Category: Gospel of Matthew

Room for Doubt — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10A (Matthew 14)

Matthew 14:22-33 —New Revised Standard Version

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

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Our reading this week from the Gospel of Matthew is one that would have caught the attention of David Hume. Hume was a skeptic. He didn’t trust anything he hadn’t experienced himself or had it on good authority of someone he trusted having a particular experience. He was open to new truths, they just had to be provable. Therefore, he would have had trouble with a story about someone walking on water. He would ask us to consider the likelihood of someone walking on water. Have you either walked on water yourself or seen someone walk on water? No, he didn’t trust the testimony of a two-thousand-year-old book.

So, if you’ve never seen someone walk on water then how can you believe that either Jesus or Peter did so? Now, Hume might agree that in their fear the disciples could have projected an image of Jesus walking on the water, but would that be enough to get Peter, who had never walked on water (assuming that humans don’t walk on water), out of the boat on trying to walk himself? Surely, if he tried, as soon as he put his foot outside the boat he would have sunk. Therefore, Hume would conclude this was all a myth. It might have metaphorical value but not historical value.

 This story is one of the best known in the Gospels. It has permeated our cultural mindset so that when too much is asked of us, we ask why people think we can walk on water. After all, we’re not divine beings (and Hume was skeptical about the existence of divine beings), so why should we be expected to walk on water? Of course, some, less skeptical types, have used the text to beat folks over the head for their lack of faith and unwillingness to “get out of the boat.” Years ago, when I was teaching theology at a bible college in Kansas, this story seemed to be a “favorite” of our chapel speakers. These speakers tended to be youth ministers who appealed to the story to call on the students, (and I suppose, we professors as well) to get out of the boat. Don’t doubt, don’t resist God, but get out of the boat and join me in whatever it is I think is the most important concern at the moment.

                Of the two options above, I’d probably side with Hume. After all, isn’t there a place for a little doubt and even skepticism in the life of faith? So, granting that I’ve never seen anyone walk on water, and thus can’t prove the validity of the story, how might we receive this story? We might start by remembering that in the ancient world the sea was often symbolic of chaos and danger (note the storm that shook even this group full of experienced fishermen). Jesus comes to them as the one who has power over the chaos (walks on the waters) and then calms them. Though fearful at first, once Peter recognizes Jesus, he wants to get out of the boat and join Jesus on the water. It’s true, Peter could be impulsive, but at least for a moment, his faith overcame his fear.

                After Peter got out of the boat, he began to sense the power of the wind whipping around him. At that moment, he forgot he was actually walking on water. With his focus now on the wind, he lost his focus on Jesus and began to sink. How often is this true for us? We begin to focus on the noise around us, get distracted by it, and lose our focus on Jesus.

                Yes, Peter began to have his doubts. I expect given the situation, I would have my doubts. I might act impulsively at first, and then realize I hadn’t thought this thing through. I probably would sink as well.

               So, Peter had his doubts, which leads Jesus to ask him why he had so little faith? I think Jesus might have been a little harsh with him, but the question is a good one for us. How much faith is enough? Is a little faith sufficient? If we are saved, that is made whole, through grace, which we receive through faith, how much do we need? Perhaps the good news here is not whether Peter had enough faith, but whether Jesus is willing to embrace us no matter the level of our faith. Remember that Jesus doesn’t leave Peter floundering in the water. He pulls him up and into the boat. If the waves and the winds of this story represent the challenges of our lives, it’s possible that we will step out on faith, flounder, and require a little help from the one who is present with us by the Spirit and calms the waters of life.

                Do we all experience a bit of doubt in life? Do we lose focus? Do we have questions that require answers? Yes to all of these questions, which are important ones. In the end, the question is not whether we doubt, but whether it causes debilitating injury to our souls. When that happens, we need the salvific healing presence of God, which comes to us, Paul says in confessing Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9).  As for the disciples who stayed in the boat, once Jesus calmed the waters and joined them, they bowed in worship and confess “Truly you are the Son of God.”

                Perhaps we can hear in this story a reminder that despite the possibility of doubt, we can step out in faith. We can take some risks. We may sink, but Jesus is there to catch us. At this moment when the winds of change are whipping around us, a bit of doubt-filled risk-taking might be needed. So, maybe those impetuous youth ministers who liked this story were on to something!

