“Jesus Began to Show His Disciples” Matthew 16:21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

          I’ve been pondering lately the difference between being told something and being shown something.

          We’ve been told that these masks are an important aspect of stopping the spread of the virus.  

          We’ve been told about study after study that shows how that works, how aerosols are cut down, how they are caught and contained, and how the viral load is diminished when there are fewer droplets floating.  

          We’ve been told the sooner we all comply with mask wearing, the sooner the infection rates will go down and the more life can resume in something close to normal interactions.

          And yet, all the encouraging and the telling and the talking has not resulted in near the compliance required.

          Why is that?

          If you watched the President’s nomination acceptance speech at the end of the Republican National Convention you will have your answer

There were over a 1000 of our leaders assembled, not socially distanced, few wearing masks, and all behaving as if the virus could not find or impact them.

          It was a classic case of “Do as we tell you, not what you see us doing.”

          Actions will always speak louder than words.  There are some things that you simply have to be shown, modeled, and most often it is the really important things.

          So, I think it is a big deal in Matthew’s Gospel that this particular language is chosen.  “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…”

          Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus as quite a talker, you know.  

In Mark’s gospel all we have are those sparse and compact parables as the words of Jesus.  

Matthew, however, portrays Jesus as engaging in longer speeches and greater in-depth teaching.   He doesn’t just tell the parables, he explains them!   He expands upon them.

          Jesus is not averse to talking and telling.

          But talking and telling have their limits, and especially when it comes to making something clear.

          I can still remember being taught how to tie my shoes.  Do you remember the little memory device story.   “You make two bunny’s ears, and then the bunny goes around this one and through the hole and comes back out.”

          But, as helpful as that little story of how to tie your shoelace might have been as a memory tool, it is really worthless without being shown how to do it.

          The words and story will only make sense with the visual of the lace movement in your mind.

          So, while Jesus has told his disciples many things, when it comes to the really important thing, the “Divine” thing,–  that is the kind of thing that can only be shown.

          Words get in the way here and become stumbling blocks.

          Peter’s saying “God forbid!” is a stumbling block to what Jesus has to show them, and show the world. 

Jesus has to show them (and the world) that self-preservation is not what brings in the Kingdom of God.   Trying to save your life will only end up with you ultimately losing your life, losing everything.

          What does it profit a person to gain the whole world but lose their life?

          That is the question that has been hanging over the events of Jesus ever since the temptation stories in the wilderness at the beginning.  Jesus is offered the whole world if he will just bow down and give homage to Satan.

          It is little wonder then, that when Peter starts talking about Jesus not going to Jerusalem he gets called “Satan” and a stumbling block!

          We stumble all over this whenever we think of it simply as a teaching, or as just words. 

We puzzle over the meaning of “divine things” as opposed to “human things.”  If we picture this as just teachings and words.

 We quiz ourselves as to whether we are following what God would have us do, or whether are we just pursuing our own self-interest so long as this becomes a matter of teachings or words?

 As long we remain in on the level of this being just words or teachings, abstract conjectures, we can debate things all day long.

          Jesus knows that once he has been identified as the Messiah by Peter, seen in that kind of light, then nothing short of a full confrontation with the powers of this world will do.   

A Messiah that does not challenge and engage the rulers of this world is no messiah, no savior at all. 

And if you choose to do that, go up against those in power, then there was a visible reminder of what awaits, for the punishment for speaking out against the Roman Empire and the powers of this word was the Cross.  

Roman execution for those who spoke out or rebelled against the workings of the Empire was that most cruel and public execution.

          When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus’ fate is sealed.  

Jesus has to go to Jerusalem and he has to follow through with a confrontation with the Elders, chief priests, and scribes.   To do that is to come up against those who stand behind all of them and who keep them in power.   He has show his followers that “divine things” are not the same thing as human things. 

          Divine action is not about saving your own skin.

          Divine action is not about having the power or pulling the levers of this world on this world’s terms.

          Divine things are not interested in getting back what people once had, or longing for a bygone era.

