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Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 1:8-2:10 AND Psalm 124:1-8 OR Isaiah 51:1-5 AND Psalm 138:1-8, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

The story line of many movies and novels, and autobiographies, involves the child who doesn’t seem to fit in (or at least feels like he or she doesn’t) who goes on to overcome the odds and make a surprising contribution to the larger world—in politics, art, education, or some other field of endeavor. We recently saw “An Angel at My Table,” the story of Janet Frame, widely acclaimed New Zealand author, who survived a dysfunctional childhood and adult schizophrenia, while producing stunning novels and poetry. The film is adapted from her autobiographical trilogy.

Her life, like much of scripture, reminds us that life is not necessarily about fitting in. When society is oppressive, fitting in is not a virtue. When society tries to fit one into a prefabricated box that denies one’s unique gifts, fitting in is a violation of human dignity.

A central message (the cental message?) of scripture is that God has acted/is acting/will act to liberate us, whether it is from slavery or despair or ridicule or pressure to conform. God’s Spirit empowers us to resist the power of those who deal in death—literally or socially or psychologically.

In this week’s reading from Exodus it is women who do the resisting, who refuse to fit in. The result is that a savior survives, Moses, the central liberator in the Old Testament. The reading begins by noting that history has moved on since Joseph was an esteemed leader in Egypt. A new king has arisen “who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8) How quickly we forget the leaders of the past who have gotten us to this place. We can witness today the shortness of political memory, the inability of new leaders who have arisen to remember how government works when functioning at its best.

In Egypt, the Israelites have now multiplied to the point that the natives of the land are saying, “The Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.” (vs. 9) In the U.S. many feel threatened as various ethnic “minorities” grow in size and power. Such situations sometimes lead to attempts to oppress, to put the “upstarts” in their place. In the case of Egypt, the Israelites become the slave labor to build cities, and probably some of the pyramids. (vss. 10-14) The Egyptians “were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them,” it says in verse fourteen.

Finally, the king of Egypt orders the midwives to kill all Hebrew boys at birth. (vss. 15 -16) Thank God for Shiprah and Puah, and other unnamed midwives who refused to fit in. Count them among the liberators of the Israelites. They “feared God” and “did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.” (vs. 17—see also vss. 18-21)

At that point Pharaoh enlists “all his people” in his hate campaign, urging them to throw every Hebrew boy baby into the Nile. (vs. 22) One newborn makes it to the Nile, but is hidden among the reeds by his mother in a papyrus basket plastered with bitumen and pitch. It is Moses, watched over by his sister, until he is discovered by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh, another woman who refuses to fit in. After the child is nursed by his biological mother, he is taken in as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, becoming a member of the royal household. (Genesis 2:1-10) The one who will lead the Israelites from their bondage has arrived on the scene, one who, while nurtured by royalty, will refuse to fit in. God always finds, raises up, encourages, uses those who refuse to fit in, those who oppose oppressive measures and regimes which demean the human spirit.

Without examining in depth the other readings from the Hebrew scriptures, we can note that each contains some reference to liberation, escape, deliverance. God is on the side of those who overcome forces that would keep them down. “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 124:7-8) “I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.” (Isaiah 51:5) “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away. Though I walk in the midst of troubles, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.” (Psalm 138:7)

In social relationships we are often pressured to “conform” to the way everybody is doing it. The reading from Romans calls us to “not be conformed to his world, but to be transformed.” (Romans 12:2) We are to seek “the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” rather than simply go along with the herd. (vs. 2)

Although I have little in common with the Tea Party, part of me admires their willingness to stand on principle and challenge conventional wisdom. They remind me of a kind of religion I experienced in my childhood. It instilled in me a deep sense of not having to be like everyone else—not having to go along with the crowd. It was all right—even Godly—to be different. Unfortunately, I think at this point, “teapartyism” has become a dogma to which not only the core adherents, but everyone else, is being forced to conform. I don’t see a genuine seeking for what will be good for everyone. It’s more, “We already know the answer and one answer fits all.”

In the second part of the Romans reading we have familiar verses about being one body made up of many gifts. The call is not to conform as if we were all the same. It is to seek out our unique gift and use it. So often society tries to get people to fit into the slots that are available, whether that is where we fit or not. What a radical idea it is to live up to the best of our God-given abilities. We cannot be faithful if we allow ourselves to be forced into acting in ways which deny who we are.

The Gospel lesson seems not to address the issue of liberation/salvation directly. At its core, however, is the recognition of Jesus as “Messiah.” Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is. (Matthew 16:13) Various answers are given: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. (vs. 14) Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” (vs. 16) The Messiah was the long-awaited one who would come and turn things upside down, who would set things right, bringing justice and liberation and salvation. Jesus is the new Moses, the new liberator. Peter has gotten right to the core of biblical truth. We’re not offered details here. We could critique various misunderstandings of “Messiah,” but the Gospel lessons takes us right to the heart of what God is about—shaking things up so that everyone can find his or her rightful place in the scheme of things, rather than fitting into the hierarchy the powers that be try to dictate.

Perhaps the rest of the Gospel reading helps us see what that means. It speaks of Peter as the rock upon which the church will be built. (vss. 18-19) Some suggest that these verses are an addition by the early church to justify a particular understanding of church authority. It has been used to underfird the authority of the papacy, with Peter as the first pope. Those who have opposed this interpretation have most frequently argued that it is not Peter himself but Peter’s faith—as shown in his answer—that provides a foundation for the church. It is faith like this that the church will be and is built upon.

As I was rereading these verses, I saw another possibility. Overall, Peter was a volatile soul, running hot and cold, bursting with enthusiasm and then hiding in the shadows. Peter was a lot like people I know, including myself. However these verses came to be included in Matthew, whatever the original writers intended them to convey, it may be that we can hear Jesus saying, “The church will be built upon ordinary people like Peter. Whatever the church will become, it is up to you” Perhaps it can be read as another call for each one of us to use the gifts we have been given. Only when we do that will the power of God be loosed on earth and in heaven. A church, and a new order, will be built in which fitting in will mean something entirely new, because we will all be liberated to realize the fullness of possibility God’s Spirit has implanted in each one of us.


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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