August 28 – Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28

Matthew 16:21-28

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’”  These verses freak me out.   Upon first glance, they aren’t so bad, but the longer I hang around in them, the dizzier I get and the more they start to play tricks on me.

Deny yourselves.  Take up your cross.  Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  This is easy enough to understand.  If I am selfish with my life, I will lose my life, but if I am generous and give up my life, I will gain it.  Therefore, I will be generous with my life, because I know that I want to gain it.  But…wait.  Then am I simply being generous for my own gain? To save my own neck?  Aren’t I simply wanting to save my life, which then means I’ll lose it?  It’s a dizzying text and I am not quite sure what to do with it.

But I think there are two main ways people hear this text.  Some hear it as a call to live a meager life, denying themselves of joy and fullness of life as a way of delayed gratification.  The more I deny myself life’s comforts here and now, the greater my reward will be in heaven.  No pain, no gain.  This is how God wants us to live.  Others hear this text as justification or reason for the suffering that has already burrowed into their life.  “This must be my cross to bear,” people say, when faced with suffering that is just as hard to explain as it is to endure.  It paints the picture of a drill sergeant God who is in the business of giving you more and more obstacles and struggles in life to see how long you can endure them.  I am afraid that because of this text abused spouses have stayed in their relationships.  Terrified each day, they stay because they think it is the cross God has called them to bear.  So they think they should just grin and bear it, trying to trust in a god who can seem so cruel.

If there are the only two ways to hear the text, then I want nothing to do with it.  But what if there is another way of hearing this text?  It seems to me that this text is not about a call to a life of suffering and denying one’s self the pleasures in life, all so that one can receive a greater reward in heaven, as if God is simply playing a game with us.  This text is also not about a reason for our suffering.  That God tests us by giving us all crosses to bear and asking us to carry them to show the commitment and endurance of our faith.  Instead, what if this text is about not being afraid.  Not being afraid of death.  And not fearing the suffering places in our lives that can feel so much like death.  Because the moment we start to fear death, it’s not long before we start to fear life too.[1]

This was the case for Peter.  Just before this text in Matthew, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter is the one who steps forward and says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  Jesus affirms Peter by saying, “Yes, blessed are you, Peter.”  The only problem is that Peter is expecting a different kind of Messiah than Jesus is.   In Peter’s mind, the Messiah is one who comes in strength and power.  One who will defeat the evil powers of the world.  And as a follower of Jesus, he expects to be part of such a glorious battle, which he will win.  So when Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and death, it’s no wonder that Peter cries out, “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.”  Suffering and death were not the future Peter envisioned for Jesus, and they weren’t the future he envisioned for himself, either.  If Jesus must go to Jerusalem and face suffering and death, then as a follower of Jesus, doesn’t that mean Peter must go and do the same?  Peter was afraid for Jesus’ life, but he was afraid for his own life too.  The moment we start to fear death, it’s not long before we start to fear life.

One of my favorite TV shows is Law and Order.  There is an episode about a mother who was so focused on protecting her own children from any danger in the world that she kept them home-schooled and never let them outside the house.  As a result they had no concept of friends or how to make them.  She convinced them that the world was an evil place and that they must fear it.  All of this she did because she thought she could protect her children and keep them alive, and yet, in the end, it was suffocating the life out of them.  The moment we start to fear death, it’s not long before we start to fear life too.  And Jesus wants us to have life.

Jesus is in search of life.  Fullness of life.  For all of us.  Did you catch that in the text?  That Jesus is in search of life?  I didn’t see it at first either.  Or if I did, I didn’t know what to make of it.  Listen again… “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  And on the third day be raised.   Resurrection.  Jesus isn’t going to Jerusalem in search of death but in search of life.  New life.  Fullness of life.  Resurrected life.  Maybe this text is about not fearing death and those suffering moments in life that can feel like death, but once you start to fear death, it isn’t long before you start to fear life.

I know that it can sound trivial to say, but in life there is pain.  There is suffering.  So when Jesus asks his followers to take up their crosses and follow him into Jersualem not because Jesus wants to give us pain and suffering but because Jesus knows we already have pain and suffering.[2]  They are already part of our lives.  Part of the world.  And God loves the world.  So Jesus says take up your cross and follow me, we will go through this together in search of life.  So we take up our crosses because there are crosses to be taken up and what else is there to do?  The only other option is to deny that there are any crosses in this world, which as far as I am concerned is simply to fall into a fear of death, and thus a fear of life.  But to take up one’s cross is to embrace both the pain and suffering of the world and to embrace the hope of discovering life within it.  A full life is not one that is absent of suffering, but one that faces such suffering with the courage to search for life, resurrected life, in the midst of it.  Jesus is in the business of bring about life in the midst of death.

The path as disciples of Jesus is ours to choose, I guess.  But remember, try to save your life and you will lose it.  To be afraid of death is to be afraid of life.  When you fear death, you can walk right past the person in the park looking for gas money and miss the surge of life that comes from helping a stranger.  When you fear death, you can act as if the cancer isn’t there and miss the life-giving experience of telling your children and grandkids all the stories you’ve wanted to tell them before your heart beats its last.

