WHO DO YOU SAY THE SON OF GOD Matthew IS? 16: 13-20 August 23, 2014

When Jesus and his disciples were near the town of Caesarea Philippi, he asked them, “What do people say about the Son of Man?”

The disciples answered, “Some people say you are John the Baptist or maybe Elijah or Jeremiah or some other prophet.”

Then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter spoke up, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus told him:

Simon, son of Jonah, you are blessed! You didn’t discover this on your own. It was shown to you by my Father in heaven. So I will call you Peter, which means “a rock.” On this rock I will build my church, and death itself will not have any power over it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and God in heaven will allow whatever you allow on earth. But he will not allow anything that you don’t allow.

Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Your grandchild asks you: “Who is Jesus?” What would you say?

Your neighbor asks you: “Who is Jesus?” What would you say?

The clerk at the gas station asks you: “Who is Jesus?” What would you say?

Your pastor asks you:” Who is Jesus?” What would you say?

In case you think that will never happen, here’s a fifth opportunity: Ask yourself: “Who is Jesus?” What can you say?

It is common now for pastors to ask confirmands to write their own statements of faith or creed or beliefs in some format.  All I ever had to do was recite the apostles’ creed. No thinking, no struggling,  no analysis involved. But the few statements I’ve heard by young people are impressive.  

To be forced to state your own beliefs clearly is putting you in the position of theologian and scholar. It is asking you to do the same thing that everyone from Paul to to Billy Graham to Robert Bell has done.  

The Statement of Faith of our denomination puts it this way:

[We believe that God, ] In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.

The Apostles Creed, recited and professed by many congregations every Sunday, says: 

[I believe]  in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:  The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:

The Nicene Creed is another of the many creeds that have been written over the centuries to clarify and proclaim who Jesus is:

[I believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Being asked to clearly define your exact beliefs about Jesus can put you in an awkward position.  I feel a little attacked, a little unsure of myself, a little less confident in my ability to witness to my faith.  But we’re in good company.  Those creeds and statements of faith were written to help us understand who Jesus is by people who had the time and energy and knowledge to sort out all the information, some of it conflicting.  Even the gospel writers had different points of view on the identity of Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew presents the Messiah, the promised Savior, the King of the Jews. The Gospel of Matthew is clear in purpose, and is unique in it’s role in the Scriptures. Matthew shows ages of prophecy to be fulfilled in Christ. He shows the fulfillment of the law in Christ, and God’s redemptive sacrifice fulfilled in Christ. Matthew goes on to show Israel’s rejection of their king, and more, a new people gathered to Christ.

For Mark, Jesus is a somewhat enigmatic figure and that’s very important to his way of telling the story. Jesus is mysterious. Jesus intentionally keeps people from understanding who he really is, at times. At times, Jesus actually silences the demons who would announce his true identity. When he performs a miracle, he tells people, don’t say anything to anyone about what I have done. He even takes the disciples away, off into a corner, and teaches them privately so that others won’t hear and understand the message. He seems to be a very secretive kind of figure in Mark’s gospel.

Now, why does Mark tell the story this way? It seems to be the case that he uses this motif of secrecy and misunderstanding as a way of reconceptualizing the image of Jesus. There’s something about the the previous understandings of Jesus, even within the Christian community, that Mark feels compelled now to correct and to give a new meaning for, and it probably has something to do with the post-war experience. Why had it all happened? What had gone wrong? Why was Jerusalem destroyed? Mark tells the story in such a way to make sense out of that, in the light of the death of Jesus.

In Luke, Jesus emerges primarily as a teacher, a teacher of ethical wisdom, someone who’s confident and serene in that ethical teaching. Someone who is very much interested in inculcating the virtues of compassion and forgiveness among his followers.

John sees Jesus as God in the flesh, as more than man or angel, as equal to God.

If the Gospel writers, who, with Paul are our only source of information about Jesus, see him in different ways, is it any wonder that there are such a variety of followers of Jesus?

We Christians see Jesus as divine, as being God, as part of the Holy Trinity. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet.  For Jews, Jesus is a wise teacher.

   Albert Schweitzer suggested that we end up seeing a reflection of ourselves in Jesus.   We want Jesus on our side, and so he ends up looking like us.  For Christians of European descent, we have become accustomed to seeing a blue-eyed blond Jesus, a Jesus who looks very European and not very Jewish.   We have remade Jesus in our own physical image, but we also tend to remake Jesus ideologically.  Therefore, there is a liberal Jesus and a conservative Jesus.  There is a radical Jesus and a reactionary Jesus.  Yes, who is Jesus?

  

Jesus does not make it easy for us to figure out who he is. 

In  Matthew 10:34-36, Jesus says

 “Don’t think that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came to bring trouble, not peace. I came to turn sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, and daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law. Your worst enemies will be in your own family.”

In John 14:27 we read: I give you peace, the kind of peace that only I can give. It isn’t like the peace that this world can give. So don’t be worried or afraid.

