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27th August 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
25 August 2017

Readings

Exodus 1: 8-2:10

We now leave the Abraham saga and begin the Exodus saga.  Joseph came to Egypt as a slave and became the saviour in time of drought.  He not only saved the Egyptians, who he served, but also his own family who come to Egypt as refugees of the famine.  We now move to where the descendants of Joseph face the issue of all migrant minorities, they begin to be seen as a threat and to survive they engage in the occupations none of the first peoples wish to do.  In that way the descendants Joseph and his families return to the slavery that first brought Joseph to Egypt.  But their numbers mean they are still seen as a threat and become victims of the well known political ploy of gaining popular support by demonising a minority. 

Matthew 16: 13-20

To the question ‘who do people say that I am?’ Carter notes that the reported responses of people are all within the prophetic tradition but when the question is turned to the disciples Peter, as spokesperson for the group, replies you are the Christ or Messiah.  The term ‘Son of the living God’ is a term used of the Roman Emperor and Caesarea Philippi is a place of religious significance ranging from a shrine to Pan the god of flocks and shepherds to emperor worship.  King Herod built a marble temple there in honour of Augustus and it was also a holiday retreat for Roman officers so it was very much a place of imperial power. 

Matthew carries through from Mark the contrast between the pagan divinity shepherd connected to imperial Rome and the true shepherd of people who has compassion for the crowds and is God’s agent to create a new people of God.[1]

The commentary in The Five Gospels translation points out the pun (play on words) in the Greek between Peter’s name (petros) and petra which means rock.[2]

Sermon

We begin our journey through Exodus with Egypt’s xenophobia.  Joseph came to Egypt as a slave and became state servant and not only saved Egypt from famine but a budget surplus of grain enabled them to participate in the commodities market and sell stored grain to neighbouring peoples.  That agricultural trade brought Joseph’s family to Egypt and they were accepted because of Joseph’s position and service.  Joseph had the authority or influence to grant them residency in Egypt.  We understand that because from time to time we have a big scandal when a minister of immigration uses their authority to grant residency to someone who does not qualify for residency under the normal rules. 

We can therefore understand that as Jacob’s descendants increased they did not have inherited land so became labours which, with minimum pay rates, was slavery.  Furthermore our reading describes the Egyptian Employers Federation getting concerned that this substantial workforce might just up and leave.  

The next concern was that the Israelites might side with an enemy if they were attacked and during World War Two we interred New Zealand born Germans and Japanese because of that fear.  The United States had a massive interment programme but the descendants of Japanese immigrants who came to the Unites States for a better life and found it were unlikely to support the imperial Japan they left.

However having effectively interred and enslaved Jacob and Joseph’s descendants Egypt decided to limit their military threat by killing all the male babies.  That is a reversal of what happens in a lot of patriarchal and military cultures where males are valued and baby girls are discarded.  

We are then told about a couple from the priestly tribe, the Levites, have a baby son and the mother subverts the law by putting the baby in a waterproof basket before putting him in the river. 

That is the point in the narrative where compassion wins out over royal decree and Pharaoh’s daughter rescues the baby from the river.  George Gershwin was somewhat sceptical of Moses’ birth narrative when he wrote ‘Little Moses was found in a stream, he floated on water 'till ole Pharaoh's daughter, she fished him, she said, from that stream.’[3]

However as a princess and a member of the wealthy ruling class Pharaoh's daughter did not have to name the father to WINZ in order to get financial support and the accuracy is not the most important part of the story.

What is important, and should never be forgotten, is that in a harsh and brutal regime where human life, and practically children’s lives, were cheap an infant’s life is saved by a woman’s compassion.  The other significant point is that because that infant’s life was saved a whole nation came into being. 

That is something we all need to keep in mind when we look at the statistics of children born in less than ideal circumstances.  Children certainly suffer because parents don’t face up to their responsibilities and our world has parents who leave their babies to float on the river of chance.  But imagine what would not have happened if Ray Avery had died of exposure living under a railway bridge in a bleak English winter.

What sort of a world would we have if Joseph, on finding his fiancée Mary pregnant, followed the law and had her stoned to death.

In fact the story of Moses birth is echoed in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke for very good reason.  Moses was rescued from death at birth within an oppressive regime and went on to lead the formation of ‘a people of God’ in a wilderness journey that lasted forty years.  

According to the birth narrative Jesus was born in less than ideal circumstances.  Matthew even adds in an evil king slaughtering all the boy babies but Jesus is saved, somewhat ironically, by a trip to Egypt.  One of the strong themes in Matthew’s gospel is Jesus as the new Moses and, just like Mark’s narrative; today’s episode is a turning point.  Jesus is identified as the Messiah and then the narrative journey moves relentlessly to Jerusalem and the cross. 

We have had episodes where Jesus gives law in the Sermon on the Mount and feeds people in the wilderness in the feeding of the five thousand. So Matthew’s readers are guided to an understanding that Jesus has been echoing Moses’ journey and is building a new people of God.

The disciples repeat people’s speculation about his significance and they quote heroes from the past as illustration.  To avoid politics at this time we can recognise that we do that as well comparing and coming All Blacks with past greats.  We asked if Nick Willis was a new John Walker but sadly he wasn’t.  Young golfers of Asian ethnicity are regularly compared to Lydia Coe. 

Then Jesus asks the disciples who they see him as and having been with him along the gospel journey Peter answers on their behalf ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.’ (Matthew 16:16)  To the disciples Jesus is God’s instrument in bringing in the ‘kingdom of heaven.’  But it will take the rest of the gospel and the commission to make disciples of all nations before they understand what that might mean.

Meanwhile Jesus answers them by saying. ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.’ (Matthew 16:17,18)  How we understand that depends if we are Catholic or protestant so as members of reformed churches we first of all remember that in the original Greek of Matthew’s Gospel Peter’s name is Petros and petra means rock.  So there is a play on words which we call a pun.  But it is not because Peter is nicknamed rock that he is the foundation of the church.  The rock that forms the foundation of the church is the faith that Peter verbalises on behalf of all the disciples. 

The question for us as we come to our AGM is about the foundations we put down for the future of the church in this place.  Are our foundations rock solid? As far as the building goes the answer is yes, they are seven meter screw piles filled with concrete and attached to a steel frame.  What about our organisational structure, have we got the right people in the key positions, will our income fulfil our mission objectives?  Those are the questions we review in our AGM.

But the really important questions are about faith.  Are we the small beginnings that float on the river of change?  Can we be that baby bundle of hope that is picked up by compassion and nurtured into fulfilment?  A spark of life that grows into the inspiration and hope that brings God’s Realm into a sceptical world? 

Our challenge is a rock and roll challenge. 

Our challenge is to have Peter’s rock solid faith that rolls and continues to roll the Gospel into future generations. 



[1]Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) pp.332-335.

[2] Robert W. Funk , Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Polbridge Press, 1993), pp. 206-207.

[3] George Gershwin. Porgy and Bess (1935)

 

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