Step 1 – Have Faith

Christ Walking on Water, Henry Ossawa Tanner
Christ Walking on Water, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
– Matthew 14:22-33

As Matthew tells it, the care and feeding of multitudes happens twice. Once, already in Matthew 14:13-21, and again, in Matthew 15:32-39. What takes place between the first time something happens and the second instance is key to how the instance is meant to be understood. Like explaining a magic trick or the solution to a math problem: first, I show you the trick, then I explain how the trick is done, then I show you the trick again. The object is for you to be able to do it yourself.

Between these we have three scenes:

  1. The crossing of the sea (in which our present story takes place)
  2. The events at Gennesaret. There are two of these:
    1. The controversy with the Pharisees and scribes (vv. 14:34 – 15:9)
    2. The teaching moment (vv. 15:10-20)
  3. The argument with the Canaanite woman (vv. 15:21-28)

Matthew is trying to teach us how the trick is done in three steps. Today the first step: you’ve got to cross the sea when the wind is against you.

It’s well established that crossing the sea is more than just crossing the sea. The sea represents the chaotic barrier between the current situation and its resolution, between where the people are and where they are “destined” to be. We have seen water used this way in countless other instances in the Bible itself:

  • The river flowing out of Eden;
  • The flood;
  • Moses in the bulrushes;
  • Crossing the Red Sea;
  • Crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land;
  • Elijah crossing the Jordan on the way to his ascension (2 Kings 2:6ff);
  • Jonah and the whale;
  • Jesus at his baptism

The list goes on, but the symbolic use of water in this way transcends Biblical literature: The Odyssey, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Moby Dick.

So the disciples crossing the stormy sea is immediately to be understood as an epic crossing. And the first step toward the ability to care for and feed the multitudes turns out to be crossing the stormy sea of doubt. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Not “Why did you fear?”

The reason Peter was sinking is that “he noticed the strong wind and became frightened.” But the reason Peter got out of the boat was that he doubted who Jesus was: “If it is you, command me to come to you.” After it is all said and done, Jesus will ask Peter (Matthew 16:13ff), “Who do you say that I am?” It is a question of identity here, and while fear is to be expected, what Jesus demands is faith.

But now, we need to get straight what that faith is. It is emphatically not the kind of checking your brain at the door in order to believe the ridiculous. Faith is not about suspending the laws of physics to do parlor tricks. Remember, the point, the trick Matthew is trying to demonstrate, is not to show the disciples how to be able to walk on water; it’s to show the disciples how to be able to care for and feed the multitudes.

The goal, the instructions Jesus gave the disciples at the outset was to “go on ahead to the other side.” The goal of step 1 is to get across with the wind against you, to proceed in spite of fear, and when you see Jesus in the middle passage, to recognize him.

In other words, the challenge of this step has to do with getting through the internal resistance that arises when you undertake Kingdom projects. In their seeing Jesus as a ghost, the disciples are dealing with their self doubts, as surely as Hamlet’s self-doubt conjures up the ghost of his father, or Scrooge conjures up Marley. The doubt that must be overcome is not doubt about Jesus, but self-doubt. Once you can say who you are, then you will be able to say who Jesus is. (And this is exactly the opposite of the usual drivel about needing to figure out who Jesus is and then Jesus will tell you the rest.) Peter figures out who he is, and only then can he confess Jesus is the Messiah. To do the really great kinds of things Jesus wants his disciples to do, you need to know the power of faith rooted in being sure of your own identity. Without that, there’s no use in going on to steps 2 (resistance from people who are supposed to be for you) and step 3 (resistance from people who are supposed to be against you).

People will try anything to avoid confronting their own self-doubt. Sometimes, convincing ourselves that we can suspend the laws of nature and calling that faith is just easier. But Jesus wants us to know that the first step toward doing great Kingdom work is to learn to have faith – in yourself.

What distracts you from overcoming your internal resistance? What ghosts are you living in terror of? Where do you find Jesus in the middle passage?

It’s Not Rocket Science

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
– Romans 10:5-15

To make sense of this passage, you need to know that Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 30:12-14. Here it is:

It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

First the context for the quotation from Deuteronomy. The people of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness around the Sinai peninsula for 40 years and they are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Moses is recapping the Law as it has been given to them over these 40 years of wilderness time. Entering and staying in the Promised Land, as Moses outlines it, is contingent upon the people continuing in obedience to this Law. It’s a covenant, similar to the kinds of agreements between a king and a king’s subjects. Or, perhaps similar to the kind of agreement parents make with their grown children who can’t seem to move out of the house: “You can live here, but as long as you’re under my roof, even though you’re all grown up now, you still have to live by my rules.”