Eric Barreto, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota suggests that… “In the end, a life of faithful service may be the best answer to that awe-inspiring question: Who do you say that I am?”

I like that because somehow it’s easier to act like Jesus than to try to explain who or what he is.  Jesus made it clear in his sermons, in his own actions, that we are not called to be theologians or scholars, but to be disciples. He told us that we can do great works in his Name.  If I believe that, if I do great or little works in his name, I am certainly his follower.  Come to think of it, Jesus did not write any books about what to believe.  Not a single scroll, as far as anybody knows. Jesus practiced what he preached.  So, people can ask us what we believe, but if, instead, they see us in action, they’ll know what we believe.  No matter what our political beliefs, our social beliefs, whether we are fiscally conservative or flaming liberal, it is our actions that speak for us.  Ultimately, our statement of faith is not on paper but is there for all to see in the lives that we have lived.  Amen.

+++++++

EVEN THE HOLIEST OF LABELS
(Matthew 16: 13-20)

Andrew King

We would have held you in the past, Jesus.
We would have kept you in the jars,
however large, from which we’d already drawn,
the ones with the title of prophet, names
synonymous with speech from the voice of God:

names like Elijah, Jeremiah, John,

and others whose words had rung
through streets and hills,
had challenged our minds and hearts
a while ago.

A little bothersome, those prophets,
thorns to the strong while
comforting the weak,
disruptive to the status quo,but familiar, understood;
holding few surprises
and therefore somewhat safer
for the following.

We are not easy with the new, Jesus,
we do not readily welcome change.
We prefer our futures to arrive in dress
of the dreams we dreamed in the past,
tomorrow to be today with
freshened dew.

Even the title Messiah,
apparently so daring,
was a word we thought we understood
to mean another David:
the reign of God to mean the reign
of another worldly kingdom.

We were not prepared for the cross.

We were not prepared for the wine
to be new, and to require
such newer skins.

We would have held you in the past, Jesus,
predictable, contained.
But you are not confined by
the fence of our understanding.
You move beyond the boundaries
of preconceptions.

Show us afresh the limits of even
the holiest of labels.
Open us to a God who is
full of surprises.
Show us that there are possibilities
for ourselves
we have not imagined.

Show us anew that there is more,
much more, than we may ever know
about what it can mean,
for ourselves and the world,
that God is really with us:
Emmanuel.

 

1 Statement of Faith, United Church of Christ, 1959

2 http://biblesanity.org/matthew.htm

3 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/story/mark.html

4 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/story/luke.html

5 http://www.bobcornwall.com/2014/08/messianic-complex-lectionary-reflection.html

6 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2162

7 http://earth2earth.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/poem-for-the-sunday-lectionary-pentecost-11/

 

Questions Matthew 15: 21-28 August 17, 2014

21 Jesus left and went to the territory near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Suddenly a Canaanite woman from there came out shouting, “Lord and Son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is full of demons.” 23 Jesus did not say a word. But the woman kept following along and shouting, so his disciples came up and asked him to send her away.

24 Jesus said, “I was sent only to the people of Israel! They are like a flock of lost sheep.”

25 The woman came closer. Then she knelt down and begged, “Please help me, Lord!”

26 Jesus replied, “It isn’t right to take food away from children and feed it to dogs.”

27 “Lord, that’s true,” the woman said, “but even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their owner’s table.”

28 Jesus answered, “Dear woman, you really do have a lot of faith, and you will be given what you want.” At that moment her daughter was healed.

This story brings up nothing but questions, hard questions. 

Many questions haunted me as I studied this story. Here are two: 

What is faith?  

Why do some people get more than they deserve?

The most important question is the question of faith.  To even call faith a “question” is antithetical to what we want faith to be. Don’t we want faith to be solid, unmovable, permanent, amorphous?  Yet, in personal experience it seems to be unsteady, fluid, and unpredictable.

In the story of Peter trying to walk on water, Jesus accused him of having little faith: Peter, who sticks buy him day after day, who cries out for help knowing Jesus will save him. Now, in this story he commends the foreign woman for her great faith, even though he barely acknowledges her.

When we ask “What made her faith great?” it leads to a more personal question: “Is my faith strong enough?”  After all, as Christians, if we don’t have faith, what’s the point of believing, of studying, of prayer?

One of the most famous saints of the 20th century is Mother Teresa. At the end of her  life, the media revealed that her faith for the last fifty years of her life was nonexistent. Her biography, a compilation of her letters, reveals her ongoing struggle with her lack of faith. Even as the rest of the world used her as a model for perfect faith, she lived, in that respect, as a hypocrite. 

I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

Contrast Mother Teresa with the pushy mother in our lesson. More questions. 

Why does Jesus call the mother’s faith “great?”  What did she do?

She was persistent.

She was specific.

She asked for help.

She recognized who Jesus was.

She was honest.

She believed Jesus could help.

She challenged Jesus’ boundaries. 

And………..she got results. Her daughter was healed.

And then there’s Mother Teresa

She was persistent.

She was specific.

She asked for help.

She recognized who Jesus was.

