The Adventurous Lectionary – October 18, 2020 – Pentecost 20
Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
Today’s readings join witness, politics, and mysticism. The encounter with God relativizes all other demands and requires us to seek justice, to create the foundations in society to promote wholeness and holiness for everyone.
The Exodus passage joins mysticism and politics. Moses is in the business of nation-building, seeking to create a nation guided by divine principles. God assures him that God will be with them on the journey toward the promised land. God will show Moses a slice of God’s glory to inspire and validate his leadership. Yet, God is clear that no mortal can – or should – fully know the divine.
“No one shall see me and live,” so God proclaims God to Moses. But you can see my “goodness” as it passes by, God also proclaims. God reveals God’s glory to Moses, but it is more than mere mortals can handle, even those like Moses who “walk with God.” Like gazing at a solar eclipse, we must shield our eyes and, dare we say, our minds and spirits, in the presence of the Holy One. We can only see part of God and dare not universalize our experience or limit God’s revelation to what we have experienced. God is always more than any person or institution can contain. We receive enough but never exhaust the divine nature in our moments of insight and revelation. With a sense of our own limitations, fallibility, and sin, experiencing God’s “goodness,” God’s character of compassionate care, is enough.
Claiming to know God fully is always dangerous. It often leads to persecution, excommunication, and violence toward those who differ from us, motivated by our vision of God, and not the God of all creation. No nation or political leader can claim to be anointed by God to the exclusion of others. Recognizing our fallibility is an antidote to idolatry and national and religious exceptionalism.
The encounter between God and Moses reveals the interplay of kataphatic and apophatic, in our experience of God. Moses experiences God passing by and is filled with awe and amazement. He can see God, but only partially. Moses only sees the “back side” of God and not the “face,” or full personality of the divine. The experience is overwhelming and life transforming. There is always more to God than we can imagine or fathom.
Awesome wonder fills Moses and the Psalmist’s heart. God is here and God is more. We can exclaim with the lyricist, “how great thou art,” when we encounter the wonders of God’s world and saving love. We can name God, visualize God, taste and see God, and yet none of these can fully encompass the apophatic “dazzling darkness” of divinity.
Moses’ encounter with God reminds us that we cannot hold on to any images of God, even those which seem most adequate in describing our creator. Today’s First Testament passage might inspire a conversation about pluralism and perspective. The story is told about a number of sight-impaired persons and an elephant. Each person asserts that the body part of the elephant that he or she touches is the elephant in its entirety. But, there are many sides to an elephant and moreover a living elephant never stands still; the elephant is running and the sight impaired men are running for dear life just to keep up. Perhaps as they run, they touch different body parts and realize that no one part can fully describe the elephant’s reality. This is also characteristic of a living God; God is on the move, unconfined, and never tamed by our doctrinal orthodoxy or religious systems. (For more on creative pluralism and relationality in God, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God” and “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.”)
Psalm 99 describes worshipping God on God’s holy mountain. God is always higher than us. God’s power is displayed throughout the universe. But, God’s power is never a-moral; it is justice-making and merciful power. Love defines God’s ways in the world, even when they run counter to our desires.
Shaped by his gratitude at their fidelity and example to other emerging congregations, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians emphasizes the power of the word and Spirit to transform our lives. Divine power is concrete, relational, and personal. It seeks good and not evil. We are never the same when we encounter the living word of God; the power of the cross and resurrection opens our spirits to God’s vision and gives us new powers. Still, despite their transformational power these experiences remain nevertheless finite and subject to future revision. Our power, like God’s power, is intended to bring love and beauty – salvation and healing – to the world. We must be humble in our sharing and self-affirmation. Our witness is powerful but always finite and imperfect.
The Gospel passage joins religion and politics. Jesus’ juxtaposition of our responsibilities to God and Caesar center on the nature of power and allegiance. Caesar’s power is coercive and temporal. It can dominate our lives, but it is only temporary. Caesar deserves appropriate respect in the political and governmental sphere. Yet, Caesar’s power is limited and part of God’s larger world. Political leaders, even in our time, treasure loyalty over truth or national well-being. They assert “my way or the high way” as they bloviate about their achievements and the faults of others. Such belligerent bloviation, and demands for unquestioned loyalty is always dangerous, not only in a democracy, but to faith communities that put Caesar or political gain, even it appears to support their theology, ahead of God’s way.
This is a message to the church which may succumb to baptizing its politics and ethics as God’s politics and ethics. God is always more than our church and our government. Our loyalty to Caesar is limited and relative. Jesus is not suggesting a dualism of God and Caesar or positing two kingdoms, the sacred and secular. There is in reality only one kingdom, to which Caesar must ultimately account.
Caesar’s realm exists within the movements of God’s providence. God does not necessarily support Caesar or any other political leader or system. In fact, all systems are equally finite, even the best of them. We can hope that our national loyalties mirror Lincoln’s comment that we need to pray that we are on God’s side, rather than God on our side. God blesses every nation, not just our own.
Jesus’ words connect with Moses’ experience. If God cannot be contained by human words or systems, then every human achievement needs to be seen for what it is – finite and relative. We owe obedience to our government, but this obedience is always conditioned by our greater obedience to God’s vision. Governments ask the “ultimate sacrifice” and often see themselves as worthy for our “ultimate concern.” While we may die in the service of our country, we must also be willing to measure our nation’s achievements by God’s standards. Our ultimate loyalty to God enables us to say “yes” and “no” to the requirements of any government, including ecclesiastical structures. (for more on the question of allegiance, see Bruce Epperly, “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective.”
God is always more. The “agnosticism of faith” allows us to be on the move, always searching out God’s ways in the world and our lives. Out of the depth of God’s riches, we discover that our finitude is not a deficiency but the womb of possibility, inviting us to experience more than we can ask or imagine.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books including “Process Theology and Politics,” “Hope Beyond Pandemic,” and “God Online: A Mystic’s Guide to the Internet.”