Crazy Love – Matthew 21:33-46

“Listen to another parable,” Jesus says. Haven’t we had enough parables lately?  

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard . . .” Another vineyard? What’s with all the vineyard talk, Jesus? Workers in the vineyard, two sons in the vineyard, now a landowner in a vineyard? 

Vineyards may be archaic or obscure to us. Maybe we have some scuppernong or muscadine vines in our gardens. Who knows? The vineyard, however, was a popular image for the people of God. Hear the poetic words of Isaiah 5:1-4: 

 Let me sing for my loved one 
    a love song for his vineyard. 
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 
2 He dug it, 
    cleared away its stones, 
    planted it with excellent vines, 
    built a tower inside it, 
    and dug out a wine vat in it. 
He expected it to grow good grapes— 
    but it grew rotten grapes. 
3 So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, 
    judge between me and my vineyard: 
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard 
    that I haven’t done for it? 
When I expected it to grow good grapes, 
    why did it grow rotten grapes? 

A prophet telling of his disappointment with the yield of a vineyard. A short jump to a Messiah telling of a landowner’s struggles with the workers in the vineyard. The image was already planted (no pun intended) in the minds of Jesus’ audience.  

This is the third of three responses to the Leaders’ question: “What kind of authority do you have to do these things? Who do you think you are?” 

  • First answer: Where do you think John got his authority? 
  • Second answer: There was a man who had two sons. One showed his obedience to his father’s will through his actions. 
  • Third answer: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard . . .

He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. 34 When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. 35 But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death. 

36 “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’39 They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 

40 “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?” 

41 They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.” 

42 Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes?[a43  Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. 44  Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.” 

45 Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. 46 They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet. 

For Isaiah, the problem was the earth – the vineyard was cared for, but it still produced bad fruit. For Jesus, the earth produced the proper yield, but the workers were bad. In other words, the problem was not with “The Kingdom,” but its inhabitants. The people of God’s Kingdom were motivated by greed, for they, in the end, killed “the son” in order to “have his inheritance.” A misguided goal, at best, for what landowner would ever share his son’s inheritance with the people who killed him? 

Apparently, the meaning was not lost on the chief priests and Pharisees. The symbolism is clear to us, too. Jesus is the “son,” and humanity is the “tenants.” 

This parable has always disturbed me for that reason. These people are horrible! Killing the servants and the son? Then, I realize that Jesus is talking about me! Stop! The punchline doesn’t make it any better – “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Darn it, Jesus! I’m trying! I’d never kill anybody, but my “fruit producing” sometimes leaves something to be desired.  

I continued to be bothered (which, by the way, is what a good parable is supposed to do!) until I noticed the landowner’s actions.  

We all would have lost patience with the tenant farmers, and answered like the chief priests, “Let’s put those miserable wretches to death!” Dang straight! They deserve it!  

What kind of landowner would ever send a second round of servants, much less his own son? A crazy landowner, that’s for sure! Jesus’ culture was an “honor and shame” culture. The sending of the son was an attempt to gain some honor; “surely, these tenants will show the proper respect to my appointed heir. That’s the appropriate thing to do.” Yeah, but who would risk it? They’ve already beaten and killed most of your servants! Are you crazy? 

Yes. The landowner is crazy – crazy in love with his tenants.  

The inference is clear. God is the “crazy in love” landowner! When it made enough “sense” for God to write us off, leave us to our own devices, “put those miserable wretches to death,” he tried again . . . and again . . . and again . . . even after we killed his son.  

The love of God for us is so “crazy” that it defies all logic!   

When it would have been reasonable enough, the Heavenly Landowner could have “put those wretches to death,” or, as in the case of Isaiah’s warning, withdrawn his protection.  

Our God tried even harder – sent his son, even! Forever reaching out to us, when it seems we are determined to be unreachable.  

Reggie Holder, a friend who is on the staff at Highlands UMC in Birmingham, told the following story at the recent funeral of Belon Friday, a retired UMC pastor. Lucky for us, Reggie posted it on Facebook. I tell it with his permission: 

Belon Friday was a “hale fellow well met” (as he might say) – a man of great wisdom and compassion. He never met a stranger and was always eager to help others, particularly those in a ditch, the down trodden or those out of luck. 

One particular gray, rainy and cold Friday morning shortly after I started to work at Highlands, I looked out the office window and noticed a frail, elderly woman wearing only a thin, short sleeved house dress, wandering aimlessly in the church parking lot. She held a rolled-up newspaper still in the plastic rain sleeve in her hands and was walking from car to car gently tapping each car window. I watched for a while then went outside to see what was going on. 

