Sermon Seeds: God in the Heartbeat of Life
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
(Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 24)
Exodus 33:12-23 with Psalm 99 or
Isaiah 45:1-7 with Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
God in the Heartbeat of Life
You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
During seminary, we used to do an impression of our dean: we’d put the tips of our index fingers and thumbs together and pull them apart, as if we were stretching a band, and say, “Can you feel the tension?” That question arises a number of times within this text from the book of Exodus, about Moses’ conversation with God after the incident of the golden calf. In this short passage from the much longer story of the people’s impatience with God on their way to the Promised Land (and God’s impatience with them), Moses and God are trying to put the pieces back together again, not unlike a couple in a marriage jeopardized by infidelity who wonder if there’s a future for them after all that’s happened. There are several obvious tensions within the text, with a few more between the lines.
As with most lectionary passages, it really helps to read all of chapter 33, or better, all of chapters 32-34, in preparing to preach this text. While God, with Moses’ help, is working on building a relationship with the chosen people of Israel, the people themselves are busy doubting, demanding, and then dancing before the golden calf Aaron fashioned for them when they needed something tangible, something that would represent God, to “go before” them. Moses, after all, has an annoying habit of disappearing for long periods of time, and Yahweh is not a god that can be manipulated and managed – the kind of god that would make life, and religion, so much easier. Instead, the God who called their ancestor Abraham long ago, and heard their cries in Egypt, and brought them out here to the wilderness, is much too distant, much too mysterious, much too difficult to get a handle on.
And that mystery sets up one of the tensions, because we also read about “the tent,” where Yahweh “used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (33:11). Yes, there is a pillar of cloud, and yes, the people have sense enough to “rise and stand” as they watch Moses make his way to these remarkable encounters. But the text says that God speaks to Moses “as one speaks to a friend,” and is willing to do this quite often. And while God tells Moses that he cannot see God’s glory and live (for God is way, way too much for a mere mortal to deal with), God also uses surprisingly anthropomorphic terms to engage Moses, covering him with God’s “hand,” and letting Moses see God’s “back” as God’s glory passes by, presumably on the rocky path along the mountainside, after God hides Moses safely in a little cleft in the rock. God seems marvelously accessible and yet, at the same time, utterly unfathomable. Gene Tucker notes the impossibility of putting into words the human “experience of the encounter with the One who is both radically other and immediately present” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). “Radically other and immediately present”: can you feel the tension?
Immanence and transcendence
Theologians commonly talk about the tension between God’s immanence and God’s transcendence; it seems that we spend long periods in human history (and theology) out of balance between the two. Perhaps, for example, we lost our respect and appreciation for the goodness of creation when we “put” God up in the sky, out of reach and away from the gracious earth that supports us, that seems to breathe with a life of its own. I believe it’s the Celtic approach to spirituality that sees “the Word” in creation, that is, God still speaking to us in the tender beauty and breathtaking majesty of creation. (Perhaps even in the anger of creation as well, although I am not saying that God sends hurricanes to punish cities; it does however seem reasonable to see global warming, for example, as a result of, and reaction to, what we have done to the atmosphere.)
On the other hand, when we make God simply – only – a good friend that we can talk to, someone who listens to our troubles and takes care of us – and even wants us “to be rich” – that kind of God easily loses the indescribable, overwhelming Otherness that we call “The Holy.” The Holiness so great that we fall speechless before it, rather than confidently presenting our laundry list of current requests and demands and questions. We know what it feels like to have an experience that makes us fall silent with awe and wonder – witnessing the birth of a child, or seeing a shooting star, or watching a hummingbird hover outside our window; last year, during a visit to a “dark sky” area in New Zealand, I walked through the living room of the house where we were staying and almost fell back from the sight of a sky brightly blanketed with stars, a sight denied to those of us in much of the United States. But we would have to multiply that feeling thousands of times over to begin to get a sense of the effect of God’s holiness on us mere mortals. Great composers and painters have tried to suggest such a feeling of awe, and surely feel each time that they have fallen woefully short of what they aspire to convey. And yet this is also the God who talks with Moses just like talking to a friend, and a God who hears our anguished cries, and our troubled questioning, and our deepest needs. Can you feel the tension?
Seeing God face to face?
