Thursday, August 18, 2011

Gifted and Called -- A Lectionary Meditation

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Gifted and Called

            I think that sometimes we talk so much about gifts and calling that we take for granted what this means.  This is especially true of those of us who are clergy.  Of course I’m called to ministry.  Why else would I be working this job?  You can read into this statement whatever you will, but in many ways there is a fine line that separates vocation (calling) from job.  As clergy, I derive my income and benefits from my employment at a church, and thus it is a job.  I have an employer to whom I’m responsible.  I have to turn in reports, face evaluation, and if people don’t like my sermons or the way I attend to the pastoral needs of the congregation I will face the consequences – calling from God or not.  After all, I do have a family to support!  But what does it mean to be called by God?

In our three texts – Exodus 1-2, Romans 12, Matthew 16 -- the issue of call and its costs is raised.  In the opening of Exodus we see the foundation laid for Moses’ eventual calling to free his people (though there is another important issue present here that I’ll want to attend to momentarily).  In Romans 12, Paul writes these words that are so familiar to us.  First he calls us to present our bodies as living sacrifices and then speaks of the gifts that God has blessed us with and calls upon us to make use of these gifts so that the body might be one.  Finally, in Matthew we see two things occur – a confession of faith and a call to ministry.  One is rooted in the other.  So, to what are we called?  And on what basis is this calling issued?

Before I get to the birth of Moses, which in many ways has its parallels in Matthew’s infancy narrative, I want to reflect on the plight of the Hebrews and its modern parallels.  Remember from Genesis 45 how Joseph invited his family to join him in Egypt, giving them the region of Goshen in which to settle.  Pharaoh even backed the idea!  But it’s now been a long time since Joseph was Prime Minister in Egypt, a new Pharaoh has risen to power, and he doesn’t know Joseph.  What he does know is that these Hebrews/Israelites are growing in number and power and that this could threaten their power.  In other words, they could overwhelm the Egyptians and dilute their cultural power.  Does this sound familiar?  Does not the fear that this people who seem rather prodigious in reproducing might present problems to the Egyptian people?  So worried is Pharaoh that he orders that they be put to hard labor, building cities for Pharaoh.  Maybe all this work will slow down the reproductive rates, but that fails.  Then, when that doesn’t work, Pharaoh turns to murder, ordering the midwives to kill the baby boys, though letting the girls live.  But the midwives are faithful to God and refuse, while telling Pharaoh that they simply can’t get there in time to do the dirty job.  Finally, Pharaoh tells the people if they find Hebrew baby boys to throw them in the river to drown.  Despite all this effort to stem the growth of this alien population in their midst, they continue to grow in numbers and strength.  Does this say something to us about how we treat the alien in our midst?

Well, it is in this context that a baby boy is born to a family from the tribe of Levi, and the mother simply can’t bear to kill her son, so she hides him for as long as possible, before putting him in that famous basket and hides him in the reeds, where he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who feels sorry for the child and rescues him, even allowing for the baby’s sister to take the baby to the baby’s mother to nurse.  Of course, this is only the beginning of the story, but it does speak to us about the providence of God, if we’re willing to listen and be faithful to God.  Ultimately this baby grows up to be Moses the deliverer, deliverer of an oppressed and marginalized people.

The Gospel text is a rather well known passage as well.  Here Jesus gathers his disciples at Caesarea Philippi and takes a little poll.  He wants to know what they’ve been hearing.  Who do they say I am?  And the answers they offer link Jesus – not to Moses – but to other voices for God, from John the Baptist to Elijah, Jeremiah to others among the prophets.  These are all spokespersons for God, but unlike Moses are neither lawgivers nor deliverers.  Jesus then says to them:  But who do you say that I am? 

The answer to the question is given by Simon, who offers what we have come to know as the Good Confession (this is the sole creedal statement that Disciples of Christ, my denomination, require of those seeking membership or baptism).  “You are the Messiah and the Son of the Living God.”  This is the confession of faith, but having requested this confession Jesus commissions Peter.  Jesus says to Simon:  Because you have given the right answer, the one that was revealed to you by my Father who is in heaven (otherwise you would have given a similar answer to the rest of the crowds) I’m going to change your name (commissioning often involve name changes – from Abram to Jacob.  So, now you’ll be known as Peter, the Rock upon which I’ll build my church.   And to you I give these jobs – bind and loose on earth, so that whatever you bind and loose here will happen in heaven.     Now I know that we Protestants like to say that Jesus wasn’t making Peter the rock upon which the church would be built, but rather the confession, I think the Catholics are right about this, though I’m not sure that we can assume that Jesus is making Peter head of a church that as of yet doesn’t really exist.  In fact, we should probably note that this whole idea of church is being introduced here at a later date.  Nonetheless, isn’t this confession the basis of the commission, that we all share in.  That is, Peter becomes the representative Rock, and those who make the same confession receive the same commission to act with Christ on Christ’s behalf in the world, so as to unlock the door to the kingdom for all who would enter.  Isn’t that our calling as Jesus’ people – to share in the work of ushering in the reign of God? 

I normally conclude these reflections with the Gospel, but I’d like to finish with thoughts on Paul’s words.  That’s because I think they draw the threads of this discussion together.  Paul speaks to us of offering our lives to God as living sacrifices, which is our act of spiritual worship.  The mother of Moses offered her son up to God as a living sacrifice, so that he might be of use to God.   The mother of Jesus did the same thing.  Both faced death at an early age, and both were willing, when the time came, to be used by God to accomplish the purposes of God.  Peter heard the same calling and committed himself to this cause.  All these lives became vessels of worship of God.  And to those willing to make themselves available to God, receive the gifting of God, which enable them to fulfill their callings.  So be sober in your judgment of yourselves.  Don’t take your lives and your callings for granted.  Know that you are of great importance to the body.  We may be many members, but we all have important functions in this one body.  Just as the midwives and the mother of Moses, the sister of Moses and the daughter of Pharaoh also had their roles to play.

So here is the question – what is your place?  What is your calling?  What is your giftedness?  Is it prophecy? Then share the message!  Is it ministry? Then do ministry! Is it giving?  Then be generous!  Teachers should teach, exhorters exhort, leaders lead with diligence, and the compassionate, should share their compassion in cheerfulness. 

What is your gift?  What is your calling?  You are the rock, upon which God’s church is being built, so open the gates to the realm of God with those keys you’ve been given!    

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