I approached her and asked if I could help her and she just looked at me with a vacant stare and sort of hummed. “Hmmm hmmm hmmm.” 

I asked her if she was looking for someone and she just hummed again,” hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.” 

I asked a couple of other questions and each time the same response – “hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.” 

I suggested that we get out of the rain and took her by the elbow and led her inside to the church office. 

Once we were inside, Jean Jones, our church secretary, tried talking to the woman and asked a few questions and she too got the same reply – a soft humming. 

Several women from the church kitchen had been watching the scene in the parking lot and they had made their way to the office and they tried to help us learn the identity of the woman and asked questions and with each question came the same thing – “hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.” 

Not knowing what else to do we called the Southside police precinct and they sent a community service officer to help. He asked a few questions and the same humming answer was the woman’s reply. He checked to see if anyone was reported missing from area nursing homes and came up empty. We were at a loss to know what to do next. 

Then Belon came lumbering into the office. We brought him up to speed and he asked the woman how she was doing and she began to hum – “hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.” 

Belon’s face lit up – “Oh, you like to sing?” He bent down on one knee so he was level with the woman, and said, “Let’s sing then – and began. 

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound”. – Come on Reg, Jean, sing with me – 

“That saved a wretch, like me,” we joined in. 

Then the woman began to sing with us “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” 

Belon took her small, wrinkled hands in his big oversized hand. He looked her straight in the eye and whispered softly, “Little mama, tell me your name.” 

“Mary Taylor,” she answered. 

Miz Taylor – do you know your address?” 

“1217 2nd Avenue, West — across from Rickwood Field.” 

Jean Jones had her steno pad and is furiously taking down every detail. 

Miz Taylor – do you know your phone number?” She recites it and Jean writes it down. 

Miz Taylor, would you like us to take you home?” 
“Oh yes, would you please?” 

Reggie continues, “A quick phone call confirmed all that she had told Belon. This frail, elderly woman who could not remember her name was soon reunited with her family.” 

One more time. One more attempt, God says. Maybe this time, it will work. We will be brought home. 

That’s love! Crazy love!

Who’s Got the Power? Matthew 21:23-32

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and elders of the people came to him as he was teaching. They asked, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”

24 Jesus replied, “I have a question for you. If you tell me the answer, I’ll tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things. 25  Where did John get his authority to baptize? Did he get it from heaven or from humans?”

They argued among themselves, “If we say ‘from heaven,’ he’ll say to us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But we can’t say ‘from humans’ because we’re afraid of the crowd, since everyone thinks John was a prophet.” 27 Then they replied, “We don’t know.”

Jesus also said to them, “Neither will I tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

29 “‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went.

30 “The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.

31 “Which one of these two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first one.”

Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. 32 For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him.

“What kind of authority do you have to do these things?” What things? What are they talking about? Rewind the story a few verses – to verse 12: 

 Matthew 21:12-17  

Then Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.”  

     People who were blind and lame came to Jesus in the temple, and he healed them.  

     But when the chief priests and legal experts saw the amazing things he was doing and the children shouting in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were angry. They said to Jesus, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” “Yes,” he answered. “Haven’t you ever read, From the mouths of babies and infants you’ve arranged praise for yourself? ” Then he left them and went out of the city to Bethany and spent the night there. 

Our passage for today comes on the day after the “Cleansing of the Temple.” The “these things” the Chief Priests and Elders are talking about is the “cleansing” and the healing Jesus did the day before. Their question was not a general “Who do you think you are?” But a specific “What do you mean coming in here and tearing the place up?” 

The authorities in the temple – the Chief Priests and the Elders, the Preacher and the Chairpeople of all the committees – ask Jesus where he got his authority. They’re implying he had none!  

Think of how many people in our lives claim authority on a daily basis. There are some that make such claims and we don’t even question it. We assume they know what they are talking about – most of the time. They have a form of authority – of power – to tell us what to do;  and, we do it – most of the time: 

  • Doctors 
  • Lawyers 
  • Teachers  
  • Police Officers 
  • Government Officials 

“By what authority” do they tell us what to do? They have gained authority by education or training, in the case of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and police. Some have had authority bestowed upon them – like government officials. A majority of us have said, “We give you the authority to make decisions for our city, state, or country” and elected them to office. Some of their authority is “heavier” than others. It carries the weight of law behind it. For others, we can choose to acquiesce to their authority or not – we don’t have to follow the treatment the doctor prescribes, for instance.  

 For every authority figure that bears their power honorably, there seems to be another who abuses that power. “Power corrupts,” it is said; some forget the humility needed to hold power effectively and soon believe that they are above the very laws that put them into their position. Some allow their training to breed a sense of superiority over the untrained. It seems that humans ability to mess things up is unlimited.  