Moses is recapping the law, the rules these people are required to live by if they want to continue to live in this place, and by way of assurance, tells them, “Look, this is not really that hard. You know what you are required to do, and you don’t need anyone to go to heaven to get it, nor do you need to travel to some far away place across the sea. You don’t need anyone to tell you what to do. Just talk it over together and follow your heart.”

So much for Deuteronomy. Paul is re-applying this same idea to following Jesus. In Romans 10, Paul is in the middle of trying to explain why the Jews won’t follow the Jesus program. He had concluded in the previous chapter that they couldn’t follow the Mosaic law “because they didn’t strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works.” (Romans 9:32). In other words, they didn’t take Moses’ advice to talk it over and consult their hearts.

In these verses, Paul links that “failure” to follow the law to a similar failure in the Christian program. You don’t need to look to the heavens for advice (or wait for Christ to return), nor do you need to search the depths of the earth (you don’t have to bring Jesus back from the dead on your own). You can talk it over and follow your heart. It’s not rocket science. You don’t need to be a professional theologian to follow Jesus. In fact, you’re probably better off if you’re not. Everyone and anyone can do it. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” between the thoroughly indoctrinated and the rube on the street.

That said, however, you can’t just go do whatever you want and call it Christian. Anyone can work the Jesus program, but you have to know what the Jesus program is. So the last few verses here affirm the importance of those who bring the gospel. Somebody has to keep the Jesus story alive by re-telling it.

So, here’s the question:

In what ways have you been over-thinking the Jesus program? And, where do you find a community to talk it over and consult your heart about things? And, after you’ve talked it over and consulted your heart, what do you see is the Jesus program in your part of the world?

Extra credit:

If you’re Christian, how would you (or can you) explain this passage to a Jew? Or, if you’re Jewish, how do you explain to a Christian where Paul went wrong in his assessment of the Jewish situation?

Behind Door Number 3 – Free Joseph

Slave Market in Zanzibar, Tanzania
Monument to the Slave Market in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Photo credit: "Irene2005"

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him….

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’“ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
– Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The second and third paragraphs bring together two versions of this story. In the first, Reuben gets to be the one to save Joseph’s life. In the second, Judah gets to be the “hero.” But neither brother is a beacon of light here. Reuben is a crass opportunist, hoping to be the one to gain advantage over the others by “proving” his loyalty to their father in the act of delivering his favorite back safe and sound – except then it all goes wrong. Judah’s appeal is not much better. What kind of moral argument is: “Let’s not kill him, since he’s our brother, let’s just sell him”?

And don’t let the story’s opening justify what these brothers did. Trying to argue that Joseph somehow deserved what he got for being so uppity doesn’t cut the mustard. They sold him as a slave. Period. The story ought to be the occasion for us to think about how we have sold out our brothers (and sisters), and how we desperately try to rationalize our choices to do what we know is absolutely unconscionable. If you want a three point sermon, you can focus on three typical rationalizations:

  1. They deserved what they got. Sometime in the past, someone brought a bad (false) report about us or someone close to us. They upset the family’s (read also office’s or church’s or nation’s) sensibilities. They were too insolent, offensive, snooty, proud, or ambitious. So, we had to do what we had to do.
  2. I was just doing what was necessary to get ahead. See a need, fill a need. Joseph doesn’t want to die, Jacob wants his son back. I can persuade them to hold off, and then I can leverage that into a better deal down the road. It’s not just back door deals in business and politics.
  3. It was the lesser of two evils. Except that most of the time, we tell ourselves that we are choosing between two evils, when those two evils aren’t the only options. You didn’t really have to choose between one or the other. You could have chosen door number 3 – free Joseph. The average is the enemy of the good.

I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I’m just saying that if we can learn anything from this, it’s that no matter how you try to make it seem right, or justify it later on, selling someone out is still selling them out. And selling out always comes at a catastrophic human cost.

