Monday, August 28, 2017

(Repeat) Hey! It's That Guy! (Matthew 16:12-20)

A previous sermon on this scripture passage, which was the lectionary reading for today:

 The late character actor J.T. Walsh inspired a website and a book dedicated to the phrase most often used to describe him: “Hey! It’s that guy!”

Walsh played in more than 50 movies and was nominated for an Emmy. The year he died of a heart attack, 1998, he was in three movies. He rarely had a lead role and was often kind of a meanie, but he popped up in so many places people couldn’t help but remember his face, even if they had no idea what his name was. Thus, he became “that guy.”

A little of that goes on when Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah when the group is gathered at Ceasarea Philippi. Jesus ask them, “Who do folks say I am,” and they answer that he’s supposed to be Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the old prophets.” So Jesus asks who they think he is. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter answers. The answer makes Jesus happy and he predicts great things for Peter as the church begins its ministry after he is gone.

Is Jesus happy just because of Peter’s answer? Maybe, but look at what he says about it: “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in Heaven.” I believe Jesus is even more excited because Peter’s answer suggests he’s opened himself up to God’s guidance in a whole new way. Even though he doesn’t stay open to it for very long, he’s made a start and Jesus knows this will be the way the church spreads through the world.

For any right-thinking properly educated Jew of Jesus’ day, Jesus himself was a round peg to fit into a square Messiah hole. We’ve probably heard at least once about how many religious leaders rejected Jesus as Messiah because they looked for a political leader to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel.

It’s more than that, though. The promised Messiah was more than just a king. Many of the psalms describe the ideal king for the nation, and the Messiah was expected to fulfill all these ideals. He would be a great general able to defeat armies on the battlefield as well as a great warrior able to do some of his own smiting if the need arose.

He would be a well-dressed but not flashy guy who presented himself well. The ladies would all love him. The old Israelite kings often had many wives, so the ideal king would be surrounded by well-dressed knockouts and devoted to each of them equally. By Jesus’ day, the custom of polygamy had faded among the Jews, but the idea was the same, only without the physical relationship. He would also be a man’s man, able to hunt, fish, camp out and hang out with the guys, who would all enjoy hanging around him. His wisdom would outshine Solomon himself.

He would support the folks who had it hard, and be on the side of those who didn’t have anybody on their side. They would know he was their protector. And he would uphold the teaching of God so that the whole nation, and through them the whole world, could be blessed and know God’s direct presence – his law “written on their hearts” as Jeremiah would say.

Today, we could say this ideal king would be a man who led the army to victory in battle, thwarted an assassination attempt single-handed, came home to accept congratula-tory yet perfectly appropriate hugs from all the gals, chest-bumped, ooh-rahed and high-fived all the guys, told their mothers that that was the best potato salad anybody had ever sent to a war zone (and of course they’d said grace over every spoonful) and told their dads that even though he and the rest had won, he was pretty sure they didn’t have a patch on those guys back in their day.

Then he’d finish it off by rescuing a kitten stuck in a tree.

This, you see, was what the Jewish people of Jesus’ day expected. Yes, Jesus was wise and compassionate, and he certainly did have a charisma that drew people to him. But he matched few of the rest of their expectations, so no ordinary person who sized him up and puzzled him out would have said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Only a person who allowed himself or herself to be led by the Holy Spirit could say such a thing with true understanding, and somehow Jesus knew that Peter had that understanding when he spoke.

Without the leading of the Spirit, the most anyone could say would be something like what people said when they saw J.T. Walsh’s familiar but un-named face on the screen: Hey! It’s that guy!

I believe that we could see Jesus in so many places today if we would let the Spirit guide us and open our eyes to him. We could see him in the people in need. Didn’t Jesus tell us that as we had done unto the least of these, we’d done unto him?

That’s just the start. He is at work all around us and the evidence is right there, if we will let ourselves be guided to see it, so that instead of saying, “Hey, it’s that guy!” we can say, “Hey! It’s Jesus!”

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Watch Your Step? (Matthew 14:22-33)

I wonder what Peter was thinking.

Seriously, what kind of a thing was that to say to a being that you see walking towards you on the surface of the water, in the middle of a stiff wind? The other disciples are already freaked out, having come to the logical conclusion that the only thing that could do something like that is a ghost.

Sure, this being says it's Jesus, but that's what you'd expect a tricky ghost to say, wouldn't it? If it's a ghost, you can't trust it. So Peter says, "If it's you, Lord, tell me to come to you!" What did he expect to hear? If he believed it was Jesus, did he expect him to say, "C'mon, Pete! Just because I do it doesn't mean you can! Just wait a minute and I'll be right there." Because if it's a spooky ghost, it might just very well say, "Come," and then stand there laughing while he sank like the rock he was named for.

Anyway, he says what he says, and Jesus says, "Come," and Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking. But as soon as he starts to notice his surroundings he gets scared and starts sinking. So he calls out -- notice all traces of uncertainty are gone -- "Lord, save me!"

There seem to be two different reasons given for Peter's sudden lack of buoyancy. Matthew says he "became frightened," and Jesus' words suggest he doubted and lost faith. I think they're two sides of the same coin, cooperating to produce this disappointing result. And they stem from the same root: Peter takes his eyes off of Jesus and begins to pay more attention to what's around him than he does to what he's headed towards.

On a simple level, that seems obvious: Take your eyes off of Jesus and you've got trouble. But that's the kind of idea that can unfold into something larger. Although Jesus would later give Peter the much larger charge of leading the entire church, here he gives the simplest of directions: "Come." Whatever larger call God may also have on our lives, it wraps around the simplest one, which is to follow him.

Organizations and even people have over the last several years become fans of buzzword-heavy planning sessions to develop "mission statements," "strategic plans" and "tactical objectives." The ideas are simple and important: Figure out why you're here, what you want to do and how you're going to do it. I sometimes think the people who use all the other phrases didn't get to play Army enough when they were kids.

However that may be, churches and Christians ourselves have mission statements as well, because we also need to know and say why we're here, what we want to do and how we're going to do it. My own denomination in 2004 said its mission was "to make disciples of Jesus Christ." In 2008 we tweaked it, adding "for the transformation of the world," apparently to distinguish us from those who were making disciples that didn't transform the world.

Ideally, a mission statement not only keeps you from doing things that don't help it, it also shapes the things you are doing, perhaps giving them a new purpose and energy along with a new direction. When we turn aside from the mission, we can find ourselves in a rising tide of busy-ness and distraction, not nearly as capable of focusing on that primary goal.

Life will throw things at us, not because it's got any active interest in our failure but because that's just what life does. And some of those things will distract us from Jesus' simplest call to follow him, because we're flawed human beings who mess up. Fortunately, when that happens and we find ourselves sinking into the mess we've wound up in, we need only call on the one we should have been paying attention to all along, and we find him swift to save.

Because he never forgets his mission, and his mission is saving the creation of his Father -- you and me.