Picture attribution: Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937. Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55904 [retrieved August 5, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Ossawa_Tanner,_The_Disciples_See_Christ_Walking_on_the_Water,_c._1907.jpg.

 

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

A Hidden Abundance — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9A (Matthew 14)

A Hidden Abundance — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9A (Matthew 14)

Lectionary Reflection — reposted from July 29, 2014.

Matthew 14:13-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 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. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

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There is only one miracle story that is found in all four gospels, and that is the feeding of the 5,000 – plus the women and children.  Whatever happened that day, it caught the imagination of the Gospel writers.  We can debate over whether an actual – factual – miraculous event occurred in which Jesus multiplied a few loaves of bread and a few fish to feed thousands.   To do so likely misses the point of the story.  As Brian McLaren suggests, when it comes to miracle stories, perhaps we should consider a third alternative viewpoint, which stands apart from the traditional yes and no arguments.  Instead “we could ask another question What happens to us when we imagine miracles happening?”  That is, what does this story do to us now?  How does it challenge our assumptions and imaginations?  Thus:

Perhaps, by challenging us to consider impossible possibilities, these stories can stretch our imagination, and in so doing, can empower us to play a catalytic role in co-creating new possibilities for the world tomorrow. [McLaren, We Make the Road by Walkingp. 97].

Keeping in mind Brian McLaren’s suggestion about a story like this playing a catalytic role in creating new possibilities for the world, what might we hear in this passage for today?  Consider for a moment that in Matthew’s gospel, this story follows immediately after Herod has had John the Baptist executed.  Jesus, knowing that his co-conspirator in proclaiming the realm of God has been killed, wants to get away from the crowds, so he can regroup.  Could he be next?  His attempt to get away – to go on vacation – fails.  Jesus’ inability to get away reminds me of what it must be like to be President.  Stuff just follows after the President.  He can’t let down, even for a moment, or someone will criticize him.  Besides, he takes with him a team of advisors.  I’m reminded too of how President Lincoln found it necessary to get away from the White House just so he could think about what was happening in the war effort.  So it is with Jesus.  He needs to find a quiet place, a place in the wilderness.  He even takes a boat so he can evade the crowds.  But his efforts to find a secluded spot falter.  When he sees them, he has compassion for them, and he begins to heal their sick.

As the day began to wind down, the disciples began to get anxious about the crowd.  They had to be hungry, and a hungry crowd can be an unruly one.  Fear is setting in.  So, they encourage Jesus to bring the healing session to a close and send them off to the surrounding villages, so they can find something to eat.  We can understand their concern.  Anyone who is tasked with logistics understands that you have to make sure things don’t get out of hand.

Jesus, as you might imagine, has other ideas.  Although he had refused to turn stone into bread to feed himself, he was willing to provide nourishment for those who had come to him seeking his blessing.  Doing this was, of course risky.  People can get used to such things – as John reminds us (John 6).  They can get the wrong idea, especially if they think you’re the one who will rescue the nation from its current overlords.  At this moment in time, as Matthew tells the story, Jesus isn’t too worried.  Instead, he tells the disciples to feed the crowd.   Yes, he tells them, you feed them.  They’re flabbergasted.  How does Jesus expect them, twelve guys, who can scrounge up just five loaves of bread and a couple of fish between them, to feed this massive crowd?

Jesus won’t be deterred by their groans (don’t you hear the groans between the lines?).  He simply asks them to give an account of what they have.  They say they have nothing, but they do have something.  They have five loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus tells them to give what they have to him.  He looks up into the heavens, acknowledging God’s presence, gives thanks, blesses it, and then he gives the disciples this food and invites them to distribute it to the crowd.  With that many people, this would take a bit of time.  When they finish, Jesus asks them how it went.  Did they have enough to feed everyone?  Was it like a typical church potluck, where there’s always more food than people?  Amazingly they had more food after the feeding than before.  How that happened, Matthew doesn’t say.

This story invites us to consider the hidden abundance that is in our midst.  I don’t know how Jesus did it.  Was it a miracle?  Or did Jesus set the example for those who had brought food for themselves, never intending to share, but finding it appropriate to share what they had once Jesus started the distribution?  Again, we’re not told how it happened, only that everyone ate, was filled, and there was more food left over than when they began.

