Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 30 August 2020.
• First Reading: Exodus 3: 1-15 (The burning bush, the call of Moses)
• Epistle: Romans 12: 9-21 (Love in action: love must be sincere. Hate what is evil, cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another, never be lacking in zeal. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.)
• Gospel: Matthew 16: 21-28 (Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Me)
You may have noticed how there has been a continuing interest in the levels of representation of minorities in the more prestigious offices of society, the state and in the economy.
The demand is for their representation to be seen in Parliament and the Government, on company boardrooms, the ruling bodies of the arts and professions, and senior roles in the police and armed services.
In other words, all the roles that are prominent and possibly glamourous. No great pressure, I think for engagement in the less prestigious but still essential roles of society – refuse disposal, road sweepers, hospital porters, security guards. One response of course may be that our minorities are already well represented in these less desirable positions.
Yet our lessons are about those called to be sacrificial and self-giving, rather than to have glamour and command over others. Moses definitely did not want to go back to the Egyptian court and then to invite trouble by demanding the release of the Israelite slaves. For the last 40 years he had been enjoying a quiet life as a shepherd and had a wife and family.
Going back into a bear-pit was not on his agenda – but this was exactly what God was asking of him, even as he produced excuse after excuse for evading the call. I suppose he could have told the Lord to go and find someone else, but I think that the presence of the Lord in the burning bush was rather more commanding than that.
But Moses was a reluctant recruit.
Nevertheless, the Lord did give him something that was wholly priceless. He gave Moses His Name – that whom he could invoke in his personal prayers and in whose name he would speak and act in the courts and palaces of Egypt. In his work of obedience Moses would be able to call upon the Most High, at a moment’s notice – and frequently did just that.
Then there was Jesus’ alarming announcement to His disciples. Their idea of discipleship was based on what they had so far seen Jesus say and do. It was a discipleship of sticking it to the Pharisees and anyone else minded to oppose or question them. They would have a reflected glory as Jesus fed the masses, re-applied the customs of the Sabbath, took authority over sickness, death, sin, and the elements of the sky.
So far so good, but this was now going to change as Jesus Himself ventured into the courts of His opponents. In Jerusalem He would face the gathered rage of the religious power-brokers as they sought to maintain their positions in the face of Rome’s possibly capricious demands.
Now their fear and anger would be ranged against Jesus in particular and the disciples in general.
Now Jesus would face not only argument, which He could face down, but arrest, imprisonment, trial, abuse, scourging and the cross.
Now He would give His back to the smiters and the mockers, surrendering finally to the nails of the cross.
And this is not how success stories are supposed to end. They are expected to be, well, victorious. Certainly successful. They are not intended to end up on an execution gibbet.
But this was the climax to which Jesus was knowingly progressing, and now He was preparing His disciples for it. They would still be shocked and utterly dismayed, but at least there would be a background and a basis for what was to come.
And so discipleship began to look more cross-shaped.
In our day the stakes do not seem to be so critical, although legislation in Holyrood, supposedly to curb hate crime, is already exciting people who aim to use it against the church. So much for curbing hatred.
More to the point however is Paul’s instruction on living in a hostile environment. Love must be seen to be there in action, and it must be sincere.
It will certainly be costly and while it will bring comfort to many it will also be difficult, even burdensome. It will mean, in times when opinions are so easily manipulated, remaining constant to the Lord and remaining within the constancy of His love.
So: Be devoted to one another, never lacking in zeal. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
When many others are looking for excuses to be offended and to demand some kind of compensation, live in harmony with one another, especially when there is disagreement in the air and dispute in the gatherings.
That means being slow to take offence and being ready to listen to others, being forbearing, especially to the arrogant and the obnoxious.
Where insult and abuse are directed at the gospel and the gathering of disciples, then it is also directed at Jesus Himself and He will respond at the right time.
Paul himself has a stake in this for he had personally persecuted the church and yet the Lord had made a direct and personal approach to him.
And life was never the same again.