First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
October 22, 2017
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
1 Thessalonians 1:1-9
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
2We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.
12Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”
14The Lord said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
15And Moses said, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
17The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
18Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
19And the Lord 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. 20But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and 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; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
When my grandfather passed away, I was in the process of graduating from seminary, securing my first call and getting ready to move. It just wasn’t in the cards or the pocketbook to make a trip from St. Louis back to Utah to attend a short, although meaningful, graveside service. And this was tough. This was the guy I was named after. He’d been dear to my heart for as long as I could remember. It was Grandpa Lynn who introduced me to Hot Fudge Sundaes and didn’t get upset with me when I spilled my first one in his new Cadillac. It was Grandpa Lynn who gave me advice that I would actually listen to. It was Grandpa Lynn who had helped us remodel an old house and helped pay for my college education. I so wanted to be there for his funeral, together with family to share stories and tears and do something to celebrate is colorful life. But, it just wasn’t going to happen.
So, the day of his funeral, Greg and I went to one of our favorite parks. About the time the service was taking place, we were sitting on the lawn by a fountain. It was one of those ground-level fountains where the water seems to come right up out of the pavement so, if you wanted to, you could walk right through it. After we had been there for a few minutes, a young couple came by, pushing a stroller. They stopped, near the fountain and pulled a young child who looked like she was about a year and a half old or so. When they set her down on the pavement near the fountain, she headed right to one of the jets of gentle bubbling water. We watched as she placed her chubby little hand in the flow. Then, her arm. Then she’d stick her foot on the water and giggled as it sprayed all over. Before long, she was walking all the way into and through the spray, laughing and squealing and being surprised when the fountain changed patterns.
We were spellbound by her joy. After a while, her parents wrapped her up in a soft, dry blanket and put her back in the stroller and went on down the sidewalk.
“I will make all my goodness pass before you.”
That was the promise that was given to Moses when Moses asked to be allowed to see God’s glory. Moses wanted to see God’s face. They had been paling around in the wilderness for a long time, exchanging conversation about the stiff-necked people that Moses had led out of slavery and into the wilderness. They’d had their famous session on the mountain when God had bestowed upon Moses the laws that would define them as a people. They had chatted about the need for food and water for the journey. They had mourned over the waywardness of the people who were so quick to complain and create idols for worship and slow to trust in the one who had heard their cries and brought down the mighty forces of oppression. Moses and God were pretty close and Moses was getting a bit on in years. He was ready for God to step out from behind the curtain and be revealed in all the divine glory.
But it was not to be so. There would be no looking at God face to face for Moses, or anyone else, for that matter. Just the backside. That’s all. No looking into the eyes that had seen the first sunrise. No gazing upon the holy brow that had furrowed at the first and all the subsequent errors of humanity. No pondering at the cause of the holy crow’s feet at the corner of the divine eyes—were they from laughter or sorrow?
It was just not going to be in the cards. But, God would do the next best thing. “I will make all my goodness pass before you.”
“I will make all my goodness pass before you.”
That day, for Moses, it happened as he peered out from the cleft of a rock and got a glimpse of God’s backside. It wasn’t what he wanted but it was what he needed. It got God’s point across: The holy presence would be with him and he would find rest.
On a sunny day in St. Louis back in ’93, it happened as I watched a child splash innocently in the water and her parents embrace her with warmth and safety. “Come to me, all you who are weary and Ill will give you rest.” It wasn’t about being at the graveside. It wasn’t about adding my stories to those of others. It was about being still and open and letting the holy hand lift the weight of grief and disappointment so I could see and know that God was there, in the splashy, uncoordinated, joyous dance of a toddler.
Don’t we confess that God is always in our midst? Don’t we proclaim that there is nowhere we can go that God is not? The thing is, God tends to not make big announcements about when that holy presence is going to be revealed. And so we don’t often realize it until the crisis is over and we have clearer vision, or until the heartache is over and we start to heal, or until death itself if past and the tombs to whatever we have put ourselves in have opened and we rise to new life. It’s then that we recognize how God has been with us. It’s then that we realize that we have not been alone or abandoned. It’s then that we see the backside of God, toddling down the hillside.
As people who tend to always want to take life’s lessons and apply them so that, the next time “this” happens, we can do something different to make it easier, more efficient, less costly. But, I’m getting old enough and wise enough to realize that that’s not always how God works. God tends to be really good at covering our eyes, passing by and then letting us see the holy work, in retrospect.
So, there is something we can do but it may not be what you think. It’s not about taking every event that turned out well and analyzing it to death and recreating it over and over and over again like a chemistry formula as if we can create God out of the elements at hand. It’s about asking for God’s presence to be revealed and then letting God do so in God’s own way and in God’s own time. And then, allowing God to point it out. And that means giving God some time and some space to be God and do things God’s way.
That’s not to say that we simply sit out on our decks and wait for God to come blowing by because so often, God chooses to be revealed in our activity: our actions, our interactions with others, our mistakes. The goodness of God so often passes before us as we live into it.
Remember that great line that we often hear on Easter morning? “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” If we are looking for God’s consolation in our grieving, why wouldn’t God’s goodness pass before us in the joy of young life splashing around in renewing waters and being tended to with care? If we are looking for God’s justice in a broken world, why wouldn’t God’s goodness pass before us in the power of the stories of the oppressed being spoken and listened to without question or suspect? If we are looking for God’s grace for our mistakes, why wouldn’t God’s goodness pass before us as we forgive the errors of other’s ways? If we are looking for God’s mercy for the poor and displaced, why wouldn’t God’s goodness pass before us as we read with children, help them learn, feed the hungry, and work for a society where poverty and illiteracy and hunger are simply not allowed?
The goodness of God passes before us all the time.