          Divine things are about revealing a new Kingdom, a Kingdom that is not of this world or patterned after the way this world works, but rather is about God’s intention for this world, God’s intention for how things ought to be.

          It is a world where the beatitudes are not just pronounced but carried out. 

          A world where the poor in spirit are finally blessed and where those who mourn are finally comforted.

          A world where the meek get their portion, and where the merciful receive mercy,

It is a Kingdom where the pure in heart are blessed and the peacemakers finally receive a blessing.

          None of that comes with just words or teachings, and none of it comes so long as the machinery of this world is allowed to grind on as usual.

          Someone finally has to show people how to throw a wrench into the workings of this world.

          And so, from this time onward Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer….

          He does not suffer just for the sake of suffering.

          No, Jesus suffers because he acts in a way that threatens the very way in which this world works.

          You cannot go to Jerusalem without confronting those who hold the power there, and if you do, then you must take hold of what awaits, and what awaits you is a cross.

          This will cost Jesus everything… but in three day’s time God will raise him up, and that becomes the source of hope.

          The world wants you to believe that if you are trying change how things are, you are just throwing your life away.

          The Empire wants you to look at the cross, the penalty for insurrection, and think about how painful and how futile your rebellion would end up being.

          Jesus took that symbol of futility and made of it a symbol of hope!   Do your worst world, think you have won Satan, but God will raise up!

          And this is where the connection is to us.

          Some things you just have to be shown. 

          In Christ we are shown that the difficult path can be taken, and the machinery of this world can be confronted and brought to a grinding halt.

          In Christ we are shown that the hoped for longings of generations are possible, and glimpses of God’s Kingdom can be found in the choices we make and the paths we take.

          In Christ we are shown that what looks like utter failure and defeat at first, can in the end be transformed into victory.

          You can take up your Cross, whatever that may be, and not fear it because it does not have the final say in things.

          God does, and God raises up!

          What God has to say is that those who lay down their lives for the sake of their neighbor, and for the sake of the faith, and for the sake of the kingdom, is that they will find life everlasting. Some things you just have to be shown, and so Jesus goes to Jerusalem to show us that we can follow.

“Listen and Understand” Matthew 15:10-28

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VhaJYxxajo&t=159s

“Then he called the crowds to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:”

          There is a lot to cover in this scripture passage, but I really have not yet gotten past first sentence.

          “Listen and understand:” Jesus says.

          It seems to me that we have a significant deficit of listening in our world right now, and I’m not entirely sure why.

          There are several possibilities.

          It might be because the world has simply gotten so noisy that our hearing is affected.  

I can remember what it was like to spend hours on a noisy tractor, the drone of the diesel, or the “pop-pop-pop” of the two cylinder John Deere.  I remember how after a full day of listening to that you could still hear it as you laid in bed at night.   (Probably the first contributing factors to my own hearing loss.)  

          Too much noise makes you numb to sound and therefore incapable of listening.  

We do live in a very noisy world, and it has affected our ability to listen.  We hear only what we have been hearing all day long, living in the echo chambers of our own immediate experiences.  Our ears have been tuned to only take in certain sources, certain ideas and certain concepts and so we block out all the rest.

All we hear is what we are used to hearing.  The call to “listen and understand:” from Jesus is lost on us.

          Or, perhaps we have a deficit of listening because of entrenched positions and understandings.   

I’m struck in this passage by how the disciples asked if Jesus knew that the Pharisees had taken offense at his words, as if Jesus didn’t pick up on their displeasure?

How often do we trip land mines with our own comments?  Say something that we are not even aware will be taken as offensive by someone else?   

          Once the offensive phrase is spoken, you know, listening seems to end and understanding becomes elusive.

          Utter the phrase, for instance “Black Lives Matter” and watch the reactions.

          I do not always know how that phrase will be received by any given audience.  

Some will be glad to hear it and find in it an opening to conversation and a way of exploring the issues surrounding us today.

Others will hear that and take offense, and counter with “All Lives Matter!”

