The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Call to Worship
We step off the streets, away from places of work, shopping mall, billboards, and news broadcasts, to stand before the living God.
Our help is in the name of the living God, maker of heaven and earth.
We turn away from the world and the patterns of power that too often hurt, trap, and swallow us up.
We stand before our helper, the God of mercy, who rescues and renews us.
We come to this sanctuary seeking the living God, maker of heaven and earth.
We present ourselves to the living God, who is compassionate and merciful, as a living and pleasing sacrifice.
God of all, we gather with you in anticipation of what lies ahead. We know there is more to come in our journey of faith. There are voices still to be heard and prayers still to be said, knowledge still to be gained and love still to be learned. We come to enter the mystery of your wisdom and care as we continue our journey. Some of us have succeeded, others have failed and seek reassurance. Some of us feel trapped and helpless, others know they have escaped and feel relief. Remind us in worship today of your power and mercy. Replenish our courage and vision. Renew our identity as your people. Amen.
HYMN– TIS 647 Comfort
Chorus: Comfort, comfort all my people with the comfort of my Word.
Speak it tender to my people: All your sins are taken away
- Though your tears be rivers running;
though your tears be an ocean full;
though you cry with the hurt of living:
Every valley shall be lifted;
every mountain shall be low;
every rough place will be smoother:
comfort, comfort. CHORUS
- Though your eyes see only darkness,
though your eyes can see no light,
though your eyes see pain and sorrow:
Every night will have its morning,
every pain will have an end,
every burden will be lightened:
comfort, comfort. CHORUS
Scripture Readings- Exodus 1: 8 to 2: 10; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20
Prayer of Confession-
Merciful God, you hand the Church the keys to heaven and set us on the road of faith but we confess we don’t always accept your invitation to faithful discipleship. We let urban myths and popular opinion direct the choices we make and often our navigation is misdirected by arrogance and pride. There are times when fear and selfishness take charge and drive us rapidly down rough tracks that should be taken with steady caution. It is hard to admit that the damage we do takes time and great effort to repair.
Loving God, correct our ways and bring us to a place of wisdom and understanding. Replace our hubris with kindness, our fear with joyful anticipation of what is to come, our selfishness with empathy, and our “don’t rock the boat” attitudes with wonder at becoming part of your new creation.
Teach us to use the keys of the kingdom that you have given us to transform our lives and our world. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.
Words of Assurance
God’s promise to us is sure. There is no path, road or byway that may be out of reach of God’s mercy. Each of us is part of this Church, this body of Christ.
Each of us has unique gifts and our own unique calling. Know that through God’s mercies, you are forgiven. Know that God will bless you with new imaginings, new thoughts, new hopes, and new courage, that all may serve God’s kingdom. Amen.
Sermon – Speaking up with courage
This week we have heard on the news of yet another Russian opposition leader falling ill with poisoning. Alexei Navalny exposed the high level corruption in Russia and for being a critic of Putin has been imprisoned, banned from standing for 2018 Presidential elections, had chemicals thrown in his face and poisoned over recent years. He continued to campaign and speak out against the current leadership. Back here in Australia a book has been released telling the story of Fr Glen Walsh, a young parish priest who exposed the pedophile priest Fr Fletcher and was willing to testify to Archbishop Philip Wilson’s cover-up. Two weeks before that trial, he was called to Rome to have a personal interview with the Pope and cautioned about his exposures to the ‘secular’ police authorities. Sadly, he committed suicide under the pressure of it all before giving his testimony. It often takes great courage and a willingness to suffer the consequences of speaking up to confront the powers of the day.
Others can speak up with courage to challenge the accepted norms of thinking because they have fresh insight, a new creative alternative which can prove life-giving for a community. Rev Dorothy Harris-Gordon was one such woman. A Bundjalung woman who continued to speak her ancestral language as well as English, she grew up on a reserve near Lismore, NSW in a devout Christian family. Aged 8 years, she told her grandmother she wanted to be a pastor or minister when she was an adult. She married Rev Charles Harris when 21 and moved to Queensland.
In 1982 at Crystal Creek conference centre, Aboriginal and Islander Christian leaders gathered in the shadow of conflict over land rights and justice for the Stolen Generation and black deaths in custody. Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, from NT Northern synod and Rev Charles Harris wanted to start a separate Aboriginal church, but it was their wives, Gelung and Dorrie, who under the direction of the Holy Spirit, strongly discerned they should not break the body of Christ but find their place within the Uniting Church. The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress was founded and officially accepted at Assembly 1985. After Charles died in early 1993, Dorrie candidated and was ordained in 1999 as the first Aboriginal woman Minister of the Word in NSW. Her ministry in northern NSW led to her acknowledgement as Lismore’s Citizen of the Year Australia Day award in 2016. She was a mentor an inspiration to many subsequent Aboriginal clergy, especially to women until her death on 7th August. A memorial service was held in Lismore on Saturday 22nd August 2020. (see the Pastoral letter 13th August 2020 on the Assembly UCA website https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3221-pastoral-letter-rev-dorothy-harris-gordon-1941-2020)
So once again, it seems God’s timing for our lectionary readings this week to feature those who speak up and act with courage to bring life for others – offering their bodies as a living sacrifice in service and worship of God.
