The parables in which Jesus sends people to hell aren’t my favorite. Nor when he says, Many are called, few are chosen!
Things around here are bad enough, I shout at no one in particular, when I’m supposed to be studying. Jesus himself sounds different now, here in the third week of Lent, Year One in the Narrative Lectionary. (Jesus didn’t choose the year, we assigned him.)
He sounds different because he’s talking to a different set of folks. He’s in Jerusalem now. Instead of disciples, he’s speaking to spies – spies who are taking notes. But not for an exam; for evidence, building a case against this Galilean rabbi they suspect of inciting peasants to rebellion against Rome.
They are defenders of their faith, they believe. Even though his crowds have changed, Jesus’s format hasn’t. Still parables, same theme: the overwhelming, never-ending, precious grace of God. But grace sounds different preached in hostile places which, interestingly, are religious spaces. Grace is now stripped down to subtext and cloaked in judgment.
Let’s pray: Learning to receive your grace as is, O God; to let ourselves be welcomed as we are – the good, the bad, the weird, the embarrassing, the broken; to accept your grace as it is, O God – absolutely just: this is the challenge of our faith, our prayers, and our life together. Amen.
I went to seminary in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, to a seminary when and where – I kid you not! – there were spies in my theology classes. Russians? Nooooooooo. The NSA? Nooooooooo. The fundamentalist contingent of the Southern Baptist Convention? Yesssssss.
Southern Baptist spies spying on a Southern Baptist seminary. Yessssss. Literally – of course! (You’d have to be there to get that joke!) There were men who quit their day jobs, got endorsements from their home churches, enrolled at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and moved their families to Louisville, to serve as agents in the project (or conspiracy, depending on your perspective) to take over the entire SBC leadership, including the boards and faculties of the seven seminaries – since, where is the liberal menace always rooted? The academy. And no one was more dangerous to the SBC, apparently, than my seminary professors. Which is hysterical to anyone who has ever met ANY seminary professors.
It makes me laugh now, but at the time it was such a big thing. The profound violation. Classrooms are sacred space. Some professors were so badly shaken by it. Others were so righteously angry and awesomely brave. They ALWAYS knew who the spies were. Frank Tupper would say, “Son, come put your tape recorder on my lectern today. Your bosses won’t want to miss this!”
Jesus’s spies knew he was on to them too. Matthew says so in chapter 21, when Jesus told them tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. It wasn’t a compliment. In fact it was, just not to them. They wanted to arrest him. But in addition to being offended and mad, they were cowards, afraid their base would turn on them. But Jesus has come for a fight with the enemies of God’s unconditional grace, and a fight he will have.
So pours up a third parable. And with it these spies find their spines. What happens when the misery we fear is more agitating than the misery we have? We change. With this parable about a wedding, the spies change – from wanting to arrest Jesus to an active, organized plan involving multiple actors and engagements, narrated over the remaining chapters of Matthew’s gospel, as well told as a BBC crime series. In all their secret meetings and plot twists, not once do Jesus’s enemies even suspect they are the ones being played.
The wedding supper – THE Bible party of parties: food, wine, food, wine, and more food. The wrap-up image for the entire Christian Bible is a wedding supper hosted by a king for the Lamb and his bride, in Revelation, chapter 21. Allegory through and through, of course, written by the Apostle John who opens Jesus’s public ministry at a wedding – the wedding at Cana. Wine. Wine. And more wine. Because for all that God has done so far, the best is yet to be. Just like when our children marry, we know that life will carry on, beyond the border of our own.
Once there was a human king, Jesus’s story begins, whose son was getting married. All the A-list people in town were invited, but no one wanted to go. So they politely declined. The king put out a second invite, this time including the menu, and “ gosh darn if I don’t have to work that day,” said nearly everyone on the A-list. The rest were so offended to be asked again, they seized and killed the messengers, lest the king not take the hint this time. “Not only do we not want to come to your party, sir, we don’t want to be invited!”
To what might you be invited, that the invitation itself would offend you, make you want to kill the mailman? The king took the hint. Matthew says he was enraged, called up his army to wipe out those murderers and burn the city down. Yikes! Can you think of anyone who might actually have done a thing like that? Rome, right? In 70 CE? Why might Matthew refer to Rome in the middle of a Jesus parable? Hang on to that for later….
Having annihilated his A-list guests, the kings puts out his third invitation – anyone still breathing, good and bad alike. He has found his people, the wedding hall is jammed – with Baptists, no doubt; none are more faithful when free food is at stake. Folks are dancing and eating and laughing. Everyone is dressed to the nines. The bartenders are busy. The caterers are busy. But there is this one guy, off by himself . . . looking sketchy. You know the look, when someone seems not to know where they are. Have you ever been that person?