What about us?  What about the hidden abundance that is present in our midst?  Do we feel as if there is nothing in the pantry, or is there enough present to be used by God to bless others?   As I think about this story, I’m reminded of the children who have come to our borders from Central America.  They’re fleeing poverty and violence back home.  Some of the children are as young as six.  They’ve traveled hundreds of miles, often sitting on the top or sides of trains.  They’ve risked death to make it to the Promised Land.  Some hope to be reunited with family.  Others simply hope that their journey will lead to a better life.   What would Jesus say to them?   Would he turn them away or would he say to us on this side of the border – you feed them.  You clothe them.  You house them.  We say, but what about the cost.  We can’t afford it.  There are too many problems here at home.  What would Jesus say to us, as we down a second helping of dessert?   There are no easy solutions to the crisis at the border or to the challenges facing our urban centers and rural heartlands.  There is plenty of poverty here at home – but the challenges of the border don’t prevent us from handling these crises.  We’ve been ignoring them long before these children showed up at the border.

The story of the feeding of the 5000 falls not just after the death of John, but in Matthew’s version, it comes after Matthew has laid out his collection of parables of the kingdom.  He has shown us through Jesus’ words what the kingdom looks like (Matthew 13).  Now, in a series of miracles we see additional signs of the kingdom.  There is healing, there is feeding, there is power.  How do these stories release our imagination?  How do they dislodge the hidden resources so that they can be brought forth and used for the good of the kingdom?

The way in which Jesus goes about feeding the 5000 should evoke in our hearts and minds the image of the Eucharist.  In the story of the Last Supper, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, and gives it to the disciples.  They are told to continue the practice, eating and drinking, in memory of Jesus.  As we share bread with our neighbors, are we not remembering Jesus?  Does not the act of giving serve as an act of thanksgiving?  Should we not begin to see the sacramental table of the Lord being an open one that takes many forms – including the soup kitchen or welcoming the children knocking at our borders?

Picture attribution — Swanson, John August. Loaves and Fishes, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56553 [retrieved July 28, 2020]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 2003 by John August Swanson.

 

Weeding Time? — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 7A (Matthew 13)

 
24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

 

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

 

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                Anyone who has tried to plant or tend a garden knows that no matter what you do – there will be weeds to deal with.  We can prepare the ground, put in new soil designed so that the new plants will flourish.  We can put down a layer of Preen and mulch.  But no matter what we do – weeds will sprout.  We can pull them out (and I do), but that won’t be the end of them.  And, as sometimes happens, the weeds become so intertwined with the plants that we can’t pull them out without pulling out the good plants.  So what do we do?

                Jesus doesn’t have an answer to our gardening problems.  He doesn’t work at Lowes or the local nursery.  But, he does have something to say about weeds.  In the prior week’s Gospel reading from Matthew 13, we come upon the “Parable of the Sower” (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23).  This week we encounter a follow-up parable.  Now that the seeds have been sown, and some of them have taken root in good soil, it’s time to start planning for the harvest.  But, low and behold, someone (the enemy) has gone into the freshly planted soil and sown weed seeds.  And now the weeds are coming up, threatening, perhaps, to choke out the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30).    So what should be done?  The field has the promise of a great harvest, but how do we get rid of the invasive weeds?  Should we go and pull them out?  The Sower responds to their question with a firm no.

                But why?  Why let the weeds remain?  After all, it’s possible they could threaten the more desirable grains.  Now, I’m not a wheat or corn farmer.  I don’t know what the best policy is.  I’ve seen vineyards where every weed is pulled out and vineyards where weeds have been allowed to take root.  The latter doesn’t look very good, but I’m not sure that the presence of the weeds is detrimental to the grapes.  So perhaps the same is true of wheat fields.  Whatever is the best policy, we should acknowledge that Jesus isn’t in the business of providing gardening advice.  He could be totally wrong about what to do with weeds.  But Jesus does know something about human nature.  He understands that in every community of faith there will be the righteous and the unrighteous.

                The truth is, every church has a few “weeds” living amongst the righteous grains.  These are the people who cause problems.  They’re disruptive and counterproductive.  If the church decides to go right, they’ll make a fuss about the importance of turning left.  Or these folks become clergy killers, doing everything they can to undermine the ministry of those called to serve the congregation.   These kinds of people can even give the church a bad name, especially if the dirty laundry spills out into the public sphere.  So, what do you do?