Today there are more people in slavery worldwide than at any time in history, as many as 27 million. They make the cocoa that goes into your Hershey’s chocolate bar. They make your Converse All-Star shoes. They are forced into the sex “industry” and to wage war as child soldiers. Their lives are no happier than the children memorialized in Zanzibar. We can tell ourselves that there’s nothing we can do. But that’s a rationalization, too. To do nothing, and to say nothing, is to be one of the other 9 brothers in this story, who are never mentioned by name, who said nothing, who went along to get along, and did nothing to stop the unconscionable from happening.

I wonder how many preachers will have the guts to say something about it this Sunday. What will you say? What will you do?

The Care and Feeding of Multitudes

Feeding the multitudes
Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish, 1620-23

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. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 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.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
– Matthew 14:13-21

This scene depicts the beginning of a people’s revolution. If, among those crowds that day, there had been anyone from the press, they would have reported it as such.

First off, notice the connection to John the Baptist. Herod did. In Luke’s version (Luke 9:7ff), the lead-up to the story shows Herod wondering how the guy he executed for gathering crowds in the wilderness could still be out there. Matthew says Jesus goes to the wilderness (“a deserted place”) after being told the John the Baptist was dead. In the wilderness following the first meeting with John, Jesus had been tempted to turn rocks into bread for his own benefit. This time, following John’s scene, Jesus is back in the wilderness and he does make bread – for the benefit of the people.

So the first question about this scene has got to be (thanks to Simon Harak): Where did all the people come from? Think about it. How can there be 5000 men, plus women and children with the kind of leisure time to take a couple days off for a wilderness trek? And the answer is that they are unemployed. They are imperial flotsam. Then and now imperial economic systems need to maintain a certain rate of unemployment. Modern economists call it the NAIRU: the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment. And they say that ideally, depending on other economic factors, this ideal unemployment figure should usually be over four percent, and as high as ten or more percent. In parts of the world under occupation, the rate is much higher: it’s easier to control people if they haven’t got an excuse to go anywhere or the means to do anything meaningful. Currently, for example, in Palestine unemployment in the West Bank is 16.5% and 40% in Gaza. In Iraq, the unemployment rate in 2009 according to the CIA’s World Fact Book  was 15.3%. In Afghanistan, it’s 35%. But unemployment isn’t just an ideal fact in an imperial war economy. Currently the US employment rate as it tries to maintain two major wars and maintain footholds throughout the known world is (as of the end of June) 9.2%. These 5000 are the ones who have been intentionally left destitute.

Second, it stands to reason that in any crowd of unemployed people, there are bound to be a lot of them sick. They can’t afford adequate nutrition. They can’t afford going to the doctor. They can’t afford medicine. And, think about it, if you’re sick or if you have a sick kid, you’re main worry is going to be about getting better. So occupations go better when there are lots of sick people. People don’t have the time or energy to resist. So the crowds gather and the first thing Jesus does is “he cured their sick.” Remember what they were saying about Obama when he was talking about the possibility of free universal health care? What do you think the establishment was saying about Jesus?

Third, notice that the disciples want Jesus to “send the crowds away.” It’s not hard to see the disciples as a representation of the church. And, even in the first generation of Matthew’s community, there is a tension between Jesus and the church. Then and now, the first response of the church in dealing with marginalized, unemployed, sick, hungry people is to send them away, Jesus’ constant response is let them come, and you take care of them.

So Jesus instructs the disciples to have the people sit down on the grass – wait, what grass? This was supposed to be the desert. So now, the scene is not just a people’s revolution: it has now become a living instance of Psalm 23 – “He leadeth me in green pastures, and feedeth me beside the still waters” (how else is there grass-in desert, the wilderness, the valley of the shadow of death?).

All ate and were filled – not just ate, were filled. So, says Harak, “He’s healed all the people the empire wants sick, and he’s fed all the people the empire wants hungry. How long do you think they’re going to let him live?” In fact, where there were once a crowd of sick hungry no-accounts, there are now 5000 healthy, well-fed men here. It’s a number big enough to be of imperial significance, since a Roman legion was a group of between 5000 and 6000 healthy well-fed Roman citizens. Jesus is leading five thousand healthy, well-fed men who he’s symbolically named citizens of God’s kingdom: he has legion now. How long do you think they’re going to let him live?

Finally, about the twelve baskets left over. Twelve tribes of Israel: the leftovers, the broken pieces. Jesus collects the broken pieces to be the new Israel. Think about it. The care and feeding of multitudes is just that revolutionary.