Proper 24 (29) 21 September 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Proper 24A/Ordinary 29A/Pentecost +23 October 19, 2008 Textweek

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Receiving the word of God with joy is what happens when I sit down to reflect on the Sunday readings, because once again, the three readings that we get given for our Sunday worship have got so many threads. Each one of those threads is asking us to explore more fully ourselves, our relationship with God and our relationship with each other, and sometimes I look at those threads and wonder which one I will follow, because they intersect and there’s a sense that there is something constantly, something more for us to find.

The Old Testament reading gives us another one of those intimate encounters - a conversation between Moses and God. It’s a conversation about movement, seeking to where are we being sent. It’s a conversation about direction, the need for guidance in determining the way forward; it’s a conversation about seeking divine ways – "Show me your ways,” says Moses. And very much it’s a conversation about divine presence. Moses says ‘For how shall it be known unless you go with us?’ It’s a wonderful image there of these people that have come seeking freedom out of land of slavery; they’ve had some stunning ups and downs in that journey through the wilderness. They’re now at a point, a crucial point: the one thing Moses knows clearly is that there is nowhere and no way to go, unless the divine presence walks with. It’s a place that we’ve yet to find in our culture, probably because we’re still wedded to slavery, rather than to freedom.

The Old Testament reveals an early tradition, and one of the beautiful things about it is, and one of the ways that we can see the threads of holy scripture, is to take the earlier tradition of the Old Testament and then compare it with what we read and what we glimpse in the New Testament. What is the revelation in and through the person of Christ? Because as we see, the earlier tradition and the more developed tradition it can put us in touch with our own primary traditions and foundational experiences. When we look at the New Testament compared with the Old, we become aware of movement – the in-process nature of theology, the in-process nature of encounter, the in-process nature of humanity, the in-process nature of God. It gives us an opportunity to see our evolving worldview and the worldview that we create through our evolving.

The reading from verse 17, ‘The LORD said to Moses, "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour 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 I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." Moses cannot possibly see the face of God. The religious traditions have accepted and continued that understanding. To ancient peoples, to see a god’s face was to invite death - very understandable, because to ancient peoples gods inhabited the realm beyond death, so if you were to meet them, you were entering that realm. So simple, no rocket science at all. We’ve taken that simple, primitive understanding and built on it. It’s obviously got nothing to do with ‘I will die if I see the eyes and ears and the nose of God’; it doesn’t make any sense when we hear it that way. It’s got nothing to do with that at all and yet the church, much theology, still holds that there is a god who will not permit anyone to his, now updated to his/her face. It’s more probable and more fully appreciated if we see the dialogue symbolically: the naming of the reality that the human mind and the self are not able to comprehend the fullness of the divine reality; God is in a sense so much more than we can even conceive of, that the attempt to grasp God is beyond our capacity. Certainly makes more sense than having a God that is going to kill people who see him.

There’s another way of looking at it too and that is, when we see the face of God, we will die. Not in the sense of our mortality, but in the sense that is picked up in the line, ‘In order to find your life you must lose your life’. When we see the face of God, when the encounter with the divine is that close, then yes we will die: we will die to that which we are enslaved by, and the fullness of life will be so different that it will be a death to this life.

Now all of this we’re still exploring within the paradigm of Exodus, an early worldview that has become frozen into our orthodox tradition. Why did we not defrost those early understandings when we encountered Christ? Jesus reveals to us the face of God made manifest in humanity. And you can actually do a nonsensical religious flow chart that says ‘Well clearly if you see the face of God you will die; Jesus is God, God incarnate, so really all the disciples should have died when they met him’. There are these little theological loops that we can draw that say we’ve got to throw some of this stuff out, and the stuff that we need to throw out is the stuff that we’ve been hanging on to from our infancy; we need to bring our theology into our maturity.

When we were kids, certainly when some of us were kids, to communicate you needed four-pence, you needed to know the difference between an A button and a B button, and you needed to look for a red box –that’s how you communicated. The world of mobile phones is unimaginable in that worldview. Theology is the same – because the church has hung onto it for 2000 years doesn’t make it right. They would be saying, ‘we’re having a parish dinner, please take four-pence go to the local phone box and call each other’. You’d think what are they talking about, yet we accept it theologically that the primitive understanding we need to hold onto.

Today we’re invited beyond it, we’re invited to find the truth that seeing the face of God will lead to a dying; we need to find the truth that calls us into life: being made in the divine image. Christ reveals in Easter the threads that we start to take out of today’s readings. We are to give ourselves to the Divine. If we stay with the classic view we will perpetuate wars, because the movement, the thread that is being exposed in today’s readings is a movement of divine integration. Moses and God, the primitive view, speaks of separation; it’s a pre-Christ understanding. This is the understanding of the child, us. When we were small, we encountered the world as quite distinct and separate from us because as a child our knowledge is so experiential that we are the centre of the universe – there’s us and anything we want we can pull from outside. So the Exodus paradigm is one of separation – there's Moses and there’s God - that’s what’s been embedded, that’s what’s been frozen, that’s what distorts our understanding of the Gospel. Moses says in verse 16, ‘how shall it be known that I have found favour 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." Distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth. Here we have the genesis of ‘God’s chosen’, the separation of the church from the great unwashed of the world, this misunderstanding that has created wars: the separation between God and humanity now manifests itself as the separation between humanity and humanity. It’s a misunderstanding. We can see how it’s even been carried through into the Christian tradition, even though Christ reveals there is no separation, no separation between humanity and divinity: they come together in the fullness, in the wholeness of the Christ.

But if you look at Paul’s letter in verse 4, ‘we know, brothers and sisters, beloved by God, that he has chosen you,’ Again that notion has made its way, embedded itself into the culture of the church: we’re chosen, they’re not. There’s an us and a them. The Gospel today has been used to underline it: ‘"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God’s." The separation of church and state, the separation of this world and the world to come, the separation of the secular and the sacred – all of it going back to that primitive understanding: there is God, there is me Moses. There’s a gap, there’s a separation.

If we look to the teaching that accompanies the story of the coin: "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.’ Christ does not reveal deference; Christ does not reveal partiality or separation. And if we switch our listening on to that part of the story, so our understanding changes: give to the emperor those things that hold the image of the emperor, and give to God those things that hold the image of God, the divine image. What Christ is saying: we are to give ourselves to the Divine – just as the coins of the emperor belong to the emperor, so we are the currency of the Divine. In some sense Paul appears to pick that up, but because we have this early, primitive understanding, frozen into orthodoxy, again we have to dust Paul off. Paul affirms the church in verse 9: ‘you turned to God from idols, to serve a loving and true God, to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues you from the wrath that is coming’.

I think we should this week stay with the story of the coin, it’s not a teaching of the wrongness of wealth, rather it’s about the currency, the movement, the process associated with living. As we watch the developed world attempt to shore up banks, stabilize the share market, just hold the image of emperors stamping their image onto the face of coins. What if we turned to God from idols? What if we seek wealth in community, in closing gaps of separation, in the opening of ourselves toward the Divine face, trusting in the loss of life that it will bring? What if we turn towards the divine activity of creating a sustainable and just tomorrow, investing, giving of ourselves into the divine activity, investing in the good of the whole and the wholeness of that which is good? In the next few weeks we will continue to be flooded by financial advice; we will be motivated by fear. Contrary to much financial advice, now is the time to buy shares. The question is, shares in what?

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris.