Proper 16 (21) 24 August 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Proper 16A/Ordinary 21A/Pentecost +15 August 24, 2008 Textweek

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

One of the things that comes out when preparing the sermon for today is how important it is to read the Bible, not in that sense of, I have to because it does me good or whatever, but as we read the readings Sunday by Sunday, it’s really important to realise we’re getting bits of it, a bit like when we’re doing a jigsaw, if you’ve got bits of it you can often get some idea of the picture, but it’s only when you put all the pieces in place are all the details revealed. Over the last few Sundays we’ve been going through the Old Testament stories that illustrate the foundations of our faith; we’ve encountered Abraham, Isaac, Joseph and Jacob. These are archetypes that reveal the Word, the divine light, and with each of them we’ve found parallels that show a Christ-likeness. It’s as if we’re being asked to see the same in ourselves: each one of these figures holds a Christ-likeness and as we read about them, we’re being asked to look at ourselves.

Today we get the nativity of Moses – this is not the ‘babe in a manger story’ – that will come at Christmas; this is the ‘babe in the bulrushes story’. It’s another deliberate birth narrative, story about a birth. It’s a deliberate writing to reveal the nature of the Divine; this is not an account of what happened at Moses’ birth – the reporters weren’t there jotting all this down at the time. This has been written to illustrate, through the person of Moses, that there is something revealed of the Divine, another piece of the jigsaw. So I thought we might begin very briefly by just looking at ourselves. It’s a question and all it requires is a show of hands: how many of us consider ourselves to be law-abiding citizens? Thank goodness for that! Those who didn’t put their hands up, there will actually be a service of reconciliation, which in the old days was called Confession. I will hear that and unlike the Catholics, the penance won’t be Hail Marys and Our Fathers, but it will be substantial amounts of money of course. Now my guess is that the answer we got this morning here would be pretty representative of the wider church - the majority would hold to be law-abiding citizens.

But have a look again at the birth narrative of Moses. Like the nativity of Christ, it is a story of revolution; it is a movement against the order of the culture into a creative possibility for the future. Moses’ birth has as its backdrop the fear of the Egyptian empire. The Egyptian empire itself fears those who were different; they built up great defences - the supply cities of Pithom and Rameses - and their fear turned into an orientation of destruction toward others. If we live this narrative into the present, we see the same fears turning into the same destructive orientation. Our own government and cultural policies in regard to Global Warming is reflected in verse 22: it’s like throwing every boy in the Nile; the U.S. military policy of planting nuclear missile silos in Europe is like throwing every boy in the Nile. What the birth narrative of Moses asks is, are we, and is the church, midwives? Are we assisting in the birth of tomorrow; are we giving of ourselves so that the future, a future may be birthed? Or are we law-abiding citizens? As we engage the Divine that is revealed in Christ, in Abraham, in Isaac, in Jacob, in Joseph and Moses, we engage our participation in the life of all. The midwives broke the law, and rather than starting a revolution, what they do is they point us toward the part we all play in bringing about tomorrow.

Moving on to the Romans reading and Paul seems to appreciate the very same perspective. In verse 2: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God’ - what is the divine unfolding of creation, what is its direction, what is its movement? Paul sees our divine potential and Paul sees our oneness, there’s an embracing of our diversity into the wholeness and oneness of humanity: in verse 5, ‘we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.’ In verse 1 Paul appeals to us that we see ourselves ‘as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’. It’s a good one to check out in the mirror – look in the mirror and see if you can see a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. I’ve been cleaning mine to see if I can!

Why has this revolution of midwives not delivered? Why has the divine outcome that we glimpse as we encounter the creative call of God not come to birth? And this is where the reading of scripture becomes important, because if we look at the next chapter, Romans chapter 13: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God. And those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.’ Is this the same Paul that we heard earlier this morning? Those who hold that scripture is black and white generally will speak about the law; the teaching of the church, driven by the religious right, speaks of the authority of the church. The history of the church is one of maintaining a position of authority; it is not the voice of the midwife.

Today’s gospel is another foundational narrative and probably another text that has been abused by the church. In verse 16, Christ is revealed as the Messiah, the son of the living God. Simon by Jonah is revealed as Peter, the rock on which the church will be built, and Peter is given, in verse 19, the keys to the kingdom of Heaven: ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Here begins the authority of the church and from that text we have a carefully crafted doctrine of apostolic succession: every priest carries the keys, the keys that were handed in succession from Jesus to Peter, from Peter to those in authority in the church. What doesn’t get much airplay is the same text two chapters on. Matthew, this is chapter 18, verse 18: ‘Truly I tell you whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ It’s the same text, it’s the same charge, only this time it’s spoken to the followers of Jesus. Those same keys that are handed on to Peter, the rock on which the church is built, are also and equally, handed on to all who follow.

The texts today talk about our participation in realising the divine promise. We are called to be midwives of tomorrow, bringing to birth a culture that is based not in fear, but a life lived in creative love. We are called to break the law.

The Lord be with you
Peter Humphris