Proper 24, Year A ~ The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

October 3, 2017 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 33:12-23 Psalm 99 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Matthew 22:15-22

Today’s scriptures join mysticism, iconoclasm, and loyalty to God and nation.  They assert that only God is ultimate, and deserving of our ultimate loyalty.  We must question even our own concepts of God and ethical norms, affirming their value, yet realizing their relativity and finitude.

And Moses asked God, “Show me your glory!” so goes the reading from Exodus 33. Of course, Moses didn’t know what he was asking.  He didn’t have a clue as the full extent of God’s glory.  He lived in a three-story universe in which gods were often seen as humans writ large.  As the story goes, God obliges Moses’ prayer, but God must first shield Moses from his glory. It is simply too much for the mortal to take.  You cannot see God and live!  The maker of a hundred billion galaxies is too awesome – or awe-full – to encounter in its fullness.  Remember the recent eclipse.  We were told to have special glasses.  To look at the eclipse directly could cause serious harm.  The same applies to God.  We can only capture a glimpse of the one who is always with us.  God comes to us in ways we can understand, but God is always more than we can imagine.

Today’s passage from Exodus serves as a type of theological Lysol, preventing us from making idols of our doctrines or images of God.  Surely, as William Blake asserts and Aldous Huxley echoes: if the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see everything as it is – infinite.  But, the infinite is too much for us.  Theologian Paul Tillich contrasts the Catholic substance, the sacramental nature of life, with the Protestant principle, the protest against absolutizing any ritual, sacrament, or practice, even those that awaken us to God’s presence. 

Process theology is profoundly sacramental.  God reveals Godself in all things.  All things are words of God, as Meister Eckhardt affirms, and icons of the divine.  Every place is a “thin place,” translucent to divinity.  Every face shines with God’s presence.  Yet, no place fully encompasses God.  No place is the primary locus of divine inspiration.  God is always “more” than we can visualize, describe, or imagine.  As Paul says, combining the kataphatic (with images) and apophatic (without images) approaches to spirituality, we have this treasure in earthen vessels so that all glory goes to God.  We have saving truth, but saving truth is broadcast generously beyond our church and faith tradition.

The Psalmist speaks of God as both beyond and localized.  As beyond us, God cannot be fathomed or controlled by humankind.  God defies our attempts to identify God’s will with our institutions, nations, or doctrines.  Yet, as localized on God’s holy mountain, God can be experienced in ways that bring salvation and healing.

The Psalmist recognizes that God is not a mere amoral force.  God’s universality is ethical in nature.  God has a bias toward justice and equity.  The universe leans toward beauty-making and justice.  God is not indifferent to our ethical decisions; God has skin in the game.  Our joys and sorrows matter to God and so do the experiences of the least of these, the vulnerable, forgotten, and put upon.

The Letter to the Thessalonians speaks of a small church being equipped with divine power and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  These words still ring out for us.  It is easy to feel small and disempowered in the age of Trump.  The powers and principalities seem hell-bent on destroying the planet through denial of climate change, divisive rhetoric, and treating nuclear weapons like muskets.  We are tempted to be passive, waiting for the next election, and hoped-for change.  But, such passivity leaves the future in the hands of those who destroy rather than creation, and who rule by fear rather than love.  As Gandhi counseled, we need to be the change we seek in the world.  We need to recognize that we have power and God’s Spirit to guide us.  We humbly recognize that we don’t have all the answers; that keeps us from echoing the certainties and absolutism of many in power today.  But, we do have enough light to change the world – to heal the Earth – one moment and encounter at a time.  We can be mustard seed people doing small things that bring about great results.

As we reflect on Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees, we are plunged into the battle for loyalties.  Do our possessions, our hearts, our loyalties belong to Caesar or to God? Who or what is our ultimate concern, God or finite realities that claim ultimacy?  Today, in light of bellicose bloviations aimed at football players, leaders of other nations, and even American citizens in Puerto Rico, we have to ask, “what do we owe Caesar?”  In the spirit of Moses’ encounter with God, we must always balance patriotism with iconoclasm.  No nation, no flag, or anthem, deserves our ultimate loyalty.  We bow our knee not to the flag, anthem, president, or nation, but only to God.  We must judge our allegiance to leader and nation in terms of their obedience or congruence with God’s vision of Shalom.

We live in a miraculous universe.  All things point to the divine.  Yet, it is broken and in our own brokenness, we are prone to create God’s of our own making.  Today’s scriptures inspire us to a creative iconoclasm in relation to our governmental leaders, national symbols, and even church doctrines.  Yet, this iconoclasm enables us to experience God’s presence in healthy and inclusive ways. 

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA.  and a professor in the D.Min program of Wesley Theological Seminary.  He is the author of over 40 books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians; and Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Global Healing.  He may be reached for conversation and engagements at