This isn’t my story, but my good friend’s. He is so open and unpretentious and crazy, things are always happening to him. He was dropping off his kid for a class at Ivy Tech, and they had to hunt for the room it was in. As he was leaving, he heard an event going on and he recognized the piano music. The musician was a friend of his, so naturally, he thought he’d say Hi. Well, then he noticed this awesome buffet, so he got a plate.
Then he saw someone he knew and started talking to them, and they said, “Wow, I’m so surprised to see you here.” And he was like all, “Oh yeah, I heard so-and-so playing piano. This is so cool.” Then someone called the room to attention and started talking. And my hilarious, naïve friend realized he was at a fancy political fundraiser to which everyone but him had been invited and was expected to write a check. So he had to casually work his way to a side door and get out without looking like he’d just figured out that he wasn’t supposed to be there.
I do not know how the sketchy man in the parable got in without a wedding robe. But he did. And he was the only one. “How did you get in here dressed like this, friend?” The implication being that everyone else did have a wedding robe, whatever that means, that good and bad alike had come through the front door and the changing room where the robes were handed out.
Maybe he slipped through the locker room in his street clothes. Or maybe came through some other door, having no idea what he’d been invited to. The question just hangs there, “How did you get in here, friend?” Friend doesn’t say a word. Speechless, goes the text. The parable turns mean. Bind him hand and foot. Toss him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Many are called; few are chosen.
And we are left to figure out what to do with that. Thoughts? Either the king is a sociopath or something else is going on – something that lands this speechless guy in street clothes in the same place as all those folks who refused the first two invitations. Any ideas? ‘Cause I’ve got no answers.
I have one idea. Working backwards I notice that in this parable and both parables in chapter 21, Jesus sorts characters into two groups: receivers and rejecters – sons receiving or rejecting direction from their father; workers receiving and rejecting orders from their master; guests rejecting and receiving invitations to a feast.
Some promise fealty, then aren’t faithful. Others make no such promise, then turn out to be faithful. Is that what Jesus means by good and bad alike? The disciples who think they will go to the cross with Jesus, but don’t. The Pharisees who oppose him, but end up believing he is the Christ? What we do know is that finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, the wedding hall was full. The kingdom of God, that is. Everyone is there.
Does Jesus mean us to imagine no one is any place else? That this party is all there is anywhere? That everyone who ever lived and breathed is now included in the good and bad alike? So that every person everywhere finds themselves tempted to move to the music of grace, because there is no such thing as saying no? as saying no to grace? But there he stands, eating his vegan snack, refusing to dance. And God will not force him. Because a truly graceful God wouldn’t MAKE us accept grace we didn’t want.
See, I do kind of get a guy who goes to a party and then realizes it’s not the party that he thought it was. I tell myself I’m all for this all-inclusive grace. Then you know what happens? I get seated at a table with this very nice pastor who starts telling me all about his ventriloquist ministry – I promise I am not making this up – and I am nodding and smiling, but inside I am just dying. I am all sweaty and nervous, and I feel guilty because I feel so embarrassed about preaching in the first place and when you add in ventriloquism I just can’t stand it.
So I totally get somebody looking around at who else has been invited to this gig and thinking Oh man, and then feeling like a jerk for thinking Oh man. And if they understood him, which they clearly did, it’s no wonder these spies listening to Jesus got so upset. Matthew calls them chief priests and Pharisees, but that’s probably just Matthew’s veiled way – his own parable language for Jewish Christians who didn’t want to party with Gentiles. Can you baa-leeve how they let their goat cheese touch their hamburgers? Seriously, how gross is that?
The parable does turn mean, but only after the guest tries to rewrite the invitation, so that it’s for whatever party he thinks he’d like better than this one. “How did you get in here, friend?” For him to say a word is to admit he is where he is – to accept the invitation as is! Because there is no language for saying No to a party he’s already at.
The words are harsh for sure: seized and bound; weeping; gnashing teeth. They’re Bible talk for hell – the only place God isn’t. Also known as nowhere. Darkness, though that’s a word I’d trade for emptiness. Where God isn’t, is the grace-less place, the accommodation of the ever-graceful God who won’t force grace upon us even when, once tasted, grace isn’t what we want – if you can imagine that.
Would you pray with me?
