As many of you know, and as the rest of you will soon find out, I am fascinated by language. Exploring how language works is a fascinating insight into the human mind. Indeed, I am one of those who believes less that language shapes the way we think than it reveals how we think.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
August 23, 2020
Exodus 1:8–2:10; Matthew 16:13–20
For example, have you noticed that bad guys have lairs and hideouts, while the good guys have secret bases? There are pirate lairs but rebel bases (assuming the rebels are the good guys). The opening crawl of Star Wars would have felt quite different if it had read “Rebel spaceships striking from a hidden lair….” What’s fascinating is that both the good guys and the bad guys—especially when outnumbered—do the same thing: they have a secret base of operations somewhere out of the way from which to launch their attacks on a vastly superior foe. It’s telling that we describe them differently depending on whether we sympathize with the rebel or the vastly superior foe.
Because in the end, the tactic is the same: find somewhere safe, far away from the action to hide out and come out when you can get away with a sneak attack or lightning strike robbery or whatever the case may be.
This trope is incredibly common in fiction and we see it all the time. The pirates of The Pirates of the Caribbean have their secret pirate coves away from the watchful eyes of the British Navy. Batman has his hidden bat cave underneath the grounds of Wayne Manor, outside Gotham City. The resistance fighters in The Matrix live in Zion, buried deep under the earth far away from the machines relentlessly pursuing them. Superman has his Fortress of Solitude far from Metropolis (in addition to having a secret identity). All of the Bond villains have their secret lairs—usually inside of a volcano or something just as practical. The aforementioned Star Wars rebels have their hidden bases on desolate and remote planets and moons: Dantooine, Yavin 4, Hoth. And lest you think this a recent phenomenon, note that the Robin Hood legends always have Robin Hood and his band of merry men fleeing into Sherwood Forest for safety from the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John’s men.
Which is why it strikes me as so interesting that the two texts today do the opposite of that. Whereas both the heroes and villains of the popular imagination retreat into their secret hideouts, those who seek to testify to God’s power and might, do so out in the open, right under the eyes of Empire.
II. THE TEXTS
The lesson from the Hebrew scriptures is a famous one and tells us the origins of Moses. His story begins in the context of the Hebrew communities living in Egypt. The beginning of the Book of Exodus reminds us that Joseph—who had earned the trust of Pharaoh and who had risen to such prominence and influence in the Kingdom—had brought his family down to Egypt, Jacob and his sons and all their families, and they settled in the land of Goshen to ride out a famine. There they flourished—and while the Patriarchs eventually died, their children and families grew and became a strong and numerous people.
And then the text tells us that some time later a new king arose over Egypt, who “did not know Joseph.” Scholars believe that this represents a dynastic shift in Egyptian history. At one point, the Egyptians had been conquered and ruled by a group known as the Hyksos, Semitic and Asian invaders who ruled for a century before being thrown out by native Egyptian factions. When this foreign dynasty was kicked out, Egyptian eyes began to turn on the other foreign populations who had come in during that time and began to view them with great suspicion.
Indeed, as the text tells us, the Pharaoh began to fear that these immigrant populations—including the Israelites—would be like having a fifth column for any foreign invader. And so they were enslaved and oppressed. Put to hard labor with ever increasingly difficult demands. Still the people flourished.
Eventually, Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives to kill any male babies who are born. The midwives Shiphrah and Puah (explicitly named by the text which is rare for women) refuse and tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are too strong, giving birth before they get there. Ultimately, Pharaoh orders his people to kill any boys born to the Hebrews, but allowing the girls to live.
Into this context is born the baby Moses, whose story is a familiar one—perhaps too familiar—since we are inclined to fill in the blanks of the story with images from movies like The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt.
In those tellings, Moses’ frightened mother, fearing her newborn will be killed according to the Pharaoh’s edict, places the baby in a basket and sets the basket in the river. In The Prince of Egypt, this scene is particularly harrowing as the basket careens down the Nile, dashing through rapids and avoiding being chomped on by crocodiles before coming to rest in the bullrushes. Fortunately, for us and for Moses’s mother who would otherwise be getting a visit from Child Protective Services, the story in the text is much different.
