Sermon, 35 22nd Ordinary, Exodus 3:1–15; Matt 16 21-28


Terribly Called

We have the strangest faith you could imagine.  Two of our greatest heroes, Moses and Peter both have an opportunity to say yes to the call of God: both of them say “no”.

Moses is called to the greatest vocation possible: to be the leader of the Liberation of his people, the slaves of the Empire of Egypt.  The first thing he says to God, (in effect) is “not me.”  The great vocation seems like a terrible idea to him personally.

Jesus finally announces his itinerary to his inner circle led by Peter.  Remember, Peter has just proclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the son of God.”  But hearing that the path leads to suffering and death, he says, “God forbid!”  Sounds like a terrible call to follow.

Why do we have these texts?  Why, of all the vignettes of the lives of Moses and Peter did these texts get passed down? Because they are crucial.

Any time you have a story in which the central characters are confused and need to be corrected, it must be that the author is concerned that the readers are in grave danger of making the same mistakes.

Neither Moses nor Peter understood the big picture; they had to   come to a new and clearer understanding of:

  • What is God like?
  • What does he care about?
  • What does he want from us?
  • How do we answer his call to follow him?

We have these same crucial questions.
To answer the questions mistakenly is disastrous – as much to us today as to Moses and Peter.
Let us let the Author teach us.  First, Moses’ story.

What did Moses believe about God before he saw that mysterious burning bush?

Who knows? He was raised in the house of the Egyptian Pharaoh.  Did he believe in the divinity of the Pharaoh, the divine sanction on the Empire and its methods?  Who knows?

One thing is clear: at the experience of that mysterious, unquenchable burning bush, he was taught two things: Who is God, and What does God care about.

Lesson 1: God is Absolute divinity.  “I am who I am” – the essence of being itself.  ”
Don’t come any closer: this is holy ground; remove  your sandals”, or as Jesus said “Hallowed, or Holy be your name.”

When we worship God, we come with reverence, knowing that we are in the presence of divinity itself.

But lesson 1 is complex: this holy God knows Moses by name: calls to him by name.  “Moses, Moses

He identifies himself with Moses family history: “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Lesson 1 is that this mysterious, holy God is personal, he is near, not far off.  He is aware of what is happening to his people and he is engaged in their rescue.

We cannot miss this:
What kind of God is God? He is not any kind of god; he is not an Egyptian god.  He is Israel’s God.

  • He has a history with these people.
  • He has a relationship with these people.
  • He has committed himself to these people.

What is God like?

  • He is the God who hears his people’s cries, and cares.
  • He is aware of their misery, and it moves him.
  • He can see the oppressing conditions that Empire has forced upon them, and he is engaged.

So what does he want?

He wants Moses to do something that seems to defy logic and common sense.  Go to Pharaoh.  Go to where your ran from for fear of loosing your life.

Moses, though in the presence of the burning fire itself, says, “Who am I?”  His mission is counter-intuitive.  How could good come from such a call?  Liberation seems not unlikely, but impossible, and life threatening.

Take note of this: God has not called Moses to comfort, to safety, to ease.  But he has called him personally, and promises this:  “I will be with you;

Who is God and what does he want?

We worship a God:

  • who is holy and transcendent, and
  • who is horrified by slavery, by sweat shops and child labor.
  • who is in opposition to the inhumane treatment of prisoners
  • and hates conditions of grinding hopeless poverty;

And a God who, therefore:

  • sees where the pain is in your life
  • hears your cries in the night
  • and is with you, presently at every moment.

We worship a God whose love is not merely mystical and psychological, but rather is as actual as the bricks those Israelite slaves were forced to manufacture for the benefit of the Empire.

It is so significant to notice what he does about it
He calls a person to put himself at risk for people in need.

Go to Pharaoh! … Set my people free.”

He calls Moses to deny himself, take up his staff, and follow his leading into the jaws of the Empire.
And you know the rest of the story.

But now let us fast forward to the story of Peter and Jesus.  Here we have another similar call to risk everything, deny yourself, take up  your cross, follow me.
Just like Moses, Peter cannot handle this at first: death and suffering were not part of his plan for the Messiah, the son of God – as he had just proclaimed Jesus.

God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
In Peter’s words, Jesus recognizes the voice of the satan expressing the same temptation he had faced in the wilderness: to take the path of glory, not of suffering.  To bend the knee to the evil tactics of Empire and make all the kingdoms of the earth bow before him.
Jesus looks at Peter, but addresses the source of that idea:
Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
Peter, at this point, pre-Easter morning, cannot fathom how suffering and death could possibly achieve God’s purposes for his people.

