“All That We Can See of God”

Exodus 33:12-23

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

And the Lord said to Moses, “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.”

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, every time the lectionary places, in our path, those words from the book of Exodus, they seem to me to be a parable of our life with God, because, like Moses in this morning’s lesson, we never get to see as much of God as we want to see.

Early in today’s passage, Moses asks to see God’s glory and God’s face, to which God replies, “You can see my goodness, but not my glory, my back, but not my face.”

And, just to be sure, God tells Moses to hide behind a rock while God passes by.  And, as a further precaution against Moses seeing too much of God, God says to Moses, “I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then, after I have passed by, I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but not my face; leaving Moses able only to see where God had been after God had passed on by; a moment from Moses’ life with God which is a parable of our life with God.

Like Moses,  most of what we can see of God is only afterwards; where God has been.  Or, as one wise soul once said, “Life has to be lived forward, and understood backward.” 

The famous novelist, Pat Conroy, once said, “I sometimes think I should write a letter to the boy I once was.”   We should all probably do the same.   And, if we ever do take the time to write a letter to the child we once were, going back over all that has come into our lives since we were nine or ten, we will, in all likelihood, see many moments when God was with us in ways we couldn’t see then, but can see now.

Sometimes, life works out that way, and, years and years later, we can see where God has been leading, guiding and protecting us in ways which, at the time, we simply could not see.  Like Moses, we couldn’t see God’s face in the moment, but now, like Moses, we can see God’s back.  Like Moses, we can see where God has been; where God has been protecting us when we did not even know we needed protecting.

Sometimes.  But not always.  When we are tempted to say, in the church, that we will someday be able to look back and see how everything was part of God’s plan, we must exercise much restraint and  great word care, because, in those moments, it is too easy to say too much.  To say that, in retrospect, we will someday see that everything was a part of God’s plan would require us, for example, to say that, in retrospect, the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Charleston, Orlando and Sandy Hook will someday be revealed to be part of God’s plan, along with the thousands of kidnappings which feed the horrors of human trafficking, as well as the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

No.  Let’s be clear; to suggest, as much popular Christianity does, that, eventually, we will see that everything was pre-ordained by God and, ultimately, part of God’s plan, sacrifices too much of the love and goodness of God on the altar of the sovereignty and control of God.  (As one wise soul once observed; “God’s friends say things about God that even God’s enemies wouldn’t say.”)

The truth is, things happen which are not God’s will or God’s plan, and, when they happen, as William Sloane Coffin once said, “Of all hearts, God’s heart is most broken.”

And, I would add, in those moments, not only is God’s heart most broken, God’s help is most near.  When we look back across our lives, at our own worst moments and greatest sorrows, we, like Moses, can see where God has been; where God has been helping us through what we were not protected from.

As the poet Mary Oliver so beautifully says, “That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying, I did go closer, but I did not die.  Surely God had a hand in this, as well as friends.”

Indeed.  Isn’t it so for all of us?  We can all look back on times we thought would absolutely do us in.  But, here we are, all these years later, having gone through what we would have sworn we could not survive.

And, like Moses, and Mary Oliver, looking back, we can see where God was.  God was in the faces and voices of friends, the community of support which showed up and stayed near.   Looking back, that is what we can see; the back of God, in the faces of the people of God.

Perhaps, for us, that is what the church is; what today’s lesson from the book of Exodus called “the back of God”; the part of God we can always see afterwards; the part of God that carried us through what we did not get to go around.