Monday, August 14, 2017

Training wheels


Grandma Moses turned out her first painting at the age of 76. Three years later, her art was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Gladys Burrill ran a marathon at the age of 92, earning her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 1987, Teiichi Igarashi became the first centenarian to climb Japan's tallest mountain, and 85-year-old Theodor Mommsen received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902. Paul C├ęzanne had his first art exhibit when he was 56 years old, and Colonel Sanders started KFC when he was 65.[i]

Great things can be done at any age. Great things can be done at any age by anyone at any time … if we will claim the power God gives us, but few things in life scare us more than our own power. We see that clearly in our story today.
The story of Jesus walking on water is just one of many instances in the gospel of Matthew where people use their power. Sometimes, they use it well. Sometimes, they do not. When Jesus was born, the prophets described him as a ruler who will use his power to shepherd the people of Israel. That is immediately contrasted with Herod, who uses his power to kill innocent children. It’s as if Matthew is saying, “The Messiah is NOT that kind of king.” So what kind of king is he? Jesus goes to great lengths to describe his kingdom through a series of parables. Then, suddenly, Matthew moves from word to action.

John is murdered to please an evil queen. Herodias used her daughter to gain the king’s favor, then she used that power to kill. She didn’t have to. Another queen, Esther, found herself in a similar situation. She won the king’s favor and was told that she could have anything she wanted. That’s a lot of power. Esther used that power for life. She used her power to protect the lives of an entire nation of people. Esther used her power to work FOR God. Herodias used power to work AGAINST God.

When Jesus heard that his cousin had been murdered for sport, he set out to find a quiet place to be alone with God. But the people followed him. There were still so many people who were sick and in need of a savior. Jesus was filled compassion, so he used his power to cure their sick. And then he fed THOUSANDS of people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish! Talk about power! Jesus used his amazing power to work for God.

But he did not do it alone. Jesus handed the food to his disciples, and THEY fed the crowds. Can you imagine facing five thousand hungry men and their families, and all you have in your hands is that very little bit of food that the Lord has given you? You see the hunger. You see the great need. And you feel so inadequate. But you do what the Master tells you to do. You give the people something to eat, and a miracle occurs. Everyone gets enough. No one leaves hungry.

You move from despair and anger to confusion and joy! You are filled with hope! And confidence! I CAN do this! It turns out that I can do this after all. What the Lord has commanded me to do, God has empowered me to do. You revel in that triumph as you gather up the leftovers.

You would think that would be enough miracle working for one day. But Jesus has one more job for the disciples. One more lesson to teach them. He commands them to get into a boat and cross the Sea of Galilee. He will meet them on the other side.

So the disciples get in the boat and attempt to cross the sea on their own. Sure, it is dark, but these are experienced fishermen. They know their way around a boat. They know how to handle themselves in a storm. So they are not afraid, even though the wind is against them and their boat is being battered by the waves. The disciples are not afraid. At least, not until they see Jesus walking on water. THAT scares them!

Who knows what they were thinking? Maybe it’s a ghost! Maybe Herod was right. Maybe John the Baptist and Jesus have come from the dead. Maybe the source of their power is not heaven. Maybe it is evil! We do not know what they were thinking. But Jesus knows that they are afraid. So he calls to them and says, “Take heart. It is I. You know who I am. I am the Messiah. I am the king who uses his power for God. I am the king who uses his power for life. There is no reason for you to be afraid.”

Peter is the one who speaks. “All right, if it is you, and we know what you can do, then command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Okay. Come on, Peter. Come to me." So Peter jumps out of the boat and begins to walk on water! He is headed straight to Jesus. Everything is fine, until Peter gets distracted. He gets distracted by the wind, and, suddenly, he panics! He begins to doubt his own ability. He doubts his own power. He doubts Jesus. Peter starts to sink.

Now, sometimes, we judge Peter kind of harshly. “Why would he be afraid?” we wonder. “He knows that Jesus is right there.” But remember the panic you felt when you suddenly realized that you were riding your bike without training wheels? Or when you realized that you had swum halfway across the pool without anyone holding you up? Or the first time you had to buy a car ALL BY YOURSELF?!?

It’s scary! Suddenly, you discover that you have more power than you ever dreamed! And it scares you senseless.

Sometimes, we are more afraid of success than we are of failure. If we succeed, things will change. Our lives will be different. Nothing will ever be the same again. So it is no wonder we falter. We see how life is changing. We now see ourselves as people with power. People who can do. As people who can, in fact, do miraculous things! And it scares us. All of sudden, we are not so sure we want to swim. Or ride. Or do it on our own. It would be a whole lot easier just to let someone else keep holding us up!

