The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, 31 August 2014
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
St. Matthew 16:21-28
Background: The Symbolism of the Burning Bush
It is interesting that the root word SNH (bush or bramble) is similar to SNi (Sinai), so that some commentators see it as mistaken substitution for Sinai. The actual text is a weaving of the J document and the E document, but the story has influenced Muslims, Christians, and Jews throughout the centuries. The Eastern Church see the story as evidence of God’s “uncreated energies”, just as Moses witnessed God’s glory in Exodus 33:18ff. The Orthodox also see in the burning yet not destroyed bush a symbol of the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Certain churches of the reformation used the symbol of the burning bush, and its destruction/survival as a symbol of their own survival during the turmoil amongst the churches following the reformation. Of note are the Huguenot Churches, along with the Reformed Church of France, the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and Presbyterian churches in other lands. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America also makes use of the image.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."
But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM Who I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you':
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations."
Identity and mission seem to be the themes of this reading from Exodus. The text is an interweaving of J and E, J placing the event at Sinai, and E placing it at Horeb. In this theophany, God introduces Godself to Moses, identifying God’s relationship to the Patriarchs, his knowledge of the sufferings of the people in Egypt, and his identification of Moses as the one to deliver God’s message of rescue. Into this stream of information Moses directs a question, “What shall I say to them when they ask who sent me?” To this direction question, God puts up a theological statement, “He causes to be what comes into existence”, or “I am that I am”. This is not unique to this text or to the Hebrew Scriptures. Other Egyptian and Akkadian texts prior to this time supply similar enigma.
So what happens here? First of all the “naming of God”, the recognition of relationship, the mission of Moses, and the promise of freedom from slavery. There are the usual protestations of a prophet, this time from the mouth of Moses, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt.” This objection is met with God’s promise of presence, “I shall be with you.” That will become a promise not only for Moses who is to return into the face of great adversity, but also serves as a promise to the people God promises to deliver. For this is not a God newly present to these people, nor is God one who has been forgotten and sidestepped. God is “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” If Israel had forgotten the familial stories of those who had one before them, God would soon remind them of their power for a people who now would know how to call upon God. “This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations.”
For further notes on the call of the prophet (here Moses) the reader may want to read the notes on the reading from the prophet Jeremiah, below.
Breaking open Genesis:
- What does it mean to know someone’s name?
- What happens when you hear your name called? What are your feelings?
- What is your mission in life?
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c Confitemini Domino
Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.
Glory in his holy Name; *
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.
Search for the LORD and his strength; *
continually seek his face.
Remember the marvels he has done, *
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth,
O offspring of Abraham his servant, *
O children of Jacob his chosen.
Israel came into Egypt, *
and Jacob became a sojourner in the land of Ham.
The LORD made his people exceedingly fruitful; *
he made them stronger than their enemies;
Whose heart he turned, so that they hated his people, *
and dealt unjustly with his servants.
He sent Moses his servant, *
and Aaron whom he had chosen.
We have visited this psalm at several points during this ordinary time (Proper 12 and Proper 14, in addition to this proper.) Artur Weiser in his commentary on the Psalms considers the first six verses of this psalm, which is quoted in I Chronicles 16:8-22, as a hymn used in the cult of YHWH. He specifically titles it a “hymn of the covenant community.” From that introduction we move on to a pericope that includes verses 23 -26, with 45b serving as a coda. As in other verses we are treated to the narrative of the Exodus, beginning with the results of the Joseph story, and continuing with a portrait of cruel servitude and then the introduction of Moses and Aaron. All of this is held in a parenthesis of praise. This is “salvation history,” but it is a historical narrative (if we can speak of such a think at this time) that is revealed in a liturgical framework. It is interesting that it is not Pharaoh who purposes such difficulties upon Israel, but rather God, “whose heart he turned so that they hated his people.” This is all about plan and purpose, so that the beginning and concluding glory are met in God’s love of Israel, God’s people.
Breaking open Psalm 105:
- Take some time and quickly rehearse your own family’s history.
- Where is God present in that history?
- What has God called your family to do?
