“Show Me!” Colchester Federated Church, October 22, 2017 (Exodus 33:12-23)

There’s an old story about a set of twin boys.  One is an optimist and the other is a pessimist.  A psychiatrist wanted to understand how this played out in their lives and consider nature vs. nurture.  So he put the pessimist in a room full of toys by himself to see what happened.  The boy ended up whining and crying after a while, bored and frustrated.  The psychiatrist then put the optimist in a room full of horse manure and gave him a shovel.  A few hours passed and the psychiatrist checked on the optimistic boy only to find him still shoveling with a huge smile on his face.  Why was he so happy?  The boy responded, “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!”[1]

There are times when it feels like we are in a room by ourselves staring at a huge pile of manure and some helpful person gives us a shovel and leaves us to it.  How we respond from there is entirely on us.  Today we’re taking a departure from Matthew’s Gospel and the Parables of Jesus which we’ve been focusing on for months in the Lectionary.  And we’re joining the children and youth of our church who’ve been wandering with the Israelites this fall.  In the stories of the Book of Exodus—from crossing the Red Sea to Manna in the Wilderness to the Ten Commandments to the Golden Calf—it sometimes seems like God gives Moses a shovel and says, “Okay, pal, you’re up.”  God may give that shovel—an essential tool to address the mess.  But at the end of the day it feels like the call is on people like Moses and us to get to work.  And where is God in the midst of us dealing with the mess?

Today we hear a story about the presence of God, about Moses and God on the mountain.  We hear about where God is when we deal with our lives in shambles.  We always think of Moses as so faithful.  Here Moses is demanding to know God differently than even God presents God’s own self.  In Exodus Chapter 33, Moses is alone with God and says, “Show me your glory, I pray.”[2]  Moses has the guts or in Hebrew the hutzpah to ask for God’s full self-revelation.  Moses yearns to see God—the Creator of the Universe, the great I AM.  After everything that Moses has been through, after the long hours of shoveling and looking for that elusive pony in there somewhere, there’s this moment where Moses turns to God and says, “Can I see you for real now, can you give me all of you?”

What Moses shows is a whole lot of daring in his persistent dialogue with God.  Really, he first asks to know God’s ways, then to see God’s face, then to see God’s glory.  As the great Hebrew Bible scholar and UCC Minister Walter Brueggemann once wrote, “This model of Jewish prayer offers much to learn for Christians, whose piety is characteristically too deferential.”  Moses’ prayer is intense and concerned with the presence of God.  It’s envelope-pushing and then respectful when a boundary becomes clear.[3]  But it’s not just praising God for all the ways that God is great.  Moses asks earnestly—can I know your ways, can I see your face, can I see your glory, God?  This is not an, “O God, I am not worthy” prayer.  This is—I want to know you better, I want to have a real and honest relationship with you—can you be more open to me?  Show me!

As Christians, we do have much to learn from this story of God and Moses conversing on the mountain.  God tells Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.”[4]  But then, after enough pushing and prodding from Moses God devises a plan.  I’m going to put you in this cleft of rock and I’m going to cover you with my hand until I walk past you.  Then I’ll take away my hand and you can see my back.  Moses asks to see God for real, and God responds in a gentle, protective way.  Even Moses, after all he’s been through leading the Israelites through the dangers of the wilderness and giving the people the Ten Commandments, even Moses doesn’t pierce some of the mysteries of God.  Moses wants definitive answers.  Moses gets the abiding presence of God.

Now, when we picture God—who or what comes to mind?  How do we explain God for ourselves and to one another?  If we care about deepening our faiths, developing our spiritualties, knowing more about God and Christianity, then it’s important to consider some of our individual beliefs about God.

I’ve asked these God questions many times of youth in Confirmation programs and Sunday School.  At my Seminary Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, I taught Middle School Sunday School once a month and on a holiday weekend ended up having only one student in class.  This young woman had just moved to town and was having normal teenage struggles, coupled with the fact that she was the new kid.  Cancelling class and sending her back to worship crossed my mind, though it seemed like she needed an adult who cared in that moment.

