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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 33:12-23 AND Psalm 99:1-9 OR Isaiah 45:1-7 AND Psalm 96:1-13, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22


Oh, how the memory of an old man (me) mixes things together.  As I was reading this week’s lectionary selections, my mind tugged me back to times when science fiction was a steady part of my reading menu.  The phrase, “To infinity and beyond,” arose out of the mist, and I immediately associated it with Star Trek.  Wrong!  It is the signature phrase of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story.  Each episode of Star Trek did begin with the haunting narration of these words:  Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”


In both cases our minds are stretched to look beyond familiar and easily explained horizons.  Any God worth worshipping, any religion worth practicing, has that kind of “beyond” element at its heart.  It’s not a “beyond” that allows us to escape the world, but a “beyond” that illuminates, help us to acknowledge that the meaning is life is much more than surface observations and impressions.


These are some dictionary definitions of “beyond”:  on, at, or to the farther side of,”farther on than; more distant than,”outside the understanding, limits, or reach of,” superior to; surpassing, more than.”  We sometimes speak of “the great beyond,” usually meaning life after death.  I was never a great follower of popular musical groups, so it was only when it came up in an internet search that I knew R.E.M. had a song entitled, “The Great Beyond.”  Most of the lyrics don’t contribute much to my emphasis this week, but the central refrain expresses the sentiment of many religious seekers. 


I'm breaking through
I'm bending spoons
I'm keeping flowers in full bloom
I'm looking for answers from the great beyond


“I’m looking for answers from the great beyond.”  Aren’t we all?  We want clarity.  What is God really like?  Show us, God, and then everything will be all right.


Moses wanted to see clearly.  The reading from Exodus tells us a delightful, slightly amusing, story if we can get beyond some of the literal images that may offend us.  Moses is feeling overwhelmed with the task God has given him.  (Exodus 33:12)  God assures him, “My presence will go with you.”  (vs. 14)  If God is the one who is going to have his back, Moses wants a clear look at this partner.  “Show me your glory, I pray.”  (vs. 18)


“Glory” may be another way of speaking of the mystery that is just beyond our understanding.  It is most commonly associated with words like “magnificence, illumination, brilliance.”  It is often used to speak of great honor, praise, value, wonder, and splendor.  Several of the readings this week are about ascribing glory to God in the latter sense.  Psalm 99 talks about the Lord as a king, “exalted over all the peoples.”  (Psalm 99:1-2)  “Let them praise your great and awesome name . . . worship at his footstool.  Holy is he!”  (vss. 3 & 5)  Psalm 96 sings the praises of the Lord in a “new song.”  (Psalm 96:1-2)  “Declare his glory among the nations . . . For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised . . . Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.”  (vss. 3-4, 8)  To come into the presence of this God is to experience awe.  The tone and context in Isaiah are somewhat different, but the sense of a God who carries us to the very edge of the beyond is very much present.  God says, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by name . . . I am the Lord, and there is no other . . . I form light and create darkness . . . I the Lord do all these things.”  (Isaiah 45:3, 5, 7)


The source of all the power behind that is what Moses wants to see.  I’m not sure I could stand it.  Sounds a little scary.  In fact, that’s what God tells Moses.  “It’s too much for you.  It’s more than you can take in and understand.”  Actually, these are God’s words:  “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  (Exodus 33:20)  God does promise to show Moses his “goodness” and declares, “I will be gracious to whom I will gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”  (vs. 19)


Then the story turns a little weird.  God puts Moses in a safe place (“a cleft” in the rock) and promises to show his “back.”  (vss. 21-23)  Is God going to “moon” Moses?  The King James Version of the Bible actually says, “back parts.”  Of course, most of us don’t think of God in quite such physical, human-like, images.  One writer speaks of it as seeing God going away, so that Moses gets “the after-glow of the Divine radiance.”  Maybe we are best able to see the “glory” of God, the hand of God at work, in hindsight.


There’s much to ponder, on another day, in this final three verses of the Exodus reading.  Whatever we see in them, it is clear that the fullness of God’s reality, the fullness of life, cannot be fully grasped and understood.  Moses simply has to trust that God will be, is, with him.  That is, perhaps, central to what it means to walk in faith, for us as well as Moses.


It’s true in everyday living as well as in some “beyond.”  As much as we would like clear instructions that could be applied in every specific situation, we don’t always get them.  When Jesus is asked a question about paying taxes, we don’t get a clear discourse on how to approach matters of church and state.  Of course, as was often the case, they are out to trap Jesus.  (Matthew 22:15-16)  They want him to answer in a way that will allow them to charge him with treason.  He asks for a coin and asks whose image is on it.  (vss. 19-20)  It is the emperor, so Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  (vs. 21)  It leaves wide open what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God.  Some would say that all things belong to God.  Does that mean that human governments have no legitimacy whatsoever?  Others would say that money belongs to the government which mints it, that they can legitimately collect taxes.  But what if government and the collection of taxes become oppressive?  There are no easy answers in life.  All we can do is look at God’s backside and try to discern where glory is at work.  Walking in faith requires that kind of decision-making daily.


Finally, the epistle reading from I Thessalonians combines mystical awe and living out the implications daily.  As always, Paul remembers with thanksgiving “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (I Thessalonians 1:2-3)  He talks about the message of the gospel being more than words.  It “came to you . . . also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction . . . you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”  (vss. 5-6)  Dare we say that it came as an expression of “glory”?


The bottom line, though, comes when all that “glory” is lived out, to the best of our ability, in everyday life.  “ . . . you became an example to all . . . in every place your faith in God has become known . . . the people . . . report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God . . .”  (vss. 7-10)


Moses didn’t stay hidden in that rock.  He went to work as a community organizer, encouraging his people to move forward enlightened by God’s glory, even when the glory is viewed only from the back side.  Another story, in the next chapter of Exodus is equally “fantastic” and worthy of note.  Moses’ face “shone,” so that he had to put a veil on before speaking to the people.  (Exodus 34:29-35)


Whatever glory is in the beyond, in the “more” of God and the “more” of life, it is awesome indeed, more than we can fully understand, overwhelming.  Nevertheless, even when all we see is the back side, we are called to live according to whatever light we have received.


As was the case last week, I leave you with a quote which I intuitively link with all I’ve been saying.  It is from Brian Doyle’s novel, The Plover.  Enrique (the villain of the novel) has been badly burned.  Now he is being cared for by an enormous compassionate woman on the deck of the Plover, the protagonist 's boat presently off on island in the south Pacific.  She says to him, “You are as burned as burned can be.  Why do you want to live in the fire?  The fire is no place to be.  Whatever it is you were looking for isn’t there.  It was never there.  You cannot command the fire.  The fire is not ours.  You can visit the fire but if you try to live there, this is what happens.  This is the time for you to think about the next person you want to be.  You cannot stay the same person all your life.  If you are still a child inside this body you need to come out now and become a man.  You forget that I worked for you for a year and a day and I saw you with the fire.  I saw how you talked to it.  Whatever it was you used to be is burned and gone.  This is a good time to think about a new skin.  You still have your old feet but everything else will be new and who will live inside your new parts?”


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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