We don’t do a lot of preaching at CitC, but if I were to preach, I might say something like this. I wrote it for my preaching class. I hope that it becomes good news for someone.
Matthew 8:18-27 (NRSV)
18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 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.” 21 Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” 23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 26 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. 27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
Our passage today is about a boat ride. It begins with Jesus giving an order to the disciples to get in a boat and go to the other side of the lake. So, of course, all the disciples get in a boat and go to the other side of the lake. Well, not quite yet. A couple of people have questions and concerns and Jesus, being the nice boss that he is, wants to make sure everyone is comfortable with this boat ride idea before embarking.
One scribe, maybe a bit of a suck-up, tells Jesus that he would follow him anywhere. Of course, Jesus is thrilled to hear this and says, “Great! Get in the boat so we can go to the other side of the lake.” Not exactly. Instead, he tells the scribe that “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Then another disciple asks that he be allowed to go bury his father, who has just died. Of course, Jesus is compassionate and so tells the man, “Sure. You can just catch up to us later on the other side of the lake. Take whatever time you need to grieve.” Not exactly. Instead he tells the man to “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Because you are all smart readers, you know that when an author tells you something is going to happen and then it doesn’t, there must be a reason for that. Here, Jesus tells the disciples to get in a boat and they do not get in a boat. Whatever is going to happen on that boat has something to do with the questions and concerns of these would-be disciples. So let’s see what happens on the boat.
We know this story well – it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels – it’s kind of a classic. The disciples get in the boat and, soon after leaving the shore, a storm rises up. But this is no ordinary storm. Matthew uses the word for earthquake, which is used later in both the crucifixion and resurrection scenes for an apocalyptic flavor. Scripture tells us that the boat is being covered by the waves. With modern CGI graphics, we see these scenes all the time in the movies, so maybe they have lost their sense of danger for us. And when we do go on the sea, it is usually in huge cruise ships in calm waters. But imagine being in a small fishing boat with giant waves towering over you and crashing down. There is something ultimate about this storm, something final. They could die. And yet, through all this chaos, Jesus is asleep.
The disciples come to Jesus, terrified, fearing for their lives. They wake him up, crying, “Save us! We are perishing!” What are they thinking here? What do they expect him to do?
When Jesus wakes up, before he does anything about the storm, he decides to frame his actions as a teaching moment: “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Jesus says this a lot in Matthew. It’s unclear whether it is a term of annoyance or affection or perhaps both. In any case, he repeatedly points out to the disciples their little faith. Each time, it is a teaching moment like this. There is clearly something that they don’t get. But what is it? What do they not understand?
Because this story is familiar, because we know it so well, we also know the meaning quite well. This is about the hardship of discipleship and God’s presence in our lives through that hardship. The church is like a boat on a rough sea. If we just believe in Jesus, everything will be okay. But is that what is happening here? Do the disciples not believe that Jesus can do something to save them? If so, why did they wake him up? And why would he chastise them for doing so?
For an alternative understanding of the story, we need to look at Matthew’s final use of the phrase “little faith.” It occurs in 17:20, when the disciples have failed to cast out a demon and do not understand why. Jesus responds: “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” They should know this because, in Jesus’ Missionary Discourse in chapter 10, he commanded them: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Jesus promises the disciples that they will have the power he has and he commands them to use it. On this, John’s Jesus agrees: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Let us return to the boat and the questions we have about what the disciples did wrong. In reading the Gospels, it is easy for us to identify with the disciples. We are called to be disciples, so it makes sense that they are our models. But the disciples in this story are at the beginning of their journey. They don’t get it. Maybe that’s why we identify with them; they are as dumb as we are, which is comforting to know. Like the scribe, we have probably claimed a commitment for which we were unprepared. Like the other disciple, we probably think we can be a disciple and keep up with the world’s expectations. But Jesus gives us no illusions about such things. To be a disciple is to follow Jesus, to follow God wherever God goes. One cannot do that and sit on the sidelines. We don’t go along for the ride to watch God do stuff. We are there to get involved, to get our hands dirty, to risk death.
But it is not risk for its own sake. Matthew uses the word “righteousness” a lot. Whenever you read that, substitute “justice.” “Righteousness” in our culture has become so much about personal piety and morality. That’s not what Matthew is on about. Matthew is primarily concerned about what he calls the kingdom of God, which is a kingdom predicated on God’s justice. Jesus is the definitive representative of that kingdom and the eschatological judge that will bring it into being. As disciples, followers of Jesus, we are to participate in bringing it into being.
This is not a story about us because being a disciple is not about us. Sure, we all need saving at some point, but that is not what being a disciple is. Being a disciple is following Jesus and being Jesus for the world. We are to be like Christ: the definitive representation of God’s justice on earth. This is what faith is: not believing, but doing. It is living faithfully to God’s dream of justice for the world. What then are we to do?
It’s hard to look at the news or check facebook without seeing the rising death toll. Every day, the life of a young man or woman – kids, really – comes to an end. There are the tragedies of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rwanda and the Congo. There are kids starving to death and kids dying of juvenile diabetes because they live in nutrition deserts. And there are kids taking their own lives. Gay – and gayish – kids are taunted by their peers, placed in jeopardy by a culture that rejects them. Our culture demands certainty about gender and sexuality and too often it is Christians making the demands. These kids are told that, because of who they are, they will never have a place that feels like home, no place to lay their heads.
Rolling Stone recently reported on a school district in Northern Minneapolis, which, in response to pressure by Christian groups, enacted a “No Homo Promo” policy that prohibited school employees from discussing homosexuality in any way. The result was that, when gay or gayish kids were teased, mocked, bullied and abused by their peers, teachers could not respond. The kids cried out, “Save us!” But if the slurs hurled related to homosexuality, teachers and principals remained silent. These kids were set adrift in a hostile sea, the wind of insults and waves of abuse crashing down until only death seemed certain. Those in whom they had entrusted their lives were asleep. So what then are we to do?
Be like Jesus. Wake up! Rebuke the wind and the sea! Rebuke the chaos that towers over the vulnerable and the despair that threatens to drown. Rebuke those who would construct a world that makes these things not only possible, but makes them appear to be the only option. Fight the forces that threaten death. Demand justice. God has anointed us, has blessed us with this power. If we have faith like a mustard seed, we can move mountains. We can literally change the landscape, the very shape of the world. If only we have faith, if only we are faithful to the dreams of God for the world. Wake up and do justice.