She was honest.

She wanted Jesus to help.

She challenged Jesus’ boundaries. 

And………..she got results. Hundreds, thousands of people were healed.

Yet for the last fifty years—for all of her adult life, her faith was nonexistent. She could not find Jesus, she could find no evidence of God in the midst of her work, in the people she served, in her personal prayers.  She never ignored this lack of faith. She intentionally struggled with it, not only alone, but with those in her church who struggled to help her regain her faith.

I’d like to quote another woman who is a saint to me.

When her son was diagnosed with autism, Jenee Woodard had to give up her dream of a career as an academic scholar. Instead, she created The Text This Week, an influential trove of online resources for pastors writing sermons, Christian leaders and educators.

 Every week, she provides us pastors with lots and lots of first-rate resources and commentaries about the scripture assigned for the week.  This week, she posted her own comment about her experience with the Syrophoenician women in person.

“So, I took My Jesus to the special ed center with me to pick up my son after school. I wanted to show Jesus the “variety” of people and parenting skills there. And on our way in, this meth addled welfare cheat mom was coming out. Her kid is doing better than mine. Jesus says to me, “See? THERE’s faithfulness.” And I’m still wondering why My Jesus would point that out to me.” (Matthew 15, extreme paraphrase)

Talk about uneven distribution of faith.  The world is also filled with uneven distribution of results, blessings, relief, and assistance. 

There’s another question this story throws at us.  Why do undeserving people have good luck or special privileges? Why do jails have cable television?   Why do drunken high school athletes get a hand slap and drunken kids from the trailer court get arrested? Why do some people get their rent paid by the government while other people lose their homes? Why do some kids get free lunch?  In other words, it’s not fair when my hard-earned money pays for that kid’s lunch, while his parent sits on his duff.

Why is Ferguson getting so much TV coverage when a black kid was killed last week in Davenport? Why is it different when a cop kills a kid? Why can’t “those people” behave? And why the heck doesn’t Jesus just fix everything?

Jesus upsets us.  The peace that he brings is balanced, if not outweighed by the challenge he brings. 

Day after day, we need to be reminded that Jesus doesn’t think like the rest of the world.   The disciples ran into that all the time. So often, when the disciples chose the logical path, Jesus sent them in another direction. Their reaction to the mother was “Send her away.” They had the same reaction when 5,000 people were still hanging around Jesus at suppertime. And what happened?  There were leftovers!  Remember the leftovers?  That’s what the mother is asking for–the crumbs that fall off the table–metaphorically.  

Jesus not only challenges us; he surprises us with the unshakable faith of an outsider and the lack of faith of a saint. 

Faith is something we want to measure; we want to rank faith as if it were statistic in the sports page or the financial page of the newspaper.

Should I even think about the state of my faith? Should I work harder on growing my faith.  And what are the criteria for a strong faith?  How do I know if my faith is strong or weak? If I see my faith as lacking, as scrawny, how does that affect my relationship with Jesus? Does that lead me to try harder or to back away in shame and despair?

So where do I stand between the mother who challenged Jesus and Mother Teresa, who exemplified the life of a Christian in her words and deeds? How do I know how much faith I have?  My favorite theological position is “faith is faith.” I don’t want to be judged on the integrity or quality of my faith.

At this point, it is tempting to quit talking, quit sharing, and just keep my faith questions to myself.  But faith is too important to “hide under a bushel.” In fact, maybe faith is more than a halo hanging around my head or my neck, depending on the day. 

If we use Jesus as our model, faith is less theory and more action.  In the Christian church, we have a long tradition of creeds and statements and doctrine.  In fact, the United Church of Christ, our denomination, claims to be non-creedal.  Our Roman Catholic and Lutheran colleagues, on the other hand, recognize creeds, especially The Apostles’ Creed as a centerpiece of faith. It is usual to recite a creed as part of Sunday worship. Our denomination, on the other hand, claims a different way of expressing our connection.  We say that we have a covenant with God and with each other, a promise. That promise is put in writing and looks a lot like a creed, but it represents more of what we do and less on what we claim to believe. 

The pushy, demanding, persistent mother obviously believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but she didn’t talk as much as she pushed, cajoled, and argued her belief.

Does Matthew tell us the story to illustrate how a model Christian acts? Does she  represent a group or a theory or a type of Christian?  I like to think she represents just who she is …a mother with a sick daughter, an outsider, a foreigner. She is not a scholar,    not a disciple.  She is in and out of the gospel like a summer shower.

 Likewise, we tread this earth for a rather brief time.  Two thousand years ago, a woman had faith.  Two thousand years ago, a fisherman had faith.  Two thousand years ago, one thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, yesterday. someone had faith.  Today, we have faith.

Is it strong? Is it weak?  Is it shiny? Is it dull?  Does it weigh a lot? Is it as light as a feather?  Does it matter?  Great is your faith. Oh, ye of little faith.  Faith can lie dormant or spring into a field full of grain.  

To use a cooking metaphor: I don’t need to measure my faith.  I need to stir it. I need to share it.  Amen.