O LORD, you know;
remember me and visit me,
and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance do not take me away;
know that on your account I suffer insult.
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O LORD, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
Therefore thus says the LORD:
If you turn back, I will take you back,
and you shall stand before me.
If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless,
you shall serve as my mouth.
It is they who will turn to you,
not you who will turn to them.
And I will make you to this people
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you,
but they shall not prevail over you,
for I am with you
to save you and deliver you,
says the LORD.
I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.
Prophets, it seems, always have an objection, or a sense that they, faithful, do not receive in turn a like faithfulness from God. Here Jeremiah complains to God, “Consider! For thy sake I suffer abuse.” And later, “Ah, truly you are a dry wadi to me, whose waters have failed.” This emotional outburst will link us to the Gospel, where Jesus gives warnings about the cost of following him. Here, however, Jeremiah seeks an answer from God. God does answer, promising protection and repeating the promise that was made to Moses (see Track 1 first reading above), “For with you am I, to help you and save you – YHWH’s word. Thus the prophet is called again to the holy mission. This entire mission is outlined again in the verses following in Chapter 16.
Breaking open the Jeremiah:
- Do you ever feel abandoned by God?
- How do you react, what do you say?
- How does God renew God’s relationship with you?
Psalm 26:1-8 Judica me, Domine
Give judgment for me, O LORD,
for I have lived with integrity; *
I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered.
Test me, O LORD, and try me; *
examine my heart and my mind.
For your love is before my eyes; *
I have walked faithfully with you.
I have not sat with the worthless, *
nor do I consort with the deceitful.
I have hated the company of evildoers; *
I will not sit down with the wicked.
I will wash my hands in innocence, O LORD, *
that I may go in procession round your altar,
Singing aloud a song of thanksgiving *
and recounting all your wonderful deeds.
LORD, I love the house in which you dwell *
and the place where your glory abides.
Unlike Jeremiah, above, who is done with it all, the psalmist here requests not only vindication, but purification as well. “Test me, O Lord, and try me.” The psalmist makes a case before YHWH, citing his faithfulness, his purity, and, really, his innocence. In the light of these protestations, the psalmist sings a “song of thanksgiving,” which relates all the wonderful things that God has done. Here, the protestations lead to praise and love of God’s house, while in Jeremiah, they lead to a new mission.
Breaking open the Psalm 26:
- Do you ever feel the need to purge yourself of misdeeds?
- How do you do that?
- What is the resulting feeling or behavior?
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul goes on here to describe the various aspects of genuine love. He permits himself a list of venerable deeds: “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” etc. Oddly, even though not selected to do so, the pericope serves as an ample commentary on Jesus’ discourse in the Gospel for today. Paul lists the reactions that we should have against those who do not agree with us. An empathy of equality is suggested, “weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.” What is projected is a nobility of accommodation and compassion. Paul speaks against the ancient practice of vengeance, allowing that behavior to the Lord.
Breaking open Romans:
- What does the word “love” suggest to you?
- Do any of the meanings touch your faith? How?
- In what ways have you been compassionate?
St. Matthew 16:21-28
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
"For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
Last Sunday we heard the demands of the Syro-Phoenician woman, which is followed by another feeding, the demand for a sign, and the confession of Peter. These, however, are missing from our lectio continua through the Gospel of Matthew. It is interesting to juxtapose Peter’s confession, indeed the woman’s confession as well, with the cost of such a faith. In our reading Jesus quickly begins to describe such a cost with predictions of the passion. Now it is Peter who makes an “anti-confession” which Jesus’ quickly assigns to Satan. As to the costs, both Moses and Jeremiah might be able to testify, but it will be up to Jesus to demonstrate such costs as he is raised on the cross. And it will be Peter in future years who will also be able to calculate such a cost. For now, however, the disciples are lost in a sea of doubt and uncertainly. Jesus now instructs those who follow on what must follow, and what must now be endured. The endurance, however, is not with out a promise (for the Transfiguration will soon follow with its own trip back into reality).
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Why does Matthew want us to hear this argument about what is clean and what is unclean?
- What in your life do you consider unclean?
- Are there certain kind of people who are unclean? Who?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller