I’ve got it under control

Matthew 8:18–23

 

Written sometime after 70 CE, the Gospel of Matthew seeks to make Jesus’ own words and actions authoritative for a mixed Jewish and gentile community. It persuades by presenting the events as realities, not superstitious myths, harkens back to earlier Jewish experiences of divine action in human life, and appeals to an audience that has a high esteem for ethical demands.

The lesson for today occurs relatively early in Jesus’ ministry. After his lengthy Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells the crowds “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “do not worry about your life,” teaches them to pray and so much more, he then begins to move through the countryside performing a series of miracles as he continues to instruct those who begin to follow him.

Matthew sculpts a gospel of Jesus’ words and deeds, using both for us to understand who he is. You cannot understand the words apart from his actions nor are his actions clear without his instructions. With both, we begin to realize who he is, and only then can we take the risk to be shaped into being one of his followers. That’s exactly what we have in this reading—two short instructions and a miracle. Listen for God’s word as I read from the eighth chapter of Matthew.

Matthew 8:18-27

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”


 

God, you have spoken to us through your Son.
Let your written Word now be spoken and heard by each of us.
Give us ears to hear and hearts to understand,
that we may not refuse your calling or ignore your voice.
Humble us to accept your truth that we may all learn.
Bring our every thought captive to obeying Christ,
In his name we pray. Amen.


The 19th century philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche wrote, “How typical of those Christians, especially the clergy. They are weak and cannot be anything but weaklings. So they make a virtue out of necessity, constructing a moral system that glorifies weakness in order to exert their will to power over the truly strong and virtuous.”[1]

Such bravado. It sells. Time and again we witness experience, wisdom, and skills are no longer sufficient. Virtues such as humility and respect for the other have little currency in the media. Bravado works not just in political contests, but reflects other areas where self-aggrandizing brings attention and authority such that it becomes risky and difficult to stand in the way.

This stands in stark contrast to a recent experience. I am grateful last weekend my colleagues allowed me to take a quick trip to Scotland on very short notice.

My husband’s family gathered in Scotland to witness my father-in-law’s investiture as a Knight of Legion of Honor from the French Republic. Jack had served as a spitfire pilot more than 70 years ago and was now honored for his “heroic service during World War II with others who fought to liberate the people and nation of France.”

At first he was not going to participate in this event, since at 94 years old it is difficult to travel, and as a true stoic Scot, he does not welcome such a fuss. But, Jack had been thinking of his friends who died in the war, those who had died following the war, and all those who should have been honored—it was for them.

The service was hosted by the Lord Provost of Aberdeen and conducted by the French Consul with two other WWII veterans, one from the navy, and another from the army, who were also in their 90’s, with thin white hair, hearing aids, and seeming in uniform by wearing blue blazers. Each was accompanied by their families. Already affixed to their blue blazers were medals the veterans had obviously dusted off, some of which, family members had never seen before. As we were being seated, a group of pre-teen boys in uniforms joined us from the local French school.

The French Consul began by enthusiastically describing the award, the red ribbon symbolizing blood, the meanings portrayed in the ornate medallion, that it was originated by Napoleon, and it is the highest honor the French Republic may bestow.

But, it had been 70 years. Why now? What about all those who died in war? What about all those who died ten, twenty years ago?

Although those questions were not asked, the Consul framed the reason this honor is now being conferred is that “we need to remember.”

His pace became measured, and with solemn words, he reminded us 70 years ago, Europe had become a fortress controlled by the Nazis. He said, “France had collapsed. The French government and institutions no longer existed.”

With all the decorum imaginable from a French diplomat, the Consul approached each man, spoke of his military record while looking in his eyes, placed the medal on his chest, and kissed each cheek.

Then he addressed the French schoolboys. They were present to witness France’s honoring of these men and asked “to remember each day to take the right step, to get up and do something for others.” He concluded the ceremony by telling us “we need to remember.”

No surprise, there was no media coverage of this event. Old men do not sell newspapers or advertising.

No bravado. No chest thumping or rhetoric of grandeur—these were humble men. We also witnessed genuine gratitude from the French government of its debt to all those who had not sought honor or fame or power, they were just doing what was right. We need to remember.

Our scripture lesson includes a brief dialogue with two potential followers about the cost of discipleship. Jesus tells the first man, a scribe, someone established in the community, that to be his follower, is to accept the “birds of the air had nests” and “foxes had holes”, but God’s son does not claim any one place on earth. That is about as humble as it gets—to be homeless. If this scribe were to be his follower, he too would need to let go of all the trappings of security and cease all his efforts of maintaining his stature in the community.

To the second, a grieving son, Jesus tells him to abandon his obligation to bury a father. Some translations soften this by inserting the word, “spiritual,” and instead interpreting it as “let the spiritual dead bury the dead,” but the original Greek is terse and callous; “let the dead bury the dead.” In first century Palestine, a son brought honor to the family by carrying out the duties of a proper burial. This man was bound to rituals and customs prescribed by society and if not completed, would result in shame.