Another tension arises in the commentaries about God’s response to Moses’ request to “see” God’s glory: Gene Tucker observes that people in the Bible might hear God’s voice, but this time a human actually gets to hear and “see” God as well (Preaching through the Christian Year A). However, Terence Fretheim seems to emphasize just the opposite when he writes that “Moses must not simply use his eyes, he must use his ears to hear the proclamation” (Exodus, Interpretation). Seeing God, or hearing God’s Word: it is never, of course, an either/or. Scholars remind us that Moses and a number of other folks actually “saw” God back in 24:11, so it’s not so much that we “can’t” see God but that we “must not” look at God – or at least the people shouldn’t expect to be doing so, after so great a sin. Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson find it “gracious and merciful of God to free us from having to look God in the face” at such times (Preaching the Old Testament). True enough, but the text is referring to Moses, whom God has repeatedly reassured as having “found favor” in the sight of God (33:17), not the “sinful” people waiting back in their own tents, excluded from this intimate little conversation.
The scholars press another point when they consider Moses’ rather presumptuous request. Think about it. God has every reason just to leave those Israelites right there, in the wilderness, and move on to another people. (Remember that God even threatened to do exactly that, and to raise up another great nation from Moses, back in 32:10.) Moses is in the most delicate of negotiations – even more delicate because he is anything but a peer in this conversation, and acutely aware of what God can do when provoked. He has apparently been successful in pressing his case on behalf of his people, reminding God that they are nobody, no people at all, without God. Moses is expressing the heart of covenantal theology – to God! – and he meets with success when God responds, “I will do the very thing you have asked” (v. 17). (Of course, Moses’ case seems to rest on whether he himself has found favor with God, but he also reminds God that God’s presence with them is what makes the Israelites God’s chosen people, not their own “specialness.” Walter Brueggemann’s entry on “election” in Reverberations of Faith is particularly helpful in wrestling with the question of “chosenness.”)
Seeing God, or knowing God?
But then Moses pushes harder, having the nerve to ask God for an unbelievably extravagant favor: to see God’s glory. However, Terence Fretheim finds it “more important to know what kind of God this is than to see that God” (Exodus, Interpretation). Or, as Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson put it, “God shunts Moses’ question in a new direction,” to “the awesome, momentous matter” of knowing God’s graciousness: if anyone ought to be confident of God’s presence, Moses should, but “God answers Moses’ prayer to ‘see’ God by meeting Moses’ deeper need; God gives us what we most need, not always what we most want” (Preaching the Old Testament). Seeing or hearing doesn’t seem to be the question, then: knowing God is.
There are a number of rich themes for reflection in this text, including one more look, so to speak, at that question of “seeing God,” and Moses’ own conversations “face to face” with God. Beverly Link-Sawyer observes that we may be discouraged or dismayed by such stories about people long ago whose holiness apparently exceeded ours so much that they could have such encounters with God. However, she suggests that this owes “less to our holiness than to our ability to see beyond what we expect to see,” for “in our scientific, skeptical age we are less willing or able than people who lived before us to see the hand of God in our lives and world” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). Where might you be missing God in your own personal life, in the life of your church, and in the life of the world? Have there been times in your life when you saw God’s “back,” that is, when you realized after the fact that God has been present and active in a situation?
A face shining with love
John Goldingay has written a lovely reflection on this little story, reminding us that doing theology by telling a story works very well when grappling with difficult questions: “We do not so much answer such questions as walk around them and live with them.” And so, as he walks around the question of God’s presence, Goldingay teaches us, “The word for ‘presence,’ panim, literally means ‘face.’ A person’s face tells us that the person is with us. It shines out with the person’s love and concern.” What a beautiful thought: instead of seeing God as fearsome and terrifying, we understandably yearn to see the face of God shining upon us with love and concern. That is the deep longing we have for the beatific vision that, we hope, awaits us. But it also asks us, what does our presence bring to others? Does our face shine with love and concern for those we encounter? Goldingay makes another observation, about the importance of God’s name, Yahweh, I am Who am, or as has been said, “I will be Who I will be”: it is regrettable, Goldingay writes, that “translations deprive us of the name that God graciously revealed and replace it by the patriarchal expression ‘the Lord'”; after all, “Israel will see God’s goodness and then…they will know God’s name” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). Have we lost our sense of awe and respect for the name of God, so much so that we have lost our sense of who God is?
