Last Epiphany: “When we should be making whoopee instead of hay” (Dillard)

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Many of us thought that war in Europe
was something relegated to history
but today it is in our headlines, on our minds,
and in our prayers.
The Bishop of The Episcopal Church in Europe,
Mark Eddington, reminded
those in his diocese that is spread across
the continent rather than in just one nation,
that the place where war lives
is in the human heart.

As we pray for peace
I encourage us to do the work
of eradicating war in our hearts.

And now, I invite your focus
to be present here
and in this moment.

I say that, but I was not
where I should have been
when writing this sermon.
Here is what I mean.
We have three readings today
but I got stuck in the verses of Exodus
that appear before the ones we actually read.

But honestly, that is only half true.
I was really enthralled and taken up
with the excerpt from Annie Dillard
and hovered over it
wondering if I could preach on it
instead of Luke.
But then, because of Annie Dillard,
I got curious about Moses.
Suddenly I wanted to re-read in Exodus
where God sticks Moses into the little crack.
It is at the end of chapter 33
right before the part of the story we read today.

But before I get into that one,
the readings from Exodus and Luke that are
actually appointed for today,
have Moses and Jesus with magically shinning faces.
That is weird and unusual right?
It can’t be an accident, can it, that the architects
of the Revised Common Lectionary
put these two readings as bookends on the same day?
So what’s with the shinning faces?

I have preached on these stories
so many dang times,
and you know by now
that Luke is telling this story
to proclaim that Jesus belongs in the pantheon
of spiritual superheroes with Moses and Elijah.
That is the headline:
”Jesus seen hanging out in the clouds
talking with Moses and Elijah!”

Christians have trouble playing well with others
so it wasn’t enough for the Church
to celebrate a Big Three event.
It had to make the transfiguration
all about Jesus
and how he is greater than anybody else.

But I dare say, that wasn’t the original intent.
So all of that is fine
if we want to remain in the clouds
talking about theology
and trading intellectual nuggets with each other.
But I don’t.
I want to bring it down from the mountaintop.
I want to talk about you and me
and where we live —
without the glow,
without the magic, without the light show.

Annie Dillard and my curiosity helped me do that.

Here is a piece of Exodus just before today’s reading:
(33:)18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”

19 And (God) said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you (my) name…

20 But,” (God) said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
21 And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock;

22 and 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;

23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

So there we are,
right in the middle of Annie Dillard,
stalking the gaps.

Cleft in the rock.
”The gaps are the clefts in the rock,” she says,
where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells
the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery.”

It is such a weird little story in Exodus
about the relationship between God and Moses,
but we hardly ever get to talk about it.

Moses, being Moses, pesters God for more access.
To be honest, Moses agitates for control
in their relationship,
as if he is God’s manager or promoter.
Moses wants to see God’s face
because it is not until we look into someone’s eyes
that we really sense we know them.
To see God’s face would be
to know God’s essence,
and be with God
in the same place
at one and the same moment
would be to know God in a utterly new way.
This is like wanting to know what it is like
to swim in molten lava — you can do it
but then you’re dead.

God says, “’No,” but then throws Moses a bone.
”Because I like you,” God might have said,
here is what I will do.
I will squeeze you into a cleft in the rock, real tight, facing away from me.
Then I will cover your eyes as I pass by
and let you know I am passing.
Once I pass, and only then, you can look.
You will see where I have just been.”

Moses wants more, but because he is human,
that is the best he can hope for…and live.

So Moses was allowed
to see where God had just been
as God receded into the distance.
He could look
where God was
but not where God is
(because if he were with God
in the same time and place in real time,
he would die).

In fact, to be even as close as to where God was
just a minute ago,
was enough to alter Moses’ face forever.
From then on Moses’ face glowed.

The message is that we don’t get to be with God
in the same time and place either.
We don’t get to have God look us in the eyes
and tell us what we most want to hear.
We do not get anything like that
and we do not promise such rare delights either.
Remember, if we look upon God we die.

So message number one for you and me,
we do not get to see or know God. Period.
The part does not get to know the whole.
And as far as being a part of God,
we are but a speck — an infinitesimal
riding on a cell
on top a dust mite
within the cosmos that is God.
Like Moses, we agitate for more
and want to be in control of the relationship
but we do not get what we want.

Even so, and point number two,
our smallness doesn’t mean we are stuck
hiding in the cleft.

Instead, we can storm the gaps.
Like Annie Dillard says, “’…There is always a temptation
to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues…’”
(But) “I won’t have it,” she says.
“The world is wilder than that in all directions,
more dangerous and bitter,
more extravagant and bright.
We are making hay when we should be making whoopee;
we are raising tomatoes
when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”

And so here is a fitting end to Epiphany
and this sermon.
Here is how we can storm the gaps.
We have a covenant,
the one we take hold of in baptism
and that we claim
is the shape of our spiritual practice.
There is nothing itsy-bitsy
or diddling about it.
If we are actively engaged in this covenant,
even if only one promise at a time,
it will get us rattled,
it will get us in trouble — good trouble —
and it will open the dangerous
dimensions of the world all around us.

We have been reminding ourselves of these promises
all Epiphany, so no one should be shocked
when we get pushed out of the itsy-bitsy
into the wind fiercely howling
between the gaps.

Here is what you and I say we will do.
Here are the promises of our spiritual practice.
You tell me if they are itsy-bitsy.
First, we promise to mine the wisdom
and stay within the community of worship
that will make us cry.

This wisdom, and this community,
will cause us to feel one another’s pain
and to voice our own,
and then to sing about it
as well as eat the bread and wine of affliction.
We promise to stay connected,
which is turbulence and trouble enough for anyone.
There is no itsy-bitsy about this promise.

We also say we will persevere
in confronting our demons —
that we will actually stalk the gaps
in our own shadow
and name the problem characters we find in there.
We say we will recognize and name
the things we do
and the tendencies we have
that we are not proud of
and that we know cause problems for others.
And then, having done all that,
we will turn around and be different.
We say that, and then we promise to do it.
That in itself is a wild promise!

Then we promise,
in our baptismal covenant,
that our lives will become — actually,
that we will become —
the wisdom, the love, and the hope
that Jesus promised.
Really, we say that.
It is in the promise we make
that by word and example
we will proclaim the divinity
that animated the human known as Jesus.
That is no diddling around in that promise.

After we have promised
that our lives will embody divinity,
we then promise that we will look for
and serve divinity in all people —
including the radical act
of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
I don’t think we have any ideas
how dangerous this promise is.

Finally, in our stalking the gaps
and putting ourselves in the hazardous situation
of trying to be where God has just been,
we promise to strive for justice
in a world and economy that bleeds injustice;
strive for peace in a world at war;
and most poignant of all,
respect the dignity of every human being.
We promise these things as if,
as if,
they were just one more thing
we will do today
along with grocery shopping
and emailing the kids.

Here is what I know.
I know that Moses couldn’t look on God’s face
and that we can’t either.

In fact, the best we can do
is see where God just was —
whether it was a thousand years ago
or twenty seconds.
We are always working with less information
than we want to know
and with a God that is less knowable
than we want or hope for.

But that does not handicap us
from stalking the gaps
and resisting the temptation
to live itsy-bitsy lives
that are measurable and safe.

We have promises to make
and promises to keep
and they are not itsy-bitsy at all.