Once the sense of offense has been tripped, listening and understanding are again, just not going to happen. 

When Jesus says of the Pharisees, “They are blind guides to the blind”–that  is not meant so much as a condemnation of them as it is a description of functionality.  

For you see, once opinions are hardened and fully formed they are very difficult to cut through or to challenge.  

That’s a part of our deficit of listening these days too, the same one that Jesus describes here.   Once you start down a road, make up your mind, you are going to end up at that road’s inevitable end.   “The pit” if you will — because a hardened opinion cannot be overcome. 

Listening has been shut down.

Understanding is not possible without the ability to weigh or entertain the various sides and nuances of an argument, or of a matter, or of a situation.

We have a deficit of listening in our world right now for another reason, and that is because we are dismissive.

That’s the hardest part of reading this Gospel lesson today I think, recognizing how many times an attitude of dismissal seems to pervade the stories.

Jesus is dismissive of the offense taken by the Pharisees.  “They are blind guides to the blind.”

Jesus also seems to be dismissive of his own disciples when they ask about the meaning of the parable.   “Are you still without understanding?” he says.

The disciples are dismissive of this woman when she comes and shouts her urgent need.  “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” They say.

Jesus is again dismissive of the woman’s pleas for her daughter at first .. she’s not really who he is here for.   He says to her, “I was sent only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 

There is so much apparent dismissal going on here that it is exhausting!  

We feel that in our bones because we recognize that in our daily life as well, and it is exhausting to feel like our concerns are not being heard.

Our concerns are so often dismissed by those in power or authority.

Our objections to the way things are done are dismissed.

Our inquiries about matters are dismissed.

From the halls of congress to our latest disputed Amazon order, we are sent the message of dismissal.

“Oh, Let it go…”

“Elections have consequences…”

“It’s not that big a deal…”

“You just don’t see the bigger picture..”

“I can’t get worked up over your issues..”

Dismissal shuts down listening and sends the message there will be no understanding.   It will be “my way or the highway.”

“Listen and understand” it appears is something with which even Jesus struggles.   So where is the good news in all of this?

The good news is found in Jesus’ recognition and call for us to “Listen and understand” even when it is so hard to do, and so much is stacked against it.

It is still what he urges us to do even and especially because he finds it hard to do himself.

This is a part of the struggle of the human condition.  It’s all true.

We are prone to not listen.

We are products of our own echo chambers.

We are prone to narrow mindedness.

We are too often dismissive of others.

And yet the call of Jesus to us is to “Listen and Understand.”   That call sits out there as both promise and possibility, and every once in a while, it makes a difference and listening and understanding do become possible.

I look at this story again and I note a shift that takes place in it.

The woman did not get her needs met by shouting.

Jesus did not get rid of her pleas with his sharp words or dismissive phrases.

The Pharisees did not get their offenses noted with their disapproving looks, and the disciples did not change or affect anything with their objections or their comments.

The whole story shifts when the woman stops shouting and the disciples stop dismissing, and Jesus himself stops pontificating.

It all changes when the woman kneels and says, “Lord, help me.”

It is at that moment in this story that listening and understanding seem possible again, as she takes a posture before Jesus of submission and humility, and Jesus is himself then softened to hear her.

“Lord, help me.”  I can be tone deaf to the needs and concerns of this world, of my neighbor and so caught up in listening to what I’ve heard all day long that I am unable to listen or to understand.

“Lord, help me, I do get caught in my own echo chambers.

“Lord, help me, I am too often narrow minded and hard of heart.”

“Lord, help me” I can be so dismissive of others.

The trajectory of the whole passage changes when the knee is taken and the phrase, “Lord, help me” is spoken. – even for Jesus.

I look at the woman kneeling before Jesus and my mind immediately goes to another scene, in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus himself will take a knee before God and plead in a similar manner, “Lord, take this cup away from me…”  

It is another “Lord, help me” moment where listening and understanding becomes possible.

 Jesus does not get the answer he would like to hear. 

What he does get in confronting the difficult is the strength to see the difficult thing through to the end.