But then you remember. When you are dependent on someone else, you are at his mercy. You can only go into the water when someone else is there to hold you up. And you can only venture down the street when someone else is there to steer the bike. If someone else is calling all the shots, then you may never get what you want. You remember how that limits you, and you long to be free. Even though freedom is a scary thing, you would rather be free. You would rather be free to sink. You would rather be free to fall. You would rather be free to fail than to never try at all.

But, man, doesn’t it feel good to know that someone will be there to fish you out of the lake and breathe life back into you if you do sink? Doesn’t it feel good to know that someone will be there to kiss your skinned knee if you do fall off the bike? Doesn’t it feel good to know that, no matter how many times you might fail, someone will be there to save you?

Of course it does. And that is the good news for us today. Like Peter, we serve a loving master who sends us out into the world, knowing that storms are going to come up. The water is going to get rough sometimes. We might encounter things that we never imagined. And we might get scared. We might not even recognize help when it comes. But help will come. Help will be there. Sure, we might get cocky. We might decide that we can walk on water, too. And maybe we can! If Jesus commands it, we can do all kinds of amazing things! So who knows? Maybe we can walk on water! For sure, we can do anything that God commands us to do… if we do it with God’s help.

But the really good news is that, even if we fail, even if we take our eyes off of the Lord, even if we get distracted by the wind and the waves and the storms of life, even if we start to sink, Jesus will be there. Jesus will be there to catch us if we fall. Jesus will be there to lend us a hand.

Years ago, an Irish emigrant named James Rowe and his friend Howard Smith wrote a hymn of love and hope and commitment. “…Smith was a little man whose hands were so knotted with arthritis that you would wonder how he could use them at all, much less play the piano.” But Rowe’s daughter once said, “I can see them now, my father striding up and down humming a bar or two and Howard E. [Smith] playing it and jotting it down.”[ii]

As difficult, and perhaps as painful, as it must have been for Howard Smith to play the piano, he continued to compose hymns because that is what God had called him to do. And, as a man who had himself once been saved from a stormy sea, Smith knew that “love so mighty and so true merits [the] soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to [Christ] belongs.”[iii]

Friends, the same mighty and loving God who reached out and lifted Peter out of the water has also lifted us up out of our sin and out of our pain and out of our failure. Love has lifted us up out of our doubt and out of our fear and out of our anger. Love has lifted us up out of our despair and out of our hopelessness and out of our confusion. Like Smith and like Peter and like all the disciples who were in that boat, we, too have been called to serve. We have been called to go. We have been commanded to get into the boat and cross the lake because there are people on the other side who are sick and in need of a Savior.

The crossing may be difficult. But remember. Whatever God has called us to do, God will give us the power to do it.



[i] Matthew Cole Weiss. “25 People Who Did Great Things After Fifty.” Published on Ranker at http://www.ranker.com/list/accomplishments-after-50/matthewcoleweiss. Accessed August 13, 2017.
[ii] The story of Love Lifted Me is published online at http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/l/l/lliftdme.htm. Posted June 3, 2005. Accessed August 12, 2017.
[iii] James Rowe and Howard Smith. “Love Lifted Me. The Cokesbury Worship Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1938. 233.
[iv] Rowe and Smith, 233.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Leftovers



It must have come as quite a shock. John had been murdered, his head literally delivered on a platter to a spoiled princess and her conniving mother by a foolish, arrogant and heartless king. Such cruelty was horrific. Unthinkable. Heartbreaking.

John! O John! Jesus must have wept. His cousin, almost like a brother. They had been bound to one another since they were babes in their mothers’ wombs. John always leading the way for Jesus. It was John who had called people to repent, to make themselves ready spiritually and mentally for the kingdom of heaven. For the Lord. For Jesus. And it was John who had baptized Jesus, preparing him to establish that kingdom. And it was John who had recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. But now John was dead. And Jesus was left to grieve.

It’s easy to understand why Jesus would want to be alone for a little while. He had been traveling and teaching and healing people all over Judea. And, all the while, dealing with skeptics and critics and thick-headed fishermen. He needed some time to himself. To be alone with God to process the news. To mourn the tragedy. And to come to grips with the harsh reality. If the rulers of this world had beheaded John, who was the messenger, what would they do to Jesus the Messiah?

