Navel Gazing

Navel Gazing  |  Matthew 16:21-28

We in the west have become a society of navel gazers. We gaze at our devices, our televisions, our phones. The world is something that happens on a tiny screen in our hands. We respond to small images of tragedy with tweets, and we post edgy comments on Facebook. If we are particularly moved, we send money, usually online.

We do not touch one another. We do not see one another.

Matthew tells us that Peter didn’t see the plan. He didn’t see how what Jesus was telling them could possibly be good. How could yielding ever be the best response? How could it be that God should choose to suffer? What could possibly be gained?

Society needed a good straightening out. People needed to see that God was more powerful than their oppressors. To Peter’s dismay, Jesus did not promise them any of that, at least not right away.Clouds 6x4

On the other hand, Jesus mysteriously claimed that some who saw him that day would live to see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. It must have sounded encouraging, but what did he mean?

The answer may be in the next verses—the utterly odd mountaintop story of Jesus being transformed. That must have been something to see. What is more, the resurrection itself was the headline kingdom of God event.

Nevertheless, Jesus wasn’t talking about the future. He was talking about the present, how we live our lives now.

The idea that we might lose something by holding onto it too tightly is old, but some old ideas are true. If our lives are only about ourselves, then we have lost them. If our wisdom is so small that it extends only to gaining wealth, then we are poor indeed.

We are in this world, just as Jesus was in this world, and Peter, and those other dimwitted followers. We remember them as extraordinary people, but they don’t appear that way in the gospel stories. How we live our lives depends on how we set our minds. If we think on ordinary things, we live ordinary lives. If we focus on the extraordinary, then our lives will also be extraordinary.

The truth is that life is always extraordinary. We just need to look up and pay attention.


Secrets  |  Matthew 16:13-20

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead. —Benjamin Franklin

Rocks mountain viewIn this Gospel scene, Jesus commands his followers not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. He is blunt. Direct. There is no explanation.

It may be that Jesus knew swearing people to secrecy is one of the best ways to distribute information. If you have picked the right confidants, then your work is done—pretty soon everyone will know what you told them. It’s an efficient system. Try it in any church and see how well it works.

It could also be that Jesus saw that this odd group of followers were not the best representatives of the gospel—not at this point anyway. Simon Peter, standing there with his great shaggy head and fisherman’s hands, was likely to blurt out anything, and he probably resembled a lunatic more than a leader of the faithful.

When Simon Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells Simon that this understanding came directly from God, which is a sideways method of saying that Simon himself doesn’t have that much insight. Just three verses later, after telling his followers to keep his identity a secret, Jesus turns on Simon and calls him Satan for interfering.

These followers are not too solid. They aren’t bedrock.Rocks round opening

Nevertheless, Jesus gives Simon a name that has become famous—Peter, the Rock. Jesus even claims that he will build the church on this odd foundation, Peter the unshaped rock, the loose cannon on the deck of the gospel ship.

It is the grace of the gospel message. Jesus calls an unlikely group of people, men and women of uneven talents and unlikely temperaments, and makes something out of them. The important point is that Jesus is the one doing the building. If we start tacking on rooms, we’ll make something like the Winchester Mystery House in California, with stairways to nowhere and doorways to nothing.

It is better to have faith that God is building something, despite us.

There is also the oddity of the keys. Jesus tells Peter that he will have the keys of the kingdom of heaven, to bind or to loose, with effect in this world and in the heavenly world. A lot of people, very much like Simon Peter in many ways, have written a great deal about the meaning and the power of the keys: most of it has come down to authority.

People love authority. They don’t love responsibility.

In ancient times, a trusted servant was as likely as the master to be the one carrying around the key ring. Who wants to carry the cumbersome, jingly things around when you can get someone else to keep track of them? But even so, who has the authority, and who has the responsibility—the one carrying the key or the one knowing how to use it?

A little farther along in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives the same power of binding and setting free to all of the disciples who are listening (v18:18). What does that say about the distribution of authority? The gospel message shares the power of setting people free as well as the grace of finding what they have lost.

Perhaps when Jesus told the disciples not to go around telling people that he was the Messiah, Jesus was thinking along the same lines as Francis of Assisi centuries later. Sometimes our words can’t be heard over the noise of our lives. Jesus may have been waiting, shaping the lives of the disciples, so that when they did share the good news, someone might actually have reason to listen.

Good Dog

Good Dog  |  Matthew 15:21-28

Dogs are Rock StarsJesus calls a woman a dog. It’s a twice told story, found in both Matthew 15 and Mark 7. Mark’s Gospel was written first, meaning that the account in Matthew is based on the story in Mark.

