Weekly Preaching: August 23, 2020

August 19th, 2020

I’m not a topical series preacher, as I tend to force things when I go off lectionary. I do like it when the RCL walks us through a series of texts. Right now the preacher could open a walk through Exodus, which is so appealing to me. Romans has been moving along for some time, and the RCL has us deep into Matthew now. All three texts this week are provocative, with much to be said.

Exodus 1:8-2:10 dovetails three dramatic moments: the vicious infliction of harsh servitude on Israel, the devious midwives countering, and then the birth and rescue of Moses, the rescuer. Tourists gawk at the pyramids as wonders of the world. Like most others, they came to be on the backs of slave labor, blood, sweat and tears. American culture is mired in debates now about monuments to the beneficiaries of slave labor. And Walter Brueggemann, in his lovely book Sabbath as Resistance, unearths how our culture clings to Egyptian ways: endless work, more and more production, money flowing upward toward the top. The coronavirus crisis underlines how we are lost without it. I love Brueggemann’s phrasing: “It is not accidental that the best graphic portrayal of this arrangement is a pyramid, the supreme construction of Pharaoh’s system.”

And who’s the most anxious one in such a system? The guy at the top! “He dealt shrewdly with them,” a line to make you laugh out loud. Less straw, killing the male workforce? Paranoia, self-destructive — but just as surely destructive of others. I think I will name, again, the way our idolatry of our day, political ideology, vaunts itself as the way, truth and life, but is finally only self-destructive. That's bipartisan.

How deftly the narrator, like using a zoom lens, moves from the megapicture of Egypt, its vastness, and sprawling construction projects, to two small women, Shiphrah (meaning “beautiful”) and Puah (“fragrant flower”). Religious parents should name their daughters for them. They “fear God,” but they also have considerable spunk, sass, courage. History’s first civil disobedients! Thoreau reminded the world that “I was just obeying orders!” is no defense. Church people need to get over their blind attachments to what superficially seems to be patriotism or goodness. God’s great heroes through history have blatantly disobeyed the law, starting with Peter (“We must obey God rather than men,” Acts 5), continuing through history to the Civil Rights movement; the examples are endless, although the preacher never disses listeners. An art, not a science for sure.

The Bible disses empire, but in clever, sneaky ways. Why didn’t Shiphrah and Puah kill the babies? “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are so strong they give birth before the midwives can get there.” True? A little fib? Doesn’t matter. They were heroic. Instead of blaming and feeling impotent in the face of massive powers, they did what they could. The heroic is always like that. The church doesn’t speak often enough of courage. Examples abound. John Irving, in Cider House Rules, uses Charles’ Dickens’s great line from David Copperfield to great effect: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Or Aunt May’s wise counsel to Peter Parker/Spiderman: “Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them. Years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us … that keeps us honest … gives us strength … makes us noble … and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most — even our dreams.”

Heroes? Small people changing the world? Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. Albert Schweitzer, giving up a lucrative career to plunge into Lamparene. Jochebed defied Pharaoh by hiding her son. Even Pharaoh’s daughter! Rameses II, greatest of the pharaohs (and it’s no accident that this was precisely when God showed who’s really God!) had 59 daughters! This one knowingly took a Hebrew boy who was to be killed into her home.

There’s so much in Exodus 2! Moses is a “good” child; the Hebrew, tov, is the same as what God pronounced over each day of creation in Genesis 1. How on earth would one keep a child quiet for so long? Right now, moms (parents generally) are weary and near despair, trying to work from home while also teaching — and then think of the marginalized families and their even greater despair! The preacher names these realities, even if there are no evident fixes. What is God asking of the church in such a time?

When Moses's mother can no longer manage, in a moment wrought with poignant sorrow and yet unquenchable hope, she places him in a basket and just sends him down the Nile. The word for basket, tevah, is used only one other time in Scripture: Noah’s ark! Like Noah’s ark, this tevah had no rudder or sail, floating randomly – and yet was God’s hand in it somehow? The preacher might wish to say Yes! But it’s better just to let the question linger – which is how our people experience their lives. Think Forrest Gump: “I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floatin' around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happenin' at the same time.”