I've had my nails done twice a month by the same person for years. She's fewer than ten years younger than me. She works seven days a week, ten hours a day on six days of the week, six hours every Sunday. So does her husband, who also works at the same salon. They have a sixth-grade daughter. Every other year she takes a month off to visit her parents in Vietnam. Every other trip (every four years), the whole family – three people – can go. For the past several months she has been in treatment for breast cancer. She had another surgery on Thursday and was at work yesterday.
I tell you this, to remind ourselves that in this economy most of us showed up last and got paid first. And yet, when we hear it read out loud, with whom do we most identify? If you aren't sure, then say out loud right now the thought that first comes to mind: Some worked all day, some worked an hour. “Wow, that is so not . . . FAIR?” And there it is. The granddaddy of all bad words: FFFFFFFFAIR. We read it as if we work 67 manual labor hours a week. As if we are the ones breaking our backs for minimum wage. As if we've earned everything we call our own. Maybe today we could take another listen and see what else might ring true.
Let's pray. We have so much – most of all privilege and opportunity. May our gratitude take the shape of generosity – of spirit and material things too.
This parable starts out much like the one last week: Jesus gives a teaching the disciples don't understand. Then Peter, having never heard the saying, Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt, pipes up as their spokesman. In this case, Jesus has been talking about the difficulty rich people have in the kingdom of God. The disciples are dismayed by this, since they had always been taught that being rich was a sign of God's preference. To their dismay, Jesus says, “I know, right? But what is impossible for humans is possible for God.” And Peter says, “Okay look, we have left everything and followed you. What, then, will we have?” – Peter’s version of “ Hey, that's not fair!”
It just makes me cringy – like some episodes of The Office, when Michael Scott is especially clueless – ‘cause you know Jesus is about to dog him with something painful. And then we end up realizing we are just as confused and clueless as the disciples and as cringy as Peter. A landowner needs grape pickers. Backbreaking work, which is why I picked this photo for our bulletin cover. At the Oliver vineyards, the pickers don't have to carry them like this; tractors pull carts through the rows. I doubt Palestinian pickers use those even now.
You know the details: the landowner hired workers at four different times throughout the day. At evening when it was time to pay, he first paid the ones who'd come to work last. Paid them the same as he'd promised to pay the ones he'd hired first. We aren't given to know what the 12 noon and three o'clock shifts got. I assume the same – a denarius, 20 cents, enough to feed a family for a day. The ones with tenure quickly do the math, they will get $2.40! More than a week of groceries!!
Turns out, no. They got what they negotiated – 20 cents. And when they received it, what do these lucky workers do? Grumble, the Bible says. They grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Isn't that just like the labor class? Agree to certain terms, then grumble about it later? They weren't grumbling when they thought they'd get paid more.
But now that they are getting what they were told they'd get, suddenly it seems like so much less. Now the economics of this are real. Should the landowner pay whatever he wants to his pickers? Is that what we believe? But now that they are getting the same as the one-hour workers, it feels wrong, unjust. Why? Take the money out of it. Now, why? For no other reason than that people they think less of are being paid the same as them. And they cannot stand it. You have made them equal to us.
Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, the cross. We have left everything, Peter thinks, the way recent college graduates think they worked hard in college. He hasn't. But he will. Sit with that a minute. Or a year. You have made them equal to us. Who do you want not made equal to yourself? White supremacists? Because if the story hits us as, “Wow, that is so not fair that the people who hardly worked got paid as much as the ones who worked all day,” then, friends, there has got to be someone.
In that first story I told, about Than (not her real name) – I suspect her reaction to this story would also be, “Wow that's not fair!” since she lives this story every time I waltz in there for my little “Me Time.” We chat about our families and cooking, but I'm under no illusions who I am to her. She calls me Ahn, but Bread and butter might as well be my name.
Like last week's parable, Jesus chooses money to teach us the math of grace, the currency that can't be earned. You'll never give up enough to earn it, Peter, but if you will listen to what I'm telling you and watch what I am showing you, you might just learn to trade in it this side of heaven. What is it that Jesus needs us to hear? Let’s start again. The landowner hired four crews that day. Assuming the work day was twelve hours (grape harvest season in Galilee June/July), Crew One worked twelve hours, Crew Two worked six hours, Crew Three worked three hours, and Crew Four worked one hour. Everyone got their twenty cents.
Save the landowner, all of those workers were unemployed when they got out of bed that morning. Yet by 6 PM, Crew One had promoted themselves to shareholders! They aren't jealous of Crew Four, are they? Of whom are they jealous? It says plainly in verse 15. Are you jealous because I am generous? They're jealous of the landowner, of his power to decide who gets what.
