Sunday 30 August 2020 – Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-end
The world, by which I mean in this case the tabloid press, love a good ‘naughty Vicar’ story. If a vicar is caught cheating on their partner or committing any kind of crime then you can bet that the press will be all over the story in a way that wouldn’t apply if the perpetrator did most other jobs.
Politicians and celebrities get similar treatment but, even with them, that sort of behaviour is more expected and cheating on your wife is no bar to the highest of political offices these days.
I suspect that people love to read about Vicars going wrong either because it confirms their view that the church is hypocritical, preaching one thing whilst doing another, or they have a salacious interest in seeing those who hold themselves out as being ‘pure’ fall from grace.
How we love to put people in categories and, woe betide them, if their behaviour does not fit into our categories. What clearer distinctions could be made than between pure and impure, between sacred and secular, between saint and sinner, between heaven and hell, between human and divine. Surely, we tell ourselves, that these categories must be mutually exclusive and that to cross between them is either impossible or unforgivable.
However real life is often messier than the categories we seek to impose upon it and, perhaps even more challengingly, the characters and the events we find in the bible, even the most celebrated and foundational, often demonstrate that God has no choice than to work his purposes through fallible, broken, human beings because that is all he has but, and here is the good news, being broken and fallible is no bar to also being forgiven and lifted up into God’s presence, indeed that is the whole point of God’s saving work on earth.
Our first reading this morning recounted the call of Moses to become the saviour of the Hebrew people, leading them from slavery and into the land flowing with milk and honey. Moses is obviously one of the towering figures of the Hebrew scriptures and, along with Elijah, is one of two who also appear in the New Testament at the transfiguration of Jesus. We know that Moses spent time in the presence of God, that he received the ten commandments directly from God and that the Red Sea parted before him as they fled from Egypt.
By any reckoning and on any scale Moses must count as a ‘holy’ figure? Of course, he does, but today we are reminded of some of the messiness of life.
The Moses we encounter today does not look particularly holy. He is employed as a shepherd. Nothing wrong with a bit of honest agricultural work, of course, and we often think of Jesus as a metaphorical shepherd or we may think of the shepherds of Bethlehem who were honoured to hear the heavenly choir announce the birth of Jesus.
But the reality of being a shepherd, is one of hot, boring and probably often smelly work and quite different from the ‘holiness’ of being a priest like the owner of the flock, his father-in-law, Jethro the priest of Midian.
Nothing about Moses the shepherd looks particularly holy and it is worth remembering how he came to be working as a shepherd at all. In the preceding chapter of Exodus the young man Moses had witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and Moses killed him and hid his body in the sand. He then fled to Midian in fear of his own life.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Moses was a killer and a refugee and employed to look after a bunch of smelly sheep. I doubt he looked or felt or smelt holy in any sense.
And yet God wasn’t confined by human categories or preconceptions. When God chose to call someone into his service and onto his holy ground, he did not call the priest of Midian but this most imperfect of characters.
We know that Moses did not feel worthy of this call because his response was not “At last I have been recognised for the true person I am below this shepherding exterior”, rather it was “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?”
Who am I?
I often encounter ordinands both in real life and on Twitter who are awaiting ordination and I always have more confidence in the ones who say: Who am I? those those who say: Here I am, Lord!
God’s response to Moses’ question is the same as the assurance we are given in the service of ordination: “I will be with you” or “With the help of the Lord, I shall.”
It seems to me that God can do more good through the imperfect who know their need for the continual presence and help of God then those who think themselves perfect in their own strength.
Moses’ imperfection was no bar to being called to stand on Holy ground and to do the work of God.
In the Gospel reading this morning we also encounter the reality that holiness and imperfection often interact in ways which defy our comfortable categories.
Simon, like Moses, had also been employed in difficult, smelly and ‘unholy’ work although as a fisherman, rather than as a shepherd. As God called Moses so Jesus called Simon and, in last week’s gospel reading, we heard how Jesus called him Peter, the Petrus or rock upon which the church would be built, that he would be given the keys of heaven and that whatever he bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven. This should have been the apogee of Simon Peter’s transformation from unholy to holy.
But this week how things have changed. The rock on which the church is built has become a stumbling block to Jesus.
Having just acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus now teaches the disciples what that actually means. It does not mean the defeat of the Romans, it does not mean earthly success, it does not mean any kind of triumph. For Jesus to be the Messiah means, first to suffer many things and to be killed and, only after that defeat, to be raised again to life.
It is clear that despite Peter’s ‘ordination’ as the rock of the church that he doesn’t yet understand the true purpose of Jesus and he tries to use his new-found authority to bind Jesus himself “Never Lord!” he said. A far cry from “Your will be done.”
Jesus response is quite shocking – he not only calls Peter a stumbling block but he actually calls him Satan. This bring to mind Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness when Satan offered Jesus the easy way out of suffering and, of course, that is exactly what Peter is doing – he is tempting Jesus to avoid the suffering, go straight for the triumph.
“You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Then Jesus tells all the disciples, not just Peter, that the way to follow him does not include the easy path, the avoidance of suffering, but that they must each carry their own cross and lose their own life, because that is the only way to find their true life.
Do we seek the cross or do we seek success or do we seek the true success that only comes on the other side of the cross?
There are many lessons to be learned from today, and from our imperfect situation at present. But, for me at least, the lesson is this: perfection is not a pre-requisite for being called by God. If God can call Moses then he can call you or I. And being called by God, and even being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, is no guarantee of never getting it wrong. If Peter can be called the rock one moment and Satan the next, can deny Jesus and yet still be forgiven, then rest assured that you are unlikely to annoy Jesus more than Peter did.
Our present situation as a church and as a world is messy and imperfect and often feels far from holy.
Which means that it is probably just right for God to call us and use us and ask us to follow him. But we have to be prepared to pick up our crosses and walk.