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The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/3/2017

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Proper 17 Year A 1st option 9-3-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 3:1-15; Ps. 105:1-6,23-26,45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matt. 16:21-28


We glory in your holy Name, O God; let the hearts of those who seek you rejoiceLet us search for you and your strength; let us continually, at all times & in all places, seek your face.  AMEN.


Search for the Lord and his strength, says our Psalm. Continually seek God’s face. For years, I have had a little illuminated postcard in my study with those words emblazoned on it in gold script. It reassures me. God’s strength is there for me. God’s face is ready to shine upon me, as the ancient Jewish Aaronic blessing has it. And at the same time, it names my seemingly never-ending process of seeking, the yearning that drives it, the absence that dogs it. Still searching. Still seeking. It names the life of faith as I find myself living it, forever pursuing the loving face of God that I trust is bending towards us to name and affirm each and every one us in the fullness of our calling into being, in our “becoming,” forever hunting the all-abundant, ever-elusive, un-domesticated, wild, essential grace of God.


In a way, this sense of continual “process” toward God seems directly to contradict the great genesis of baptism. Episcopalian Anglicans, after all, don’t do “re-baptisms.” We are baptized into the death of Jesus once for all, as Paul says in the reading from Chapter Six of his Letter to the Romans that we read at the baptismal feast of Great Vigil of Easter every year. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” [Romans 6:3-4] Baptism is the definitive beginning of a “new life in the Spirit.” So then, don’t we HAVE “the Lord and her strength,” from then on?


But then, in our first reading for today from the Book of Exodus, Moses, who has been banished to the desert among foreigners because he tried to use violence to free his Hebrew people from enslavement by the Egyptians (it ended badly), is lured out of his trudging, discouraged exile’s path by the sudden extravagant, wildly unexpected flaring of a bush burning in the middle of the desert. Then he is terrified to be addressed directly by God’s own voice, telling him to put off his sandals and approach unguarded and unprotected. Just as we would think our baptism would “seal the deal with God” for good, so you would think that, were you to come across God face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice, since that fiery bush was all that was to be seen), shoeless, you would KNOW God, fully and finally, at last. But Moses has to ask God who God is. And God’s answer is, in itself, not a finality but instead names a mysterious, hard-to-decipher PROCESS: YHWH, “I AM WHO I AM BECOMING.”


Which brings to mind Martin Luther’s insistence that our life IN God is more like a life TOWARD God, an endless, revolving “repentance,” a daily turning back to God; an endless, daily RENEWAL of baptism; an endless, daily FLINGING OF OURSELVES BACK INTO THE DEATH OF JESUS in order to be filled again with the risen life of Jesus.


What a powerfully overwhelming time in which we “live & move & have our being,” in these difficult days. [Book of Common Prayer, “Collect for Guidance,” p. 100] It feels as if the incentives for our moral discrimination and our moral commitment come at us with unrelenting rapidity, rising around us like the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey, inundating us before we can draw breath from one surge to the next. Whatever gap there is between our divine searching and our finding, we are as surely stuck in it as Beaumont Texas was stuck under the tropical depression that stalled on the Louisiana-Texas line.


Search for the Lord and his strength. Continually seek God’s face. Every day is a day to renew our baptism. Watching our Houstonian fellow seekers haul their carpets and furniture, toys and clothing to the curb, we know ourselves to be vulnerable, sandal-less, unprotected by stuff, unprotected by the status quo. Our lives may be asked of us in a heartbeat. Even if our streets are dry and not buried under feet of water and mud, our lives are inundated with spiritual assault and spiritual discernment. How can we keep discerning, keep discriminating between one moral option and another?


Here’s an example: how do we manifest our conviction that Black Lives Matter as much as any lives matter? Is it even possible for a white person like me, who so longs to be an ally, to manifest this with effective power? How do I escape the sentimental ease of a Facebook post and make a palpable, measurable commitment? Should I manifest it nonviolently, simply imposing my body, my naked, identifiable face, before those who would harm a person of color? Or like the antifa, the anti-fascist movement, need I mask my face and bring a weapon – even so slight-seeming a weapon as mace or a stick – and interpose THAT? If I do that in order to protect others without weapons, is there a moral line – beyond a romantic one of small scale and technological simplicity – between that choice of weaponry and the military-style garb and armament of the white supremacist, the neo-Nazi? Does my motive justify my weaponry? How can I be sure of my motive?


And that’s only one of so many matters presenting themselves for my response –recovery from the largest hurricane impact we’ve seen, especially fraught for those who are undocumented and afraid of ICE and ineligible for FEMA relief. LGBTQ rights. Gas pipelines and mining rights on wilderness land and the erosion of national monument protection and the pull-out from the Paris Climate Change Accord. Nuclear armament and nuclear deployment. Immigrant rights; addiction treatment; drone warfare; tax reform; still the niggling undermining of health care reform! And oh dear God, Syria and Palestine and Israel and Libya and Yemen and Mali and Kenya and on and on and on… “And thick and fast, they come at last and more and more and MORE!” [Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass]


Is this what Jesus felt like, in the moment in Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 16 when, having just been affirmed as the Son of God, he begins the heavily difficult process of “showing” the resistant disciples that his Messiah-ship, Jesus’ own kingship, far from being a triumphal victory march into Jerusalem to toss out the Romans imperial forces and resume David’s great Kingship ("Make David Great Again?") , will begin with arrest and trial and persecution and crucifixion? Peter, full of protective pride, we presume, from having been the one to speak first in declaring Jesus as Messiah moments before, isn’t having all this negativity. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you! We’re not going to let those haters get away with it!” Peter is playing Joel Osteen here, Senior Pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church, one of the 8 richest pastors in the U.S., owner of a massive mansion and a massive yacht, preacher of the “prosperity gospel,” doyenne of a 16,500-seat mega-church that he kept adamantly closed to those driven homeless by Hurricane Harvey until he was shamed on social media into reluctantly opening his doors. For the impulsive Peter, Jesus being the Messiah should mean a direct route to success.


Yet Jesus turns and rebukes Peter – the language in Matthew is very strong – “Get behind me, Tempter! You are a stumbling block to me! A skandalon, a scandal! Would you try to dissuade me from the vulnerability God is asking of me? That’s a human response, that desire to protect yourself. Divine love makes no such concession!” And he goes on to tell all the disciples, “If you want to hang onto your life, you’ll lose it. If you’re willing to lose it, following in my way of nonviolent love, you’ll find it.” If the floodwaters are rising, Pastor Joel, get ready to dirty up your church! Follow your neighbor Muslims’ example, who turned their mosques into homeless shelters the minute the storm hit, with whatever loaves & fishes, volunteers and supplies they could muster, and put you to shame. Who knows when your life will be demanded of you, your barns of riches pulled down?


Do we really want to hear this any more than Peter (or Joel) did? Have we North American Christians, whose faith has been so protected, so comfortably ensconced in material abundance and political liberality, any more willingness to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus into such dire self-offering? Are we any readier than Joel Osteen to open the doors of our palaces to the massive, overwhelming tide of need? Are we ready to renew our baptisms, to die to ourselves so that we can live to God?


In the face of the floodwaters of moral demand that are rising around us, no wonder we feel we are drowning. Let us drown INTO God. This place of suffering and confusion and longing and fear is holy ground. Let us remove our shoes and admit that we are powerless and need a Power greater than ourselves to restore us and guide us. Let us turn our wills and our lives over to the care of God, the mighty Becoming of God for whom we seek and search. God is listening for our cry. And God will indeed use us, undefended by anything other than God’s grace, to extend the risen life to others. As did Moses. As did Jesus. AMEN.