This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Keys Are For Opening.



Matthew 16.13-20

I.
            Peter’s famous confession in Caesarea Philippi is to tell Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”?           
            “Messiah” is a Hebrew word that means “anointed one.”  To be anointed was to have holy oil ceremonially poured or smeared on some part of your body, usually the head.  In the Old Testament this happens mainly to kings and priests; and sometimes to prophets.  When Peter says, “You are the Messiah,” he means “You are the anointed one,” meaning “You are the king/priest/prophet expected by Israel.” 
            When he calls Jesus “the Son of the living God,” the same reasoning applies.  In the Old Testament, the “son of God” is most often the king.  Sometimes it refers collectively to the people, Israel.  It is also used of a heavenly figure.  Put all this together and Peter proclaims Jesus to be the promised prophet, king, and high priest of Israel.
            Traditionally we think of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king, probably because these were the figures who were “anointed” by God.  The Westminster Confession and Catechisms have long sections on Jesus as prophet, priest, and king.  Calling Jesus by these titles has consequences.  They are not just honorific, they have deep meaning.
            To call Jesus a prophet is to see him mostly outside of the established religious institutions.  The prophets paid close attention to the moral life of the people and the leaders.  They predicted the dire consequences of disobeying God’s law. 
            Jesus never calls himself a prophet; but he acts like one.  He upholds the moral law of the Old Testament.  He says that at the heart of the old morality, based on God’s law, there is one core truth, which is love.  Start from there, and all the rest falls into place.
            To call him a priest is a bit more consequential.  Priests worked within the religious establishment.  Since he was not part of their exclusive group (although his mother did come from a priestly family), the claim that Jesus is a priest would have been a challenge to the priests actually holding office at the time.  They accuse him of blasphemy and eventually crucify him for it.  Certainly Jesus is a religious reformer, as we see in the disturbance when he drives the commercial interests out of the Temple. 
            But Jesus never calls himself a priest either.  But his followers, especially after his resurrection, call him the great high priest who was to come and renew the people’s faith.  As priest Jesus fulfills and completes the religion of God’s people, revealing its true character, boiling down its elaborate rituals into one simple meal of bread and wine, representing God’s saving, liberating, loving presence.

II.
            But the most substantial claim made by Peter when he calls Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” is the inference that Jesus is king.  If he is king, the people actually holding political office are false usurpers.  This makes him a political revolutionary.  The leaders see this very clearly and have him crucified for sedition.  It is this, kingly, political aspect of being the anointed one that Jesus proceeds to talk about as he continues to respond to Peter’s confession.
            Peter is realizing that Jesus demands our complete allegiance and loyalty, in the moral, religious, and the political arenas.  There can be many prophets, even working at the same time.  There can be many priests, although only one official High Priest.  But there can only be one king.  When Jesus allows himself to be called king, it is a direct challenge to whomever happens to hold the title of king.
            The people expected the Messiah, the anointed one, to be a king.  They hoped for a political leader who would be like his ancestor, King David, and liberate the nation from its enemies by force, so they would be free forever.  The people are willing to call Jesus a prophet; but he doesn’t look like the promised anointed king.  So they don’t identify him as such.
            Jesus does not come to reform or restore the political order.  Not in the sense of a new kind of government or constitutional framework which is imposed by force.  He doesn’t come to be chief executive or commander-in-chief.  In fact he rejects that kind of kingship and power way back at the beginning of his ministry when Satan tempts him with it in the wilderness.  His kingdom, as he says to Governor Pilate in a different gospel, is “not of this world.”
            But his kingdom is in this world.  Jesus is starting a new political order if by that we mean a new community that lives according to new rules and standards, but which is voluntary.  Everyone is invited into this community; but only some know themselves to be called to it.  Jesus establishes this community as his church; the Greek word for church is “ecclesia”.  It means “called out.”  His community consists of people called out of the world dominated by Caesar and Pilate, and gathered into his new community, ruled by him as king through the Holy Spirit. 
            Jesus says Peter is specially blessed.  Jesus declares Peter to be the foundation upon which Jesus’ new community will be built.
            Jesus intends Peter to be the leader of the church.  And then he gives several important central characteristics of this church, moving forward. 

