The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17), September 3, 2023

August 1, 2023 | by Paul Nancarrow

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 3:1-15 Psalm 105:1-6,23-26,45c Romans 12:9-21 Matthew 16:21-28

All of these readings turn on some element of looking at an earthly situation, bringing in a wider, more divine perspective, and then acting in that present situation from that larger perspective. Moses, Jeremiah, the Christians in Rome, and Peter must all learn to see themselves as elements in a pattern more expansive than they know, and then do the work before them in the light of that pattern.

Moses is called by God to go to Pharaoh to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, and Moses judges, quite rightly, that this task is far beyond his abilities. Moses is in exile, living under the protection of his father-in-law Jethro in the land of Midian, having fled Egypt after striking and killing a taskmaster, and being rejected by his own people when trying to mediate a dispute between them. He has been away from Egypt for some time, has married, has had sons, and appears to be comfortable enough with is life in exile – but it is still exile, and Moses has allowed his apprehension of his world to shrink to a very small circle of concern.

This changes as Moses leads the sheep and goats “beyond the wilderness” to Horeb, where God calls to him from a bush that is radiant with energy but is not being destroyed. Moses shows enough curiosity to be drawn to this phenomenon; being curious about a physical object that manifests more-than-physical energy prefigures how he will have come to terms with seeing himself as a human who will manifest more-than-human activity.

God speaks to Moses from the bush, summarizing the suffering of the Israelites in their slavery, and announcing the divine intention to liberate them and lead them to “a good and broad land” where they will be able to create social and interpersonal relationships that will embody more fully God’s aims for justice and peace. God names Moses himself as the agent who will bring about that liberation.

Moses immediately tries to get out of the job. He points out, accurately, that he has no standing, no social position, no military might, no political clout, that would put him on a par with Pharaoh to demand the Israelites’ release. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” he asks, to which God answers, in effect, “You are the person that I will be with.” Moses’ standing before Pharaoh is to have nothing to do with Moses’ own condition or circumstance in himself, but entirely on the divine presence with and through him. He must learn to regard himself and his actions within a larger, divine frame of reference.

Moses demurs a second time. Perhaps God will give him standing with Pharaoh, but will he have standing with the Israelites? If he comes to them and announces that God has sent him to set them free, how likely are they to believe that? “What god?” they’ll say. “Tell us this god’s name,” they’ll say. So God gives Moses a Name that he can say to them. The Name appears to be a variant on the verb “to be” – scholars who know Hebrew far better than I point out that YHWH is not exactly translatable as “I am who I am” or “I AM”; and they debate about the construction of this Name and what meaning we can really draw from it.

For the purposes of this narrative, I think it is enough to recognize that the Name is an assurance of agency: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” or “I am the one who causes all to be” or all other variations of ehyeh asher ehyeh all point to the singular ability of this speaking God to make things happen in the world. The Name is an assurance that this is the One who introduces initial aims into worldly processes, who takes up completed moments of becoming in this One’s ultimate appreciation, who weaves new possibilities out of accomplished facts, and who guides ongoing processes into dynamic relationships of multifaceted flourishing. This Name points to what Whitehead calls “the Adventure of the Universe as One,” the coordination of all worldly streams of influence into a whole of intensity and harmony and beauty.

Where there is suffering and oppression among the Israelites, this Name points to the Agency that will coordinate their moments of action into liberation and justice. Where Moses feels self-doubt and inadequacy before the task given him, this Name points to the Agency that will be with him, that will take up his actions, inadequate as they surely are, and will weave them into a larger pattern that makes for freedom and right-relationship. Knowing this Name, knowing now that this God will be with him and will take up his actions into an Agency greater than his own, Moses must learn to regard himself and his mission within a larger, divine frame of reference.

Much the same reassessment of self-regard is required of Jeremiah in the alternate first reading, the Hebrew Scriptures reading chosen to echo themes in the Gospel of the day. Jeremiah is lamenting the impossibility of the prophetic task that God has given him. “Your words were found, and I ate them,” Jeremiah says to God, using a very visceral metaphor for internalizing God’s ideals of justice and right-relationship and incorporating them into his own sense of self. This closeness to God’s relational aims is for Jeremiah “a joy” and “the delight of my heart.” But it has also set him apart from the people, those who do not share a commitment to right-relationship and reciprocal well-being, the “wicked” and the “ruthless”; and that apartness has been to Jeremiah a “weight” and “indignation” and “pain unceasing” and a “wound incurable.” So impossible is Jeremiah’s task to bring the joy of God’s word to people who resist it at every turn, that he feels even God is “like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”

But God calls Jeremiah to widen his perspective, to consider not simply the difficulty of his own present position, but also the creative activity of God, also the Adventure of the Universe as One. God assures Jeremiah of divine presence: “I am with you, to save you and deliver you,” not as “waters that fail,” but as an ongoing and constantly renewing energy of proclamation. If Jeremiah will raise his view to this wider horizon, this larger frame of reference, then he will be empowered to “utter what is precious, and not what is worthless,” and that utterance will carry power not only to make Jeremiah “a fortified wall of bronze” in perseverance, but also to connect with hardened hearts, so that it will be the people who “will turn to you, not you who will turn to them.” Jeremiah’s efforts, his preaching and proclaiming, will be taken up into God’s ongoing weaving of the world-process, and out of God’s appropriation of Jeremiah’s moments will come new possibilities and new aims to move the people toward right-relationship and justice. It is only in learning to see his own work in the larger context of that ongoing divine activity that Jeremiah will be able to go on.

The Christians in Rome do not face quite the same sort of uphill battle given to Moses or Jeremiah. Paul’s moral teaching here is not about tactics for facing oppression and injustice head-on, but takes the form of short, memorable aphorisms and immediate tasks for embodying ideals of right-relationship in the momentary actions of their daily lives. Someone trying to live faithfully in the Way of Jesus can look at the activities of life – friendships, commercial transactions, political alignments, choices of words in conversation, all the stuff of living – and ask if they are aimed at genuine love, at mutual affection, at honor and respect for others, at hope, at hospitality, at blessing, and living in harmony, at living peaceably with all. These ideals shape the individual concrete actions that add up into a personality, a community, a society.

But the community of Christians that strives to embody these qualities in actions does not live in a vacuum. They are striving to live the Way, but they are not perfect; unlove, disrespect, self-centeredness, disharmony, conflict can all arise in their own hearts and in their relationships. And they are embedded in a larger social environment of Roman society that does not share all these values – some, perhaps, but not all – and their aim to live peaceably does not depend entirely on them. Many of their efforts to live peaceably and justly will seem to go nowhere, thwarted by failure within and without, very small drops of right-relationship in a very large ocean of indifference and oppression and violence.

So Paul reminds them that their love and zeal and prayer and hospitality are not limited to them alone, not limited to the horizon they can typically see, but are taken up into God and woven into streams of influence that come back into the world from God as aims for greater peace and greater well-being than they can know. What they do, they do to “serve the Lord,” and it is only in realizing how such service is taken up, appreciated, and re-applied in the Adventure of the Universe as One that its true value can be known. When they feed and give drink to their “enemies,” they “heap burning coals” against them – not because they are actively seeking vengeance, but because their good acts are taken up into the Adventure, and are woven into creating new conditions where “enemies” will no longer be able to continue in their enmity. They must “overcome evil with good” not through violent conflict, but by allowing their good to enter into the stream of the world-process superintended by God, to change for the better the condition of the possibilities of the world.

It is that same purpose Jesus will serve in his death and resurrection. In this Gospel passage, Jesus makes to his disciples his first prediction of his Passion – and he does this immediately after asking the disciples who they believe him to be, and Peter’s confession that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah. Having just declared this belief, and possibly motivated by an expectation that the Messiah is to be a military leader and a supernaturally immortal king, Peter does not want to hear that it is Jesus’ intention to go to Jerusalem and be crucified. He does not appear to hear the part about “on the third day be raised.” All Peter can grasp is the apparent worldly consequence of Jesus’ prediction – that he will be lost to them and to the cause – and it is out of his own faith in God’s purposes (as he understands them) that he blurts out, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But Jesus sees this Passion within a wider frame of reference. For Jesus, the promise of the third day is what gives meaning and purpose to the suffering of rejection and death that he knows is coming. For Jesus, it is only by allowing himself to be taken up into God, and from God reintroduced as a stream of influence for new life in the world, that the full value of his mission in the world can be realized. Peter “stumbles” at this, because, at the moment, he cannot see that wider frame of reference: he is “setting his mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter, as indeed everyone who wants to follow Jesus, must therefore learn to regard themselves within this larger, divine frame of reference. “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus says, and it is important to remember that the original word here is psyche, which means in Greek not only biological bodily life, but also soul, self, the center of one’s own sense of personhood. In this sense, trying to “save their life” means not only trying to escape bodily death, but also – and perhaps more importantly – trying to hold on to present self-image, trying to secure one’s singular identity, trying to control who and how and what one will be in the world. Such attempts at security and control are inevitably self-defeating, though, as new experiences, new possibilities, new relationships, new challenges, and new accomplishments necessarily bring broader realizations of the meaning of the world and the meaning of the self in the world. Engaging the new possibilities that come into life from God, being taken up into the Adventure of the Universe as One and receiving influences for greater relationships and more genuine love, requires letting go of the present self. “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus promises.

“Denying self” and “taking up their cross” to follow Jesus, in this sense, is less a call to actual martyrdom than it is a constant commitment to regard oneself within the wider sphere of God’s aims and ideals in the world, and to strive to embody those aims and ideals in one’s own actions, and to trust that those actions will be taken up into God, into the Adventure of the Universe as One, so that God may weave them into new possibilities and new influences to advance the creation of justice and peace and love.

Followers of Jesus today, whether they are confronting oppression like Moses, or proclaiming the joy of God over against the injustices of present society like Jeremiah, or striving to live peaceably with all like the Christians in Rome, or even trying to recognize who Jesus is like Peter – followers of Jesus today are still called to regard themselves with respect to the “divine things” of God’s Adventure in the world. Our own present efforts to stem gun violence, to reach carbon net zero and practice better Creation care, to make poverty history, to offer truly universal healthcare, to achieve real social equity, and more, may often feel impossible, insurmountable, ineffective in social systems so warped and polarized as ours. That is why it is important for us to remember that we do not do these things in a vacuum, but we respond to aims from God, and we offer our actions to be taken up into God, made whole in God, and released from God to be new influences in the world in ways far beyond what we can presently know. It is from this wider perspective that we can continue to work, and always to “rejoice in hope.”

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest, whose theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of spirituality and liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Midwest.