October 19, 2014

Exodus 33:12-23, Matthew 22:15-22

What would God’s mug shot look like? If you were to visualize God from the front, from the side, from the other side, what would you see… would God have a clear image?
In the Hebrew Bible, it is commonly known, that people don’t survive actually seeing God. If someone sees the Glory of God, they usually die.
But, the story we have in Exodus messes with that a little bit. Moses pitches a separate tent, outside the camp, that he intents to serve as a temporary temple- so anyone seeking YHWH/God, could go to this tent. And when Moses goes, you can guess what happens. Everyone in the camp stand in their tent openings and look, because what they describe as a Cloud Pillar, would descend on the tent with Moses. And the people would bow. And Moses would talk to God, face to face.
Panim el panim, in Hebrew, translated as face to face. Moses says to God, when we leave here, we aren’t going unless your face comes. Moses wants to be distinguished from all the people on the panim of the earth. The earth has a face, Moses has a face, God has a face.
Halloween is coming up, where our culture celebrates putting on a different face for a day. A mask, a costume, a character. Masks can express something we don’t usually get to express, an aspect of ourselves that doesn’t often come out to play, or a mask can cover our face and make us something completely other and different.
I often wonder what the face of this church looks like to passer bys. If people notice this building, or if it just a mysterious fixture in the landscape. Or if we even notice it. We often come around the back, some people go right into the basement of the church.
We turn to our Matthew text, and a similar question arises; what is in a face? In an effort to stump Jesus, the question is posed about taxes- do we pay them or not, if Caesar is an unjust leader, and our true allegiance and obedience is not with his empire and his kingdom, but the Kingdom of God. Jesus, rather directly, but ambiguously answers, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, render unto God what is God’s.”
As a proof, he has people pull coins from their pockets, with the emperor’s face on them. This is how you know who they belong to. But how do we know what belongs to God?
This weekend the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ had our annual meeting. I heard a call, to make our local churches, worthy of the face of God. Not just surviving for institution’s sake, but for the greater good, for bringing the gospel of love made flesh, into the world.
As churches, we have often been in competition with one another, defining ourselves against our neighbors- we are quick to name what is different, this is how we are unlike the Catholics, or the evangelicals, or even the other UCC church in town. And sometimes we serve the idol of church growth, and compete with our neighbors. A lot of us are much more comfortable with eastern religions, because they don’t compete with us. But now our commission is to realize how we could be strengthened in relationship to one another.
Interdependence. This is the word our conference minister, Kent Siladi used. We are connected, we need each other.
Ubuntu, is a South African concept basically meaning, a person is a person, through other people. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee defines Ubuntu, “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
Desmond Tutu defines Ubuntu, “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
We practice Ubuntu, or interdependence, when we recognize the face of God is in each of the Nigerian girls we prayed for this summer, and rejoice when 200 of them were released this week by their kidnappers. We practiced Ubuntu when the UCC passed a resolution on Friday, to lovingly divest from and boycott corporations profiting from the Palestinian occupation.
This works on an individual spiritual level- we cannot depend on ourselves alone. Rugged independence is not a way to accomplish things with God. I would go as far to say that it is idolatry, to suffer alone. We need our different relationships for wholeness. This necessitates the importance of real community, a place of depth, where we can truly bear each other’s burdens.
This is happening here. It happened the other night when we ended our Book Study by holding hands, singing ‘there is a balm in Gilead,” with tears streaming down our faces, or our spirits beginning to lighten, because of the distribution of our burdens around the circle.
This happened last week during our Deacon meeting. We prayed for this community, and were bold enough to ask for prayers for ourselves. This happens at our Elder Passage bible study, at our church dinners, with the Jacob Group, when they support one another, and in so many small places.
This happened last Wednesday, when the boards of First and South church got together to discuss entirely shifting our relationship to one of mutual support. To intentionally dissolve competition.
Our call to give to God what belongs to God means recognizing that we are each made truly made in the image of God. Our faces, our bodies, our soul’s have the imprint of God.
Moses speaks to God, he begs, “Don’t send us from this place, unless your face comes with us. I want people to know that we are distinct, that we have favor with you. Show me your glory.”
God reassures Moses, that God will make God’s glory, wealth and splendor, goodness and beauty will, pass before the face panim, face of Moses. But then God returns to the old assumption, and says, “but you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.”
So God lovingly gives Moses a sort of mask, by putting him in a cave and covering his face with God’s hand until God has passed by. One minute Moses is talking to God face to face, and the next, God is saying you can’t see my face.
So we aren’t supposed to know exactly what the face of God looks like. We do not know exactly what this vision for interconnectedness looks like, here in this space, but perhaps together we can be open to the mystery of the unfolding.
Something new is happening, and we are bearing witness to it, and creating space for it in our communities- at First Church, at South Church, with one another, and beyond. We can ask the same question of God, “don’t send us from this place, without your face coming with us.”
If we are going to be a church who not only survives, but thrives in the coming years, we need to remember that we exist to make the love of God alive in the world, not to get more butts in our pews. And in that process, if we are doing it right, God will trouble our waters.
This is God’s church, not our church. We need to remember that although we have a distinctness, an ethos, maybe even a call for particular ministry in our community, we exist for each other and for God. Especially when the face of God is so beautifully mysterious. I bet we all have very different images to the question of God’s mug shot.
Victor Hugo says, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” John of Damascus says, “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” Lucile Blanchard invites us into a mysterious image of God, Imagine a hole in space
where nothing is born
or dies,
where there is
no end and no beginning,
where time goes on forever.
Imagine God…
God, do not send us from this place, without your face coming with us. Let us be a community worthy of the face of God. Amen