Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Scripture for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Our readings today invite us to consider the theme of power. Our collect of the day prays that the Church may show God’s power among all peoples. The Book of Exodus gives us a snapshot of the Egyptian pharaoh wringing his royal hands over the increasing power of an ethnic minority in his kingdom, the Hebrews. St. Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, urges a religion of transformation. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, gives to his Church the keys of the kingdom of heaven, a transfer of power that Christians continue to cite as being the font of the Church’s authority on earth.

Let’s take each of these, more or less in turn. The prayer that Christians, “being gathered together in unity by (the) Holy Spirit, may show forth (God’s) power among all peoples, to the glory of (God’s) Name,” expects a lot, doesn’t it? Sure doesn’t sound like a religion of navel-gazing… or a faith that fears rocking the boat… or an other-worldly spirituality.

Or, to use St. Paul’s language, a Christianity of conformity. “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect…” and then do it, urges Paul. That doing is apostolic Christianity.

And when Jesus passes into Peter’s hands the power, the authority, represented by the keys of the kingdom of heaven, you might see those keys as throwing-open any and every wall, obstacle, roadblock, and previously-imagined locked door between God and the human heart. It is all about mercy and forgiveness to loose people from paralyzing blame and crippling guilt and relentless futility and defeating self-absorption. It is all about binding people to a yet more excellent way that rejects violence, recognizes God in the alien and the stranger, practices generosity, and cheerfully acts on the impulse of compassion and insistence upon justice. Such strong stuff is the rock on which Jesus builds his Church.

Christianity may tell its own story as if Jesus invented his Church as sheer innovation. Not so. There was already a church, if by that you understand church to be the gathered people of God, gathered by God’s call, imbued with God’s gifts, summoned to do God’s work in the world. The established church that Jesus knew in the early decades of the first century was Judaism, the temple, the law and the prophets.

That church was founded upon the power of God. The Hebrew Bible attests to that, and today’s passage from Exodus makes that point. The pharaoh fears the growing power of the Hebrew community, but he hasn’t got a clue what power he’s dealing with. That hidden power is suggested in the verse, “But the more (the Hebrew people) were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread…”

And when the author of Exodus tells the sweet but near-tragic story of Moses in the bulrushes, the theme of God’s deep power is sounded in the innocent words of Pharoah’s daughter, who named that swaddled baby Moses because, she said, “I drew him out of the water,” playing with the meaning of his name—a royal Egyptian name co-opted by the Exodus author to remind every subsequent Jewish reader and hearer of this story—and every Christian reader and hearer, let’s add—to understand the name to mean, in its Hebrew form, “God has drawn us out of mighty waters.” Deliverance, rescue, salvation—the power of God at work to safeguard the vulnerable, lift up the lowly, transform falling into rising—this is what the rescue of little Moses anticipates, a greater deliverance that will be worked through the God-given power of Moses. And lest all this be lost on any hearers, this story happens on the banks of a river, and at a similar spot, the Red Sea as we like to call it, though the literal Hebrew is Sea of Reeds, Sea of Bulrushes, where mighty Moses will lead Israel through the parted waters to a promised land, the finest of Pharoah’s army in hot but futile pursuit, for their power is as nothing compared to the power of God.

Upon that foundation, the church Israel was built. Yet, by the time it came to Jesus’s generation, the might of God’s power had been fossilized, institutionalized, supplanted, by the mighty temple, the powerful priesthood, the demanding law, the domesticated prophets—much as the church Jesus built upon the rock of trusting faith and counter-cultural courage gets reduced, over and again, to the ecclesiastical politics that keeps dividing the Body of Christ, the edifice complex that keeps dominating church agendas, and lovely liturgies that have more to do with conformity than with transformity. (That’s not a word, I know-- but it ought to be.)

It will help us reclaim and show forth the power the world needs if we recognize that there is one God doing the building of one gathered humanity, one God endowing all life with the right gifts needed for binding and loosing, one God summoning us out of our locked enclaves, paralyzed governments, and close-minded sects, one God rattling the keys to remind us that he has placed them in our hands.

Last Sunday, our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, called for prayer to be offered in all our parishes for the people of Iraq and Syria. She recommended the use of a prayer that we used then, and shall today, right after communion.

That is an appropriate moment because the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood unites us to the church in Iraq, whose ancient city Nineveh figures in the Hebrew Bible, and whose ancient city Mosul is the site of a monastery dating back to the 4th century. Before the Second Gulf War, one million Christians lived in Iraq. That number dropped to one hundred thousand by the time of this year’s Islamic State insurgency, and most of that number are now among the internally displaced people of Iraq, fleeing the Islamic State’s vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing. Caught in the same exodus fleeing from execution are the uncounted but likely greater number of Yazidis, a reclusive religious minority, and another religious minority, the Shi’ite Muslim Terkmen. Our communion today summons our compassion equally for all of them, and for all the 2.7 million displaced Iraqis and the 2.5 million Syrians who have fled the violent chaos there.

Episcopal Relief and Development has feet on the ground in Iraq, through the Episcopal Diocese of Cyprus and the Persian Gulf. Today we open Raile’s Bowl to collect donations for humanitarian relief for the people of Iraq and Syria. Your gift will be matched from the parish’s mission funds.

We may feel powerless in the face of sheer malignant genocide conducted in the name of religion. In its long and checkered history, the Christian church has stood accused and guilty of wielding such abusive power. Our scriptures hold our feet and our hearts to the fire of the divine power that gathers us, binds us to justice and compassion, looses us to freely use the gifts God has planted in us, and summons us to welcome and embody the transforming love of God in Jesus Christ.