Lessons for Proper 16, Year A: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
At various points in our lives we need to “step up to the plate.” As scary as some of these times have been, they usually have been moments that have initiated some transitions in our lives and offered us the opportunity to drawn upon the memories of our early years.
The lessons for today lead us to renewed discoveries: the importance of stepping up to the plate; the persistence of God in furthering God’s intentions and mission; and the incredible opportunity that even you and I might have to touch, carry, and share that which is very sacred.
In ancient Egypt, the Hebrew population was flourishing even as they were struggling under oppression. The Pharaoh wanted their numbers to decrease, so he tried to kill off young Hebrew males by drowning them in the Nile River. Moses was set in a basket (the same name used for Noah’s ark) by his mother and cared for in the early journey by his older sister. Eventually he was discovered by the daughter of the Pharaoh, and we know the rest of the story.
Out of the most unlikely beginnings, a small vessel of God’s grace was saved to do God’s bidding. The women of the story – the mother and sister of Moses, the daughter of Pharaoh, and the midwives who earlier refused to participate in Pharaoh’s terrible scheme – all become for us beacons. They are carriers of the sacred, and people who stepped up to the plate to make possible an emergence of a sacred story, part of a larger narrative of the Hebrew people and our religious heritage.
In Matthew, we hear Peter’s confession. Jesus had just taken his disciples out of the region of Galilee, into the Roman province of Caesarea Philippi, a lovely area that overlooks the Jordan River Valley north of the Sea of Galilee, in what today we call the Golan Heights of occupied Syria. The chief city was known for its two temples: one to Pan, the god of shepherds; and the other to Augustus, the Roman emperor who fancied himself as the son of man & the son of Zeus. There is a third place nearby, a huge pit, the result of the Jordan Valley’s place on rather long fault line that includes also Africa’s Rift Valley, from which noxious gas and steam fumes. At the time, the pit was known as the Gates of Hades.
To get away from the maddening crowd, Jesus took the disciples there and in that context asked them: “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” This was a reasonable question because the disciples had spent a lot of time among those most touched by Jesus acts of kindness and compassion. Not surprisingly the disciples were eager to report the popular speculation concerning Jesus: Some say that you are John the Baptist. Others think that you are Elijah or one of the great prophets who have come back from the dead.
But notice Peter’s response: Overlooking this place, knowing its significance….Peter responds to Jesus questions, “But who do you say that I am?” by names Jesus as Messiah, son of the living God. The Messiah, the anointed one, names Jesus as the successor to David, the king – the first Messiah of Israel, the one anointed by Samuel at the behest of God. The King – the Davidic king – the King of Israel – the King of the Universe whose throne will endure forever, is named in the presence of the temple of Augustus – the king of Rome whose throne will end. The Son of the living God….again a confession made in before the temple of Augustus, son of god, son of Zeus. But this confession is that Jesus is the Son of the living God…the true God…the real God. This confession announces that Jesus is the living God’s very own…unlike Caesar, who is son of a dead God. And it’s on Peter….on Petros….on the rock that Jesus will build his Church and not even the gates of Hades – the very bowels of the earth, will prevail against it.
In Romans, we encounter familiar words: all have been given differing gifts through God’s grace that are to be used for the welfare of the entire community. No one can claim that his or her gifts are more important. All are important for wholeness and holiness.
So what do we do with these stories?
Today’s lessons begin with a horrific history – the slaying of young children, combined with a sacred, nurturing history – the caring for an oppressed, little baby threatened by the powers that be.
The Gospel presents an important question: “But who do you say that I am?” It is a moment of our own responsibility because the question demands our living out the answer.
In Romans we encounter what is perhaps a familiar theme: All have been given different gifts through God’s grace that are to be used for the welfare of the common good. No one can claim that his or her gifts are more important. All are important for wholeness and holiness.
So what do we do with these stories? Are they only part of our lore or are they alive in some new ways in our hearing? Do we stand for the little ones of life, drawing them out of the water to step forward to proclaim new life and possibilities? Are our gifts used for others to benefit the community? When asked the question asked of the disciples – “Who do you say that I am?” – what will we say?
This is not easy to answer, for behind our responses we have our own histories, our own working through all of those messages from our own childhood, our own disappointments and failures, our own physical and emotional pains, our own experiences of loneliness or feeling of little worth. We come to this place from the context of our living, a place one might call “tall grass.” In this tall grass, we are buffeted by many things, some which we cannot see. Life is complex and full. Sometimes the tall grass becomes a haven where we can hide out. Sometimes it is a maize where we don’t know where we are going or who is around us. At other times we like to smell its uniqueness and at other times we feel choked by its overbearing sameness. Life is full in all of its complexities, and we bring all those complexities here at this moment in this place.
In this place….maybe we have a context for understanding in this place in this moment of Eucharist.
For we are a people of Gathering:
We gather together to share the Lord’s goodness. We are here in this place with our light streaming. Our work as a parish community, without being intrusive in others’ lives, can be a place where we can start again and feel that here is a community that values me as a treasured earthen vessel of worth and significance. This can make all the difference in people’s lives. It can be a place where we can be loved in healthy, life-giving ways, and where we are fed not only by bread and wine but also by a people, who, sharing our human journeys and our human condition, are willing to not just to talk the talk but walk the walk with us in our journeys in daily living.
For we are a people of the Word:
We engage together to hear the Word of God – to hear the story of God’s love for us. That is what the Bible is, after all, a great and wonderful love story between God and God’s own creation. And so we gather to hear it and to discover how God has been present with God’s own people and how God sent Jesus to pitch his tent among us – to dwell with us, God incarnate. And we respond, reflecting on our own stories and how God has been present with us and how we have been present to God.
We are a people of the Table:
We present ourselves, at God’s invitation, before the altar, the holy table, receiving what the world might see as a small gift – a morsel of bread and a drop of wine – but which we know is the gift of life. It is a precious gift, the very body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus the Christ and son of the living God. And it might be for us a reminder that doing something that may seem small and insignificant can make all the difference. Who would have known that putting that baby in a basket and setting him upon the water drive forth the sacred story? It is from the table that we are made one body in Him. It is a holy table that unites us into communion, where we can know that our journeys are inextricably connected to others’ journeys.
We are a people of Dismissal:
We are called from the table to return to the complexities of life, to the tall grass. This is where most of our life is lived in all of its fullness, struggle, sorrow, and celebration. It is from the tall grass that a basket was made for a baby that changed the course of history. It is the tall grass that the disciples were beckoned from the Mount of Transfiguration. It is where death and resurrection happens most frequently.
So what are we to do or say when we hear the words “But who do you say that I am?”
David Lose, longtime President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, offered this simple confession in his weekly blog for preachers:
I think Jesus came to show us what’s possible. And so rather than give into the threat of disease, Jesus healed. Rather than surrender people to demons, Jesus showed compassion. Rather than let people starve, because there’s not enough to go around, Jesus fed people who were hungry. Jesus refused to be satisfied or limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same …David Lose, In The Meantime, August 19, 2014
In the midst of our fears and hesitation, it is the stepping out in faith and being alive and present to ourselves and to others, the world around us, and to God’s reconciling love breaking into the world in often small, seemingly insignificant ways that is the source of our future hope and promise. So with courage and hopefulness, with our pain and struggles, with our joys and celebrations, we dare come again to the holy table and to a special presence with each other in prayer.
Who would know that as a result of our coming here we and the world around us will never be quite the same again? Be on the alert, for God’s spirit is dwelling in our midst!