Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 18, 2020
Moses said to the Lord, ‘See, you have said to me, “Bring up this people”; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, “I know you by name, and you have also found favour in my sight.” Now if I have found favour in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.’ He said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ And he said to him, ‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.’
The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.’ Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
On Thursday, a member of the Lectionary group pointed out that there is something very appealing about the way Moses and God speak to each other. They natter away like old friends or family members, and it is interesting to hear the way the conversation turns to the state of their relationship – they argue and reprove each other and hold each other to old promises. Moses is always respectful, even reverent, but that never stops him from saying what is on his mind.
By the time today’s encounter takes place, they have been through a lot together. They have talked at the burning bush, and then in the land of the Pharaohs, they plan the escape. Together they have led the people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. There has been manna from heaven, and water from a rock, and pillars of cloud and fire to lead them – and a covenant written in stone. The people have praised and rejoiced, then moaned about wanting to go back into captivity. They have thanked the God of their liberation, and then turned away to worship a golden calf, and then repented. Now the people are chastised, watching quietly as Moses comes and goes from the tent of meeting, where it is known that he talks to God. This will be a forty-year conversation.
And Moses himself, no matter how tired he is of the people’s complaints and bad behaviour, is still their advocate. We hear him now trying out a little emotional blackmail. You say you find favour with us, he says to God – but if you won’t go with us, we are not going. What he is saying is, we need you with us. There is no point in all this traipsing through the wilderness if you are not with us.
I think that this is something that any of us might say at some point in our faith journey, and that we might especially want to say collectively right now. Between all the adjustments we have made in our church life because of the pandemic, and all the further adjustments we at Bloor Street will be making over the next few years because of redevelopment, it won’t be too surprising if people get a bit worn out and testy. We should anticipate this.
In the covid pandemic, the whole church is experiencing change that is profound, rapid, and probably irreversible. All congregations are doing everything differently now, whether gathering by ZOOM as we do, or sharing pre-recorded services on the internet, or in some cases, the minister hand-delivering a printed Order of Service and Sermon to each congregation member. Our outreach and education and social justice activities are all carried out differently. Nothing is the same at all. And even in churches where they have gone back to the sanctuary to worship, nothing is the same. Masks and distancing. No hand shaking, no coffee together, no singing! Add to that in this congregation – heading into redevelopment, the uncertainty is even higher. We are facing, as Donald Rumsfeld called them, both known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Fortunately, Bloor Street seems to be full of people who are very good sports, and for whom uncertainty has become a way of life. But still. It would be easy just to walk away.
Or would we ever say to God, as Moses does, okay we can do all this, but we need you to be with us. It makes sense, at a time like this in the life of a congregation, to demand God’s presence. To insist on it.
Well, we just laugh then. That’s not the way people like us talk to God. We don’t put it in terms like that. We might talk about seeking the presence of God in nature, or in friendships, or in deep silence. Or we might just shy away from it altogether. It might not seem right to demand anything of God.
But as we see in this story, that promise is there. God responds to us as much as to Moses. I will go with you. I know your name.
The caveat is that presence does not mean full knowledge or ownership. Like Moses, we are invited to sense God’s presence, and to catch a glimpse of God’s glory, and to live in that light. But not able, ever, to understand or see the fullness of God’s mystery.
As our journey unfolds, we may sometimes feel as lost as the ancient Hebrews did in the wilderness, but we will never be on our own. God is with us. And for this we give joyful thanks.
Image Credit: Brett Jordan – unsplash.com