Another point of reflection is raised by Gerald Janzen on the word “goodness” in verse 19, “the most all-encompassing positive word in the language,” and its tension with “righteousness,” commonly used in religious circles but not nearly as, well, good as goodness, for “righteousness can fall short of goodness….Goodness calls for something more.” Janzen then compares the hardness of heart of Pharaoh, who “couldn’t want to” let the people go, once his hardened heart was too far gone. In the same way, we too can find it difficult to forgive when wronged, so much so that we become prisoners of our hurt and anger. “But where the wrongdoer has been so moved to repentance as to ‘mourn’ the wrong and the loss of relationship,” Janzen writes, “moral and spiritual freedom manifests itself in the ability of the one wronged to be gracious and merciful” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). We note that Janzen does not appear to address what happens when the wrongdoer has not been moved to repentance, and the wronged party has to summon the spiritual freedom to forgive anyway. Walter Brueggemann calls goodness “Yahweh’s generous, friendly power for life” and “a synonym for shalom, and thus [referring] to the material blessings of creation” (“Exodus,” New Interpreter’s Bible).
Where do we find “The Holy”?
Brueggemann also focuses on the Hebrew people’s struggle “to host the Holy.” This was true for the wandering ex-slaves and for the people in exile in Babylon (when these texts were probably put together), as well as the people in Jerusalem, with the Temple, and for us today, too: to experience God’s “‘glory’ both as abiding presence and as traveling assurance.” Whether the empire is Egypt or Babylon, or the modern-day empires of greed and militarism and materialism, God’s “presence is a sense of energy, courage, and divine accompaniment.” This commentary by Brueggemann in The New Interpreter’s Bible is particularly thought-provoking as it applies (uncomfortably) the painful lessons of the golden calf to us today, when we are just as vulnerable to “the destructive power of ‘commodity fetishes,’ of endless fascination with natural objects that are mistakenly supposed to enhance worth.” But it also reminds me of the times we struggle with our sense of God’s presence in a particular way in our church buildings, or the way those buildings help us to focus on The Holy, even though God can be found everywhere, and perhaps more effectively if it happens that our church does not facilitate that sense of the sacred. Our challenge, it seems, is to “host the Holy” in our churches, but also in our lives beyond those walls. Can you feel the tension?
Another point that Brueggemann makes in this same commentary was particularly creative and enlightening for us today, in our therapeutic culture. It also provides rich subject matter for feminist reflection, since women have traditionally been conditioned to be giving of themselves, and it requires great care to know where and how to set boundaries. Brueggemann observes that God does just that when Moses asks to see God’s glory: “God will not let even Moses crowd into the hidden core of God’s own life.” Brueggemann articulates the tension between traditional Christianity’s lessons about self-giving and our culture’s ideal about “the complete keeping of self. This text suggests that neither posture by itself will bring us to full humanness. We are called to imitate the God who is shown in this text, the God who both holds and gives away” (“Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible). How do you balance self-giving, and an appropriate “keeping of self”?
God’s presence with us, always
Scholars, of course, remind us of the core truth of this little story: James Newsome writes that “when justice and compassion clash within the heart of Yahweh, compassion prevails” (Texts for Preaching Year A). In chapter 34, after this conversation, God renews the covenant and tells Moses to cut new tablets of stone for the same words that had been written by God on the former tablets, in a sense, giving Moses and the people a “do-over.” God’s beautiful proclamation in verses 6-7a is the more formal response to Moses’ pleading for mercy. Walter Brueggemann describes them this way: “What a mouthful! Here is the sum of evangelical faith. Here is the substance of a radical theology of grace. Here is the primal warrant in the Bible for the claim that at its core, reality is concerned with healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and finally, inclusiveness” (The Prophetic Imagination).
A personal note: when I read verse 14, I am reminded of a hymn that we sang at my mother’s funeral mass, a hymn that she had loved for many years; its very biblical lyrics, “Be not afraid,” reassure us of God’s loving presence with us, always. Even though the verses speak about crossing a barren desert, I never associated this song with the Old Testament but with the New, that is, with following Jesus. Knowing how much my mother hoped to “see” God’s face shining upon her with love, I am comforted in a new way by reading this text and being reminded of God’s gracious compassion, not only for my mother’s sake, but also for all of us who long for the More that stirs our souls and shapes a persistent hope within our hearts.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as Dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
For further reflection:
Albert Einstein, 20th century
“Never lose a holy curiosity.”
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 21st century
“The thing about light is that it really isn’t yours; it’s what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself.”
Mary Oliver, 21st century
“There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.”
Dag Hammarskjold, 20th century
“God does not die when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
“Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature – even a caterpillar- I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.”
