Year A — The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)

Commentary for August 28, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 3:1-15
The burning bush. We usually picture this scene as one of awe and wonder, a moment that we may feel as if we would like to have shared. “Boy, if God ever spoke to me out of a burning bush, THEN I’d know for sure what God wanted me to do and I would get right to it!”

Hmmm…did you ever notice that Moses didn’t set out on this particular day to find a burning bush, or even to hear a word from God, for that matter? He was just doing the same thing he had done every other day for the last 40 years or so — he was taking care of the sheep.

Not a particularly glorious or stimulating job. Sheep go out, sheep eat, sheep drink, sheep do whatever sheep do. Shepherd watches out for danger, keeps sheep from doing anything stupid. Sheep lay down for the night, next day start all over again. Humdrum, by definition.

Even the inflammatory shrub itself is not that particularly awesome at first glance. More of a curiosity, really.

But, then — in the midst of the humdrum routine and through a curious happenstance — GOD SPEAKS. And Moses’ life is certainly never going to be the same! God has big doin’s in mind for him.

As preachers and parishioners, we might want to be on the lookout for sheep and/or bushes this week. You never know when, where, or how God just might be calling.

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b
The psalm text connects to God’s call of Moses and Aaron in order to save the children of Israel from Egypt. It was a good thing and an act of deliverance when God brought them to Egypt in the time of Joseph; now, it is an act of deliverance for God to bring them out of Egypt in the time of Moses. God’s “wonderful works” (v.2) are found in all kinds of circumstances.

As v. 1 reminds us: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name….”

Jeremiah 15:15-21
It’s hard to preach the word week in and week out. Jeremiah’s commitment to be God’s messenger caused him physical and emotional pain. It’s no wonder we call him “the weeping prophet.”

Notice his description  in v.16 of what it’s like to receive a word from the Lord: “your words were found and I ate them.” What do we associate the act of eating with? Pleasure, nourishment, need, hunger, desire, satiation, want, fulfillment. 

Two other examples of prophets called to “eat” God’s words are found in Ezekiel 3:3 and Revelation 10:10. For both Ezekiel and John, the experience was bittersweet. We are, indeed, nourished on the words of God — they are “sweet as honey” when we receive them.  

Speaking them to people that we may love or loathe, however, is a different matter. In either case, our stomachs may churn and we may wonder how our words will be received (an issue that gave no little pause to Moses, by the way.) What we are left with — our hope and assurance as preachers — is God’s promise in v.19. 

“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.”

Psalm 26:1-8
Psalm 26:2 is a dangerous prayer to pray! “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind.”

Romans 12:9-21
This second half of the “gifts” passage of Romans 12 continues to describe the things that become a part of our lives as believers in Jesus, by the ongoing presence of the Spirit. When you follow the Spirit, Paul has argued, these kinds of things happen.

To the contrary, if these ain’t happenin’, maybe you’re not as in touch with said Spirit as you need to be?

Matthew 16:21-28
Cross language still gets people all hot and bothered. It got Peter upset in the gospel reading for today; he didn’t want to contemplate what it meant for Jesus to suffer, bleed and die on a cross! (One may also argue that he wasn’t too hep on the idea for himself and his fellow disciples, either.)

And yet, Jesus affirms that the experience of the cross is the quintessential and defining moment for anyone who would follow in his way. He could not and would not avoid it for himself; he invites all who would be his not only to be willing to take up a cross — but to actually do so!

Dr. Chilton explores this less-than-comfortable-but-oh-so-necessary conundrum in his text below.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was listening to the comedian George Carlin one night on HBO. He was talking about how the expression “self help” is an oxymoron. “Look it up,” he said, “if you did it yourself, you didn’t need any help! Pay attention to the logic of the language people!”
Along the same lines, I was thinking about the concept of self-service! Isn’t that a bit of an oxymoron as well? I mean if you do it for yourself, is it really self service? It would appear to me that the concept of service really should have to do with something you do for others, not something you do for yourself.
But, all this self-help and self-service is very much the modern, American way. What’s in it for me? How do I benefit? Where’s my payoff?
These are the questions that run through our minds as we
mull over any request for a commitment of our time, talent or treasure. If I do this, we think, is it going to be worth my
effort, my involvement. Or would I be better off doing something else?
Our Scriptures for today present an interesting counter-balance to our normal way of thinking.
First look at Moses in the lesson from Exodus 3, the famous story of the burning bush. You may remember that Moses, after having been raised in the palace as an adopted son of the Princess, had had to flee Egypt after killing a cruel overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave.
Moses had found sanctuary, a wife and a family and a profession, far out in the desert.
Bluntly put, the last thing he wanted to do was go back to Egypt and face a murder charge.
But that is what God wanted him to do, that is what God called him to do.
This was not a case of either self-help or self-service.
It was rather a case of self-denial and self-sacrifice and following the leading of the Spirit, wherever that Spirit led him.
That is what our Gospel lesson is about as well.
Jesus very clearly defines here what his commitment to the Kingdom of God is all about, what he expects to happen to him because he has been faithful to his calling from God.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” (verse 21)
I doubt that Peter even heard the last thing Jesus said, that bit about rising again. All Peter heard was the pain and suffering and rejection. And he couldn’t take it.
“Wait a minute,” he thought, “this isn’t what I signed up for.
I want to be a part of the bold, strong, conquering, triumphant Kingdom of God. I want to have a better life, and more joy, and a happier marriage. What’s all this gloom and doom about.”You have to give Peter this much, he never held back on what he really thought.
But Jesus, in turn, rebuked Peter. Called him Satan. Told him to start thinking in spiritual terms, not material terms.
In other words, stop thinking about self-help and self-improvement and self-service; and start thinking about helping others and improving your community and serving the needs of those around you.
That’s what the key statement in today’s Gospel Lesson is about. Listen again:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves,
take up their cross, and follow me.
We want to be like Peter, we want to follow Jesus without it being too much trouble. We want being Christian to improve our self-esteem and make us better husbands and wives and children and help us be more successful in our lives and in our careers.
The problem is, we want all that without the self-denial and self-sacrifice and the spiritual submission to God that goes with it.
The simple fact is, without the cross there is no Christianity.
Without a cross, without both the cross of Christ and the cross of the Christians, we are reduced to a pleasant religious and philosophical society which meets every Sunday to sing hymns and listen to a nice talk and take part in a symbolic meal.
But with the Cross, we are a saved and redeemed people, called upon to follow Jesus in giving our all for the betterment of the world.
With the Cross, we are God’s Holy People, stepping out in faith to
follow God into the trenches of the world’s struggle with Sin, Death and the Devil.
With the Cross, we are a Royal Priesthood, going forth into the unknown future with a mission and a ministry to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bind up the broken-hearted, soothe the suffering and heal the halt and the lame.
With the Cross, we have a Divine Mandate to stand against the powers that be on behalf of the poor and needy, to speak out against injustice and oppression wherever we see it and know it to exist.
With the Cross, we dare to lose our life in the cause of Christ.
And with the Cross we, like Jesus, find our real lives, the lives for which God created us, the lives we have been called and led to embrace since we were children; lives of love and service to God and our neighbor.
Amen and Amen.

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