Proper 16, Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 21, 2011
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Exodus 1:8-2:10||Psalm 124||Romans 12:1-8||Matthew 16:13-20|
By Bruce G. Epperly
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Following Jesus involves a constant process of creative transformation. This is the heart of today’s epistle reading. “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.” Followers of Jesus take a different path than the society in which they live. “This world” focuses on consumption, power, privilege, and competition. The god of this world – created in the image of Caesar – rules by coercion and destruction. In contrast, those who practice creative transformation live in accordance with the values of relationship, generosity, sacrifice, and mutuality. The god of creative transformation rules by inspiration, empowerment, and invitation.
Openness to God awakens us to a continuous renewal. Death and resurrection are the nature of Christian life, and the primary form of death involves sacrificing the isolated individualistic self to be part of the dynamic, interdependent body of Christ. Within the body of Christ, each part is unique and interrelated. Each part has its own gift for the well-being of the whole as well as its own flourishing.
The passage from Matthew’s gospel suggests that Christology is personal as well as global. When Jesus asks Peter “Who do people say that I am?” Peter initially invokes others’ understandings of the Christ. Jesus turns tables on Peter, asking him, “Who do you say that I am?” In recognizing Jesus as the Christ, Peter’s life is transformed – he gains stature and substance. He becomes a rock of creative transformation upon which Jesus will build his church.
Yet, Peter still doesn’t fully understand the pathway he will be taking. When Jesus asserts that the way of the cross is God’s way in the world, Peter challenges Jesus. Suffering is antithetical to Peter’s concept of power and salvation. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaims, only as suffering God can save. Salvation comes through embracing the totality of life, celebration, growth, suffering, death, and hoped for resurrection. Christology is never abstract; it is a lived experience of following Christ and embracing the challenges, sacrifices, and joys of discipleship.
Even God must suffer in God’s quest for beauty, justice, and healing.
The Exodus reading sets the stage for the liberation of the children of Israel and the story of Moses, their political and spiritual leader. The narrative could be lifted from the current tensions of the United States and many other nations. How shall we respond to the growing impact, numerically and economically of immigrants?
The Israelites are beginning to upset the balance of Egyptian society and something must be done. They play too an important a role to be expelled. Yet, they their impact threatens the status quo. The Egyptian leadership begins to practice draconian methods of population control in response – every new born male is to be drowned in the Nile.
Providence intervenes. Moses’ mother places her newborn in a papyrus basket and sends him down the Nile, hoping he will be adopted. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the infant, falls in love with him, and asks an Israelite woman, in fact, Moses’ mother, to be his midwife. The Israelite child becomes a member of Pharaoh’s family.
Could God have been at work in Moses’ survival? That is surely the intent of the passage – to describe Moses’ call to leadership from infancy. While I have no doubt that God is at work in every infant’s life, the nature of God’s providence is often inscrutable and problematic. Did God neglect the other male babies? Did God choose to lift God’s protective covering from them, allowing them to drown in the Nile? Didn’t their cries matter to God, too? These are tough questions that incline me to favor a gentle and persuasive rather than coercive and all-determining form of providence. God moves through every life, but the unfolding of each life is a matter of divine intentionality, personal decision, the decisions of others, and pure accident.
Looking back on his history, Moses – like Joseph – could see a pathway of providence that spared his life so that he might do great things for his people. Both could affirm: “God was in my life, influencing it toward the good.” But, this affirmation cannot be at the expense of the well-being of other children and adults. Providence is global and sometimes successful. God’s seeds of providence fall everywhere, and some grow to be great trees. Others are trampled, devoured by birds, or fail to grow due to neglect or personal choice. Still, divine providence persists in seeking justice and well-being for all creation.
In this spirit, Psalm 124 can exclaim that God is on our side, the ultimate source of help and deliverance in trying times. This is an affirmation of faith, an existential act of praise. But, our praise must be grounded in the delicate theological balance – 1) God moves uniquely and intimately in the world; God’s presence is variable in intensity and focus and 2) God cares for all creation, both oppressor and oppressed. Surely, God loved the Israelite infants that perished, just as God loved the first born Egyptian males who died during the first Passover. Anything other than this viewpoint leads to imperialism, violence, and the objectification of those whom we believe God has forsaken, whether wealthy or poor.
Our theologies must always be subject to creative transformation and renewal. We must guard against using our theology to undergird the coercive, isolationist, and violent ways of the world. We need transformed minds and changed hearts to be awaken to God’s vision for the body of Christ, incarnate in the church but also in the ambient world.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, writer, pastor, and spiritual guide. He is the author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed; Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for a Postmodern Age. He may be reached for conversation, lectures, retreats, seminars, and media appearances at email@example.com.