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
“It was when I was happiest that I longed most…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.”
I woke up this morning to news reports of the Ebola crisis striking close to home in Cleveland. A health worker in Texas who had cared for a man with the Ebola virus visited family in Ohio during the unknowing incubation time, before becoming sick with the virus herself. I am struck by the almost frantic and certainly, fearful tone of the reporting and subsequent grocery store and social media conversations. Schools closed. Airports are on alert. It is amazing how many lives one person comes into contact with during a week. Monitoring and containment are important parts of prevention.
While still drinking my first cup of coffee, I touch my phone screen to open email with updates from a variety of church partners around the globe working on care, containment and prevention of this deadly disease – particularly in communities of western African nations. I currently serve as the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) team leader for national staff with responsibility for work in disaster response, sustainable development and refugee ministries through the One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) offering and special funds. With that function, I along with these other staff, have the opportunity to ensure that the UCC is well-connected to be part of actions that respond effectively and faithfully to immediate crises, root causes and long-term solutions to situations of chronic poverty, disaster, violence or emergency around the globe.
I have learned that it is no wonder that the Ebola virus has created wide-spread fear and hopelessness among people in western African nations. Health systems are disrupted. Health workers do not have proper personal protective equipment or training. People in these nations have never faced this virus before. And it is personal. Lives are at stake.
I also have had reinforced for me the reality that systems and actions are possible to combat that despair. Communities of faith are present in affected areas, with people committed to care for the sick no matter the personal risk. People of faith are comforting those who grieve the 4500 people who already have died and communities now permeated by fear of the unknown. And a global community with the potential to accompany affected communities and people in ways that make a difference does exist. We just need the public will and distribution of resources to make this happen. As the UCC, we are acting through long-time relationships of Global Ministries with local and national councils of churches in western Africa; and also acting through global organizations with expertise and connections to address this particular Ebola crisis.
Ebola is not a new virus. It was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Since then there have been at least 10 outbreaks, each one contained relatively quickly. Staff of IMA World Health, a global faith-based development organization of which the United Church of Christ is part, tells of a 1995 outbreak in the DRC in which IMA took the logistical lead for quickly mobilizing care and containment through already established connections and on-the-ground contacts in place. “Ebola is manageable if we get out in front of it.”
And so I pray this day for all the individuals and communities affected by the Ebola virus “that they may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (Thessalonians 4:13). I pray that in the midst of this very real global health crisis we will draw together as a global community and not further isolate ourselves from one another. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (I Corinthians 12:26). And I give thanks for the privilege to be part of the global church working together, so that I am not just sitting in front of the TV wringing my hands over morning coffee, but am active in solutions far beyond what is possible by any single group or individual. I thank God this day to be part of the UCC that, in mutual relationship with people around the world, acts toward the well-being for all that God intends.
To date, UCC Disaster Ministries has dispersed One Great Hour of Sharing offering and designated funds to Global Ministries’ bi-lateral partners in Sierra Leone and Liberia and to ACT Alliance church partners working in Liberia. The UCC also will be a significant part of the work of IMA World Health in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss serves as Global Sharing of Resources Team Leader and Executive for Volunteer Ministries with Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio. For more information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10:
These introductory words to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians are probably the oldest words in the New Testament. That statement might startle many folks in our pews who assume that the Gospels were written first, and then Paul went around sharing them with the churches that he planted. (That’s what I believed for many years, but then I also thought that Peter went to Rome to be the first pope, although I wasn’t sure how he could have built St. Peter’s Basilica!) However, scholars generally agree that Paul’s letters are the earliest of the writings we have from the very first Christians. As such, they provide invaluable insights into the life of the early church.
We might approach this text in several ways, but each one takes us down the path of evangelism, of sharing the good news. This first chapter of the first letter to the church at Thessalonica expresses Paul’s deep appreciation for the powerful experience he and his co-workers, Silvanus and Timothy, have shared with the people there. The evangelizing that went on in that ancient city was a two-way street, as it should be in every age: “Paul and his co-workers found themselves to be different because of the relationship that was established. Evangelism involves a mutual exchange,” Beverly Gaventa writes. “Because of their deep involvement with the people at Thessalonica, Paul and his colleagues find themselves vulnerable” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
Years ago, I read the writings of Paulo Freire about the “banking deposit” approach to learning, where one person in effect transfers a body of information to another person (see his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed). In that case, “information” is a better word than knowledge, because in evangelism something much deeper happens, when you “know” something, really embrace and believe something so that it becomes part of who you are. That’s what this text describes: a true embrace of the gift of the good news brought by the evangelists Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, but an embrace that was mutual, a sharing that transformed the evangelists as well as those who heard the gospel they preached. Freire, of course, would consider this kind of learning and knowledge superior to the banking system we so commonly employ in our sharing of the faith.
