In 1974, the epic motion picture Godfather Part II made cinematic history by becoming the first sequel of a Best Picture winner to win best picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Only The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has achieved this success since then. That is because rarely do sequels ever live up to the legend of the franchise, even if many Star Wars fans might beg to differ. Today, is kind of like a sequel to last weeks sermon in that we are continuing to follow Matthew's story of Jesus. You can judge for yourself if it merits an Academy Award or not, but if anything it should be a little more enlightening then Weekend At Bernie’s part II.
If you remember, we discussed how all healing comes from God, whether it is through the skillful hands of a medical professional or by the strength of one’s faith. The spiritual healing that God provides allows each individual person or community to live a balanced life in harmony with the world. Through confession, reconciliation and forgiveness, human relationships are healed both with God and with one another.
Matthew’s Gospel also reveals God has given all power and authority to Jesus the Messiah, who has redefined what it means to live in righteousness in the Kingdom of God. To live like Christ means we are often called to erase the lines that divide and segregate us, to care for and welcome anyone who seeks the healing love of God; including our enemies. By his words and deeds Jesus will go on to teach us how to transform the Roman cross of injustice into the very cross of peace that we carry in his name. The peace that God freely gives to us through Jesus Christ is very the peace that restores every aspect of our life, both now and in the age to come.
Today’s lesson is to illustrate what it means to follow Jesus in order to find our peace. No matter how turbulent the sea might seem for our church and the pastoral search committee, I believe we have been given a great opportunity to be a bridge of peace in the midst of our own chaos. However, to be at peace requires more than just to follow him to the water of life; like the disciples we too must get in the boat.
My question today is one we’ve been asking of ourselves for the last few months; do we have what it takes to get into the boat? I truly believe in my heart that we do. If that is true, then how do we set sail with God on a journey of peace? Turn back to your Bible on page 841, and situate yourself in the second part of Matthew’s story found in chapter 8 and lets see what the word of God reveals.
As you find the page, I would like to share with you the words of Paul Wadell who said, “We know peace not when we agree with others about everything, but when we agree about the true and the good, about what is worthwhile. Christian congregations should radiate peace because none of their members loves or desires anything more than God.”
Beginning with verse 18 Jesus gives orders to cross the sea to escape the great crowd that has been building. Having just witnessed the commanding authority of his teaching and healing, it is not surprising that a lot of people are following him. They are beginning to recognize that he is different, and desire to be a part of whatever it is he is doing. Matthew doesn’t tell us much about who they are, but I imagine they are a lot like us. Perhaps some are seeking spiritual encouragement to get them through the trials and tribulations of life, while others, like the leper, yearn to be restored back into the daily routine of their community. Whoever they are, they follow him for a reason, and yet we will see that those closest to Jesus remain somewhat clueless.
A scribe comes claiming that he is ready to follow this revolutionary rabbi wherever he goes. But Jesus replies, “Why would you want to do something as foolish as that? Foxes and birds have a place to rest their head, but the Son of Man has nowhere.” Jesus does not reject the man outright, but simply questions his motives because God only knows how hard it is to do what he is calling us to do. On one hand, the scribe understands Jesus to be a great teacher, but on the other he does not comprehend that this teacher teaches a wisdom that forces us to abandon the comfort and security of home.
Matthew does not specify what the scribe has chosen to do. Will he stay or will he go? In hindsight, we know if he continued on this journey he would eventually learn that to follow Christ is to follow the one who would establish the kingdom of God by being crucified. To set sail on a journey of peace with God will take more than good ethics and social action, it will take a great sacrifice.
In verse 21, another follower approaches Jesus asking permission to interrupt his journey in order to bury his father who has just died. According to Jewish tradition, a burial must take place on the same day of the death; this is a sacred obligation, especially if one is to honor one's parents as the law commands. Therefore one can hardly imagine a more legitimate, reasonable request. But Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead,” implying that nothing shall take priority over our call to discipleship, not even such a profound family obligation as this. Stanley Hauerwas is apt to point out, that “the one who would be a disciple of Jesus stands in the presence of life itself, yet he remains captured by death, wanting to bury the dead. Jesus, who will go on to die on our behalf, requires that those who would follow him not let death determine their relationship to the living.”
If we live in the fear of death then we are not embracing life as God intended for us, or living in peaceful harmony with God and with the world. Today, it is too easy for us to seek life on our own terms. In doing so, God's gift of peace is replaced with a life crippled by insecurity, allowing individuals and corporations to dictate the terms of our sickness.
