Did Peter Sound Like The Guy In the Trailer Park After the Tornado? (Matthew 14: 22-33)

What do you think it sounded like when Peter first re-told the story of the two of them walking on water?  You have to believe that one of the first things he did was to tell it to the people on the boat and then tell it to people who weren’t there.  I also believe this became “Peter’s story”.  For the rest of his life, at parties and social gathering, Peter told this story.  Someone would say, “Peter, tell them about the time you walked on water.” Then, with only a bit of coaxing, Peter would gladly comply.

We all have one of these stories; a tale tinged with a bit of shame.  Peter doesn’t come out looking all that great yet somehow this is part of the adventure.  Mental health professionals call these shame stories.  The Bible is full of them.  They go right back to the beginning of the Bible.  Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and well (everyone he ever knew).  Something happens that we’re ashamed of, something we’ve done or said, and by interacting with God; our shame is redeemed.  In today’s story, it’s about Peter doubting Jesus in a life or death situation.  Jesus redeems our shame because no one benefits from carrying emotional baggage given to them by religion.

No matter what you’ve heard about this story in the past, the deeper truth is this:  shame can be redeemed.  In fact it’s the underlying message from Genesis to Revelation.  So that’s what’s going on at the macro level, the bigger picture.  Let’s look at the micro level; what’s happening in this story specifically.

The disciples didn’t posses and abundance of sophistication.  Jeff Foxworthy, noted philosopher, theologian, and comedian, defines a redneck as the “glorious absence of sophistication”.  Given the holiness of the 12 men we’re talking about, I have no problem saying these disciples probably met Foxworthy’s definition of a redneck.  The 12 rednecks from Galilee were Jesus’ A-Team for spreading the good news and bringing about the kingdom of God.  I imagine Peter’s retelling of the walking on water story probably resembled the guy in the trailer park describing the tornado than a fancy preacher reading from the King James Bible.

“What you see, it was about 3 o’clock of the morning and me and the boys was asleep in the boat.  I tell you, it had been one more long day.  People just kept coming from everywhere to see Jesus.  He kept feeding them too.  We was plum wore out.  Man, they was people from as far south as Jerusalem.  We was tired but we still though we might go flounder gigging when we got back to Capernaum so we went to sleep.  Jesus, he didn’t want to go with us.  He stayed behind.  He’s always wanted to go off and be by himself and pray.  Especially after he’s had a busy day feeding people.  Like I said, I don’t know where it kept coming from; the bread and fish just kept showing up and we kept feeding people.  People do like them a free fish fry.

Jesus wanted to go pray by himself.  I guessed he would catch a boat and row himself over in the morning.  You wouldn’t think it, but for a carpenter, that old boy knows how to handle a boat.  Oh, yeah, 3 o’clock in the morning.  Couple of us woke up in the middle of the night, you know, like you do when you need to go to bathroom and I looked over the side of the boat and what did I see?  I saw a ghost! 

I saw a ghost that walking toward the boat.  This here ghost was walking on water at a pretty good clip and was going to overtake us before long.  The ghost had long hair, beard, a robe, and looked like someone I knew but I didn’t know who. I raised the alarm.  “Disciples, one and all, there is ghost walking on the water, let us all freak out in a manner befitting our status of Biblical icons!”  So we freaked out.

Have you ever seen a man walk on the water at 3 o’clock in the morning?  We ain’t been drinking or nothing.  Now here’s when it got weird.  The ghost was some kind of Tony Robbins like motivational speaker.  He said, “Be encouraged, it’s me.  Don’t be afraid.” 

Like I was supposed to know who the ghost was!  I need more than a pronoun to be friendly with a ghost at 3 o’clock in the morning in the middle of the Sea of Galilee.  Again, he just expected me to know who he was.  Then, it hit me.  Maybe this “ghost” was really Jesus.  How could I be sure?

So I said (tell them what you said to Jesus, Peter) to Jesus, Lord if it’s you, order be to come out to you on the water.”

Let’s ask Peter to take a break for a moment in his retelling to Action News.  Two things in Peter’s version of events ring true.  First, Peter loses the ability to contextually identify Jesus.