Peter doesn't want Jesus to decide what Peter gets. Peter wants to decide what Peter gets. But not just Peter – everyone else too. I think like I’m Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I know what should be done to everyone about everything! Just like I love being generous. It makes me feel wonderful to be generous, to tip, to help, to share. I'm not bragging, I'm confessing. Because the generous one is the one who has and the one who decides who gets what I have. To be generous is to be powerful, even if that generosity is well meant and comes from a desire to love Jesus. To love being generous is also to covet, in some way, power over other people that doesn't belong to me. Or us. Crew One says, you have made them equal to us. Wow, does that sting!
For all our talk about equality and justice, wow, does that sting! It stings me that my first reaction to this story is not, “How awesome that the latecomers got to feed their kids the next day too!” But even more, it stings that it has taken so long to understand, “Wow, I AM one of the latecomers.” This parable is first and foremost for Peter and his brothers, who for all their grumbling would have nothing were it not for Jesus having come along and found them when they were day-laboring fishermen. And it is for us, who can claim no better apart from the grace of God.
Not one of us got here by ourselves, amen? Most of us get way more credit than we deserve. Amen? Any of you ever say to yourselves, if these people knew what a hack I am at this? The hardest thing about the parable may not be that “the last shall be first,” but rather, at the end of the day the last and the first are exactly the same. And our task is to learn to live, to walk and to talk, to ourselves and one another, convinced it's true.
Would you pray with me?
There once was a billionaire who shook down his neighbor – threatened his life! – for a tiny debt, for one six-hundred-thousandth of the amount he had already inherited that same day. For his wickedness the billionaire was arrested and given a life sentence of hard labor. The story is made up, of course, by Jesus. He called it a parable of what the kingdom of God is like. He told it in response to Peter's question about exactly how forgiving Jesus expects church people to be toward one another. Jesus told a made-up story, and church people have been working the numbers ever since.
Let's pray that grace might come to us like rain, soaking us through, saturating every nook and cranny of our existence, overwhelming our capacity to keep any kind of count – grace that never, ever thins or grows scarce. Abundance, O God, that abundance might be our mindset and our heart's resting place, so we need not cling, in jealousy, resentment or pride to what we can, by your abundant grace, let go. Thick skins, O God, help us grow them. Tender hearts, O God, help us keep them. Amen.
Only Matthew tells this parable (with its long introduction!), Jesus reciting Deuteronomy 19:15, mixing in church language, to talk about community, essentially. What to do when someone in the community is stirring the pot? Ruffling feathers. Causing trouble, maybe, like Carl's Aunt Pearl. She makes chess pie and then gets her feelings hurt when no one except Carl and Janet eats it because it really is icky like raw eggs. So you invite her to make a different dish – but she keeps making the icky eggy pie and then getting all mad and ugly about how folks don't eat it – even though Carl and Janet are just slurping it up every month.
So then, Jesus says, a couple of people should go, talk about it, see if something can be worked out. If it is still something that can't be lived with, the whole congregation asks her to reconsider how she is about her pie (it’s not about pie – she’s a bully!) and if she won't, and the church body can't live with the situation, the third step: church her. Tell her, her attitude about the pie situation is poisoning church fellowship. Request that she change or leave. Then enforce it.
Where two or three are gathered, I am there, Jesus says – a text we generally use to reassure ourselves of God's presence in small groups, when maybe Jesus was pointing out that just one person never gets to speak for God. But the thread Peter pulls from all that is . . . ? How much of that pie do I have to stomach? How many times? Peter wants to know, as many as seven?
Folks who know the Torah hear Peter pretending not to know the Torah only requires three – one of those “teacher’s pet moves” of his. We definitely know better. This is not our first day in Jesus math. Not seven, says Jesus. Seventy-seven – or 490, depending on which ancient manuscript one prefers. Does he say forgive 77 times? or 70 x 7 times = 490 times? I've heard Bible study arguments about this so fierce you'd have thought the moon and stars hung in the balance.
Jesus math is crazy because it is not numerical – it's moral. Ethical. Spiritual. And always, always, always – hyperbole. Thus, the billionaire. It doesn't even sound like a parable until the currency is converted. Ten thousand talents equals ten million first-century dollars, which equals $7 billion currently. 100 denarii equals $20 first-century or $11,000 currently.
On the Forbes list of the 400 richest, numbers 63-73 are in the $7 billion range. Any guesses? Christy Walton. Jim Jones. Ralph Lauren. Meijer Foods. David Green of Hobby Lobby. My two favorites: an engineer who invented a one-piece car bumper; and a scientist who invented a pancreatic cancer drug. However, at my salary $7 billion equals 140,000 working years. $11,000 equals 3.5 months.
