The Glory of God
by Isaac Villegas
Oct 19, 2014
For the past month, we’ve been spending time in the book of Exodus. We never tell the preachers what Bible passage to preach on, but for some reason all of us have been choosing the lectionary passages from Exodus. So, for today, I figured I should stick with the program.
Let me recap some of what we’ve heard so far. We heard about the God who calls out from the burning bush, who calls out from within the fire of suffering, who hears Israel cry out for liberation from Egyptian slavery.
We heard about how God provides as they wander in the wilderness; We heard about manna, bread from heaven, miraculous food, a gift, so unexpected, that they aren’t sure what to call it, how to name it, what to think of it. The people of God learn that God provides in unexpected ways.
We heard about how the people have to unlearn their concepts about the divine, because their minds had been colonized by Egyptian ideas about the gods of slavery. Wandering in the wilderness is their theological detox program, as their ideas about the divine are deconstructed, dismantled, and, instead, they learn to trust the true God, the One who set them free, the God of life.
We heard about how they had to not only relearn how to relate to the divine, but they also had to relearn how to relate to one another — they needed commandments, rules for community life, guidelines on how to live without idols.
And last week we heard from Dave about how Israel, how we, are always tempted to return to idolatry, the idolatry of thinking and acting like we are authorized to be in control, to be in power, over our lives, over our time — that we are our own gods, that each of us can decide for ourselves, on our own, how to use our time, and how to use our lives.
And now, here we are, in Exodus again, in a story about Mount Sinai again, a story about a conversation between Moses and God. And, this time, in this conversation, we hear that Moses and the people, that Israel, will be known by their desire for God. They will be known by their desire for divine presence, their desire for God’s glory.
This new people — what kind of people will they be? They will be people of God’s glory. They will be known as a people who desire after God, a people who are lead into a friendship with God — with all the give and take that comes with friendship, with all the frustration and delight that comes with friendship, and all the mystery, all the knowing and unknowing, the familiarity and strangeness, a relationship full of the excitement of discovery and the boredom of ordinariness.
“The Lord used to speak to Moses,” it says, “as one speaks to a friend” (Exod 33:11). God talks with Moses as friends usually do, not like a master talks to a slave.
God will be a friend to Moses, and by extension, a friend to Israel. They are bound together in friendship, an everlasting friendship. Moses can’t imagine his life, and the life of his people, without this newfound friendship.
So Moses says to his friend, to God, in verse 15: If you will not go with us, then we don’t want to leave from here. Moses desires to be with God, and for God to be with him, with him and his people. That’s how Israel will be known — as a people who desire and follow after the divine, who draw closer and closer, an unceasing journey into life with God.
“Show me your glory,” Moses says to God. Moses wants to know God, to know fully, completely, to get a handle on God. To see and know, on Mount Sinai. And Moses is allowed to see, but he can see only God’s back. “I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by,” God says, “then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back” (22-23).
There was a bishop from the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa — he was a bishop in Cappadocia, what is now Turkey, and he wrote an interpretation of this passage, this story from Exodus, that has been passed from generation to generation, in the church, for the past sixteen hundred years.[i]
For Gregory of Nyssa, we find ourselves with Moses in the story, straining toward the divine — because that’s what it means to be a human being, to always be reaching for something else, something beyond us, something or someone outside of us.
We are restless creatures, never satisfied with what we have, with our lives the way they are, with the people around us, with our neighbors or friends or coworkers or family members, never fulfilled with the lives we have, the lives given to us, always longing for more, always yearning, always imagining what it would be like to have another life, to live as someone else.
So, what does it mean for us, what does it mean for such restless creatures to be with God? That’s question Gregory of Nyssa asks, with this story about Moses. What does it mean to live and to belong and to be at home with God, at home in our friendship? — because, usually, we don’t know how to be at home anywhere. Why would it be any different with God? Why wouldn’t we be dissatisfied?
Because, with God, we are caught up in a journey, an eternal pilgrimage. The longing at the core of who we are stretches our lives into God’s life. The yearning inside all of us reaches through our lives and draws us into God’s infinite love for the world, for creation, for all that is.
That’s why Moses sees God’s back. “I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back.” We see God’s back, because God is always on the move, on the move because God can’t stop loving, can’t stop desiring, can’t stop stretching into the world, into creation, into the lives of others, finding life by living with others, finding a home in the lives of people, being refreshed in communion with God’s creatures, with us and all our neighbors, near and far, here and elsewhere, our neighbors across the street and across an ocean. That’s where God is headed, with a face set toward the world. And God invites Moses along, invites us along.
We know God with our love, as we love what God loves. We draw close to God as we follow, as we are allured into divine love for the world.[ii] As Gregory of Nyssa put it: The people who share their lives with the poor will share their life with the One who becomes poor for our sake.[iii]
In other words, to share your life with others is to share your life with God. We experience the glory of God when we share life with others, in our communion with the poor, with the wounded, with the suffering. To know God is to love God, and to love God is to love whom God loves.
Last week Monica shared a story on Facebook about a Liberian woman, Fatu Kekula, a twenty-two year old nursing student.[iv] Several months ago, while the World Health Organization was ignoring the spread of Ebola, Fatu dropped out of her classes and returned to her hometown, to care for people who had been infected. Everyone told her that it was a death wish. But she couldn’t help herself, she couldn’t help but care and love her people. She cared for four people in her parents’ house — her mother, father, sister, and a foster child. The hospitals and clinics didn’t want them, so she had to figure out how to nurse them by herself. She made a protective suit out of trash bags and a raincoat, and she worked around the clock, hydrating her patients however she could, treating their symptoms, easing their pain, helping them to survive. Three of the four patients lived, they’re alive, but one died, and when he died, Fatu said, Somebody’s child died in my hands, and so I cry; his death is a shame on me.
For Fatu, the death matters because life matters.
Whose lives matter to you? Or, another way to ask the same question, Whose lives don’t matter to you?
If we want to ask, with Moses, for our eyes to be opened to see the glory of God, we may find ourselves on a wandering journey into the lives of others, like Fatu did, as she went back to her hometown, a death wish, they told her, but worth it because every life is beloved, every life is the center of God’s world, every life is held in God’s hand, every life beloved, a reflection of the divine on earth.
As Irenaeus of Lyons once said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”
Or as Dorothy Day once said, The true atheist is the one who denies God’s image in every human being.
[i] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Life of Moses.
[ii] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross (Cowley Publications, 1991 ), 70: “What matters is the epekstasis of love and longing, permeating the whole of life. The substance of God is not to be touched or known; it is an abstraction and, in a sense, a fantasy; there is no core of the divine being to be grasped as the final, ‘essential’ quality of God, only the divine works; God willing to relate to the world in love. These works or operations are equally inaccessible to conceptualization, simply because they are known only by being experienced, by the character of a life lived out of them and in their strength.”
[iii] Paraphrased from Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, 63.