Proper 14 (August 7-13)
Texts: Matthew 14:22-33;
Gen. 37; Rom. 10:5-10
KEEPING YOUR EYES ON THE LORD
I have this habit of looking for a sense of humor in the biblical texts. It’s not that they aren’t about serious matters. But sometimes I think it is helpful to inject appropriate humor even into a serious situation. Humor can help lighten the gravity of a situation and make it easier to deal with.
I wonder if that’s the case with this morning’s gospel lesson. Again, it’s not that it isn’t dealing with a quite serious situation: being out in a boat in a violent storm. It is a situation that tests one’s faith against the tendency to doubt; it’s a life and death matter. Matthew shares this same story of Jesus walking on the water during a storm with both Mark and John’s gospels. Yet only Matthew includes this episode of Peter also stepping out onto the water. And I wonder if it’s Matthew’s attempt to interject some humor into this frightening scene. Think about it. It’s actually a pretty funny picture, isn’t it? Good ol’ Peter. Impetuous, spontaneous Peter. Always the first to respond with boldness — and, yes, sometimes foolishness. The disciples are scared to death, tossed about in this boat at the mercy of the storm. Then, to make matters worse, they see a ghost heading towards them. Well, that’s a sure sign that they’re going to die, isn’t it? The dead are coming to escort them away! Thank God, it turns out to be Jesus. What a relief! And Peter is so relieved that the next thing you know he’s climbing out of the boat and walking out to meet Jesus. And the crazy thing is that everything is apparently fine as long as Peter keeps his gaze trained on Jesus. He’s walking on the water…until his attention finally wavers from Jesus. He notices once more that a storm is blowing…and he’s walking on a lake. Down he goes!
Now, be honest. Don’t you think that is at least a little bit funny? I think Matthew paints a pretty comic picture for us. I can even imagine Jesus saying what he says with a half-smile on his face, “Ah Peter, you of little faith; why’d you doubt? You were doing fine.” Perhaps it’s a bit like when you are teaching your child to ride a bike and they take off just fine; then they more self-consciously comprehend what they are doing and go right down. You’re not scolding them as you offer a hand; you’re suppressing a smile from that look of realization and fear that you’d just seen on your child’s face: “Hey, what happened? You were doing fine, why’d you doubt?”
Again, let me be clear: just because Matthew may be injecting a bit of humor here, it doesn’t take away the seriousness. It simply helps to lighten the load. Perhaps this is an example of what Matthew’s Jesus told us just a few weeks ago: “Come to me you that are heavy laden, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Hey folks, come along with me; this is going to be all fun and games.” No, there is a burden, work to be done. But with Jesus that yolk of faith is a lighter one. It is a lighter one because, even when we make mistakes, Jesus is there to offer a forgiving smile of grace, and to extend a hand to lift us up again that we might continue to follow him. Like with Peter stepping out onto the lake, we need to keep our gaze on Jesus. That’s the key: keeping our eyes on Christ. For in the stormy violence of this world, Jesus will be asking us to follow a different way that might seem as crazy as…well, as crazy as stepping out for a stroll on a lake in the middle of a storm!
What does it mean to keep our eyes on Christ? Where does that lead us? Our gospel lesson, of course, doesn’t give us the whole gospel story. To have the full picture even Peter would have to follow Jesus to the cross and then receive the shock of seeing him again as his Risen Lord. It was seeing this victim of human violence raised from the dead that created any possibility for true faith. On that Easter Sunday, faith began with those who had the grace of laying their eyes on the risen Jesus. Each week, each day, our faith also begins with keeping our gaze fixed on this one who was raised from the dead.
Today we have the rare opportunity in our lectionary to encounter this Jesus through the story of Joseph. I think it may be the one story in the Old Testament that best approximates the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that Joseph himself comes close to approximating the person of Jesus. But his story provides a good foil for the gospel. Let’s take a quick look.
The beginning of the Joseph story makes it real clear why his brothers might hate him. He’s a tattler; he’s too young to pull his share of the work; worst of all, he’s Daddy’s baby boy. In short, he’s a spoiled brat, the typical pampered baby of the family. Jacob makes his favoritism clear by giving Joseph a special coat that marks a sign of royalty or rulership. You bet his older brothers were angry about it. And our reading today skips the best part: Joseph’s dreams. Do you remember? He dreams about himself gathering wheat in the field with his brothers, and all their sheaves of wheat gathered around his and bowed down. Then he follows it up with a dream about the moon, sun, and eleven stars bowing down to him. The text tells us that his brothers hated him even more. Big surprise!