III.
            First, he says “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  The gates of Hades represent both death and the condemnation of hell.  This community will be a refuge against these awesome powers that cripple and corrupt human life.  Because it will be rooted in his resurrection, the church will be a place of eternal life.  It will be a place where people are connected to and participate in the very life of God.
            Jesus says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  As Jesus did not come to the world for condemnation, neither does his church make it its business to condemn, reject, judge, or punish people.  Rather it is a place where God’s love overpowers death and banishes condemnation.  It is a place of forgiveness, peace, hope, and compassion.  It is a place of justice and equality.
            Jesus also intends this new community to be the gateway, the entrance, to the Kingdom of Heaven.  They will have the “keys” to unlock the mystery of God’s saving presence with and among us.           
            Finally, this new community will be the venue for the interpretation of the law.  The church will decide what Scriptures are binding, or how loosely to interpret them.
            Later, in chapter 23, Jesus will rail against the scribes and Pharisees because they “lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.”  It was the religious establishment that was binding people under a strict and uncompromising legalism, even while they were more lax towards themselves and their rich friends.
            Clearly Jesus does not give the church these keys to the kingdom so they can lock people out, or demand an admission fee.  They are not given to make faith more difficult.  The keys are for opening.  Jesus intends the keys he has entrusted the church with to unlock the Kingdom of Heaven so people may come in.  If people are not allowed in, it will be the fault of the church.  They had the key and didn’t use it as it was intended.
            The church, the gathering of people who have been called out of a world dominated by death and condemnation, is supposed to witness to Jesus’ welcoming, inclusive, accepting love.  We are supposed to make the Kingdom of Heaven more accessible, more available, and more present to people.  He orders his church to be a community of forgiveness, healing, restitution, and liberation. 
            It is not a place where every literal detail of every law is absolutely binding on everyone.  Rather it is a place where the gathered community, guided by the Spirit, administers with the love of our anointed king the keys of binding and loosing.  The community decides what is binding and what may be more loosely interpreted.  He gives the community awesome power here.

IV.
            The last thing Jesus says is that they should not go around telling people he is the Messiah.  Messiah was a word with a lot of baggage.  He didn’t want to have to define himself relative to this baggage.  The worst thing that could happen would be if people argued and chose up sides over whether he is the Messiah or not, and no one changes their lives.  He didn’t want people to be distracted about this or that title, or doctrine, or theological category.  He wanted people to live together according to the love of God he reveals.
            He also does not want his Messiahship to be reduced to a verbal proposition that people cognitively agree with or not.  Even if we don’t tell anyone in words he is the Messiah; by all means we should live our lives convicted of the truth that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed.  People will know he is the Messiah by the quality of our discipleship.
            So who do you say that he is?  And how is who you say he is expressed in your actions?  Is Jesus your prophet, who shows us the moral life in its integrity?  Is Jesus your priest, who by giving his life reconciles us to God and each other?  Is Jesus your king, the one whose will you obey, the one who shapes our life together, the one who welcomes us into a new community, the Kingdom of Heaven?
+++++++    


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lord of the Dogs.


