Sunday, August 13, 2017

Stepping into the Storm (Matthew 14:22-33)

I know what it is like to be afraid on the water. I was nine or ten years old and my dad took me with him on a fishing trip with a work buddy. At the time we had a small boat, maybe 15 or 16 feet with a 50 horse power motor. We were at Lake Barkley catching crappie. It had been a good evening. We were in a school of crappie when dark clouds began to gather over the horizon. We were having such good luck we didn’t want to leave and as a consequence stayed on the lake too long. The storm came on us quick and we had to get across the lake back to the dock. It was slow going as waves pounded the boat. We were taking on some water from the the waves. Then the motor died. I had never seen my father afraid before. He made sure my life jacket was tight and then gave me some instructions on what to do if the boat capsized. The look of fear on his face terrified me. I can’t remember a whole lot about my life at that point in my history, I was probably 9 or 10, but I still remember those feelings of fear. Fortunately, my father was able to get the motor started again without too much delay. But I will never forget the fear I felt at that moment even though it was so very long ago. 

The disciples are caught in a storm. Some of them were seasoned fishermen. It’s what they did. They were on the water everyday. They knew how quickly a little vessel could be upended. The waves and wind are pounding them. Then they see something or someone coming towards them. The text says they were terrified.  Now, let me say here at the beginning that this is not a story about avoiding storms nor it is a story about avoiding the fear such storms produce. Fear is, first of all, a simple reaction to threat or danger. And sometimes it can be a constructive thing. It has its place in helping to keep our children safe. Most children that is. It never seemed to be much a deterrent for our son Jordan, who went tumbling down the basement stairs on two different occasions. One time he was on a three wheeler and it was intentional.

Some fear is necessary, but fear can also be debilitating and oppressive, when one lives in fear constantly. I suspect that many of the kids who cross our border illegally are sent here by parents who live in daily fear for their children’s lives. None of us should judge them and say, “How could a parent send their child out like that?” You and I don’t know what it would be like to have children faced with a lifetime of violence and poverty. Maybe we would do the same. Maybe we would say the risk is worth it?

This story is not about avoiding storms or the fear they evoke, nor is it about stilling them. There are some who are quick to point out that Jesus did indeed still the storm, and they draw the conclusion that if we just had enough faith Jesus would still our storms too. That, I think, is a misreading of the story. Stories have meaning on many different levels. At one time scholars thought that parables, the stories Jesus told were intended to convey a single meaning, though today that theory has been largely debunked and most interpreters would argue that stories of Jesus convey multiple meanings and we intersect and connect with these stories on different levels at different times in our lives. The same is true of the stories about Jesus and this story today of Jesus walking on the water and stilling the storm is more of a parable than anything else.  

On one level, this story reflects what Matthew’s church had come to believe about Jesus. The story may have been constructed around images in the Psalms. One Psalm reads: “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” When Jesus speaks to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” he is echoing the name of God by which God identified God’s self to Moses out of the fire when God said, “Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” Matthew’s church, which many scholars believe was predominately Jewish, had come to see in Jesus God’s agent of healing and redemption for the world. And at the end of the story Matthew changes the ending of this same story in Mark. Mark’s ending highlights the spiritual dullness and immaturity of the disciples. Mark’s story ends with Jesus’ rebuke. In Mark they don’t have a clue what is going on. But in Matthew’s version of the story it’s just the opposite. Matthew concludes the story by saying: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” Matthew’s church is not claiming that Jesus was the one God, Creator and Father of all. But Matthew’s church is proclaiming Jesus to be God’s Son par excellent (not exclusively, but definitively) through whom God acts to heal and liberate the world.

So this is not a story about having enough faith to still storms or avoid storms. Nor does the story suggest in any way that God is responsible for the storms. Storms are an inevitable part of the climate we encounter on the journey. Author Philip Yancey launched his writing career with a book titled, Where is God when it hurts? He recalls receiving a phone call from a television producer just after Princess Diana had been killed in an automobile crash. He wanted Yancey to appear on his show and explain how God could possibly allow such a terrible accident to happen. (By the way, terrible accidents are happening every moment to God’s children.) Without much thought Yancey retorted, “Could it have had something to do with a drunk driver going ninety miles an hour in a narrow tunnel?” Yancey asks, “How exactly, was God involved?” God does not micromanage the planet or our lives.