We know the rest of the story, then. His brothers plot to kill him, then soften a bit by selling him into slavery instead. As a slave in Egypt, Joseph ends up in prison unjustly accused by the wife of his master. But his ability with dreams finally saves him. Joseph interprets a dream for the Pharaoh of Egypt himself, that turns out to predict seven years of good crops followed by seven years of famine. So Pharaoh makes Joseph the Secretary of Agriculture where Joseph helps all of Egypt be prepared for the famine. Meanwhile, back in Palestine, Jacob and his eleven remaining sons have not prepared and are hurting for food. Where do they end up? In Egypt talking to the Pharaoh’s Secretary of Agriculture, of course, who happens to also be their long, lost brother, the brother whom they had sacrificed for the sake of peace in the family. They don’t recognize him at first, so Joseph has to reveal himself (like a ghost on the water?). We read:
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; God has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” And Joseph kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. (Gen. 45:4-8, 15)
So this spoiled brat brother not only comes back into their lives, but his obnoxious dreams came true. Not only does he come to rule over his brother and fathers but, in a sense, over the Pharaoh of Egypt as well. God took their dastardly deed and turned into salvation for them all. Out of near death comes new life.
What do we make of this story in light of the gospel? What do we make of Joseph’s dreams, for instance? Even though they are obnoxious, do they become O.K. because God has somehow made them come true? Many have taken this position through the ages. But I don’t think we have to baptize Joseph’s dreams as divine to understand God’s grace in this story. In fact, I think it better if we don’t. Joseph’s dreams are the epitome of our problem. We gain our dreams and desires by keeping our eyes on those around us rather than on what God might dream for us. Joseph’s dreams were simply a reflection of the distorted love from his earthly father, Jacob. Jacob, out of his favoritism, gave Joseph the coat of a ruler. So Joseph dreamed as such; he dreamed he was a ruler. His brothers were understandably furious!
We know this situation. We can relate. Each of us has found ourselves in such a triangle before, haven’t we? As one having been loved too much like Joseph? Or one loving too much like Jacob? Or especially one feeling loved too little like the brothers? We’ve known what it’s like to resent the teacher’s pet, or the boss’ favorite. It generally doesn’t come to the extremes of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery, but we often find a way to make that person pay. Then, peace is restored…for a while. That’s the other aspect of this story’s truth: our need to find a scapegoat when the times turn stormy, when rivalries and conflicts prevail. Jacob’s favoritism led to jealousies and rivalries of monstrous proportions and to great turbulence in his family. Rather than the whole family being torn apart, Joseph was sacrificed to restore the peace.
This is the more obvious point of contact to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The cross shows our tendency to achieve peace by sacrificing someone, as the Jewish and Roman leaders tried to do with Jesus. But through the grace of God, as it was for Joseph and his brothers, that ended up becoming our salvation. God took Joseph’s distorted dreams of ruling and his brothers’ deathly reaction to them and transformed Joseph into a ruler who stood for life. For that’s who God is: God brings new life out of death and forces us to begin fixing our gazes on something other than all those others in this world that lead us into jealousy and rivalry and conflict. We have come to know this God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For when we keep our eyes on Jesus, we see a brother who is in one sense, like Joseph, favored by his heavenly Father. Jesus is the Son who gets it right, but he gets it right precisely by not living the kind of dreams that spawn jealousies and rivalries. No, instead this brother came to live the life of a servant. No jealousies or rivalries here. And so through this same Jesus we come to see a heavenly Father who really doesn’t have any favorites, but who loves each of us unconditionally. And so, finally, we also see in Jesus the Spirit of forgiveness who begins to turn this all around for us that we may begin to live new lives. We see a hand extended and smile of forgiveness and loving chiding that reaches out to as when we are sinking down and lifts us up to follow in his life of service. Yes, there are motives and reasons for jealousy all around us, all kinds of justifications for getting even in those rivalries. But faith is keeping our gaze on the brother who came to do it differently, so that we might be freed and lifted up to do it differently, even amidst all of life’s storms. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 10-11, 1996