- Parish House
Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – Exodus 33:12-23
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
The collision of two neutron stars was in the news this week. And you know I can’t resist a good story about space. The so-called “kilonova” happened about 130 million years ago, unleashing an explosion that rippled space-time and splattered the cosmos with a cocktail of heavy metals. Apparently it takes a hot cloud of star chaos to create gold. If you’re wearing any gold or platinum jewelry right now, let that sink in for a minute. Astronomers announced this week that they have detected new evidence of an explosion, through gravitational waves and signals across the electromagnetic spectrum. The science is impressive, of course, but I love the theological implications. Whenever I hear reports like this, I can’t help but think that God created the so- called vast expanse of interstellar space for the sport of it. We can hardly wrap our minds around its scope, its volatility, its beauty. I bet it absolutely delights God when two neutron stars collide and create such a magnificent show.
The science is cool, for sure. But so was the report of one physicist who described the event. He noted that the gravitational waves produced by the collision are minute distortions in the shape of space. It happens that they vibrate in same frequency range of human hearing. So, if you were standing close enough to the collision, they would rhythmically compress the hair cells in your inner ear, causing neurons to fire. Your brain would interpret this information as sound. So you would hear the collision, even through the vacuum of space. He said what a beautiful thought this was, then paused and said, “Of course, if you were close enough for your ears to pick up the waves, you would also be close enough for them to shred the protein chains in your body.” He paused again. “Still, it would be an incredible thing to hear.” (posted by Peter Schell) For a brief instant, the physicist stepped out of the realm of observable science, right into the realm of wonder.
Not to project too much emotion onto the creator of the heavens and earth, but I wonder if God would be somewhat disappointed if we didn’t stop and wonder at it all from time to time. How quickly we get wrapped up in our lists of things to get done, in the transactions of daily life, in our efforts to quantify things like time and money and carefully spend them. We live in a transactional world, full of contracts and negotiations. Even our prayer life can look like this. Maybe especially as polite Episcopalians, we consider what’s appropriate to ask God, how often, and for how much. We temper our deepest desires in order to feel like smart, reasonable spiritual negotiators.
Moses was a step ahead ahead of us, of course, as one of the greatest prophets, but he understood the world of transaction. He was a relentless negotiator with God. This surely gave the Israelites peace of mind, kind of like when you have a really good lawyer representing you in contract negotiations. Moses often questioned God’s decisions, offering counter evidence that sometimes caused God to change course. He often wore God down with his persistence. And he repeatedly clarified the terms of a somewhat new relationship. Moses took on that mantle faithfully.
Today’s lesson is no exception. Moses wanted to make sure that God would go with the Israelites when they left Sinai. So Moses pleads his case with a straightforward, “You have to go with us.” And God agrees, sealing the deal that Israel will be God’s chosen and the presence of the Lord will go with them. Once again, Moses proves a brazen, bold, and successful spiritual negotiator.
And then a very strange thing happened. Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And in that moment, what had been a careful contract negotiation turned into a love story. “Show me your glory” is the request of a lover, not a negotiator. Moses suddenly asked to know more of God, to be shown more of God, as much as he could handle. There was nothing useful or helpful about this request. True love never is pragmatic or contract based. It’s about wanting to know the essence of another, for the sole purpose of being in the presence of another’s glory. This is about love, about the giving away of the self, not about gaining something. Moses was starting to fall in love.
Again, imaging some delight on God’s part, God granted the request. First God let God’s goodness pass before Moses, and proclaimed the freedom to bestow grace and mercy. We have just learned three essential attributes of God, goodness, grace, and mercy, in the way that lovers disclose of themselves as the relationship deepens. Then, God comes up with a way to show some of the glory, since the full dose, including seeing God’s face, would be lethal. God places Moses in the cleft of a rock and covers him with a divine hand as God passes by, so that Moses will see the back of God and survive the encounter. And yes, this is the moment when graduate students in Old Testament class turn back into middle schoolers and snicker about God’s backside. Which, I think, is also appropriate for the unfolding of this love story – how can we not feel a bit awkward at new found intimacy with God?
Moses fell in love, and in many ways, Jesus continues that love story. Like God in the cleft of the rock years before, Jesus freely offered his own glory, in what would become a complete self-gift on the cross. And his teachings remind us to offer ourselves as well. Take these words, for example. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” We usually hear this commandment as something like, be a good and kind person, be good to your neighbor, act ethically in this world, and show deference to God. But the spiritual life, our true life, cannot be reduced to behavior or fulfilling our end of a contract. It’s about love, about giving something of ourselves away so that we might experience the glory of another, of both God and neighbor. When we do, God is quick to meet us there, offering as much of God’s glory to us as we can survive.
So if you need a love story these days, you’ve come to the right place. This is a place for love, not pragmatism or contract. After all, we do a lot of useless things in this space – we bring out the silk and the silver, we sing, we pray, we eat a bit of bread and have a sip of wine. None of that has much use in the world. Yet, when things are difficult, when glory seems really thin on the ground, we can come here to be uplifted and to be reminded of the love story at the heart of this world. Here we can see more of God’s glory, and more of one another’s glory as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We’re told that Moses’ face would shine after he talked with God, as if he were coated with residue of the glory he encountered. Maybe there’s a connection – the brilliance of his face, the light in each other’s faces, the gold exploding into space after the collision of neutron stars, all connected through glory. Perhaps we should learn to pray like Moses, boldly, fiercely, intimately, in order to see more of that brilliance. “Lord, show us your glory.” And when we pray like Moses, perhaps our faces with shine with some residual glory, a light we can take into the world.