What do I mean by this?  Look at the past day.  Jesus and his disciples have spent the day feeding 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes.  According to Matthew’s gospel this is Jesus’ most important and meaningful miracle to date.  As miracles go, this is one goes right to the top of the list.  Look at what Jesus can do.  If that image of Jesus’ care and compassion for humanity is seared in your consciousness; the possibilities of what Jesus might do next are endless.  Who would want to put any boundaries or limitations on what Jesus might achieve?  After you’ve seen the man feed 5000 people surely anything is possible?  One would think that’s the case.  I would hope to be in this group of rational Christ followers.

I however, like Peter, am a human being.  It is easy to beat up on Peter and his supposed lack of faith.  If one sermon on this text with the title (It Takes a Leap of Faith Get Out of the Boat) is preached today, then hundreds will be preached. When our ideas about the status quo become disrupted and disorientated, we freak out.  Even though we’ve got mounds of evidence on one side of our brain, when it’s dark (literally or metaphorically) and 3 o’clock in the morning (literally or metaphorically) our ability to think straight shuts down.  No matter how many miracles we’ve seen; we say stupid stuff.  Despite the stupid (even shameful) things we say, Jesus hears us and keeps walking towards us.  That’s the real miracle in this story.

The second deeper event which rings true is Peter’s question, “Lord, if it’s you”.  Do we do this one or what?  Let me put it this way:  it’s also called “bargaining with God”.    If it’s you Lord, do this, do that.  The questions we put to Jesus.  Lord, if it’s you, then we’ll believe, respond, go to church, give money, serve, and be faithful.  We will then be faithful.  Our faithfulness is conditioned our Jesus meeting our demands.  Do you see the problem with that?  That’s backwards.  That’s not how faith is supposed to work.  This is much more than getting the cart before the horse.  If we take Peter’s “Lord, if it’s you” approach and make it our standard operating procedure; we have created a do it yourself religion where Jesus and God are employees and we are the bosses.  When our employees don’t deliver, if the “if it’s you” test isn’t passed, we’ll fire the Jesus and God and find something else to worship.

The greatest “Lord, if it’s you” challenge we like to pose to Jesus is this:  Lord, if it’s you, help us maintain the status quo. This is what Peter was asking. “Help my stable world of ghosts and fear stay in check.  Help me live in a world where I didn’t realize physical and spiritual hunger was a problem that needed to be addressed.”  Does any of that sound familiar?

Jesus challenges the status quos in our lives and the world we inhabit.  We’ve made maintaining the status quo a full time job.  Each time we come to this place and crack open this book and listen to these crazy stories our idea of the status quo is challenged.  Sometimes it should be erased altogether.  Indeed that’s what the Resurrection is; an obliteration of the status quo called death.

The world is working against Christ’s newness, doing everything to say we must stay inside, embrace, exist, and live in the status quo.  The story we’re told to tell and document is the story of the status quo.  Jesus says, no.  Jesus says, don’t be afraid.  Jesus says, be encouraged.

Jesus breaks in and grace invades; our well ordered ideas of life are placed at risk.  If you don’t believe me, just ask Peter.

If Your God Is…

If Your God Is:

For A Pre-Emptive Nuclear Strike, when diplomatic options still exist

More concerned about transgendered soldiers than collateral damage in Seoul

Speaking the same words about America as Babylonian, Egyptian, and Roman gods said about their rulers

Silent while the world stumbles toward unimaginable suffering

Always looking for someone to blame or kill

Your God isn’t the Judeo-Christian God.  You worship power. At the end of the day, you believe in doing whatever it takes to maintain the chaotic status quo. 

Your god (by your own reasoning):

Would have taken Jesus off the cross

Massacred Pilate and the Roman soldiers

Led a rebellion and revolution against Herod

Stoned the woman caught in adultery

Called down fire against Jesus’ enemies

 Looks nothing like Jesus Christ and the God we meet in the New Testament

1 John 3:18-20
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 

A Poem About Robert Jeffress and His Recent Chat With God

Robert Jeffress
Southern Baptist Imam
Who does his fatwa address?
The God Bob claims
Made him so blessed
Is listening to
this heretical mess.
A Baptist preacher,
Impeccably dressed,
Heard God say,
Kim Jong-un is an abscess,
Rip him out, it’s ok,
Don,
I’ll tell the press,
We’ll lay hands and pray,
You’ll kill millions as we profess,
And hope none of the soldiers are, well, you know, that way.