God’s people were in bondage to empire and needed liberation.
Jesus knew that the source of the pain of his people was deeper than empire, it was evil itself.

Every empire is built on the domination, control, subjugation of  people.
Every empire is founded on the backs of its slaves – whether they are building an Egyptian pyramids, or laboring 18 hours a day in a coal mine, or sewing up cheap T-shirts for export.

Jesus did not have the agenda of dismantling Rome.
His agenda was the demolition of the evil use of human beings as means rather than ends.

This evil, this “will-to-power” to gain advantage over others, to  pursue the endless quest to indulge ourselves, whether by direct or indirect means, is at the root of an enormous amount of human suffering.

The revolution Jesus brings will begin when redemption comes to people who will reject this evil in themselves.

The revolution will start when a groundswell of people of faith are willing to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus.

This is what God wants from us:

  • Every moment we invest in ministry to the poor instead of spending on ourselves, is an act of self-denial; a direct assault on evil’s claim on our lives.
  • Every time we get out and visit people in hospital or people who are home-bound, every call, every card that says “I care” is a rejection of the evil of self-obsession.
  • Every time we spend money filling the grocery sack for the Christian Service Center instead of banking the money for ourselves, we are saying “no” to evil and “yes” to the call to deny ourselves.
  • Every time we raise our political voices against genocide, every time we participate in the One campaign, we are putting ourselves behind Jesus in the movement that can bring real, concrete liberation to people all around the globe.

The self denial that we are called to is not about guilt and shame or self-loathing.  Self denial is real, concrete and practical.  It is saying no to the concept that a persons life consists in the abundance of his possessions.

  • It is about finally learning that there is actually more joy that comes from spending an hour in ministry at Holeman prison than an hour in front of HBO.
  • It means you feel better about yourself for having tutored young people who would otherwise drop out than you could ever by spending that time on yourself.
  • It means discovering that you feel far richer for having invested money in a clinic in Sudan than you would be if that money was spent on new clothes for yourself.

This is the irony and compelling certainty of following Jesus: that those who loose their time, loose their money, loose their lives for him and for the kingdom are the ones who actually gain their lives.

Jesus said it best:

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

The call we hear is the call to risk loosing ourselves,  our security, our lives on the wager that this is the only way we will find them.
Let us loose our lives, for His sake!

Stop the War with Russia!

War with Russia is not what we need

Russia recognizes South Ossetia; We do not; Inconsistency in foreign policy betrays the buried agendas
Kosovo, USA
Flags: Kosovo & USA

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (whose name nobody gets right: “Med -vee-Ed – yeff) just announced that he accepts the Duma’a (parliment’s) recommendation that Russia recognize both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent republics.  Meaning: “Georgia, let your claim on them go. ”

So, the rule is this: if a distinct people-group (an ethnic group in a contiguous region, such as the South Ossetians) all want independence, they should have it.  Let them go.

Good.  So that’s why Russia let Chechenya go, right?.  That’s why Russia wants independence for Kosovoovo from Serbia, right?  Or not.  Russia is hypocritical on this point.

The US stands by our new ally, Georgia, according to two policy rules:
1)  the territorial integrity of a country (like Georgia) must be respected and maintained (meaning: Russians: go a way and stop meddling);
2) Ethnically distinct (or nearly so) regions which are currently contained in a nation-state should stay there and not splinter off.

Good.  That’s why:
1) we respected the territorial integrity of Iraq and did not invade; and
2) the US does not want Chechnya or Kosovo to be independent, right?

Or not;  the USA is hypocritical on this point.

The total inconsistency of the policy-arguments of both sides shows that the real issues are beneath the surface.  After all, the United States embraced the “Monroe doctrine” which assumed the legitimacy of “spheres of influence” (we named the policy after a president) but if anyone else wants a sphere of influence, we do not accept it as legitimate.   Double standards are what we do best.  We had a Cuban missile crisis and now the Russians have a Polish missile crisis.

Whose “sphere of influence” is Iraq in?  They are a Shi’s majority contry and have a Shi’a neigbor next door: Iran, so presumably they are in the Iranian sphere of influence.  No way, right?  This policy works for the USA, but we are special; an exception.

