Pentecost 20 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 18th October 2020

Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 99; Matthew 22.15-22

We need to talk about God. In the midst of this pandemic, and the anxieties, frustrations and fears for the future that it throws up, we need to talk about God. In the midst of the extraordinary stories of love and care and compassion that this pandemic also reveals, we need to talk about God.

We need to talk about God so that we can be clear and articulate about what faith means in the midst of the extraordinary events overtaking us. We need to talk about God so we can deepen our faith, and find the resources to build up the solidarity, the sense of community, the will to persevere, the concern for the vulnerable, that will see us through.

The need to talk about God is something that Jesus too invites us to consider. When those in authority, those who had things worked out, in his own day, approached him to trap him in clever questions, they did so by first flattering him, and then trying to find the question that would condemn him: ‘Teacher,’ they said to Jesus, ‘we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?’

We don’t have to get into the complicated politics of Jesus’ own day, the questions of the legitimacy or otherwise of an occupying imperial army, to realise that the question is about the limits of faith – what impact does faith have on the conduct and the shape of our living; our relationship to authority – the emperor in Jesus’ time. Is faith simply something relegated to the private sphere, or something that has an impact on our public behaviour and attitudes – in this case the payment of taxes to an emperor.

Jesus’ answer to the question designed to trap him, is to throw back the question on to those who ask it, and – for those of us hearing it as part of our Gospel reading for today – back on us, to answer for ourselves in our own time and circumstance. ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ The line is not clear cut; authority, what is demanded of us by others, needs to be respected; but so must the demands of faith. Those demands of faith, the outworking of believing in God, may, or may not, be in tension with the claims of authority. But they need to be thought about, decisions made about how we are going to act, the shape our life might take – what allegiance we are going to owe, to whom, and why. We need to talk about God.

The great American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, writes this:

Entertain this proposition: That God is the map whereby we locate the setting of our life. That God is the water in which we launch our life raft. That God is the real thing, from which and toward which we receive our being and identify ourselves. It follows that the kind of God at work in your life will determine the shape and quality and risk and centre of your existence. It matters who God is.

The question of who God is, certainly mattered to Moses. Our reading from Exodus sees Moses embarking on a long dialogue with God about the meaning and presence of God in his trials and journeyings. By this point Moses is approaching old age; he’s brought the people out of Egypt amidst great signs and wonders; he’s tracked across the desert with them through great hardship and tribulation. And now he’s wondering what it’s all been about; where has God been through it all? ‘Show me your ways,’ he says to God, ‘consider too that this nation is your people.’ And the replies he gets are a repeat of the theological truths he already has heard, he already knows, but that somehow are not enough: ‘You have found favour in my sight,’ repeats God, ‘I know you by name.’

It is a dense dialogue between Moses and God, full of questions and the repeating of assurances that God is present, assurances that fail to satisfy Moses. And then we have a strange exchange that is worth quoting in full:

Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And God said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by 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.’

‘Show me your glory, I pray,’ asks Moses. And then God talks about being all goodness, about being gracious and merciful. But that fullness of God can never be seen: that glory of God – that fullness of goodness, of graciousness and mercy – will pass by Moses, but he’ll only catch the back of it, the trailings of God’s glory. But that will be enough.

We need to talk about God. But even more we need to pray to be shown God’s glory, those trailings of the fullness of goodness and graciousness and mercy, that are the signs of God’s presence and truth. If we knew the fulness of God; if we could define and say, that’s God, then by definition we would have captured something less than God. God is the one who always exceeds our limits of knowledge and understanding, who is beyond our ken, because the fullness of goodness, of grace and mercy, is beyond us. And yet the trailings of that goodness, the signs of its presence through our world in extraordinary acts of goodness, of grace and mercy, the trailings of God’s presence in people and places and moments that lift our heart and direct us toward God – that is what we need to nourish us in faith, to strengthen us for the long journey that beckons, to tackle together the challenges of a pandemic which strikes above all the vulnerable, and questions our solidarity and love. The fullness of goodness is beyond us, but we can know something of its glory, be caught up in its trailings, and allow that goodness to shape us. To give back to God, the things that are God’s – God’s goodness, and grace, and mercy – to God’s glory. Amen

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