The Adventurous Lectionary – August 23, 2020 – Twelfth Sunday after the Pentecost
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Today’s readings invite us to ponder our unique vocations as they reflect our relationship with God. They invite us to see our lives as “apocalyptic,” that is, revealing God’s vision and the nature of our times. They challenge us to make changes and chart new pathways of fidelity to God. Vocation is always apocalyptic insofar as our vocations are revealing both of our gifts and the world in which we live.
Vocation means change. We must choose to embrace certain things and let go of others. Our vocations, our callings, invite us to realize that our gifts shape and are shaped by the communities of which we a part, including the body of Christ. In living out our gifts, we share in God’s vision of healing the world. Our gifts are meant for inclusion. God’s presence in our lives goes beyond parochialism, imperialism, and superiority to embrace God’s good earth and its people in service and companionship. There is no superiority or set apartness in the body of Christ; in our diversity we are one in spirit. Everyone’s gift is intended to be cherished and nurtured.
The Hebraic scripture begins with the rescue of baby Moses. It is chockful of synchronicity and providence. The Egyptian leaders plan to destroy the Hebraic people; but God providentially finds safety for the newborn Moses in Pharaoh’s own home. The midwives are involved in good trouble, trying to save Moses and other Habiru children. Still many will die, while Moses lives and this raises a number of questions: Does God work specifically to save Moses and overlook the thousands of Habiru and Egyptian children who were eventually died from infanticide and plague? Does divine providence play favorites and abandon those who aren’t destined for greatness? Certainly, providence was at work, but also the agency of the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ mother. A providence we can believe in surely includes all of us, but is meted out in many ways due to environment, social and political context, and human agency in the dynamic divine-human call and response.
As the story goes, the Egyptians wanted to kill all the male children. Today, in many places in the world, female children are also at risk. Millions of children are at risk through starvation, civil war, religious fundamentalism, sweat shops, and sex trafficking, much of which can be attributed to the impact of global climate change. In the wake of the violence and hatred of alt-right groups, many parents are frightened, including the parents of Euro-American children. The pandemic has exacerbated these fears. Black children and teens are fearful, often of the police forces intended to protect them. George Floyd can be any black person – black child or youth – driving, jogging, or walking while black. Can we care for these children and help them survive in the way that Moses was delivered from death?
In Moses’ case, he was saved by an individual act of kindness. Today, we must go beyond individual kindness to create beloved communities and compassionate institutions. We must create sanctuaries of love – hate-free zones – in our congregations. We must in this time of pandemic do all we can to ensure the safety and flourishing of at risk families, too often harmed by economic and racial injustice.
The Psalmist proclaims that God is on our side! God has delivered us from our enemies! Again, does God play favorites? Is today’s Israel just as unique as its predecessors and thus able to act at will to destroy the nation’s enemies? This sense of Israel’s uniqueness still figures into the decisions of USA politicians. Among many right wing Christians, the chosen ones can do no evil, and the Palestinians are completely at fault for the violence in the Middle East. They see criticism or political limits on Israel as turning away from God’s chosen ones. They forget that the prophets held Israel to a higher moral standard. The prophets loved their land but condemned its political and economic decision-making when it promoted violence and injustice. Today, many Christians have claimed the mantle of Israel, seeking to make America Christian again, returning to days of injustice, persecution, and ostracism of those who differ from them politically, theologically, religiously, ethnically, and sexually.
Today’s preachers need to support Israel and also support the most forward-thinking and conciliatory Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Polarizing Israel and Palestine is not the answer; we must find ways to affirm the unique wisdom and gifts of the Jewish people while seeking justice for Palestine. They must also challenge any targeting of innocents, whether in Israel or Palestine, religious violence, and Israeli expansionism as violations of God’s vision of Shalom.
When we are tempted to say that God is on our – North American or US American – side, we must remember that God also loves the people of countries with which we are in conflict. A critical faith seeks to be on God’s side first, seeking to align the nation’s behavior with God’s vision and not the other way around! Nation first theologies and ideologies are ultimately destructive of our nation and the planet, as the pandemic reveals on a daily basis.
The words of Romans 12 call us to a transformed vision of ourselves and the world. Let your embodiment be holy. Don’t be conformed to the world in its violence and competition; be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Transformed vision enables us to discover our vocation and help others find their place in the body of Christ. In the spirit of Philippians, we need to embrace the mind of Christ, seeing all creatures as God’s beloved children. We are interconnected, and joined with one another. We create each other, shaping each other’s experience by our actions. Where do our visions need to be transformed? Where are we called to go beyond pandemic, to imagine new possibilities, justice possibilities, for ourselves, our churches, and our nation.
The words of Romans 12 invite us to holy embodiment. An ethics of embodiment. This is more than just a narrow form of sexual morality, although holy intimacy is essential to the Christian life. Holy embodiment also includes the affirmation of others’ bodies through justice-keeping, simple living, and care for the environment. In a world of shrinking resources, growing disparity of wealthy and poor, and global climate change, we must make a commitment to live simply so others might simply live.
Our holy embodiment reflects our participation in the body of Christ, God’s body the universe and God’s body the church. The body of Christ is a laboratory of spiritual gifts. Everyone has a necessary part of play in the well-being of the whole. Our gifts within the body evolve as the body itself evolves. Like the body, we may have many gifts, each appropriate to our unique time and place. Following Christ calls us to transformation and to imagine a world different than one in which we currently live.
The gospel reading reminds us that faith is always concrete. While it is important to know what others think about Jesus, the most important question is “Who do you say that I am?”
Faith is always personal. Affirming Jesus’ uniqueness takes us beyond doctrine to experiencing the world through Christ’s eyes and following Jesus’ pathway of healing and hospitality.
Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the son of the living God is the result of divine inspiration. Our own relationship with Christ is inspired by God’s presence in our own lives. Peter’s encounter with Christ leads to him become one of the spiritual leaders of the church. Our own encounters with Christ inspire us to faithfully share in Christ’s ministry of healing and hospitality in our time.
“Be not conformed, but be transformed” is the watchword of today’s readings. See differently and act differently from the death-filled ways of the world. Transcend self-interest and consumerism, and lean beyond parochialism and nationalism toward world-loyalty and simple living. In the body of Christ, we all need each other and must commit ourselves to becoming God’s companions in healing our fragile and at-risk nation and planet.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books, including HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC, FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC, GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, and CHURCH AHEAD: SPIRITUAL PRACTICES FOR CONGREGATIONAL GROWTH.