August 27, 2023

The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

August 27, 2023

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 our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifying Sustainer. Amen.

     About a month ago (July 16, 2023) I began a sermon with this question: Have you ever regretted a choice or decision you made? You know, something sounded like a really good idea at the time and so you jumped into it with both feet only to realize that you’d not really thought through the consequences of that choice and later wondered, “What was I thinking.”

That sermon came to mind when meditating on today’s scripture lessons, especially our Old Testament lesson. See, at the close of the Book of Genesis, the entire tribe of Israel along with their servants, livestock, and pretty much everything they owned, had moved to Egypt. Israel’s son, Joseph, had risen to a place of leadership and become lord over all of Egypt – the entire nation - and, as the Middle East was in the midst of a seven-year famine, moving to Egypt with its vast stores of grain and supply of fresh water seemed like a really good idea.

But, early in the first chapter of Exodus, things in Egypt changed. A new king, a new Pharaoh, had come to power and he had evil intentions. He was concerned that these Jewish aliens would soon outnumber the Egyptians. And so, under the guise of protecting Egypt’s culture and way of life – their national security as some might say – this new Pharaoh implemented a plan that forced Jews into cheap and exploited labor, as well as required killing all newborn Jewish males. This way Jews couldn’t propagate, and Israeli women would be forced to marry Egyptian men - you know, “our kind of people,” and eventually become “like us, adopt our customs and embrace our way of life.” And the Egyptian people allowed this to happen. Maybe they thought, “Well, these aliens don’t belong here anyway; this is our country, not theirs. Besides, our nation and culture are superior to all others – they should want to be like us.” Now, I am sure none of that sounds familiar to us today.  But, you know, throughout human history similar arguments have been made. And as Exodus goes on to describe the gradual increase in atrocities against them, you can almost hear these Jewish refugees murmuring, “Egypt: It sure seemed like a good idea at the time … But what were we thinking?”

     Last week’s Old Testament lesson reminded us that God can always turn evil intentions into something good and today’s lesson is no different. Exodus explains how Pharaoh’s misguided logic set the stage for civil disobedience on the part of some midwives. And their disobedience, a direct result of Pharaoh’s evil intentions, spares a newborn baby boy from being drowned in the Nile. He will be named Moses and what I find truly fascinating about this story is that he will be raised in the household of the very same Pharaoh who ordered the death of all Jewish baby boys. And even more fascinating, just like Joseph before him, Moses will become another deliverer of Israel. But, as for this new Pharaoh? His plans will prove to be a disaster for Egypt. Exodus demonstrates how perilous our paths become when nations or cultures are driven by its own values, when it strives to lookout for, and solely protect, its interests, rather than uphold God’s values, God’s interests.

    In today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, St. Paul affirms a community’s right to insist that everyone work together to maintain and uphold law and order in society. But Paul was very much aware of the dangers inherent in situations where culture alone influences us so much that it dictates how our faith should be understood and then practiced. When culture becomes so important to us that it determines what Jesus really meant or how we should live our faith, we risk 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 drive faith, (how we think and act), we need to allow God to transform us to our very core and let that drive our faith and choices in life. Paul says God’s transformation in us takes place through the renewing of our minds. And the renewing of our minds comes about by studying God’s ways, through pouring over and ruminating over sacred texts like the Old Testament so that, in the words of the Psalmist, we escape the snares of society that can swallow us up, so that at all times our words and deeds embrace and demonstrate God’s values of mercy, justice, love, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation, and do so at all times.

     Our readings from Exodus and Romans and even today’s Psalm encourage us to consider more deeply what Jesus was really talking about in today’s Gospel lesson. They affirm that importance of studying the whole (of scripture) in order to truly understand what it means to be people of God today. And for me, that is the greater issue presented in Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Because the answer should have life-challenging implications for those who claim to follow him as the Christ, for those who claim to be people of faith, people of God.

See, every week, just like Peter, we stand and affirm that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, that he is our Redeemer and Savior. And I rejoice that we profess with one voice our faith in Christ. But the question is, does it really influence our choices in life? That is the quandary that makes truly following Jesus and living a true Christian life so often difficult and challenging. That quandary is at the heart of Jesus’ question.

Friends, those words, “Who do you say that I am?” always cut me to the quick because I realize that if I have truly placed my total trust in Jesus as Lord, if I have, as I promised at baptism, turned and accepted him as my Savior, if I profess with my mouth that I believe he is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then why is it so hard to consistently love my neighbor as deeply, compassionately, and sacrificially, as he has loved me, loved us? Why do I sometimes bristle when I see a homeless person and then pray that they don’t see me, rather than immediately see Christ in her, in him? Why is it that so often my thoughts, my responses, to hearing about another senseless shooting, an act of violence against a neighbor, or a conspiracy theory, or yet another book banning, that my inner voices whispers, “Thank goodness that’s not my problem” or “Thank God I don’t live in that community.” No wonder when I stand to proclaim my faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, I inwardly cower because no matter how hard I try, I cannot shut out his words, “As you have done to the least of these … so you have done to me.” (Matthew 25:40).

     Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” You know, it is one thing to answer, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It is another to live it and I find that is the greatest struggle we encounter in our society and culture today – a society and culture that is increasingly more and more hostile to the true Christian way of life that embodies all of God’s values, God’s ways, God’s commands to lift up the lowly, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and alien, give drink to the thirsty, bind up the wounds of the sick, free the oppressed, and do so in every aspect of our lives every day of the week regardless of who, or what, or where they are, or from where they came.

     Perhaps it’s because of our tendency to ignore God’s values – or just uphold the ones we like - that I find hope in our readings from Exodus and Romans, and, for that matter, in each of the gospels. They affirm that God can turn anything into something good! What’s more, if Jesus’ life and death showed how much God loves all creation, then his resurrection shows that God’s love is more powerful than the hate spewed in communities these days, more powerful than fear, more powerful than the worst any culture can do, 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 a precious part of God’s grace offered to all who will call upon Him not just once, but every moment of our lives.

     Jesus asks the church this morning, “Who do you say that I am?” I invite you to ponder your answer this week. Let us pray: “Lord, teach us to not simply say who you are, but transform our hearts and minds so deeply that our lives and choices show what that means to us and in us and through us. We ask this in the Name of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God: our Savior, our hope, and our life. Amen.