Proper 24A: Transcendence

OLD TESTAMENT:  Exodus 33: 12-23

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

As we have seen, the possibility of Israel’s future survival and well-being depends on Yahweh’s promise and presence.  We are given two speeches by Moses.  They follow the story of the golden calf both in our lectionary and in the Scriptures themselves.  Remember that at the end of that passage, we hear that God has had a change of mind.  Now that is a surprising if not powerful notion.  This omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent Creator of all just changes God’s mind!  So, where, then, are we supposed to put our faith?  In what are we to believe?

In Moses’ first speech (vv. 12-13), the verb translated “know” is used three times.  Moses wants certitude.  He wants to know about the future and the way that God intends on being present for Israel.  Israel is, in effect, having a “crisis of presence.”  They need a sort of guarantee.  So, are you with me or not?

In the second speech (vv. 15-16), Moses’ response seems more insistent, as though he had not been satisfied before.  Without the evidence of continued presence, Israel will appear to be abandoned.  Essentially, Moses wants more from God than what he has gotten.  He wants absolute and unequivocal assurance that God is there.  I suppose we all want that on some level.

YHWH responds again and seems to give over to Moses all that has been asked.  He assures Moses that he has “found favor”.  YHWH is fully committed to Moses and the future of Israel.  The old promise is still intact, even after the calf episode!  The amazing response of God is at the heart of faith.  Because God continues in fidelity, Israel must continue in obedience.  The final verses depict that Moses does get to see God—but not God’s face.  The seeing is “dimly”; the knowing is “in part”, but it is enough.

Now remember in last week’s passage, we are told that God “changed his mind” in response to Moses’ insistent pleading.  Moses tries his hand at the same thing this time, probably pushing his luck a bit.  But God does not fully fill the request of Moses’ to see God.  Instead, Moses is allowed to see only the back of God because seeing God would mean the end of one’s life.  The point is that God does choose to abide with humanity and to be in relationship with humanity.  But God is still God.  God is not our buddy.  God is not our chum.  God is God.  We are not meant to fully understand God.  We are not meant to see all that there is to God.  Perhaps we can only handle the backside of God’s glory.  The rest is, I guess, left up to faith.  But what we come to know of God’s presence is enough.  But, then again, maybe it’s meant to NOT be enough.  Maybe that’s why we keep longing and searching for oneness with God.  And maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  After all, what good, really, is a God that we’ve completely figured out?  What faith do we need for that?

And God is described here as one who will be made known not by “seeing” (the usual revelation, I suppose) but in proclamation, in the proclaiming of God’s name.  Hearing the Word of God, then, IS the revelation.  So, what does that say about how real we are?  God is not dependent upon what God looks like.  God’s Presence is made known by hearing the Word of God; hence the language of God—Word, speaking Creation into being, and proclaiming truth and justice.  How comfortable are we, then, with the true revelation of God?  Or are we staring blindly into the abyss as God backside stares back at us?  True meaning comes from hearing and listening and witnessing to the Good News and then being quiet enough to hear the Word again.

 

a.      What is your response to this passage?
b.      In what ways do we demand to see or know of God’s presence?
c.       What does that say about our faith?
d.      Is the God’s Presence that we know enough?  Is it meant to be enough?

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=279615541

The two letters to the church at Thessalonica are powerful witnesses to the early church’s struggles with the sufferings of its members.  The letters make it clear that separation from leaders, alienation from former friends and family, and ongoing threats of persecution and even death were present in the early church.  Paul’s powerful thanksgiving in the first half of this reading speaks appreciatively to God about a richness and a productiveness in the lives of the Thessalonian believers.  Paul’s goal for these believers was not the “good life” (i.e. material goods), but the “life that is good” (providing meaning).  He cites three evidences of “the life that is good”:  Responding positively to the loving initiative of God, welcoming and accepting caring leaders who cared about them, and tranformation in the lives of the believers.

As he continues, Paul begins to describe events in the more distant past.  It is a way of remembering how the community came to be—receiving the “word” (of God) in spite of persecution.  A meaningful life, for Paul, requires reliable resources, things that can hold and remain through time and testing.  It means that even when things seem to be falling apart, God’s promises still provide us with a center that holds.