 The same “Social Contract” which gives power and authority to our leaders was in place in Jesus’ day, too. When Jesus tore up the temple, he was protesting the abuse of power. He was saying the Chief Priests had broken their covenant with the people and with God. They had authority in name, but their actions destroyed the trust in which the people held them.  

 God had given them the authority to direct the people in acts of worship, they had used that authority to enact burdensome rules, and cheat those who trusted them. The place of worship had become a “den of thieves.” 

 Their positions said “authority”, but their actions said something else. 

 Jesus – through his protest of “cleansing” and his confrontation of authority – sought to remind us that actions matter. Just because someone holds a position of power, doesn’t mean they actually have, or have earned the authority. Authority is proven through actions. How else do we know if the people we put in power are worthy of the position? We have to see that worth displayed in their actions.  

 Jesus’ questions of the Chief Priests, and his parable are meant to say this very thing. You can’t just say you are “doing the will of your Father,” without “doing the will of your Father.”  

 We Christians, those who of us who claim the position of “Believer,” have been given power. It is not a power of superiority. It is not a power to lord over others. Ours is the somewhat ironic power to love and serve and give, power to heal and build up, power that is granted to us by God when we claim the position.  

 Was God right to trust us with such power? Our actions answer that question.  

 What do you think Jesus would do if he came into our “temple?” 

 Do our actions prove he was right to trust us like he does? 

 Or – have our actions earned a “cleansing,” a protest?   

 It is not enough to only say we will “work in the vineyard” then never actually work. If we do that, our power is a façade and already corrupted. We when claim the title “Christian,” our actions must prove the name.  

 

If so, we will have power. We will display God’s authority!   

Jesus Who? – Matthew 16:13-20

Jesus has just finished another feeding miracle – 4000 people this time! He has just finished a dispute with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. After they leave, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “Be on your guard for the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 

So, the twelve, being a bit “slow on the uptake” begin to ask each other, “Yeast? Did you bring the bread? I didn’t bring any bread? Who’s got the bread? Nobody told me bring any bread! I thought you brought the bread . . .” 

“Oh, Ye of little faith,” Jesus responds to their bickering. “I wasn’t talking about bread,” he said, “I don’t need bread! I just fed about 10,000 people with 12 loaves of bread. How many baskets of bread did we have leftover? I wasn’t talking about bread! I was talking about the Pharisees and the Sadducees – the stuff they teach!” 

“Oh, Yeah! We knew that . . .”  

 It is among that context that Jesus stops them at Caesarea Philippi and asks, “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” 

 Matthew 16:13-20  

Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” Then he ordered the disciples not to tell anybody that he was the Christ. 

Do you hear the tension? The twelve disciples have just been caught in an embarrassing misunderstanding; their ignorance was showing. Jesus confronts them, turns to them and basically says, “It’s time to ‘put up or shut up’! Who do you think I am?” 

Everyday, we are faced with the same question, the same tension between who “people say” Jesus is and who we say he is. For way too long, we Christians have been leaving the answer to the “people” who speak the loudest, who have the most power.  They get the attention. Their answers become our answers when we refuse to speak up.   

 But, we’re nice people. We don’t like conflict. We’d rather everybody just “move on” and leave the past in the past. After all, we rationalize, Jesus wouldn’t want us all fighting with each other. 

 No.  He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t want us hating each other either! He wouldn’t want us allowing hate, ignorance, and misunderstanding to go unchallenged, either! Not when it tears apart the world he loves enough to die for! 

 Here he was, alone with his twelve best friends, and he didn’t let it go unchallenged. He didn’t let the powerful Pharisees and Sadducees go unchallenged. Its safe to say he wouldn’t let it go unchallenged today, either. The players have changed; the field is bigger; but the challenge remains – WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM? 

 The tension lies between what popular, powerful, outspoken people say about Jesus and what we say – the anonymous, plain old everyday Christian. It is not enough to let others talk about Jesus and get all the attention. Their pronouncements, as were the “yeast” of the Pharisees and Sadducees, are motivated by power and control. Not by love. Not by sacrifice. Their motives may be cloudy, but they certainly aren’t Jesus’ motives.  

 When we remain silent, we implicitly agree! When we remain silent, those who do not know Jesus assume we, too, share the motivations of politicians, TV preachers, opinion-makers. I hope and pray we have higher motivations; that we know a different Jesus. 

 Karoline Lewis, in her “Dear Working Preachers” weekly blog, says 

 When I read once again this familiar exchange between Jesus and Peter, I imagined Jesus walking into the middle of the rally in Charlottesville, in the middle of the next rally and the next and the next, in the middle of [the terrorist tragedies of Barcelona], asking all there, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “But who do you say that I am?” 