1 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2007/08/mother-teresas-loss-of-faith/

2 Textweek.org

3 Textweek.org, Jenee Woodard

Don’t Worry; Don’t Be Afraid. Matthew 14:22-33

22 Right away, Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and start back across the lake. 

Immediately after feeding thousands of people, Jesus MADE his disciples get in the boat And start back across the lake. 

Remember, Jesus had crossed the lake to get away from everybody…but they followed him and he didn’t have the heart to ignore them.  He healed and fed everybody.  Everybody. Only then did he continue with his original purpose of coming to this side of lake.  He wanted to be alone to pray.  

Alone.  No disciples. No crowds.  So, IMMEDIATELY, he sent the disciples back across the lake, from whence they had come earlier that day.

But he stayed until he had sent the crowds away. 

He made sure everybody got on the road to get back home. Again, he wanted to be alone.  Sometimes, after a big meeting, there are a few people who want the guest speaker all to themselves. They’ve hung around, waiting for a private audience, a private conversation.  That would certainly not have been surprising, would it?  Who wouldn’t want one-on-one time with this charismatic speaker? Jesus wants no one following him up the mountain, no hangers on, no disciples, not now.

23 Then he went up on a mountain where he could be alone and pray. Later that evening, he was still there.

Finally, he has time and space to pray, way into the evening. 

Meanwhile, back at the boat, the Sea of Galilee was being its usual cantankerous self. Even these days, the sea is known for it’s sudden, unpredictable violent weather.

24 By this time the boat was a long way from the shore. It was going against the wind and was being tossed around by the waves. 25 A little while before morning, Jesus came walking on the water toward his disciples.

Notice the time here: By the time Jesus is praying, the boat was a long way from the shore. If Jesus prayed into the evening and he doesn’t show up until a little before sunrise, the disciples and the boat were taking a beating all night long.

26 When they saw him, they thought he was a ghost. They were terrified and started screaming.

There were probably plenty of ghosts on that sea…with its storms, there must have been many boats sunk, many lives lost.  Why wouldn’t there be a ghost out walking after a stormy night?

27 At once, Jesus said to them, “Don’t worry! I am Jesus. Don’t be afraid.”

What music to their ears that must have been, after a night of listening to howling wind and crashing waves. “Don’t worry.  I am Jesus.  Don’t be afraid.”    Three short sentences. Three short sentences from a familiar voice.  “Don’t worry.”  After this long night, without Jesus, lives threatened all night long, with no rest……finally, it is possible to stop worrying. Jesus can say this with authority.  

28 Peter replied, “Lord, if it is really you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Peter doesn’t always think before he speaks, but he is also a risk taker. And maybe a bit of a tease.  If it’s really you….

29 “Come on!” Jesus said. Peter then got out of the boat and started walking on the water toward him.

Jesus calls his bluff. And for a bit, Peter walks on water…until he loses his concentration…or his faith.

30 But when Peter saw how strong the wind was, he was afraid and started sinking. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted.

His faith in Jesus does not falter, only his faith in himself.

31 Right away, Jesus reached out his hand. He helped Peter up and said, “You surely don’t have much faith. Why do you doubt?”

Does Jesus expect an answer?  Or is the question meant to provoke deeper searching by Peter in his own heart?

Why did Peter’s faith in Jesus’ command not match up with his faith in Jesus’ ability to save him?  On the one hand, he challenges Jesus to test his faith; but he fails the test as he looks at the waves around him; nonetheless, he still believes that Jesus will save him.

32 When Jesus and Peter got into the boat, the wind died down. 33 The men in the boat worshiped Jesus and said, “You really are the Son of God!”

Not until they are in the boat does the storm stop.  Does Jesus purposefully still the storm, as he did in Matthew 8? Or does the storm just stop?  It doesn’t matter. What matters is the reaction of the disciples.  They worshipped Jesus…who wouldn’t after that performance? That doesn’t matter either. The real story is their acknowledgement that Jesus is really the Son of God. That is saying a lot.  It may be a little late in coming, since they had just the day before witnessed him cure and feed several thousand people. But to watch him be in control of himself and Peter in a storm that can seem like the wrath of God can be construed as having the power of the one who made the storm in the first place. They have finally said it out loud: “You are the Son of God!”

Quite a story.  One of the best. We have action.  We have characterization. We have theme and plot. We have adventure; we have resolution. It preaches, it teaches. And it comes with a guarantee.  On sale whenever you’re in the market. One size fits all?  Maybe. Maybe not.

As I read it, it began to fit less well.  It got a little tight in places.  It raised some questions:

  • When did I ever want to get away just to pray?
  • Now that I can have one on one time with this charismatic speaker, how often do I ever make the effort to speak to him as if he were fascinating and charming?
  • What’s the longest I have ever prayed? All afternoon and into the evening?  With my ADD mind?  The longest I have ever prayed is our prayer after the offering, right before the Lord’s prayer.  Kind of embarrassing.