How many of us fear our beloved house of worship will implode without a minister in place? How many of us want to take control to ensure that this does not happen? Recently, I had a conversation with a parishioner who feared the church was going to crumble because of the dysfunctional infighting that has become a norm for so many churches across the globe. But let us not forget that the church, in spite of any human behavior, has survived two millenniums of heresy, scandal, warfare, natural disasters, and even an argument or two. As the body of Christ, the church is eternal, no matter where or how it is gathered. I would even go as far as to argue that without church dysfunction, we would not have been blessed with Paul’s encouraging letters; empowered to ignite the Protestant Reformation; or been given the spirit to form the beautiful tradition of Congregationalism. So let the dead bury their dead. And let us continue to be the living example of God’s love and forgiveness, and to be the church that keeps Jesus' mission alive.
So do we have what it takes? Will we stand united as a family and community who follows the righteousness of a homeless man? Can we get into the boat together, and confront the cosmic powers that try to stop us? The 12 Apostles said "Yes," even though they had no idea where they were going. And so, in verse 23, those who had sacrificed their livelihood retreat into a boat and set sail across the sea.
It is not without great significance that Matthew puts the disciples on a boat, because on a boat in the middle of the sea, there is no place to escape. I was always reminded of this when I ride Space Mountain at Disneyland. I know that once I am committed to that dark, twisting, unpredictable contraption, there is no getting off, no matter how loud I screamed.
The disciples soon find themselves on a thrill ride of their own. As they travel across the sea, a horrific windstorm threatens to swamp the boat while Jesus is sound asleep. Fearing for their lives, the disciples decide to wake Jesus, faithfully believing that he is the one who can act on their behalf. But Matthew throws an unexpected twist to the story in that Jesus rebukes his disciples because these men are afraid and have little faith. But let me ask you this, isn't a little faith still better than no faith at all? You see, they are in the boat with him.
During these tough months ahead, the church’s faith will certainly be put to the test. And so, we must overcome our fears by relying on the power of God to see us through the stormy seas. Like the leper and the centurion, people have come to recognize Jesus is the one who possesses the power and authority to save them. The disciples cry out, "Lord, save us!" And Jesus comes to their rescue, calming their hearts by calming the wind and sea. The one capable of healing the sick and forgiving sinners is the same one whom possesses power over all creation. And so, as today’s reading comes to an end with the disciples wondering, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” we too must ask ourselves the same question.
To the Apostles Jesus simply said, “Follow me.” And they did, possessing just enough faith and trust to leave behind everything before they ever saw a stitch of proof of Jesus' power. As a result of such faith, as little as it was, they weathered the storms of life with Christ by their side. What will it take us to get into the boat together? Faith, courage, or an unwavering belief that this man Jesus is who he says he is.
The late Catholic theologian, Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Standing erect, holding our heads high, is the attitude of spiritually mature people in the face of the calamities of our world. The facts of everyday life are a rich source for doomsday thinking and feeling. But it is possible for us to resist this temptation and to stand with self-confidence in this world, never losing our spiritual ground, always aware that the sky and earth will fall away but the words of Jesus will never pass away. Let us be like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who stood under the cross, trusting in God’s faithfulness notwithstanding the death of his beloved child.”
In conclusion, Hauerwas reminds the church “ the church is for the world what the world cannot be for itself. And that in spite of what little faith we might have, our sanctuary is like the disciples' boat, in that the church is the ark of safety for many people who fear the storm-tossed sea of life. Our temptation is to try to row to shore to escape the storm, but in doing so we fail to witness to the one who is peace.”
As our world is towed further away from being reconciled with God, the media steps in and dictates the rules by which modern life is defined. Instead of following the power and authority of God’s healing love and peace, we chase after the false hope of an overly advertised, modernistic dream.
The cross is placed above us in the center of the sanctuary as a reminder of whom we are to serve and what that service entails. Jesus has a mission in the world. It involves and challenges each and every one of us. It may well be that our journey will be a scary, stormy passage, but rest assured we are not taking that journey alone.
Like the coming attractions before the movies, The Bible gives us a taste of what the sequel to this story is going be like. I hedge my bet that when Christ returns, it will better then winning an Oscar, or two. As you leave here today, it will be up to you to decide whether to remain safely tethered at the shoreline or to set sail with God.