Imagine Jesus asking the white supremacists, the violent protesters, men and women with crosses, rebel flags and swastikas, people shouting and waving signs – “Who do you say that I am?”  

 “You keep using my name to justify your violence and hatred,” but, in the words of Inigo Montoya, from The Princess Bride, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

 “So, tell me,” Jesus might say, “just who do you think I am?” 

 In Charlottesville . . .   

 In Barcelona . . .   

 In Washington . . .  

 In Montgomery . . .  

 In Winfield . . .  

 “Who do you say that I am? You keep using my name, but I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

 Lewis continues in her article saying that we have to imagine Jesus asking us these questions, and take him seriously enough to answer both questions – to know who “others” say Jesus is and who we say that he is. We must be able to confess where the world gets it wrong, and even if we get it wrong. 

 So, let me play Peter, lead by example, and give you my clear, unequivocal answer. 

 Some folks might claim that Jesus is on the side of the powerful, the wealthy and white. He is. But I say he is also on the side of the weak, the poor, and people of all colors.  

 Some folks imply that Jesus only loves Christians. But, I say that Jesus loves all people – whether they believe in him or not. 

 And some folks might allow others to speak for them, and let their silence imply that Jesus loves only straight people. I believe that Jesus loves all people – gay or straight. He never met a person that he didn’t welcome and love. I defy anyone to find a place in the Gospels where Jesus continued the casting out of the outcast. He just doesn’t do it. And neither will I. 

 I realize that my statements might put me on a “different page” than some. And no one has to agree with me just because I say it. That’s the point. Decide for yourself.

The beauty about being a United Methodist it that, in the words of Wesley, as long as we preach “Christ and Christ crucified . . . in all other matters we think and let think.”

The beauty of America is that I can say what I believe without fear of repercussion! Or, at least, I should be able to.

Make up your own mind. The problem is when we allow others to do our thinking, our speaking, and our believing for us! 

I believe that,  deep down,  many of us are not as hateful and judgmental as our silence would imply. I know the people of Winfield, Alabama to be kind and loving when given the opportunity. But, we also choose the easier path of silence sometimes.   

 Today’s passage demands that we step up like Peter and answer Jesus’ question for ourselves. Stop letting others answer for us. Because,  sometimes, people who need to know Jesus hear those answers and run the other way! 

 It is time for all of us, who love like Jesus loved, seek to live like Jesus lived, to tell the world who we know Jesus to be.   

 It is time for us who have been loved by Jesus, forgiven by Jesus, accepted by Jesus to tell everyone who we say that he is. 

Sink or Swim – Matthew 14:22-33

Have you ever done anything that you’re afraid of?

  •  Started a new job?
  • Asked someone to marry you?
  • Asked someone to prom?
  • Had to give someone some bad news?
  • Taught a teenager to drive?
  • Said goodbye to someone you love?

We’ve all been there. We’ve all been paralyzed – or nearly paralyzed – by “What if?”

  • What if I fail?
  • What if I can’t do it?
  • What if they say “no”?
  • What if they have a wreck?
  • What if they never speak to me again?

We all know that life is hard sometimes, and there are going to be times when we have to overcome the fear and act! As we mature, hopefully, we learn to do hard things in spite of the fear!

But, then, there is a deeper fear. Confusion, disorientation, “what in the world is going on” kind of fear? It seems that every week, if I so desired, I could stand up here and preach about some other event that has disoriented our worldview.

Someone – someone important, someone influential – has said or done something that we have never heard before.

Something that we have rarely seen has happened. Something we thought we might not ever see – or, at least, ever see again.

We are reaching unprecedented levels of our use of the word, “unprecedented.”

This week’s event (or events)? Nuclear threats and violent racial protests. It’s the 1960’s all over again. How do we live in a world filled with such fear? Some of us remember the days of the Cold War, bomb drills at school, fall-out shelters, the Soviet Union and their menacing leaders Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Some of us remember newspapers full of pictures of violence, most right here in Alabama. Pictures of fire hoses and German Shepherds.

Yesterday, it was the Soviet Union and Birmingham. Today, it’s North Korea and Charlottesville.

How did our parents live a life of faith in the midst of such deeply frightening challenges? How are we disciples in a world full of such fear?

I sense that most of us just “hunkered down”and waited for things to get better, or just calm down. In the face of a potential nuclear holocaust, what can you do?  In the face of such fearsome hate, its easy to hide!

Some of us protest. Some act on behalf of the oppressed. Some Christians risk their lives to create a world like Jesus described.

Some of us risk and some of us play it safe.