And then the Pharaoh's daughter: how much courage did it take for her to welcome a slave child into the palace? Kelley Nikondeha, in her thoughtful book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us About Freedom, sees her as a beneficiary of a closed system of complicity. When she bathed, she was "attempting to purge the filth of empire. Something in her broke under the water's surface." She leverages her privilege (this is God's call to us!) to save a child washed ashore. Nikondeha then ponders such moments in our day.

My mind rushed to Pope Francis. For his first trip away from Rome after his consecration, he chose Lampedusa, an island in the Mediterranean where hundreds of immigrant bodies had washed ashore. He had an altar made from the wrecked boats of migrants, and spoke of the place as symbolic of "the locked door between the worlds of affluence and poverty." His sermon strove to "awaken the consciences of those who have forgotten how to weep over the plight of the poor."

Romans 12:1-8 takes me back to college days. My roommate’s girlfriend cross-stitched J.B. Phillips’s rendering of this passage and hung it on our wall – perhaps fantasizing it would help us behave: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.” Paul was on fire the day he paced a candlelit room, dictating these words to his secretary! After all the theologizing that has unfolded in Romans 1-11, Paul cuts to the heart of how we then live – beginning “by the mercies of God.” Notice the plural. It’s not “Behave! But if you mess up you get mercy.” It’s mercy, mercies plural that instigate, and make the holy life reality.

Notice also for your people that worship for Paul isn’t sitting in a pew singing hymns and reciting litanies. It’s something you do with your body. We all worship something, some things, with our bodies. How stunning is this? You can please God, or not, with your body. It’s the “temple of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Paul’s grammar amazes me: “be transformed.” The Greek, metamorphousthe (like metamorphosis!) is a passive imperative. Imperatives usually say Go do this. But the passive imperative is Go have this done to yourself, just let this happen in you. Stop expending so much energy on conformity. Even our best Christian parents fret over whether their children will “fit in.” Don’t fit in! Who said “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd”? Shiphrah and Puah didn’t conform. They were transformed.

And then Matthew 16:13-20. In the plot of the Synoptics, the clear turning point in the saga is this very moment. Until then (as I learned from W.H. Vanstone’s old and profound book, The Stature of Waiting), Jesus is in control, a dynamic actor striding across the stage of history, working miracles, dazzling the crowds. Now he has ventured to the border, in the far north, to Caesarea Philippi, which in those days was a warren of pagan temples; check out the artist’s rendition of what it would have looked like, imperial altars all affixed to the ancient cave dedicated to the nature god, Pan. After this haunting conversation in such a place, Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem. No more miracles really. Increasingly he is passive; he is “handed over.” He is acted upon.

Vanstone muses on what this alone might mean for us. as we think life’s plot should be toward increasing control, independence – and we loathe any turn toward dependence. I had a close friend with colon cancer. A few years back, on the week I was preparing to preach on this text, he told me with immense sorrow, “Today they handed me over to hospice.” We shudder; we pity – but Jesus invites us to respect and relish this backwards plot to our lives, for it was the plot of his life. Jesus was amazing in his first weeks of ministry. But the real glory came when he let himself be betrayed, beaten, tried unjustly, when he “never said a-mumblin’ word,” when he refused to come down from the cross or strike his enemies dead but instead forgave them. Even his resurrection was passive: he didn’t bolt from the tomb and knock the guards aside; God raised him.

Jesus’ identity is debated, among those who know him best. Who do people say Jesus is today? Political ideologue? White guy? Liberal prophet? My personal assistant? The answers are many, and downright embarrassing. Peter gets the right answer, but doesn’t grasp what that identity implies. I love the irony in Jesus’ rebuke: “Get behind me.” That’s precisely where disciples are supposed to be – for it is from behind that we follow! Jesus is heroic, but not a Spiderman kind of heroic. He'll show the heroic, if Peter will stick around.

Matthew alone then supplies the much-abused conversation about the keys, and Peter as the rock on which the church would be built. Without dissing Roman Catholicism, we can name the way the church perverted all of this into a power grab, and still does. To us are entrusted “keys,” but those keys are our gentle pastoral authority to listen, love, guide, demonstrate mercy and hope. Martin Luther spent a lot of time pondering these keys. We ordained peeps are responsible for order and discipline. Peter is entirely foolhardy, as are all of us who dare to wield the keys and be the church. We simply stick behind Jesus, a little bit embarrassed over how dumb we can be, and count on his mercy, his mercies plural, and journey with him to the holy city not to assume power but to lose everything.

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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