Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Boundless Mercy

Boundless Mercy
Matt. 15:15-31[1]
One of the unfortunate aspects of religion--all religion--is that it tends to engender an attitude of special privilege. Those who are a part of the group--whatever group it may be-- are God’s “chosen ones,” while those on the outside are rejected. It’s a tendency that runs the gamut of human religions. And one of the most tragic consequences of this kind of thinking is that if “we’re” God’s favorites and the others are outcasts, then we can treat them however we please. Or we can mistreat them however we please. Or we can even justify cruelty and violence against them. After all, “we” are on God’s side, and they are outside God’s love. At least that’s the line of thinking that all too often prevails
But the message of the Scriptures is that there is no one who is outside of God’s love. Time and time again, God’s “chosen ones” are startled and even offended by the boundless nature of God’s mercy toward all his children--and that means the whole human family. In the Gospel story, it seems that Jesus’ disciples weren’t much different. They wanted to send the crowd away and he said to feed them. He just finished telling them that their notions of “clean” and “unclean” as regards to food really don’t make one holy in God’s sight. One might think they would get the hint that maybe this kind of thinking also no longer applies to people. And yet, when they encountered a gentile woman who approached Jesus asking him to heal her daughter, they responded in typical fashion: “Tell her to leave. She is bothering us with all her begging” (Mt. 15:23, NLT).
The interaction with Jesus that follows is nothing if not confusing. We would expect Jesus to immediately offer her assistance. But instead he ignored her. And when she continued to ask him for help, he responded in a strange way: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). It sounds like Jesus is saying he’s here for God’s favorites and outsiders have to go to the back of the line! That doesn’t seem to be consistent with what we hear from Jesus in the rest of the Gospels. And when the woman still continued to ask for his help, he seemed to insult her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mt. 15:26). Now we’ve moved past favorites and outsiders; now we’re calling those who are “other” stray dogs![2]
All of this is very confusing, mainly because it is so out of character not only with Jesus but also with the rest of the Scriptures. Even biblical scholars don’t quite know what to make of it. Some think Jesus was testing the woman to see if her faith was genuine. But I don’t buy that. When she approached him, she not only called him “Son of David,” she also called him “Lord.” As one scholar points out, she not only acknowledged him as the Messiah (while the Jewish leaders rejected that claim), she also called him “Lord,” which only those with genuine faith do in Matthew’s Gospel.[3] And when he ignored her she came and assumed a posture of worship by kneeling before him. I don’t think there is any question about this woman’s faith in Jesus.
Others have suggested that maybe this was a test for Jesus. They take him literally when he says that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and assume that Jesus believed he was not meant to share God’s blessings with gentiles.[4] And yet this flies in the face of most of what we learn about Jesus in the Gospels. It seems fairly clear that Jesus knew his mission was to benefit the whole world, not just the Jewish people. The only option left is to conclude that there must have been some irony in those confusing statements Jesus made to the woman.
So why this elaborate and confusing interaction. Well, the only people left to test are the disciples. And, in fact, I think that this whole strange interaction between Jesus and this desperate mother was learning opportunity for the disciples who wanted to send her away. I think Jesus was trying to demonstrate in a dramatic way the boundless nature of God’s mercy. I think that the sentiments he expressed were not his, but rather he knew these were the kinds of things that they were thinking. They were thinking that he was a Jewish savior, not a savior for the world. They were thinking that it wasn’t right to take what belonged to the Jewish people and share it with Gentiles, who in their minds were no better than stray dogs.[5] And the reason why Jesus staged this dramatic confrontation was so that they could see that her faith was greater than many of those among the Jewish people who had rejected him outright!
Unfortunately, things haven’t changed much from that day until now. We still tend to think that “we” are God’s favorites and “they” are outside God’s mercy. We’re very much like Jesus’ disciples in lacking the understanding that God’s mercy is truly boundless. We need to be reminded of that, sometimes again and again. I find it interesting that the Gospel goes on to tell the story of a great crowd of people who came to Jesus with people suffering from all kinds of illnesses. While there probably were some Jewish people among the crowd, there were just as many Gentiles, because he was still in “foreign” country. And Jesus healed them all, without checking the color of their skin or their belief system, or their identity papers, or any of the other things we still use to divide between “us” and “them.” Sometimes it takes a dramatic encounter like the one with this woman of great faith to really learn the lesson that God’s mercy is truly boundless. But once we’ve learned it, we cannot help but share with others the boundless mercy God has given us. In fact, I would say that is precisely our calling.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/17/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 176.