In terms of today’s scripture, some of us “jump in the water” and some of us “stay in the boat.”

Matthew 14:22-33

 Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. 

      Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed. Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” 

     Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!” Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” 

      When they got into the boat, the wind settled down. Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”

When we read this passage, we usually give Peter a hard time for sinking. We join in with Jesus, “Oh, yes of little faith . . .” But what did we expect? He’s human, for goodness sake! Humans do not walk on water!

Preachers have forever decried his lack of faith; focused on the sinking, rather than the attempt. That’s not news! That doesn’t warrant a whole sermon! I might as well preach about the “sin of Gravity,” and how we should all overcome it and start floating!

The sermon-worthy event in this passage is that fact that Peter got out of the boat at all! He’d been suffering through a fearsome storm all night long! In the early hours of the morning, he saw an unprecedented sight – a man walking on the water. Well, it might have been a man.  They thought it was a ghost.

In the midst of all that confusion and fear, he hears a familiar voice calling, “Take heart. It is I; do not be afraid.” And for one second, Peter thought he could do anything! Even walk on water!

When is the last time, in the midst of paralyzing confusion and fear, we heard Jesus’ familiar voice calling? When it seems like our “boat” is about to be overcome by a storm of violence and hatred, have we ever heard Jesus calling, “It’s okay. It’s me. Don’t be scared.”?

I’m absolutely certain that we have heard that call. But have we done anything? Twelve disciples heard the same call. Only one did something.

What he did seemed crazy – to the other 11 in the boat. But for that split-second, Peter didn’t listen to his fear. He didn’t even listen to common sense. He listened to Jesus.

And, usually, we focus on Peter’s choice once he got in the water. “Believe and walk” versus “doubt and sink.” But, look at the choice he made seconds before he hit the waves.

Peter could jump in the water and swim, or he could stay in the boat and sink.

It’s all about vulnerability and risk. The choice we face comes before we hit the water. We can risk the possibility of getting wet, or we can stay in the boat and never know.

When we hear Jesus voice over the storm of fear, we have a choice. The boat or the water. The boat is safe, but the boat is sinking. In the boat, where we are afraid to risk. In the boat, there is no joy. In the boat, we just hope to survive, but never flourish. In the boat, we try to numb the fear.

The waves are dangerous, but that’s where Jesus is; that is where he calls us. Peter risks. He is vulnerable to his fear, like we all are. But that fear, that vulnerability, is where faith is born!

We can “get in the water” – act, stand up, reach out, love the ones the rest of the world hates. Jesus is there to save us when we sink.

In the risk lies our faith.

Who’s Hungry? – Matthew 14:13-21

Matthew 14:13-21 (CEB)

13 When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. When the crowds learned this, they followed him on foot from the cities. 14 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. 15 That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

16 But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”

17 They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”

18 He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers.21 About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten.

In almost 30 years of ministry, I’ve been to a lot of potluck dinners! In bigger churches and smaller churches, in cities and small towns, in three states, I have never seen a potluck dinner run out of food. Well, there was this one time, but I was late because it was at Belinda’s church; I had to finish up at mine. I did get a piece of ham and two spoons of English peas – so, technically, it didn’t run out of food.  Might as well have, though . . .

Then, there is the story of Stone Soup. It’s an old story, that appears in many forms in many countries. Two travelers approach a village with nothing but an iron pot. They build a fire, fill the pot with water and put a stone in the pot. Curious and suspicious villagers approach, asking about it. 

“This is Stone Soup,” the strangers say. “It’s going to be delicious! It just needs a little extra something for flavor.” Each villager is willing to add that “extra something” – a few carrots, some spices, various vegetables – until the water becomes soup. Then, the strangers take out the stone and its ready! Everybody shares and is filled. 

A lot of people think something like that happened in this gospel passage. Once people saw that others were pitching in, they contributed what little they had until all shared of the bounty and were filled. There was a miracle; the miracle was that stingy, suspicious people turned generous and trusting. Even if that was what happened, there is still a lesson to be learned. Just like in Stone Soup. 

This miracle is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels. That’s remarkable. Of all the things that Jesus did, all the healing, all the teaching, this is the only miracle story that is reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (other than the resurrection, of course). Why? What makes this story so important? What does it teach us about God? About Jesus? About who we are as disciples? 

First of all, the world ruled by the Roman Empire was different than ours. There were significant differences between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Perhaps our history books picture sumptuous feasts in marble palaces, rulers reclining while they are fanned with palm fronds and fed grapes by servants. It might have been that way for some, but not for the majority of people.  

The people who followed Jesus “on foot from the towns” suffered from food insecurity – their supply of food was unreliable, insecure. They didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Most people lived below the subsistence level of nutrition and caloric intake. No wonder they had so many sick people for Jesus to cure. 