The Kurds of Iraq want to be independent from their Arab neighbors, just as the Kosovars of Serbia do, so they should be allowed to go their own way, right?  Don’t tell Turkey or Iran that: the Kurds of Turkey and Iran – and the PKK – the armed and dangerous military arm of the  Kurds will just try harder – as the people of South Ossetia do, right?

I am being facetious here: I know that each of these locations have hugely complex issues (like mixed populations, for a start) driving the debate, and that access and control of natural resources is playing a huge part of this game, but I’m making a point: we (the USA) does not need to start another war over a policy that has no meaning.  We are getting ready to get into a conflict with Russia over policies which neither of us are truthful about.  It’s not about South Ossetia’s rights, or Georgia’s rights, or Russia’s rights, or America’s rights; it’s about domination and control – on both sides.

Georgia, because they want to have for themselves what they deny the South Ossetian’s – independence from a powerful overlord, gives us a chance to stick it in Russia’ eye (“gotcha! the people who gave us Lenin do not want to be dominated by Russia!  Take that!”).  We get the opportunity to make it harder for the Russians to get what they have always needed: a dependable Black Sea port.  So it has nothing to do with whether or not the South Ossetians should stay in Georgia – a state they want to be independent of.

America does not need a war over this.  But if events follow their current course, we could easily get into a war with Russia.

We must demand that our political leaders do what we elect them and pay them to do: keep us safe!  There is no threat to America at stake here.  Maybe pride.  I will never sacrifice my sons to a war for pride; nothing could be less ethical; it has no justification.

We must demand that they stop giving this issue global importance.  By the very same measure, Russia could start a legitimate war with us for backing the independence of Kosovo from Serbia.  This is not 1389, there is no Ottoman empire, and there is no Kurdistan.  There is a Serbia, an Iran, an Iraq, a Georgia and a Russia: let’s deal with facts.  We do not need another cold war nor another world war.  This would be completely ridiculous if it were not so dangerous.

I am not naive to the fact that many of the current residents of South Ossetia are actually Russian, not native South Ossetian (nor that there are many Serbs in Kosovo and Turkmen in Kirkuk, Iraq [Kurdistan?]).  That makes no difference in the main argument: we have no business making this a reason for our involvement in a new, huge war with Russia!

We must not allow Georgia to draw us in to a conflict of their choosing.  They want us to get engaged – why else would they suggest we off load supplies (humanitarian?) at Poti, a port where we could easily have a direct conflict with Russians who control it?  A new US armed conflict with Russia may be in their interests: it is not in ours.

Sermon, 21st Ordinary A, Isaiah 51:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Renaming Rocks

A new poll from the Pew Research Center has found a slim majority that says religious institutions should not speak out on political and social issues.

People have been frustrated by the way religiously-based beliefs have been involved

ethnic conflict

in our politics and legislation, and perhaps you are one of them.

Our texts today bring up this issue. Why? Because if anything is central and fundamental to our faith it is that God is revealed to us in his Son, Jesus.

If we want to know God, our task is to know him through Jesus. If we want to understand what he wants, cares about, requires of us, we look at Jesus, we listen to Jesus.

This Jesus-focus is authorized in the very text we have before us today from Matthew, and it is here that we also get a strong teaching of Jesus that involves politics and social issues.

To be clear then, to know God, to love God, to be a person of faith is to be a learner, that is, a disciple – of Jesus.

So if he is passionate about a political or social issue, we allow him to “school” us.

Looking at it another way: if Jesus cared about it, he did so because God cares about it.

Our quest is to know God, to understand what God wants of us, and to become better than we are now in following as a disciple. So, we need this text; let us begin.

First, this text is usually called Peter’s Great Confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi. It is central to our faith that Jesus is the Messiah, or Christ (in Greek-based English), both of which mean “the anointed one.”

Jesus is God’s unique son, anointed with God’s Holy Spirit. That is Peter’s confession of faith, and Jesus blesses him for it.

But then, right after Jesus congratulates Simon for getting this correct – credit for which he gives to God, not to Simon’s brilliance – there are some really strange phrases.

Jesus changes Simon’s name – to Peter (his mother named him Simon) – why? and why change it?

Peter means “rock.” What is all that “rock” language supposed to mean?

Jesus called him the son of Jonah – what’s that about?

Then Jesus Gave him the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose with authority – what does that mean: that he made him the Pope?

And are these odd phrases connected to each other or to Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, son of God at Caesarea Philippi?

Yes! and Yes!