Most of us build on what somebody else has done. Matthew built on Mark. Mark, according to tradition, built on what Peter recounted—his memories, the stories he told. Peter, of course, built on what he had seen and heard and touched, to use the language of the New Testament letter of 1 John.

The woman in this story, the woman who comes to Jesus and asks for his help, is an outsider. Jesus and his followers are Jewish—she is not. Jesus and his followers live in mostly Jewish towns—she does not. She is a foreigner to them, an outsider. Nevertheless, she comes on purpose to find this Jesus, this Jewish man who is surrounded by people who look down on Gentiles like her. She is ready to humiliate herself at his feet, if need be, to get his help for her daughter.

Anyone with children can understand. She is desperate. Imagine your child with an illness, one that the usual doctors are not able to treat. Which of us would not beg the help of some famous doctor, if we had faith or hope that she could help?

This foreigner is also very much like another woman from another story, a much older tale from 1 Kings 17—a woman with a sick child pleads for help from Elijah. (The Old Testament echo is all the more interesting when we think of the Gospel symbolism of John the Baptist as Elijah reborn, this time pointing to the coming messiah.)

When this foreign woman finds Jesus, she doesn’t get a warm reception. First, Jesus ignores her, which his followers expected him to do—who is this foreign woman who is expecting to meet Jesus, after all? Then he calls her a dog. It’s not a friendly pet name, not a term of endearment. It’s an insult.

Now everybody is uncomfortable.

Jesus is making a point, of course—but to whom? Who is being taught—the woman, or the people around him who truly have a low opinion of this foreigner? After all, why should this foreigner receive the benefits promised to the chosen people?

The woman herself takes no offense; if she does, she hides her feelings well. Maybe she is used to it. Maybe she expected it. That is not unusual with people who regularly meet with prejudice, racism, bigotry.

Whatever her reasons, she doesn’t bristle at being called a dog. Instead she waits for crumbs from the table. In fact, she anticipates her position, begging for scraps of mercy. I think that she knows what Jesus is doing, that she looks in his eyes and knows that he is addressing the racism and bigotry he sees in the eyes of his own followers.

And dogs are some of the finest people I know. Perhaps this woman feels the same way.

We would do well to emulate most of the dogs we meet. Think of their qualities—devoted, loyal, with reasonable expectations, a reasonable degree of obedience, taking comfort and joy in the simplest things. If we were more like our dogs, we would be better people. That’s true of most animals, come to think about it.

What about cats and squirrels, you say? Well, nobody is perfect.


What We Miss

What We Miss  |  Matthew 14:22-33

They weren’t meant to see. At least that is what Mark claimed in his Gospel, and he told the story first — “He intended to pass them by.” (Mark 6:48b)

Standing in Surf 2 4x6The tale of Jesus walking on the water is told in Mark, Matthew and John. Luke skipped it, who knows why. Mark plainly says that Jesus was not performing for the benefit of the group in the boat. He intended to pass them by. They weren’t even meant to see.

Mark left out the part about Peter nearly drowning. If tradition is correct and Mark was Peter’s disciple, writing from the recollections of that elder disciple, then we may well understand why Peter’s plunge into the water was left out.

Matthew gives us Peter in all his failure, but he doesn’t point out that Jesus never intended any of them to see him. Perhaps it is better to put it another way and say that Jesus was not trying to get their attention. If they saw him, then they saw him. If not, they would be missing a fine show.

Not everything God does is for our benefit. The universe does not center on us. If Shakespeare was right and the world’s a stage, then we might remember that we are in the play, not the audience. It is a fine show, but we are just part of it.

Worship is not entertainment. This is not the God Show, or if it is, we are only peeking around the curtains. We are not ushered to front row seats and given popcorn.

Nobody is.

We might want to keep our eyes open, though. Even if God is not performing for our entertainment, there are still amazing things on this stage. There are people who surprise us, sunsets and turkeys and squirrels and rain. There are children who tell us the truth. There are adults who might be more polite, or afraid, or disinterested, and who refrain from doing so.

Every day is full of things we do not expect to see, and will not, if we do not open our eyes. There is what we hear and see, and there are the things we know in our hearts. All of them require a certain amount of attention.

Otherwise we are like that bunch of disciples sitting in the boat. All they saw in the night was the storm and the sea and the water filling the bottom of the boat. They never saw what God was doing until they lifted their eyes to look.

They could have missed it. God, who is funny that way, would have let them.

On the other hand, Jesus didn’t really have to go walking out there on the water in the first place, did he? With all of the astonishing things these men and women who followed Jesus did see, it makes us wonder what else they might have missed.

It makes me wonder what we may be missing.