Weekly Preaching: October 18, 2020

October 14th, 2020

Exodus 33:12-23: Talk about a “thin place,” or a “liminal space.” Moses, on the (not a, but the) mountain with God. Wryly he chides God for telling him they’re going but hasn’t revealed whom the guide will be. The Lord says I’ll go. Then, with considerable cheek, or derring-do, taking his life in his hands, he asks to see God’s “glory.” The Lord responds to this bold ask by sneakily substituting “goodness” for “glory.” Want to see my glory? Here is some of my goodness. Maybe that’s how we see God’s glory, not head-on, which would overwhelm us, sort of like trying to look at the sun from 25 feet away. God’s goodness is a manifestation, an accurate shadow of God’s glory, an accommodated glimpse.

The meaning of the name Yahweh is perhaps best explained in v. 19: “I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious, I shall have compassion on whom I shall have compassion.” No predestination here. Rather, it is in God’s nature to be gracious and compassionate. It’s God’s choice, not our earning, not our goodness.

Tenderly, God offers a viewing spot for Moses: in the cleft of the rock. “Rock of Ages, cleft for Moses.” How good of God to provide, in the tectonic shifts and geological upheavals that made mountains, to provide little caves and crevices for creatures to hide and rest. St. Francis of Assisi believed, as did many medieval people, that clefts and crevices in rocks, all the way in Italy, were created at that moment on Good Friday when, just as Jesus died, earthquakes rocked the land. Medieval theologians and artists also saw Jesus’ wounds as clefts in the rock in which we hide ourselves. So lovely.

I’m reminded of St. Francis, who went day after day into a cave to pray. When he came out each day, Brother Leo would ask him, Did God say anything? Francis said No. Day by day he poured out his soul, and day by day he always answered No. Finally, one day Leo asked, and Francis surprised him: Yes, God did say one word to me. Leo: What was it? Francis: More. I love that. God wanted more — of St. Francis.

God shows Moses God’s “backside.” Fascinating to play around with, isn’t it? You see the backside as it moves. God isn’t a still life, but one who moves. Yahweh clearly is a verbal form, an action verb in Hebrew. And where are you if you see the backside? You’re behind. Jesus said “Follow me.” That is, keep behind me, watch my backside closely.

Moses’ request to see God’s glory might remind us of John 14 where Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus then did show all of them God’s glory — by being crucified. Martin Luther (worth dragging in, as the 500th anniversary of the Wittenberg door is looming!) suggested that in the cross, God showed us all the glory of God we could bear — calling it “God’s hidden backside.” 

With all this Moses/mountain stuff, I plan to use the great benediction of the late archbishop Oscar Romero: “When we leave Mass, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt. Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong to face the world’s difficulties.”

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 is a lovely intro to a letter. Can’t see preaching on it. I do wonder about its contents though as something for the preacher to ponder — and trust: “Our message came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit.” Easy to mutter some pietistic platitude about this. But the best we can do is talk as well and faithfully as possible. If hearts are changed, if the world tilts on its axis, it’s God’s work, not ours. Luther famously said it was God who reformed the church while he (Luther) was in the pub with his pal Philip drinking Wittenberg beer.

Matthew 22:15-22 is one of the most grossly misquoted texts ever, as if Jesus were outlining the separation of church and state for modern people who would find such an arrangement to be very convenient for themselves and their political ideologies. They come to “entrap” him. Jesus’ strong suit was discerning hidden motives — and knowing theirs, and his downright Lincoln-esque ability to reply to tough questions with something clever to stump the questioners, they had no chance.

They open with flattery. Aristotle pointed out that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. They indeed are what Jesus calls them: hypocrites, the Greek meaning play actors. They think they have the perfect question, unanswerable. If he says Yes, he appears sympathetic to the hated tax collectors, thus alienating all nationalists. If he says No, he’s risking a charge of sedition. Not surprisingly, Jesus serves up neither. 

Let’s check out one of these coins, he says. Surveying it, he asks an easy question: who is this guy? Caesar. Archaeologists have found these coins, with an image of Caesar, and the inscription including the blasphemous (to Jews) word DIVI: he’s divine. On the flip side, the coin dubbed Caesar as PONTIF MAXIM, the “high priest.” Here is God’s divine son, our great high priest, studying this very coin.

Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The Greek apodote means “give back,” as in return it to him. Must be his. Let him have it. Then the clincher line: and Render, “give back” to God what is God’s. And that would be… well, everything. Your life, these boats, the water, the fish, maybe even the minted coin with the blasphemous image. Heck, the emperor himself.

Jesus’ wisdom was met with stunned silence; I wish my sermons were met with the same! There’s the sermon, with a clear imperative, an all-encompassing takeaway: Render unto God what is God’s, who is God’s. You can spend the rest of the day and your life working on that one. Grab a few examples here and there. Your lunch break at work. Your shopping this afternoon. Your conversation with a neighbor. The stuff in your closet. Your anxieties in the night. Your portfolio, or your debt, or your fantasies. Your time, your energy, your brokenness. It’s all God’s. Render it to God.

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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