Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, August 30 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

There is almost no amount of repetition that can dull the power and strangeness of the reading from Exodus. Moses, a man caught between cultures, attached partly to the oppressors and partly to the enslaved, is living now in Midian, alienated, due to an act of extreme violence on his own part, both from the Egyptians among whom he grew up, and from his own people. And in the wilderness, alone, this complex, damaged man sees a bush, burning and yet not consumed, and from the burning bush comes the voice of God. There is no point in asking what “really” happened; this is the language of vision and unspeakable ultimate reality. What does matter is what that voice says to Moses, the statement that will become the defining statement which identifies the God of Israel—“I have seen the suffering of the people. I have seen how they are oppressed. And I have come down to deliver them.”

I have seen their suffering, and I have come down. To this small people, enslaved and hungry, unimportant, under the heel of empire, I have come down. For their cry has reached me. From this small people I will raise leaders—improbable, compromised, flawed and inadequate leaders for an improbable flawed community—and I will bring them out of the empire, into the desert of freedom. I have not come down because Moses is virtuous or strong, for he is neither of these things; I have not come down because the children of Jacob are especially good, but because they are small people crying for liberation. I am not an abstract God of general good or a cosmic unmoved mover. I am not the God of the powerful or the comfortable. I have heard the cry of the people, and I have come down.

For all the ambiguities of the story of the Exodus, it has become the central narrative for oppressed peoples over many centuries and around the world, the touchstone of liberation. Because it says this—that liberation from oppression is God’s defining work. That God is on the side of the slaves and of the suffering, all those who are oppressed by the machinery of violence and exploitation, all those who cry out for justice and freedom. For all of these, God has come down.

This is the promise: I will be with you, all the migrant workers crowded into virus-infested trailers, all the black bodies brutally murdered for no reason, all the abandoned elderly and ill. Because I know your pain, and it matters. Your struggle for freedom will be my struggle. It matters. For you, I have broken the boundary between the human and the divine. I have heard the cry of the people, and I have come down.

And it is this same God who will choose to be born as a homeless infant, a refugee child, part of another small community oppressed by another empire, in an unimportant place, among people who did not matter. A man who travelled on foot through the little villages of ancient Palestine and stretched out his hand to touch the unclean and the outcast, trivial suffering individuals, a leper begging at the side of the road, a dead girl and a bleeding woman, the tax collectors and prostitutes and petty criminals, all those hungry for bread and for justice. The one whose life speaks like the words from the burning bush—I have heard the cry of the people, and I have come down.

But this solidarity with the suffering must go all the way down this time. This is not to be the miraculous deliverance of the people of Israel at the cost of drowning all of Pharoah’s soldiers—themselves in some ways helpless tools of power—in the waters of the Red Sea. This time God will go all the way down, into the flood himself, will bear in his body the violence of the empire, will go down into death and rise.

It is this which Peter, in today’s reading, cannot grasp—that God has come down this time, not to defeat a single empire or a single enemy, but to descend into the very place of abandonment, into the very source of violence, into the great flood of death, and to bring into that place God’s presence, God’s unconquerable love.

This is what it means, then, to take up your cross. It is not about arbitrary self-denial to meet an invented set of divine rules; it is not about any seeking of suffering for its own sake. It is to understand ourselves as children of the God who has come down, who has gone all the way down, who challenges us to follow, to go deep into the pain of the world. It is to hear the cry of the oppressed, the enslaved, the grieving, the lost and hidden casualties of empire, and to respond; knowing that we are, like Moses, guilty and inadequate, our own identities inevitably a complicated mixture of privilege and suffering, our own violence sometimes barely below the surface, our abilities and opportunities bounded and finite, our own perceptions at least as limited as Peter’s. And yet, despite all this, we are called.

Called to go down into the mess and confusion of human lives and human histories, and bring God’s love; called to go all the way down if we have to, into the worst and most abandoned places. Called to give our lives wholly over to love, whatever that might mean. Love, suffer, serve, rejoice. Do not respond to evil with evil, but overcome evil with good. Love your enemies—even if you can only do it in the somewhat cynically strategic way which Paul suggests. We fail, we fall short. Inevitably we do. But this is our calling.

And what we are promised in return is life, our own truest lives, found for the first time. For we are called by the God whose name cannot be spoken or written or translated, which can only be approximated by “I AM”—that same “I AM” which Jesus spoke to the soldiers who had come to arrest him. That God who is the nature and source of being in itself, the word which spoke all creation into being, the spring of the water of all life.

So if they ask you why—why you’re doing your best to walk with the outcast and the rejected, why you’re getting in the way of injustice, why you’re refusing to hide the truth of who you are, why you’re planting a garden in the end times—tell them, “I AM has sent me.” In whatever words you choose to shape this meaning, in your actions, in your gestures, in your voice and in your music, you can speak the nature of the living God.

For all three persons of the Trinity have come down, and the Holy Spirit came again as the fire which burns and doesn’t consume at Pentecost, and claimed the disciples, and all of us who come after, as part of that movement. In us, too, when we are able to live our discipleship truly, God has come down. It is through us, in this time, that the cry of the people must be heard. It is through us that God’s love must come to them. It will take us to hard places. We are asked to lose our lives in order to claim them fully, but there is still loss in this as well; the desert is a place of liberation, but it is still a desert, a hard place to live.

But there is also promise. There is also joy, in this world too, and we stand with the true joys as well as the pains, with all the real goodness of creation. And we are not alone. The voice which spoke from the burning bush, the hands which touched the small lost ones on the dirt roads of Galilee, the flame which descended at Pentecost, all are with us. We go forth in the name of the God whose very name is being.