We might reflect, then, on the “preaching part” of evangelism, once we understand that it’s only one part: however eloquent, how powerful the words or delivery of the preacher, he or she is the bearer of good news, not the good news itself. And that eloquence can’t be equated with the power of the Holy Spirit, who is really at work, Carl Holladay reminds us, for “the gospel should be construed as the Divine Voice resonating through the human voice, as the Word of God reverberating through the human word. The preached word of the messenger of God provides an occasion for the Spirit to act and to do so in the power of God” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). When the Spirit of the Stillspeaking God is truly at work, it’s no wonder that the preacher is just as likely to be changed as the people who listen.
Paul begins his letter with affirmation of the deep faith and exemplary spirit of the Thessalonians, who “get it” that faith isn’t just saying that they accept certain intellectual statements (an easy trap for us when we misuse creeds and statements of faith, or, for that matter, misunderstand faith itself). He affirms the “work” that they do because they embrace the gospel, their everyday living out of its message. And he affirms their endurance and steadfast hope in the face of opposition and persecution by a surrounding culture that has no use for fringe movements that undermine the program of the Empire. Thessalonica, after all, was a Roman city, and there were many benefits to being one of those: security, prosperity, enjoyment of “the good things of life,” as long as one was willing to go along with the imperial program, to accept Caesar as lord, not some humble Jewish teacher who had been executed by that same Empire.
John Dominic Crossan has written extensively about this conflict between gospel and empire as the good news was received in cities and villages across the Mediterranean in those first centuries of Christianity. Two thousand years later, we may think we live in very different circumstances, far away from the Roman Empire and its demands and allegiances. But we would be mistaken, for our pharaohs and emperors are alive and well in the systems and values that claim our allegiance and even our whole lives. In the midst of consumerism, materialism, nationalism, rampant greed and self-centeredness, we too struggle with just who is “lord” in our own lives. Paul’s letter, then, hits home for us, too.
We are blessed with scholars like Crossan who can read between the lines for the subversive message we might otherwise miss. For example, Crossan says that these opening verses are full of anti-empire expressions, beginning with the word ekklesia, translated as “church,” which “originally meant the citizens of a free Greek city officially assembled for self-government decisions. Maybe that was perfectly innocent, but also maybe not.” Even the simple and beautiful word “peace” has hidden meaning, as “anyone familiar with Judaism would have heard in his ‘peace’ the content of the Jewish shalom of justice and not that of the Latin pax of victory” (In Search of Paul, with Jonathan L. Reed). I’m not sure exactly who said, “If you want peace, work for justice” – Pope Paul VI? H. L. Mencken? – but for once a bumper-sticker slogan seems helpful. In any case, Crossan’s work illuminates the difference between these two kinds of peace, and our lives today are still lived in the tension between the two. Whenever we in the church succumb to the temptation of peace through victory instead of proclaiming, and living, a peace of justice, wholeness, and healing, we have fallen off our center. Worse, we have left behind us the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Crossan continues his word study by focusing on those beautiful and familiar words, “grace and peace,” which Paul uses so often in his letters that we may think they are simply conventions, like our use of “warm regards” or “sincerely.” On the contrary, in these two words we find “the core of Paul’s message and mission, faith and theology. The usual salutation in a Greek letter was chaire or ‘greetings,’ but in a novel, clever, and profound wordplay, Paul switches that to the similar-sounding but theologically more significant term charis, ‘grace’ or ‘free gift.'” While Paul affirms the call of the people of Thessalonica and all Christians, it’s a call to share this free gift with the world that God loves, for it “is a free gift that God offers peace to everyone, everywhere” (In Search of Paul; as one who has always struggled to understand Paul’s writings, I especially appreciated this book).
Perhaps we’ve not only lost our understanding of evangelism as a two-way street but also as an ongoing process, growing our faith deeper and our discipleship closer to Jesus. The Thessalonians long ago shared our own struggle to live the gospel faithfully, day in and day out, in every circumstance. Crossan expresses this beautifully when he discusses Paul’s meaning of the word “love”: “To love meant to share, a love a