So take up your cross if you choose to do so, whatever it may be.  Depression.  Job loss.  Addiction.  Busyness.  Sadness.  Why take up your cross?  Well

because we have crosses in our lives and what else are we supposed to do?  And as you walk in the crowd of others following Jesus and carrying their crosses, you just might bump into a person who has a cross like yours and who has found a way to carry it that makes it less painful.  Immediately you can feel the relief in your shoulders and your knees.  But also in your soul too.  So you pass the tip along and keep going…

If there is anything of God in these words, may they settle and take root in our life[3]…AMEN

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven – Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 79.

[2] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, p. 32.

[3] A closing to sermons taught to me by Alan Storey.


August 21 – Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20

Matthew 16:13-20

In our Gospel story for today, it sort of feels like Jesus confronts his disciples with the final test.  With the big question, “Who do you say that I am?”  And it seems to have the emphasis on the you.  Who do you say that I am?  The word can almost jump off the page like a big finger pointing straight at you.  When I was at the fair this week, I walked past a stand that was handing out gospel tracks and their sign read, “Do you know what you have done to Jesus?”  The implied message being – you killed him.  It is a scary thing to read.  It is a big pointed finger passing blame around – to make one feel bad enough that they will accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior so that they don’t feel so bad anymore.

I fear that this text can have that same effect.  Who do you say that I am?  It is kind of a scary question.  Have you ever been confronted by someone to talk about your faith?  Have you ever been asked to defend your faith?  It can be a scary thing.  I don’t know about you, but I start to clam up and hem and haw just trying to buy myself sometime until the perfect, authentic and original words come to mind.  Words that will settle my own heart and convince this person, or at least get them to go away.  But then the words never seem to come and I just settle on some answer that I have heard from someone else.  “Jesus is everything to me.”  “Jesus is the one who guides my life.”  “Jesus is the son of God.”  Words that I am not even sure I always believe or know what they mean.  What does it mean to say that Jesus is the son of God, but then also to say that Jesus is God?  To someone who has never heard of Jesus or been raised in the church, this doesn’t make any sense, and to be honest some days it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me either.  So after those encounters, I usually I can’t help but walk away feeling defeated and that the person challenging me got exactly what they were looking for – to poke holes in my faith.

When Jesus first confronts the disciples by asking them, “Who do people say that I am?”, the disciples respond, “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet!”  But this doesn’t seem to be what Jesus was looking for.  He seems to be disappointed in this response.  As if the response was nothing new or original or authentic, but was perhaps something that was clichéd or overused.  There was no blood, or feeling, or life in those previous answers.  And so Jesus rephrases his question, “No, no….who do you say that I am?”

Every week, a bunch of pastors get together and talk about the upcoming Sunday’s text.  This past week, one pastor confronted each of us, just like Jesus, and he said, “Okay, so who do you say that Jesus is?  And no using titles or religious language.”  And it was….hard.  We were basically silent.  We stumbled over words and phrases, none of which seemed satisfying, and eventually settled into silence.  It is hard, even for a room full of pastors, to speak about who Jesus is for you without using other people’s term or language.

So when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” I can only imagine that same silence settling over the group.  Perhaps they look around at each other wondering who will speak up.  Perhaps, like most of us when the teacher asks a question to the class, they look at the floor, trying to not make eye contact, afraid that they might be called out personally.  Eventually, out of the silence, Peter steps forward and calls him Messiah, which is apparently the right answer.  An answer in fact, that you and I as readers of Matthew’s gospel already knew.  The very first sentence reads, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah.”  But what does it mean to call Jesus the Messiah?  Even though Jesus seems satisfied with Peter’s response, Peter doesn’t exactly know either what it means to call Jesus the Messiah.

As Messiah, Jesus is going to save the world, but it is going to be backwards.  It’s not how anyone expects.

Jesus is not the Messiah that Peter is expecting him to be.  When Peter makes this confession, Jesus hasn’t done anything that looks like the Messiah.  The messiah was not expected to be a healer or a person of wisdom.  The Messiah was one who was going to come like a warrior with a sword, taking the down the oppressive powers.  He was going to be one who purifies, burning away the bad and the rotten parts of the world.

But instead, Jesus comes as a poor peasant, not a warrior.  And instead of being the one who purifies and throws out that which is bad and unclean, he sits with the unclean and has a meal with the sinners and the tax collects.  He draws near to them; he doesn’t throw them out.  And he certainly doesn’t topple and destroy the oppressive powers of the day.  Instead, he is the one who is destroyed.  Killed on a cross by the Roman regime.

Perhaps Jesus knows that he is not the Messiah that Peter is expecting.  In fact, in the next couple of verses Jesus is going to call Peter “satan.”  Jesus tells his disciple that he has to go to die in Jerusalem and Peter tries to tell Jesus that this can’t happen.  Because remember Peter thinks Jesus is going to be the warrior Messiah, the one who comes to defeat, not to be defeated.

Jesus is going to save the world, but it is going to be backwards.  Even though Jesus won’t be the Messiah that Peter is expecting, even though Peter gets it right but still sort of gets it wrong, Jesus still says to Peter, the one who will try to prevent him from being the kind of Messiah he must be, Peter the one who will deny that he ever knew Jesus three times before Jesus is crucified, to that Peter he says, “Blessed are you, Simon.  You are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church.”

Now here is your Greek lesson for the day.  When Jesus says this, there is a play on words that is happening here.  The Greek word for Peter is petros and it means stone, or pebble, a smaller piece of a larger rock.  The Greek word for rock is petra, which means a boulder, or a great big rock.  So Jesus says to Peter, “I am going to build my church on you, but you will be just one piece of a much larger foundation for my church.”[1]

And so it is for us.  Jesus is going to save the world but it is going to be backwards.  Jesus is going to build his church on people like you and I.  People who stumble to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  People who clam up and go silent when confronted with questions about our faith.

And the beautiful part of being a small part of a larger foundation is that what you do matters to God.  But also the future of God’s church also doesn’t rest completely on your shoulders, either.  We go through this together, helping each other out along the way.

I once heard the story about a man whose wife died the day before Easter.  As he sat through the worship service on Sunday morning, trumpets and brass were playing, banners were waving, and people were proclaiming, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”  How can I believe any of this, he thought.  How can I believe that God has defeated death when my wife has just encountered death?  But it was about halfway through the service when he realized that he didn’t have to believe in or celebrate Easter today.  In the presence of grief and in the absence of believe, he had a whole community of people standing around him who would be believe on his behalf.

God will build God’s church on you.  But the whole weight of the church does not rest on your shoulders.  We do this together.

At the beginning of the worship service, all of you were given a small stone.  If you are anything like me, you’ll likely throw it away before you leave church today.  Or perhaps you’ll carry it in your pocket.  Or maybe set it on your dresser.  Whatever you do with it, it has served its purpose if it reminds you, even for just this moment, that you are Peter, the stone.  And together we make up a larger rock upon which God will build God’s church and bring about hope for the world.  AMEN

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 73.

August 14 – Sermon on Matthew 15:10-20,21-28

Matthew 15:10-20, 21-28

In the summer of 2005, I was in Niagra Falls, NY leading a mission trip of middle school youth.  Our nights were free, so one night we headed over to see Niagra Falls.  As we were all getting ready to leave, the leader at this mission site said to us, “Remember, don’t take the first Main Street you see.  Take the second.”  So, off we go.  We are driving in a caravan of cars with Brittney Spears and Fergie playing on the ipod playlist.  Somewhere in the midst of our singing and laughing, I never saw that first Main street sign.  So naturally, when I do see a sign for Main street, I think to myself, “Remember, don’t take the first main street, take the second,” and I continue on ahead.  But while I am crossing this intersection, suddenly everything starts to slow down.  You know the feeling.  You start to look around and something just doesn’t seem right.  I look ahead and there aren’t any streets up ahead to turn on.  I look to my left and I see cars from our caravan driving in that direction.  And then…just in time, I look up and I see a sign just crossing over my windshield that says….Canadian Customs.  Welcome to Canada.

Two vans packed with middle school youth.  No passports, no identification, no permission from their parents saying, “Sure you can take my child to another country.”  We were headed straight for the border with no place to turn around.  And to top it all off, I had bright pink hair – which is a story for another day.  Nothing about this situation was good.  Internally, I started to panic.  My knees began to shake because I was so nervous.  I knew that we were about to cross a boundary that we were not allowed to cross.  There is a boundary between the United States and Canada and it’s called customs.  Unless you have the proper papers and permission, you just don’t cross it.  There is also a boundary between taking youth on a trip to New York and illegally taking them to Canada.  You just don’t cross it.

Now the line between the US and Canada maybe an imaginary invisible line, but it is still a boundary that all of us know.  And we have these lines and these boundaries all around us.  These subtle and unspoken rules that we are supposed to follow.  At Hy-Vee, this past week, I was standing in the check-out line.  Just as I was getting ready to put my items on the moving belt, a person stepped in front of me to look at the stack of magazines.  I thought to myself, “What on earth is this person doing?  Don’t they know I am next in line?”  This person had crossed a boundary that we all know is there.  If you have ever accidentally wandered into the wrong bathroom, then you know what it is like to cross a boundary, as you scurry out hoping no one saw you.  Parents and guardians have boundaries for their children.  “You can play on this side of the neighborhood,” they’ll say, “but no crossing the street into that ‘other’ part of the neighborhood.”  Democrat, republican.  Gay, straight.  Citizen, non-citizen.    Christian, Muslim.  Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. They are everywhere.  And they are all over our gospel story today too.

Jesus and the disciples have just entered the place called Tyre and Sidon.  Or perhaps I should say, they have just crossed the border into Tyre and Sidon.  This is Gentile, non-Jewish territory.  They don’t belong here.  Only five chapters early in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles.”  And now Jesus is leading them into the foreign and unclean place of Gentile territory.  You can imagine the nervous knees as the disciples tried to keep up with Jesus.  We’re not supposed to be here, they think.  This is enemy territory.  There is a boundary here.

And then out of bushes on the side of the road, comes this woman, a Canaanite woman our text says, hollering and waving her arms in the air at Jesus, yelling, “Have mercy on me, Lord.  Son of David, it’s my daughter.  She is sick.  I think it’s a demon.” And once again boundaries are being crossed, shattering like broken glass.  A woman was not supposed to behave this way, but was supposed to be reserved and quiet.  That’s a boundary.  A woman was not supposed to speak to a man, let alone make demands like she is – “Have mercy on me!” That’s a boundary.  And a Canaanite is certainly not supposed to interact with a Jew.  That’s boundary.  Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.  Every direction you turn, they are being crossed and broken.

In the midst of there shattered boundaries, Jesus does what he can to keep some civility during this chaos.  He does what his society and customs would expect.  But he also does what none of us would expect of him and what none of us want to hear – he ignores her.  He is silent to her cries.  To make matters worse, the disciples jump in, hollering, “Get rid of her!  She keeps screaming at us!”  Overwhelmed by everything that is happening and all of these boundaries being crossed, Jesus tries to reestablish some order by drawing one clear boundary.  Like a kid in a schoolyard fight, who grabs a stick and draws a line in the sand, Jesus says to this woman, “I was not sent for you.  I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  “But, Lord, please, help…” she cries.  And then, Jesus really puts his foot down.  “Lady, it is not fair for me to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  And there it is.  A clear boundary in the midst of all of these other broken boundaries.  Jesus drew a hard line in the sand, putting a wall between himself and this woman.

But then…but then…and I bet this happened faster than it seemed, I bet everything slowed down for this woman too….from somewhere…maybe a whisper in her ear or maybe just from her gut…who knows…this Canaanite  woman finds the perfect comeback.  One that turns Jesus’ argument on its head.  Just as Jesus and his disciples are turning away, she says, “You’re right, I might be a dog…but even dogs get to lick up the crumbs from the table.”  She takes the line the sand and she steps right over it. No passport, no permission slip.  She breaks right on through that last boundary and everything stops.  Either impressed or humiliated, Jesus  realized he was wrong and says, “Woman, your faith is great.  Your wish will be done for you.”  And immediately her daughter was healed.

This is our gospel story for today and it is a hard text.  It can be hard to hear.  Jesus calls woman a dog, which is not the image of Jesus so many of us carry with us.  It’s also hard to hear because, in this story, Jesus is wrong.  Which is also not the image of Jesus so many of us carry with us.  Jesus, our great teacher, becomes the student.  He is taught something and changes his mind.  Now for some of us, that just might shake our faith.  Jesus the student.  Jesus the one who got it wrong.  But maybe that’s how backwards God’s ways are.  That even the Son of God gets it wrong.

But now notice who gets it right.  It is the woman.  She’s the one with the punchline.  The line that stops everything in its tracks.  The woman who in ancient times and in not so ancient times has too often been pushed to the margins, left in the corner to be silent, kept out of the business meetings, told not to speak in church…that woman is suddenly the teacher.  The brave one who crosses a boundary for the sake of her daughter and for the sake of the world.  It is the woman  who knows that when God is around there is abundance of grace.  And God is everywhere.

That’s what this woman taught Jesus.  She teaches him that with God, there is enough love for everyone.  That Jesus is not called to serve only the people of Israel, but he is called to tear down that barrier, to cross over that boundary and to serve the whole world.  Jews and non-Jews.  Male and female.  And so on.

And if this woman can teach Jesus, maybe she can teach us too.  Maybe she can teach us that God’s love knows no boundary.  That God’s love has no use for customs officers or boarder patrols.  That in order to love us, God will break through the walls we build around our hearts.  And maybe this learning can have an effect on our lives. Whether it comes from a whisper in our ear or from our gut, maybe we can hear the call to step over and cross boundaries that prevent us from loving and caring for our neighbors.

When I was study at Saint Olaf College, over Spring Break one year, three students that many of us knew were hit and killed by a drunk driver.  It shocked the student body.  We couldn’t breathe.  At the memorial service, the campus pastors opened up some space for people to say anything they needed to say or to pray anything they needed to a pray.  As you could imagine, people started to stand up all over the place to pray for these three students who had died and their grieving families.  Some prayed for the friends.  Others expressed their anger and outrage that something like this could have happened.  But then, just near the end of this time of prayer, a young woman stood up timidly.  You could hear her nervousness as her voice trembled through her prayer.  “Heavenly Father,” she prayed, “I would just like to pray for the young man who was driving drunk that night and survived.  I can’t imagine the pain and regret he is feeling right and that he will live with for the rest of his.  Comfort him at this time too.”  The room was silent as she sat down. You could feel that she had crossed a boundary.  One that some of us weren’t sure we were ready to cross.  But you could also feel that she had single-handedly stretched the love and compassion of God wider than many of us knew it could be stretched.  Just far enough to wrapped it around this young man’s shoulders.  God broke through a boundary that night in the name of love.

I wonder what boundary God is calling us to break through?  Amen.

Sermon – Matthew 14:22-32

Matthew 14:22-32

I was once told by a mentor of mine…”Be wary of people who ‘know’ things.”  People who speak with such certainty and assurance that you can’t help but question their certainty.  We all know someone like this.  In fact, we might be someone like this at times.  They are the ones who know everything and speak with such confidence about everything in life that it drives you….crazy.  They give you advice when you don’t ask for it; they explain things that don’t really have an explanation.  Their confidence level is just a little too high to be believable.  Eventually, you start to see that all of it is a façade, a mask, something hiding their own great and deep insecurity.  What’s really sad is if you ever see a person like this fail at something or be proven wrong, you’ll see their confidence, their ability to know and do everything, drop like a stone in water.  Because their confidence was never that high to begin with.

This is how I have been seeing Peter in our gospel story, as one of those overly confident people.  Jesus and the disciples have just left the great feeding of five thousand people.  Jesus tells the disciples to get into the boat and go on ahead of him, while Jesus finally gets some time to himself.  While Jesus is off praying, the disciples are out in boat in the middle of the sea.  Each of them has one blistered hand on an ore and one on the bench their sitting on, as they bounce off wave after wave.  They just try to keep rowing so that the winds don’t push them backwards.  All night this lasts, until the early hours of the morning.  Until a time that people familiar with life on the sea call the fourth watch.[1]  It is the time when strange things start to happen.  In the darkness and mist, your eyes start to play tricks on you.  You start to see things that aren’t really there like rocks up ahead, or other ships headed right for you.  Or maybe even…a ghost.  Which is what the disciples thought they saw when Jesus came to them walking on water.  “It is a ghost!” they cry out.  And then like a parent comforting their child who just had a nightmare, Jesus says, “Shhh….take heart.  It’s okay.  It’s me.  Don’t be afraid.”

But then comes Peter, the know-it-all, the teacher’s pet, the show off, the one who always needs to be in the spot light.  Jesus has just said, “’s me. Don’t be afraid,” and along comes Peter who responds, “Oh yeah…prove it.  If it really is you, prove it by commanding me to come to you on the water.”  Which is such a funny thing to say if you think about it.  Notice how Peter didn’t say, “If it is you, make me walk on water like you.”  No, all Peter says is “Command me to come to you on the water.  I already know I can walk on water.  In fact, I can probably do it better than you, I just need you to ask me, so that I know it is you.”  But then, like so many of us, Peter comes face to face with his own failure.  Just after Peter has thrown his legs over the edge of the boat taken a few wobbly steps, big wind gust comes and nearly knocks him off his feet, and suddenly whatever it was that kept him up on the water begins to melt.  Frantically, he starts lifting his feet, up and down, up and down, trying to regain his footing, but it’s no use.  Peter, which means rock, is a stone in water.  He’s sinking.  And just as the water level creeps up to his neck, he thrusts out his hand and yells, “Lord, save me!”  And immediately, Jesus thrusts his hand out, latching on to Peter’s and pulling him into the boat.  And then comes the phrase that so many of us don’t know what to do with.  “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

I struggle with this phrase, because truth be told…I am a doubter.  I mask my confidence.  Thank goodness for Peter in this story, because I am Peter, because every day, I doubt too.  I doubt my belief in God.  My belief in the god revealed in Jesus.  I doubt the activity of God in my life and throughout the world.  And it often feels like sinking.  Some days, it’s faster then others, but it’s still a sinking feel.  And so every day, it seems that I have to rediscover my faith in God.  A famous trumpet player once said that each day he had to relearn how to play the trumpet. And some days are better than others.  I think the same is true with faith.  Everyday, we have to rediscover our own faith.  And some days are better than others.

So of course, Peter doubted.  He was never that confident to begin with.  Just like so many of us.  We’re never as confident and certain as we wished or present ourselves to be.  Never confident that we are valuable just the way we are.  Never certain about the path we’ve chosen in life.  Never certain in our faith.  We doubt ourselves.  But is this the doubt that Jesus is talking about?  Is Jesus talking about Peter doubting Peter’s own faith.  If it is, then all Peter needs to do is just have more faith and he will be able to walk on water.  It’s all about what Peter does for himself.  And if the gospel word from Jesus is that it is all about what we can do for ourselves, then we all might as well go home, lock the doors behind us, and throw away the key, because then there is no need for God.  But what if Peter’s doubt that Jesus mentions isn’t Peter’s own faith or his own ability to walk on water?  What if Peter doubted that Jesus would save him?  Or that he was even worth saving?

“Lord, save me!” Peter cries out.  You only say, “Lord, save me” if you think there might be a chance that you won’t be saved.  It is like when a parent is teaching their child how to ride a bike for the first time.  When the child starts to lose control, they call out, “Mom…dad!” out of fear that their parent hasn’t noticed them losing control.  It’s a way of saying, “Are you there, are you there!? Will you catch me?”  To which the parent says, “Shhh…it’s me.  I’m here.  Why did you doubt?”

What is so beautiful about this story is that it shows us that life of faith is not one of certainty, for we are doubters.  But the life of faith is a life of hope in the midst our own uncertainty.  Hope that God will be near to us and will save us from all that threatens us – depression, illness, pain, debt, broken relationships, fear, addiction, job loss, disappointment, even death.  Hope that God will be faithful to us even we aren’t – or maybe even when we can’t be – faith to God.  It is a hope that whether we call our God’s name or not, God will still grab us by the arm when we are sinking.

Today, we have the great joy of having not one, but two baptisms in our service.  When we bring a child to be baptized by God (because it is God who does the baptizing, by the way), we do not bring them into a life of certainty.  We bring them into a life of hope.   You see when a child is baptized, it doesn’t mean that all our fears go away.  Sam and Karen, Tina and Stuart, you’ll still wake up in the middle of the night to go and check on your sleeping Aston and Abigail.  In 15 years, you’ll still worry when it’s 10 past midnight and they haven’t come home from the party yet.  Baptism does not take away our fears with certainty, but gives us hope in the midst of uncertainty.  It gives us something to hold on to when the road ahead is unknown.

In baptism, like Peter in our gospel story today, we sink down into the water.  But also in baptism, just like Peter, Jesus reaches down and pulls us out.  In baptism we hear a promise that God has already given to us before we were even born.  I promise that says you do not need to be afraid anymore, even though I know you are afraid.  You do not need to doubt anymore, even though I know you doubt.  It’s okay.  We hear the promise that God will be faithful to us even when we struggle to be faithful to God.  We are turned into the chaotic waters of life, not away from them but into them, with the hope that we will discover fullness of life and depth of soul in it’s midst.

“Take heart,” Jesus says to his disciples and to us, “It is I, do not be afraid.”    AMEN


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, p. 103.







Sermon – Matthew 14:13-21

Matthew 14:13-21

Every Sunday we have four readings from Scripture that have been pre-selected by something called the Revised Common Lectionary.  It is a three-year cycle in which the first year focuses on the Gospel of Matthew, the second focuses on Mark and John, and the third year focuses on the Gospel of Luke.  Once those three years are up, we turn around and we start them again.  There are some real advantages to this common lectionary.  As the pastor, for one, it helps me to pick what to preach on each Sunday.  Instead of simply opening the Bible and preaching on wherever my finger lands, I have just four texts chosen for me from which I could preach on.  The other advantage is that pastors in the same town and even across the country are likely preaching on the same text.  Therefore, you, as the listener, could call up a church-going friend or family member and say, “What did your pastor say about the feeding of the 5,000?” and off you go talking about the sermons you heard.

But there is one really big disadvantage to this way of reading Scripture – it completely disrupts the Christian story.  The readings jump around all over the place, particularly in the Old Testament.  Last week we had a reading from 1 Kings, this week a reading from Isaiah.  Who can follow that story line?  It would be like taking all seven books of Harry Potter and reading random sections from each book to your children each night.  They’ll never quite know what’s going on in the story.  Over time, one might slowly be able to build a picture in their mind, just how a jigsaw puzzle eventually begins to create a picture, but there are a lot of empty spaces too.  When you don’t have a full picture of the story, you might miss what the text is really trying to say.  There might be details that are missing that are crucial to understanding a text.

Let’s take our reading from Matthew for today.  It begins…“Now when Jesus heard this…”  And stop right there.  When Jesus heard what?  What did Jesus just hear?  “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  But when the crowds heard it…”  And stop right there.  When the crowds heard what?  What is going on in this story!? It seems like there is something missing, doesn’t it?  But if we just quickly skim the section before this what is missing is actually just one verse before this.  Verse 12.  “His disciples came and took the body (of John the Baptist) and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.”  John the Baptist has just died.  That’s what’s going on.  That is what everyone is whispering about.  John the Baptist.  That’s Jesus’ friend, Jesus’ mentor.  John, the one who, with a hand on Jesus’ chest and one on his back, dipped Jesus into the waters of baptism at the river Jordan.  John, Jesus’ friend and mentor, the one who taught him and gave him guidance, has died.  And he didn’t die from old age or natural causes.  He was killed by Herod and the political superpower, Rome.

Let’s try and hear this text again with new eyes and ears.  “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.”  I suspect that we are no strangers to this feeling.  The feeling of losing someone so suddenly that your stomach leaps up into your throat and all you can do seek shelter in your own isolation.  Or perhaps you know the feeling of being with someone who is so deeply grieving that they just want to be by themselves and yet all you feel you can do is go after them and sit beside them silently, compassionately.  That’s what’s happening here.  The great crowd that has been following Jesus since all the way back to chapter 4 is showing compassion to a grieving Jesus.  Compassion.  It is a word that means “to feel with”, To feel the feelings of another person and to respond.

