Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Proper 16 Year A

Proper 16 A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Exodus: 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124


Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138

Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20

The narrative of the patriarchs and matriarchs shifts to the
story of the Israelites in Egypt. In last Sunday's excerpt, Joseph promised that his father, brothers and their families would flourish under his protection in Egypt; and flourish they did, dramatically fulfilling God's promise to Abraham and Sarah of many descendants.  The new Pharaoh, "who knew not Joseph" feels threatened because they could make an alliance with enemies outside Egypt. His first tactic is to "abuse them" by imposing on them hard labor on vast building projects.  When their population continues to grow, they are subjected to "crushing labor."  The "King of Egypt" orders a sinister policy that all Egyptian midwives destroy all Israelite newborn males at birth, but let girls live. But the midwives "feared God" and did not follow his orders.   When interrogated, the midwives respond that the Israelite women are too "hardy" and deliver their babies before the midwives could get to them.  "And God made it go well for the midwives," who flourished with their own husbands and children.  Now Pharaoh issues a directive for the whole nation to throw every male Israelite newborn into the Nile.  But, the Israelites grow even stronger. The story now shifts to the fate of one infant male. An Israelite family, "from the house of Levi," had a son, whom the mother hid for months.  When she could no longer keep him hidden, she made an "ark," (the same Hebrew word as is used in the story of Noah), put the infant boy in it and released it on the banks of the Nile.  His older sister kept watch from the shore.  Pharaoh's daughter came to bathe in the Nile.  One of her attendants saw the small ark with the infant in it and, noticing it was an Israelite child, offered to find an Israelite woman to feed and care for it.  "And the girl went and summoned the child's mother."  Pharaoh's daughter took the child into her household with his mother to care for him.  After the child was weaned, he "became a son" to Pharaoh's daughter.  She named him "Moses, for from the water I drew him out." 

The psalmist invokes the Lord's praise because of the Lord's activist protection: "Were it not for the Lord who was for us...."  Other nations would have swept over Israel like a flood "over our necks."  Israel is like a bird that has slipped free of a trap:  "the snare was broken/and we escaped."  Who is this activist protector?  "Our help is in the name of the Lord/maker of heaven and earth."


This Isaiac commentator demands to be heard by those "who seek the Lord"-- "Listen to me...."  He directs their attention to "the rock from which you were hewn"-- Abraham and Sarah.  Out of that one couple, God made "many."  Even in the bleakest of times, the Lord is able you provide "comfort," to cause "waste places" to flourish, to turn sadness into singing.  Listen for a "teaching" and for a new declaration of "justice" that will be like a "light" in a dark time.  The Lord's "deliverance" will be swift when it comes.  It will be like a muscled "arm" of "hope."  All of life is finite and mortal, but the Lord's "salvation will be forever, and...never end."

The psalmist, speaking from her personal experience, declares "with all my heart," her gratitude for the Lord's "kindness and steadfast truth."  "You have made Your word great across all Your heavens."  She testifies, personally, to the Lord's response to her needs and extrapolates from her experiences that "All kings of the earth" will praise the Lord for "the words" from the Lord's "mouth."  Although the Lord is "high" above human affairs, the Lord "sees" here,"below."  She returns to her experience:  "Your right hand rescues me."  The psalmist ends with an rejoinder to the Lord: do not abandon Your investment:  "Do not let go of Your handiwork."

Paul admonishes the readers of his letter to the church in Rome to set themselves apart by seeking "the will of God," with humility.  Just as a body has "many parts," each with its unique "functions" yet vital to the well-being of the whole body, so each member of "Christ's body," the church, is "individually members of one... another."  Each person has "gifts," which, although different and distinctive, are all needed and essential.

This vagabond group of
Jesus and a few followers now come to Caearea Philippi, site of a shrine to Pan. By this point in their wanderings across the countryside, the group have seen Jesus interact with a wide variety of people whose reactions have run the gamut from admiration and gratitude to confusion and even hatred. They have stood next to him in some happy times and on some tense occasions. They have heard his stories and teachings, which still seem a little enigmatic. Jesus starts a conversation about all this with a question, Who are people saying I am? They repeat the rumors they have heard. Some say John the Baptist, others have even said Elijah; only Matthew adds Jeremiah, the ancient prophet most vexed about the future of God's people. Then Jesus asks directly, But what about you? Who do you say I am? Peter takes the lead and declares Jesus is the Messiah, to which only Matthew adds, "the Son of the living God."   Only Matthew continues with Jesus saying further:  "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!"  You did not make this testimony by "flesh and blood," but it has been "revealed... by my Father in heaven."  Jesus now calls him by "Peter," and declares "on this rock I will build my church.  "Hades" will not overwhelm it.  To Peter Jesus gives the "keys of the kingdom," so that whatever is done on earth is affirmed in "heaven."  Then Jesus "sternly ordered" his disciples to not reveal to "anyone that he is the Messiah."

The scriptures speak of experiencing the presence and absence of God, clarity and confusion caused by God's words and actions, hope/faith in God's participation as well as cries out of desperation for God to act again, affirmation and secrets.

The Jews saw their whole history as a series of events when God seemed near or absent, but the recurring declaration is always-- hope. The gospels describe every imaginable reaction to Jesus from adoration to rejection. In this dramatic excerpt from Matthew's account, Peter boldly announces the decision he has reached about the true identity of Jesus, but then Jesus asks to keep it a secret. As early as Paul's letters, the church is already a miss-mash of diverse, even contradictory reactions to the gospel about Jesus.

Emmanuel Levinas draws on the work of his teacher, Heidegger, and the bible where he explores "traces" of God. Developed further by Derrida and Marion, this notion of traces contributes significantly to a total re-ordering of how we regard what we think we know. It makes us less certain about our interpretations that suit our needs a little too neatly, and, therefore, shifts our focus on the life-giving, surprising biblical claims of God's love, steadiness, and abundance, which for Christians is seen winsomely in Jesus. And there is an ethical implication, too. It makes us more receptive to Others who like us respond authentically, if differently, to the same biblical traces about God. Then pperhaps unexpectedly, they ignite a "passion for the impossible [which] takes place within the trace." (Caputo,
The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, p. 24) And they remind us once again that faith is not shrugging acquiesce to overwhelming evidence, it is a decision, even a bold decision. "...In virtue of the trace... faith is always faith, a decision made in the midst of undecidability...." (Caputo, p. 59)

These readings issue an invitation to make a fundamental decision, an act of faith, a wager "in the midst of undecidability" that justice will prevail.  This act/choice/wager/decision is more than speculation.  If we expect one outcome-- justice will, when all is said and done, be overwhelmed-- we behave one way; if we bet on a different outcome-- that despite "impossible" odds and with no irrefutable evidence, justice will prevail-- we behave in a totally different way.   

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased another preacher when he frequently declared" "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  That paraphrase was taken from a sermon given by The Rev. Theodore Parker and published in 1853.  It reads: 
     I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a     
     long one, and my eye reaches but little ways;  I cannot calculate
     the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight'  I
     can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it
     bends toward justice.

Mr. Parker's words have the full impact of personal testimony, because as a leading advocate for the abolition of slavery on the U.S., he personally hid runaway slaves from the South in his home.

The question in today's gospel is not about what others say, but to whom and for what do you pledge your loyalty; it is about loyalty to God's cause in the world.  The testimony in both readings from the Hebrew scriptures and the repsonsory psalms is witness to God's activist intervention, always on the side of justice, even when it is nearly impossible to still believe in it.  "Faith is always faith, a decision made in the midst of undecidability."