Matthew 15.10-28
  
I.
            Jesus and his disciples land their boat in Gennesaret.  As he is healing people he gets into an argument with some Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem.  They say he is too lax in keeping the purity regulations in the Torah.  Jesus says they are adding burdensome rules that are not actually in the Torah.
            Jesus starts teaching the people exactly the opposite of what the Pharisees had always told them.  The Pharisees were so zealous for the strict keeping of the letter of the religious law that they added things to it to make it stronger.
            The Pharisees have an agenda.  Their primary goal is to maintain Jewish national and religious identity and distinctness.  The Pharisees were hyper-vigilant about what and how people should eat, and who they should eat with, and by extension, what they should see, hear, feel, smell, or take into themselves in any way.  They wanted to control people by regulating their consumption, what they were allowed to touch, or whom they were allowed to associate with. 
            The Pharisees believed that it was only by keeping these rules that their nation maintained its existence.  Without the law they would easily be swallowed up in Greek culture like just about every other nation in the eastern Mediterranean.  What people ate was not just a matter of religious observance.  They felt it was a matter of national survival.
            That is why, when Jesus says things like, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,” the Pharisees get very nervous and angry.  If people didn’t regulate what went into their mouths, if they just started eating ham sandwiches and fried clams, if they ignored the rules for pre-meal ablutions, if they ate with Gentiles, or ate the meat of animals that had been sacrificed to pagan deities, then the Jewish nation would simply cease to exist.  What Jesus is saying us unpatriotic.
            They were a small nation, surrounded by the alien Greek culture, they had fought for their independence, and Rome was allowing them to keep their religious laws.  But if there were ever a crack in this monolith of strict, legal observance, they were sure it would all be over.
            The Jewish people were using these laws to maintain their identity as an oppressed minority.  But this is also a tactic of any empire or authoritarian regime.  If you can regulate what people consume: what foods they eat, what they drink, what books and newspapers they read, what websites they visit, what art they may look at, then you maintain control over them.  The greatest threat to the powers-that-be is when people start to listen to other voices, eat other foods, hear other music, entertain other opinions, and associate with other people.
 II. 
            Jesus sees the hypocrisy here.  If we reduce faith to what we consume, if we think that we have fulfilled our responsibility as God’s people as soon as dinner is over, then we are prone to forget the more important demands of the law, which is that we actually love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  You may eat the perfect kosher meal, quite satisfied with the impeccability of your piety… and then go out and commit acts of violence, bigotry, and hatred against people, and think that is fine.  While the Pharisees made themselves into the food police, Jesus is healing people.
            Jesus understands that God is love, and that this spirit of love interprets and even overrides the details of the written code.  It not about what you take into yourself, what you eat, what you drink, what you read, what music or words you listen to, and so forth.  It is about what you do, what you produce, what comes out of your mouth in words, what you express and accomplish with your body.  That is what the law is really about.  It has to do with coming to live according to love and compassion, justice and peace.
            “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”  So says Jesus.  He doesn’t say we should eat with dirty hands, he means to reduce the importance of these excessive rules about ritual hand-washing which the Pharisees had added to the requirements of the Bible.
            When Peter expresses some nervousness about offending the powerful Pharisees, Jesus answers, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.  Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.  And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 
            In other words, it is as if Jesus is saying: “It doesn’t matter what these so-called religious professionals say.  There are no Pharisees in the Torah.  God didn’t plant or institute their order.  God didn’t make them boss.  They are just making this stuff up; they are reacting out of fear, nationalism, ethnocentrism, and a lot of other things that are not God’s love.  They add extra, oppressive rules to the Bible.  But what they add, God has not planted, and in the end, what God has not planted will not last.  So don’t worry about it.  It is enough of a challenge to keep the laws that are actually from God, without having to add these extra things on top of it all.”
III.
            Then Matthew recounts a situation that arises which provides an example of what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus and the disciples have walked over to the coastline, about 30 miles, and they enter Gentile territory.  A Canaanite woman approaches them.  Canaanites were not Jews, they were the people who inhabited the land before the Israelites came from Egypt and conquered it, over a thousand years before.
            She pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter.  Jesus ignores her.  The disciples ask him to send her away because she is a pest.  Jesus says to them, loftily: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And when the woman actually kneels before him begging for help, Jesus says; “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
            Now, there are at least two schools of thought on this.  One is the Jesus-changes-his-mind party.  I am of another persuasion, the Jesus-is-being-deliberately-sarcastic party, in interpreting this answer.  I think he is mimicking the bigotry he continually hears from his own people, even his disciples, about Gentiles.  I think he is making a point here. 
            He addresses these harsh and cruel words to the woman, words that would surely defile – which is to say, offend and enrage -- most people to whom they were addressed.  Nasty words that would cut to the heart of someone coming to him for help.  You expect her to go away angry, hurt, sad, disappointed, and brokenhearted.  You would expect her to go away hating Jesus, Jews, and their God.  You expect taking in these words would defile her thoroughly, the way we sometimes dwell on and sourly nurse the unfair, nasty, mean things that people say to us.
            But the words don’t defile her.  Without skipping a beat, she says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  The words enter her ears, she takes them in.  But she turns them around through her humility and her limitless trust in this man who has just called her a dog!
            I can see Jesus looking at his disciples, shaming them.  It is as if he is saying: “I still shouldn’t heal this woman’s daughter, just because they’re Gentiles?  She shows more faith and trust in me than you guys do most of the time, but I shouldn’t heal her daughter because she’s not one of our people?  I said words to her that you’ve never heard me say to anyone, and yet she produces from her heart in response words of pure gold.  When are you guys going to get it, that the Gentiles are the lost sheep of the house of Israel?  And that I have come to serve, to heal, to liberate, to redeem the people whom others dismiss as ‘dogs’?  I am the Lord of the dogs!
IV.
            Then Jesus turns to her and says: “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And at that moment her daughter is healed.
            Between the Pharisees and this woman there is a huge gap.  The Pharisees were self-righteous, superior, entitled, and bossy.  They took it upon themselves to protect God’s law by developing still more hoops for people to jump through in order to be accepted by God.  They wanted to control people by regulating what they ate, what they took in.  The woman takes in some nasty words… but she transmutes them into a miracle by means of her humility and her trust in Jesus.
            Jesus says that it’s not what goes into us that is determinative, but what comes out, in terms of our words and behavior.  What comes out of this woman is a willingness to be like Jesus: last of all and the servant of all. 
            I remember this verse in Proverbs: “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”  It is better to be poor, humble, and common and alive, than to be important, powerful, wealthy, respected, and pious… and dead.  What God has not planted will be uprooted, no matter how strong and rich you are.  God did not plant these Pharisees who like to pile ever heavier burdens on people.  They may have the reputation of strong and glorious lions, but they are in effect, dead.
            But Jesus says it is the gentle who inherit the earth.  The humble, the trusting, the ordinary, the broken, the needy, the outcast and excluded… like this mother pleading for her daughter’s life… these are the people who constitute the future.  She is the mother of the whole Gentile church, which includes us. 
            The point is to have a deep enough trust and humility so we can transmute what does come into us into something beautiful, something healing, something blessed and good.  What is the level of our trust and humility?  Are we willing even to be dogs, patiently and with great attentiveness awaiting a crumb from the master’s table?
            If we trust in Jesus, I know that what will come out of us will be what came into the world through him.  We will be a blessing to the world.  We will be people who heal, who set people free, who do justice and love kindness, who participate in the redemptive will of God.  What comes out of us will be the love of God for the whole world.
+++++++

