August 23, 2020

The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

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

From the Gospel according to Matthew, (Jesus asked), “But, who do you say that I am?” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     It was towards the end of my first semester at Seminary that I realized I was nearing academic burnout. The long hours of reading – 22 hours of reading every week – attending classes, rewriting lecture notes, researching term papers, and engaging in church-related projects and duties had become so overwhelming that I questioned why I agreed to go to Seminary in the first place, let alone put myself through such a rigorous program. I wondered, “What was I thinking?” Do you ever have moments like that? Sometimes things seem like a really good idea at the time, but, when circumstances change, we might wonder, “What were we thinking?”

     At the close of the Book of Genesis, Israel and his entire tribe numbering thousands of people, along with their servants, livestock and pretty much everything they own, has moved to Egypt. Israel’s son, Joseph, has risen to a place of leadership where he is now lord over all of Egypt and, as the Middle East is in the midst of a seven-year famine, moving to Egypt with its vast stores of grain and abundant fresh water seems like a really good idea.

But, by the end of the first chapter of Exodus things in Egypt have changed. A new king, a new Pharaoh, has come to power and he has evil intentions. He is concerned that these Jewish aliens will soon outnumber the Egyptians. And so, under the guise of protecting Egypt’s culture and way of life, this new Pharaoh implements a plan that not only forces the Jews into cheap and exploited labor, but also, requires that all newborn Jewish males be killed. This way the Jews will not be able to propagate and, therefore, Israeli women, Pharaoh thought, will be forced to marry the “right kind of men: Egyptian men who will ensure they adopt our customs and embrace our way of life.” And the Egyptian people allowed this to happen. I am sure there were those who objected, but the majority bought into Pharaoh’s plan, after all, “these aliens don’t really belong here anyway; this is our country, not theirs.” How often throughout human history have we heard similar arguments and still hear them today? (Well, that’s for another sermon.) Exodus goes on to describe the increasing atrocities against the Jews. You can almost hear them murmuring, “Egypt? What were we thinking?”

     Our Old Testament lessons these past few weeks have shown how God can turn evil intentions into something good and today’s lesson is no different. Exodus tells us that Pharaoh’s xenophobia set the stage for civil disobedience on the part of some midwives. And their disobedience, a direct result of Pharaoh’s evil decrees, spares a little baby boy from being drowned in the Nile. A baby boy who will be named Moses. And what I find fascinating about this story is that he will be raised in the very household of the same Pharaoh who ordered the death of all Jewish baby boys. And just like Joseph before him, this Moses will become another deliverer of Israel. But, as for Pharaoh’s plans? They will prove to be a disaster for the entire nation. Exodus will go on to reveal how perilous paths become when a nation is driven by its own values, when it strives to lookout for, and solely protect, its own interests, rather than be guided by and uphold God’s values, God’s interests.

     St. Paul, in today’s reading from Romans, affirms our right to insist that everyone work together to maintain and uphold law and order in society. Every culture has rules of conduct. But Paul was very much aware of the dangers inherent in situations where a culture, a way of life, a society tries to dictate how faith is practiced. See, when maintaining a culture, the status quo, or even a way of life, becomes so important that it determines how we live and practice our faith, we risk not only making those values our own, but more importantly, setting aside what God values just like Pharaoh did in Egypt. So, Paul says do not be conformed to the values of this world: its worries, stresses, divisions, and hatreds, but rather, embrace what God values. He says rather than allow culture to decide how we live our faith, (how we think and act), we need to allow God to transform us to our very core. Paul says this transformation can only take place by the renewing of our minds. And the renewing of our minds comes about by studying God’s ways, through reading and ruminating over sacred and timely texts like were heard in today’s reading from Exodus so that, in the words of the Psalmist, we escape the snares of a society that seeks to swallow us up. So that at all times our words and deeds embrace and demonstrate not only God’s values of grace, love, and forgiveness, but also, God’s values of mercy and justice that foster unity and reconciliation for all.

     You know, there are times when I would love to just focus on the gospel lesson of the day and ignore our readings from the Old and New Testaments. But, we need to hear the whole of scripture in order to truly understand what it means to be people of God right now; to grasp what is at stake for us in how we answer Jesus’ seemingly simple question in the Gospel according to Matthew, “But, who do you say that I am?”

     See, in the context of today’s Old and New Testament lessons, when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” his question troubles me. It troubles me because if I have placed my total trust in Jesus as Lord, if I have, as I promised at baptism, turned and accepted him as my Savior, if, like Peter proclaimed, I profess with my mouth that I believe he is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then why do I find it so hard sometimes to welcome the stranger and alien in our communities. Why do I bristle when I see a homeless person, rather than immediately see the Christ in them? Why is it that my immediate response to Black Lives Matter is to insist that my life matters, too, rather than desiring to listen intently to the stories of people of color, people so deeply wounded? Why do I often feel nothing when I hear of even more thousands who have died from Covid-19? Compassion fatigue? Maybe.

     But, the reality is beloved, if I am really honest with myself, when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am”  my actions – actions that we all know speak louder than words – often suggest that I’m part of the crowd in this story from Matthew: Those people who said Jesus is like John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets, a good role model. And the problem is, if we say like those in the crowd that Jesus was simply a good man, a prophet, a moral teacher, a dreamer whose message of hope, wholeness and redemption was a really good idea at the time, but it makes no difference to us now, then we risk adopting today’s culture that either exalts or degrades human beings simply because of the color of their skin, their accent, their national origin, or some other human value.

     See, it is one thing to answer like Peter, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It is another to live it. And that is the greatest struggle confronting the Church today in a culture, in a nation, that insists it is Christian, but is increasingly more and more hostile to a Christian faith that doesn’t’ just proclaim Jesus is Lord, but demonstrates that “As you have done to the least of these … so you have done to me” (Matthew 25:40); a Christian faith that demands we embrace and uphold God’s values, God’s ways, God’s mercy and grace in every aspect of our lives every day of the week.

     And that reality is why I find today’s lessons not only timely, but filled with hope – incredible hope. Just as we heard in our reading from Exodus, as St. Paul offered in his letter to the Romans, and as told in each of the gospels – the proclaimed Good News of God in Christ: God can turn anything into something good! If Jesus’ life and death show us how much God loves this world then Jesus’ resurrection shows that God’s love is more powerful than hate, more powerful than fear, more powerful than the worst any culture can throw at us, even death! Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, shows us that God’s values will always triumph over evil, that forgiveness and mercy isn’t just a really good idea whose time has come and gone, but rather, an eternal reality of God’s grace offered to all who will call upon God’s name not just once, but every moment of our lives.

     Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Lord, teach us to not simply say who you are but, let us show what that means to us and in us. In the words of this morning’s collect, let our words and lives show forth your transforming and redeeming power, among all peoples. We ask all this in the Name of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God: our Savior, our hope, our life. Amen.