Sunday, October 22, 2017

Knowing God (A sermon from Exodus 33:12-23)

The sacred storywriter tells us that Moses prays, “Show me your ways, so that I may know you.” This is, I believe, the universal longing of the human heart. One ancient interpreter of the faith said, “The heart of man is restless until it finds its rest in God.”  Of course, not everyone would identify this existential angst, this missing element in our lives as a longing for God. In fact, it’s usually disguised as something else. We might think that the something that is missing is something in our marriage or our vocational career or in our friendships. We might think of something physical or material or emotional – rather than spiritual. And I’m sure there are things missing in those areas of our lives, because none of us have it all together do we? So I am not suggesting that every need, every longing, every bit of angst we experience is spiritual. But all these other longings and needs are echoes of our greatest need of all, which is spiritual. It is the need to consciously connect with the Ultimate Source of our lives.

Today I would like to suggest three stages in knowing God. The first stage is knowing that I’m loved and chosen by God. I remember being taught John 3:16 as a kid in Sunday School and being told to substitute my name where the text says, “God so loved the world.” Instead of reading God so loved the world, I was told to read it as, “God so loved Chuck.” And it is true. God’s love is very personal and special.

And we all need this. We all need to know we are loved, that we are special. Children need to feel special as part of their healthy development emotionally and socially. One of the joys of being a grandparent is that we get to do this for our grandkids over and over again and then leave it to their parents to smooth out their rough edges and remind them that while they are special there are limits right? We grandparents get to focus almost exclusively on the special part don’t we? 

When Addie was around two years old she loved to hear stories about herself. I remember one day Melissa and I being at the swimming pool in Versailles with the girls and Melissa had to take Sophie to the bathroom, so Addie was left with me. She didn’t want to be left with me. She wanted Nan. Well, there’s only so much of Nan to go around. So sometimes just get stuck with Pap. Addie started to cry. Do you know how I got her to stop crying? I held her real close, which she at first resisted, and I started telling her how special she was. I told her the story of the day she was born and how excited we were when she came into the world. Then I told her about some of the experiences we have shared together in her brief time in the world. Soon she calmed down and had her arm around my neck as she listened to me tell her how much she is loved and how special she is over and over. We Grandparents get to do that.

We need to know God loves us as we are, that we are special to God. But if we get stuck here, as many do, then we could be left with a distorted image of God and an unhealthy kind of spirituality. A healthy relationship with God requires more than just knowing that we are loved and chosen. It requires an understanding that everyone else is loved and chosen by God too. This is the second stage of knowing God. One of the dangers of substituting our names in place of “world” in John 3:16 is that we forget that God does indeed love the world. You are special to God, but you are no more special than everyone else. The second stage of knowing God is knowing that God loves my Jewish friends, or Buddhist friends, or Muslim friends, and even my enemies, as much as God loves me. And they are capable of knowing God within their own traditions as intimately as we know God within ours. They are also just as likely to get stuck at first stage spirituality the way we get stuck.

I’m not sure the covenant people of God understood this at this time in their moral and spiritual development. Moses prays that God would accompany Israel in their journey to the promised land by making God’s presence known in some distinct way. Perhaps Moses is asking for some visible sign. “In this way,” says Moses to God, “we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” I suppose it’s okay to believe that we are God’s favorites when we are children, but at some point we have to grow up. Because if we get stuck at the beginning stage, we could end up doing more harm than good.  

I have sometimes said and heard some of you say this too, when discussing some of the beliefs Christians have today; I have said, “I just hope their faith does them and others more good than harm.” Some beliefs when translated into practice are harmful. And this is one of them: Believing that God loves us more than God loves others. Believing that we have the truth while others don’t. Believing that we are special and chosen, while others have been passed over. 

Certainly a healthy love of self is needed in order to love others. So we need to feel chosen and loved. But there also comes a time when we need to realize that we are all in this together and that we are all loved and chosen by God. According to the Abrahamic tradition, God called out a people, entered into covenant with that people, so that through that people all people/nations of the earth would be blessed.

Our calling as the chosen people of God is to spread the message of chosenness to everyone else, so they too will know they are loved by God. If the life and story of Jesus tells us anything, it tells us that we need to communicate this chosenness from a place of solidarity, from a place of unity and service to others as our equals, not from a place of superiority or dominance. Unfortunately, the missionary activity of the Western church too often has been conducted from a place of superiority, rather than solidarity and unity, and we have done a lot of harm in the world as a result.  

Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God, tells about an experience he had on the morning of September 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell about the many ways they had learned to love the city and its people in the aftermath of 9/11.   

While he was waiting to go on the air, he heard the two co-hosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. He suddenly found himself disoriented by what he heard, and realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say, because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”

Selmanovic paused and said, “No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned,” he told his radio hosts, “that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”

How do you think that went over? We Christians are the ones who need to be converted to the ways of Jesus. The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They quickly changed the subject and cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. In reflecting on his experience Selmanovic says: “I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.”

If we Christians are to be a positive force in the world, if we are to contribute to the common good and help bring about a just world, then a lot more of us will need to move beyond first level spirituality. We will need to move beyond Christian exceptionalism and elitism. We will need to move beyond dualistic – ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – thinking if we are going to be a source of renewal and hope. We must stop and repent of the many ways we relate to the world from a place of superiority. If we don’t change, if we Christians cannot break away from old ways of thinking and believing and doing, and be converted to the more compassionate and inclusive ways of Jesus, then we will continue to do more harm than good.  

So the first stage of knowing God is knowing that we are chosen and loved by God. The second stage is knowing that everyone else is chosen and loved by God too. The third stage is: We know God’s inclusive love through human relationships and experiences.

In this interchange between Moses and God, God speaks these strange words: “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.” This, of course, is symbolical language (all religious language is symbolical language). We should know, of course, not to take this in any literal sense. The writer is using human imagery to speak of the Divine. But what does it mean? Who can say for sure what it means?

I read it as a way of expressing how God speaks and works in the world. There are many things we will never know about God, because we are finite and God is infinite. We simply cannot know and see the “face” of God, the totality and essence of God. God is in some ways completely beyond us. But in other ways God is part of us. God is in us. We live because God lives in us. We Christians like to say that we live because Christ lives in us. It’s the same as saying God lives in us – we just employ the language of our tradition. As Paul said to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17 according to Luke: “We are all God’s offspring” and “in God all of us live, move, and have our being/existence.” So here’s the paradox. God is hidden in the world and God is revealed in the world. Both are true.

The great perennial, universal truth that Judeo-Christian religion has brought to the stage of human history is the truth of incarnation. We know God because God makes God’s self known through human experiences and relationships, and in the world all around us. Richard Rohr says incarnation really began with the Big Bang, when time and space and matter all came into existence in our universe. At the time of the Big Bang God expresses God’s self in a way that in time (it takes a lot of time) will bring forth life and then in “the fullness of time” become particularized in human beings fully alive. Jesus, of course, is our model of a human being fully alive. Jesus is our definitive expression of what God is like. This is why we aspire to be like Jesus, because to be like Jesus is to be like God, who indwelt Jesus and who indwells you and me.

So this symbolical “backside” of God, I believe, speaks of our capacity as image bearers of God to see and know the invisible God through our human relationships and experiences in this visible, material, physical, tangible world. Matter has always been the hiding place for Spirit. God resides in the depths of things. God resides in the depths of our souls, which is why that when we find our true self, when we know our true self, we know God.

I love the expression in the text where God says: “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” If we have eyes to see, if we are tuned in, we can find and experience divine goodness all around us. We just have to open the eyes of our hearts and invite the light of that goodness to penetrate and then permeate our souls.

God’s goodness saturates the air we breathe. God’s goodness is not an add-on for believing or doing the right things. It’s not just given to the saved or to some chosen group. It’s not just doled out on churched or religious people, or a prize for measuring up. It’s not earned or dispensed as a reward. God’s goodness is what sustains all life and it is inherent in all life. It is not just now-and-then, filling the gaps. God’s goodness is the very fullness of God that fills all reality.

If we really want to know God and experience God’s goodness, then we will need to rid ourselves of our biases, especially the bias of thinking we alone, our group, our religion has the truth and others don’t. We will need to let go of the Christian exceptionalism and elitism most all of us were taught. And we can say “Yes” to God’s goodness by saying “yes” to our own capacity to love and share that goodness as image bearers of the divine.

Gracious God, may we recognize that the angst we often identify in a variety of ways reflects a deeper longing that many of us are not even aware of – to know you and your goodness. Help us to know, O God that we are loved and chosen – not exclusively, but inclusively. That your love reaches everyone. May we grasp just how wide and broad and deep it is. Let our hearts be open to your goodness. May we learn to see and experience your goodness in a variety of ways – in our relationships and experiences every day. Show us your ways so that we may embody your ways and so that others may find you in us. Amen. 

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