But hearing the Word of God is not an individual thing.  It is in community that that Word is affirmed, interpreted, and lived out together.  Otherwise, even the words themselves can become idols.  Living them out in community makes them real, gives them meaning.  But it is a costly meaning.  Being a Christian is not meant to be easy.  This early church had indeed fully committed themselves to this community and to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.  They were open and available to wherever the Spirit would take them.

You’ll notice at the end of the passage that there is no promise of salvation in some far off future life.  Rather, Paul tells this struggling community of believers that Jesus “rescues” them.  The verb is present tense.  In other words, just by BEING the community of faith, just by BEING the Body of Christ, just by BEING who they are called to be, the Word of God, the very Presence of God, becomes real.  Jesus rescues. Jesus saves. Jesus delivers.  Jesus redeems.  So what are you waiting for?

a.      What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.      How are Paul’s words relevant today?
c.       What does this say about the faith community and what, as a community, it is called to be?
d.      What is different about recognizing Jesus’ presence and Jesus’ redemption as a present 
reality?  What meaning does that hold?
e.       What sort of letter write to us? To our church? To our society?

GOSPEL:  Matthew 22: 15-22

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Continuing with the questions and discussion having to do with Jesus’ authority, those against Jesus once again tried to trap him.  After all, if Jesus chose God, defying Caesar, he might be arrested.  But if he chose Caesar, he was not who he claimed to be.  But in the same breath in which he declares that paying taxes to support secular and pagan governments is not against the will of God, Jesus goes beyond their original question, declaring that what is God’s must be given to God.  The Kingdom of God embraces all of life.  You cannot pit the “secular” against the “sacred”.

While the writer of Matthew is clear that loyalty to God is a different and a higher category than loyalty to Caesar, this text is not instruction on how people who live in a complex world of competing loyalties may determine what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.  The writer leaves it to the readers to figure out what that we means.  Are we called to be part of this world or the realm of God?  (The answer is YES)

Governments are necessary.  Taxes are necessary.  But the point is that Jesus does not set the two on the same level.  God always has priority. Dorothy Day said this: “If we were to render unto God all things which are God’s, there would be nothing left for Caesar.” As hard as we try, Scripture and God’s Kingdom does not acknowledge a “two kingdom” view.  There is no “earthly and heavenly”, no “secular and sacred”, no “body and soul”.  God is here; God is now.   So if everything belongs to God, then what belongs to Caesar?  That would be the point.  But this is not a treatise trying to get us to ignore government or taxes either.  As we said, they’re necessary.  We humans cannot really function without them.  The question is to whom do we belong?  Whose are we?  Yes, THAT is what you give to God.  Yourself…(And that includes treating each other the way God calls us to treat each other which, I’m afraid, includes paying your taxes.  I’m sure we are called to live responsibly and compassionately in both perceived realms of the world.)

It’s not just a matter of prioritizing; it’s a matter of BEING the Body of Christ.  It doesn’t mean “giving” to God what is God’s.  It means letting go of what is not ours.  It means letting go of the success and the accumulation of wealth for which we have worked so hard.  It means allowing God to be God and becoming the very image in which we were created.  It’s hard; it’s tiring; at times it may even be somewhat dangerous.  In fact, it’s probably easier to pay taxes.  I think Jesus probably knew that.  So, with a sort of nonchalant shrug, he left it up to us to figure it out.  God doesn’t want our tax dollars. God could care less. God wants us–absolute obedience, total commitment, a complete denouncement of all other loyalties.  It means that all these idols surrounding us must be broken, all these distractions must be pushed away.  It means that we let God be God and, even harder, we let ourselves become the image of the one true God.

a.      What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.      What does that say about our political life and our faith?
c.       How does this change our view of the world?
d.      How does this change our view of our lives?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

My ego is like a fortress.  I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God.  But I have stayed here long enough.  There is light over the barriers.  O my God…I let go of the past.  I withdraw my grasping hand from the future.  And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman)
In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. (Blaise Pascal)
Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world.  But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two.  Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars. (Barbara Brown Taylor)
Closing
In order to be truthful, We must do more than speak the truth.  We must also hear truth.  We must also receive truth.  We must also act upon truth.  We must also search for truth–the difficult truth, within us and around us.  We must devote ourselves to truth.  Otherwise we are dishonest and our lives are mistaken.  God grant us the strength and the courage to be truthful.  Amen  (Michael Leunig) 

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