Rocks and Pillars
Fifteenth after Pentecost - Year A
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Fifteenth after Pentecost - Year A
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Let us pray: May these words and the meditations of all our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O God and may they be to your glory. Amen.
When Jesus engaged in his little “who do people say I am” conversation with the disciples, Moses wasn’t among the list of candidates - but he could have been. There’s no doubt about the absolutely crucial role that Moses played in the story of the Hebrew people. Like so many of the histories recorded in the Hebrew Bible, his tale is one filled with surprise and wonder. All around it, of course, is a grisly story - a story of xenophobia, a story of oppression and dare I say “ethnic cleansing”. The Hebrew people needed Moses if they were to survive the oppression in Egypt. Despite their storeyed past as a result of Joseph’s leadership and influence in the courts of the Pharaoh, a new Pharaoh - worried by the presence of these aliens in the land, took steps to quell their influence and proliferating population.
The story of how Moses came to be the great leader is almost too much to be believed - a story of crafty midwives and a mother who could not bear to see her newborn child put to death - what mother could? It is also the story which tells of the compassion of another woman - namely Pharaoh’s daughter, as she rescued the little boy found floating in the river Nile. As we heard, even more craftiness ensued, as arrangements were made to ensure that his Hebrew birth mother would be able to look after him.
The story hints that this young child was special, but remember that the story was recorded later. The question that comes to mind is this: Was the child special or were the circumstances special? Did Moses have special leadership qualities - making the story even more interesting - for if he did, why was it that it happened to be this little one that was saved? Or did the situation create a great leader? Who else but an adopted grandson of the Pharaoh would have the kind of influence and opportunity that was needed to gain an inside knowledge of the way in which power was both wielded and vulnerable, and thus be uniquely called to be the great leader who would take the Hebrew people out of the oppression in Egypt. Do great opportunities make for great people? Or do great people create great opportunities? It’s not a question that I think can be answered with either-or. Both possibilities exist.
That leads to the gospel reading for today. Here again we are invited to consider greatness. Who do people say that I am, asks Jesus. A number of great leaders from the past are brought to mind, but ultimately Peter comes up with an answer that does not rely on great people of the past. Jesus is not the reincarnation of past greatness. There is something special about him all on his own. This is not a backward looking greatness, but one which looks optimistically forward. However, the really interesting interaction that happens in this story is the one which occurs between Jesus and Peter. Peter, the somewhat unreliable and impetuous disciple, is marked by Jesus for greatness. Once again, the question comes to mind - do circumstances create great people or do great people use circumstances to demonstrate their greatness?
Certainly when it comes to Peter, one might think that Jesus was challenging Peter towards greatness rather than acknowledging that it was already there. But really, will we ever know? Did Jesus see something in Peter that would lead him to call Peter the Rock, or was it really a challenge to Peter to bear down and rise to the occasion and the calling? Perhaps some of both.
The same goes for us. I’ve come to believe over the past few years that great things can come from seemingly ordinary people. I say seemingly, because I’ve also come to believe that there really are no ordinary people. We all have God given greatness in us, and given the right circumstances and the right opportunity, the resources we’ve been given by God can be used to demonstrate a bit of what it is like to live as part of God’s community. The hymn we sang this morning in gathering is one which states my understanding of our role as God’s people - In Loving Partnership we come.
Our reading from the letter to the Romans this morning points to this as well. For me it is the best thing that Paul did - equating our Christian role and responsibility to that of a functioning body - different parts, each with their own role and function and when they work well, we work well as members of the body of Christ.
Lloyd Henderson reminded me this week of a study which people in the United Church are being called to engage in the next month or so. I know some colleagues and church acquaintances who will look at the question we’ve been asked to consider and simply roll their eyes, quite probably with something like these words rolling off their tongues - “Oh no, not another study on the meaning of ministry.” I don’t know if our Lutheran sisters and brothers share the same kind of angst over leadership that we seem to experience in the United Church of Canada, but I suspect that the same questions arise no matter which part of the body of Christ we claim.
The point is that times are different than they once were. Different kinds of skills are required to be a leader in this day and age. Different understandings of what ministry is about are guiding our thoughts around the Christian calling. It’s good for us to think about ministry in new and different ways. We all know, and I’m sure this is true for both congregations represented here today and perhaps others by visitors who might be with us this morning - that leadership is not something that is saved for one person in our midst. Leadership is shown in many different ways and ministry is something that we are called to do.
Times are different and the call to be in ministry in new and different ways is there - but it is also a timeless calling. And so we live in this dialectical tension - where things around us are like they’ve never been before and yet age old questions and understandings are still there as well. Just like the dialectical tension I pointed to earlier - with the question about greatness being related to the person or the circumstance.
Moses is clearly a pillar in the Hebrew faith - a person called to greatness by circumstance and by the skills and abilities that God placed in him. Peter was established by Jesus as the Rock on which the church - the community of God’s people would be built. Was Jesus calling Peter to greatness or recognizing a nugget of something in Peter that could be mined and polished and made to shine?
Rocks and pillars are we all. Let’s use our skills to answer God’s call. Amen.