- Exodus 1: 8- 2:10
The narrative sof individual patriarchs and matriarchs now shifts to the story of the Israelites in Egypt. In last Sunday’s reading, Joseph promised that his father, brothers and their families would flourish under his protection in Egypt. And flourish they did, dramatically fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah of many descendants. A new Pharaoh, “who knew not Joseph,” felt threatened because he could not make an alliance with enemies outside Egypt. His first tactic was to “abuse” the Israleites in Egypt by imposing on them hard labor on massive building projects. When their population continued to grow, Pharaoh subjected them to “crushing labor.” The “King of Egypt” ordered a sinister policy that all Egyptian midwives destroy all Israelite newborn males at birth, but let girls live. But the midwives “feared God” and did not follow his orders. When interrogated, the midwives responded that the Israelite women were too “hardy” and delivered their babies before the midwives could get to them. “And God made it go well for the midwives,” who flourished with their own husbands and children. Now Pharaoh issued a directive for the whole nation to throw every male Israelite newborn into the Nile. But the Israelites grew even stronger. The story now shifts to the fate of one infant. An Israelite family, “from the house of Levi,” had a son, whom his mother hid for months. When she could no longer keep him safely hidden, she made an “ark,” [the same Hebrew word is used here as in the story of Noah], put the boy into it and released it on the banks of the Nile. His older sister kept watch from the shore. Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe in the Nile, One of her attendants saw the small ark with the child in it, and, noticing it was an Israelite child, offered to find an Israelite woman to feed and care for him. “And the girl went and summoned the child’s mother.” Pharaoh’s daughter took the child into her household with his mother to care for him. After the child was weaned, he “became a son” to Pharaoh’s daughter. She named him “Moses, for from the water I drew him out.”
- Psalm 124
The psalmist invokes the Lord’s praise because of the Lord’s activist protection: “were it not for the Lord who was for us….” other nations would have swept over Israel like a flood “over our necks.” Israel is like a bird that has slipped free from a trap: “the snare was broken/and we escaped.” Who is this activist protector? “Our help is in the name of the Lord/maker of heaven and earth.”
- Isaiah 51: 1-6
The writer/speaker in Isaiah demands to be heard by those “who seek the Lord.” “Listen to me….” He directs their attention to “the rock from which you were hewn”–Abraham and Sarah. Out of that one couple, God made “many.” Even in the bleakest of times, the Lord is able to provide “comfort,” to cause “waste places” to flourish, to turn sadness into singing. Listen for a “teaching” and for a new declaration of “justice” that will be like a “light” in a dark time. The Lord’s “deliverance” will be swift when it comes. It will be like a muscular “arm” of “hope.” All of life in finite and mortal, but the Lord’s “salvation will be forever and… never end.”
- Psalm 138
The psalmist, speaking from personal experience, declares “with all my heart,” her gratitude for the Lord’s “kindness and steadfast truth.” “You have made Your word great across all Your heavens. She testifies, personally, to the Lord’s response to her needs and extrapolates from her experience that “All kings of the earth” will praise the Lord for “the words” from the Lord’s “mouth.” Although the Lord is “high” above human affairs, the Lord “sees” here “below.” She returns to her experience: “Your right hand rescues me.” The psalmist ends with a plea to the Lord: “Do not let go of Your handiwork.”
- Romans 12: 1-8
Paul admonishes the readers of his letter to the church in Rome to set themselves apart by seeking “the will of God” with humility. Just as a body has “many parts,” each with its own unique “functions” yet vital to the well-bring of the whole body, so each member of “Christ’s body,” the church, is “individually members of one… another.” Each person has “gifts,” which, although different and distinctive, are all needed and essential.
