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Pentecost 20 Proper 24A October 18, 2020

Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Last Sunday, in the words of my beloved mentor David Brown, God was about to “gunch” God’s people because they built the golden calf. This placed Moses in an extremely awkward situation.  God is about to rain fire down on the people Moses has led many miles into the wilderness. We can imagine that Moses found this a terrifying prospect. Remember that old saying, “Faith is fear that has said its prayers?” Moses has clearly devoted himself to mammoth amounts of prayer, thus replacing any fear with wholehearted faith. He convinces God that God should not consume God’s people with fire.

As we approach our reading for today, we remember that ancient people firmly believed that you could not see God and live. God was so powerful that being close to God or seeing the face of God would kill you.

At this point, God and Moses have had quite a long relationship and a rich dialogue. In our reading for today, Moses asks God to “show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.” And God answers, “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.” Then Moses tells God that if God will not go with the people, there is no sense in their going ahead on their journey. And God says that God will go with them.

And then Moses asks something that probably no human had ever asked. “Show me your glory, I pray,” Moses asks. And God says that God will go past a place in the rock and will put Moses in a cleft of the rock and will cover Moses with God’s hand while God passes by. This way, Moses will not see God’s face and will not die from seeing the sheer power of God.

In leading the people of God from slavery into freedom, Moses has had some powerful conversations with God. This faithful leader has actually convinced God to change God’s mind. In the process, Moses has gotten to know God better and better. And I’m going to say that Moses has come to love God. God listens to him and actually follows his advice! Because he loves God and wants to know God as fully as he can, Moses asks something that no one has ever asked before, He wants to see God’s glory. He knows very well that no one can see the face of God and live.

God listens to Moses, as God has listened even when Moses disagreed with God. It has been a long journey since Moses turned aside from watching and guarding the flock of Reuel his father-in-law and saw a bush which was burning but was not consumed. And heard the voice of God coming from that fire. Heard the voice of God calling him, Moses, just an ordinary human, to go back to Egypt and lead the people of God out of slavery.

In one of the most tender and touching passages in Scripture, God answers Yes to Moses’ request. Moses will be able to see God’s glory, but Moses will be protected by being in the cleft of the rock and being covered by God’s almighty and loving hand so that Moses will not die.

In contrast to being a force of destructive power, God is now developing a very close and loving relationship with God’s chosen leader of the people, Moses. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God often appears as a God who regularly gunches people when they go astray. Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind. But this tender moment between God and Moses is a little glimpse into our evolving human understanding of God as not only transcendent, a God mighty enough to create the universe and stand above and beyond the creation, far away and mighty in power, but also immanent, a God who is close to us, as close as our breath, as close as the beating of our hearts.

As Christians, we believe that God loves us beyond our ability to understand or imagine. Yes, loves us frail and fallible creatures who are anything but perfect—loves us so much that, as our loving God watched us make one disastrous choice after another and grow closer and closer to some cosmic brink, our loving God realized the only way to reach us was to become one of us.

And so, in a little place called Bethlehem, Jesus was born. And he was raised in another little town called Nazareth. A town much like Sheldon or Fletcher or Montgomery or Franklin or Fairfield or any other little town in Vermont. Nazareth was out of the way and it was a place where folks could think for themselves and not be so much under the sway of the occupying Roman Empire. Jesus is our gracious God choosing out of love to walk the face of the earth and live among us to show us the way to new life.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is being grilled by the Pharisees and the Herodians. Their question is, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Jesus is caught between the Devil and the deep  blue sea on this one. The Herodians are pro-Caesar and the Pharisees are anti-Caesar. Jesus asks for a coin, and he says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

As Christians, we know that everything we have is a gift from God. Even our very lives. Every breath. The energy to be able to help other people. The vision of a kingdom, a shalom of peace, love, and wholeness for the creation.

The Roman Empire occupied Palestine at that time. They were great engineers. The roads and aqueducts were great, but the government was ruthless. One whiff of  insurrection and they squashed it. Once again, we have David Brown’s very helpful distinction: what is the meaning of authority? The distinction is between auctoritas—authorship, creativity, flexibilility, freeing people to realize their God-given potential and imperium—tyranny, control, imprisoning people for the slightest infraction, squashing opposition, removing freedom, — a heavy boot coming down on the people and killing them.

For survival’s sake, we might pay our taxes to Rome so that we won’t be arrested or killed. Or we might try to rebel. But to God, we owe everything—God’s gifts of time, talent, and treasure, the gifts of faith, hope, and love and all that goes with those gifts. We offer our lives to God so that God can lead us and guide us into what God is calling us to do. God is a God of freedom, love, and creativity. Tyranny tries to annihilate all those gifts. 

And so, Moses and God deepen their partnership in leading the people to freedom. And our Lord calls us to offer our lives in gratitude to our loving God, our Holy One, who leads us into the freedom and grace of new life. Amen.

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