Monday, August 8, 2011

Jesus or the Market?


Matthew 14.13-21 
I.
            Upon hearing of the death of John the Baptizer, Jesus goes off by himself in a boat, intending to land in a deserted place.  John was Jesus’ mentor and cousin, and Jesus wants some time to grieve and reflect on where his ministry should go, now that John is gone.
            Somehow word gets out where he is going (perhaps he was visible from the shore), and people start coming out to him, so that when he lands a big crowd is there to meet him.  Instead of trying to escape, Jesus has compassion on them, and heals the sick people among them.
            He spends the whole day doing this, and it starts to get late.  So the disciples, ever responsible, make a suggestion.  “This is a deserted place,” they say, “and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  In other words, faced with a few thousand hungry people, the disciples advise Jesus to tell them to go to the nearby villages and purchase food.
            The disciples’ recommendation should not surprise us.  Their solution to this crisis is the one we would choose, without thinking.  For them, the answer is the market.  The people should spend money.  They should individually provide for themselves and their own families.  It is the market economy that will feed them.
            Of course, to go off to the market, they would have to leave Jesus.  They would have to separate in different directions.  So to rely upon the market to feed them means actually abandoning Jesus.  They cannot be both with Jesus and depend on the market.  And they would have to break their own fellowship, scattering in different directions.  They would no longer be a unified gathering in Jesus’ presence; they would become separate individuals, fending for themselves, even in competition with each other for limited resources.
            And they would each have to come up with some cash.  So the choice really becomes, Jesus or money?  What is going to feed you?  Upon what are you going to rely?  Jesus or the market?  You can’t rely on both.  You have to choose.
            What are we expecting Jesus to do here?  Do we really think he would agree with the disciples’ advice and admit that he is just a spiritual teacher and healer, but if you want to be fed real food, you have to go to the market?  Do we really expect him to say, “There are some things I will give you for free, but when it comes to food, you just have to shell out the bucks to a vendor.  I don’t do food”?
II.
            More even than Jesus’ clueless disciples, we of all people tend to worship the market.  Our whole economy is based on people going to the market -- to shops and stores -- and using money to buy stuff for themselves.  It does not even occur to us that there is any other way to live.  If you even suggest any other way of acting you are at best considered an idealistic idiot or at worst some kind of dangerous socialist.  The market is our god.  Around here you dis’ the market at your peril.
            We think the market will save us, heal us, make us rich, redeem us, and actually create the Kingdom of God!  I know people who say this explicitly. 
            In actual fact, beyond the fantasies of economic theory, what reliance upon the market really does is create the kind of society in which Jesus lived: a handful of wealthy people owned almost everything, who had their wealth protected by the finest and most ruthless military in the world, and the rest of the people had to scrounge in the dirt just to get by.  We are rapidly becoming this kind of society ourselves, and in most of the rest of the world it is already far worse.
            Jesus, the Son of the Living God, the Creator of the Universe, the holy Wisdom from on high, the Messiah, he deliberately chooses to come down and live with the scrounging-in-the-dirt group.  And he comes with the good news of God’s Kingdom.  And the message of God’s Kingdom is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  This is not the world God intended.  I will show you a better way, says Jesus.
            He turns to his disciples and says, “The people don’t have to go away; you give them something to eat.” Participating in the economy does not mean going away from Jesus.  Jesus points to his disciples and tells them to be the source of food.  In some sense, feeding people is the church’s job.
            But the disciples did not bring enough food for thousands of people, nor could they have.  Jesus is not criticizing them because all they can come up with is five loaves of bread and two measly fish.  He knows the disciples don’t have the resources to provide this amount of food.  He is about to make a different point.    
            Jesus has them bring the bread and the fish to him.  He has the crowds sit down on the grass.  “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”
III.