But, when you think about it, maybe the Roman world was not a lot different from ours. The USDA defines “Food Insecurity” as “a situation of limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire adequate foods in socially acceptable ways.” It’s not just lack of food, but lack of adequate and nutritious food.  

One of the cruelest ironies of our world is that eating healthily is harder and more expensive than eating badly. It is much easier and cheaper to eat a bag of chips washed down by a “big ol’ Coke” than to fix a healthy and nutritious meal.  Many times, with poverty comes obesity and other illnesses. Cruel and inhumane. 

In 2016, 18.8% of Alabamians were “food insecure.” In 2017, according to an organization called Alabama Possible, 19.8% of people in Marion County live in poverty. The “Food Insecurity” rate for our county is 15% for adults and 25.8% for children. So, if we had a gathering of around 5000 people to feed, upwards of 1000 of them would be hungry.  

Our own community’s “Backpacks and Beyond” program bears that out. It serves children in need by providing food for them to take home on the weekend. They send home food packages in four areas schools, as confidentially indicated by the teachers. Last year they averaged about 150 meals per week. 6000 packages in a 10-month school year. That’s a lot of food!

Many of us are like my wife’s great-aunts Laura, Ruth, and Dorothy. Once, they visited us in Huntsville. I was late coming home because I had to help a homeless man who came by the church. Laura, Ruth, and Dorothy could not understand how anyone would not have something to eat. They had grown up, like many of us, surrounded by land and people who knew how to cultivate the land. If you were hungry, you just went out to the garden and picked something, or you ate what you had canned for the winter, or you enjoyed a “Stone Soup” kind of moment where the community pitched in to help. 

The six of us – Belinda, her aunts, her grandfather, and I – left dinner that night realizing that the world had changed; and that was 25 years ago! I would venture a guess that things might have gotten worse since then. 

This is why Jesus prayed for God to give his people their “daily bread.” It’s why we still pray such today. First-century Palestine and 21st-Century Alabama aren’t that much different. The powerful still control the resources. The powerful (and make no mistake – most of us would be considered “powerful”) still enjoy health and wealth.  

 The “Feeding of the 5000,” as we have come to call it, reminds us of some truths about God, and being God’s people: 

 It is God’s will that all hungry people be fed.  

  • Countless Old Testament stories depict God providing for the poor. He feeds the Israelites on manna while they wander in the wilderness. Prophets condemn leaders for failing to feed the people (Ezekiel 34:1-10), and encourage God’s people to share (Isaiah 58:7, 10).  
  • Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, blesses the poor, the meek, and hungry (Matthew 5:1-10). He reminds his hearers to “give alms” to help those in need (6:2-4). He defends his own act of picking grain on the Sabbath (12:1-8). What determines one’s place in the final judgement? When you saw the hungry, did you give them something to eat (Matthew 25:35-45). 

When God’s Kingdom comes, there will be abundance of food and feasting for all. 

  • Once again, Ezekiel and Isaiah speak of the day when God establishes his rule, trees shall bear fruit, the earth will yield it increase and all will be fed.  
  • In this passage, Jesus acts out the words of the prophets. In God’s kingdom, all are fed, with 12 baskets left over! 

How does it happen? (I bet you know what I am going to say)   

That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”  

 The disciples mean well. They are only thinking of the well-being of all those people. They all need to eat. Maybe, though, they aren’t able to eat, or don’t have anything to eat.  Sending them into town wouldn’t do them any good!  

 You give them something to eat,” Jesus says. Today, you are going to be the miracle!  

John 17:1-11 – Prayer-paration

When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created. 

“I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. “I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. 

I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.

I made up a word to title this sermon. “Prayer-paration” is meant to remind us of “preparation.” Because, in the passage for today, Jesus offers a prayer that seeks to prepare his disciples for what is about to happen. Before he goes, he spends some time in “prayer-paration.”

Here’s what I think is so cool about this passage – when Jesus knows he is about to die, when he knows he will never see his best friends again, he prays for them; and, as he says in verse 20, he prays for us. (“I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word.)

Knowing that he is about to be arrested, tried, and crucified, Jesus leaves his disciples with final, encouraging words. He has to prepare them for what is coming. He could have stirred up their anger (“We’re right! They’re wrong! You must avenge my death!”). He could have to them to run and hide until everything settles down, then resume his work. He could have given up and encouraged the 12 to do the same (“We made a good effort, but it just didn’t work. Good try, fellas!”)

In the end, Jesus prayed and asked his Heavenly Father to protect these disciples (and us) “so that they may be one” as he and his Father are one. It’s all about unity.

