Sermons That Work

At Various Points In Our Lives…, Proper 16 (A) – 2008

August 24, 2008

At various points in our lives we need to “step up to the plate.” As scary as some of these times have been, they usually have been moments that have initiated some transitions in our lives and offered us the opportunity to drawn upon the memories of our early years.

The lessons for today lead us to renewed discoveries: the importance of stepping up to the plate; the persistence of God in furthering God’s intentions and mission; and the incredible opportunity that even you and I might have to touch, carry, and share that which is very sacred.

In ancient Egypt, the Hebrew population was flourishing even as they were struggling under oppression. The Pharaoh wanted their numbers to decrease, so he tried to kill off young Hebrew males by drowning them in the Nile River. Moses was set in a basket (the same name used for Noah’s ark) by his mother and cared for in the early journey by his older sister. Eventually he was discovered by the daughter of the Pharaoh, and we know the rest of the story.

Out of the most unlikely beginnings, a small vessel of God’s grace was saved to do God’s bidding. The women of the story – the mother and sister of Moses, the daughter of Pharaoh, and the midwives who earlier refused to participate in Pharaoh’s terrible scheme – all become for us beacons. They are carriers of the sacred, and people who stepped up to the plate to make possible an emergence of a scared story that was to define Old Testament history and the foundations of our Hebrew scriptures. It was part of larger pivotal event in the life of the Hebrew people and in our religious heritage.

In Matthew, we hear again Peter’s confession, which became for him and for the disciples an invitation to carry an awesome responsibility of furthering God’s mission of reconciliation. Peter’s confession is preceded by a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Answers come readily. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” It is easy to say what we have heard others say.

But another question appears: “But who do you say that I am?” The disciples are asked to step up to the plate. And so are you and I.

In Romans, we encounter familiar words: all have been given differing gifts through God’s grace that are to be used for the welfare of the entire community. No one can claim that his or her gifts are more important. All are important for wholeness and holiness.

So what do we do with these stories? In what ways do they affect us? Are they only part of our lore or are they alive in some new ways in our hearing? Which ones stand out to us? Which ones especially challenge us? Do we see ourselves as ones who stand for the little ones of life, or are we drawn to step forward to proclaim new life and possibilities? Is ours the quiet loving care of a sibling or the incredible angst of a mother who wants desperately to hold on to her child and yet let that child go? Do we believe that we have gifts? And are those gifts available for others? Do we as a parish community help one another discover our giftedness and welcome them when discovered? When asked the question asked of the disciples – “Who do you say that I am?” – what will we say?

Today’s lessons begin with a horrific history, the slaying of young children, and a sacred, nurturing history of the caring for a little baby; and today’s lessons end by asking adults to answer important questions and to take responsibility. As such, the lessons imitate life as we know it. There can be no greater work than the care of young children. We know that by the age of six, children have formed many aspects of their personalities and have a history of either being loved or not being loved, experiencing security or insecurity, feeling treasured as sacred vessels or feeling abused as ones of little worth. And they will deal with all of these feelings for the rest of their lives.

A priest in Pennsylvania and team from his parish regularly went into Graterford Prison for over 10 years, and what they discovered were men who were in the main abused as children and who had often abused others, continuing the circle of violence. Our work in the midst of the abuse and neglect of children today is to be a people who care, nourish, and protect them. There is no greater work. We start out with our own families and as community who gathers here at this congregation. Our future is determined in part by how we welcome and treasure the young ones in our midst.

Today’s lessons end by asking the rest of us, the adults, to step up to the plate of taking responsibility for living out the answer to the question: “But who do you say that I am?”

This is not easy to answer, for behind our responses we have our own histories, our own working through all of those messages from our own childhood, our own disappointments and failures, our own physical and emotional pains, our own experiences of loneliness or feeling of little worth. We come to this place from the contexts of our living, a place one might call “tall grass.” In this tall grass, we are buffeted by many things, some which we cannot see. Life is complex and full. Sometimes the tall grass becomes a haven where we can hide out. Sometimes it is a maize where we don’t know where we are going or who is around us. At other times we like to smell its uniqueness and at other times we feel choked by its overbearing sameness. Life is full in all of its complexities, and we bring all those complexities here at this moment in this place.

So we are a people of the context.

We are also a people of the gathering.

We are here together. And in our gatherings we have a sense of who is around us, and in this reality we have a choice: do we circle the wagons or do we create circles of trust? Our work as a parish community, without being intrusive in others’ lives, can be a place where we can start again and feel that here is a community that values me as a treasured earthen vessel of worth and significance. This can make all the difference in people’s lives. It can be a place where we can be loved in healthy, life-giving ways, and where we are fed not only by bread and wine but also by a people, who, sharing our human journeys and our human condition, are willing to not just to talk the talk but walk the walk with us in our journeys in daily living.

We are a people of the table.

To engage in this most special walk, we present ourselves, at God’s invitation, before the holy table to receive what the world might see as a small gift – a morsel of bread and a drop of wine – but which we know is the gift of life. It, too, is a reminder that doing something that may seem small and insignificant can make all the difference. Who would have known that putting that baby in a basket and setting him upon the water under the watchful eye of his sister would change the course of history? It is from the table – holy table, tables of conversation, tables where other meals are shared, tables/platforms where other interactions take place– that we know most fully that our journeys are inextricably connected to others’ journeys.

We are a people of the dismissal.

We are called from the table to return to the complexities of life, to the tall grass. This is where most of our life is lived in all of its fullness, struggle, sorrow, and celebration. It is from the tall grass that a basket was made for a baby that changed the course of history. It is the tall grass that the disciples were beckoned from the Mount of Transfiguration. It is where death and resurrection happens most frequently.

So what are we to do or say when we hear the words “But who do you say that I am?”

In the midst of our fears and hesitation, it is the stepping out in faith and being alive and present to ourselves and to others, the world around us, and to God’s reconciling love breaking into the world in often small, seemingly insignificant ways that is the source of our future hope and promise. So with courage and hopefulness, with our pain and struggles, with our joys and celebrations, we dare come again to the holy table and to a special presence with each other in prayer.

Who would know that as a result of our coming here we and the world around us will never be quite the same again? Be on the alert, for God’s spirit is dwelling in our midst!

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Christopher Sikkema


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