There are some experiences of suffering that are simply tragic, and it is hard to find any redemptive value in them. On the other hand, we’re not likely to grow without battling some storms. Talk to any recovering addict who has been in a twelve-step program any length of time and he or she will talk to you about “necessary suffering.” They will tell you that it took what it took - coming to the end of themselves – to get them on a path toward healing and change. But “necessary suffering” doesn’t mean God causes or sends us suffering, it just means that it, unfortunately, often takes what it takes to get us moving in the right direction.

Paul, as well as other New Testament writers speak to the issue of necessary suffering, and they employ hyperbole in making the point. Paul tells the church at Rome, “we boast in our sufferings,” (that’s an exaggerated statement isn’t it?) Maybe a better choice of words would be: “We embrace our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” James, in his little epistle says, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy (more hyperbole; who actually does that?), because you know that the testing of your faith (all forms of suffering, all hardship function as a kind of “testing”- that does not imply that God causes it or is responsible for it) produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” Now, none of this is automatic. This outcome depends on our response. If we fail to face our sufferings in faith, suffering may just make us bitter and angry.

You may have heard the saying before, “Religion is lived by people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is lived by people who have been through hell and come out enlightened.” Hell is not some place God sends people because they don’t believe or do the right things. Hell is what all of us have to live through to one degree or another in order to face our pride and ego, and confront the ways we need to grow and change. God’s deliverance is rarely a deliverance from; generally it is a deliverance through. Some suffering is necessary to prompt us to face the negative patterns in our lives which we tend to deny, ignore, excuse, rationalize, and minimize.

Matthew’s story differs from Mark’s in that Matthew brings Peter into the story. Peter is simply a disciple who represents all disciples. Peter takes a leap of faith into the storm. There is a wonderful scene at the climax of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana has to pass three supreme tests to reach the Holy Grail and save his father from dying. The first test is “The Breath of God” where he walks down a corridor and must bow at precisely the right moment to keep form having his head cut off. The second test is “The Word of God” where he has to walk on the right stones – the ones that spell God’s name in Latin – to keep from falling through the floor to his death. The third test is “The Path of God,” where Indiana comes to a large chasm – about a hundred feet across and a thousand feet down. On the other side is the door to the Holy Grail. The instructions say, “Only in the leap from the lion’s head, will he prove his worth.” Indiana says to himself, “It’s impossible, nobody can jump this.” Then he realizes that this test requires a leap of faith. His father says, “You must believe, boy. You must believe.” Even though every nerve in his body screams don’t do it, he walks to the cliff’s edge, lifts his foot, and then steps out into thin air. Instead of falling to his doom like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, his foot hits solid ground. He lands on a hidden walkway, a hidden, solid stone walkway that supports him and takes him across.

God is often hidden, but solid nonetheless. God is with us every step of the way and will not abandon us. God may be hidden and disguised. Someone has said that God comes disguised as our life. We may not always or even frequently recognize God, but the Christ is with us always.
Many spiritual teachers drawing from their own experience have said, “When we find our true selves, our authentic selves, we find God.”

The Quaker educator, writer and activist Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak tells about an experience he had while engaged in a program called Outward Bound at Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine. One of his tasks, a task that he feared the most, was to rappel down a 110-foot cliff.  As he slowly made his way down the cliff face he came to a deep hole in the face of the rock. Realizing he couldn’t go around it he suddenly found himself paralyzed by fear. He hung there in silence for what seemed to be a very long time.  Finally an instructor shouted, “Parker, is anything wrong?”  In a high squeaky voice he replied, “I don’t want to talk about it.” At that moment the second instructor jumped in and said to Parker, “It’s time that you learned the Outward Bound motto.” He thought, “I’m about to die, and she’s going to give me a motto.” But then she shouted ten words that have had lasting impact on his life. She told him, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” It’s like the advice given in the children’s story, “Going on a bear hunt.” I read that story to Sophie when she was little multiple times: “You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go around It, so you have to go through it.” As I said last week: Knowing that we are under a blessing and not a curse, knowing that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, knowing that the Christ is with us always, we can step into the storm in faith.  

The hard thing about that is that stepping into the storm means getting out of the boat. It means letting go and leaving the place of security. That could mean a lot of different things depending where we are in our pilgrimage. It could mean deciding to stop being an enabler of negativity and life diminishing beliefs and attitudes of some group we are part of and from whom we derive support and friendship. Speaking truth in love could turn the group against us. That’s stepping into the storm. Maybe it means facing some hard truth about ourselves that we have been in denial about because it contradicts the image we have of ourselves. Maybe it means confronting an addiction. Or maybe it’s getting involved in some cause or engaging in some act of mercy that requires more time and resources and energy than we think we have to give. I think of the two women senators who stood against all kinds of pressure and threats to do what they in their hearts knew was in the best interest of the country and their states. They decided to step into the storm.

In the story Peter steps into the storm and begins to sink. We all do. In this context doubt means “to be divided.” At some point we are all divided, we all lose focus and energy and we start to question our motives and decisions. We all doubt and we all have “little faith.” That’s just part for the course. The point here is that Christ is out in the storm. That’s where Christ is. This is really a story about the presence of Christ with us in the storm. It’s a story more about the cosmic Christ than the historical Jesus. Some scholars think that this story was originally a resurrection story, which in the course of the oral tradition – the telling and retelling of the story – it got worked back into the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. Because it really is a story about the presence of the living Christ. So when the Christ comes to them on the water they exclaim, “It is a ghost.” They don’t recognize him, which of course, is a common feature in almost all the resurrection stories. This is a story about Christ’s living presence in the storm.  

Maybe what we first call a ghost is actually the Holy Ghost. I have no doubt that God, the Holy Spirit, the living Christ, (use whatever phrase you are most comfortable with) speaks to us in a rich variety of ways and forms and means, though they are not clearly obvious or overt or easily recognizable. But I also believe that once we learn to recognize the Christ within us, in our true self, our authentic self, we can learn to see, to discern the divine presence elsewhere, especially in human beings. We can discover that Christ’s presence in the laughter of a little child, in the wisdom of an elder, in the touch of a lover’s hand, in the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, even in the midst of the raging sea that threatens to capsize our small boat.

The challenge and invitation that comes to us today is not to hunker down in fear, not to flee, not to deny or conjure up “alternative facts” when the storm assails us. I believe that the challenge and invitation that comes from the living Christ is to step into it.  

As we now come to the table to share the bread and the cup, it’s good to be reminded that the celebration of Holy Communion is not only a celebration of the self-giving of Jesus unto death; it’s also a celebration of the presence of the living Christ who walks with us into the storms of life.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Facing Our Brokenness in a Broken World (Matthew 14:13-21; Isaiah 55:1-5)

Isaiah 55 reads as an invitation for anyone to share in the fruits of God’s new creation, the new world God is creating. The blessing is offered to anyone who will receive it. “Everyone who thirsts come to the waters” cries the prophet. God chose Israel to share that message. Not to be a people who thought of themselves as better than others, but a people called to offer life giving water to all the peoples of the world.

One of the New Testament readings listed for this Sunday, which we did not read, is Romans 9:1-5. In that text Paul speaks of his passion for the Jewish people, his own people, and he enumerates a number of things that set Israel apart – that constituted Israel a chosen people – the covenants, the Torah, the tradition of worship of the one God, and ultimately the Jewish Messiah. However, the privileges and advantages of being the covenant people of God were never intended for Israel exclusively. In the Isaiah text God’s steadfast love is not intended for just one nation or people group, it’s intended for all peoples. Israel was called to communicate blessing and chosenness to the rest of the world. All the world is God’s world. All people are God’s people. According to the prophet God made Israel to be a “witness to the peoples” of the earth of God’s “steadfast love.”

Being chosen doesn’t mean that God likes one person or group or nation more than God likes anyone else. In fact, the ones God often singles out for a particular service are generally quite flawed so that it is clear the calling is by grace. No one is more worthy than anyone else. Whoever God chooses for special tasks God chooses in order to communicate God’s love to everyone else. What at first feels like God being exclusive is actually God choosing a person or people to communicate God’s inclusive love and grace to all. The fact that so many Christians are locked in to claims of exclusivity (that God has blessed them but not others) simply demonstrates that we have a lot of growing up to do (that we are still very selfish and our selfishness is blinding). 

I believe the passage today in Matthew 14 of Jesus feeding the multitude offers us a way forward. It gives us a pattern that can lead us out of our immaturity. It shows us how our chosenness and brokenness go together and that when we learn how to live in the balance of that tension we find our place and calling.

The story is a familiar one. I read stories like this in the Gospels as well as the one that follows about Jesus walking on the sea and calming the sea not as historical reports of actual events, but as parables. A different kind of parable than the parables Jesus told, but parables nonetheless. Some scholars call them metaphorical narratives, which is really just another way of emphasizing their parabolic and symbolic meaning. That is to say that the stories are true in what they teach.

A great crowd of people follow Jesus out into a deserted place. He is trying to get away with the twelve for a time of rest and retreat, but he is pursued by hungry people – hungry for meaning and hope. How will Jesus feed this great multitude? Can he give them the hope and meaning they crave? Jesus takes a few fish and loaves of bread – he blesses them and breaks them and then gives them to a hungry people. What I want you to see today is the great spiritual significance of this pattern that shows up again when Jesus hosts the last supper.

First, he takes and blesses. As I have already pointed out this is not an exclusive blessing; it’s a blessing bestowed on all. It is true of all human beings whether they belong to our religious tradition or not. This is our original blessing. I love the way the late Henry Nouwen talks about this. He writes:

“We have to dare to reclaim the truth that we God’s chosen ones, even when our world does not choose us. As long as we allow our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and lovers to determine whether we are chosen or not, we are caught in the net of a suffocating world that accepts or rejects us according to its own agenda of effectiveness and control.” Nouwen says that claiming this blessing, claiming our identity as God’s beloved daughters and sons is a life long task because we often have to battle low self-esteem, self-doubt, and self-rejection. And when we fall into this darkness – of self-doubt and rejection – we can be easily used and manipulated by people who want to use us for their own selfish ends.

Nouwen says that what we need to remember is this: “Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock time – our brief chronological existence – but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.”

That is our original blessing – it precedes and is far more important than our original sin. In fact, our sin isn’t original at all. It simply part of what we have to live with and deal with in learning to claim our original blessing. Now if we trust and claim our original blessing as image bearers of God, as God’s beloved children in whom God’s Spirit abides, then there is no reason for us to try to conceal, deny, repress, or escape our brokenness.

And that brings us to the second part of the pattern: Jesus takes and blesses, then he breaks. We are all broken in some way. But that is not the first thing about us nor is it the most significant thing about us. The most important thing is that we are blessed. And when we claim our blessing, when we trust our chosenness, we find the courage and inner strength to face our brokenness. When we deal with our brokenness in the context of our original blessing then we are able to step toward our pain, our failures, our brokenness, rather than run from it. It’s by embracing our brokenness and living through our brokenness that we move toward healing and transformation.

Nouwen calls this living under the blessing rather than the curse. When we lose a family member or friend in death, when we fail in a relationship, when we go through a separation and divorce, when we lose a job or a dream dies, when we live through some act of violence that jars us and scars us, when some tragedy strikes – if we live this under the curse, then it’s easy to become bitter and resentful. It is likely we will become angry and depressed. But when we put all of this under God’s blessing, when we realize that none of this is a reflection of what God thinks of us, because God loves us with an eternal love, then the trial and tragedy we undergo can somehow be incorporated into our journey toward the realization of our full humanity. It can all be incorporated into the process of becoming image bearers of God.

There is a scene in Leonard Bernstein’s musical work simply titled Mass that illustrates this. Toward the end of the work, the priest, adorned richly in splendid liturgical vestments, is lifted up by his people. He towers high above the adoring crowd, carrying in his hands a glass chalice. Then suddenly, the human pyramid carrying him in his glory collapses (as all human aspirations of glory do), and the priest comes tumbling down. His vestments are ripped off. His glass chalice breaks and shatters into many pieces. As the priest walks through the debris of his former glory – barefoot, wearing only blue jeans and a T-shirt – children’s voices are heard singing, “Laude, laude, laude” – “Praise, praise, praise.” Suddenly the priest notices the broken chalice. He looks at it for a long time and then, haltingly, he says, “I never realized that broken glass could shine so brightly.”

When we embrace our brokenness, when we live through our brokenness in the light of God’s blessing, then our brokenness can reflect the mystery and beauty of God’s grace and presence. As we face our brokenness and bring our brokenness into the light of God’s blessing, we find meaning and the capacity to care for and extend love and grace to others. Here is the third stage of the pattern: Jesus blessed, he broke, and he gave. Giving is the final stage of the pattern.

Our Gospel story highlights the power of the Spirit that drove Jesus, that motivated and compelled him to do what he did – to challenge the powers that be, to confront injustice, to break down walls and barriers, to welcome the excluded and condemned, to heal the sick, liberated the demonized, and feed the hungry. The text says that when Jesus saw the great crowd of hurting, hungry people he had compassion for them. Jesus was living under the blessing of being the Beloved. He had heard the voice of the Father say, “You are my beloved son, on whom my favor rests.” He was living under that voice of blessing, which is the same voice of blessing that we need to hear and live under too.  

Jesus, no doubt, was weary. He was tired. He needed some solitude. He was trying to get away from the crowds. He is just one human being. As Luke says in Acts 2, “a man appointed by God” to do some great works, but a man nonetheless. I’m sure we would have been upset with the crowds hounding us for favors. But because Jesus lived through the human condition under the blessing of God he was able to draw from the compassion of the Spirit who empowered him.

It’s interesting to contrast Jesus’ response and the response of the disciples – which would no doubt be our response. When the disciples face the tragedy of the human condition, when they face the brokenness of the people, all they can see is what can’t be done. “Send them away” they tell Jesus. Maybe they can find some food, some help, some healing, some hope on their own. We have nothing to give them. And maybe they were right. Maybe they didn’t have anything to give them. Maybe they had not yet learned to face their own brokenness in the light of God’s blessing. But Jesus living under the blessing of God, living in the power of Spirit, the power of divine compassion says, “Bring them to me.”

We are not sit back and bask in God’s blessing, but rather, we are called to spread God’s blessing out of compassion and gratitude. We who are blessed and broken are called to give. And there are all kinds of ways we can do that. I would say: Just start where you are with the people you rub up against every day. Many of them are hungry for a more meaningful life. Some of them feel lost and alone. Some are struggling with feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt and low self-esteem. Some try to cover their faults and brokenness and appear better than they really are. Some are blind to the kind of humility and grace that could heal their souls and give them some real joy and peace. We pray to Jesus and Jesus looks at us and says, “You give them something to eat.”

We are called to give of ourselves in mercy and also in justice. No one was left out. There was plenty to go around. They had more than enough. The problem we face in our world when it comes to matters of justice, of everyone having enough not just to survive but thrive is not a resource problem. We have enough resources – at least at the moment. Our problem is a distribution problem. We are called to give indiscriminately, but if we follow our Lord, then we have a special obligation to give to, stand with, and advocate for the oppressed and impoverished and most vulnerable among us.

We might think of ourselves as a little piece of fish or piece of bread. What can we give? What do we have to offer? We tend to focus on what we can do, the talents we have to give, our special abilities, and so forth, and we often think we have little to offer. We tend to forget is that the greatest gift we can give is not so much about what we can do, but rather, it’s more about who we are. So the main question is not, “What can we do for each other?” But rather, “Who can we be for each other.” Am I willing to share the gift of who I am with others?

If we bring our lives under the blessing of God, if we claim our true identity as God’s beloved daughters and sons, we can face and embrace our brokenness, and our very brokenness becomes a means through which the blessing of God is extended to others.

It’s an interesting detail in the story. When they gathered up what was left they gathered up twelve baskets full. But the twelves baskets were not filled with whole loaves of bread or whole pieces of fish. Oh no. It was filled with broken pieces. God feeds the multitude, heals the sick, and liberates the oppressed with broken pieces. The Christ is able to multiply many times over what little we are and have, if we will just bring it all under the blessing of God and be willing to open our broken lives to others. Our brokenness confronted and embraced with the blessing of God will become a source of healing and help and hope to others.

Our good God, we sometimes look at ourselves and just see our sin, our failure, our weaknesses, our shortcomings and we tend to feel sorry for ourselves, or feel useless and of little value. Help us to look past all of that and see what we are by virtue of your original blessing, and help us to realize that nothing can sever us from that blessing, from the love you have for each one of us. May that love, your love, your welcome and acceptance, your compassion empower us to face our brokenness and give ourselves to one another and to our world – acting mercifully and justly whenever and wherever we can. Amen.