The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 16
12th Sunday After Pentecost
27 August 2017
I can’t read the story of Moses’ deliverance from the river without thinking back on when my children reenacted this story countless times, each of them wanting to take turns being Baby Moses and climbing into an empty laundry basket to be floated down their imaginary river. I remember being careful to always fill in the missing details of the story from their children’s bible about Moses’ sister secretly following the basket down the river and then asking Pharaoh’s daughter if she should go and get a nurse from the Hebrew women to care for the child, only to return Moses to his own mother to care for him until he was old enough to go and live as a prince in Pharaoh’s household. This amazing reversal and story of care is so frequently glossed over as we skip over details in the story, yet it is a very empowering element, particularly for children, and an amazing story of hope for parents as we see our children caring for each other in one moment, only to be at each others throats in the next. Moses’ sister, as a key character in this story, was illustrated in my children’s book, but she was completely omitted from the details of the written story. But without her courage, without her stepping forward and making her presence known and her voice heard, Moses’ life would have taken an entirely different trajectory. His mother may never have known what had happened to him, nor would Moses’ family have known the details of her brother’s life that allowed Aaron to know and recognize him when God reunited them so many years later after God called Moses from the burning bush. And without being raised by his Hebrew family, he may never have stood up against the Egyptian beating a Hebrew Slave in the first place, nor run away to Midian where he would be called by God to lead his people out of Egypt. It all started with Moses sister, Miriam, taking the courage to look out for her brother. Now that’s a good sister!
Our readings this morning all circle around expectations, sacred deviance, and courage that leads to deliverance. Particularly in our epistle and Gospel, these come in terms of the weight and social stigma of titles, and the baggage they carry that draws our attention away from deeper truth and unexpected epiphanies.
While we are given a wonderful story of the context of Moses’ life, quite the opposite is true of today’s gospel, where it seems like a little more context would help, but we just don’t get any. Stepping back into the broader context of Matthew’s gospel, the feeding of the four-thousand has just happened, followed by the scribes and Pharisees demanding a Sign and Jesus warning the disciples of the bad leaven contained in the Pharisees’ teachings. But this morning’s reading is the start of a new episode as Jesus and the disciples have been traveling for some undisclosed amount of time toward the region of Caesarea Philippi. Essentially, we become aware of part of a conversation for which we have no brackets. What we are given is that there is a conversation about what people say about the Son of Man and what the disciples say about Jesus.
Perception here is everything. Expectations around the coming of messiah tie into misperceptions about what Jesus should be, and which contrast with who he is. Even Peter, it seems, falls victim to this mentality as his own declaration of faith in today’s gospel comes from seeing who Jesus is, only to then conflict with what Messiah is supposed to be and do according to Peter’s cultural training, which results in his being rebuked in the continuation of this story that we’ll hear next week.
But in taking the title out of the equation, people may come to understand what Jesus is teaching and the way he is living his life, so that not only may they may come to their own realization that here is the Messiah of God in a different way than tradition taught the people to expect, but may be called into the ongoing work Jesus began in challenging systems of domination and hate in his own world! As Jacob so many generations prior came to the realization of the sacred in his midst, so too they might be able to proclaim in awe and wonder, surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!
Paul actually taps into this in this morning’s epistle as well: “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 good and acceptable and perfect” – in essence, be delivered from the expectations and baggage of this world that will insist that you take your understanding of goodness, acceptability, and perfection from tradition and social convention. Instead, be transformed and renewed through faith to see the holiness that is imperceptible to others around you who are blind to the sacredness that surrounds them. It isn’t in Jew or Greek, Male or Female, or any other social division that contributes to our estrangement from one another, or to our in-group notions of superiority; rather it is in our divine and mystical relationality, by which, in Christ, we are reunited as one body, and reminded that we are each a part of one another and inextricably linked by our common source in the divine core of our beings that sustains and gives life and breath to all of this good and sacred world.
Clearly I am putting a few words in Paul’s mouth here, but in studying Romans as a whole, today’s reading begins the core of Paul’s message to a community divided by in-group biases. He has set up each side to feel superior only to pull the rug out from under them and show them to be no better than the other side. Today he begins to tell them what they ought to be doing as a Christian community, blessed by the diversity of its members to work as a cooperative body that can reach the whole diversity of the roman population through the many different gifts each brings to their work of bringing God’s kingdom to life around them.
Similarly, the focus of our tradition over these past centuries has clouded the simple and profound teaching from today’s gospel. The irony is that what is going on, and what Paul warns against as well, is a warning against what has happened in the focus of tradition that has taken the life out of this encounter between Jesus, the disciples, and Peter, and made it into a source for doctrine, disagreement, and even schism at the time of the reformation. It isn’t what or who they are that makes a difference, but what they do with the gifts they have, and how they work to enact God’s love and forgiveness in the world.
Whatever else Jesus and the disciples have been talking about as they journeyed toward the district of Caesarea Philippi, we drop into the conversation when Jesus asks his disciples what the general perception is regarding the Son of Man’s identity. The variety of answers ranges from the recent prophet, John the Baptist, to the ancient prophets including Elijah and Jeremiah. Anticipating a teaching moment, Jesus inquires who the disciples say he is, to which Peter responds, “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
In understanding Jesus’ response, our tradition, since Christianity’s establishment as an imperial and hierarchical church, has focused on Peter’s words as a spontaneous confession, and on Jesus’ response as a commendation of Peter and an establishment of him as the rock on which the Christian church would be built. In building on this Petrine doctrine, the bishops of the imperial church concentrated on Peter as the first amongst equals in the early Apostolic Church, which eventually became an assertion of authority vested in the bishop of Rome as the successor to Peter in direct lineage of bishops from the time of Peter’s own chosen successor. The keys to the kingdom of heaven, in this tradition, have been preserved as a investiture first and foremost in Peter.
