Weekly Preaching: October 22, 2017

October 18th, 2017

As I get older, I am learning increasingly to savor the many texts that don’t have an obvious moral or takeaway — those texts that simply tell us about the wonder that is God. Ours isn’t to moralize or get busy making the kingdom come. We can just get lost in wonder, love and praise. Sermons can help people do this.

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Exodus 33:12-23 is such a text. Here is a sermon I preached on it three years ago. Context matters: Moses is still steaming with exasperation after the raucous partying and golden calf-making in chapter 32. He’s just been on intimate terms with the Lord on the mountain for weeks. Yet he is still eager to know more about God, or perhaps we should say, to know God, to love God, to be one with God. 
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.
Moses wanted more of God, but God is always too much. Tenderly God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock, covered him with God’s hand, passed by and let Moses see just his back side.
This text was best understood by the Cappadocian Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa. God gives us just a tantalizing taste of God’s presence, a hazy glimpse of God’s utter beauty, only to draw us forward again as if we had never tasted that beauty. “Moses’ desire is filled by the very fact that it remains unfulfilled… And this is the real meaning of seeing God: never to have this desire satisfied,” he writes. True satisfaction “consists in constantly going on in the quest and never ceasing in ascent seeing that every fulfillment continually generates a further desire. Far from making the soul despair, this discovery is actually an experience of God’s fuller presence. It becomes a yearning which fills the soul more fully than any actual possession.”
It's utterly counter-cultural; yet I find when I preach this, people are drawn in. I think of my theology professor, Tom Langford, who would lecture on something like the Trinity. He would begin with logical sentences, then just phrases, some fumbling. He’d take off his glasses, scrunch up his face under his hand and just sigh. I think in this way he was speaking truly of the God Moses encountered. Or this: one of my long-standing Bible study groups invited me to visit. I asked how long they’d been together, and they said “Fourteen years — and we’re more confused now than when we started.” I said, “Great.”
We think we have to know and understand clearly. But I love what Norman Maclean had the pastor say after losing his wayward son in A River Runs Through It: “It is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely without complete understanding.” How much more so with God?
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.” Hear that “satisfaction” thing? 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.” Speaking of God’s back side: the entirety of the Christian life is about following. Jesus says Follow me. If you follow somebody, what you see is precisely their back side!
Other little details intrigue me. In verse 15, Moses says “If you don’t go, don’t send us” (v. 15). Simple; but if God’s not going somewhere we probably don’t want to go either. In verse 19, God says I’ll pass by and then utter my name, which is what Moses wanted to hear in the first place. This rare hearing of the divine name is a prelude to the high priest’s annual entry into the Holy of Holies to utter that unutterable name. Moses is known as the one God knew “face to face” (Deut. 34:10). But here, he can’t see the face. Scripture is reaching for words to express the inexpressible, so logical consistency need not matter. It’s the commanding God who just issued hundreds of laws who defines God’s self as merciful; Clint McCann reminds us that any telling of this “must preserve the tension which lies at the heart of a God who is both fiercely demanding and unfailingly forgiving.”
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.”

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I’ll not dwell on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, although if Acts 17 is any indication (Paul’s visit to Thessalonica), his comment here, “You received the word in much affliction,” is an understatement. I harbor some puzzled envy when I ponder the way the word must have come “not just in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction,” as a riot was touched off in the city (just as we recall happened in the early days of Methodism). My preaching is way more likely to elicit a yawn or a snarky email than a riot in the streets…

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And then we come to the Gospel, Matthew 22:15-22: enormously important, and grossly misconstrued by the average Christian (perhaps suggested we clergy are guilty of what Rev. William Barber calls “theological malpractice”). Jesus was not laying down a firm decree on the separation of church and state. (And how mind-boggling is it now, that after years of us clergy trying to sort through how to speak the Gospel without diluting it and yet not appearing to be unavoidably “political,” President Trump has been about demolishing the Johnson amendment, saying clergy should be more vocal!)  
I suspect we’ll see what we’ve always seen: church people get annoyed, reminding us of the Founding Fathers’ insistence on separation of religion and politics. But it’s always a code when they fuss at us; it means “You said something that collides with my politics, so hush.” If you say something they like, they never fume over your inability to keep things separate.

This understanding hidden motives was Jesus’ strong suit. In our text, instead of simply answering, he first pondered what lay beneath: he become “aware of their malice” and responded in the best way, given such motives. They deceivingly flattered him, then popped the impossible question: does God permit the paying of taxes to Caesar or not? An annual property tax, a denarius, had to be paid. Jews resented the levy, plus the coins bore the blasphemous image of Caesar, claiming he was a god. If Jesus said yes, he's in league with Rome and the tax collectors; if no, he's siding with militant revolutionaries.

Jesus responded brilliantly, asking for a coin and then asking a question. Preaching really should involve more questions than answers. Archaeologists have found coins from the time of Jesus, featuring the image of the emperor and the adjectives people were supposed to understand applied to him, especially divus — Divine! The money you needed to live day to day reminded every Jewish person of the mockery, the blasphemy that was Caesar. That same money reminded you that the tax collector would be coming around soon to seize too much of what you’d earned — with the threat of breaking your knees if you didn’t pay up. That same money then came to have a corrupt use as the very leaders of your own religious community gouged the severely impoverished with temple taxes, making it hard to get access to the God you needed because of the grind of the rest of your life.

Jesus’ question was pitch perfect: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Easy answer: “Caesar’s.” Jesus so shrewdly and truly responded in the only logical way: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” What belonged to Caesar? This coin, clearly, maybe the soldiers marching around, maybe the tax collectors... and maybe even you religious folk, sellouts that you’ve become. But what belongs to God? Jesus. You, the other guy, actually also the soldiers, the tax collectors, even the emperor. Not to mention the trees, the ground and sky. It’s all God’s. Sure, the emperor claimed to be God, but he was a charlatan, not merely lying but also utterly unable to be God, to deliver on the bogus title.
Jesus’ wisdom was met with stunned silence; I wish my sermons were met with the same! Those who tried to trap Jesus had no answer for his brilliant wisdom. "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's." Though Jesus' foes (and we may wonder why they had such a blasphemous coin in their pockets in the temple precincts!) were silenced, we seem to talk about this one a lot. Jesus isn't legislating the separation of Church and state. To Jesus, what belongs to Caesar is relatively trivial, and temporary. What belongs to God is... everything! Including the realm of Caesar! Followers of Jesus can be good citizens, but when loyalty to Jesus clashes with the realm of political reality, Jesus trumps. Give to God what belongs to God.

There’s the sermon. It has a moral, clear imperative, an all-encompassing takeaway: Render unto God what 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 article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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