[3] Cf. John P. Meier, “Matthew 15:21-28,” Interpretation 40 (Oct 1986), 398: “In Matthew, ‘Lord’ is addressed to Jesus only by true believers, and ‘Son of David’ is used by the marginalized of society, the no-accounts who recognize the Messiah of Israel, whom the leaders of Israel reject.” Cf. also Hare, Matthew, 178.
[4] Cf. J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Law In The New Testament: The Syro-Phoenician Woman And The Centurion Of Capernaum,” in Novum Testamentum 15 (July 1973), p. 169: “Would it not compromise his mission if he neglected the objects of it, God’s ‘household’—would this not be disobedience to God? Jesus is not merely testing her faith—he is represented as in a quandary.” Cf. also Judith Gundry-Volf, “Spirit, Mercy, And The Other,” in Theology Today 51 (Jan 1995): 517-18; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 111, 146; and Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 442-43.
[5] Cf. Robert W. Dahlen, “The Savior and the Dog: An Exercise in Hearing,” Word & World 17 (Summer 1997) : 270, where he points out that “the only thing worse than Canaan’s dogs were the black hogs that rooted through the garbage outside every Gentile town.” Contrast Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary, 340, where he argues that this is “a household image and has nothing to do with the despised wild dogs. Only with the household pet does the contrast between dogs and children make sense.”

Step Out of the Boat

Step Out of the Boat
Matt. 14:22-33[1]
I’m not really much of a risk-taker. You may think it strange for someone who just moved here from Houston to say that. But it’s true. Even though I’ve moved around a fair bit, I’ve spent my whole life looking for a place where I could just settle down. Part of the reason for that is I much prefer to play it safe than to take risks. And yet life itself is a risk--not to mention the Christian life. The only way to “play it safe” in life is not to play at all. That’s certainly an option, but it’s not a very attractive one. You may avoid getting hurt, or being humiliated, or facing rejection, or dealing with failure. But you also miss out on the joy and goodness of life that can catch you by surprise when you least expect it. And you really can’t practice the kind of discipleship that Jesus calls us all to live without taking risks.
The Apostle Peter seems to be the very embodiment of a risk-taker. Throughout the Gospels, it seems that Peter is the one who leaps before he looks. Our Gospel lesson for today is no exception. After spending a night struggling on the Sea of Galilee against a contrary wind, Peter and the disciples were confronted with what appeared to them as a terrifying sight--a ghost walking on the water coming towards them. But it was no ghost at all. It was Jesus himself, walking on the water. Despite their fears, Jesus reassured them immediately, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:27).[2] And of course, Peter, being Peter, blurted out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (14:28). And Jesus simply said, “Come.”
So he did. Peter stepped out of the boat in the middle of a storm. Talk about taking a risk! They were having a hard enough time keeping the boat afloat. But to actually step out of that boat was quite a bold step. And the Scripture says he started walking on the water also! It’s one thing for Jesus to walk on the water, but for Peter, ordinary, impulsive, flawed Peter to actually walk on the water seems beyond incredible. Of course, it was short-lived. As the Scripture says, when Peter “noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (14:30). That sounds more like something we can understand. And, naturally, Jesus grabbed him and kept him from going under. He gently pointed out Peter’s mistake, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (14:31).[3]
I must confess, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. I’ve never known anybody who could walk on water. And I certainly can’t do it! This is another one of those miracles in the Gospels that stretches our imagination. And because of that, it has inspired all kinds of rationalizations.[4] Some have said Jesus was walking on a sand bar, or that he was actually walking on the shore, and that it only appeared to the disciples as if he was walking on water. But of course all that leaves out a few details. First, these were men who made their living on the water. I think they could tell the difference between someone walking on water and someone walking on a sand bar! Secondly, if Jesus was walking on some sort of firm ground, I have to wonder why in the world would he have invited Peter to try walking on water! And thirdly, if Jesus wasn’t walking on the water, what was Peter walking on? I don’t really think any of the so-called “rational” explanations of what “really” happened do justice to this Gospel story.
But I think that whether or not we can explain this story is beside the point. It seems to me at least one of the details we’re meant to notice is the fact that Peter, a man who was no stranger to storms on the Sea of Galilee, actually got out of a perfectly good boat simply because Jesus told him to “Come”! As I’ve mentioned, Peter seems to be something of a risk-taker. Even though Peter the risk-taker has eyes to see the waves and ears to hear the wind howling around him, I think the astounding thing is that he stepped out of the boat in the first place.[5] Who does that kind of thing?
We might be tempted to think that this was the Apostle Peter, and so he must have had a special kind of faith that enabled him to take risks that the rest of us don’t normally take. But let me remind you that this is also the same Peter who denied even knowing Jesus not once but three times. I don’t think Peter or the other Apostles had any kind of special faith that was any different from the faith the rest of us have.[6] What made them special was that when they were called upon by Jesus to do something that was risky, or pushed their boundaries, or even may have seemed not to make any sense, they stepped up and did it.[7]
I think this is the challenge that this story presents to us all. Many people these days seem to think that the Christian life is a way to play it safe. They see it as a means of ensuring that their lives will have the kinds of positive outcomes they want--a stable family, a successful career, a happy life. But if we pay close attention to those first disciples of Jesus and what happened to them, we have to realize that the Christian life is incredibly risky. If we decide to follow Jesus, we may very well be called upon to “step out of the boat,” whatever that boat may look like, and do something that takes all the faith and courage we can muster.[8] In fact, I would say that if we take the Christian life seriously, we can pretty well bet on the fact that at some point we will be challenged to “step out of the boat.” My prayer is that when that happens, we’ll have the faith and the courage to do so.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/10/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Intepreters Bible VIII:328, where he points out that Jesus’ “It is I” is actually simply “I am,” which evokes God’s self-identification in Exod. 3:13-15.
[3] Amy B. Hunter, “Stepping Out of the Boat,” The Christian Century (July 26, 2005):19 interprets Jesus’ words in terms of “You were doing it! You had it! Don't lose that!” She says, “Faith is never settled once for all. I grasp God, or more accurately, for a moment I realize that God grasps me, and then I lose that knowledge. I never get to check off  ‘have faith’ on my list of accomplishments.”
[4] Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 168.
[5] Cf. Hare, Matthew, 169-70: this story “graphically depicts what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt.” Contrast Boring, “Gospel of Matthew,” NIB VIII:328-330, where he suggests that Peter’s desire to step out of the boat was to put Jesus to the test, and reflects a lack of faith.
[6] Cf. Beverly R. Gaventa, “Doubt and Fear,” The Christian Century (July 14-21,1993): 709, “The variety of faith granted to human beings does not banish fear. No amount of moralizing or pleading will make it so. Faith does, however, teach us whose name to call and who waits to calm us, for faith knows who is powerful over the deep of our fears as over the deep of the waters.”
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:538. He says, “Faith is not obedience, but as obedience is not obedience without faith, faith is not faith without obedience. They belong together, .... Peter and all of them did believe, and therefore they did at once and self-evidently that which was commanded.”
[8] Cf. Joanna M. Adams, “Faith and Fear,” Journal for Preachers 19 (Pentecost 1996): 28, “Faith is not the absence of fear, but the courage to walk through the fear; to take the hand that is offered. To be courageous is not to be fearless; it is to be able to act in spite of fear.”

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

You Give to Them

You Give to Them
Matthew 14:13-21[1]
I’m afraid that the prevalence of visual media in our world hasn’t always had a positive effect on us. It is truly amazing to be able to see developing news stories from around the world as they are happening. The technology surrounding movie making has moved into warp speed with computer-aided graphics. Many of us take High Definition TV for granted these days. But I’m afraid that all that “watching” has made us more of a nation of “spectators” than ever before. Think about it: would you rather play a baseball game or watch a baseball game. I won’t even ask if you’d rather play a baseball game or play baseball on a video game! It may depend on your personality, and what you like to do, but for many of us, we would prefer to sit in our comfortable chairs and watch than to take an active role in life.
 It seems to me that our Gospel lesson addresses this problem to some extent. Jesus has been teaching a huge crowd: 5000 men, not counting women and children. And at the end of the day, his disciples offer what seems to be a very practical suggestion. They’re in the middle of nowhere and it’s getting time for the evening meal. Common sense would dictate that Jesus should dismiss the crowd so they can find something to eat in the surrounding towns and villages. Sounds very practical. It would seem to be the sensible thing to do. But Jesus won’t have anything to do with it! He tells them, “you give them something to eat” (Matt. 14:16)!
Of course, the disciples respond in predictable way: they ask how they could possibly feed such a huge crowd with the little food they had with them. On the surface of things it would seem impossible. But in one respect, I think Jesus might have been trying to teach them something here. They had seen him work miracles. I’m sure they had been amazed and thrilled by his miracles. And at every turn, they probably wondered whether Jesus was going to work another miracle. But they had become spectators, instead of taking an active role in the compassion of the God’s Kingdom that Jesus constantly called them to fulfill. And so in this unusual situation he challenges them to step out of their spectator role and to embrace a more active stance in their discipleship.
The story that follows is intriguing, because although it is the only miracle of Jesus recounted by all four Gospels, there is also no mention of what actually happened to make the five loaves and two fish feed such a massive crowd!  Some have suggested that the example of generosity inspired those in the crowd to share their food with others.  We don’t know that.  Popular movies have depicted it as an instantaneous miracle—Jesus lifts the food in a basket to heaven to bless it, and when he brings it down the basket is overflowing with loaves and fishes.  But we don’t know that either.  We really don’t know and may never be able to explain how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish.[2]
What we do know is that initially the disciples wanted to send the crowds away.  After all, the whole reason why they got in the boat and went to a deserted place was to be alone.  Perhaps, in their characteristic “little faith,” they were afraid there would not be enough food.[3]  Probably a pretty reasonable concern!  At the end of the day, all that we really know about this miracle is that Jesus gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 
This brings no closer to explaining this story. But I wonder if it could be that it was in the act of the disciples being willing to step out of the relative comfort of a spectator role and taking a more active role in the work of the Kingdom that the miracle occurred.[4]  We still don’t know that for sure, but it does seem significant that the disciples who wanted to send everybody away turned around and served their food to the hungry crowds.  And it would seem that the miracle happened somehow in the giving.  By stepping out of a spectator stance and taking an active role, the disciples became channels for God’s miraculous work.  Perhaps one of the lessons is that true miracles happen in ways we can never explain. 
We’ll probably never know for sure exactly what happened that day by the Sea of Galilee.  But I think we can know that when we stay comfortably on the sidelines, adopting the role of a spectator, not much happens. When we get stuck in our fears that there will not be enough or perhaps what we have to give isn’t good enough, all there will ever be is a bunch of hungry people.[5] When we just want to send others away to fend themselves, withholding the loving kindness and compassion that we have been so generously given, we forfeit our role as Jesus’ followers.
On the other hand, when we let go any fears about our own inadequacy, as the Scripture lesson dramatically illustrates, even the little that we have can become more than enough. I’m going to let you in on a secret: I’m not particularly comfortable being the center of attention. You may find that hard to believe, since I’ve been preaching since I was 17 years old. AS it happens, the path of my discipleship has taken me to the place where I’m constantly in the limelight. There are many Sundays when I think my sermon isn’t good enough. But I offer the best I have, and I’ve found that God uses it in his own way. I think that’s part of what Jesus wants us all to learn from this miracle: when we step up and follow the call to serve the Kingdom of God, God takes what we have to offer and uses it to do more than we can imagine.[6]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/3/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 418. Douglas Hare, Matthew, 165, says that all the efforts to “explain” the miracle “hardly do justice to the story in the Gospels.”
[3] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible 8:324; Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A commentary, 314.
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:447, where he says that Jesus feeds the multitude “with the little that the apostles themselves have to offer them, and all that truly remains for them is to deliver and offer the much that He gives in the form of the little that they have to give.”
[5] In fact, Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., and Katharyn L. Waldron, “Jesus Feeding the Hungry: Miracle or Mandate,” The Living Pulpit (Jan 2007):7, in light of the ongoing crisis of homelessness and hunger around the world ask about a similar Gospel lesson, “When Jesus fed ‘about four thousand’ hungry people who had been with him in a ‘deserted place’ for three days (Mk 8:1-9), was this simply a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish? Or was the miracle a mandate to believers throughout the ages to feed the hungry?”
[6] Cf. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 419: “The miracle typifies the full and complete blessing of humanity in the meeting of human need and the experience of ultimate well-being, universal shalom. The feeding of the multitude is thus the harbinger of good news for Matthew’s church and for Christians of every era.”