–Richard Bryant

Rev Richard on the Relationship Between Science and Religion

1. I believe there’s no contradiction between Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. I love them both.  Blessed are the peacemakers who see creation as evolving.

2. Cosmologists, physicists, and astronomers are unable to identify dark matter. It’s there, it’s doing something. They know it’s there.  But they’re also prepared to be proven wrong because so much of the research on dark matter is built on algorithms and conjecture. Theologians know grace is out there. We know grace is active. We proclaim the reality of grace.   However, our best definitions of grace are limited by the brain’s ability to comprehend the idea we’ve defined as “God”. How prepared to be proven  wrong are we about some of our long held assumptions?  Are we that different?

3. Genesis isn’t a science textbook. Jurassic Park isn’t a documentary.

4. An intelligent designer would have excluded hurricanes. Seriously.

5. No matter how hard I pray, the island where I live will eventually be reclaimed by sea level rise. My church will be underwater. Perhaps it’s time to listen to science.

Open Source Theology

Creativity is one of the most important means of keeping the church and ministry from stagnating.  Clergy and local churches need fresh, new ideas in order to foster and awareness of the ongoing possibilities of the gospel.  Pastors and church communities are urged to develop their own concepts and initiatives which might work well in their community.  Books and programs (ranging from Vacation Bible School to small group studies) worth millions of dollars are sold to congregations each year for this express purpose:  offer something new, different, and exciting.  Our churches can purchases “newness” by the box or kit.  New ideas, even ones that come prepackaged in shrink-wrap, are vital to church growth and survival.  However, our embrace of openness and newness only goes so far.

These kits, programs, and packages represent a type of “open source” thinking.  They are available to everyone but only those who are available to purchase them.  The creativity and inspiration sold by Cokesbury (and others) isn’t free or genuinely open source.  It’s open, but at a premium.

For something to be truly open source, such as software, the original source code must be freely available and open for distribution or modification.  Open source ideas aren’t bound by copyright rules.  You don’t worry about getting sued for photocopying music or mixing songs.  Open means open.  If something is open source, you can change, use, modify, the actual thing (not ideas or derivatives about a thing).  Open source innovators have immense creative ability to go in any direction.

How would “open source” theology look in contemporary United Methodism? It’s already here.  I argue that “open source” theology is at the heart of the major theological issues dividing United Methodism. I think it sounds like a great idea.  There’s a problem.  To go “open source” means openness.  It also means the powerful lose a measure of their control.

The idea of “open source” theology frightens many people on the theological, cultural, and political right in contemporary United Methodism.  Why?  They want to control the source code.  What is the source code?  In our context, the source code is the scripture and the creeds.  The source code is the part of the software that most people never see.  It’s written, maintained, and controlled by the developers. (That’s us:  the clergy, district superintendents, bishops, seminary trained elites, conference delegates.)  We guard the code.  We manipulate and change how the code works.  If it’s interpreted one way or another, the code comes through our hands. Our code, by the way, is over 2000 years old.  In the case of the Old Testament; the code is 6000 years old.  Some of our programmers refuse to issue bug fixes for a six thousand year old code which still advocates plural marriage, slavery, and the death penalty.  See what I mean?  Isn’t it time to open up this process to a wider, more collaborative audience?

Open source software is software that anyone can enhance, modify, or improve.  What would it look like to have a theology that was open to modifications and improvement from an entire denomination (at the local church level)?  What kind of creativity might this inspire?