In order to prepare them for the storm that is coming, Jesus asks God to unify his disciples (and us). Perhaps he had the words of Ecclesiastes in mind?

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their hard work. If either should fall, one can pick up the other. But how miserable are those who fall and don’t have a companion to help them up! Also, if two lie down together, they can stay warm. But how can anyone stay warm alone? Also, one can be overpowered, but two together can put up resistance. A three-ply cord doesn’t easily snap.

I might have said it before, but unity does not mean unison. A good choir does not always sing the same notes in the same rhythm as part of the melody. Most of the time a good choir will sing in harmony – different, but related notes that contribute to the beauty of the melody. Even singing in harmony, their unity is clear.

Too often we mistake unity for unison. To be in unity is to be stronger, like a “three-ply cord.” Too many people believe that strength comes only when everybody thinks, says, or does the same thing; only by acting in unison (usually with the directions of a leader) can we survive any threats we might face.

The immediate future for these twelve disciples was extremely threatening. All through his ministry, Jesus had acted on behalf of God’s call for justice and mercy in stark contrast to the Roman rule of persecution and oppression. So, when the Jewish authorities would arrange to “hold Jesus still” while the Roman fist could “pound him,” the disciples might scatter! Naturally,  they would seek safety, maybe in hiding.

Remember, Jesus is praying for us, too. What do we do when we face similar threats (if we even do)? Honestly, I think that most of the things we see as threats are just concocted to make us afraid, so that we Christians will be more docile, more “leadable.”

When we face the more insidious threats of apathy, greed, callousness, what do we do? We do the equivalent of “hiding.” We throw up our hands and say, “What can we do? People never change! Some people just don’t want to be helped!” Rather than face those threats together, we give up. We hide our true strength and faith behind cynicism.

But Jesus prays.

Jesus doesn’t face this challenge as a football coach at halftime; this is no locker room pep-talk! This is a prayer!

Jesus seeks divine help for a challenge that his disciples (and we) cannot face alone! We need God! Without unity, we will not survive. Without many people, using many gifts, working together in harmony, we will not survive. God must act upon us in order to make that happen. Left to our own devices, we will hide, scatter, vilify the enemy, attack with vengeance, anything but work in unity.

This is why we pray:

  •  We pray seeking God’s help in hard times.
  • Prayer changes us much more than it ever changes God! When we pray, we see things differently. We see that there is a level of activity above the human.
  • When we pray, we acknowledge that we “can’t do it alone.”
  • Indeed, when we pray we are never praying alone. As Paul reminds us, “In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans.” (Romans 8:26)

We pray simply what is on our hearts. The unity we seek is not just between humans, but also with God. We might stumble on “what’s mine is yours, and yours is mine” and “I am in you and you are in me,” but it means that Jesus shares a deep intimacy with God. He wants us to share that intimacy, too.

So, we are not just one with each other, but one with God.

When we worry about “what should I pray about?” Know that we can pray about whatever we might talk about with our most intimate friend. Whatever we are worried about. Whatever we need help with. Whatever we are happy about. Whatever we are thankful for.

That is unity – with God and one another.

That is the prayer that prepares us for hard times.

If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you know that, even the best have some expectations. Each partner is expected to do certain things, perform certain duties, show their affection in certain ways. I learned this early in life – in the 2nd grade. I learned all about relationships from my 2nd grade girlfriend, Claudia.

There I was, minding my own business when a note landed on my desk. I looked up to see Claudia passing by on her way to the pencil sharpener. Checking to make sure no one was looking (you know how teachers are – “Mr. Freeman, perhaps you would like to share that note with the whole class?”), I opened it:

“I like you.

Do you like me?

Check yes or no.

___ yes ____ no”

Yes. I am the guy George Strait wrote the song about! As she sharpened her pencil, Claudia was “staring a hole through” me, nodding her head. She meant “check yes or no now.”

I checked yes, of course. What self-respecting, 2nd grade, man-about-town would not? What would Greg Brady do? As easy as that – I had a girlfriend! We executed a flawless hand-off on her way back to her desk. That was that! Or so I thought.

A few weeks later, at the Halloween Carnival, I was taking in the “Haunted House” (Which we all knew was Mrs. McCool’s fourth grade classroom. We weren’t dummies!). Someone grabbed my arm as I was leaving the “Brains and Eyeballs” room. They pulled me behind the curtain just before the empty coffin room (special thanks to Collier-Butler Funeral Home for the donation). It was Claudia’s older, much tougher sister, Lisa.

“You the kid who likes my sistah?” I should tell you, at this point, that Claudia and her family were new to our school. They “weren’t from around here” as we might say. “I hear they’re from New York,” I heard my mother and friends say.

