By the end of the Genesis story, Joseph and the rest of those with him had risen far in the Egyptian society. They were immigrants and yet they were accepted and had even achieved status and power. In fact, Joseph was second in command to Pharaoh. But things change. A new king was installed over Egypt who did not know Joseph and who actually feared the status and power that Joseph and the Israelites had gained. So very quickly Joseph and the Israelites moved from being accepted and welcomed guests to being suspect aliens that were feared by the Egyptian citizens. The new Pharaoh successfully characterized the Israelites as a threat to Egypt’s economy and way of life and with that fear instilled in them, the Egyptian society rallied behind their new leader.
So, to keep the Israelites “in their place” and control them a little bit more, the Egyptians created a forced labor program and put the immigrant Israelites to work rebuilding their infrastructure. But the Israelite population kept growing in multitudes and the Egyptians became more and more fearful of these immigrants taking over in their society. So, in an effort to counter this problem, the new Pharaoh ordered that when a Hebrew woman gives birth, the midwife who is assisting her, should kill the child if it is a boy. Well, keep in mind that a midwife is a medical person of the time. It was not in their nature to take a life. So when Pharaoh asked why there were still Israelite boys who were allowed to live, the midwife simply told him that the Hebrew woman gave birth too fast for them to get there and take the child. (Apparently, Pharaoh does not see the females as a threat. Sure…you just go ahead and think that Pharaoh!). Pharaoh’s next order is to take the Hebrew male babies and throw them into the Nile. (What a bizarre thought…to throw dead babies into your main source of water and irrigation!)
During this time, a man from the Tribe of Levi married and the woman had a male child. Rather than risk the wrath of Pharaoh against her child, she hid him and then eventually placed him in the river. Ironically, it was Pharaoh’s daughter that found the child and adopted him. And, even more ironically, it was the child’s mother who then received wages for being a nursemaid for the child. The child grew up as Pharaoh’s grandson. He was named Moses, which means “I drew him out of the water.” He would become the central figure in the Exodus story, the central figure in the way that God shapes Israel’s future. Israel’s future has been preserved. Even from oppression, comes survival. God can use this.
Perhaps our message is one of sort faithful subversion. Perhaps we are called not to just follow in blind obedience but to respond with compassion and grace. Perhaps true loyalty (true patriotism, if you will) is not blind faith but rather a faithful response at every turn of whether or not our society and our world truly look like they are called to look. Sadly, parts of this commentary sound like they came from yesterday’s New York Times rather than a 3,500-year old Biblical text. Are we called to preserve our world and our society or are we called to transform it into something else?
All through history, the world has gone through out and out paradigm shifts. Old ideas and archaic notions were given questions and did not have an answer to provide. So, things changed. Painfully, sometimes, things changed. Here, a life is brought into oppression and terror and creates life itself. Moses would lead the people out of their enslavement and to freedom. But they would never be the same again. It happened again 1,500 years later. A life was brought into oppression and terror and creates life itself. Jesus would lead the people out of their enslavement and to freedom. But we would never be the same again. So, why is it so important for us to preserve our society the way it is? Why do we fear those who are different? Maybe in this time of wars and airstrikes and uncertainty; of arguments over budgets and debt ceilings and insurance and who is actually “American”; of the juxtaposition of natural drought and human oppression as it creates a moral and physical crisis around the globe; of fears over terrorists and loss of life as we know it—maybe now is the time when we are called to look anew at what God may be calling us to do. Maybe a newfound freedom waits just over the horizon. But we will never be the same again. Thanks be to God!
Years ago when I was traveling in Israel, I met a Jew from Chicago who had dedicated his life to the Zionist cause and whose home was a kibbutz in the desert. When his passion and militancy in that armed camp were questioned, he told a midrash on Moses at the Red Sea. He described for us Moses leading the people homeward only to suddenly be confronted ahead by the deep sea waters and behind him by the fierce armies of Pharaoh. Moses is poised between the devil and the deep blue sea. “It was,” he says, “when Moses’ big toe touches the water that the sea parts and slavery is left behind. The moral or teaching of the tale,” he told us, “was do not stand on the river bank praying for miracles.” Like Jesus, intent upon abundant life for his followers, the call is to step over old boundaries, risk the unknown, and to brave the darkness for the sake of new life….The ultimate challenge to us, however, as it was for those who accompanied Moses to the sea, may be finally to step into the deep water and brave the darkness in search of that person we are waiting to become rather than cursing the shadows and clinging sadly to what was. (Excerpt from “An Invitation to Find Ourselves”, a sermon by Rev. Dr. William L. Dols, available at http://day1.org/555-an_invitation_to_find_ourselves, accessed 10 August, 2011.)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What image of God does this story depict?
- What about this story mirrors our own society?
- What things do we clutch and try to preserve that may be getting in the way of what God is calling us to be?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 12: 1-8
Continuing with Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he now focuses not so much on whether or not Israel figures into this salvation formula, but on the newly-formed congregations themselves. These are more than likely “house churches”, small congregations of a few families and individuals that are finding that they are a lot more diverse than they thought.
So Paul begins by calling the congregations to see themselves and all they are as a sacrifice to God. For Paul, submitting to God means letting go of the allegiances of this world, those things that get in the way of who one is being called to be before God. It is a call to renewal of one’s whole self before God. Paul then turns to a warning to people not to think too highly of themselves or their spirituality, not to see themselves as better or more spiritual or more gifted than others. It is a calling to a spiritual maturity that will move one past the need to validate oneself. Paul repeats the image that he used in the Corinthian letter of the church as a body, composed of everyone’s diverse gifts. And together as a body, the church can be the church. Everyone’s gifts that they bring to the table are important and necessary for the Body of Christ to BE the Body of Christ.
Paul challenges us to see ourselves as the embodiment of Christ in the world, not primarily as individuals but as local communities, yet belonging also to a larger whole. Difference is acknowledged. People are not all the same. They do not all have the same abilities. The common life is nothing other than the life of Christ, the life of the Spirit. This remains the constant. We are not asked as individuals to be Christ or Christs, let alone saviours of the world, although many suffer from this misconception and the burn out it produces. We are asked to be members of a body, of Christ, and to play our part – not more, not less. It is essentially a discussion about stewardship, about using what God has given you and infused into your life to build up and bring in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
The truth is, spirituality is not something that is generally measurable. I mean, really, what does it mean for one person to be more “spiritual” than another. Living into God’s calling means surrendering to God; it means getting oneself out of the way. Instead of figuring out what we need to do for God, we are called to listen to what God is calling us to do for the world. C.S. Lewis once said that “all genuine religious conversions are blessed defeats.” So, are we trying to be spiritual or are we trying to listen to what God is calling us to be?
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- In what ways do gifts contribute to or deflect from the unity of Christ’s Body?
- What, then, does this say about what the Body of Christ is or what it should be?
- What does it mean to surrender to God in terms of our spiritual life?
- How well do we use everyone’s gifts to be the Body of Christ?
GOSPEL: Matthew 16: 13-20
This Scripture also appears in the Gospel version written by the writer who we know as Mark but Peter comes out looking a little different. There, Peter fails to understand who Jesus is and is all but characterized as one who is not with Jesus or some sort of outsider. But here, Peter comes out looking pretty good. He depicts the true disciple who understands who Jesus is and the significance of Jesus in the broader picture.
This interaction between Jesus and the disciples is probably the writer’s way of trying to clarify understandings of Jesus and his work and perhaps clear out some of the “misunderstandings”. Keep in mind that in 1st century Judaism, the name “Mashiah” (Messiah) had several different meanings. It essentially means “anointed”, or “one who is anointed” for a specific purpose and vocation. That could mean a prophet, a king, a warrior, or a savior. From that standpoint, the “Messiah” probably meant to each person whatever it was that would fulfill the needs and fears of that person. Also keep in mind that this version of the Gospel was probably written after the destruction of the temple and the devastation of Jerusalem. There were real fears present. There were real questions. OK, then, who IS the Messiah? Who is going to help us now? And what does that mean? Some people saw Messianic qualities in John the Baptist; others in Elijah; others in Jeremiah or others. They saw in those people the answer to their questions, the answers to their own unique array of issues, problems, and fears. But those people were gone. (And, at the point of this writing, so was Jesus!) And yet Jesus, as Messiah, lives as God’s Spirit moves and works through the community of faith building the kingdom of God. The meaning was not one that could be “nailed down”; instead it has to be lived out in one’s life.
This passage also characterizes an understanding of what the church itself is supposed to be. The word “church” is seldom used in the Gospel accounts. In fact Matthew uses it only here and in the 18th chapter of Matthew. The church is not merely an institution. This is not meant to be the beginning the Christian church as we know it. Rather, church here is referring to the foundation that spawns the continuing work of Jesus Christ in the world. It is a foundation that is so strong that nothing else can overcome it—not even death itself. The work of Christ has begun and nothing can stop it. The “key” image in rabbinic thought primarily refers to authority that is given to Peter (and to the church) to BE the church. This really has nothing to do with apostolic succession or “church authority” as we know it today. (That will come MUCH later after many arguments over who God is and who the church should be!) It has nothing to do with building great big congregations; it has to do with being swept into the Kingdom of God and being a part of ushering it into its fullness. Mark Allan Powell makes that point that “the church has the authority to declare God’s will not because it exhibits more insight or greater faithfulness to God than others but because Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has chosen to be present in the church and to exercise his authority on earth through this community.” (From Feasting on the Word, by Mitchell G. Reddish, p. 385)
The passage ends with Jesus’ directive to keep what is called the “Messianic Secret”. Why? One would think that he would want it shouted from the rooftops. And yet, the truth is not revealed until well after the Resurrection. It, again, has to be lived into. This writing is pointing to what is to come. As the story continues, Jesus’ earthly life will come to an abrupt and painful end. And, yet, the story continues, bound in heaven and hear on earth. You just have to live into it to get the full meaning and realize that God’s creative power is always and forever loose in the world. There are lots of understandings of God in this world. (Actually, who are we kidding? There are several understandings among those who are reading this right now!) Some understandings resonate with us; some challenge us; some make us uncomfortable; and, frankly, others probably just get in the way. This is not a God to be explained but one to follow. So, then, who do you say Jesus is? Jesus is not a model of the way we should be; rather, Jesus lives through us. So how does that change the answer to the question?
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does the notion of “Messiah” mean for you?
- What would our church look like if we truly understand this notion of the “church” represented here?
- What makes you realize that “creative power of God” in our world today?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens. (Rainer Maria Rilke)
What we are looking for on earth and in earth and in our lives is the process that can unlock for us the mystery of meaningfulness in our daily lives. It has been the best-kept secret down through the ages because it is so simple. Truly, the last place it would ever occur to most of us to find the sacred would be in the commonplace of our everyday lives and all about us in nature and in simple things. (Alice O. Howell, The Dove in the Stone)
Meaning does not come to us in finished form, ready-made; it must be found, created, received, constructed. We grow our way toward it. (Ann Bedford Ulanov)
O God, you have prepared in peace the path I must follow today. Help me to walk straight on that path. If I speak, remove lies from my lips. If I am hungry, take away from me all complaint. If I have plenty, destroy pride in me. May I go through the day calling on you, you, O Lord, who know no other Lord. Amen. (Galla, Ethiopia, from An African Prayer Book, Desmond Tutu, ed., 119)