Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Many of the collects and readings in the last few weeks balanced God’s glory with God’s mercy. Some of the works attributed to God might not seem all that glorious to objective readers with no religious commitment that demands them to see all God does as good.
Occasionally, God in Hebrew Scripture sounds a bit like a personal crony of Pat Robertson. Robertson (who attended the same prep school I did, but a decade earlier) once prayed publicly that God would divert an impending hurricane farther up the coast from his compound, with no apparent sympathy or concern for those to whom he would divert the disaster. Perhaps Pat thought them not nearly as much on God’s side as Pat thinks he is.
To some modern ears, Moses comes across as a more appealing character than God, much as Lot comes across as a Jesus type, pleading with God to be merciful towards those in Sodom and Gomorrah, while God blusters that he will wipe out all of them.
Last week Moses pled with God to remember that God would break his own promises if God were to wipe out the Israelites, and so God actually changed his mind.
(I use his intentionally here, as it is hard to imagine God’s gender as merely generic in this instance, for God is behaving stereotypically as patriarch, not matriarch.)
In today’s reading, Moses, exasperated, asks God to show up and display his power before the Israelites lest they again take Moses to be a fraud for not being able to convince them of God’s power. Instead, God blusters, that his name will go forth and that “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
The subtext might be, “Don’t you tell me how to be God. I’ll make my own choices.”
Then God goes into details about the theatrical effects of being present but not seen, lest those who see God die. God plans to cover Moses’ face with his hand: “you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
In his novel Counterlife (1986) Philip Roth levels stringent criticism at Zionists, especially Americans, who move to Israel, settle on the West Bank, and with blind, fervent reverence for the first five books of the Bible make a huge mess. A local character in Israel charges:
Is your brother as thrilled by the religion as by the explosives? These settlers, you know, are our great believing Messianic Jews. The bible is their bible. These idiots take it seriously.
I tell you, all the madness of the human race is in the sanctification of that book. Everything going wrong with this country [modern Israel] is in the first five books of the Old Testament.
Smite the enemy. Sacrifice your son. The desert is yours and nobody else’s, all the way to the Euphrates. A body count of dead Philistines on every other page.
That’s the wisdom of their wonderful Torah.
If you’re going out there, go tomorrow for the Friday night service and watch them sitting around kissing God’s ass, telling him how big and wonderful he is, telling the rest of us how wonderful they are bravely doing his work as pioneers in biblical Judea.
Today’s psalm again proclaims God as potentate. It’s about as far as you can go from the evangelical’s saccharine, “I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses, and God talks with me and walks with me and tells me that I am his own.”
The LORD is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
Yet this powerful God is not inaccessible, nor in this instance, the blusterer we see in the Exodus selection. The psalmist takes heart that Moses, Aaron, and Samuel are “among those who call upon his name” and better yet, “God answered them:
I get the impression that the psalmist is inviting us to pacify God with compliments that suggest behavior we would like to see God manifest more often, not behavior we always expect or even feel that we deserve.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Saint sets his gentle words in a context that is similarly grim: “…Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming” (verse 10).
Mainly, however, Saint compliments the faithful in Thessalonica for their “full conviction,” not just their right thinking. He attributes their conviction to the work of the Holy Spirit among them. Faith for them is “not in word only” and their “faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.”
As a person of faith and also an academic, I find it important to be able to move into uncritical commitment to the work of the faith and also be able to move outside those experiences and look at them critically.
After founding Integrity (lgbt Episcopalians) I repeatedly experienced God’s presence when colleagues in this ministry called me to higher Gospel standards.
My husband Ernest was a hair-dresser, and in the sink of our kitchen he did the hair of some of the poorest women in Peach County. Long before the computer, they were a major network about what was really going on.
One afternoon, one of his customers called me down from my study. “I suppose you know the latest about Dr. T****?” she said.
Dr. T**** was the one who had collected the vestry signatures on the letter that asked me to leave my parish in tiny Fort Valley, GA. (See a full account in Christianity & Crisis 37.9-10 (1977): 140- 144.)
“What?” I asked.
“Chile,” she replied, “he not only has the five children by his own wife, but is about to be a father of another by his mistress!”
Later that evening, I called my friend and mentor The Rev. Grant Gallup, a.k.a. “Mary Rattlebeads,” chaplain to Integrity’s first chapter in Chicago.
“Should I send Dr. T**** a Father’s Day card?” I asked, armed with this delicious dirt on him.
“You will do nothing of the kind,” Grant replied. “A new baby is coming into the world, and that child deserves all your attention, not your petty grievance against Dr. T****. If you genuinely care about this child, you might contact its mother and offer to sponsor it for baptism, but only if you intend in some important ways to contribute substantially to the baby’s well being.”
Christians in Thessalonica had an unchallenged reputation for authentic conviction throughout the region in spite of the persecution they endured. Fruits of the Spirit, particularly when we are not noticing them, are required if want to be sure of God’s presence among us. We need those about us who will steadily hold us to God’s high standards.
As I have noted before, The Gospels are filled with trick questions, questions that would damn Jesus with at least one part of the audience no matter how he answered them. His enemies tried to provoke him to say things that would prompt the Romans to punish him.
“Should we pay tribute to Caesar?” Caesar’s image was on the official money of the realm, and in the minds of some that meant Caesar was god of the moment. A good Jew made no images of God whatsoever.
If Jesus said “Yes. we should pay tribute to Caesar,” he would seem to be acknowledging Caesar’s claims to deity, and if not that, would at least seem to collaborate with the oppressor.
If Jesus said “no,” he could be charged with treason or promoting insurrection. Jesus was cagey, and answered without a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’:
Render under to Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God’s.What is Caesar’s? Caesar’s picture on the coin might suggest that the coin, or the despised taxes are Caesar’s to command. But that’s interpretation. Jesus is not so clear as he wants each side to think he might be. He buys time without compromising his conviction. He renders unto God that which is God’s, in this case, his very life itself.