Jesus decides to get away for a little while, so he gets in a boat and heads off to parts unknown. But the crowds follow him. They need him. They are sick. They are broken. They are intrigued. They are lost. Alone. Confused. They are hungry. They are hungry for things that they probably cannot even name. They are hungry for God. They might not call it that. Maybe all they know is that they need something. Someone. Help. They need help. They’re sure not getting it from Herod.

He did not care about them. He was too wrapped up in his own needs and wants and wishes. He didn’t care what they needed or what they thought. Herod didn’t care what anyone thought. If he wanted something, he took it. Who cares if Herodias was his brother’s wife? Herod wanted her, so he took her. Didn’t matter to Herod that Herodias was also his niece, which made their relationship incestuous. Herod did not care. He did not care that he was already married. Herod didn’t even care that, by divorcing his first wife, he instigated a war that led to the destruction of his own army. Herod did not care about anybody but Herod. So he ate and he drank and he gambled with the lives of people too weak or poor or uninformed to protect themselves.

The crowds needed help. And they find it in Jesus. Jesus seems to have the answers. He seems to have the power. He seems to have what they need. What they’ve been yearning for. What they must have now. So they follow Jesus. Right out into the middle of nowhere. Jesus traveled by boat, but the people walked. That’s how much they needed him! They were willing to follow him anywhere, no matter how difficult the journey might be. Somehow they knew where he was going (maybe they followed the disciples) and they got there before Jesus. As soon as he steps on the shore, Jesus is confronted by a great crowd of people and their overwhelming need.

You can bet Herod would not have allowed anyone to interrupt his rest. He could have cared less what the people needed. But Jesus had compassion for them. He loved them so much that he set aside his own need for comfort and solitude, and he took care of them. Jesus cared for them. But he did more than care. He acted. He cured their sick.

We’re not sure how long he worked with them that day, but I suspect it was a long, hard day. When evening came, the disciples said, “It’s getting late, and these people have a long walk back to town. Send them away so they can go get something to eat.”

Jesus said, “There’s no reason for them to leave. You can feed them.” The disciples did not see how that was possible. All they had were five loves of bread and two fish. That wasn’t nearly enough to feed such a large crowd. But they were not thinking big enough. They forgot that they were talking to Jesus. The one who had healed a man with leprosy just by stretching out his hand and touching him. They forgot that Jesus was the one who had healed the centurion’s servant without even meeting him or knowing what was wrong with him. They forgot that Jesus could cast out evil spirits with a single word and rebuke the winds and calm the waves. They forgot that Jesus can do anything.

They were looking at what they had and what they could do, and they found it insufficient.

We do that, sometimes. We look at ourselves, and all we can see is what is lacking. Where we fall short. What we don’t have. But Jesus does not ask us to give what we do not have. Jesus takes what we do have, what we are willing to give, and does far more with it than we could ever imagine!

That day on the beach, Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and fed five thousand men and countless more women and children. Some scholars say there might have been as many as 20,000 people on the beach that day, and Jesus fed them. He fed the sick. The outcast. The unwanted. People that no one else cared about. Jesus fed them all. And he didn’t give them a little. A taste. A morsel. They all ate and were filled. They were no longer lacking. No longer in need. No longer hungry. They were filled. They all had enough.

Which is quite a miracle in itself, right? One person meeting all those needs, especially when he had so little to work with. Five loaves of bread and two fish. That’s next to nothing! Compared to the huge need, five loaves of bread and two fish is nothing. But in the hands of Jesus, those five loves and two fish were more than enough to meet every need. After everyone had been served, there were 12 baskets full of leftovers. Twelve baskets full of broken pieces. Twelve baskets full of crumbs.

Others would have overlooked those bits and pieces, but Jesus did not. Nothing was wasted with the Lord. All those broken bits were gathered up and redeemed.

Remember when we used to redeem Coke bottles? We took those empty bottles and sold them back to the store. Those bottles were valuable. They were worth something. They were useful. They still served a purpose.

Jesus saw those broken pieces of bread and fish, things that others would have discarded, things that others HAD discarded, and he saw value in them. They were worth something. They were useful. They could still serve a purpose. So he redeemed them. Just like he saved all those broken and discarded people on the beach that day.

In the kingdom of God, even the leftovers are worth saving.

It doesn’t matter how much or how little we have to give. It doesn’t matter how insignificant we think we are. It doesn’t matter how insignificant the world thinks we are. It doesn’t matter if we are old or young or feeble or broken or sick or tired or strung out or stressed out or maxed out. God is not through with us. The world may cast us aside. But, in God’s eyes, even the leftovers can be redeemed.