Sermon 3 September 2017 A – 13th After Pentecost

Todays readings for 13th Sunday After Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26
Romans  12:9-12
Matthew  16:21-28

Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton. 

Well, I had an interesting week in terms of conversations about the bible, the texts we read, and how we should read them, so this week I’d like to have a go at reading all three texts: the Old Testament from Exodus, which is narrative; the Gospel from Matthew, which is also narrative, but encompasses a record of teaching; and the Epistle, or letter to the Romans, which is all instruction or exhortation, this week.

The book of Exodus tells us the great and most formative story of the Old Testament, the narrative into which everything else is woven, that is the coming out of Egypt, wandering in the wilderness and entering into the promised land. Now, this narrative should not be read as a factual account of the events from 3 or 4 thousand years ago- no this is the narrative of the formation of the people of God and it is their mythic story, just like all the other mythic stories of the establishment of nations. Just as an aside when you go to the Cook Islands they tell you the story of how their warriors set off in the canoes and found New Zealand- they can name the boats, and the clans, who were in each canoe- I found it very similar. And the fact that I am calling it ‘mythic’ does not mean that there is no truth in it- it just means that this story has become something much larger than whatever gave rise to it, and further that the way it is told becomes just as important as the content. The story of the exodus, which we will read over these next weeks is what makes the Jews who they are, even today. One of the interesting things is that these texts, old as they are, no matter how many times you have read them, continue to have things that need to be said about God, and about us, as human beings.

In this story of the encounter of Moses and God at the burning bush, the first thing that strikes me is that Moses turned aside to see. And that enabled the encounter. We, as we come to these texts, and as we live our lives day by day, need to turn aside and really see. And Moses sees the mystery that is God, and he is afraid. Then God describes what God has seen, which is the injustice of the oppressed. The oppressed are described as being God’s people. Let me say that the oppressed are always God’s people and God sends Moses to do something about it. Moses, quite rightly feels that this is a great burden, a heavy load to bear, a terrible cross to have to carry and he makes all kinds of excuses but ultimately he goes, but not until he has asked God’s name. Now to be able to name is a powerful thing and it is a characteristic of this mythological system along with many others. Moses is given a kind of non name for God- an unnameable name- we have tried to translate it- firstly by transliterating it, Yahweh, and then calling God Jehovah or other similar names, but the reality is that we cannot name God, we have no power for that. The Jews call God Hashem- ‘the name’, but God remains mystery.

All we know is what God wants, which is justice, and to set the captives free.

When we turn to Jesus, he is God incarnate, a more accessible face of God.

Now at the beginning of this passage which is a continuation of what we read last week, Jesus asks his disciples who people said he was and who they, the disciples, thought he was- so this is all about naming God again. ‘Messiah, Son of the Living God,’ is Peter’s answer. Jesus, in turn, names Peter the rock on which his church will be built. This week Peter’s name has changed from ‘foundation stone’ to ‘stumbling block’ because he is setting his mind on earthly things not heavenly things. Peter needs to turn aside and see what God is doing rather than to look at what the world might do. Peter has Jesus’ title right but the job description wrong.

This encounter with Peter is described in the same terms as the temptation in the wilderness, which is a temptation for Jesus to turn his back on the need that he sees and choose a path of easier power. Jesus tells the disciples that firstly he will suffer and die, and that they have to deny themselves and take up the cross. So here we see the names of God, being interwoven with the role of God in social justice. We, each of us, just like the disciples, are called by our Lord to take up the cross and follow him. This is discipleship.

There is a lot of very interesting language here around getting or being behind and following, two different words in the Greek. We are called to follow in Jesus’ foot-steps and wherever that may lead us will be a place of blessing. The Gospel message is not, follow me and your path will be easy, but follow me into suffering and you will be blessed. This should remind us of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied,” and, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is the same God whose desire is for the relief of the oppressed, and that leads to trouble. Jesus’s cross is the place of death, it is the tree on which he dies, but at the same time, it is also the tree of life, blooming with new growth. This is echoed in this language about saving life and losing it. The only way that we can save our selves is by being prepared to give our lives up to God and God’s purposes. And God’s purpose is? Justice, and that is why we must seek after righteousness.

What this means is spelled out by Paul, in his letter that is written to exhort the brothers and sisters in Rome. This little chunk is all instruction, so that makes it very easy to understand. And here Paul is speaking to the human condition, rather than to socially constructed behaviours.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[a] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[b] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[c] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I particularly like the bit at the end where Paul exhorts us to feed and water our enemies so that we heap burning coals on their heads! Doesn’t seem a particularly Christian attitude to me, though I suppose it is realistic of Paul to think that people might need some encouragement to be so altruistic! But do you notice that again it is like an outworking of the beatitudes? We will be blessed when we follow this difficult exhortation.

This set of instructions, if actually worked out in our lives, become a means of taking up our cross, of being Christ’s disciples, of following him.

We have the ancient story of Moses, who turned to the burning bush and beheld the mystery of God and then was given the task of righteousness, that is setting the captives free.   Then, Matthew’s report of the revelation of Jesus, who faced the reality of the suffering of the cross in order to change things for ever. And then St Paul who exhorts us to live lives of righteousness in order to benefit others, and so God’s great program goes on. These scriptures, whether they are three our four thousand years old or only nearly two thousand, still provide us with information about God, ourselves and our world, it is all in the reading process. We need to turn and see, then take up our crosses and follow where God has led.