So we talked about school and life and God, and we drew pictures of what we think God looks like.  Mine was abstract as I attempted to depict God in nature and as a more Spiritual Being or Force.  The lesson was about various images of God in the Bible after all, so I chose to draw something to emphasize that God is different than the Santa Claus figure in the sky with the big white beard we often see in popular culture.  Her picture was two people holding hands.  This young woman explained that when people are friendly and welcoming and love each other, God is always there.  She thinks of God as loving relationships among people.  She was already imagining God on her own terms, finding a meaningful image by picturing connectedness in humanity as a symbol of God.  It’s the idea that to love another person is to see the face of God.

Spiritual exercises and ponderings are important in our faith development.  Even if we get to a place where we can be like Moses and ask God to help us go deeper, for the ability to see God and understand God’s ways and how God works in the world, there will always be mystery here.  We won’t get our every question answered.  Because God is God and we are not.  Because there’s a part of God that’s unknowable, inscrutable.  And God holds in tension self-giving and the self-reserve that makes self-giving possible in the first place.[5]  Though just because we may not get instant answers, it doesn’t mean that we don’t ask the burning questions on our hearts.

Moreover, in healthy relationships/partnerships/marriages, there’s intimacy and togetherness and yet the two probably shouldn’t become the same person, with partners completely losing themselves in the union.  It’s okay for people to have different interests even within a loving relationship.  In fact, author Lydia Netzer once wrote about how to make a marriage last and advises couples to both do their own things at times.  Netzer related about her husband: “Dan races bicycles. I write books. I don’t race bicycles or have any desire to race bicycles. He doesn’t write books, nor does he even read the books that I write. Seriously. And I don’t care. My opinion is that he’s the fastest, coolest most awesome bike racer ever. His opinion is that I’m the bestest, coolest writer ever.”[6]

This Exodus story with Moses and God on the mountain can help us frame our personal relationships.  God and Moses don’t completely meld into the same being even in the midst of real intimacy.  There’s that tension of self-giving and self-reserve that makes for a whole and healthy relationship.  In the end, Moses doesn’t really get to see God’s face or God’s glory.  Earlier in Chapter 33 we read, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”[7]  So Moses gets to be in God’s presence in a beautiful way though he doesn’t get shown the full glory of God in his lifetime.  Still, theirs is a friendship based on abiding compassion that lasts the tests of time.

The great Christian theologian Henri Nouwen emphasized that God is a God of compassion.  It’s true that there are some things about God that we won’t ever understand.  It’s also true that there are things that we can know about God based on these sacred stories we hold close and our own experiences of holiness.  If anyone could speak to our God of compassion from personal religious experiences, it was Henri Nouwen.  He was a Roman Catholic priest, a writer and theologian, and taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.  What a slacker, right?  Yet, Nouwen eventually left the academic world behind to live alongside people with developmental disabilities.  Some folks thought that he was crazy for stepping away from academia.  But he wanted to live out all that he taught about solidarity with the poor.  He believed that more important than any answer to all our questions is simply being aware that we can be in the presence of a deeply compassionate God who cares about us.

Nouwen wrote, “By calling God Immanuel, we recognize God’s commitment to live in solidarity with us, to share our joys and pains, to defend and protect us, and to suffer all of life with us.  The God-with-us is a close God, a God whom we call our refuge, our stronghold, our wisdom, and even, more intimately, our helper, our shepherd, our love . . . The mystery of God’s love is not that our pain is taken away, but that God first wants to share that pain with us.  Out of this divine solidarity comes new life.”[8]

In Christianity, we worship a God who is right in the thick of things with us.  We worship a God who promises, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”[9]  We also worship a God whom it seems gives us a shovel and tells us to get to work if we have any hope of finding that pony.  Yet God doesn’t leave us to shovel the mess alone since God intimately shares our lives.  Out of this divine solidarity, new life truly is ours.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Regina Brett, God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life’s Little Detours, 95.
[2] Exodus 33:18, NRSV.
[3] Walter Brueggemann, Exodus 33:1-23 Reflections, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, 942.
[4] Exodus 33:20.
[5] Brueggemann, Exodus 33:1-23 Reflections, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 942.
[6] Lydia Netzer, “15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years,” Huffington Post, October 19, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lydia-netzer/marriage-secrets_b_1459770.html
[7] Exodus 33:11.
[8] Henri J. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, 12 and 16.
[9] Exodus 33:14.