Holding Affirmations and Rebukes

083020 Pentecost 13 

Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28


During the last two weeks four nights each week have been dedicated to the National Conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties. About the only thing they agreed on was that the upcoming election will be the most decisive one in American history. Two very different visions of America were presented. They are not the only visions out there, they are not the only visions possible, and neither of them get it all right. But they are the ones being chosen in the upcoming election. Each party repeatedly affirmed themselves and rebuked the opposition. I know that not everyone aligns with a political party, but the affirmations and rebukes were meant for all of us, not just for party leaders. What is the spiritual challenge of this moment? One question that gets my attention in all of this is, how do we hold those affirmations and rebukes inside ourselves in a way that lets them transform us? Most people will embrace the affirmations and reject the rebukes. But that will neither transform us nor achieve anyone’s vision. Might not the healing transformation we seek come from somehow letting both shape our lives?

Last week Jesus affirmed Peter with the words, Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. Today, Jesus rebuked Peter by saying, Get behind me, Satan. Jesus rebuked Peter, who had just rebuked him for announcing that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Peter couldn’t fathom that achieving justice might require suffering by the Messiah, and that peace is never a static reality, and that it is never experienced by all equally; it’s messy. Looking back at it from the other side of the resurrection, both Peter and we know that Jesus went to the cross because he cared for people who were left out of the system, and because he confronted the people who ran the system for leaving them out. People who live like that don’t live very long. Jesus knew about the prophets and had personally witnessed the death of John the Baptist. But their sacrifice moves the needle of justice and peace a little farther forward.

People don’t come to understand everything all at once. Some of us are waking up to new realities about racism. We can’t swallow the whole reality in one big gulp. We can’t absorb that much all at once. That’s okay. It’s human. But we can’t just refuse to swallow. We must face our blind spots. It was not the end of the world for Peter when Jesus rebuked him. He received both affirmation and rebuke from Jesus within moments of each other. And Matthew doesn’t tell us how he responded. But we do know that he continued following Jesus, and that it wasn’t the last time Jesus rebuked him. Peter’s transformation was painfully slow during his years with Jesus, and it was a journey of repeated affirmations and rebukes. 

Like Peter, most of us don’t have one burning bush moment. Our transformation will probably come from a process of holding the affirmations and rebukes we receive along the path to greater understanding. This holding requires a level of maturity that is not very common, including among those who seek elected office. For that very reason it offers a criterion for discerning the maturity and leadership capacity of those who want us to vote for them. Those who are only willing to receive the affirmations, and who see all the evil “out there”, are not ready to lead. Maturity requires recognizing that praiseworthy and judgment-worthy qualities exist within each of us. “Going high”, as Michelle Obama puts it, requires acknowledging that there is evil inside all of us. Of course, in a polarized political environment, that is a risky proposition, because the acknowledgement gets blown out of proportion, taken out of context, and used against us by those who don’t see it that way. 

Moses did have a burning bush moment; but even for him, the transformation didn’t happen overnight. God made the agenda clear: I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians. Moses debated with God about his ability to be the one to bring that deliverance for the Hebrew slaves. God promised to be with him; but that wasn’t enough for Moses. He wanted to know God’s name. Moses believed that by knowing God’s name, he could have some control over him. God did tell him a name, but the very name revealed that Moses could not control God: “I am who I am”, or “I will be who I will be” says “don’t think by knowing my name you can control what I do.” Prophets have continued to remind both change agents and change resisters that they can’t control God.

For me, one of the saddest moments in Thursday’s speech by the Republican nominee was when he said, “In America, we don’t look to government to fix all our problems; we put our faith in Almighty God,” and people gave a standing ovation. In a night filled with idolatry, that moment was iconic. Prophets have always known that God talk gets in the way of God’s agenda. Isaiah said it clearly: Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced justice and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. Micah rebuked his nation’s leaders: They lean upon God and say, ‘surely God is with us! No harm shall come upon us.’ Jesus confronted the religious leaders of his day with, you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. If that was the iconic moment, the iconic picture of the evening showed fireworks in the background, while in the foreground protesters (today’s prophets) carried a sign declaring, Trump failed. 180,000 died.

Throughout last week’s speeches, we heard a view of the world that believes it is clear who is right and who is wrong, that evil dwells outside of “us”; and that violence by civilians is criminal if it disturbs my peace, but that violence by civilians or the state is appropriate when it maintains my peace. This is at the core of what is being recognized by more and more people in our society. When white people fail to differentiate between their peace and the peace, the lines get drawn in the wrong place. I can only become a vehicle for the peace when I allow myself to receive the rebuke for failing to acknowledge that there is difference between my peace and the peace. The issue isn’t whether there are a few bad cops or a lot of them. The problem doesn’t even start with cops. Racism pervades our whole identity and history as a nation. Acknowledging that truth provokes attacks from those who have a simplistic view of reality. When one side acknowledges systemic racism, the other side claims to be the torch and blame the others for being the darkness. Peace for white people without peace for people of color can no longer be accepted. If white people don’t see that there is no equal peace for people of color, they will see the efforts to achieve it as violent, even though the real violence is the system that doesn’t allow peace and justice for all. 

This is the message that the God who liberated the Hebrews in Egypt has for oppressor and oppressed in today’s America. And it is the message of Jesus who calls his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. Change will not come without living through upheaval and pain. Transformation will not come without holding both affirmation and rebuke. Justice and peace will not come without acknowledging that there will be no peace without justice for all. No more our peace. Only the peace. May God grant us wisdom, courage, and vision to embrace justice and peace.

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