- Matthew 16: 13-20
The vagabond group of Jesus and his followers now come to Caesarea Philippi, site of a famous shrine to Pan. By this point in their wanderings across the countryside, the group have seen Jesus interact with a wide variety of people whose reactions to him have run the gamut from admiration and gratitude to confusion and hatred. They have stood next to him in some happy times and on some tense occasion. They have heard his stories and teachings, which still seem somewhat enigmatic. Given this history with each other, Jesus asks, Who are people saying I am? They repeat the rumors and speculation they have heard. Some say John the Baptizer; others have even said Elijah; only Matthew adds Jeremiah, the ancient prophet most vexed about the future of God’s people. Then Jesus asks directly, But what about you? Who do you say I am? Peter takes the lead and declares, You are Jesus the Messiah; to which only Matthew adds, “the Son of the Living God.” Also only Matthew continues with Jesus saying further, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” You did not make this testimony by “flesh and blood,” but it has been “revealed… by my Father in heaven.” Jesus now calls him “Peter,” and declares “on this rock I will build my church.” “Hades” will not overwhelm it. To Peter Jesus gives the “keys of the kingdom,” so that whatever is done on earth is affirmed in “heaven.” Then Jesus “sternly ordered” his disciples not to reveal to “anyone that he is the Messiah.”
The scriptures depict the whole history of the chosen, the Israelites, as a series of events when God seemed undeniably near or eerily absent. But whatever the current experience of God, the recurring declaration is always the same– hope. The gospels describe every imaginable reaction to Jesus, from adoration to hatred and rejection. Paul’s letters describe an early church as a mishmash of diverse, even contradictory, perspectives on the gospel about Jesus. Yet he calls for an organic unity. In this dramatic excerpt from Matthew’s account, Peter boldly announces his decision about the true identity of Jesus, but then Jesus inexplicably demands that his followers keep his identity a secret! The scriptures do not present a single, coherent description of God, or God’s ways, or God’s anointed. Rather there are snippets and fragments that come into and out of focus. The scriptures demand a decision, not an acquiescence to an overwhelming, self-evident argument.
Emmanuel Levinas draws on the work of his teacher, Heidegger, and the scriptures to develop his notion of “traces” of God. Developed further by Derrida and Marion, this notion of “traces” alters how we regard what we think we know. We now recognize that we are presented with ideas, sensations, experiences out in which we find meaning. We never “master” all of human reality, much less the reality of God. This insight also alerts us to the inherent prejudices of our own individual interpretations, which ought to induce some humility. It implies an ethical connection; we honor others who respond authentically but differently to the same biblical “traces” about God. Then, probably unexpectedly, these “traces” ignite a “passion for the impossible [which] takes places within a trace.” (John Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, p. 59)
This Sunday’s readings, psaltery and gospel issue an invitation. Even as the noose of slavery grew tighter for God’s people, one woman set her infant son out in an “ark.” Moses grew to become God’s instrument for deliverance. Looking back over the history of God’s people, the psalmist sees a pattern: the people who trust in the “maker of heaven and earth” get freed repeatedly. Deutero-Isaiah goes all the way back to the unique faith of Abraham and Sarah and then issues an invitation to trust in God as an “arm of hope,” which the psalmist describes as muscular. Paul does not dismiss the messiness of the church, but he calls for a higher unity because of the life-altering, history-changing appearance of Jesus, the Christ. Matthew’s gospel acknowledges the general confusion about the identity of Jesus, but still insists on a decision about who he really is. The scriptures issue an insistent invitation to make a decision: look at the “traces” and make a fundamental act of faith, a wager “in the midst of undecidability” that justice will prevail and those who pursue justice are in sync with “the maker of heaven and earth” and the anointed One. Or, in a word– hope. This act/decision/wager is more than speculative. If we expect one outcome– that when all is said and done, justice will be overwhelmed– we behave one way; if we bet on a different outcome– that despite “impossible” odds and with no irrefutable evidence, justice will prevail– we live very different lives.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently declared “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That paraphrase was taken from a sermon given by The Rev. Theodore Parker and published in 1853. The fuller excerpt reads:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, and my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
Mr. Parker acknowledges that he is not capable of seeing the complete picture. But based on what he can see [“traces”] he has made a decision: “And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” These words deserve respectful attention; Mr. Parker was a passionate abolitionist who hid runaway slaves from the South in his home enabling their escape from slavery into freedom. He followed his wager to its logical conclusion.
The question in today’s gospel is not about the speculation of others, but it is a direct question: to whom and for what do you pledge your loyalty? The testimony of both readings from the Hebrew scriptures and the psalms is witness to God’s activist intervention always on the side of justice, even when it is nearly impossible to still believe in it. “Faith is always faith, a decision made in the midst of undecidability.”