A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
on 2023.0903.Pr 17.A.Going Deeper
Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Relationship: It is one of the main things that I preach about and teach, and being in relationship with you is what I try my best to practice. This is so because at every level of reality, from the sub-atomic to the cosmic, from the divine to the human, the unavoidable truth is that we are connected. We are not single cell amoebas. Our lives are irrevocably intertwined. Consequently, these connections – some visible and many others invisible – bring both blessings and curses to us.
The blessing is that being in relationships with one another affords us the opportunity to grow and to develop beyond our single selves. Call it “pollination” on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. Paying attention to more than ourselves, tending to what is between us, and honoring the dignity of that connection is what produces life in its most creative, enduring, and -- “blessed” -- aspects. Again, think “pollination”.
Yet, this blessing can also be a curse in that being connected in relationships also involves being vulnerable. Being connected, being in relationships also means that what can and does bring new life can flip into that which hurts and threaten us. Call it intimacy. We need the closeness, but this closeness can also foster what we fear and avoid the most. Think of Covid 19 and how through our close connections it produced isolation, sickness, and death.
Relationship: Blessing and Curse. Which is it? More to the point, what is our role in determining whether our relationships are blessings or curses? More specifically, what does this all have to do with our relationship with God and with one another?
This issue of relationship and how we respond to its reality – both in terms of its blessings and its curses – threads its way through this day’s scripture lessons; and I would like to focus on what these lessons convey about what it is like to deal with the double edge sword that is relationship. In particular, I want to concentrate on what is at stake when our relationship with God seems to teeter between blessing and curse. What can we do in such circumstances? My answer is this: Pay attention. Show up. Go deeper.
In this regard, I want to begin with today’s gospel lesson, where once again Peter is the lightning rod that personifies this teetering connection with God and the God-life. You will recall that the gospel story that immediately precedes today’s gospel episode consists of Jesus asking the Twelve who they think he is. As our lay preacher, Paul Davis, clearly mentioned in his sermon last Sunday, geography in the Bible is often theology. In this case, Jesus and the Disciples are in the Caesarea Philippi region, which is the historical seat not only of the pagan god, Pan, but geo-politically it is also the recent seat of the Roman Empire’s dominating regional power. For Jesus to ask his identity question in this setting and context demands attention from all of us. The blessing of knowing God-in-Christ and proclaiming his kingdom runs the curse of being against established religious and political beliefs and law. Which way do we go?
Of course, Peter responds to the Lord’s question with the “correct” answer, to which Jesus awards this confession by declaring that those who take Peter’s answer to heart will not be overcome – no matter what! But as I say, this highlight from two weeks ago now gets dashed today because in response to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus also makes it clear what it will take to live his question with Peter’s answer. Hear another version of today’s gospel, this from the paraphrased example, called The Message [Matthew 16:21-28].
Then Jesus made it clear to his disciples that it was now necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, submit to an ordeal of suffering at the hands of the religious leaders, be killed, and then on the third day be raised up alive. Peter took him in hand, protesting, “Impossible, Master! That can never be!” But Jesus didn’t swerve. “Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works. Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat: I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help; at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?”
As you listen and hear these words of Jesus, do you also sense the teetering in your own soul? Peter’s position is practical, reasonable. But Jesus’ position calls us beyond our worldly experience and personal preferences to another perspective, God’s perspective; and the way we see this divine viewpoint is not to run away but to pay attention, show up, and dare to go deeper with it. In this way, our lives begin to take on a life that is not defined by fear or death. This is the meaning of the cross, a meaning over which most of us teeter, leaning between the cross’s blessing of deliverance and its costliness.
A few weeks ago, I raised the question of what we do when our faith trembles, when we wobble in the face of following Jesus. Once again, the same issue emerges. In a crisis of faith, when life runs contrary to our expectations and desires, when God’s blessings feel more like curses, what do we do? What is our response? What is our default position? Do we bail; or do we have another option? And if we don’t bail, what is the other option? Today’s lessons illustrate that option: An option to pay attention, show up, and go deeper. The example of Moses and the Burning Bush illustrates this second option, which is the option of faith.
What we have heard in the Old Testament reading from Exodus is tantamount to the story of Moses’ conversion, more accurately put as Moses’ “awakening”. As Paul Davis reminded us of last week, the story of Moses is a story of God’s promised presence among us, but it is also a story with twists and turns that often leave us breathless. Specifically, Moses was born into slavery in Egypt at a time when the Pharoah who didn’t know Joseph ruled in fear, to the extent that all male babies were to be killed at their birth: an effort at holocaust to reduce and control the burgeoning Hebrew population. But, again as Paul Davis recalled, God’s story trumped Pharoah’s script, and Moses was not only spared but ironically raised in Pharoah’s own house. But when we meet Moses today, he has been on the lam, having run away from an Egyptian murder indictment to the anonymity of the wilderness. To say that Moses had a lot on his mind at this point is a clear understatement, which makes it all the more remarkable that his life was changed at the “Burning Bush”.
As the text informs us, the former Vice President of Pharoah’s Egypt was tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the Sinai barrens, when (most tellingly and ironically) he arrived at God’s mountain, Mt. Horeb. There, we are told, an “angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush” – a bush that was burning but not being consumed. [Ex.3:2] The narrator continues by telling us that Moses paid attention to this clearly unexpected and possibly unnerving experience, not running away but inquiring, at least from curiosity. “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.” Talking to himself for what reason?
Paying attention and being curious enough to show up is the point where Moses’ life changed. For when Moses showed up and confronted the burning bush, it was then that God spoke to him out of the bush, announced the relationship between the Holy One and this wandering Hebrew refugee and revealed how the Creator of heaven and earth saw Moses as a partner. Standing on what turned out to be holy ground, God called Moses by name (a most intimate experience) and set him to go to a deeper work – an astounding, unimaginable work on behalf of God and God’s people.
The point I am making is that when we feel that God’s call to us is hard to hear, hard to accept, hard to live with, specifically when God calls us to what we see in Jesus (namely, the cross), who among us does not wobble? But rather than run from this relationship and its call to be with God and represent God, we have the option to pay attention, show up, and go deeper.
And it may well be that in our willingness to go deeper into the connection with God in spite of our reticence, we will be in fact exercising a great faith because in paying attention, in showing up, and in a willingness to go deeper into the relationship with God, we join Moses and the Twelve and all the People of God in exploring and discovering what our souls (our deepest life) yearns to possess.
All of which is to say that God-in-Christ gives us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves. In response to paying attention, we are called to show up to say “thank you” for this gift, and then go deeper to share what we have received with those along the way.
And so, we at St. Philip’s dare to pay attention. We struggle at times to show up, but in daring to be present, we help one another to go deeper – deeper into an awareness of what connects us to God and to one another. Call it new life. Amen.