Even though storm is the story, there is always something else when I study scripture.  This time it is Jesus praying. Not only does he take time to pray, but he also sets it up so that he is not disturbed.  I do not believe I have ever been that intentional or deliberate in praying. It’s usually a squeeze-it-in when I’m not doing anything else. Admittedly, praying is not my strong point.  I’d rather write or sing or listen. I acknowledge this with a generous amount of guilt.  I know that many of you set aside a certain time everyday for prayer.  I know that some have a special place for prayer, a special chair for prayer.  I know that there are workshops and retreats that I can attend that focus solely on prayer. And, in fact, there is an online class starting in September about prayer for pastors.  Maybe I should look into that.

Other reflections lingered as I studied this passage.

30 But when Peter saw how strong the wind was, he was afraid and started sinking. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted.

Jesus accuses Peter of have having weak faith, but even as he sinks, his faith in Jesus is obvious.   “Save me!”  

  • We don’t often discuss faith in ourselves during Scripture reading.  We are warned about conceit and pride. Perhaps because it is hard to discern the line between pride and confidence, I have never thought about self-confidence in a Christian context. Yet, when we think about what is demanded of us as Christians, it takes a lot of self-confidence to follow Jesus.

I especially think about my friend, Crystal.  She lives in Texas.  She grew up in Austin.  She is very aware and very concerned about all the children fleeing violence to find a safe haven in the United States. She has five children of her own and thus comprehends how great and desperate is the love of those mothers who are trying to find safety for their children among us. She had the confidence to go to Washington, D.C. a couple weeks ago to protest government policy and get arrested.  She didn’t do it to get her name in the newspaper or to put it on her resume. She did it in the name of Jesus Christ.  That’s faith.

But even if my faith is not as gutsy as Crystal’s, I am still as loved as she is.  And if my faith doesn’t move mountains or government policy, my faith is still important to me.

One of the amazing things about faith is that even when we have no faith in ourselves, we can still survive because of our faith in Jesus. That’s what kept Peter from drowning during that storm on the Sea of Galilee.  That’s what keeps us from drowning in seas of despair and grief and frustration.

Do we make full use of our faith?  I like to think that faith is faith, but once again, I find that I may be wrong about that.  Is faith something that grows or shrinks?  Is faith weak or strong? Paul says, “Yes.”

Romans 15:1 If our faith is strong, we should be patient with the Lord’s followers whose faith is weak. We should try to please them instead of ourselves.

1 Corinthians 9:22 When I am with people whose faith is weak, I live as they do to win them. I do everything I can to win everyone I possibly can.

  • One more thing I wonder about.  Jesus says, “Don’t worry.”  It’s a good thing that is not one of the commandments.  Who could ever keep it.  Have you ever stopped worrying when someone told you to stop worrying?  “Don’t worry.”  But sometimes those weak words are followed by a reason to not worry.  “Don’t worry.  I paid the bill.”  “Don’t worry.  Nobody was hurt.”  “Don’t worry.  They got to the hospital in time.”  For Peter, it was “Don’t worry. It’s me, Jesus.”  “Don’t worry.  It’s me.” And then the phrase most often repeated in the Bible: Don’t be afraid.  

Think about that.  Think about how scary and intimidating a God who created storms and volcanoes could be, and yet this same God, with love and tenderness, says, “Don’t be afraid.”

Both Jesus and Peter depended on faith to sustain them.  Jesus was also troubled when he left the crowds and the disciples behind to pray. He was mourning the death of John the Baptist. He did not bear that pain by himself; he shared with a loving Father.  Peter depended on Jesus to save him from his own impetuosity.  “Save me!”  

May we always turn to God at the first sign of trouble, at the deepest time of trouble.

Let us pray.  Dear sweet Jesus, let us pray like you, let us have the faith of Peter.  Amen.

Why don’t YOU give them something to eat? Matthew 14:13-21

44 People of Israel, I have chosen you as my servant.

2 I am your Creator.
You were in my care even before you were born.
Israel, don’t be terrified!
You are my chosen servant, my very favorite.

3  I will bless the thirsty land by sending streams of water; I will bless your descendants by giving them my Spirit.

4  They will spring up like grass or like willow trees near flowing streams.

5 They will worship me and become my people.
They will write my name on the back of their hands.

6  I am the Lord All-Powerful, the first and the last, the one and only God.
Israel, I have rescued you!

I am your King.

7 Can anyone compare with me?
If so, let them speak up and tell me now.
Let them say what has happened since I made my nation long ago, and let them tell     what is going to happen.

8 Don’t tremble with fear!
Didn’t I tell you long ago? Didn’t you hear me?
I alone am God—no one else is a mighty rock.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.   That is the first commandment.  Such a simple commandment.  All we have to do is worship one God and we’re home free. 

It’s interesting to compare the variety of deities available to the Israelites as they make their way back from exile.  Their God was defeated by the Babylonian god, Marduk.  In other times, they had neighbors who worshipped Baal.  When Jacob married Leah and Rachel, they brought with them a collection of statues that represented various gods. 

In the New Testament, Paul encounters shrines to a variety of gods as he tours the city of Athens. He even finds one dedicated to an unknown god.

23 As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, “To an Unknown God.”   Acts 17 It’s as if there might be a god who has been left out, so another god is invented to cover all the bases.

This all seems strange to us Christians.  We know worship only one God and it never crosses our mind that we could be true to more than one god.  There are religions that worship multiple gods, but that is strange to us.  We would never worship any god but our God.

Thou shalt have no other gods. It’s so simple.  Luther explains this in his catechism?

What does this mean?–Answer.

We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  

What does this fear, love and trust look like?  It means that we worship just this one god, in the form of the Holy Trinity.  The only part of the Trinity that lends itself to a visible statue is Jesus.  Sometimes we adorn our worship spaces with statues or paintings

 of Jesus or we use a cross to represent the recipient of our worship.

 I had the privilege of attending the last wedding to be held in St. Anne’s in Welton yesterday.  Because the church is beyond repair, it will be torn down. As I looked around, it made me said, because it is such a beautiful, ornate space.  Each pillar, each cornice is lovely. The statues of St.Anne and the Virgin Mary and of other saints are beautiful.  When I was growing up, I was taught that Catholics worshiped these statues and that it was a form of idolatry. That was not true, but it was the kind of self-serving prejudice we used to separate ourselves from other denominations to make us feel that we were the only ones who knew the whole truth about Christianity.  Now I appreciate the rich heritage of the Roman Catholic church and its reverence toward those who practiced the faith so well that they are held up as examples to us, just as the characters of the Old and New Testament are held up to us as role models.

Statues are harmless.  We’re secure in our belief that there is only one God who deserves our worship. And we have lots of company. All our Muslim and Jewish friends believe the same thing.  

Maybe this is the one part of our faith that we always get right: there is only one God. Idolatry is not our problem. We can check that on off the list.  Or can we?

Worshipping the one true God requires fear, love, and trust.  Do we ever put our fear, love and trust anywhere else? 

I love to pick on organized sports as the idol of many people.  After all, where do more people gather…in a church on Sunday morning or in front of the TV on Sunday afternoon? Or my pet peeve…organized sports for children on Sunday morning. But that is a simplified, unsophisticated approach.  

Loving God is not so much about how and when and where you spend your time.  It is about why you spend your time.  When do I forget God?  What do I put before God?  It’s so easy to put your job as your first priority.  It’s so easy to put your family as your first priority.  In fact, you’d be heartless not to take care of your family.  You’d be a fool not to make sure that your job receives most of your attention. 

But God wants you to put God first.  It’s hard.  When I was teaching, a 12-hour day was not unusual.  There was always more to do, more papers to correct, more lessons to plan, more activities to provide. My god was my classroom.  My god was the knowledge I wanted to pound into my students.

Another god I worship is community service.  If there is a community need, I throw myself into it.

None of these things is bad. They are often the manifestation of hands of Jesus made visible through my hands.  What I have to remember is Whom I serve and why I serve. 

It is very hard to recognize my own idols.  I like to think that everything I do is motivated by my Christian faith. It is way too easy to point out other peoples’ idols.  Perhaps my biggest idol is myself.  I like to think I’m right about every issue and I want other people to agree with me.  If everyone agrees with me, then the world is created in my image. That is not God’s image.  

Like the Israelites, like the first Christians, I have to specifically, consciously choose the one God.  It is not so much a contract as a process. Every day I need to choose.  Let us pray.

Dear God, give me the wisdom to choose you everyday.  Amen.

Change of Address Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31 Jesus told them another story:

The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a farmer plants a 

mustard seed in a field. 32 Although it is the smallest of all seeds, it grows larger than any garden plant and becomes a tree. Birds even come and nest on its branches.

3Jesus also said:

The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a woman mixes 

a little yeast into three big batches of flour. 

Finally, all the dough rises.

44 The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when someone finds 

a treasure hidden in a field and buries it again. A person like that is happy and goes and sells everything in order to buy that field.

45 The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when 

a shop owner is looking for fine pearls. 46 After finding a very valuable one, the owner goes and sells everything in order to buy that pearl.

47 The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a 

net is thrown into a lake and catches all kinds of fish. 48 When the net is full, it is dragged to the shore, and the fishermen sit down to separate the fish. They keep the good ones, but throw the bad ones away. 49 That’s how it will be at the end of time. Angels will come and separate the evil people from the ones who have done right. 50 Then those evil people will be thrown into a flaming  fire.

51 Jesus asked his disciples if they understood all these things. They said, “Yes, we do.”

52 So he told them, “Every student of the Scriptures who becomes a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like someone who brings out new and old treasures from the storeroom.”

 

Parables are familiar to us. In fact, they are so familiar that you may have a favorite parable, just as you have a favorite hymn.

We like parables because they use terms and situations that are familiar to us to explain concepts that challenge us.

The last two Sundays featured parables about planting and harvesting.  Living in the Midwest, planting and harvesting are part of our environment, and, in some respect, part of our heritage.  Traditionally, we interpret those parables as spreading the Good News of Jesus, the good news of salvation.  Jesus refers to these parables as ways to understand the Kingdom of God.  

As I’ve studied the parables in chapter 13 of Matthew, I’ve slowly realized that these are not so much directives to get out there and convert others, as they are words to convert myself.  The five parables in today’s reading further refine this view by emphasizing what the Kingdom of God feels like.  

It’s easy to focus on the mustard seed, on the yeast, on the treasure, the pearl, the net full of fish as objects that have direct parallels in the vocabulary of the church.  Here’s the thing: there was no church when Jesus was teaching.  The Jewish faith did not encourage proselytizing.

If you remember from some of our Hebrew Scripture stories, the Israelites focused on keeping themselves separate.  They did not do much recruiting.  God instructed Abraham to build a great nation, but it wasn’t through preaching; it was through procreating. The Israel of old depended on babies, lots of babies. It took a couple generations: neither Abraham and Sarah nor Isaac and Rebekah showed much promise in the population department. But Jacob made up for it with his twelve sons and who knows how many daughters.  The implication throughout scripture is that any converts were through marriage.  The Israelites were not like other conquering groups who made the locals switch gods when the politics changed.

The whole point of this historical review is to examine that term, “kingdom.”  When we think of kingdom, we think of a place. Even if we think of the kingdom of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, we imagine a space, a location. We think of real estate.  And the real estate always has a population of some kind.

Is it possible that the Kingdom of God does not have real estate?   We alluded to this a couple Sundays ago when we explored the scattered seed falling on good soil and bad.  When we think of scattering seed, we think of dirt, which is spread in all directions and is not just floating in the air, but is solidly based on strata after strata of dirt and rock, all the way to the center of the earth.  It is located somewhere: it is real estate.  We know that the seed Jesus scatters falls in our hearts, but there is still that shadow of location, of permanence, of an address.

When we look at today’s five parables, having a space in the Platt book is not longer relevant.  Now we have to look at mustard–an invasive weed—and yeast–an unpredictable little microbe that can show up in the most inconvenient places.  And then we have not real estate but some object of value.   Yet Jesus compares these phenomena to the Kingdom of God.  He rattles on with stories that seem unrelated, and yet, he keeps saying, “The Kingdom of God is like……” How can the Kingdom of God be like so many different things?  

This is what I think. We have to get over the idea that the Kingdom of God is the New Age, the Second Coming, I’ve shared with you that my idea of the Kingdom of God is that everybody is happy because they are well cared for and know that someone loves them enough to make sure they are safe.  Again,there’s that earthly idea that the kingdom is not only a place, but a population.

But then we have this treasure thing, this invasive weed thing….and there goes the kingdom.  The whole metaphor falls apart.  (Makes me wonder what kind of grade I would have given Jesus on this composition–would I have scribbled “mixed metaphor!” in the margin?) 

Is the Kingdom of God simply a feeling?  Is the Kingdom of God totally void of anything visible or tangible?  Can the Kingdom of God be completely and exclusively spiritual and emotional? We cannot draw lines from one metaphor to the other.  What we can do is imagine what it is like to have the bread rise.  If you have ever made bread, you know that feeling of relief when the yeast does its job.  

We can imagine the goodness in that invasive mustard seed that never grows in the right place, yet still provides shelter.  

We can imagine the joy of finding that treasure and being able to not only find it, but to buy it and and own it.  We can imagine the joy of not only finding that pearl, but the comfort of owning it.  We can imagine pulling in that net and the satisfaction of ending up with a great catch of fish.

In each of these  scenarios, there is something good happening. There is the unexpected good of the unwanted mustard seed providing shelter for a bird. There is the hoped for good of the yeast rising. There is the thrill of the treasure, of perfect pearl. There is the satisfaction of a good catch.

The Kingdom of God is then not the conversion of three billion people to Christianity. The Kingdom of God is not a theocracy.  The Kingdom of God is an attitude, an emotion, a feeling.   Not much room for the military in there.  Not much room for buying and selling.

Nor is the Kingdom of God an intellectual paradigm or a philosophy.  It is an experience, a joy of the unexpected, a comfort of the realization of the hoped for, the reassurance and encouragement of being complete with God, of being righteous.

It is pretty easy to transcribe these seemingly unrelated parables into the 21st Century.

The mustard seed is like finding a really good tenderloin in a pretty seedy dive. The yeast is like having a Facebook page and you get more birthday wishes on one day than you’ve ever received in your whole life. The treasure is like brining home a box of junk from an auction and finding a garnet ring in the bottom of the box.  The pearl is like a good spot opening up on main street so that you can start your own business.  

We could spin parallels all day long. But the point is not the birthday wishes or the bird’s nest in the bush or the net full of fish.  The point is the experience of God in one’s own heart, one’s own psyche, one’s own memory.

51 Jesus asked his disciples if they understood all these things. They said, “Yes, we do.”

52 So he told them, “Every student of the Scriptures who becomes a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like someone who brings out new and old treasures from the storeroom.”