Jesus told him to forget about his reputation, forget about appealing to the standards of common culture, any ranking constructed by people and to put no other desire in his heart other than being with Jesus…right now. Be with Jesus 100% now.

The demands were radical and non-negotiable.

In a thin book, Humilitas, author John Dickson paints a picture of ancient culture and the way honor was elevated among the highest virtues and its opposite, shame, was a punishing loss. A father among the ancients would desire a son to experience happiness and wealth within his lifetime, and live a moral life, but more than anything, a father would desire for his son to bring honor to the family.

In addition to ancient Hebrew customs, Aristotle had also shaped the culture with such wisdom as, “honor and reputation are among the pleasantest things, through each person’s imagining that he has the qualities of an important person: all the more so when others say so.”[2]

In this ethos, the ancients thought nothing of praising themselves in public—or better yet—getting others to praise them. Of course they would seek honor—known as philotima—literally the love of honor, the pursuit of tangible or intangible honor. This afforded no room for humility, perceived as “being brought low” and it’s a risk of…shame.

Sounds kind of familiar? It persists today.

To those who wanted to become followers, Jesus asked for humility. To no longer obsess with trying to control what others thought about them, no longer work to achieve their status through their own efforts, and to refrain from blowing their own horn. Although not part of this teaching, it becomes apparent later, to be a follower of Jesus also demands they not only stop separating themselves from the outcasts, but rather they gladly embrace those who are weak. To be his follower was a radical and tall order: forget about honor and risk shame.

Matthew pairs these two teachings with a brief miracle story. Remember, in Matthew, words are made clear by actions and actions are given greater meaning by the teachings.

Jesus gets in a boat to cross “to the other side,” an unnamed body of water destined for an unknown location, and his disciples followed. Metaphors are never ornamental; the image of this journey is to cross from their current way of life into…where?

While on the water, a storm erupts, yet Jesus just sleeps. Fearing for their lives, the disciples can only wonder if their faith is misplaced given Jesus’ seeming indifference. They wake him with, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!”

By a simple word, Jesus commands a “dead calm.” Matthew’s brief passage concludes with both a rhetorical and literal question, “what kind,” not who, but “what kind of man is this?”

When the disciples recognized the water and winds obey Jesus’ voice, and all that had threatened their lives was calm, a new kind of fear emerges—the awe of being in the presence of the Living God. These Hebrews would remember it was God who parted the waters of the Red Sea, offering safe passage, God who subdued sea monsters, and it was God who calmed the waters for the prophet Jonah.

We can only imagine they are also afraid of the changes they will be making in their lives. No one is untouched by a miracle—either they will accept the cost of discipleship and become followers or try to ignore it and flee.

And if they try to ignore what they have heard and seen, they will need to build an even bigger fortress of lies to live in the illusion they can maintain control over their lives.

But, if they accept his divinity and let go of their layers of hubris, they are able to allow Jesus into their lives fully and completely.

Through Jesus, God upended our world. The most humiliating death of all, by the cross, became the proof that greatness can express itself in humility, the noble choice to lower yourself for the sake of others.[3]

When we accept Jesus and become his follower, through his strength we get to show the world the face God created for us to wear in this world; unique and beautiful. We get to spend our energies pursuing each other in love and friendship, remembering each day to step out to serve each other. No one is keeping score. We also get to live the freedom of really living since we have the grace to admit our mistakes and move on.

Those we are honoring in Congregational Care today exemplify the humility in being a follower. Yes, we are recognizing them by name and talking about their service—but quite honestly, it is not because the recognition matters. We live in a community in which everyone seems to be just fine, yet we all experience difficulties, sickness, death, divorce, and we all are to care for each other.

Most often, those on Care Guild, Knitting Ministry, Prayer Circle or Stephen Ministry can speak of their deep gratitude for the time they received care. With great discretion, Care Guild delivers meals to those without the energy or time or ability to feed a family in the time of a crisis. The meal is the sustenance as well as the solidarity of another who is essentially saying “I care for you and will not abandon you when life is out of control.”

We exert so much energy to ensure we have life all under control. With enough power and money, we believe we can build security and a path forward, including only those we think fit for our company, and in this path, faith becomes optional.

So what does humility cost? John Dickson writes, “humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others.”[4]

Humility never makes the headlines, it does not get retweeted, so we need to remember the path to following Jesus is possible only when we are willing to admit we are not in control and instead make the wholehearted commitment to place our trust and faith in him.


 

[1] J Warren Smith, “The Weakness in Virtue, the Virtue in Weakness,” Faith and Leadership, https://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/the-weakness-virtue-the-virtue-weakness, accessed February 24, 2016.

[2] John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love and Leadership, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 87.

[3] Dickson 107.

[4] Dickson 24.