May 21, 2017; Rev, Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
Two stories, which in this gospel are placed back to back. Two stories that intersect as they show us who Jesus is and who we are called to be as his followers.
The first story begins with Jesus saying, “Come on guys it’s time to leave town—time to set sail across the sea of Galilee.” But before he can leave, Jesus is approached by two individuals who each talk to him about following him. The first fellow is an intellectual type, a scribe. In todays world he would be like a bureaucrat or a lobbyist. An expert in the system of ancient Jewish religious law, and someone who made a lot of money by using their expertise to serve the needs of the rich and powerful at the expense of the common people. The scribes have a very strongly vested interest in the status quo, and so it’s no surprise that whenever they appear in the gospel stories it is always as opponents of Jesus. That’s important to remember here, who this scribe is, one of Jesus’ opponents. Because at first glance he seems like a genuine seeker, an inquisitive person who just wants to follow Jesus, but his question reveals his true intentions. Jesus sees right through him. Notice that this time Jesus doesn’t call him to follow, no the scribe is the one who initiates the request, looking to see if this teacher is for hire. The scribe is only trying to use Jesus to serve his own selfish ends. (That trick never gets old does it? People today still seem to follow this tactic, using Jesus as a tool for their own selfish attempts to grasp at power.)
But Jesus knows the truth, he knows that this man has no real interest in being a part of the counter-cultural community of faith that he is gathering around himself. Jesus knows the truth, and Jesus speaks the truth. He says, look buddy, if you want to follow me, to really follow me, then you must walk away from it all and turn your back on all that power and prestige that you hold so dear. The life of a Jesus-follower is without comfort or security. Think of the wild and wandering foxes that roam through the woods or the birds that flitter and fly through the air. Both of them are always on the move, constantly in motion, just like Jesus’ community. And yet, when these animals grow weary at least they have a hole or a nest, a home in which to lay their head. But Jesus says, my followers won’t even have that. Not even a home. If you really want to follow me, you must abandon all the comfort and certainly, all the power and security that you have built up for yourself. Are you really willing and ready to walk away from all that, for me? The scribe doesn’t even dare to answer Jesus’ question. He is mute and the story just moves on. His silence speaks volumes!
The truth is, of course, that many of us are like that scribe. We enjoy the good gifts of life and home, we want respect among our peers and the status that comes with it. We want the security of having a place in the system, and while we like to speak as if we are open to following Jesus wherever he may call us, interestingly enough, it never seems to be too risky or precarious. We are comfortable in the kiddy pool and so we ignore the scary and risky deep end of following Jesus with our whole life.
It reminds me of the beginning of one of my favorite stories. The British author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote works of fantasy and fiction that are beloved around the world and have been made into blockbuster movies like the Lord of the Rings. In his first story, The Hobbit, Tolkien tells about a little fellow by the name of Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo lives a peaceful quiet lifestyle, quite comfortable in his home. He has earned the respect of his neighbors because he never does anything unexpected or out of the ordinary. His days are beautifully simple and predictable, which is all he ever wants out of life.
But one day, quite unexpectedly, a wild and wandering wizard by the name of Gandalf walks by Bilbo’s home and finds him outside his enjoying the fresh air in his garden. Gandalf interrupts Bilbo’s peaceful morning and announces, “I’m looking for some to share in an adventure…!” Bilbo replies, “[I] have not use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”[i] The beauty and joy of the story comes in the ways that Bilbo is cast into this adventure, even against his own best intentions, and the ways that the wide world change him into a braver person than he ever knew he could be.
In the silence of the scribe, I can imagine him saying, “I have no use for adventures. If that’s what it means to follow Jesus, then never mind!”
The second person to approach Jesus is one of his own disciples who says that before can follow him he must attend to some family business. His father has died and he has to bury him. Jesus says, “No, I’m sorry. This discipleship train is leaving now and if you’re not on it, you’re going to miss something incredible that God has in store.” When Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead” that seems awfully harsh. Some scholars have suggested that maybe this was a colloquial way of referring to professionals who took care of dead bodies. Maybe Jesus is saying, “Let the gravediggers bury the dead.” But I’m not sure that I buy that. Any attempt to soften the directness of Jesus’ words seems to be missing the point, because what he says is harsh, it is hard, it pulls us into a crisis of considering our deepest held priorities. Just like his words to the scribe about abandoning the certainty and security of home, here Jesus is saying that to fully follow him, you must also lay aside the ultimate claim of family and kinship. Family values, as good as they may be in theory, can quite easily turn into the adoration and worship of family. Parents and children, family obligations can, if we let them, define our identity and control our priorities. Now, as a son and husband and a father, I have to say, I have a hard time hearing these words from Jesus. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I’m given permission to toss them aside or ignore them. In fact, quite the opposite.
