Monday, August 22, 2011

Who Do We Think We Are?

Scripture for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

This has been a summer of stories from the Hebrew Bible. If you like the romp we’ve taken through the Book of Genesis, you can give the credit to the new table of readings adopted by the Episcopal Church, the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical system intended to increase the likelihood that many Christian denominations are hearing more or less the same portions of scripture today, and to increase the number of scriptural options the local congregation gets to hear.

So, if you don’t like the increased exposure to ancient patriarchal stories that tend to beat the one drum of how the chosen people Israel came to be, then you can blame that on the Revised Common Lectionary. I could be braver about that, and admit that from that lectionary’s options I’ve made the choice this summer to expose you to readings of Torah rather than more customary portions from the prophets.

And I’m sticking to Torah as we ride today from the first of the five so-called Books of Moses, Genesis, to the second, Exodus. We fled like refugees with Jacob from Canaan to Ur of the Chaldees then migrated with him and his abundant new family back again to Canaan. We followed Joseph into slavery in Egypt, watching him rise to royal rank as deputy to Pharoah, and in time be reunited with his squabbling vindictive brothers and their aged father Jacob, whose name was also Israel.

Jacob and Joseph cycles done, today we enter the cycle of Moses stories. They start at a time when “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” The extended family of Israel in Egypt had multiplied like loaves and fishes (you thought I was going to say rabbits), to a point where Pharoah felt threatened by the rising number of resident aliens in his land. He depended on their manual labor—they were the field workers, brick-makers, pyramid-builders, and nannies helping to hold Egyptian society together (does this sound familiar?). But Pharoah worried that Hebrew loyalty might not be counted on. I wonder if he knew how astute an observation that was theologically, for their loyalty was invested in their God, not in their Pharoah.

So he summoned his advisors to develop oppressive policies. I imagine the Pharoah’s police were authorized to demand a photo ID whenever they encountered someone they thought might be one of them. It doesn’t sound as if Pharoah’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents deported Hebrews back to Canaan: Pharoah had no intention of losing slave labor. But they surely made it hard for the Hebrew people to have a life. In fact, Pharoah ordered the termination of health care for resident aliens: the Hebrew midwives were ordered to kill all male children born to the daughters of Israel.

Loyalty is exactly what those Hebrew midwives showed! They let those boy babies live, claiming to the authorities that Hebrew women were so vigorous that they gave birth before a midwife could arrive. And because they honored God, we’re told, God gave those midwives families (I wonder if those bold ladies whom even Pharoah couldn’t mess with didn’t create nursery shelters to keep those little boys alive).

Thus enters Moses. The man who will one day part the waters of the Red Sea to free his people enters their bondage borne upon the waters of the Nile. As the story of Joseph required his being lifted from the well where his brothers had dumped him and then sold him into slavery, so the story of Moses has him escape slavery by being lifted from the Nile, and by royal hands. You can see that Moses has a rather enchanted story, sung over many centuries to extol both the goodness of God and the superiority of the Hebrew people who could outmaneuver Pharoah’s repressive ways.

That the first five books of the Bible are known as the Books of Moses tells us how important this baby boy would be. Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace laureate and interpreter of Judaism, describes Moses in ways that resemble how Christians may see Jesus: “Moses, the most solitary and most powerful hero in Biblical history… Moses, the man who changed the course of history all by himself… After him, nothing was the same again… His passion for social justice, his struggle for national liberation, his triumphs and disappointments… his requirements and promises, his condemnations and blessings, his bursts of anger, his silences, his efforts to reconcile the law with compassion, authority with integrity—no individual, ever, anywhere, accomplished so much for so many people in so many different domains.”

And yet, of all the patriarchal figures we’re meeting this summer, Moses is the one who least needs to hear St. Paul’s warning “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…” He is shown constantly questioning his own qualifications, retreating from center stage because he doesn’t speak well in public, is subject to abrupt changes in mood, doesn’t always play well with others. “And yet. Were it not for him, Israel would have remained a tribe of slaves. Living in the darkness of fear…” says Wiesel.

“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus today. Moses asked a similar question of God, with each seemingly impossible demand God made of him in that long struggle to deliver Israel from Egypt. He asked it also of his countrymen, as they expected the impossible of him, while shamelessly rejecting his authority and tempting him to despair.

“Who do people say I am?” asks Jesus. Students of Matthew’s Gospel might say, “You are the new Moses,” for Matthew draws so many parallels between the two men that you can hardly miss his point.

Both Moses and Jesus are known through the gifts of God’s Spirit emanating from them, freeing the people around them, blessing the world through them.

Guess what? The same is true of you. Paul teaches us that today: “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…”

Who do we think we are?

Who does God believe we are?

As Christians, we answer those questions from out of our spiritual practice. Our praying, our worshiping, our life in community, our stewardship of resources, our outreach and mission, our reading and study (especially of scripture) teach us who we are: on a good day, gift-bearers, Spirit-emanators, liberators, blessers. And on many a day, unqualified to lead, unaware of what God is doing around us, more conformed to the values of the world than transformed by renewal, sometimes just about able to get up, show up, and cope. We know Moses had those days. Jesus must have, too.

But such lean days are within our spiritual practice. Learning from our summer patriarchs, the very name Israel means “the one who struggles with God and prevails” (though not in any hurry). And, we could add, struggles with faith, with hope, with love. Hand in hand, our summer Gospels have revealed the Christ who is with us not only on good days, but throughout stormy ones as well.

Who do we think we are? Who does God believe we are?

Gift-bearers in a culture of scarcity. Spirit-emanators in a society splintered by blame and abuse. Liberators in a time when many are in paralyzing bondage to fear, and in repressive reaction to fear. Blessers in an apathetic world.

Some days more than others, we know who we are and we do what God’s grace and gifts enable us to do. Each day, our spiritual practice reminds us whose we are, and draws our attention off ourselves and onto movements of grace and gifts within the one body of Christ in which we are members one of another.

All this knowing and doing and reminding and drawing and belonging are gifts and signs of Jesus Christ and we have them entirely because of who he is and what he does in all who recognize him, all who trust him.

(For Elie Wiesel on Moses, see his "Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends", Summit Books, 1976. Quoted material is from pp. 181-183.)