To some extent, I’m talking about the Social Principles.  I’m also referring to the Creeds and parts of scripture.  What would this kind of “open source” theology do to the ability of some (in United Methodism) to exercise control over an entire denomination, if the doors to the Bible and the Creeds were wide open for everyone?  There should be nothing proprietary or closed source about being the body of Christ.  After all, who are we to decide anything on behalf of the creator of the cosmos?  It would make it much harder to divide and conquer the body of Christ on misreading of scripture.  The Bible is a gift that was never meant to be guarded in private, interpreted alone, or changed in secret. Hack our theology, leak it to the world.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Jacob Wrestles With Himself (Genesis 32:22-31)

THEY CALL THIS A CHILDREN’S BULLETIN! THIS IS CRAZY…

But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 

I’m tired of fighting God.

The past week was a struggle.   We’ve either been without power or on island wide generators.  The electrical line that powers most of North Carolina’s Outer Banks was severed in a construction accident late last week.  Since that time, our islands were evacuated.  Local restaurants and hotels have lost thousands of dollars.  Other industries and businesses connected to the life on the islands (mechanics, grocery stores, and veterinarians) have all suffered as well.  Neighbors are fighting with neighbors about who really counts as a resident.  Life has been one big fight.  Whether a fight for power, air conditioning, a working cell phone, a plan to compensate workers, food, ice, or countless other items; we are wrestling with reality.

Along comes Jacob.  Jacob the Patriarch of Israel is making the final stages of his journey home.  Our struggle has been nothing compared to Jacob’s.  I feel for him.  After crossing the river with his wives and servants; he is ambushed.  In the text, that is how quickly this struggle begins.  There is no segue, setup, or transition.  This wrestling match comes out of the blue.  He helps his family across.  Jacob stays apart.  The fight begins.  There is no warning or preparation.  God jumps Jacob.

Are you ready for a moment of total honest?  I’m tired of fighting.  I’m worn out.  I certainly don’t want to fight with God.  I don’t know about you but God is the last person I want to wrestle with after the week I’ve had.  Why do we need to fight with God in the first place?   I’m tired of fighting.  Above all, I do not want to fight with the God.

We fight.  We jump people in the dark.  Humanity sinks to the lowest common denominator; just look at our Facebook pages.  God’s supposed to bigger than our petty foibles.  Surely God, in this of all weeks, you can understand our frustration and fatigue with fighting.  Today’s not the day for an all night wrestling match.

As I mentioned earlier, Jacob’s in no mood to struggle.  That’s why he fights back.  He’s hungry, tired, and ready to get home.  Jacob doesn’t have time to stop.  He needs a moment (this is why he steps away, goes apart) for his own piece of mind.  This anonymous wrestler invades his ability to seek a moment of isolation while still moving forward.

If anyone, be they man or God, tries to inhibit his progress; he will treat them as an obstacle.  Whoever this is that’s stopping him is delaying his eventual goal:  reconciling with Esau.

Jacob must have been one hell of a wrestler.  To hold his own (against God) was an amazing accomplishment.  Remember, Jacob didn’t know the identity of this assailant.  I wonder if God was taking it easy on Jacob or was in truly no holds barred.  Was God playing by some heavenly WWE rules?

It turns out God wasn’t playing by any rules.  This is probably the most disturbing aspect of this story.  God cheats.  God can’t beat Jacob outright.  So God cheats.  I’ve never liked or been comfortable with this aspect of Jacob’s encounter.  After the ten days I’ve had, I’m even less thrilled with the notion of God whose sense of fair play seems to be well out of bounds.  I know that opens up a can of worms.  Does God have to play fair, especially by our standards of fairness?  But where do our ideas of fairness originate?

Traditionally, these notions of right and wrong are traced through ethics and philosophy back to theology and the Judeo-Christian tradition; that is to say, Almighty God.  What happens when God violates God’s own rules of fairness?

Here’s what I mean, “When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him.”  Again, the man (who was God) could not beat Jacob outright.  So he cheats by tearing a muscle in Jacob’s thigh.  What would we say if that happened in anyone of our middle or high school sporting events?  It wouldn’t be good.  At the least, the athlete would be disqualified.  We’re holding high school athletes to a higher standard of sportsmanship than God.  Something isn’t right here.  It’s not fair.  God cheats when God cannot win. God injures Jacob through his cheating.  God sets out the terms of morality and alters them in such a strange and capricious manner.  It seems like such a useless struggle and burden to lay on an already wounded soul.

