St. Paul’s Congregational Church
October 18, 2020
Exodus 33: 12 – 23; 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 10, 24A
We are so bombarded these days with news of natural disasters, homelessness, poverty, world hunger, armed conflicts, dreadful statistics on the spread of the corona virus: 8,000,000 cases in our country, the number of deaths rising to 220,000, and the ever present chaotic political scene during this election season. We’re missing our in-person gatherings with our church community, friends, our family terribly – isolation, depression is on the rise. As much as we’d like to turn away and ignore what’s happening, it’s really not possible to escape. Just how long is this wilderness journey going to continue? How do we cope with the tension, the anxiety that just doesn’t quit. How do we maintain hope in the midst of these realities?
Today’s passages come together to give us some clues. A history lesson of the Christian journey that continues today:
In Exodus we’re still travelling with the Hebrew people through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Moses asks to experience the dazzling light of God’s presence – in the Bible stories, it’s usually the voice of God that people experience but Moses asks for something deeper – the visual dimension of God’s presence. It may seem to be a harsh response from God who tells Moses “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
But God promises: “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.”
You shall see my back – I am always with you – follow me.
The Psalm, actually a hymn, was sung by the ancient Hebrews after their arrival to the Promised Land - at the Festival of Booths – celebrating the end of one agricultural year and the start of a new one. They would come, singing of their adventures along the road and of God’s guiding power that brought them safely to their journey’s end. The people would praise God while a procession carried the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence to the temple. The psalm emphasizes God’s presence in awe-inspiring majesty – we are reminded that God was with Moses, Aaron and Samuel – great leaders who were also people who had disobeyed God. But God forgave them and will do the same for us.
And in the reading from Thessalonians – probably the oldest writing in the New Testament and a glimpse into the very earliest church gathering after the death and resurrection of Jesus – Paul’s letter to this church gives thanks for their steadfast faith, serving God through their love in action, and their hope in Christ – the importance of encouraging and supporting each other.
Today’s passages show us that to hold onto hope, we need strong relationships with God and each other, we are called to support each other by love in action - we are called to work for justice.
So, as we continue our journey with the Hebrews in their wilderness on the way to the Promised Land we can understand their impatience to get there! Just like we’re impatient to get back to life as we knew it – but can we? After all that’s happened, we find Moses and God trying to put the pieces back together again – not unlike how some of us are feeling, wondering what kind of a future, maybe even if there’s a future, for us after all that’s happened.
But 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 made for them when they needed something tangible, something that would represent God to “go before” them. The God who called Abraham long ago, heard their cries in Egypt, brought them out here to the wilderness, that God seems much too distant, much too mysterious, much too hard to get a handle on – they want a face, a presence! Don’t we sometimes feel the same way even now?
But this is the great mystery, isn’t it: God is as close as our breath. At the same time, God is totally other, unknowable to us in our lives: the holiness is so great that we fall speechless before it. Can you feel the tension? We’re not always so good at mystery, are we – and neither were the ancient Hebrews.
Where might we be missing God in our own personal life, in the life of our church, and in the life of the world? Remember God’s words to Moses: you shall see my back. Now, have there been times in your life when you saw God’s “back” – when you realized after the fact that God has been present and active in a situation? God is always as close as our breath – but how often do we miss God’s presence in our lives?
Think about this: 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.
One of the most poignant “side effects” of the present pandemic is the need to wear masks that cover so much of the expression on our face – if we consider how much this bothers us, we realize how important a person’s “face”, their “presence” is to us.
In very real ways, we miss 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. Or those who are in rehab facilities who can only see family members, visitors through windows in their rooms. These people are denied that “shining with love and concern” that the presence of their loved ones would provide. Thank God for all of the health care professions who are stepping in and providing such presence to the best of their ability.
Of course, no mask, no pandemic, can keep us from the love and presence of God. We know that. But there’s another question: what does our presence bring to others? Does our face shine with love and concern for those we encounter, right now? We want 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. We remember Paul’s words to the Thessalonians thanking them for serving a living and true God.
Today, so many people are caught 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. More families than ever before are waiting in lines to receive food from food banks – more requests for holiday help are already arriving from agencies. Utility companies are not allowed to shut off power for non- payment. Huge discrepancies exist in the availability of medical care. Probably one of the most eye-opening aspects of this pandemic are the inequalities in housing availability, educational resources and opportunities, health care – injustice surfaces where we haven’t noticed it before.
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 important as they are, but action, tangible help too --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? A beloved community that more closely resembles the Realm of God!
And these days, we are yearning for presence aren’t we. God’s presence which is a sense of energy, courage, and divine accomplishment. And we, like most churches, struggle with our sense of God’s presence in a particular way in our church buildings, or the way our buildings help us to focus on the Holy, even though we know God can be found everywhere. Oh, we miss gathering in our beautiful sanctuary – but we know that our building is not the church – we are! Our challenge, it seems, is to “host the Holy” not only in our churches but also in our lives beyond those walls – again, let’s remember God’s words to Moses: you shall see my back. God is with us! And when our time on earth is done, we will see God’s face – God’s glory will shine on us forever. That’s how we can hang on to hope to get us through these days!
I share a poem/prayer written by my friend and Seminary classmate, Eric Anderson who is now serving a church in Hawaii, based on our Exodus passage today – may it touch you as it did me as we look into each other’s faces and then ultimately into the face of God!
Faces clattering as coins descend to bounce and roll across the counter; faces whispering as fingers count the bills, exchanging paper for some goods.
Faces flicker on the screen, three up and three across to form a game or set the stage for stories, echoed now in tiny screens within a telephone.
Faces sheltered in the swaddling cloth of masks, reducing by some meaningful amount the risk of illness and of death to me , to you, to those we love.
Faces twisted now by scorn and rage, by privilege and power and by pique, faces streaked with tears as faces lacking breath are given to the earth.
Faces sighing from exhausting toil, faces bright with gratitude for love, faces furrowed with confusion, faces that conceal the hearts within.
Each day I face the faces, Holy One (if just the one that gazes from the glass), and every day I long for one bright face, O God, the one I cannot see and live.