixed race population, and by doing so, unlock the doors of the Kingdom to them (Acts 8).

Then, Peter himself is going to go to the gentile, Cornelius, and preach the Good News to him and his whole household, unlocking the doors of the kingdom to non-Jews, just like us (Acts 10).  This is exactly what Jesus said he would do:

 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The Gates of Hades

Herod Philip's Palace

The doors of the Kingdom of God are unlocked by the keys in Peter’s hands.  And the doors of death, which is what “gates of Hades” means, will not stand up against the powerful force.  Death itself is going to have its gates plundered because the King who is the Son of the Living God is going to conquer death itself as he rises from the dead.

But this is still to come.  Because Jesus has not yet risen from the grave, he has to be careful about proclaiming himself as Messiah.  People might get the wrong idea and start sharpening their swords and pointing them at the Romans.  Jesus warns them about this:

20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

What does this mean for us?  

What does this mean for us, right here, today?  Everything!  We study Jesus, we try to internalize his teaching, we see his whole life of ministry as a model for us.  We are impressed by his insight, challenged by his ethic, amazed at his openness to the downtrodden and marginalized.

But we are also impressed by  John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah.  They did not do what only Jesus could do: break down the doors of the last enemy, death itself.

The Foundation of Hope

The foundation of our faith, the basis for our hope is that Jesus is God’s anointed King, God’s Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  He fought Israel’s final battle against the powers of evil and defeated them on cross.  Then God raised him from the dead, vindicating him as the Risen King.

This is why, when we gather together, as we will tomorrow, to give thanks for the life of one who has died, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.  Our hope is that Jesus has opened the doors of God’s Kingdom to people like us, who by faith make the same confession that Peter made, by the power of the Spirit: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Jesus is Lord

There is only one possible conclusion to draw after making this confession: Jesus is Lord.  Jesus is our Master.  Jesus is the one who sets our agenda.  Everything we do is now measured by whether or not it is congruent with the Jesus-shaped life.  All of our politics, all of our economics, all of our social views, all of our entertainments, all of our relationships, all of our goals and dreams are now subject to review and revision in this shinning light: Jesus is Lord.

Who do we say Jesus is?  This is our confession:  Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God!

“Insiders and Outsiders” Sermon for August 14, 2011, Ordinary 20, Pentecost +9 A on Matthew 15:10-28

Matthew 15:10–28   

Israel: the soil

Inside(rs) and Outside(rs)

I have been asked by the Presbytery Resource Center director to lead a workshop this fall on “How to Read the Bible.”  I thought of a couple of principles right away that I use: the first is: “Read Dirty.”  Read with your feet firmly on the ground, covered with the dust of the world of the Bible.  In other words, don’t first read the bible as if it were written in our times, our language, our part of the world.  Rather, read it as much as you can with the eyes of the people who wrote it and who first read it.

Well, we have in front of us a text that tells us that after Jesus offended the Pharisees, he called a poor lady with a sick daughter a “dog.”   And that was after ignoring her and telling her he was not sent to her kind of people.

What?

Two questions come to mind: what in the world is going on? and, what does it have to do with me?   These are the surface questions. The deeper questions that we all come to scripture asking are: what does God require of me, and how can I experience God’s help?

This text has a lot that directly applies to us in powerful ways, but to get to the gems here, we need to dig down into the soil of first century Palestine – so let’s start digging.

Food offense

First, Jesus’ offensive words about food.  Jesus says:

 “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”

The Pharisees were the serious bible teachers of their day.  They knew what the bible said, they believed it, and they took it seriously.  They wanted everybody to obey the commandments so that God would be able to bless them.

Kosher is clear

Kosher

Nothing is as clear, in the Old Testament, let’s call it the Hebrew Bible, than the Kosher food laws.  Some foods were clean, other foods were unclean.  The unclean foods defiled the one who ate them: here is an example from Leviticus:

2 From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat.  3 Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud—such you may eat….  7 The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.  8 Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you.  (Lev. 11)

This is just a small example.  The laws about clean and unclean go on and on.  They include land animals, sea dwellers, birds and insects, all with their own classification system that makes them either clean or unclean.

The Importance of Kosher: identity 

These food laws became hugely significant in Judaism.  Because they made it almost impossible for Jews to eat with non-Jews, these food laws had the effect of making the Jewish community both identifiably different and highly exclusive.  These laws became group boundary markers between Jews and Gentiles.

During the Maccabean wars of independence, Jewish martyrs died by long, slow, brutal torture, rather than break Kosher laws by eating unclean food.  (1 Macc. 1:62-63; 4 Macc. 7:6)

Kosher no more

If you are standing on the soil of those times in that place, you can see just how radical and upsetting Jesus’ teaching was.  He was basically saying that food laws are not the point at all.  Jesus said:

17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?”

So then, if it’s not unclean food that makes you unclean before God, what is it?  Jesus says:

18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person….”

“Spiritual but not religious”

It is now common for people to say that they are “spiritual” but not “religious.”  Most of the time, that means that they believe in a spiritual world, they sense

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that the material world is not all that there is, they sometimes feel a presence that transcends our mortal world – so they are spiritual.  But they are not religious.  They get nothing out of organized religion.  They don’t feel connected with God by means of saying creeds, singing hymns, or anything that happens inside a church.

To those people – maybe you? – I want to say that Jesus himself was spiritual, but had a huge problem with being religious.  Jesus was constantly aware of the Spirit of God leading him, working through him, empowering him.  But he had open conflict with the people that ran the temple, and with all kinds of religious practices, like Kosher laws.

Why?  Because for Jesus, the central issue was not the outside, but the inside.  The important questions was not what laws are you following, but what is going on in your heart.

For Jesus, it was not what goes into your mouth, like pork, that makes you unclean; it’s what comes out of your mouth – because that is what reveals the truth of your heart.

This is not about swearing

And no, Jesus is not talking about swearing!  That is a huge mistake.  Every culture has a set of words that it identifies as vulgar, and polite people are offended when they hear them.  That is pretty trivial compared to what Jesus cares about.

Jesus cares about slander and false witness that can actually harm people.  He cares about words that betray intentions to commit theft and murder.  He cares about words that betray  the intention to break up a marriage through sexual infidelity.

Words that come out of the mouth and reveal the evil in the heart are what matter, not food that goes into the mouth and through the digestive system.

Jesus: on the prophetic trajectory

Of course this offended the bible-teaching, bible-quoting, bible-breathing Pharisees.  But Jesus was following a trajectory of “spiritual but not religious” that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible had marked out long ago.  What, they asked is important to God?  Is it the ritual?  Is it the stuff that happens in the temple?  Are animal sacrifices what God most wants from us?

Long ago, the prophet Micah asked and answered the question this way:

trust

6 “With what shall I come before the LORD, …?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, …? 

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6)

What does God want?

This is crucial for everyone of us.  What does God want from us?   He wants the true devotion of our hearts.  He wants the kind of life that proceeds from a heart dedicated to God, who is Spirit.  That kind of life will produce the fruit of justice and kindness in the real world of injustice and suffering.

The Insider vs. Outsider story

The second story is also an inside vs. outside story, or rather and insider vs. outsider story.  But again, we need to read dirty: we need to read with our feet on the soil of that time and place.

Today, if I wanted to tell you a story about a “good Muslim,” I might have to start the story using the same stereotypes of Muslims that my audience believed, and lead them to an opposite conclusion.  That’s what Jesus does.

Before we get the details, look down and see the dirt under our feet.  Where are Jesus and the disciples when this story happens?  Matthew tells us:

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus and the disciples are in Gentile territory now, not Jewish territory.  Why did he go there?  What does God have to do with outsiders?

Here is the setting:

 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 

No one would be interested in this story if at first, Jesus didn’t conform to their stereotypes about “dirty, unclean, gentile” people, especially “second class women.”  This is the opinion of the disciples too.

23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

Jesus then, evidently, expresses the Jewish exclusivism that the chosen people believed:

 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 

But this woman, who has already called Jesus both “Lord” and “Son of David” – which is exactly what Matthew wants us to believe about Jesus, then goes up and kneels before him, calling him “Lord” again:

25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 

Those are the 3 words that express faith: “Lord, help me.”  It is simply throwing yourself on the mercy of God.  It’s falling backwards, believing that there are arms waiting to catch you.  It’s trust.

Then comes the place in which Jesus implies that she is a “gentile dog”.

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26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

He is getting everyone going, “Yes!” they say, “put her in her place!  Give it to her!”

But she is not so easily put off, because she has a great need and a heart full of trust

27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 

Now the tables are turned.  This “unclean” gentile woman has just expressed the ultimate level of trust, far beyond what anybody else in Matthew’s gospel has expressed!  The ultimate outsider has the one thing that is needed before God: trusting faith.

28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Inside vs. Outside

Here again we see what is important to God: it is what is on the inside, not the outside.  God’s family is composed of those who throw themselves on him in courageous trust that he will help them.  Ethnic bloodlines have nothing to do with it.

She did not offer a sacrifice at the temple, she did not perform a ritual purification, she did not do anything “religious.”  She did something profoundly “spiritual” – she trusted that Jesus was God’s means of getting help to her daughter.

Our rituals and the main point

We have inherited some rich, meaningful, beautiful traditions.  We meet in a sanctuary, sing hymns, say prayers, stand, sit, and all kinds of things.  It works for us, and it helps us.  But this is not the point.

The point, that our Lord Jesus taught us, was to have our hearts full of committed trust in Jesus, God’s Son.

This is not at all merely individualistic, privatized faith.  Hearts that are right will show themselves in what comes out of the mouth.  The intentions of the heart of which the mouth will speak will follow the prophetic trajectory.  We live as people who know what the Lord requires: that  we “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

We will show our trust in God as we learn to be open to people like that gentile lady, people whom we might have at one time excluded and despised, but now we see that even these people are welcomed to eat the food from the same table.

 

“Rescue Me” Sermon for 19th Ordinary, (Pentecost +8) August 7, 2011, Matthew 14:22-33

Matt 14:22-33

Rescue Me

When I was in Israel we went to a museum on the Sea of Galilee which displayed the famous “Jesus Boat.”  They call it “the Jesus boat” but nobody claims

the Jesus boat

that Jesus had anything to do with that particular boat.  It dates back to Jesus’ time, so it could very well have been just like the boats that Jesus and his disciples used to get around in.

It’s not very big really; about 27 feet long and less than 8 feet wide in the middle.  It would not take much of a wave to give it a good ride.  Apparently the disciples in the boat were having quite a ride that night.  Matthew describes their situation with three descriptive phrases:

 24 “… the boat [was] battered by the waves, …far from the land, …the wind was against them.”

Quite the description:

 “Battered by waves, far from land, the wind against them,”

Life in our little boats

We meet the disciples out in that boat in challenging conditions several times in the gospels.  I think the reason these episodes were so well remembered and so often recorded for us because they describe life so well.  How often have you felt like you have been trying to keep your little boat afloat, far from the safety of a shore, battered by waves with the wind against you?

If you saw the film “Good Will Hunting” you will remember that’s exactly the scene that the Robin Williams’ character painted during his wife’s failed struggle to overcome cancer.   He was  all alone, out on the sea, in a little row boat, battling an enormous wave.

How did we get there?

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How do you get out there in that situation?  We all have our own launch reasons: loss of someone we loved, illness, signs of the breaking down of our mortal bodies, nearness of death, loneliness, family trouble.  Whatever your reasons are, you have been in that situation in which you felt helpless and in trouble.  Matthew captures it perfectly.  We feel:

 “Battered by waves, far from land, wind against us.”

And where was Jesus?

Though there are stories in the gospels of Jesus calming the storm, that is not what happens here.  In this scene, Jesus is not in the boat asleep.  Rather, the disciples are out there, alone.

Jesus has stayed behind on shore.  He has spent the evening alone in prayer.  If there is anything characteristic of Jesus it is that he was in conscious contact with his Heavenly Father.

 23 “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,”

Noticing the contrast

I wonder if Matthew intends for us to see the contrast: Jesus in prayer, communing with his Heavenly Father, and the disciples out there on the see, blown and tossed about.  Prayer did not spare Jesus from opposition, confrontation, and ultimately death.  But Jesus is never in the boat in a panic, either.

I wonder what the experience of being in a wind-tossed boat would have been like for the disciples had they been nurturing their relationship with their Heavenly Father in prayer as Jesus did?

Some troubles we bring on ourselves, other troubles come all by themselves.   Perhaps the kind of experience we have during those times, terror or assurance, has to do with the strength of our connection with the Father.

It’s a sobering thought.  How are your spiritual disciplines?  Are there changes you need to  make before then next storm at sea develops in your life?

Walking without Footprints

Back to the story.  The way Matthew tells this, realistic events fade in and out of heavily symbolic language.  Jesus comes to them walking on the water.

 25 “And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.”

Matthew tells it in a way that reminds his good Jewish readers of all the times in the Hebrew Bible God’s rescue, God’s saving actions, are described as God making a path to walk on in the middle of the sea.  One example out of many will illustrate:

 “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters;  yet your footprints were unseen.”  (Psalm 77:19) 

The sea itself was often used in the Bible as a picture of a hostile, life-threatening place.  It’s deep, it’s dark, it’s dangerous.  If you are in it, you sink down and down with no foothold, nothing to grab.  You sink down to the realm of death itself.    Again, I think we have all been there.

Urgently needed words

So Jesus’ presence in the context of the waves and the wind changes everything.  Jesus says urgently needed words:

 27 “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Especially because of what we are going to be talking about a bit later, it is important to notice that Jesus’ presence and his words are not for condemnation or judgment.  He does not blame them for being there in such a bad spot.  He does not make them feel guilty for having gotten themselves into a bad situation.  He comes with words of mercy and hope:

 “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus then says those famous words, “It is I” – echoing the words Moses heard at the burning bush where he came face to face with the presence of God.  Yes, Matthew wants us to hear that echo: the presence of Jesus is the presence of God.  There is reason not to fear; God is with us; Emmanuel!

Peter’s bright idea

But then the totally unexpected happens.  Peter gets the idea that he should get out of the boat and come to Jesus directly.

 28 “Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

At first, all goes to plan, but then, things change.

We used to go to a lake in the summer that had a long dock with a diving tower at the end of it.  It was about 30 feet tall.  From the top, as young kid, it looked

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100 feet tall.  I remember so clearly the first time I worked up the courage to step off the edge.  As soon as I started plunging towards the water below I thought, “Now that was a mistake!” – but I could do nothing about it.  I was on the way down.

Peter steps out onto the supportive water looking at Jesus, but then looks up at the wind and down at the waves, and says to himself, “Now that was a mistake.”  But it’s too late.  He goes in to a slow-motion sink.

Rescue Me!

On the way down he did what the people of God characteristically do when they get in trouble; he cried out to God.

30 “…he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

And of course, Jesus does save him; that’s what he came to do.

31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew’s point?

This is where we need to ask ourselves, “What does Matthew want me to get from this story?”  Certainly that the presence of Jesus among us is the presence of God, yes.  Certainly that faith, even in the context of experiences of fear and dread is possible.  Certainly we are supposed to see that God is able to save us.

But there is one thing that needs to be noticed: Peter, and all the other men in the boat, were good Jewish people.  They already believed in the God of Abraham.  They were not pagans without faith.

Lots of people talk about God saving them as if it was something that happened once after an emotional experience of repentance.  Turning to God in repentance is necessary, but Peter was not having a conversion.  Peter was sinking; he needed saving  – or rescue (it’s the same word) from the situation he had gotten himself into.

What do I need to be saved from?

I think we need to pause, and ask ourselves the question, as people of faith who often fail, what do we need saving from?

I need saving from all kinds of things, and I need that saving often, not just once.

I need to be saved from my selfishness.  I need to be saved from my self-indulgence, from my apathy, from the way I can get all wrapped up in trivia.  I need to be saved from my stinginess and my cynicism.  I need to be saved from consumerism and escapism.  I need to be saved from laziness and neglectfulness.  I need to be saved from pettiness and from carelessness and from my faithlessness.  In short, I need to be saved from myself.

The End?

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How does the story end?  Jesus did reach out and save Peter from the mess he made, but then what?  He did not put him back in the boat for the sake of a pleasure cruise.  Jesus had a mission for Peter, and for all the others.

Jesus has a mission for us as well.  Yes he wants to rescue us from drowning in our own failure, but not so that we can have one more way in which to be self-indulgent.  Jesus came to bring the reality of the Kingdom of God.  He came to bring healing to the sick, food to the hungry, welcome to the excluded and to find the lost souls.

Now, we have been given the mandate to be agents of the kingdom of God in our world.  We are to be the ones offering a hand to those who are sinking.   We are to be the ones with the word of hope,

“Take heart, …do not be afraid.” 

But to get in a position of being helpful to anyone else, first we need our own rescue.  We are the ones who need to be saved.  We are the ones who should be crying “Lord, save me” – save me from myself.”

He will; if we want him to.  He is extending his had; take it!