The sagas of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his son Joseph in Genesis turn in Exodus to the new hero and leader, moses. Typically for ancient heroes, his birth story has remarkable miracles associated with his future role. While the Biblical text explains the Egyptian Princess, daughter of Pharaoh, names him “Moses, because I drew him out of the water” Hebrew scholars claim that ‘Moses” is closer to “who draws out” rather than “who was drawn out.” His adult role in drawing the Hebrew people out of Egypt through the waters of the Sea of Reeds in Exodus 14 (not the Red Sea as many of us were taught in bygone years!) is connected with the story of his being saved while floating on the River Nile. Tom Willadsen further connects this story to that of Noah – both float in a boat/basket lined with pitch (bitumen) without any steering mechanism and the purpose is to protect God’s special cargo for the new start for their community.
Before we get to Moses, in Exodus 1 we hear of the oppression of the Hebrew people by a Pharaoh who ‘knew not Joseph’ and feared the foreigners would become too numerous and may side with enemies to overtake Egypt and threat his power. His solution wsa to wear them down with hard work to make their lives miserable. When that failed, he instructed the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, to kill baby boys at birth but to let the girls live. The two women were faithful to God and refused to obey the order, risking their lives. When questioned by Pharaoh, they spoke up with courage giving a story of Hebrew women giving birth more quickly than Egyptian ones which the Pharaoh seems to have accepted. Later he ordered ALL in the nation to throw baby boys into the River Nile.
A descendent of Jacob’s son Levi, also challenges the Pharaoh by setting her son on the River Nile in a basket and asking his older sister Miriam, to watch him. When she sees the Pharaoh’s daughter discover the basket and is moved by compassion for the crying child, Miriam speaks up with courage to the Princess offering a “Hebrew woman to care for the child.” Thus, the women – mother, sister, Egyptian Princess and her maids – all defy the Pharaoh’s orders to kill and preserve the life of this future leader. Courage and compassion transform the minds of these women so they become living sacrifices – witnesses and servants of God’s mercy and providence. The power of Pharaoh is undermined by the care and compassion of women who serve God and choose LIFE over death. Moses’ mother continues her living sacrifice by later relinquishing the son to be adopted into the Pharaoh’s family.
Any Sunday School teacher or Religious Educator in schools will tell you how often young children confuse baby Moses with baby Jesus – both grew up to speak with courage to challenge the powers of oppression of their times. The Messiah would be like Moses, God’s prophet leading the people of Israel from slavery to freedom from oppression by foreigners and away from worship of false gods.
To appreciate the nuances of the story in Matthew 16 of the acknowledgement of Jesus as Messiah, we need to remember that the disciples in Matthew 14:33 and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:22 had already acknowledged Jesus as Lord, Son of God, Son of David. Unlike the gospel of Mark, this is not the turning point or climax of the gospel Matthew is teaching. Clarity on what the disciples believed about Jesus would determine their futures as well as his. To declare him ‘Messiah, Son of the living God’ was to commit blasphemy according to Jewish leaders and sedition against the Roman Emperor – punishable by death for others before him who claimed to be messiah.
The very setting of the story is key to its impact. The area near Caesarea Philippi is 40 km from the Sea of Galilee on the northern border of Israel with Syria just below Mt Hermon on what we know now as the Golan Heights. In Canaanite times before the tribe of Naphtali settled there, fertility gods of Baal and Asherah were worshipped on the 100feet high rocky ridge overlooking a spring from Mt Hermon that is the source of the River Jordan. When the Greeks conquered the land, they replaced Baal and Asherah with Greek gods – including Hades, the god of the underworld or death; Hermes the messenger who led people into and out of the underworld; and his son Pan, half-man and half goat who was god of shepherd and flocks and lived in caves. The Greek settlers made a shrine to Pan near the cave which reminded them of sacred grottos in Greece. The cave was thought of as the entrance to the underworld, its deep base appeared to be a bottomless pit and well fed by the spring from Mt Hermon, named after Hermes.
