October 22, 2017 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Readings: Exodus, 1 Thessalonians
In our first reading from Exodus today, we hear of Moses and the Israelite people still on their journey to freedom, fearful and unsure of what is to come. God, with the help of Moses, is attempting to cultivate a covenantal relationship with the people, but it is not easy as they yearn for a concrete image of God to “go before them” and lead the way. Like people across the ages, they yearned to see the face of God so that they could indeed be assured that God was there always, protecting them. Let us pray, You know each one of us by name, O God, and in your sight we have found favor, yet our minds cannot comprehend the vision of your glory or the vastness of your love. Help us to be mindful of the many ways in which you are present in us and through us and in the beauty of all creation. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Reading chapters 32-34 of Exodus helps us understand what’s happening here between God and Moses and the people, still on the long trust-walk to freedom. We hear the conversation between God and Moses, while the people are worried, complaining and needed some further assurance of God’s presence, and then dancing before the golden calf Aaron has made for them when they needed something concrete to represent God, “going before” them. It would seem that God might have become discouraged as well with their lack of faith and trust.
Moses finds himself in a very difficult position, trying to advocate for his people but also aware of what God can do when provoked. He serves as an advocate on behalf of his people, reminding God of his sense that they are nobody, no people at all, without God. Moses is sharing his commitment to this covenantal relationship–to God!–and he succeeds when God responds, “I will do the very thing you have asked” (v. 17), and promises to be present with the people on their way.
The writer, John Goldingay, explains, that “The word for ‘presence,’ panim, literally means ‘face.’ A person’s face tells us that the person is with us. It shines out with the person’s love and concern.” And so, this passage helps to shift the relationship between God and the followers of Moses. Instead of seeing God as fearsome and terrifying, they and all believers long to see the face of God shining upon us with love and concern.
In the exchanges in Exodus between God and Moses, we discover that God does not want to be called by name, that God will not show a face to the people, and we have long believed that it is because our God is so awesome, so beyond imagining that if we saw the face of God, we could not live. I wonder at times if God’s face is hidden, because we, all of us, are meant to put on the face of God, to be the holy presence to one another? Certainly Jesus references this very idea when he says in Matthew, ‘whenever you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.’ In Paul’s letter today to the Thessalonians, he is encouraging the community there to continue to be Christ to one another.
Last summer, I saw a wonderful piece at the end of the NBC Evening news that they call Inspiring America. It’s always a lift to see these portraits, after watching all the bad news that comes at us each day. From time to time, they feature someone who is making a difference in the lives of others. So this particular story was about a man named Freddie Wiggins and he has served as the custodian at this hospital in Nashville, TN for 37 years. He has a fine voice and loves to sing as he sweeps or mops the floors. In fact, they speak of his mop as his prop. And so as he makes his way down the corridors, people can hear him sing songs like, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day…” or other uplifting tunes that add some joy to an otherwise often serious atmosphere. Even more important than his music is the spirit of welcome he shares with those who walk through the doors. He greets all the nurses and doctors as they head out to make their rounds; he offers fist bumps and words of cheer. And for patients who may be heavy hearted, he brings a smile and a word of encouragement. Some cancer patients who have to return frequently for treatment look forward to his greeting and a hug as they walk through the door. Everyone is welcome in his eyes and he brings something very special to that hospital. He’s the ambassador; he’s the chaplain; he is the presence of Christ to everyone he meets.
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he expresses great affection for the community of faith there. This was one of the places that he had visited in his many travels throughout the areas of ancient Turkey and Greece, and we know that he would often send heartfelt letters of encouragement to those communities that they would continue to live out the message of Christ that he had brought to them. He tells them that he and his companions always thank God for this community, for their faith, works of love and steadfast hope in the Lord. He assures them that they have inspired other communities who have heard of their witness to their faith, of the welcome and hospitality they provided to Paul and other travelers. As a community they have put their faith into action by being a presence of welcome and care to Paul and his companions and the word has gone out of their important work. Paul tells them that their witness to living out their faith through love and hospitality inspires other communities to do the same.
As we listen to these readings today gathered as a faith community, we too may have had moments when we longed to see the face of God, and yet, have we not seen it in the eyes of a loving parent or friend along the journey of our lives? And, it also invites us to consider, what does our presence bring to others? Does our face shine with love and concern for those we meet? Union Church has the wonderful motto, “peace and Presence” by the Sea, and in these words, the community is saying that God is present here and that we, as people of faith, are called to be a holy Presence for our world in whatever simple ways we can… day to day. I’m sure many of you have seen the musical or the film Les Miserables, based on the fine novel by Victor Hugo, and the lyrics in one of those beautiful songs are based on words he wrote in the book. He said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” God’s face is not hidden from view; it is there when someone looks at us and we respond with the same love and concern that God shares with us in every moment of our lives.