When Jesus heard of John’s death, he went to a deserted place – a desert place, an empty and dry desert place that is void of any life or hope. The perfect place for how Jesus was feeling – empty, hollow.  But when the crowds heard of John’s death, they knew weight of this and what it meant for him.  And so, without grabbing any food for the road, without any preparation, simply out of compassion they go to meet him in this desert place.  And this is just the beginning of our story for today.  It lays a foundation of profound grief but also profound compassion and now watch what happens as the story begins to swell and take on movement.

When Jesus takes his boat ashore and gets on land, he turns around and he sees this sea of people that has been right on his heels.  And after what I can only imagine was a wave of love and support that washed over him, he in return has compassion on them.  He begins to heal their sick and to care for them.  There is this mutual exchange of compassion and love that’s beginning to develop.  This beautiful moment of mutual care and support.

But then the disciples try and mess everything up.  Because they cannot see what is happening right in front of them.  They cannot see this beautiful moment between Jesus and this crowd of thousands of people.  All they can see is the dark and deserted, empty place surrounding them.  They begin to panic and say, “This…this is a deserted place and the hour is now late (and we know what happens out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night – it’s dangerous.) Send everyone away into the village where there are lights and places to eat.  It’s safer there.”  You see the disciples couldn’t see what had begun to happen.  They couldn’t see the light that had already started to glow around them.  This light, seeded by the compassionate exchange between Jesus and the crowd, that began to buzz and scatter the cold, darkness of the desert.  The disciples couldn’t see it.  So what does Jesus do?  He wraps them up in the middle of the action, like a kid whose been standing on the sideline all game, too afraid to play.  Jesus thrusts them into the center of the light.  Jesus says to the disciples, “They need not go away. (There is no need to flee this place anymore).  But they are hungry, so you give them something to eat.”  He empowers them to partake of the compassionate exchange by feeding these people.  Naturally they resist at first, as we all do when God is trying to open our eyes.  They say, “We have nothing here (remember this is a deserted and dead place, there is nothing here).  All we have is five loaves and two fish.”  And now comes one of my favorite parts of scripture.  Jesus asks the disciples for the bread and fish and then, in verse 19, he has the crowd sit down on….the grass.  Tell me, where did this grass come from?  This is a deserted place.  A desert place.  Dry and sandy.  Where did the grass come from?

Contrary to popular belief, the first thing to grow in this story isn’t the amount of bread and fish, but it is the grass.  The light that began to glow in the compassionate exchange was so bright that life begins to grow.  Even in the midst of desert and death, compassion brings about new life from the earth and from our hearts.  Just when the disciples think that there is nothing in this deserted place (no food, no light, only darkness), Jesus has them sit down on the grass.  Suddenly, it is no longer dry sand between their toes, it is the soft blades of living grass.  Life has begun to grow.  And now that the cat’s out of the bag, there is no stopping it.  Suddenly, everything begins to grow.  The amount of food, the disciples’ courage, and hope for the future.  An abundance of life all over the place.  So much so that twelve baskets of food were left over in fact, which means there was room for more.  More people.  There is always room for more people in the kingdom of God.  The miracle of this story isn’t that there was enough food for everyone.  The miracle is the abundant life that was found in such a dead and deserted place.  The abundant life that was created in the womb of compassion.

I am convinced.  Convinced that the life we are called to is one of compassion.  A life of feeling with another person.  Those who have ever felt unheard or not listen to know the incredible feeling, the life- and light-creating feeling, of having someone understand what you feel.  And it is that kind of compassion that has this miraculous quality in which it seems to grow more compassion.

When John the Baptist was killed, the temptation was to react, to respond in anger and hatred, to get even.  But the crowd responds with compassion, compassion toward Jesus, the one whose heart was broken.  And their compassion elicits compassion from Jesus and off we go.  The whole world bursts into life – even those desert places.

God calls us to a life of compassion because God is found in compassion.  And God is found in compassion because our God is compassionate, one who feels with us.  Ours is a suffering god who journeys alongside us through the deserted places of this world seeking bring about life.

May we be the ones who encounter this God of compassion this week.  And may we be the ones who reveal this God of compassion this week.  AMEN

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

I imagine that it is no secret to most of us that there are things and moments in life that are simply indescribable.  They are slippery and hard to put into words.  You just cannot put your finger on it.  So indescribable that we have to use other, more concrete and ordinary things to try and get at the experience of it.  The boy ran fast like a bullet.  The house was big like a castle.

Now one of those things in life that is slippery and hard to describe is love. Any 14 or 65 year old who is newly in love knows this.  You start to say and write things that desperately try to get at how you feel.  When I see her walking down the hall, it is like my stomach is doing back flips and my heart has fallen faint.  When I talk with him, it is like listening to the most soothing and relaxing music – I just melt.  There is the classic answer to the age-old question, “How do you know you are in love?”  I don’t know…it’s hard to describe…you just know.  Love is so hard to describe that you have to use more ordinary things to get at it.

I think heartbreak and loss are one of those moments in life too.  It demands something more ordinary then itself to try and get at what it is like.  A person whose spouse has died might says, “It is like a part of me died with him that day.”  Or a senior in high school whose girlfriend broke up with him just a week before prom might say, “It is like she ripped my heart out and stomped on it.”

