Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, August 23 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

We begin, this week, a series of readings from the story of Moses, and the calling of the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It is a story which is, like all meaningful narratives, full of ambiguity—beginning with the fact that at the end of Genesis, Joseph has succeeded in reducing most of the population of Egypt to indentured servitude, something which now comes crashing back on his descendants. It’s a story with a very keen and detailed understanding of the operations of power, and the dynamics of enslavement and oppression. And it is a story which has only the very slimmest of historical underpinnings. But it is a story which has been told over and over, as oppressed peoples through centuries of time have seen it and claimed it as their story, as the founding narrative which defines God as the liberator of the enslaved, the one who stands with the small and the suffering and the forgotten, who comes to them and leads them out.

The story begins, as we heard today, with a series of small acts of resistance by small people. It includes two of my favourite minor characters, the disobedient midwives Shiphrah and Puah. It’s interesting that, when the Book of Common Prayer readings were drawn up, those few sentences were very deliberately dropped from the story of Moses. Because the people who put together the readings, at that time, didn’t want to set them up as a good example, didn’t want to enshrine disobedience and trickiness as values. Which demonstrates, I think, that the Bible is frequently smarter than the people who draw up prayer books. In a time of violence, clever deception in the interest of preserving life can be the best and holiest vocation; the truthtelling of the prophets and the trickiness of the midwives are different, but not opposed.

It is fascinating to observe how Shiphrah and Puah manage to take the stereotypes which the Egyptians hold about their Hebrew servants, and use them to create a livesaving fiction, at least for a time. They use the oppressor’s own narratives to work against oppression. They put themselves at some risk—they could have been betrayed at any moment—but, most of all, they keep doing whatever is necessary to carry out their vocation. And after their long game fails, we move to the mother who hides her child at home, as so many Indigenous parents hid, or least tried to hide, their children from residential school agents; we move to the sister in the marshes, watching over the child in his basket, presenting herself to Pharaoh’s daughter with the bright idea that hands him back to his family, ensuring that the plan for his saving will be carried through. Moses’ whole complicated career is launched by a group of tricky women, working under the radar of great power and violence, making their little space.

And this story gives us, I think, a guide to reading today’s passage from Romans, which can seem on the face of it quite troubling. When we think of the word “sacrifice”, we tend to think-–and, to be honest, parts of scripture and a great deal of church talk encourage us to think – of a kind of barter with God; a system whereby we give up something precious and important to us in order to secure divine favour or avert divine wrath. If we understand the word that way, then the idea of offering ourselves as a sacrifice is a dreadful one. It suggests that we must give up, must renounce, important aspects of our selves, our beings, in order to placate the hungry God. This is a deal the church has, indeed, often forced upon people—queer people, Indigenous people, even just people who ask too many questions, have been told that they must sacrifice culture or desire or intellect to be acceptable. But that is not how we are meant to read this sentence. We need to go back to the root of the word, to read it as tied to the word “sanctify”, to make holy, to dedicate. We do not, we are not called to, renounce any part of our selves. Instead, we make holy all that we are. We dedicate ourselves to God as we are, our vocations, our cleverness, such skills and tricks as we each have, such loves and fears; we sanctify them, we make ourselves whole in our dedication to the kingdom.

This is not actually any easier than the barter with God; in fact, it may be much harder, certainly more risky. To take every part of our selves—to know each part of our selves, in the first place—and to place them all at the service of love, this is an all-encompassing demand, though it may be lived out day to day in very small things. To make holy all our little hopeful works, to set our days and our dreams under the great scope of eternity, to choose to believe that the oppressed and imprisoned children, the endangered children, the children of poverty and loss, will survive, will struggle forward, and that we may be among the hands which help; or that we ourselves may be rescued, lifted up from the marshes, to take our part in the work of liberation.

And so we come round to the Gospel, and to today’s story, what’s called “the confession of Peter,” which is interestingly quite different in Matthew than it is in Mark or Luke. In both Mark and Luke, Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah is greeted ambiguously by Jesus—in Mark, he rebukes Peter quite strongly, and in both Mark and Luke he not only cautions the disciples to silence, he immediately goes on to predict that the Son of Man will suffer and be killed. It’s not that he is rejecting his own identity as the Messiah, or as the son of God, but rather that he’s beginning to try to make the disciples realize that he is not the Messiah as they had imagined; that the Messiah would be, not one who would come to impose order through power, but one who would come in love and self-giving, one whose whole being is that perfect offering of self to which Paul calls us, the offering which is both death, and the life which is greater than death. This isn’t explicitly there in Matthew, who is more interested in establishing a claim for Peter’s authority, but I think we must imagine it casting a shadow over his version of the story, adding shape to it. We cannot hear Jesus addressed as Messiah without knowing that he will radically redefine that term.

So when Jesus tells Peter, in this statement which is unique to Matthew, that he is the rock on which the church will be built, this is no small or easy thing; and it isn’t really about particular church structures or hierarchies. Nor is it, in its essentials, addressed to Peter only, but to all of us who are the living stones of God’s temple. What we are being called to is the bedrock of our own identity—our callings, our gifts, our needs, our fragile resourceful bodies, our place in the crumbling economy of empire and whatever opportunities that place allows us. We are called to know our selves, these singular selves in their singular context, as entirely and truthfully as we can, apart from all the confusions and distractions with which the world surrounds us.

And then we are called to place these selves into the hands of others, into their service. For we are, as Paul says, all one body, and members of one another, and we thrive only with and through each other. We are bound, we are constrained, by compassion and justice, by the community of those we care for, and those we hate, and those we do not even know. Constrained by the call to love, by the slow discipline of kindness, or the sudden crisis which compels response, making our way through the schemes of the powers, and holding to whatever vocations we may have or find.