Let’s take them one at a time: Let’s start with the Rock business. Of course you know that Peter is the Greek word for Rock. Jesus says to simon, “You are Peter or Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”

The Rock is a frequent Old Testament image: God is our solid rock or refuge – it is a fortress metaphor.

But Jesus cannot be calling Simon “God,” so we go to another way the rock metaphor is used, and that takes us to the reading from Isaiah 51.

The prophet tells the people not to forget their identity: they are chips off of the block of Abraham and Sarah.

Question: What was God doing with Abraham and Sarah? He was starting in motion a process that would bring, as Isaiah says, “light to the nations.”

God chose Abraham and Sarah as the first step in blessing all the nations of the earth, being a light to all the nations.

So how did that work out? Actually, not so well. In fact, instead of being the means by which God would bless the whole world, Israel turned inward, circled the wagons, and focused ferociously on keeping the rest of the world away.

Jesus, however, was all about taking the light of God beyond the ethnic confines of Israel.

Jesus was like the prophet Jonah who preached the gospel to the Assyrians in Nineveh, so that even the enemies of God’s people came to have faith.

That’s why he looked at Simon and said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah…”. Simon too would be a boundary crosser.

This is also why he changed his name. Simon’s mother did what a lot of other mothers did: she named her son after a national hero.

Simon was part of the Maccabean Revolt which was successful in winning independence for the Jews against the Greeks.

Lots of sons were named for the heroes of that independence struggle, including Matthew, John, and Judas as well as Simon.

So when Jesus changed Simon’s name, he transformed his identity from the next conquering hero of national independence to a son of Jonah the prophet, preacher to the gentiles.

Jesus gave him a new name: Rock – or Peter. Simon and all the Israelites were cut from the Rock of Abraham and Sarah; they were Jewish.

Abraham and Sarah were given a promise, a covenant, and a mandate to be blessings to the entire world, to be a light to all peoples, not just to their own ethnic clan.

Jesus was intent on fulfilling this God-given mandate to bring God’s love and God’s redemption to the world.

To this end, he laid a foundation that was no longer based on ethnicity.

This new foundation, this new Rock is the church. Jesus said to Simon: you are now Peter, Rock, and I will build my church on the ministry I began when I called you to follow me.

The gospel of Matthew specifies that this happened, not in Jerusalem on the huge rock outcropping called Mount Zion, but on another city built on a rock, Caesarea-Philippi – a Roman city.

Now the pieces are coming together. Jesus is the Messiah – yes; but does not base his kingdom on a new Simon, a new ethnic liberator. He is God’s Messiah, or Christ, who is accomplishing a much greater, world-wide liberation; soul liberation.

If this is going to work, changes will be necessary. The old walls of Kosher will have to come down. People will have to be released, loosened from the old purity regulations that excluded so many – including all gentiles from worship.

So Jesus gave Peter the authority, or the keys, to bind or loose – Rabbinic language for forbid or allow.

Peter could say, “OK, now you can eat pork. Now you can eat meals with gentiles, now you can, as Peter did, stay with a professional tanner (formerly taboo – see Acts 9) and preach to a Roman centurion, like Cornelius, who as it happen, lived in Caesarea. (Acts 10)

So now we can see how this all fits together.

Jesus asks: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
But Jesus gets personal: Who do you say that I am?

Peter, the first person Jesus called to be his disciple has the answer: you are more than those things. You are the long- awaited fulfillment of our hopes: you are Messiah, God’s Son.

Here is where it gets crucial: to know God is to know God as revealed in Jesus.

To know what God wants of us is to learn from Jesus.

Central to Jesus’ teaching, and therefore, central to God’s concern is that race and ethnicity are not meaningful categories for the purposes of exclusion in the Kingdom of God.

To go even further: the Messiah will not be the champion of any political agenda:

  • He will not be co-opted by any group. He is not a Jewish zealot.
  • He is not a mascot for Republicans, he is not a mascot for Democrats,
  • he is not a partisan of the Georgians nor Russians.
  • or Kurds or Iraqi’s

In fact, the opposite.

  • Any group that is trying to oppress another is against him.
  • Any group that wants to exclude another is working against his purposes and contrary to his will.

So, what does God want from us?

  • What does it mean to be a disciple?
  • What does it mean to bend the knee to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God?

– It means working for the reconciliation of the world that he made.

– It means being an advocate for peace making, for negotiation that leads to justice and fairness, and the protection of the rights of minorities.

So does this touch politics? Yes. We can make it clear to the people we send into office that their job is to work for justice and peace.

All over the world people are killing each other over racial and ethnic conflict. That is the opposite of God’s will.

As people who bend the knee to Jesus as Messiah, Christ, Son of God:

  • we go to work on the side of reconciliation and peace-making;
  • we pray for reconciliation peace-making;
  • we vote for policies of reconciliation and peace-making;
  • and we demonstrate in our own personal dealings with people who are different from us an openness and respect that shows that we know that Jesus Christ is our Lord.

Yes, it is bad in many places in the world today. But we are not people who are in despair. We are people of hope because imbedded in this text is a promise.

When Jesus looked at Simon, and called him Rock, he made this declaration: “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Jesus is not attempting in vain, he is building his church. We are evidence of it. “I will build” is the basis we have to be hopeful people.

This is not naiveté nor wishful thinking. It is the promise of our Lord that he is at work in this world, and he has called us to join him in this work!

Simon, Peter, Hanukkah, Revolution and Jesus: Matthew 16:17-18


Matthew 16:17-18

17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,

Jesus re-named his lead disciple from Simon to Peter.  The fact that Simon’s parents gave him that name is huge.  The fact that Jesus changed it is even more huge.  Simon was named for a great hero.  The story goes like this: (the Wikipedia pages on this period are on the  money and I’m using some quotes below)

Every year Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah in commemoration of  Jewish independence from the  Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty from 164 BCE to 63 BCE.

Here is how it happened: a Jewish priest named Mattathias, or Matthew, when asked by a Seleucid Greek government representative under King Antiochus IV to offer sacrifice to the Greek gods, not only refused to do so, but killed the Jew who had stepped forward to do so. He then attacked the government official that required the act.

Upon the edict for his arrest, Mattathias (Matthew) took refuge in the wilderness of Judea with his five sons, (including Judah, Simon, and Jonathan) and called upon all Jews to follow him; many did, and they were eventually successful at gaining national independence for nearly 100 years.  Note the names of 3 of his sons: they come up in the Gospels as Judas, Simon and John.

Matthew (Mattathaias)’s son Simon was the one in leadership when the Jews finally won their independence.  It was Simon who had the honor of riding into liberated Jerusalem. Simon assumed the leadership (142 BCE), receiving the double office of High Priest and prince of Israel, the founder of he Hasmonean dynasty.  This is the Simon that Jesus’ disciple was named for.

Apparently, giving your sons the names of your national heros of independence was not uncommon.  Two out of Jesus’ 4 brothers were named for national heroes: Simon and Judas (Matt 13:54-55).  Jesus himself was actually named Joshua in Hebrew, after the successor to Moses who led the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan.

Independence ended 63 years before Jesus was born.  I think it would be safe to say that everyone who was Jewish in Jesus time wished desperately to regain that independence again, this time, from the Romans.  That quest was, after all, exactly the agenda of the Zealot movement.  They wished for it badly enough to name their sons for the heroes of their most recent independence movement.

The quintessential icon of Judaism for most of us is the Menorah which comes from the “Festival of Lights” or Hanukkah, which celebrates Jewish Independence.

All that to say this: Jesus changed the name of Simon, the great hero of Jewish national independence, to Peter, rock, something to build on.  This was not accidental nor trivial.  Everyone in Jesus’ circle of companions would have understood the significance of that change immediately.

Peter confesses Jesus as “Messiah” – a loaded title full of expectations about national liberation (see N.T. Wright on this:  Jesus and the Victory of God, especially p. 481, ff. and 528, ff).

Certainly this name-change was a dramatic act of re-defining what it meant that he was Messiah, Christ.  Jesus was not going to champion the movement for national independence.  For Jesus, the hopes and dreams of Israel were going to come true, but the kingdom was not a new Jewish state.

Wright puts it this way:
Jesus’ redefined notion of Messiahship thus corresponded to his whole kingdom-praxis….  It offered itself as the central answer to other key kingdom-questions.  And it pointed on to a fulfillment of Israel’s destiny which no one had imagined or suspected.  He came, as the representative of the people of YHWH, to bring about an end of exile, the renewal of the covenant, the forgiveness of sins.  To accomplish this, an obvious first-century option for a would-be Messiah would run: go to Jerusalem, fight the battle against the forces of evil, and get yourself enthrouned as the rightful king.  Jess, in facte, adopted precisely this strategy.  But, as he hinted to James and John, he had in mind a different battle, a different throne.”  p. 539