Following Paul’s advice in taking a fresh look at this text, we can see in Jesus’ response to Peter another possibility.
Backing up to the anticipation of the teaching moment, Jesus sets up his second question to the disciples by first asking what the people say about the Son of Man. The variety of responses suggest what the disciples have actually heard others saying about Jesus. The second question, read in this context, suggests that Jesus is asking what the disciples actually say to others as they interact with others and tell them about Jesus. Peter’s response in this context, rather than being a spontaneous declaration of faith, becomes a response to Jesus question of what he tells others about Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Jesus’ response in this context is an affirmation of Peter’s faith, but it is also a teaching.
Peter is blessed to have come to the realization, through his faith alone, that Jesus is the messiah. No one told him that Jesus was the son of God, rather through his experiences of Jesus, through listening to his teachings, following in his example, and being in relationship with him, Peter came to the deep and faithful conclusion that God’s own spirit rest within his teacher, companion, and friend. The rock on which the church is to be built, in this context, is the deep and convicted faith that comes from relationship and understanding through perception and transformation. This is an example of the kind of intentional and relational faith that will sustain us even in the face of death itself as we stand with Christ in the face of the many storms of our lives. It is also the kind of faith that invites Peter, and each of us with him, to live as instruments of bringing God’s kingdom to life in the world around us. As the living keys to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus reminds Peter and each of us that whatever we take into our hearts, we bring into our ability to live out our faith as instruments of God’s kingdom. Whatever we bind together with our hearts we bind together with God’s kingdom. Whatever we loose, free, or let go of in our hearts is similarly manifested in the Kingdom of heaven in which we live, and breathe, and which we bring to life around us.
But the only way to come to this kind of faith is to experience it. Peter is blessed in his organic faith journey precisely because no one told him that Jesus was the Messiah, but in telling people what Jesus is rather than embodying and passing along his teachings, Peter and the disciples put a stumbling block to organic faith formation in front of others. Messiah had very specific and concrete social expectations that Jesus contradicted time and again as he turned tradition and social teaching on their heads, seeking instead to teach, live, and embody God’s love as the Messiah God called him to be. Understood in this way, Jesus’ stern order to his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the messiah is a reminder that discipleship means to embody and pass along Jesus’ teachings and way of life, rather than to tell people who and what Jesus is.
As with Miriam in standing up to help her brother, as with the divided church in Rome, called back to fellowship and to fulfill their calling as instruments of Christ working amidst the social and cultural clashes of their city, the calling of Christ is not one of proclamation that Jesus is God’s son, but one of walking as Christ walked in our world—the emboldening of our hearts as we act with courage in the face of injustice and hate, as we act with love and compassion in the face of indifference and fear, as we act with healing and reconciliation in the face of a wounded and broken world.
Yesterday, planned hate-rallies and anti-hate-marches and protests brought thousands from this One Body together to march to the Civic Center in San Francisco. Others will gather again today in Berkeley in response to another planned hate-rally. Jane and I have talked a lot about the Charlottesville violence over these past two weeks. Having three non-white children, we have struggled with how to talk with them about racism as well as evaluating what we have been doing to advocate for equality and against racial discrimination and hatred. As much as we both wanted to attend the protest of the hate rally in San Francisco yesterday, we knew the possibility for violent conflict and decided that one of us needed to stay home with our children to keep them out of harms way. Jane collaborated with our group of friends and advocates here in Santa Cruz to attend the march and protest. She and I were in the same place of feeling that if we are serious about standing up against hate, we must be willing, like the bold sister our children used to love to enact in the Moses story, to show up and make our voices heard. Following Southern Poverty Law Offices’ recommendations, she and her group did not seek out or confront any of the would-be neo-nazi rally attendees, but their presence as part of a community united against hatred made a bold and courageous statement counter to a group organized around principles of hatred, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and fear.
As today’s gospel emphasizes, it’s one thing to call on Jesus name, to call him out as messiah and savior, and to teach others about him. It is a completely different thing to get out of the boat, stand with Christ in the face of the storm, and live into Christ’s calling to carry on as his hands and heart in the world.
I don’t know what to do with the fact that some in the hate-rallies also call themselves Christians, other than to return to our Gospel where Christ admonished Peter for telling people about him rather than focusing on proclaiming Christ by living as he lived. We don’t become Christians simply by calling ourselves Christians, we show ourselves to be Christians by how we live. Anyone can call Jesus the messiah, but when we do so, particularly while enacting a life hypocritical and antithetical to his teachings and life, we only reveal a God that has been conformed to our image. We place a stumbling block in the way of organic faith.
Like Peter and the rest of Christ’s disciples, we are called to a discipleship of following in Christ’s footsteps, of proclaiming his life and love not by telling people who and what Christ is, but by living our lives as his hands and heart in our world.
May we each be empowered by Paul’s exhortation to be renewed in our minds as we seek to experience God’s call to each of us into relationships of love and transformation. May we, with Peter, be blessed in our faith as we come to better understand Christ by living and loving as he lived and loved. And may we each seek to embody Miriam’s courage as we stand up for what is right and good in our world.