                One of the reasons why it’s currently popular to be spiritual but not religious is that the institutional church is considered too stifling for a person’s spiritual growth.  But the other reason has to do with the presence of hypocrites in the churches.   If only “they” weren’t there, then we’d go to church.  They say:  If I could find a church where people agreed with my politics or my theology, then I’d go.  Yes, if only I could find the perfect church, then I’d go to church.

This desire for purity is also found within the churches — among both conservative and liberal strands of the Christian community.  We see it being played out in denominations struggling to make sense of Marriage Equality – much as they did with women in ministry and civil rights.  Will they stay together or break apart.  Often this is an issue of power – who gets to control the agenda.  But there is also an idealism present in many communities that leads them to believe that if only the problem causers could be weeded out, then the church could get on with its mission.

                But, who makes us the judges?  Why should we have the responsibility to go out and pull up the “weeds” that have been sown by the “enemy”?

                Many centuries ago, at a time when the early Christian community was emerging from the shadows, a question arose.  What should we do with bishops and other church leaders who betrayed the trust of the community by burning incense to the Emperor or turning in sacred writings to the authorities?  Shouldn’t they be excluded from the faithful?  Hadn’t they committed the unforgivable sin?  Did they not soil the church, and therefore should be excluded.  Not only that, but shouldn’t the sacraments that they administered be considered suspect?  Such was the position that the Donatist Movement took during the fourth and fifth centuries CE.  They believed that they alone were pure – because they didn’t allow anyone in the church, or at least in church leadership, who was a “traditore,” one who betrayed the church.  St. Augustine, being a leading bishop in North Africa where the Donatists had a strong presence, responded forcefully – perhaps overly aggressively – but he had a point.   The holiness of the church and its sacraments shouldn’t be dependent on the people who make up the church.  For Augustine the church was holy, not because of the people who comprised it were holy, but because God is holy.

                Yes, it would be more peaceful in the church, if there were no people because if there were no people in the church, there would be no problems.  Of course, there would be no church either.   And so here we are – the Church of Jesus Christ.  We are members of an imperfect body, made perfect through the grace of God.  But it is what it is.  Within its circle there are conservatives and liberals.  There are “true believers” and hangers-on.  There are the morally impure and the relatively pure.   Jesus says – let them grow up together because if you start casting people out, you’re liable to throw out the good with the bad.  In fact, you may find yourself on the short end of the stick.

                As Jesus puts it – the angels will take care of things at the end.  God will sort it out.  That’s not our job.  Of course, the Scriptures do speak of church discipline.  But the fact is the church is a mixed company of righteous and unrighteous.  If should try to find a “pure church,” we’re likely to end up in a smaller and smaller company.  History has shown that schism leads to schism.  Protestantism is by its very nature a product of schism that has given way to more schisms.

My own denominational tradition began as a unity movement and bequeathed to the Christian world at least three – maybe more – varieties.  Our identity statement declares that “we are a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.”  It is useful to remember that the fragmentation needing to be healed begins in our own back yard.   Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), writes:

All too often the image people have of Christianity is one of narrowness rather than inclusion, judgment rather than acceptance of different points of view, fear rather than love. The truth is that we Christians have a lot of work to do.  We are not as good as we should be at showing the world what this God of love is like.  We fall short of being the best possible ambassadors of that love. [Sharon Watkins, Whole: A Call to Unity in Our Fragmented World, p. 100]

                Jesus speaks of judgment.  In fact, he speaks of the workers (angels of God) separating out the weeds from the grain (after harvesting them) and burning the weeds and chaff.  But, as for us, we’re to leave judgment to God.  While the parable ends with a word of judgment, can we not also consider the possibilities of redemption present in the church.  Perhaps if we learn to love the difficult people in our lives, then we will discover that they, like us, have experienced hurt and disappointment in life.  That is not to say there is no room for discipline to protect the vulnerable – but there can be room for redemption and reconciliation as well.

 

Originally published July 15, 2014 –Ponderings on a Faith Journey  https://www.bobcornwall.com/2014/07/weeding-time-lectionary-reflection-for.html