To talk about sin – or guilt – of all the metaphors he might choose, Jesus chooses debt. Debt is numerical; you can write it down like a number. But God knows it feels moral. And what else? What does debt FEEL like? sickness? threatening? endless? deadly? embarrassing? shameful?
In Jesus' parable the debt is monetized. But are there other kinds of debt? Anybody here owe your boss anything? An e-mail? A report? What about your professor – or your students? Have you got your grades caught up? Are any folks waiting to hear back from you about anything? Got anything around your house you told your spouse you'd take care of? Do you love having this brought up? Just how much do you expect me to let go and go and go, God? And yet, what is so interesting is that Peter asks, as if he is the king. As if he is the one owed $7 billion. Is he?
Is that how Jesus means him to hear it? Okay Peter. Okay church. Here's how forgiveness works in the kingdom of God. The king of the kingdom gives you more life than you could ever earn in one hundred thousand lifetimes. Free and clear. You didn't earn it. You don't deserve it. And yet, he wants you to have it. It's yours. Go – have it. Live it. Enjoy it. Of the three, he does one. He goes. But he doesn't live – at least not the one-hundred- thousand-lives kind of life he has just been given. And he doesn't take any joy in it.
Apparently, all he can feel is exactly what he felt before – as if he is still owed something more, when he believed there was debt to be paid: afraid; deprived; disadvantaged; without; wanting; needing; poor; empty; abandoned; knee-deep in a river dying of thirst (as the song goes).
$7 billion. 140,000 lifetimes. He declines to believe it. So deep is his attachment to – what? His own ego? His own need to prove that he CAN? Rather than accept that he simply IS – loved, worthy. He happens upon a client, a customer – one who owes him one-six-hundred-thousandth the amount he's just been forgiven.
One-six-hundred-thousandth. It's like owing someone the dirt on a penny. He threatens to kill him. How poor does a person this rich have to feel to kill another over money? But debt? It's all debt, isn't it? All the greed and fear and injustice and corruption. It's all a matter of us being so sure we are owed something that we simply cannot do without. And if we are believers, if we are Peter, or if we are the church, it is our utter and complete failure to believe the gospel that by the work of God in Jesus Christ, all those accounts are long settled. We are free. And being free, we are owed Not One Thing – From Anyone Ever. Amen, friends? Amen.
But whether or not we live like we believe it is entirely up to us. The Bible billionaire didn't. His fellow members were appalled. They told the king, and back to prison he goes. Not for the debt this time, mind you, but for being a jerk. The Voice (a translation I sometimes check – sort of like the Amplified Bible) reads, “You slovenly scum, you begged me to forgive your debt, and I did. Surely you should have shown the same charity to a friend who was in your debt.”
Slovenly scum! Do you think Peter realized Jesus was talking about him? Do we? Christian brothers and sisters, having been forgiven a debt we could not pay in ten thousand lifetimes, asking Jesus straight-faced how many times he expects us to forgive one another. Is seven okay, Jesus? Would seven suit you?
And Jesus says, “How about 77? Or 490?” As if to say, there is no end to my expectations; I expect you to forgive each other again and again and again and again. Because, there is no end to the well of forgiveness I have set down in my kingdom. It's not money. It's not food. It doesn't lose value and it doesn't spoil. There is absolutely, positively no end to it ever.
But only if we live like it. And friends, if we don't, then what are we doing here? If not for the distribution and delivery of grace, what are Christians even for? If not for the exchange of the gospel between us, the grace of God in Christ Jesus, why go through all this business of pretending? To pacify our pride? To convince ourselves of virtue?
Honestly, I'd really rather travel. Or read. Or stay home and sew and pet my dog. Because people drive me crazy. I love them. And they drive me crazy. And I love them. But by God's grace, we are bound here for good reason. Because we have been more than set free just for ourselves and for one another. We are set free for a world that has no idea yet, how good God has been to it. It's our privilege to be the ones to show them. Would you pray with me?
Chapter 16 marks the end of the beginning of Matthew's gospel. Here Peter calls Jesus “the Messiah”; and Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” Those with ears to hear know the struggle isn't local. It’s cosmic. It is personal, however. The disciples learn that the future includes a cross, prepared and waiting. One for each of them, to do with as they decide. And for us – readers, followers – ever since. Whatever we decide, nothing is what it seems. Or, maybe said better: everything is more than we can begin to imagine.