The Greeks named the area Panias, but later Arabs could not pronounce ‘P’ and it became Banias. When the Romans conquered the land, they adopted the god Pan. In 20 BCE Emperor Augustus granted the region to King Herod, who built a temple near the grotto of Pan to honour Caesar in 19 BCE. When his son Philip inherited the region in 2 BCE, he established his capital there and renamed the town Caesarea but added his own name to distinguish it from other cities called Caesarea. Because the sanctuary of Pan continued to be important for the religious life of the area, a multicultural and multifaith crossroads on the Via Maris linking Egypt and Syria and Turkey, it was also known as Paneas. Please turn back to the photos on p.4 to see the cave and temples. By the 4th century AD/CE, Pan, the god with goat’s horns, was associated in Christian circles with Satan because of the connection with the underworld or death, and so the Middle Ages devils have horns like Satan. At the time Jesus and his disciples visited the area, it was associated for Jewish people with evil and death – pagan gods and Roman power. People had been gathering there to worship for centuries and to hear Roman proclamations – the meaning of the Greek word ecclesia translated in English as ‘church’.
Challenging the powers that seemed to permeate the place, Jesus asks his disciples the key question: Who do YOU say I am? Peter’s reply “You are the Messiah, Son of the living God” is divine inspiration and revelation. Dr Paul T. Penley sees Jesus’ response to Peter as a complicated play on words in the context of the environment around and its history. The 500 feet long and 100 feet high rock face above them with its traditional ‘entrance to the underworld’ cave is a physical image of opposition but Peter’s confession of faith becomes an even more significant ‘rock’ or foundation for the new ‘gathering of people’ (church) to hear the gospel of life which overcomes death ironically achieved through the coming death and resurrection of Jesus – a very different Messiah.
The foundational truth of who Jesus is as Messiah will be key to being part of the kingdom of heaven – of living in and under God’s rule, not just the current Roman authorities. Peter and the other disciples will have to guard the Truth of Jesus’ teaching in future years, especially under the persecutions of the Christian community in the late 1st century. The power of death will not be able to stop the growth of Jesus’ new community. God is the one who entrusts Peter and the disciples to lead on earth people into God’s kingdom ways. Jesus and his disciples are about to move from this northern part of Israel down to the south to Jerusalem and on the way he will engage with the opposition powers by speaking up courageously and suffer the consequences modelling death and resurrection for the disciples in the kingdom of God.
When I visited this site in 1998, I found it beautiful and peaceful. The clarity and purity of the water were for me a metaphor of the key understanding of the Christian faith – Jesus is LORD, Son of God. He is the conqueror of the fear of death and the One who opens the kingdom of heaven for us. To make that confession is to receive the keys into the kingdom, but the disciples at Caesarea Philippi had not yet experienced Jesus’ death and resurrection so they did not understand his work as Messiah, Son of God, so he cautions them to be silent about his role.
Have you also made that confession of faith in Jesus? When have you had to speak up with courage for Truth, or against oppression, or to enable the life of others to flourish? Midwives and sisters, mothers and daughters of the ruling class, or inspired fishermen can be used by God to enable Salvation – the future LIFE for people with God released from their fears.
HYMN- AHB 170 At the name of Jesus (TIS 231)
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O God, maker of heaven and earth, you are our help in the midst of need and danger. Bless our gifts this day, that they may find their way to those who feel hopeless and without resource. May our gifts be a sign of your hope and love, and may the people we help find their way to safety. Amen.
Prayer of Intercession –
Gracious God, who hears the cries of all and knows the yearning of our hearts, we pray for people and places that we see struggling to get by: those who are ill; those burdened economically; and those in strained relationships. May we find ways to help lighten their load. We pray for all struggling against the Covid 19. For the ill, for those who care for them, for those searching for medicines to control the virus. For our leaders having to make decisions about the unknown future. Bless and grant them your wisdom.
We think of those living in fear in homes where there is violence; in places recovering from disaster; and in areas of war and conflict. May we be peacemakers in our community and advocates for those who campaign for peace and justice in distant places.
God of wonder, what amazing gifts you place in our hands. You hand us the keys to life, not life in the ordinary sense of the number of our days on earth, but life in all its fullness: life abounding with blessing, embedded in compassion and guided by the Spirit. You teach us patience, kindness and humility. You accompany us with peace, hope, joy and love. You give us this wonderous earth to live on and experience. We are always surprised by the beauty that is on display everyday as we find there is something new to marvel at. We are blessed and we are thankful. Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer- Pray the Lord’s Prayer.
HYMN-AHB 385 The Church’s one foundation
Go from here with the keys of the kingdom jangling in your hands, always at the ready to open the gates of heaven to all you meet.
May God’s love be in our hearts; Christ’s words be upon our lips and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit be our guide. Amen.
Resources used in this service include Words for Worship year A 23rd August 2020 by MediaCom (subscription of Rev Dr Elizabeth Nolan) and The Abingdon Worship Annual 2020 edited by Mary Scifres and B.J. Beu, Abingdon Press, Nashville USA (owned by EN); gathering Pentecost Year A 2020, United Church of Canada (EN subscription); and Uniting in Worship People’s Book by Uniting Church Press (JBCE) 1988 Melbourne and The Australian Hymn Book multiple copies owned by the St Lucia Uniting Church congregation. Copyright license #217268.