Jesus is ready to leave on the adventure of his ministry, and both of these characters—the responsible scribe who loves home and the disciple distracted by family obligations—both of them serve as models for our own well-intentioned but half-hearted and shallow discipleship. We too would rather stay on the shoreline than set out into the seas, following, trusting, into the unknown.
When you are safe on the shore, the tempting tug of the good life sings a siren song that seeks to keep us comfortably in the places and worldviews that we have always known.
But Jesus says, it’s time to go. It’s time to leave the shore and get into the boat of discipleship. It’s time set out into the deep chaotic waters of real life. The deep waters of terror and surprise, of suffering and joy, the deep waters of lonesomeness and hope, of brokenness and beauty. It’s time to face head-on the powers and forces of our day that seek to sink us. It’s time to set out on a grand adventure of trust to be a part of what the sovereign, creator God is actually doing in the real world.
And like a real adventure, what can go wrong does go wrong…quickly.
In our second story, no sooner have they set sail into the sea than a serious storm comes along and threatens to sink them. The disciples are afraid for their life. Now, remember, this isn’t just some squeamish group of seasick rookies. Most of these guys were professional fishermen before they started following Jesus. So if they are this scared, it must have been a serious storm.[ii] It’s like when someone from Minnesota says that it’s cold…you know it must be serious. Or when someone from Mobile complains, “Boy it’s really humid outside,” you know it’s a big deal. The disciples are fearful and desperate but Jesus, is just sleeping. Come on, that feels a little like showing off, don’t you think? Then is an show of divine power, Jesus calms the storm and the disciples are left in utter awe and wonder at this one whom they are following. This one who appear to have the very power of God. The good news of this second story is that Jesus calms the storm.
But let’s remember that this was a real storm. With the potential to destroy the disciples. It was as real of a storm as the ones that we face in our lives today. The real life storms of brokenness and sin. The real life storms of betrayal and fractured relationships. The storms of sickness, disease, death and grief. The storms of mental illness and addictions, dementia and depression. Storms of insecurity and scarcity, of losing a job and fear of the future. Real life storms of poverty and homelessness, of hunger and oppression. Real life storms of politics and warfare, of fear mongering and hate. Storms of failure and inadequacy. Storms of broken dreams and shattered hopes. Real life storms that rage all around us and times even rage within us. The good news of the gospel is that the Lord who calms the storms, the one who wondrously commands the winds and the sea, can speak his peace-giving, storm-calming words into the whirlwinds and tumults, into the chaotic waters of our lives as well.
In these two stories, woven together, what Jesus offers to the disciple and to us is not an easy way out of life’s struggle and trials. It is not some simple, cheap form of discipleship. That’s what the folks back on the shore were hoping for. No, Jesus doesn’t keep us nice and cozy in our man-made fortresses of faith. He doesn’t call us to some shallow, isolationist, protective, security blanket of religion. No, he calls us into the very heart of the storm. He calls us through the deep waters to follow him into the tempest.
This morning we sang about this truth in our opening hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”
When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow,
for I will be near thee, thy trouble to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
Blessing our troubles, sanctifying our distress, calling us into the storm, changing us through the deep and dangerous adventure of trusting him, that’s where Jesus calls us!
Because the truth is the ones on the shoreline, who are surrounded by the familiar comforts of life, who cannot risk stepping out into the unknown, they are the ones who completely miss what God is really doing in the real world through Jesus Christ.[iii] Instead, it is the disciples on the boat, the ones who think they are about to sink, who are in the end able to see Jesus most clearly only once they have gone the shadow of death. Friends, as Easter people, may we seek to be disciples who are willing and ready to follow our Risen Lord into the storm! May we share in the adventure!
To God alone be the glory.
[i] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, page 13.
[ii] David Bartlett, Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Volume 1, page 207.
[iii] Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, page 71.