Here, Moses’ mother takes a basket, seals it up with tar, and places the baby in the basket among the reeds of the river along the shore. No harrowing journey along a croc-infested river. Furthermore, the baby’s sister—Miriam, we assume—lurks nearby to see what’ll happen. The Pharaoh’s daughter comes down to the river to bathe and discovers the child. Now, this is not good fortune—it is clear from the context and from Miriam’s staking out the riverbank that there was an expectation that the Pharaoh’s daughter would come down to bathe there. This was not a random location chosen. And certainly the Pharaoh’s daughter herself is not fooled: “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.” She knows her father’s edict. She knows this child’s identity. But she does nothing to enforce the edict. Quite the opposite.
It is then that Miriam comes forward and offers to find a Hebrew midwife to nurse the child. Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and Miriam runs off to fetch… her—and thus Moses’—mother. She nurses him and then when the child has grown (the text does not say how much), she hands him over to the Pharaoh’s daughter who names him “Moses” by making a pun in Hebrew. And just in case you’re inclined to think that the Pharaoh’s daughter has no business speaking Hebrew, you should know that the name Moses in Egyptian means “son.” So, either way, it works out.
But let’s consider what has happened here: this is not the story of a desperate act—a mother placing her baby in a basket on the river hoping that wherever he sails to he’ll find someone to take care of him. This is the story of a plan, a brazen plan, to have the daughter of the man calling for the child’s death be the one to raise him, and to ensure that he has been nursed by his own mother in the process. (I don’t know if you noticed this detail, but Moses’ mother even gets paid for this work.)
This is not some action taken off in a remote hideout, or in a secret lair. This daring act takes place right under the nose of the Pharaoh. Right at his daughter’s favorite bathing spot. Probably right near the palace. Right in the shadow of Empire.
Now, the Gospel lesson doesn’t have quite the same level of brilliant scheming involved, but it is not any less brazen.
Jesus has come to the area of Caesarea Philippi and there he asks his disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They reply, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Whereupon he says, “But who do you say that I am?”
It’s at this point that Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus responds by praising Simon Peter, noting that he has received this wisdom from. Then, in a play on words on Simon’s nickname Peter, i.e., “the Rock,” Jesus declares that he will build his church upon this rock and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Then he instructs the disciples to keep quiet about his identity.
Now, you have likely already heard me say at some point that the Bible is not long on extraneous details. That is, there isn’t a lot of “color” in the text, describing the house they’re in, the clothing they’re wearing, what somebody’s hair looked like, and so on. The Biblical text, in the favorite words of one of my professors, is “terse.”
So when there is a detail—pay attention. When the text does describe someone’s clothing—as it does with John the Baptist—pay attention. When it does provide some detail of setting, take note. And here, in this central story of the entire Gospel, the story around which much of the narrative revolves, there is a detail. A place. Caesarea Philippi.
Caesarea Philippi was a city located on the southern slope of Mount Hermon at one of the sources of the Jordan River. It had previously been called Paneas, since it had been a shrine to the god Pan. The Roman emperor Augustus gave the city to Herod the Great. In the city, Herod the Great built the Temple of Augustus, the Augusteum, in 19 B.C. to honor the Emperor. The temple sat in front of the cave that was believed to be the gateway to the underworld, and where the Greek god Pan lived.  When Herod’s son Philip rebuilt the city, he changed its name from Paneas to Caesarea Philippi (after the emperor and himself). 
It was a place for the ruling elite, for those, like Herod and his son Philip, who owed their power to their allegiance to the Roman Empire. It was a place wherein that allegiance was enshrined with temples dedicated to the Emperor. With garrisons and forces to project the might of the empire into the world.
And it’s here that Jesus asks his disciples to declare who they believe him to be. It is here, where the purported “Gates of Hades” were located, where Peter confesses, and Jesus acknowledges, that he is the Anointed One, the long-awaited king, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Not off in some remote corner. Not in their secret lair. But here, in the shadow of Empire, Jesus acknowledges who he is and declares that the community built on this confession will not be destroyed and that not even the “gates of hades” can prevail against it.
III. The Shadow of Empire
The gospel has always lived in the shadow of Empire. It has always found its true voice in the bold declaration of fealty to God when all around the principalities and the powers of the world held sway.
And while Jesus does admonish his disciples, asking them to keep quiet his identity, it is not long after this story that Jesus himself leaves Galilee and sets out for Jerusalem, where he will confront the religious and political establishment directly. Where the religious leadership will hand him over to imperial power, and where those same powers will take his life, mocking the very claim made here in Caesarea Philippi with a sign over his cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
The church that is established on Peter’s rock of faith at Caesarea Philippi will continue to proclaim the gospel in the shadow of Empire.
That church so founded stood before kings and emperors and did not attempt to flee the principalities and the powers, but to testify in the midst of them.
It is telling that Paul’s letter to the Romans was written to a church founded long before he actively founding congregations. The church was in Rome, in the city of the Caesars from practically the very beginning.
Even as the early Christians met in secret places, they did not shy away from confessing their faith openly. One early Christian leader even entreats his friends not to try to rescue him as he is being taken to Rome for execution because he wants to declare his faith and the gospel publicly before all.
When Martin Luther was dragged before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and told to recant his teachings, he responded, Hier steh’ ich, ich kann nicht anders. “Here I stand, I can do nothing else.”
When enslaved Africans living under the shadow of colonialism and enslavement were given religion to keep them docile and submissive, they nevertheless found the power in the Gospel to stand up and resist. The Gospel empowered them to stand up to Empire and confront it.
In Nazi Germany, most of the clergy capitulated to the Reich, declaring their loyalty to the state and to its racist principles. But those who understood the Gospel call, those like Dietrich Bonhöffer and Martin Niemoller, organized the Confessing Church, started a seminary, and resisted Empire, often with their lives.
The church of Christ has long stood boldly in the shadow of Empire: in Caesarea Philippi, in Jerusalem, in Rome, in Constantinople, in Aachen, in Paris, in Lyon, in Vienna, in London, in Berlin, in Selma, in Washington. In the slave galleys of the ancient world, on the serf-farmed lands, on the plantations, in the tenement houses, in the factories full of children, in the mines, in the slums, in the fields tended by migrant labor, in the concentration camps, in the battered women’s shelters, in the detention centers, in the soup kitchens, and in the hostels for runaway LGBTQ youth. The church does not retreat to a lair and wish the problems of Empire away. It stands in the public square, and declares boldly, “Jesus is Lord. Here we stand; we can do nothing else.”
IV. Light out of the shadows
For as long as there has been a church of Christ it has stood in the shadow of the great empires of the world—Roman, Byzantine, Carolingian, Holy Roman, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, French, German, British, American. In reality, to be fair, there is only one Empire—the empire of greed and lust for power and control: it just shows up in different iterations over the ages. And the shadow of that Empire has long been cast over our world.
But we stand in the shadow of Empire not only because history keeps lending us the opportunity but because it is in that shadow that the light must shine. It is in those places where power, violence, domination, oppression, injustice, and fear hold sway, that the light is most needed. The light of peace, of service, of compassion, liberty, of justice, and of love.
The machinery of Empire belches dark smoke as it rolls across the landscape, chewing up people, animals, and nature in its wake, on its relentless march for profit and power. The church is called to shine a light into the dark corners obscured by the machine and to remind those in that land that there is a Sun shining above it all. To act so as to give new life to the words of the prophet Isaiah:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.Isaiah 9:2 NRSV
It is so much easier, and certainly very tempting, to retreat into a secret lair. It would certainly create less pressure on the church if we still met in catacombs beneath the city and nobody even had to know we were Christians. And certainly, there have always been many, and there are many today who hide their Christianity, mostly by claiming the name but making sure that doing so never actually matters. There will always be those who relish being an Imperial church and see no contradiction. There will always be those tempted by the lure of access to power and privilege and scared away by the consequences of faithful witness.
But where the church of Christ endures it has always been in the witness that was begun in the shadow of that great and ancient Empire, standing on the side of Mount Hermon as the Temple to Augustus loomed in the background, confessing its lord and savior as Jesus and no other.
Thirty-three centuries ago, a daring Hebrew mother and her little girl showed us what it was like to resist in the face of the greatest empire the world had then known. Thirteen centuries later a Galilean fisherman showed us what it was to confess Jesus in the face of an even greater empire. Surely we, in the face of our own versions of empire can stand up to proclaim Jesus alone as lord and king, and with it to proclaim the values of the Kingdom he came to proclaim: hope, mercy, compassion, justice, and love.
We may not be joined by all of our fellow Christians in doing that—that has been a sad fact, ever true in the face of the lures of greed and power. But when we do it, we continue to erect the Church of Christ, built on the Rock long ago established and against which not even the Gates of Hell will prevail.
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “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, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
 Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina. Accordance electronic ed. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007), 247