Honestly, it’s hard to answer questions about some of these familiar Old Testament stories because there are no good answers.  Sadly, the picture of God painted in Jacob’s story is a well-known image to many Christians and non-believers alike.  Through our thoughtless actions, compromised theology, and aggressive evangelism techniques; the world has come to see God as a shadowy figure who ambushes, attacks, and harms people for no good reason.  God is the middle school bully who takes your lunch money and demands respect.  There is no love in Genesis 32:22-31.  The absence of love is palpable.  If God isn’t love, God isn’t God.

This is why Jacob isn’t wrestling with God.  We can’t read this story literally.  Despite the writer’s allusions to the attacker’s divine identity, Jacob isn’t wrestling God.  Who then, was Jacob wrestling with, especially if we’re taking this parable at face value?  This is a story about a man at war with his own reality.  It is, in some ways, what has to happen, before we go any further.  Jacob must fight himself.  He is his own worst enemy.

It seems so real.  This appears to be God.  It is not; it the darker version of himself.  The deeper truth of this scripture is about what happens when we meet the worst reflection of our own subconscious. We want this attacker to be God.  Why?  We need someone to blame for the death, delays, and poor decisions accumulating around us.  Who better to blame than an aggressive supernatural deity who exhibits the worst aspects of our own personality?   God has always made a convenient scapegoat for our own moral shortcomings.  If it goes wrong, it must be God’s fault-that’s the easy excuse of the part time agnostic.

Jacob is led by God to confront the realities caused by the rupture in his family after he cheated Esau of his birthright.  The deep truth of God’s involvement with Jacob (and his family) is reconciliation, renewal, and restoration.  Every part of this story has moved the reader (and Jacob) in this direction.  If what you’re reading isn’t part of the forward movement of those three aspects (reconciliation, renewal, and restoration) it’s not God driving the action.  Reality will seem real but it’s not.  We have to learn to tell the difference.  When the focus of the story changes; the meaning of the story does as well.  If Jacob isn’t fighting God, if he’s fighting himself; why would the writer of Genesis want to confuse us about God’s motivations when it comes to wrestling with Jacob? For that very reason:  Jacob’s motivations aren’t God’s, they’re Jacob’s.  Jacob doesn’t know what he’s doing.  Is he after revenge, restitution, forgiveness, or is this a suicide mission?  Does he believe and even hope Esau will kill him and take this lifelong burden from his soul?  If that’s what he believes and there’s plenty of evidence of Jacob’s death wish; that makes him a garden variety nihilist. He believes in nothing beyond himself; certainly not his wives, family, or anything else he’s worked so hard to achieve.  Jacob’s wound is self-inflicted.  It’s an attempt to do what he hopes Esau will finish.

God is there, in the background, giving Jacob the space to work it out.   God isn’t wrestling with Jacob.  God is in the empty space, the void in between the stones.  It’s in that space, an area shaped by God, where we gather this morning.  We are like Jacob, working out our own lives.  Esau’s various shapes, fashions, and forms are out there waiting for our arrival.  Our alienated lives precede us.  The Good News is this:  Grace is ahead of the brokenness.  God is in our story; driving it forward with reconciliation and love past what we deserve towards an embrace we can yet imagine.  We wrestle.  God guides.  Know the difference.

10 Things United Methodists Do During A Blackout

1. Switch the Welch’s for Sangria.

2. Attribute everything, from the slightest breeze to the dog’s passing of wind, to the Holy Spirit.

3. Watch the Baptists wait for the liquor store to fix their generator.

4. Tell each other about the time we didn’t have air conditioning when we were growing up.

5. Listen to me yell from the kitchen, “I told you this is how the rapture starts”.

6. Make plans for the church to hold a Blackout Awareness Readiness Blessing Quorum, a BARBQ.

7. Appoint a committee to buy matches and another to count them.

8. Send for a candle making kit from Cokesbury.

9. Attribute the noises you make when taking a cold shower to “speaking in tongues”.

10. Compose a song about the journey from darkness to light to be performed by a children’s choir.