“Nevertheless not my will, but thine be done.”

Maybe that’s what we should be praying for as well, not for things to be taken away from us, but the strength to see some very difficult things through to their preferred, — to God’s preferred end.

“Listen and Understand” Jesus says today. 

That is an invitation and a possibility, but maybe one we will only find when we stop our shouting, give up our own looks of contempt and disapproval, our own taking of offense at things long enough to inquire of the will of God in these matters. Maybe listening and understanding only come when we take the knee and pray, “Lord, help me.”  

“Compassion is the Real Miracle” Matthew 14:13-21

“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself….” 

          There are times that we really don’t pay enough attention to context and motivation.   I think that’s particularly true in scripture reading where we are too often just “plopped” into a story to consider it in isolation. 

          That is true of this Gospel story, the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.  

          We are used to considering this story on its own as a “stand alone” piece.

          We hear about the details of five loaves, two fish, the desire of the disciples to do the practical thing of dispersing the crowds what the meaning of 12 baskets full gathered up afterward might be, and the details of how many were fed.

          In short, we try to figure out the “miracle” here. 

          But today I want you to forget about the loaves, forget about the fishes and forget about sitting in the grass or the lateness of the hour.  None of that is really as important as noticing something else.  

          If you want to understand the real miracle of this story, you have back up a bit, start with the introduction of the event and what prompts Jesus’ actions.  Go back to what motivates Jesus to come out to this deserted place to begin with.

          “Now when Jesus heard this…. “   Matthew says.

What is it that Jesus had just heard about?  

If you look at what immediately precedes the feeding of the 5000, you’ll find out that chapter 14 begins with the story of the death of John the Baptist.

          As that story plays itself out, we learn that Herod wanted to have John put to death all along.  John had denounced Herod’s actions and specifically criticized Herod’s marriage of political convenience to Herodias, his own brother’s first wife, in a bid to consolidate his power.  

Herod wanted to put John to death, but he “feared the crowd” it says.   The crowd considered John to be a prophet.  

          It is a terrible story really.   A story of political intrigue, the abuse of power, heartless seeking of revenge and even the manipulation of children.

          This is what Jesus had just heard about, how Herod had been manipulated to put John to death.

This is the reason why he is seeking some time away from the crowd. 

          “Now when Jesus heard this…” also changes the motivation of the crowd, does it not? We often assume that the crowd “heard” that Jesus was going off to a deserted place, that’s their motivation, find Jesus and listen to him teach, or be healed —  but when Matthew says, “when the crowds heard it”—what they “heard” was also the news of John’s death at the hands of Herod.  

          So then, the crowds come to the deserted place looking for Jesus to find out what he will make of all of this.   They come to hear what Jesus will have to say, what Jesus will do now that Herod has killed someone they considered to be   a prophet.

          So, before we get too caught up in the details of the miraculous feeding, pay attention to what one does when one is confronted by a crowd.

          Herod looks upon the crowd and fears them.  He responds to the needs of the crowd by dismissing them, diverting his attention with parties and dancing, and surrounding himself with “important” guests who have no consideration for the crowds.   Herod ultimately deals with the wishes of the crowd with violence.

          Jesus (on the other hand) looks upon the crowd and is moved to compassion. He responds to the crowd with healing and with feeding, and most importantly with engagement.   

He does not withdraw

He does not get back into the boat or dismiss their needs.

He does not isolate himself from them, but rather points out their needs, and then invites those closest to him to engage the crowd with him. 

“They need not go away;” Jesus says to those gathered around him, “you give them something to eat.”

          Compassion – Compassion is the real miracle in this story.  

The bread, the fish, the orderly sitting down on the grass, and the rest of the events all stem from the decision Jesus makes about how one deals with a crowd that is shocked and afraid.

          Do you dismiss and ignore them, or do you have compassion on them and sit with them and find ways to move them to compassionate action with you?

          I think seeing the feeding of the 5000 through this lens is critically important right now, because we’re all feeling like a shocked crowd.

          Covid has us disoriented.

          The action or inaction of our political leaders on both sides of the aisle make them seem far removed, as if they are all at some kind of party of their own and completely out of touch with the wishes, needs or beliefs of the crowd to whom they should be accountable.

          Some are seeking out Jesus to see what he might have to say about all of these things happening in the world right now, and some religious leaders seem all too ready to supply their own interpretation of what Jesus, or God is doing – and so even that has become politically charged and divisive now. 

          So, before we get too far into the events and details of miraculous feedings, it is good to step back and be reminded of Jesus’ context and motivation.

          Jesus too, (it appears) sometimes needed a little time and space to sort through the cruelty of this world.   If he didn’t need that, he wouldn’t so often have struck out to find those lonely or deserted places and would not have invited his disciples, (invited us) to accompany him there.

          If you’re feeling like the world just does not make sense right now?

          If’ you’re looking at events and thinking, “how could people even think that, let alone DO something like that?

          If you are wounded by the level of cruelty, or the lack of care, or the insensitivity of people that just makes you shake your head in disbelief, then a part of the really good news from the Gospel is that you’re in good company.

          Jesus shook his head from time to time too.

          Even God can be shocked, disappointed and disoriented at what the events of this world can dish out.  At what people, God’s own creation, can do to one another.

          And so it is that we are invited by Jesus to step away from the madness from time to time, to seek out a place where the noise level can be turned down and where we have some time to think through it all.

          This is the advice given by Jesus to his disciples and modeled here, “come away to a lonely place.”

          This is in fact the consistent message from God in the psalms and in the stories, from Moses being driven into the wilderness to Elijah sitting in a cave.    We all need to step back from the madness of the world from time to time to sort things out and to listen to the “still small voice of God.”

          And how will we know if is God speaking to us?  

          Compassion will be heard.

Compassion is the real miracle.    To be able to look at the madness of this world and not be moved to lash out, or to dismiss people, or to resort to violence or be motivated by only your own self-interest, your own desires or needs.

          Everything flows from having compassion on the crowds, the scared, lonely and disoriented crowds.

          I look at this story and think to myself, “how different this could have been if Jesus had responded with something else besides compassion.”

          Jesus could have looked at the crowds and seen the potential for power.   Grab your torches and pitchforks, folks— it’s time to throw Herod out!  Death to the tyrant!”  

And you know what, the crowd would have followed him!

          But having compassion won’t let you do that.   It won’t let you manipulate the masses for your own narrow views or personal gain.  

Compassion demands you see the world in all of its complexity. 

Compassion demands that you understand the terrible situation that Herod finds himself in, even if it is of his own doing.

Getting rid of Herod would not change the systems that existed long before he married his brother’s wife to get hold of the handles of power.   

Compassion demands that you engage and seek to understand the sources and deep roots of injustice and of sin – what got us to this point that ended with heads on platters!

          Jesus could have taken one look at the crowd and thought, “it’s just too much!” and gotten back in the boat and rowed on, and not a single person would have blamed him!

After all, who among us hasn’t looked at the enormity of what needs to be done, the problems facing this world and said, “I’m not even going to start!”

          Solving world hunger, or cleaning up the environment, or addressing global warming.. stopping a pandemic.. it’s too big for me to do anything about!  

          But having compassion won’t let you do that.  It won’t let you opt yourself out.   It demands that you look at even the impossible and say, “well, where could we start?” 

          “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.”  Jesus says.  

          That is an invitation to have compassion.

          Break it down, examine the resources at hand, and even if they look wholly inadequate commit them to God, bless, break them and pass them out and see how far they go!

          Compassion will not let you consider hoarding or hiding away your stuff, withholding what your neighbor needs.

          Compassion bids you give it freely and trust that God will multiply the effort.

          Compassion is the real miracle here.  It is the beginning point from which Jesus will bring in the Kingdom. 

          So, if you are feeling like it’s all just too much right now, know that you’re in good company, but see the way through it.           It is compassion that is the real miracle that we all need right now.   God grant it to us in abundance this day.