Saturday, August 26, 2017

August 27, Proper 16: Shiphrah, Puah, Simon, Peter

Exodus 1:8–2:10, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

The princess of Egypt called the child “Moses,” because she drew him out of the water. Who gave you your name, which one of your parents? Does your name mean anything? Has it affected you?  Have you wished your name was different? What name would you give yourself? There was a guy named Warren Wilhelm Jr., who changed himself to Bill de Blasio.

How do you picture yourself? How well do you know yourself? Who is it that really understands you? If people knew the whole truth about you, what would they say, what would they call you, or would they desert you? Does it matter how other people see you? Don’t you need other people to help you keep yourself in perspective, and to remind you what is true about yourself? Who is it who can look at you and say, “I know you, I know who you really are”?

In our Gospel story, Jesus and Simon Peter are looking at each other face to face. They name each other. They know about each other. There is energy between them. Something is created here.

They’re on vacation up in Lebanon, taking time away from all the crowds. It’s not for nothing we are told that it is Caesarea Philippi, the Roman citadel that was the antithesis of Jerusalem, the seat of everything the expected Messiah was supposed to be against. For here King Herod had built his other temple, gleaming marble, paid for by their taxes, where Julius Caesar was being worshiped as a god.

Now if you were a Jew, and expecting the Messiah, you believed the prophecy of Daniel that the Roman Empire, for all its power and glory, was judged by God and would be cast down, and someone whom Daniel called the “Son of Man” would rise into heaven to sit at God’s right hand and govern all the nations on God’s behalf, a new world empire.

The identity of this Son of Man was a matter of debate among the Jews, so when Jesus used the title for himself, as he did, it was audacious of him, and the disciples will have noticed it. And now in sight of the shining marble citadel, Jesus raises the debate: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples give the various standard opinions among the Jewish interpreters.

Then Jesus adjusts the question: “But who do you say that I am?” And bursting with an answer is Simon: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Shimon bar Yonah, intense, impetuous, impassioned, impatient, outspoken. Not that he understands as yet the fullness of what he’s said, not yet beyond Jesus being a very special human being, but he’s on the right track, and Jesus is delighted. “Bless you, Shimon bar Yonah. You’ve told me who I am. Now let me tell you who you are. You are Petros, Rocky, your new name is Rocky. You’re the rock I’m going to build my church upon.”

Which is sort of a joke! Simon was the opposite of solid and stable. He was unstable and impetuous. When he was hard he was only brittle–firm to the touch but easily broken. He started strong and talked big but never delivered. Rocky! You could better call him Sandy! Not really the guy you’d want to lead a long term organization. Are you sure, Jesus?

The Lord Jesus knew of Simon’s fragility. He knew his flesh was weak, and that Simon’s blood, so quickly hot, got quickly cold. But it wasn’t Simon’s flesh and blood that Jesus would be building on. Just as it was not Simon’s own smarts that understood who Jesus was. Not flesh and blood but his Father in heaven had revealed it, and Simon would have to grow in comprehension of what he had been told.

Just as it wasn’t for the strength of Peter’s character that he was made the leader of the church, it was rather what God would do through Peter’s weaknesses. It wasn’t the solidity of Peter that made him the foundation, but that Peter would lie down in the right place, and God would find a way to build on him. It was just such a weakling like Simon Peter that God had called to be the leader of the leaders of the church. The Lord designed the church to be poor and weak.

By contrast are the Hebrew midwives in the story from Exodus. It’s wonderful that we are told their names, Shiphrah and Puah. These two women were as tough as Simon Peter was weak. They defied the power of Pharaoh and the might of Egypt. And because they themselves were powerless they had to do it subversively, and they leveraged their weakness!

They played on the prejudice of the Egyptians. They gave their explanation that the Hebrew mothers were like dumb animals giving birth out in the fields, unlike the Egyptian upper class women in their houses whose lives of pampered privilege left them unable to give birth without professional assistance. When Pharaoh heard it he said, “Well, yes, of course,” and so the Hebrew midwives got away with it.

The sister of Moses did something similar. She who had been watching the little basket floating among the bulrushes counted on the shallowness of the pity of the Egyptian princess. The princess had pity on the Hebrew baby crying, even though the monstrous suffering of the Hebrew people seemed not to bother her, and the baby’s sister calculated that the pity of the princess did not extend to actually wanting take care of the baby, so she offered her mother as a nurse, who then not only got to keep her child but also got paid for taking care of him. So just like the midwives, the women in the family of Moses subversively leveraged their powerlessness. Women have had to do this a lot!

The weakness and poverty of God’s church is apparently by design, by the intention of its Lord. That goes along with not being conformed to this world. That goes along with offering our bodies as living sacrifices. That goes along with not thinking more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to regard yourself with sober judgement. Face the fact of your pretensions, pretensions from your aspirations or pretensions you’ve developed just in order to survive in a world that is competitive and stingy and unforgiving.

But God is subversive with our pretensions about ourselves. God turns us upside down and calls us the opposite of what we are or think we are or think we are supposed to be. God is with you like the midwives were with Pharaoh, leveraging your prejudice, God is with you like Moses’ sister with the princess, leveraging your selfishness, God is with you like Jesus with Peter, calling you a name that is the opposite of what you are. Which is good, right?

Your name is yours, but it does not belong to you. You learned your name from your mother calling you that sound. You learned to recognize that sound as you. Your learned yourself from other people calling you that. And it’s other people who say your name more than you do yourself. You have a name because of who you are to other people and what they want from you and need from you and also have for you. And your name carries associations, you are not free of them, you are tied for life to the associations of your name. I cannot measure the effect of my mom having called me Daniel instead of John, as in the family order it was my turn to be, but I’m sure it has affected me. Such is the reality of our relative powerlessness in the world, even with our own selves.

The subversion that is common in these stories is for different reasons. The subversion by the midwives is for resistance and survival. The subversion by the Lord Jesus is for love, for the loving vision of Simon can be when he’s transformed into Peter. When he’s no longer conformed to his old self but transformed to his new self. The Lord Jesus calls you to the same transformation. He subverts your vision of yourself in order to offer you his new vision of yourself.

But at the same time, you don’t have to hide your past behind a new name, like Mr. Wilhelm felt he had to do, but even your old self is loved by the Lord Jesus, and your name remains the same. The new name that the Lord God gives you is your old name, precisely in the honest story of your failures and your weaknesses, loved by God.

You don’t have to be afraid that God knows the whole truth about you because God will not desert you, because God loves you even for who you really are, not for whom you wish you could be. And we in the Christian community can do the same with each other, we can love each other in our weaknesses and failures, even in our pretensions in which we hide to protect ourselves, and we can extend that same love to the world, for then we are loving each other with the love of God for us.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved. 

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