Let's pray: Good and holy God of space and time and everything therein, that we should propose to speak to you is silliness beyond reckoning. And yet, we come, giving voice to we know not what. Our wishes? Our fears? Whatever counts as good, O God, help us to wish for that. Whatever keeps us from you, may that be our fear. Amen.
The next time he goes off alone to pray, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John. Either the other nine weren't invited or they didn't want to go. They did not have a good time in his absence – that we know for sure. How would the church be different had Jesus chosen poets and painters as his disciples?
Poets and painters might have left us able to sit with this, knowing better how to carry it in our hearts and minds, in our life together. Because the words do not suffice. All the words in the world make this – whatever this thing is – no less unfamiliar in our mouths for two thousand years of saying it. This thing. This event. This mystery. This illusion. This vision. This experience. This miracle? called “Transfiguration.” And if it is a miracle, what makes it so? That three humans claimed to see it? Maybe this is how Jesus always prayed – with ancient prophet friends?...but “ancient” only to us. Peter, James and John didn't see something new, only something new to them. And something of Jesus they have never seen before, something they did not expect, something for which they had no words.
Peter, naturally, was not deterred. He declares he will build shelters for the prophets right here on this mountain. It is one of those sentences that sound better inside your head than coming out of your mouth. Jesus doesn't get to answer before God in heaven interrupts: “This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with him. Listen to what he says!” Now, they fall down like dead people. The moment is over. Jesus touches them and says, "Get up. Don’t be afraid!”
On Sunday afternoons I drive home from here exhausted, but mostly embarrassed. Embarrassed about preaching. I am embarrassed right now to tell you I'm embarrassed. Embarrassed that it takes hours and hours to write bad sermons. Embarrassed at how every single one misses the mark of telling the gospel of Christ. Misses by so far I'm embarrassed at the memory of it. I do okay at what I do, but I'm not doing what I am supposed to do. Like a surgeon who is a very skilled knitter.
So, in a twisted sort of way, it's truly comforting for me to watch Peter – who is watching Jesus in all his divinity and transcendence – open up his mouth and sound like a braying jackass. And then – this is the important part – and then, Jesus doesn't smite him! Jesus doesn't even call him “Satan” again. God yelled a little bit, true. Then Jesus just puts out his hand and says, “Get up. Don't be afraid.” Jesus knows that Peter has hardly done his worst. His worst is still weeks and weeks away, in Jerusalem, in the courtyard of a man named Caiaphas.
I pray to God I've done my worst. You? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, not until we've been and done our worst to him and to one another – which are the same thing, of course – will we even begin to glimpse or grasp the best of this faith we already claim.
We see Jesus as Jesus wants to be seen. We don't know what forgiveness is, before we realize what we've been forgiven. Our feeble hearts and minds can't hold it, so our tongues certainly can't tell it.
And I wonder if, in some way, this knowing what we do not know, that living with this knowing and not knowing, wishing we could speak the grace of God, but having no speech to say it, is the cross we bear. In my case, this wanting to and failing to preach.
Jesus says that all who choose to go with him have our own cross to carry. I know, or at least thought I knew, that he means death. We learn to carry ourselves toward death, fearlessly. We learn to carry the knowledge of our own death in us, knowing he has taken the sting of it away. But here, Jesus does not speak of death, he speaks of life: forget your life; save your life; destroy your life; give up your life; find your life; get back your very soul.
Here, Jesus doesn't appear to want my death. Jesus wants my life. I really thought I was going to outgrow Dorky. Here I still am: dorky, tongue-tied and simple-minded, faint- hearted as my life is and, as best I can tell, Jesus wants it. Completely. A life to be borne cheerfully, resisting the urge every Sunday afternoon not to have to think about what I am doing right now. Am I making any sense at all? Is this connecting?
Some days, the notion that Jesus was both human and divine is no greater mystery to me than that I am preacher now. Both strike me as amazing. One strikes me as absurd. And yet we carry on, like Peter down the mountain, Jesus wisely suggesting to him that he not talk about the things that he'd just seen. Not until after my resurrection. Which surely prompted another twenty questions.
But there was not time to explain. The other nine disciples had a problem on their hands that Jesus had to fix. The story arc has shifted now. Jerusalem looms large over every scene and conversation. The cross is distant, but constantly in view – and the invitation for whoever would go with him. Our lives are what he wants, whatever we would make of them. Amazingly, the Lord, God, Creator and Sustainer of heaven and earth, has use of them. Far be it from a dork like me to explain it. Better that we all keep silent and answer with our lives, this day and every day to come.
Would you pray with me?