There are things in life that are so indescribable that we have to use more ordinary things to try and understand it.  In our text today, the kingdom of Heaven is one of these things.  Hard to describe, slippery, difficult to put into words.  In this chapter alone, Jesus makes seven attempts at describing the kingdom of heaven.  The kingdom of heaven is like someone who put good seed in a field.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that grew into the greatest of trees.  The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who hides yeast or leaven into a bunch of flour.  The kingdom of heaven is like this…the kingdom of heaven is like that.  Over and over again, Jesus is trying to paint a picture of something you just can’t quite put your finger on.  The problem is that while comparisons are often helpful in revealing the indescribable, the way Jesus articulates the kingdom of heaven, it isn’t so much helpful as it is startling.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.  This sounds nice on first glance, but on second thought, it sounds weird.  Because it isn’t true.  Those of you who are farmers or gardeners may know that the mustard bush is not the greatest of shrubs and it does not become a tree.  Instead, it is this unsightly and uncontainable bush that is more like a weed that won’t go away.  Why would Jesus compare the kingdom of heaven to something so unexpected as a weed?

Again, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman hid and buried deep into a whole bunch of flour.  Now, upon first glance, there is nothing startling about this, until you realize that the yeast or leaven that Jesus is talking about is not the white powdery stuff that comes in little packets at Hy-Vee.  No, this yeast is a moldy piece of bread.  Moldy bread mixed in with flour to create more bread – try serving that at the next potluck with a little tent card saying, “bread made with moldy bread.”  You’ll have people skipping past you politely saying, “Ummm, no thank you, I’m good.”  Throughout scripture, yeast, this moldy piece of bread, has been used as a negative image, an image of corruption.  Why would Jesus compare the kingdom of heaven to something so unexpected as a moldy piece of bread?

To be honest, I am not sure what Jesus meant in these parables.  But I can’t help but wonder, if just like an earthy and ordinary mustard seed that is unexpectedly planted in a field like a weed and if just like an ordinary moldy piece of bread that is unexpectedly hidden in a bunch of flour, what if the kingdom of heaven is when ordinary things disrupt our lives in unexpected ways?  What if the kingdom of heaven stretches our imagination of how God is active in the world?

Just last week, I stumbled upon the kingdom of Heaven, I think.  Having run into a little bit of a banking and financial issue, I rushed into the nearest Wells Fargo with a sick feeling in my stomach.  I was paniced.  When I found the banker, who I had only met once before, he was getting up from his desk and leaving his office.  Maybe he was off to a meeting or lunch or something, but when I asked him if he could help, he didn’t hesitate to stop what he was doing and to help fix the situation.  He didn’t try to sell me anything.  He didn’t make me wait until he was finished with what he was doing.  He simply sat down and helped me through what turned out to be a banking mix up, and sent me on my way.  What if that is the kingdom of heaven…something unexpected buried within the ordinariness of life?  An ordinary guy at an ordinary job and an unexpected place for God to show up through generosity and care.  What if that is what the kingdom of Heaven is like?

Or what if the kingdom of Heaven is like Cassie Thomas, a young girl from Coon Rapids?  This summer, Cassie, a 10 year old, gathered up all of her toys and set them out on tables in her garage and sold them.  She sold all of her toys and with the profits, she plans to buy school supplies for children who cannot afford them.  An ordinary girl with ordinary toys and an unexpected place for God to show up.  What if that is what the kingdom of heaven is like?

There are things in our lives that are simply indescribable. So indescribable that we have to use more concrete and ordinary things to try and get at the experience of it.  And the kingdom of heaven is one of them.  So if you hear Jesus’ words today and are looking for the kingdom of heaven, I suggest you direct your eyes away from some far off, extraordinary place, and look for it among the ordinariness around you. The kingdom of heaven is as close as the nearest field and as ordinary as the ugly weed-like mustard bush sitting in the middle of it.  The kingdom of heaven is as close as the dough in a baker’s hands and as ordinary as the piece of moldy bread that gets mixed in.  Perhaps we all could look for the kingdom of Heaven this week.  We all could try and finish that sentence – “The kingdom of Heaven is like…”  Who knows what we will come up with?

Maybe the kingdom of Heaven is like the vulnerable and simple act of a father changing his child’s diaper.  Maybe the kingdom of Heaven is like forgiveness when it isn’t deserved. Or maybe the kingdom of Heaven is like the constant task of a business woman just trying to balance the books.  Try this week to finish that sentence, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and if you do, give me a call or send me an email.  Because this is one of the reasons why I am so excited to be here with you all – I am excited for us together seeing where we can discover and maybe even help to bring about the kingdom of Heaven.  But let’s not be too quick to finish that sentence.  This kingdom of Heaven is one of those things in life, just like love and loss, that is hard to name and hard to see at times.  God seems to show up in things that are so ordinary and all around us that we easily miss them.  But let’s keep our eyes open, for the kingdom of Heaven is near.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN