August 27, 2023
Exodus 1.8 – 2.10. Israel’s oppression in Egypt, and the birth of Moses. As usual, though it seems bleak, God has a plan for the people’s salvation.
Psalm 124. God’s saving power has helped us escape doom.
Romans 12.1-8. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by a new way of thinking, and giving your whole lives to God. The church is a body, each part of which has different gifts.
Matthew 16.13-20. Jesus asks “Who do you say I am? . Peter says he is the Messiah. Jesus says Peter is the “rock” on which the church will be founded. (“Peter” translates as “Rocky.”)
The reality of slavery. Israel’s slavery in Egypt parallels black slavery in America in two ways. It was economic, using slave labor for the profit of the enslavers. It was also social, perpetuating a racial divide. The Egyptians’ ruthlessness and making the Hebrews’ lives bitter had no economic advantage. It was part of the self-perpetuating cycle of treating a racial group as inferior to exploit them, and exploiting them to normalize treating them poorly. The oppression escalates to genocide. In modern America we don’t throw the boys into the Nile, we throw them into prison. Works the same.
As is true so often, the way to freedom was led by uppity women—Shiprah and Puah, Hebrew midwives. But they are not armed rebels; their revolt is purely life-giving. Who are the uppity women of our day who rebel against oppression on behalf of the oppressed, who bring new life into the world despite the pressures and dangers of oppressive systems? Who are the midwives, enabling creativity and empowering life-giving relationships?
Moses in the basket reminds us of baptism. (This is among so many stories of people being saved by or on the water!) We are infants, set afloat on God’s grace. We are given life by people and compassion beyond our control, beyond our knowing. Sometimes when we feel abandoned, floating alone on a great river of mystery and danger, we need to trust someone is watching the basket.
“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Obviously not some physical sacrificial ritual, but giving your whole life to God. All your heart, and soul, and strength and mind. It’s easy to think your faith is in your head, while your body can go off and do whatever it wants to do. But your faith is in your whole being—what you say, what you eat, how you get around town, all of it. Christians tend to be pretty disembodied. How does your body worship God?
“Do not be conformed, but transformed.” There’s a bumper sticker for you. When Paul says “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” I don’t think he means just changing your mind—like forming a different opinion. I think he means a new consciousness, a new way of being aware of God in the world. A new lens through which we see everything, the lens of God’s grace, the awareness that we’re all part of Christ’s body. It’s a way of thinking not tied to the world’s values, not bound by the world’s rational, dualistic, cause-and-effect thinking, but a consciousness that’s rooted in gratitude and mystery and trust. It’s through that lens, that transformed consciousness, that we can discern what is “good and acceptable and perfect.”
Our non-conformity may be as quiet as holding an unpopular opinion or as bold as civil disobedience, like the Hebrew midwives’s non-compliance with a royal edict. But the point is not to be odd; it’s to be changed. Conforming to the strictures of a church culture can be just as soul-crushing as conforming to anything else. The life of the spirit is not so much a life of “having faith” as continually growing in faith. It’s not about having at all together, but about the continual work of letting God re-shape us over and over, day by day, moment by moment.
But this isn’t just an excuse to be different. We need to be clear about what we’re not conforming to, and how we’re being transformed. For example some people say churches that promote the rights of LGBTQ people are “conforming to social pressures.” Sounds pious, but it’s bass ackwards. Upholding the dignity and the rights of people who have been historically oppressed is pushing against social pressures, and conforming to Jesus’ ethic of radical compassion and respect for all. This is why there can be no such thing as Christian nationalism. Nationalism demands conformity. Faith invites transformation through a loyalty to God that is higher than national identity.
“We are members of one another.” Whoa! We so dramatically minimize the amazing, radical, mind-blowing thing Paul is saying. Like Jesus in Jn. 14.20” “I am in God and you are in me and I am in you.” We’re not just all members of the same club. We are all cells of the same living organism, divinely, blessedly inter-being with one another. This is the unity of the Holy Spirit, the oneness of the Body of Christ. What it means to love your neighbor as yourself is not just to love than as much as you love yourself, but to love them because they are yourself, members of you. Everyone else is the rest of you. Love is not just sentiment toward others; it’s awareness that we’re not really all that “other.”
“We have gifts that differ…” Each of us has different gifts by which the Spirit lives and loves in us. As in 1 Cor. 12 and other places, Paul mentions some. But there’s no “list.” There are as many spiritual gifts as there are people. Prophecy and exhortation are spiritual gifts— but so are listening, appreciating beauty, patience in hardship, trust and a sense of humor. There was a kid with Downs syndrome in a pre-school who had the spiritual gift of shining. I don’t know what else to call it.
Two different questions. “Who do others say I am?” That includes rumor, gossip, and speculation. It also includes doctrine and all the teachings of the church. That Jesus is “the Son of God” or a savior or anything else—even Peter’s “right answer” that Jesus is the Messiah—that’s what other people say. Jesus asks the second, very different question. “Who do you say I am?” Who is Jesus to you? Preach on that. How do you experience Jesus? What’s your relationship like? How does Jesus enter into your life, your awareness? What’s he like for you? Jesus is great enough that we experience him in many, many different ways, even seemingly contradictory. (Sometimes Jesus is a teacher and sometimes he’s just silent. Sometimes he knows it all and sometimes he shares my not knowing. Jesus laughs at my foibles—but he never laughs at me. He asks hard questions. He’s a trickster. He holds me when I’m disgusting. He believes in me when I’m a failure. He’s a mirror, and also an icon. He shows me what God is like, and also what I can be like. He carries me in his heart. He gets a kick out of me. He wants me to take all of his love, drain him dry, and spill it out into the world.) OK, that is a little tiny bit of who Jesus is to me. How about you?
“Whatever you bind on earth…” I don’t think Jesus is giving Peter power to set divine policies. I think what he means is what you “bind,” that is, your commitments, and what you forgive, that is, what you “loose,” have consequences that go beyond you—that extend out infinitely. A life of commitment and forgiveness has power.
He sternly ordered them not to to say he was the Messiah—for at least three reasons. Partly because in that charged atmosphere of political repression, if Pilate or Herod heard that it could get him killed. Sure enough, he was right about that. And maybe partly because in their context “Messiah” meant “liberating warrior,” and that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind. But they wouldn’t know that until after the cross and resurrection.
Also—maybe Jesus wanted people to answer his question for themselves, who Jesus was for them, rather than just conform their ideas to what the disciples said about him. (Do not be conformed, but be transformed….) Even Peter’s “right” answer could be wrong. In fact in the very next moment (Mt. 16.21-23) Jesus says he’ll be crucified and rise again, Peter says “God forbid!” and Jesus says “Get out of my way, you satan.” The name Peter means “Rocky,” as in “On this rock the church is built.” But when we become attached to our “right” answers Petros becomes Petrified and we’re unable to move, unable to accept new realities, unable to be transformed. Jesus discourages labels or titles for himself. Let people come to it on their own.
Call to Worship
Leader: God, you are the Mystery of Love.
All: Wonder! Praise!
Christ, you are the Light of Love.
Spirit, you are the Energy of Love.
Fill us, that we may fall in love.
Leader: Creator God, you have made us in your image.
All: Your living image in us speaks back to you with praise and longing.
You have rescued us from slavery and set us free.
In our freedom and gratitude we turn to you.
Christ, you offer God’s presence; you open a way to God.
And so we draw near. We bring ourselves into your Presence.
Holy Spirit, you live in us. You breathe in us. You worship in us.
Alleluia! Holy Spirit by your power alone we worship!
Stir up your wonder, and transform us by your grace. Alleluia!
Leader: Like a baby in a basket on a river,
we sometimes feel adrift amid danger and mystery.
All: But God, you are watching over us.
Sometimes we feel attracted to Jesus but we don’t truly know who he is.
But Jesus, you reveal yourself to us.
Sometimes we feel constrained by the world’s demands and expectations.
But Holy Spirit, you open our minds to new ways of thinking.
So we worship you, and invite you by your grace
to transform us as your people. Amen.
Collect / Prayer of the Day
Eternal God, you sent Christ as your living Word, your healing Touch, your abiding Presence. We listen now to your Word; we wait for your touch; we open our hearts, so that by Christ’s spirit in us we also may be your living presence in this world. Amen.
God of love, we follow Jesus, and yet we are not always sure who he is. Open our hearts to listen and come to know him more deeply, to know his presence and be known, and so to draw nearer to you. By your grace we listen for your Living Word. Amen.
Gracious God, we confess that we too readily conform to the ways of this world, ways that are not your way. Renew our mindfulness of your grace, our attentiveness to your way, so that we might be transformed into your image by your grace, from one degree of glory to another. By the grace of Christ, bless us, that we may hear with glad hearts what you are saying to us today. Amen.
Eternal God, you are beyond all time and space, beyond our knowing or naming. Yet you speak to us, reveal yourself to us, and draw us into life by your Spirit. Embrace us in our worship, that we may hear your voice, listen to your words, and be transformed by your presence. We pray in the name and Spirit of Christ. Amen.
Gracious God, we are aware this morning of those in our world who suffer. They are with us as we come into your presence. Bless us that in our worship we may be transformed to be of service to them, and to all who seek peace, hope or healing. As the scriptures are read and your good news proclaimed, help us to hear with glad hearts what you are saying to us today. Amen.
(suitable as a Collect, preparation for hearing scriptures, or invitation to prayer)
God, I am a baby floating in a basket,
and you are the river.
You are the one watching over me.
You are the mother who will claim me.
You are the basket.
I rest in you.
Prayer of Confession
Loving God, we confess that we can live only by your grace,
and that we desire to live only by your ways.
But we have forgotten your Presence
and wandered from your ways.
In the mercy that Christ has shown us,
forgive us, restore us,
and return us to your life-giving Presence,
that we may live by your grace alone.
Response / Creed / Affirmation
We trust in God, creator of all that is, the One who gives us life, judges the forces of oppression and sets us free.
We follow Jesus, the Living Word, the embodiment of God’s love. He taught and healed, he resisted injustice, and he gathered a community who practiced holiness for the sake of the healing of the world. He was crucified, and rose again, and lives among us still, healing, guiding and leading.
We live by the power of the Holy Spirit as Christ’s Body, the church, in communion with all the saints; trusting in the power of forgiveness, the grace of resurrection, and the infinite, holy, God-given Life that is at the heart of all things. We devote ourselves to the lives to which Jesus calls us: lives of love, healing, courage, justice and joy, in the name of Christ and the energy of the Holy Spirit. For this we ask God’s blessing and give thanks for God’s grace. Alleluia!
Prayer of Dedication / Sending / after Communion
[Adapt as needed.]
Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) In thanks, we give you our gifts as symbols of our lives. Receive them with love, bless them with grace and use them according to your will. Send us, blessed, led and accompanied by Jesus, out into the world to bear his presence to all people, to be Christ for the sake of the healing of the world, in the power of your Spirit. Amen.