August 27, 2017
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Donna G. Joy
EXODUS 1:8-2:10; PSALM 124; ROMANS 12:1-8; MATTHEW 16:13-20
Wherever any of us has been over the past few weeks, we have been aware of certain devastating events. We have - no doubt - been following the events in Charlottesville where the very real threat of white supremacy movements served as a painful reminder that racialized violence is a sad reality of our time… not just in the U.S., but here and elsewhere… Just this past week, Winnipeg was identified as the most violent city in the country. Also, recently, we have heard the news of escalating tension between the U.S. President and North Korea… a tension that seems to continue. And in the midst of all this, the world has witnessed yet another terrorist attack on innocent people in Barcelona, with 13/14 fatalities, and more than 100 injured.
So, it is with this in mind that I turn to our readings for today. And here I am pleased to be reminded that the God we worship is a God of love; the God we worship is One whose plan is always unfolding, even in the midst – perhaps particularly in the midst - of such devastation and tragedy. The God we worship does not cause bad things to happen; the God we worship finds creative ways for his plan to unfold, even in the midst of human destruction.
The context in which this morning’s reading from the Book of Exodus takes place is fraught with political and societal turmoil, destruction, oppression, and devastation. In the days since Joseph, the Israelite people have multiplied, astronomically, which has caused the Egyptians to feel threatened. They're worried that the Israelites are becoming so great in number and strength that they might start to discover allies in surrounding regions. So, the Egyptians decide that the only way to diminish any power that the Israelites may have is to suppress them. They force them to become slaves and put them to work building entire cities for Pharaoh: store cities which were built to house the treasures of the Pharaoh….
But when this seems to not phase the sturdy, robust Israelite people, the king imposes an even greater threat; he embarks on a programme of ethnic cleansing. All Hebrew boys are to be killed at birth, or thrown in the river. And this is the context in which Moses is born. In this desperate situation, this baby boy survives.
His parents are from the tribe of Levi, which will one day become the priestly tribe. The baby is placed in a basket and hidden in the reeds by the River Nile, where his loud cries, which had made it impossible to hide him at home, become his saving grace. He is found and adopted by none other than Pharoah’s daughter. Through an interesting set of circumstances, she asks his own mother to care for him through babyhood, and then adopts him. She names him ‘Moses’, meaning ‘Draw Out’, because she drew him out of the water; and of course later in life he is to draw the Israelite people out of water into safety. Moses is brought up in the royal household, with the double advantages of an Egyptian education and his mother’s love.
As I read this story within the context of our current crises related to terrorism, white supremacy, local violence… not to mention other more personal expressions of violence (such as gossip, and bullying)…. As I read this story within this context (these contexts), I am reminded that since God has given humanity free will, people/politicians/governments are capable of, and often choose to do bad things; choose to make decisions that are hurtful, damaging, and definitely not contributing toward the common good. But in the midst of these devastating realities, God’s plan continues to unfold.
In this story of Moses’ birth, we see the hand of God working efficiently and quietly… through midwives who are more committed to Yahweh than to the corrupt leadership that is committed to death and destruction; through Moses’ mother who hangs on to him for as long as possible; through his sister who keeps an eye on him as he is placed into a tiny basket and set into the reeds by the bank of the Nile; through the daughter of Pharaoh (of all people) who sees him and ensures that he is kept nourished and safe… Sometimes it requires hindsight to be able to see it, but God’s plan for peace and justice is always unfolding. And most importantly, as with each of the key characters in the story of Moses' birth, we are all key factors in God’s unfolding plan. Indeed, this is evident in the story of Moses; and this remains evident today. God has created each and every one of us to be channels through which this plan may continue to unfold.
And this is where our Gospel becomes an important – essential - piece. Throughout the whole history of the Israelite people, there was a growing sense that God would send his Messiah – so that finally, once and for all – relationships may be restored between God and humanity, and humanity with each other. As wars, and exiles, and increasing turmoil seemed to prevail, that hope for God’s coming Messiah remained clear.
We - as Christians - believe that this Messiah has come through the person of Jesus. And this morning’s Gospel invites us into some clarity about what this actually means. This story, in which Jesus asks his disciples: "Who do people say that the son of man is?" and "Who do you say I am?" - this incident occurs in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and also in John. So, I spent some time discerning: what about this story is unique to Matthew, and I was reminded of something that I think is very interesting. Matthew alone includes verses 17-19: which are verses that connect Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God to the reality of the church where Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” So here we discover that Jesus is God’s agent, sent to restore humanity’s relationship with God and each other; AND we discover that Peter – the church – is responsible for carrying on this work begun with Jesus. The only appearances of the word ‘church’ in any of the Gospels are in Matthew. This is hugely significant because of the way in which Peter here emerges as the recipient of revelation and the ‘rock’ on which the church is built. Here is where it becomes clear that in the midst of oppressive, terrifying Roman rule, God’s plan is unfolding through Jesus; and who Jesus is has special significance for who the church is called to be.
This is a profoundly moving story about the continued unfolding of God’s plan… in particular, through the arrival of Jesus, and - on a good day - through the church... And with this in mind, I suggest that three significant things are being said about the unfolding of God’s plan through the church in this text:
1. The church is rooted in the confession of Jesus.
What makes it possible for Peter – and us – to be faithful to the unfolding of God’s plan is not our brilliance, or intellect; not our charm, and not even our courage. Peter, we know, was often not very brilliant; not terribly intellectual; often not very charming; and he certainly often lacked courage. And yet, Peter – and the church / that is, us – remain special because we draw our distinctiveness from our confession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. We draw our distinctiveness from our confession that God has come to us in/through Jesus – an act that has united us with God in a new and everlasting way. The uniqueness of Peter’s confession/our confession comes from a God who graciously reveals Himself to us through Jesus, and who even now, through this ancient text, keeps disclosing to the church who Jesus is.
2. This passage clearly sets the church in a context of conflict.
3. The church is entrusted with the keys to God’s reign, symbolizing the ultimate victory over death.
Jesus says in this passage, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” These keys come with Jesus’ death on the cross and his rising to new life. Nothing on earth – not terrorism / not white supremacy movements… Nothing on earth is more powerful than the keys to God’s reign… And this vision remains imperfect because not all people of faith are living according to this vision of justice, love and peace. Because of the keys that come with Jesus’ death and resurrection, all suffering in this life – even death itself – is transformed in ways that we can’t yet possibly imagine.
Indeed, God’s plan has been unfolding since the dawn of creation. In the midst of devastating circumstances, God’s plan continued to unfold through the miraculous saving of Moses. In the midst of devastating circumstances, God’s plan came to a dramatic climax through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Indeed, within the context of the unfolding of this plan, Matthew makes the point that who Jesus is has special significance for the unfolding of God’s plan through the church which began with Peter’s confession.
The church is rooted in the confession of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God; crucified and risen. Today, in the midst of some devastating circumstances and rooted in this confession, the church is a place that is called to be in conflict – peaceable conflict - with all the forces of this world that detract from the love and peace of God. The church is entrusted with the keys to God’s reign, symbolizing the ultimate victory over all suffering and death.