            We do not know what happens between verses 19 and 20, between when the disciples give the five loaves of bread and two fish to a crowd of over five-thousand people, and the simple announcement that “all ate and were filled.”  Nothing is said.  It’s almost as if there should be another few verses here explaining how this happened.  But there aren’t. 
            The traditional interpretation is that Jesus miraculously materialized food from thin air and fed the people.  We remember the way God was able to do a similar thing through the prophet Elijah, with the bottle of oil and the jar of meal that a widow and her son used every day but which never got empty. 
            Another more “demythologizing” view is that Jesus inspired all the people to share what they had with each other, and when they pooled their resources, they had more than they needed. 
            But the text doesn’t say either of these things.  None of the gospel writers say how this event happened.  Maybe they don’t know.  Certainly it doesn’t matter to them.
            All we know is that: scarcity plus people plus Jesus equals abundance.  Jesus is saying, “If you gather in my name and trust me; if you banish your fear and do as I say; if you receive with joy and thanksgiving what I give, then you will never be hungry or thirsty or friendless or sick.”
            Logically, the extra food came from somewhere.  The story implies that it came from God.  It was a spectacular miracle, perhaps Jesus’ greatest.  And even if you believe that the people brought food with them and shared, that too is a miracle.  That would be a breaking of the laws of society if not the laws of physics.  For we are not taught, we were not raised, to give up what little we have provided for ourselves, to others.
            Jesus creates abundance.  However that happens is immaterial.  Jesus by his living presence creates abundance.  He creates abundance for a lot of theological reasons, like the fact that he created the whole universe in the first place, including the planet Earth and all its beauty and richness. 
            And he creates abundance among us as well because he takes away that which generates scarcity, which is our fear.  He creates this community of mutual support, centered on and focused on him.  He creates a place where abundance happens. 
IV.
            Also note that the people stay there.  They do not need the disciples to tell them how to feed themselves.  They know what their options are, that they can walk away from Jesus and each other, and go buy food for themselves in a village market somewhere.  But they don’t. 
            Somehow they trust Jesus to provide for them.  This throng of people on a remote hillside by the sea, faced with a setting sun and having no food, were not afraid.  They did not fear hunger or loneliness, or poverty, or even the cold night or the possibility of bad weather, or wild animals, or any of the other things they could conceivably have been afraid of.
            Not being afraid, they do not engage in the usual behavior of fearful people, which might include fighting, fleeing, hoarding, hiding, or stealing.  They just sit there on the grass, patiently waiting for something to happen.
            One of the people who was there that day later wrote: “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear.”  Scarcity is a myth we invent out of our own fear, and then that myth becomes real in the institutions we proceed to construct because of it, institutions like the market.
            In the presence of his perfect love, the people lose their fear.  They depend on him.  And through him they depend on each other.     
            The words Jesus uses when he distributes the bread and the fish should sound familiar.  There are several other times when Jesus “took,” “blessed,” “broke,” and “gave” bread to others.  The most important of these is at his last supper with his disciples, the night before he dies.  We say these very words now every time we share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
            These are the words that define Jesus’ new economy of the Kingdom of God.  By these words and actions he creates abundance and banishes fear.  And that as his people and by these words we too, in his name, are supposed to do the same thing: create abundance and banish fear, and to do this by means of his Word and his Spirit, working in the gathering of people who trust in him.
V.
            I imagine that, as those two fish and five loaves are passed around, each person follows Jesus’ example.  They receive, bless, break, and give the bread and fish to the next person.  No one insists on having a whole loaf; they break it so it may be shared.  They do not hoard or grab, they break and give.  
            The power, the miracle, the abundance is discovered first in the word and presence of Jesus, second in the people themselves, gathered in a community of mutual support, and finally in the action of receiving, blessing, breaking, and giving to each other.
            Jesus says: “Stick together, follow my word and example, and realize the miracle of sharing with each other.” 





Sunday, August 7, 2011

Against the Wind


Matthew 14.22-33

I.
         Jesus wants to be alone to pray.  So, before evening falls, he dismisses the crowd, now stuffed with miraculous bread and fish, to their homes, and he sends his disciples off across the lake in a boat. 
         Once again we see that those whom Jesus gathers together he also sends out. 
         By the time it gets dark, the disciples’ boat is far from land, and they are working against a heavy, steady head-wind. Several of them are fishers, so they know how to handle a boat at night in bad weather.
         I am not a sailor, but I do know that sailing against the wind is a difficult and exhausting job, involving repeated tacking and wearing, coordinating and resetting the position of the sails with the rudder.  Basically the boat does a zig-zag pattern, making very slow progress.  You have to use the wind that is against you to help you move forward.  Experienced sailors know how to do this so that the sail becomes like a wing, and the wind that is against the boat actually starts sucking it forward.        
         Just as he sends his disciples into this head-wind, Jesus sends his church out into the world.  And the world is also a difficult, challenging, frustrating, unsafe, insecure, constantly changing place.  And that’s in relatively normal times. 
         The times in which we live are not normal.  Ours is an age of tumultuous change, when one historical era is falling and another is trying to emerge.  Much of what we depended on, and almost all of what our grandparents depended on, is crumbling into dust.  Our institutions are all in question, including especially the church.  Technology advances exponentially; the economy is veering back into freefall; the government is paralyzed; marriages and families are in disarray; we have crippled the Earth’s climate, for heaven’s sake… do I need to go on?  How are we supposed to get anywhere against this hurricane head-wind, in these deep swells?  We can hardly just keep our balance in the boat, let alone manage all the technical changes in the position of the sail and the rudder… Oh, and did I mention that those in our “boat,” the church, are fighting with each other tooth and nail?
         By the same token the church does not want to simply cave in to all these changes so that they come to define who we are.  But stubborn resistance to change as a matter of principle doesn’t work either.  Jesus does not tell the disciples to drop an anchor and hold to the same spot.  He wants the church to move forward, not stand still. 

II.
         And in the middle of all this, the disciples, looking into the night, see this pale form moving on the water.  And they think it is a ghost, an apparition, a phantasm, an unidentified aquatic object.  The disciples, amid their strenuous work, cry out in fear.
         The fact is, when you’re in crisis, when you’re consumed with hard labor, it isn’t always easy to recognize Jesus.  Especially when Jesus comes to you in a highly unlikely and unexpected way, he can look like just one more layer of catastrophe, this unknown thing, getting closer… as if we didn’t have enough to worry about.  Who expects Jesus to appear with the wind, on the waves, from the very elements that are harassing us?  The wind and the waves are what we are fighting against.  We think Jesus should come down from the sky or out from within our hearts, but apparently in the elements of the crisis itself?  I don’t think so.
         Jesus immediately speaks to reassure them.  “Take heart,” he says.  “I am here; do not be afraid.”  He wants them to be confident.  He wants them to know he is with them.  In Greek, he actually says “I am,” which is how God names himself to Moses in Exodus.  To say “I am” in this way is practically to identify yourself with God.
         And then he tells them not to be afraid.  It is their own fear that is their greatest enemy.  Perhaps what might banish their fear is the knowledge that not only is Jesus present with them, but that he is coming along with the wind and walking on the waves, and these elements do not bother him.  He navigates the chaos and the bluster effortlessly.
         Jesus is not absent in the cataclysmic changes we are going through.  He is in fact over and above them.  He is coming to us in and through them, as if to say that these elements will not swamp us, they will not defeat us or keep us from where he has sent us to go. 
         Peter answers Jesus and says, “Since you are there, command me to come to you on the water.”  Peter wants a direct experience of this power that Jesus has to be in the wind and on the waves, but not overtaken by them, and certainly not swallowed up in them.  He wants to be in the elements but at the same time impervious to them, just as Jesus is.  He knows he can’t do this on his own, but if Jesus commands him to he can do it.
         And Jesus tells him simply to “come.”   And Peter climbs out of the boat.  And he starts walking on the water!  It is not enough to be buffeted by the sea and the wind in a boat; that’s for wimps!  Real followers of Jesus get out of the boat!  To come to him is to get out of the boat; it is to abandon your own comfort zone and your fear; it is to abandon even logic and the laws of physics, for crying out loud. 

III.
         We work so hard to keep the boat afloat and moving towards the goal; we even fight with each other for control of the boat itself, and here is Jesus basically telling Peter, “You don’t need no stinking boat!  The boat is just because of your lack of imagination; if you trust me, really trust and obey me, the boat becomes superfluous, unnecessary.  You can just walk through these changes and challenges, without having to worry about the sail and the rudder and the wearing and the tacking, and all that.
         Peter responds to Jesus’ command.  He keeps his eyes on Jesus… for a while.  He actually walks on the water… but then he gets distracted.  He probably says to himself, “Wow, I am walking on water!”  And a particularly strong gust of wind shakes him, and he looks away from Jesus, and he starts losing his focus and his balance, and his feet get wet, and he starts to panic and sink.
         He doubts, and the word for doubt here means being of two minds.  He loses his single-minded attention on Jesus.  He starts to think, “But on the other hand this is water and I am heavier than water, ergo, reasoning inductively, I should be sinking.”  And that’s it.  Entertaining “the other hand” does him in.  And Peter, whom Jesus called the “rock,” begins to acquire the properties of a rock in water.
         When Peter starts sinking, he calls out, “Lord, save me!”  It is the most basic prayer of humanity, the appeal to God for salvation, for healing, for liberation, for mercy, for assistance.  “Lord, I am yours; save me!” is a verse from Psalm 119.  It is sort of a Christian mantra expressing the most basic truth about our relationship to God.  We belong to God and we plea for God to rescue us when our obedience falters in distraction.
         And Jesus reaches out his hand and does rescue Peter, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  It’s a rhetorical question.  Jesus knows that we are of two minds because the pressures and threats of the world often seem more real to us than he does.  We stop trusting in his word and instead go back to trusting, you know, our own eyes, our own experiences.  Instead of remembering Jesus we remember the dog-eat-dog rat-race world, and everything we have on our to-do lists, and the many things we are worried and anxious about.  We fall back into imagining worst-case-scenarios and preparing for them.  Jesus recedes into a figure from ancient history.  In other words, we see the wind, we feel the waves surging beneath us, and we resume assuming that this is more real than Jesus.
         Peter takes the Lord’s hand, and they both step into the boat, at which point the wind dies down.  I try to imagine the faces of the other eleven disciples at th is point.

IV.
         This story is about how to obey Jesus, and what Jesus requires of us in a difficult, challenging, tough environment.  It is about how to live as disciples in a changing world.  We have to make some headway; we have to be making measurable progress towards the destination to which Jesus directs us: the Kingdom of God.  Our life together has to demonstrate real progress towards realizing peace, justice, forgiveness, healing, inclusion, and love.    
         And at the same time we have to use the changing environment itself to draw us forward.  Even if it is oppositional, God can use it in service of the gospel, like sailors make use of the wind, even if it is against them.  New forms of music, art, technology, business, philosophy, family life, and other cultural manifestations may sometimes be used by the church to convey and embody the good news of God;s love for the world.  The Apostle Paul was an expert at finding, adopting, and baptizing things from his culture so they served his mission.  But we have to be able to show progress, that we are not just caving in and accommodating every cultural fad or influence.
         This demands a constant discipline of looking for Jesus’ living presence with us.  We need to be in continual dialogue with each other and with Jesus’ word in Scripture.  We have to keep our attention riveted on him.  That is what makes miracles possible.  And we have to realize that because we and our situation are always changing, so we hear his words, which don’t change, in ever different ways.  Yesterday’s answers are not always faithful for today.
         I we lose our focus on him, and on the saving, healing love of God for the world that he embodies, then we start inevitably to sink.  We are swallowed up by the changing world and disappear and dissolve into it.
         If we are motivated primarily by our fear, our insecurity, our anxiety, our discomfort, our negativity… then we will have lost sight of the Lord who comes to us and calls us to him.
         But if we do maintain our single-minded attention on him, and if we do respond to his word with unquestioning obedience, then even the pressures and changes of our world cannot consume us.  We master them.  We sail through them.  They become ineffective against us.
         What is our focus?  Is it fear of change?  Or is it love of Jesus?  Are we obeying our own insecurities and anxieties, our own fantasy about the way things should be?  Or are we obeying Jesus’ word and command?  Are we letting the winds of change blow us off course?  Or are we using them to follow Jesus?
        
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