Can you see it?

Sunday Sermon
All Saints’ Anglican Church, Rome
The 12th Sunday after Trinity
August 30th, 2020
Exodus 3:1-15
Matthew 16:21-28

Can you see it?  Your life finally in order? 

What will your next ten years look like?  What might you gain? What could you lose?  What can you see?  Your next ten years? 

Vision is prior to reality, isn’t it?  

Not just for poets.  For ordinary folks as well.  From making a meal to planning your career to settling into a realistic retirement you need to see it in your headfirst.  Can you see it?  These ingredients on the worktop in front of me will combine thus and so.   This I put into the pan first, at 220 degrees C for half an hour and then down to 170 for a slower bake.  This I will put in the pan a half hour later.  Then I will finish the whole thing off with a knob of butter and a few herbs.  I see that before I start. 

The reality in here, after all, is an analogue of the reality out there.  I can generally trust what’s in here to demonstrate what will happen out there.  If I can see it, I can do it. Your life in order. Do you see it?

Let’s play with three headings, shall we?

One:  You’re going to do what comes naturally or what comes your way or what lands in your lap.  It’s more a matter of continuity than novelty.  You follow in the family business.  You copy the traditions of your mother and father because, after all, they were good people and they were all about worthy pursuits and you would be happy to be the man or woman they were.   You’ve been hearing about family traditions in bits and pieces since you were small.  You wear them like a badge.  We are, in our family, artisans.  We are managers.  We are educators.  In my tradition we face the world as a family unit, we are stable mums and dads with family pictures on the wall and so the stable family unit is what we, my childhood sweetheart and I, will build together with our happy children.  I can see it now.

Or two: the slow construction of a life which is your own and which differs thoroughly from what you grew up with.  Darned if you’re going to turn out like mum or dad – you want to do somewhere different, be something different – breath different air and so from the first day you kicked off the traces of family obligation and stuck your head above the parapet which your aunties helpfully told you was your upper limit, you’ve studied, you’ve apprenticed, you’ve been deferential and cooperative with all the necessary idiots.  You’ve run the gauntlet.   You can see all the certificates you’ll need, all the increments of education or experience and one by one they’re falling like soldiers or dominoes or clay pigeons shot out of the sky.  Of course, you’re going to make it.  You can see it happening and it will.  You’ve listened to this sermon. The vicar of All Saints’ once again has hit the nail on the head and has earned his bottle of Highland Park at Christmastime.  Vision is prior to reality and I can see it.  It will happen.

Oops.  It didn’t.  Three:  you’re rebuilding after disaster.  That’s a skill set all its own, isn’t it?  Things went south despite vision and hard work.  The Vicar of All Saints’ is a pillock – no Highland Park for him.  The climate changed, the lockdown happened, the clock ran out, there were more assumptions than clear vision, the Guardia di Finanza caught up with me, pride came before the fall, we were let down by circumstances or by other people.  The business failed, the marriage ended, our spouse died.  We went splat.  And now we have these books we found in the self-help section of the bookstore – how to rebuild after disaster.  Making the most of a bad lot in life.  What to do with lemons – lots of lemons.  I may be fifty, but life can again be nifty.  And - following six months of self-pity something akin to a vision reasserted itself.  A more modest proposal, without a doubt.  A bit less lateral thinking, for sure.  We’re serious people suddenly.  We are now mutton after all and not lamb. A bit more keeping our eyes on the furrow ahead.  But one morning, a few months back, despite everything, out of the blue, standing in line at a check-out, a vision reasserted itself.  You almost wanted to turn around and ask the person behind you, “Can you see it?  I can see it.  It is possible.  It will be possible again”.  

I would like to describe this morning the visions of two men.  Moses and Simon Peter. 

We’ll start with Peter.  Peter the fisherman, from Bethsaida at the north end of the Sea of Galilee.   Brought to Jesus by his little brother Andrew, he was not the first of the disciples, but he soon worked his way up.  In last week’s Gospel reading Peter ended up well top of the heap, didn’t he, having been the only one to correctly answer Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?”  He identified that Jesus was the Messiah – the Christ of God.  He received abundant praise for correctly answering the question.  He got his own set of keys.  The Messiah.  Not Elijah or John the Baptist come back from the dead – not Jeremiah or one of the prophets reinserted into the world – not something old creaking around again on the earth on bad knees but something brand new - the One through whose effort and presence God would remake Israel and, through Israel, the world itself.  Well done, that man.  And this fact once established:  isn’t there is a vision which goes along with that? Something for Peter to plan for.  Ingredients on the worktop which, according to Betty Crocker or Nigella Lawson, go into the pot in a certain order.  The messiah strengthens and conquers – he takes what is weak and makes it strong.  And so, it is no coincidence that in the ministry of Jesus the sick are healed and the lepers cleansed.  The messiah is convincing – he speaks God’s words with the ring of truth which are proper to them and so it is no coincidence that the Pharisees cannot best him in making the Scriptures apply with their primordial meaning.  Even the devil who thinks he knows scripture best cannot outdo him.  And so those who are judged and excluded are readmitted into God’s favour and the pious indignation of the scribes and Pharisees – supposedly based on the Word of God - is revealed as nothing but the basest and cruellest prejudice.  It’s happening according to plan, says Peter, it’s just what you said to John the Baptist was happening.  The Messiah conquers.  The Kingdom is emerging.  I am a part of this Kingdom.  I am a part of this movement.  Jesus tells me that I am useful.  I know what happens next.  I can see it.  We will now move from strength to strength.  We will consolidate our forces.  The Kingdom will be restored to Israel.  It, and we, will emerge powerfully.

Moses.  Moses was minding his own business in Midian.  He was desperately trying to lose the Egyptian accent which people noticed when they spoke with him.  It was an accent worth losing.  First, it was a lie: he wasn’t Egyptian.  He’d been a Hebrew child raised like a dirty secret in the heart of the Egyptian court.  Second, it provided a clue to his past misdeeds.  The child became a man back in Egypt and his identity crisis sharpened.  He snapped.  He killed an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave and thus became a fugitive from Egyptian justice. His picture was in the Post Office.

Moses dodged the murder charge.   He walked the width of the desert and crossed the border into Midian.  He married the daughter of a prominent local family and in what would then have been early middle age he began to work on his pension.   He had a plan.  He knew what came next.

This Sunday’s reading begins with Moses following the flocks - a perfectly ordinary Midianite shepherd on a perfectly regular day with only the barest trace of an accent.  Everything is on track.  Jethro, his father in law, will one day gently pop his clogs.  These sheep will be Moses’ sheep.

The recipe for what Moses needed to do next is exactly what every new parolee needs to do upon his release from prison.  He needs to keep his eyes forward and to follow the path.  He’s been given a fresh chance and when you’re given a fresh start and limited time, you stick to the straight and narrow.  It’s the same at the tail-end of the world’s worst divorce or a personal bankruptcy or at the beginning of widowhood.  It’s what communities must do when a war ends or after a natural disaster.   One foot goes in front of the other.   Direct those fat sheep to market down the straight path. That’s all.  Nothing else.  For pity’s sake, man, don’t get distracted.

Neither of these stories ends up where the protagonists imagine they will and we must now account for the spanners which God tosses into the works – into the lives of Peter and Moses – for the left turn which is the defeat of what they have come to know and depend on for their forward trajectory – for the end of what they know or think they know - for the knife which now cuts the fabric, the stone which cracks the base, for the extra last minute ingredients which make it no longer possible to hold in their heads the very thing which they thought they saw clearly.

What’s the smile on your face, Peter?  Jesus asks.  Did I mention that the Son of Man must go to Jerusalem, where he will be at the mercy of the scribes and Pharisees?  Where he will be handed over to the gentiles?  Where he must suffer and die?  Where everything you see around you today will, for all intents and purposes, appear to crumble?

You look like the cat what ate the canary, Moses, says God to him.  Well done on your rainbow retirement plan.  Have you seen, by the way, this twinkling light over to your left on the horizon – this amazing bush which burns without being consumed and which right now is drawing you away from what you have built as your last reasonable hope.  Oh, and pay no attention to that parole officer yelling at you from the next hillside and waving his arms.  The bush, Moses.  Go and talk to the bush.

So, what’s that all about?

God is not a trickster who hates order.   But our order is not his.    

Our comprehension of things is the way we arrange our lives.  Our minds produce satisfying patterns of understanding the way our spleen or our liver produce enzymes.  It is the attempt of the organism to control its future and it is no coincidence that the difference between comprehension and apprehension is not very much and that we can frequently use them interchangeably in a sentence.  “I have finally grasped it”, we say to our friends after a study session on a knotty bit of Maths or Philosophy or Biochemistry.  Nailed it” we say when the exam is completed.  To know something is to nail it down – to keep it fixed.   It is a top dresser drawer well laid out and organized which brings comfort to us but it is not the wide world and our conceptions of the Kingdom are not the Kingdom and both Peter and Moses must step aside to let God do what he will do with them.  They stand, after all, in a river and not in a lake.

Disorder is not a good thing on its own.  Maybe you are prone to disorder.   Somebody needs to sit you down and ask why you have no roots – why you put others at risk – the people you work with, the people in your family – by the chaos with which you surround yourself.  No – these passages and hopefully this sermon speak to people who, in fact, yearn for order, about something of value which can only be had by surrendering your traditionally ordered life or the new life of order which you’ve rescued from the ashes because you’re surrendering it to something better, to the Kingdom and not simply to some – I don’t know – Dionysian principle of Chaos.

Moses and Peter stand in the midst of God’s projects.  Moses has reordered his life but the Hebrews are enslaved in Egypt and it is a strong, resilient and now reordered man to whom God says you will make yourself vulnerable again because you stand at the turning of an epoch and you are valuable to me. 

“Go down Moses, down to Egypt land.  Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.”

To what end will you save and not spend?  To what end do you grow strong if you will not lend that strength to another at your own cost?  What is the purpose of what you have, if not to give it away?  What is your membership in God’s Kingdom or in the Church of God if you will not serve your generation?

I will assume of you, this morning, not only a general religious sentiment about order and propriety but that you now and here understand – as Peter then and there did not yet understand – that at the center of God’s plunge into the world is the Cross and not the Pinnacle of the Temple and that you would, and in fact will, walk through that unexpected door, that injudicious door, that doorway which leads to risk and vulnerability and that you are capable of sacrifice and of making difficult choices which see earlier and, perhaps, more self-serving conceptions fall to the side.  You will do so for the life of the Kingdom, for the community of the Church – writ large – of which you are a member, for those you know who suffer and for those you do not know.

Nobody will remember that you had a lot.  Nobody will remember that it was laid out in the right order.  Your community, your family and your friends will remember you as one who served something beyond yourselves – because you recognized your citizenship in the Kingdom of God and you recognized where and when you lived and waded right in where good sense said you should not.

« Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. »

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