Known by Goodness and Mercy
Sunday, October 18, 2020
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 24)
Known by Goodness and Mercy
You know each one of us by name, O God, and in your sight we have found favor, yet our minds cannot comprehend the vision of your glory or the vastness of your love. Grant that as we glimpse your greatness, reflected in your many gifts, we may always return to you the praise that is yours alone. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
All readings for this Sunday:
Exodus 33:12-23 with Psalm 99 or
Isaiah 45:1-7 with Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) and
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1. Where and how do you experience God’s presence?
2. How can God be both “a good friend,” and far beyond our imagining?
3. Where might you be missing God in your own personal life, in the life of your church, and in the life of the world?
4. What do you think your “presence” brings to others?
5. How do you balance self-giving, and an appropriate “keeping of self”?
by Kate Matthews
During our seminary years, my classmates and I 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 study this text.
A distant and difficult God
While God, with Moses’ help, is working on building a relationship with the chosen people of Israel, the people themselves have been 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 one of those gods 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.
Speaking to God face to face
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.
Feeling the tension
God, then, 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.”
“Radically other and immediately present”: can you feel the tension?
Immanence and transcendence
Theologians 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, refusing to live within that tension. 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.
For example, the ancient Celtic approach to spirituality 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 what we have done to the atmosphere, the oceans and the ground beneath our feet.
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. Once, 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. It was the kind of beautiful that stops you in your tracks.
Responding to the inexpressible
However, I’m also thinking about the experience I had the summer when (like millions of others) I viewed the solar eclipse within the path of totality. When the sky went dark in early afternoon, people around us cried out and applauded, struggling to find a way to respond to the inexpressible.
However, unlike a magnificently beautiful scene in nature, there was perhaps also, deep down, a kind of unsettling awareness of how small and powerless we are in the midst of creation’s grand design. When I was a little girl, I read an article titled, “My Mother Taught Me to Love the Storm.” Perhaps that mother was teaching her own children something about wonder.
Awe and wonder
Even so, 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.
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.”
Can’t or must not?
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. 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.
What makes them special
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.
Moses presses the case
So far, Moses 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.”
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.”
Seeing or hearing doesn’t seem to be the question, then: knowing God is.
Face to face with God?
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.”
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.”
Blocked from view
One of the poignant “side effects” of the present pandemic is the need to wear masks that cover much of the expression on our face. If we consider how much this bothers us (in addition, of course, to everything else troubling about what we are going through), we realize just how important a person’s “face,” their “presence,” is to us.
In very real ways, we are denied the presence of those we love and need for support and sustenance. Think of the elders in living situations where they cannot see their children and grandchildren, even as they near death. They are denied that “shining” with “love and concern” that the presence of their loved ones would provide.
The love of God
Of course, no mask, no pandemic can keep us from the love and presence of God. 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 someday. But it also asks us, what does our presence bring to others? Does our face shine with love and concern for those we encounter, right now?
The importance of a name
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.”
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?
What is goodness?
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.
Prisoners of hurt and anger
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.”
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. That is a formidable challenge.
God’s power for life
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.” These words remind me of our own desire to think of ourselves, individually and communally, as “good people.” After all, aren’t we created “in the image of God”?
Our challenge, as people of faith, is to see the connection between this goodness and the “material blessings of creation” that we’re called to share, especially with those in need. So many people are caught right now in an economic crisis that has destroyed their job, their business, their security (not to mention their health), while the billionaire class in the United States has grown in numbers and wealth.
I wonder, in the midst of such injustice, how we might “act out” our desire to live up to our identity as people whose care and concern authentically shine on others, that is, how can we offer more than “thoughts and prayers”–as we are able–to those in urgent and pressing need. How do we participate in shaping a community that makes sure everyone has enough of what they need? Will this terrible, worldwide disaster have taught us anything?
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, Brueggemann writes that God’s “presence is a sense of energy, courage, and divine accompaniment.”
Our own golden calves
This commentary by Brueggemann 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?
Knowing where to set boundaries
Another point that Brueggemann makes in this same commentary was particularly creative and enlightening for us today, in what has been called 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.” The great Old Testament scholar, then, articulates a tension between what people of faith have been taught about self-giving and our culture’s ideal about “the complete keeping of self….We are called to imitate the God…who both holds and gives away.”
How do you balance self-giving, and an appropriate “keeping of self”? Why do you think God set such boundaries for Moses?
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.”
In the end, no matter what we deserve, God’s heart is moved to mercy. 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.”
A plea for mercy, and a response
God’s beautiful proclamation in verses 6-7a is the more formal response to Moses’ pleading for mercy. Walter Brueggemann describes them as “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.”
A personal note: whenever I read verse 14, I am reminded of a hymn by the St. Louis Jesuits that we sang at my mother’s funeral mass, a hymn that she had loved for many years, since she sang it at her own father’s funeral mass. The very biblical lyrics in its title, “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 from Exodus, 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.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflection) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments son our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Hafiz, 14th century mystic
“An awake heart is like a sky that pours light.”
Huston Smith, 20th century
“Might we begin then to transform our passing illuminations into abiding light?”
Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book, 21st century (one of the best books I’ve ever read)
“When she thought of the letter beit, it was not of the thickness of lines or the exactitude of spaces. It was of mysteries: the number two, the dual; the house, the house of God on earth. ‘They will build me a temple and I will dwell in them.’ In them, not in it. He would dwell within her. She would be the house of God. The house of transcendence. Just a single, tiny letter, and in it, such a path to joy.”
Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, 21st century
“When they have contemplated the world, human beings have always experienced a transcendence and mystery at the heart of existence.”
Dag Hammarskjöld, 20th century
“In a dream I walked with God through the deep places of creation; past walls that receded and gates that opened through hall after hall of silence, darkness and refreshment–the dwelling place of souls acquainted with light and warmth–until, around me, was an infinity into which we all flowed together and lived anew, like the rings made by raindrops falling upon wide expanses of calm dark waters.”
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.”
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.”
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