“Um, yes?”

“We need to tuwahlk. We don’t think you’re paying her enough attention, if you know what I mean.”

“We? We who?” I stammered.

“The family. Her sistahs,” she answered, putting her arm around my shoulder, walking me toward the next curtain (mannequin dressed like Dracula, thanks to Hagedorn’s Department store). “We want you to be nice to Claudia, you know? Walk with her. Sit with her at lunch. Talk to her at recess. Maybe you could give her your turn on the teetah-tottah.”

“The what?”

“The see-saw, moron!” We had arrived at the back window of the classroom and Lisa motioned out to the bike rack. “Do you know my boyfriend?”

Burt. Oh sure, I knew Burt. A sixth-grader. He was a Patrol Boy. If “Star Wars” existed in 1971, Patrol Boys would have been “Stormtroopers” and Burt “Darth Vader.” No one messed with Patrol Boys, with their helmets and badges and those yellow flags on those long, bamboo poles. They ruled the parking lot – before and after school.

As Burt looked at us through the window, Lisa gave an almost imperceptible nod. Burt held up a yellow Ticonderoga pencil – and snapped it in half!

“I’m glad we’ve had this little tuwahlk,” Lisa said. Turning me to face her and patting my cheek, she ended “I think we’ve come to an understanding. You have fun out there tonight.”

Love has expectations. It should come as no surprise. If you love someone, you act in certain ways – hopefully without the threat of a 6th grade tough guy. Yet, we Christians are fond of saying that Jesus’ love is unconditional; there are no conditions placed on his love for us. That’s true. We never earn Christ’s love. He died for us “while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us.”

But, there are certain ways that we Christians should act once we profess our love for Christ. In his last moments with the disciples, Jesus talked about that – about how to act once we enter a relationship with him:

John 14:15-21 (CEB)

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion,[a] who will be with you forever. 17 This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.

18 “I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you. 19 Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me. Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments . . .” That was hard enough for the twelve guys who walked around with Jesus for three years. Time and time again, they messed up. They misinterpreted Jesus’ words. They got self-righteous, argued about status, got scared. If they couldn’t do it, how are we supposed to?

Once we profess our love for Jesus, there are expectation placed in us, namely “keep his commandments.” Do what he says to do!

We’re not doing a very good job of it. Do I have to remind you of the hate and fear that passes for Christian action. I cannot conceive how those who profess love for Christ can spew such hate for God’s children. If they proclaim to follow Christ, then they conveniently forget his call to feed, house, and care for the “least of these.” Some who claim to be Christian pray out loud as the Publican in Luke 18 – “Lord, thank you that I am not like them!”

Elsewhere, John writes a letter (1 John 4) and explains more about the expectations of love:

  • People who love Christ aren’t afraid: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.”
  • This love doesn’t start with us, it comes from God. “We love because God first loved us. 20 If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. 21 This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.”

Good news! Jesus will not leave us to do this “commandment following” all by ourselves. He speaks of another Companion. He, of course, is the first “companion.” The Holy Spirit is the other one. Everything the Holy Spirit will do is something that Jesus has already done.

This chapter begins with Jesus saying, among other things, that he is “the way, the truth and the life.” That word, translated as “way,” also means “practice.” Jesus isn’t entirely a “path” to God, but the actual behaviors the practice of holiness.

If we wish to know how to “keep his commandments,” we must simply go back and read the gospels. Then, act as Jesus acted. Tall order, but one that we never do alone

We fulfill these expectation with the help of others. Hebrews 10:24-25 (Amplified Bible) says:

And let us considerandgive[d]attentive, continuous care to watching over one another, studying how we may stir up (stimulate and incite) to loveandhelpful deedsandnoble activities,

25 Not forsakingorneglecting to assemble together [as believers], as is the habit of some people, but admonishing (warning, urging, and encouraging) one another, and all the more faithfully as you see the day approaching.

Not only do we have spiritual help, we ought also to have the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ!

This leads me to a question – for whom am I this kind of Companion? If I am called to follow the commandments of Christ, and he is sending a Companion to help me, then how do I help others? How do I “stir up, stimulate, and incite” others to “love and helpful deeds and noble activities?”

If one of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to prevent us from being “orphaned,” then it stands to reason that we are to be each other’s Companions, or advocates. Emilie Townes, Dean of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, says we need friends who “tell us when they see pieces of us drifting away.”

Not only ought we try to be each others’ Companions, but we ought to seek out those people who could be our Companions.

In doing so, we would truly live a life like Christ, not lording our holiness over one another, not intimidating one another into compliance, but accompanying others along the way of Jesus.