In a certain Baptist church in the South, it was traditional for the deacons to take the new pastor on an all-day Saturday fishing trip. When they hired their first woman pastor, they wondered whether it was still appropriate – and decided it might offend her if they stopped. She hated fishing, but she too did not want to offend. They picked her up before daylight, arrived at the lake, got the boat into the water, and motored out half a mile from shore.
She was freezing from the get-go and wanted her sweater, but she was too embarrassed to ask them to take her back. Finally, she said to herself, this is ridiculous, so she stepped out of the boat, walked across the water to the car, got her sweater, walked back across the water, and got back into the boat. And everyone just kept fishing in total silence. The next day at church, a deacon who hadn't been there asked, Well, how did it go? To which another replied, Brother, not only can that preacher not fish, she cain't swim either.
That one never gets old! The way Matthew 14 never gets old. The way these two stories overflow with the message of abundance – the abundance of poverty and fear and violence in this world, some of it driven by human greed and injustice, some of it driven by nature itself – but more than that, the abundance of grace; the abundance of faith; the abundance of courage and goodness and joy, available to people willing to have their hearts and minds transformed, willing to keep their eyes on Jesus even when the wind picks up. Because we are getting wet either way, friends.
Let's pray. We cannot predict the future, o God, except to say that it will be mostly ordinary with some terrible and some lovely along the way. Disappointments and losses. But rain too – for the just and the unjust. We do our worst and try our best – and either way end up more wet than we thought we'd be, soaked to the skin some days, for better and for worse. So help us live by faith, o God, to face each day with the hope and the courage that breed justice, kindness and decency. We pray in Jesus' name.
We call it speaking truth to power. But really, it's saying out loud what most everybody knows already – in this case that Herod, Rome's puppet ruler in Israel, was sleeping with his brother's wife, a clear violation of the Torah. Jewish leadership in Jerusalem may have been too spineless to stand up to Herod, but John wasn't. For his preaching he got thrown in jail and then executed, his head literally served up on a platter. Herod was equally afraid of Jesus, so when Jesus heard about his cousin's fate, Matthew says he left that place to go somewhere and pray. No doubt!
But word got out. And the crowds who had been following him kept doing so, as many as fifteen or even twenty thousand people – which explains Herod's anxiety. Can you imagine if 20,000 Americans were following one preacher from town to town on foot, listening as she pointed out the moral failing of the government? The church today should be so faithful.
Jesus' plan for a personal prayer retreat was interrupted, and the interruption became his plan. He didn't get to pray. He got to work: teaching, healing, casting out demons. All day.
Exhaustion now layered on top of grief – grief for John, his cousin and his friend, his one and only colleague. Now he has only these twelve clowns to depend on, doing the best they can, no doubt. But still. Doing their best at the end of this very long day, they attempt to interrupt the interruption. They suggest Jesus exercise some self-care. Self-care is big in ministry circles, don't you know? Because burnout is bigger still. It's late, they say. These people need to eat. Let's send them back to town to buy their supper.
Who is actually hungry, do you suppose? It's not the crowds complaining, is it? You know that feeling, right? I get it every time I pick up my Panera salad, then stop at the light right by the man with the sign that says, “Anything Helps.” Jesus agrees – that it's time to eat, at least.
But his reason, Matthew says, is compassion. That they were hungry hurt his own heart, stirred his own heart to act. So, you do it, he says to his clowns. Interesting that Jesus stirred to action means his disciples are the actors. We are his muscle when he exercises his compassion. We can't, they reply; we have nothing.
They said nothing because they weren't using Jesus math, but rather privileged people math. You know privileged people math, right? In privileged people math, 5 loaves + 2 fish = 12 fish sandwiches for us. In privileged people math, what you have plus what you want always equals exactly enough for me and mine. In privileged people math, 5 loaves + 2 fish also equals ZERO. Zero fish sandwiches for people whose neediness I'm tired of. The disciples are just beginning to learn Jesus math where 5 loaves + 2 fish = 20,000+ fish sandwiches. Jesus math takes a long, long time to learn. It’s heart and mind work. Cravings, addictions, reputation are all involved. Fear, trust – in a word, faith.
Matthew will tell this story again in a couple of chapters, setting it that time in a Gentile place, drilling his disciples on the fact that Jesus math works the same for all people everywhere. That's big – very big. Jesus was serious about this math of his. One way we know? This “5 loaves + 2 fish = 20,000 fish sandwiches” is the only story told in all four gospels. The only one. Is 20,000 even right? We get the number by giving all 5,000 men one wife and two kids. But it could be more with grandmas and grandpas. It's church food after all – of course people expected seconds! Were any teenagers there? Good Lord – it might have been 40,000 fish sandwiches!
Bring me your twelve sandwiches, Jesus says. He organized the crowd (probably made the teenage boys go to the back of line), looked to heaven, blessed the food, broke the food, and then gave it to the disciples and told them to serve everyone. There, the foreshadowing: Eucharist and cross. People ate their fish sandwiches, and the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers. My, my, my, there is an entire sermon in just that one line of text. Those twelve baskets of leftovers, echoing manna from heaven. One basket per disciple. In a land overflowing with that kind of abundance, still nothing shall be wasted.
We are not given to know how the disciples reacted to this miracle. Because, now suddenly, Jesus IS ready to be gone from this place. He hustles the disciples into their boat and shoves them into the lake and says, see you in the morning on the other side. Then he dismisses the crowd and he leaves, up a mountain, by himself, all alone. Matthew cares for us to know Jesus wanted to be away from all the humans. All night.
Meanwhile, the disciples never make it to the other side of the lake. Tossed in the waves of a storm – your translation might say “battered.” Tossed or battered – the same word is elsewhere translated “tortured.” They were being tortured by nature itself. Maybe they were handling it; some were fishermen, after all. Matthew doesn't note them being afraid until they see Jesus walking on the water toward them. Then they are terrified – screaming, even. They think he's a ghost. He come to them in a way they don’t recognize. Maybe they thought salvation was going to be more fun than this. He speaks to them, Take heart. I am.
Here's Jesus not speaking in parables, straight up identifying himself as God. And yet. Peter says, Lord, if it is really you...? Does that sound familiar, like an echo of something already in Matthew? If you really are the Son of God. If you really are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread. If you really are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the Temple. Only this time, Peter is the tempter; only this time, Jesus complies. Like with bread and fish the day before, Jesus provides.
And Peter walks on water too, until the wind picks up and he remembers that he can't walk on water, and he starts to drown and Jesus has to catch him. Your faith is little, Jesus says to Peter. You thought I would call you out just to let you drown? That is little faith. Clearly Jesus will work with little faith, right? Otherwise he would have let Peter drown.
Every storm ends eventually. See all thirteen of them huddled in that boat, soaked to the skin, shivering? Then and there they came to faith, Matthew says. Truly, you are the Son of God.
Know what I wonder, friends? I wonder if what makes being a Christian so hard is the simple fact that being a human being is hard. Living decently with integrity and dignity and in community with others is such a complicated project. I rather understand why some folks give up and live unto themselves, and that's why the world gets so mired in evil and injustice.
People would do better if they could do better; but being better is such a battle, and human beings are so weak. And we come to the invitation of Christ already weak and overwhelmed – soaked and shivering, if you will – yet still with the desire to be good, to do right, to live decently and well. And we might think it's nothing because it's so shaky that it barely feeds us sometimes. But Jesus says that if we will bring it to him and offer it up with ourselves too – not just the sandwiches, but the labor that goes with serving them – there really will be so much more than we can ever, ever imagine.
Of all that I might fish out of this story today and give you to consider, here are three “fish.”
Fish #1 – Compassion is the everyday Christian response to everyday human suffering. Following Christ well means keeping our hearts open to the everyday suffering of people around us. As tempting as it is to close ourselves off against the chaos of their neediness, if we can keep our hearts open the compassion of Jesus will keep us full and able. Of course we have to take care of ourselves in all-important ways and use good judgment. But it's easy sometimes to walk around with hard hearts and thin skins, when it's tender hearts and thick skins that are needed to serve needy people for a lifetime.
Fish #2 – Christian compassion is profoundly pragmatic and, sometimes, surprisingly small. We are richer than we want to admit, as persons and as a congregation. We have vast resources at our disposal, friends – vast! – in the bank and in our repertoire. How available those – and we – are to the work that Jesus would assign us is up to us.
Fish #3 – Christ-followers like us require as much compassion as anyone else. Jesus went out onto the lake for the same reason he fed the people on the shore: people he loved needed him. We need him. We get as hungry, angry, lonely, tired and afraid as any Gentiles anywhere ever did. (Well, maybe not as hungry – but you get my point.) We don't have to worry there isn't enough for us, for you. Remember those leftovers – the abundance in that little word?
Friends, once we have seen and heard and tasted the compassion of Jesus in us, the love that leaves us unafraid in the midst of the worst this world can do, I am confident there is nothing we cannot do or will not give for the whole world to see and hear and taste it too.
Would you pray with me?