The cool thing about the storeroom of Scripture is that we can bring out new treasures every time we explore that storeroom.  Today, what treasure will you find–AND how will it make you feel?  Amen.

One God, Many Choices Isaiah 44:1-8

44 People of Israel, I have chosen you as my servant.

2 I am your Creator.
You were in my care even before you were born.
Israel, don’t be terrified!
You are my chosen servant, my very favorite.

3  I will bless the thirsty land by sending streams of water; I will bless your descendants by giving them my Spirit.

4  They will spring up like grass or like willow trees near flowing streams.

5 They will worship me and become my people.
They will write my name on the back of their hands.

6  I am the Lord All-Powerful, the first and the last, the one and only God.
Israel, I have rescued you!

I am your King.

7 Can anyone compare with me?
If so, let them speak up and tell me now.
Let them say what has happened since I made my nation long ago, and let them tell     what is going to happen.

8 Don’t tremble with fear!
Didn’t I tell you long ago? Didn’t you hear me?
I alone am God—no one else is a mighty rock.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.   That is the first commandment.  Such a simple commandment.  All we have to do is worship one God and we’re home free. 

It’s interesting to compare the variety of deities available to the Israelites as they make their way back from exile.  Their God was defeated by the Babylonian god, Marduk.  In other times, they had neighbors who worshipped Baal.  When Jacob married Leah and Rachel, they brought with them a collection of statues that represented various gods. 

In the New Testament, Paul encounters shrines to a variety of gods as he tours the city of Athens. He even finds one dedicated to an unknown god.

23 As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, “To an Unknown God.”   Acts 17 It’s as if there might be a god who has been left out, so another god is invented to cover all the bases.

This all seems strange to us Christians.  We know worship only one God and it never crosses our mind that we could be true to more than one god.  There are religions that worship multiple gods, but that is strange to us.  We would never worship any god but our God.

Thou shalt have no other gods. It’s so simple.  Luther explains this in his catechism?

What does this mean?–Answer.

We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  

What does this fear, love and trust look like?  It means that we worship just this one god, in the form of the Holy Trinity.  The only part of the Trinity that lends itself to a visible statue is Jesus.  Sometimes we adorn our worship spaces with statues or paintings

 of Jesus or we use a cross to represent the recipient of our worship.

 I had the privilege of attending the last wedding to be held in St. Anne’s in Welton yesterday.  Because the church is beyond repair, it will be torn down. As I looked around, it made me said, because it is such a beautiful, ornate space.  Each pillar, each cornice is lovely. The statues of St.Anne and the Virgin Mary and of other saints are beautiful.  When I was growing up, I was taught that Catholics worshiped these statues and that it was a form of idolatry. That was not true, but it was the kind of self-serving prejudice we used to separate ourselves from other denominations to make us feel that we were the only ones who knew the whole truth about Christianity.  Now I appreciate the rich heritage of the Roman Catholic church and its reverence toward those who practiced the faith so well that they are held up as examples to us, just as the characters of the Old and New Testament are held up to us as role models.

Statues are harmless.  We’re secure in our belief that there is only one God who deserves our worship. And we have lots of company. All our Muslim and Jewish friends believe the same thing.  

Maybe this is the one part of our faith that we always get right: there is only one God. Idolatry is not our problem. We can check that on off the list.  Or can we?

Worshipping the one true God requires fear, love, and trust.  Do we ever put our fear, love and trust anywhere else? 

I love to pick on organized sports as the idol of many people.  After all, where do more people gather…in a church on Sunday morning or in front of the TV on Sunday afternoon? Or my pet peeve…organized sports for children on Sunday morning. But that is a simplified, unsophisticated approach.  

Loving God is not so much about how and when and where you spend your time.  It is about why you spend your time.  When do I forget God?  What do I put before God?  It’s so easy to put your job as your first priority.  It’s so easy to put your family as your first priority.  In fact, you’d be heartless not to take care of your family.  You’d be a fool not to make sure that your job receives most of your attention. 

But God wants you to put God first.  It’s hard.  When I was teaching, a 12-hour day was not unusual.  There was always more to do, more papers to correct, more lessons to plan, more activities to provide. My god was my classroom.  My god was the knowledge I wanted to pound into my students.

Another god I worship is community service.  If there is a community need, I throw myself into it.

None of these things is bad. They are often the manifestation of hands of Jesus made visible through my hands.  What I have to remember is Whom I serve and why I serve. 

It is very hard to recognize my own idols.  I like to think that everything I do is motivated by my Christian faith. It is way too easy to point out other peoples’ idols.  Perhaps my biggest idol is myself.  I like to think I’m right about every issue and I want other people to agree with me.  If everyone agrees with me, then the world is created in my image. That is not God’s image.  

Like the Israelites, like the first Christians, I have to specifically, consciously choose the one God.  It is not so much a contract as a process. Every day I need to choose.  Let us pray.

Dear God, give me the wisdom to choose you everyday.  Amen.