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A Cleft of the Rock

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99;1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Bigfork Community United Methodist Church

October 22, 2017 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost

We draw near the end of our time of reflection on the life of Moses… the babe drawn from the water by the daughter of the Pharaoh who had ordered his death.

This theme of death in the midst of life and life in the midst of death follows Moses and Israel all through the Exodus and the time in the wilderness. And like them, we cling to a rock in space that has a layer of life as we know it on its surface.

We carry remnants of the collision of great forces of nature in our bodies. Our blood is red because it has iron in it. Iron is created when stars die. We are stardust.

So in a sense, we are ancient creatures, fearfully and wonderfully made, now fully conscious for a brief moment in time. We live and we pass on, in what must be a blink of Creation’s existence, but we know God in our hearts and know eternal life because of it.

Last week, Moses saved Israel from destruction at God’s hand after the Golden Calf scandal. God was angry. Moses talked him down. This week he secures a promise from God to be with his people – Israel – as they enter the Promised Land.

We get just a portion of Chapter 33 as our reading but the full chapter opens with God telling Moses to now lead Israel into the Promised Land. He promises to send an angel before them to drive the inhabitants out before them.

This is a reaffirmation of the promise of a land of their own that God gave to Abraham so many generations ago. But God tells Moses he will not go with them.

God is concerned that they will make him angry again, like they did with the Calf, and he will destroy them. So he is increasing their safety by sending them angels and not being with them himself.

It sounds like a fair deal, but it isn’t good enough for Moses. You have to go with us, he tells God. How else will it be known that we are your people if you do not go with us? Without you we are nothing.

Moses finds the courage to ask this because God has told him he has found favor with God. “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.” And he adds,“Consider too that this nation is your people.”

God agrees, because the constant, faithful character of Moses has pleased him. And that is when Moses asks to see God. God agrees to this, too, but Moses will not see his face because anyone who sees his face will die.

So God calls Moses to stand on a rock next to him and tells Moses he will be placed in a cleft of the rock and God will place a hand over Moses as he passes by and he will not take his hand away until he has passed so Moses will only see his back.

This week we have news reports of two neutron stars colliding. Neutron stars are the dense mass of stars that have flared out…gone Nova…and died.

Astronomers have long suspected that explosions like this have produced many of the heavier elements in the universe, including precious metals we find on earth, like gold, silver and uranium.

So the atoms in a wedding band and in the pharaoh’s treasure house have been formed in cosmic displays of power that reverberated across the heavens.

And here is where our text for this week and the news reports of this magnificent ‘sighting’ converge for me as…I hope…a faithful reader. These two stars began circling each other about 11 billion years ago and the collision we saw this week from earth, probably happened where it happened 130 million years ago.

If we had been close enough to see it as it happened, the gravitational forces of either of the neutron stars would have pulled us into their vortex and squashed us into an object smaller than the point of a pin…and we would have been sentient beings no more.

But God had set us on a rock beside God…and then placed us in a cleft of the rock…and then put a hand over us so we could not see God’s face.

Then God passed by and we have seen what God did…long after it was done. The Bible calls us to be one with each other, one with Christ, and one with God.

I am startled, again and again, with the power of the metaphors that greet us in this holy text, that seem to correspond so closely with the cutting edge of our scientific inquiries thousands of years later.

Like the monoliths in 2001, A Space Odyssey, we are continually drawn to God…on God’s terms, not ours. If we can witness humbly, full of wonder, we can see our lives blessed in so many ways.

The gold of the universe is ours… the iron of the universe is in us…if we will be still and know that God is God. Behold, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

Jesus is confronted, in our Gospel reading today, by those who want him to make a very dangerous choice.

They all live in a land that they believe God in heaven has given to them. They live in a land that the Assyrians and the Babylonians and the Greeks…and now the Romans …have taken from them…contrary to God’s will and solemn promise.

They smolder with resentment that they must pay taxes to the Roman ruler…to enable that ruler to occupy the land God gave them…with godless, pagan soldiers.

A bust of Caesar is on the coin they are compelled to use in commerce, and the Romans worship him…Caesar …as the son of God. They have to use it to buy and sell goods. It imposes itself… and Caesar…on their daily lives.

They flatter him as one who is sincere…who teaches God’s ways according to God’s truth. So is it ‘lawful’…according to their own laws that tell them to have no other gods before them…to pay taxes to Rome? Are we to obey God Almighty, who created heaven and earth and led us from bondage to freedom in the land promised to Abraham…or are we to obey Caesar, who has created a military presence in their land to oppress them and return them to bondage?

That is the choice they have to make every day, and since Jesus is such a wise and faithful follower of the Law and the Prophets, they ask him what they are to do.

Jesus asks for a coin…the currency with which they pay those taxes… and asks them whose face they see on it. It is Caesar’s.

Does Caesar ask them to give him their hearts and minds? No, he does not. He only asks that public order be maintained so that Rome will be able to mint more and more coins like the one Jesus holds in his hands.

He demands that they obey. He does not have the power to compel them to believe only in him, as God has asked them…rightly…to do. And as for coins, the Bible tells us that love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Jesus himself says that you cannot love money and God… you cannot serve two masters.

Loving God and loving money are not just two distinct things. They are incompatible…mutually exclusive. And here the Pharisees are, saying that to give money to Caesar is an offense to God… that God and money are tied together.

It’s like the little boy who was talking to God one day and he asks God, “How long is 10,000 years to you?” God tells him that 10,000 years are like a minute.

So the little boy asks, “And how much is a million dollars to you?” God replies that it is like a penny.

The little boy says, “So, God, can I have one of your pennies?” and God replies, “Sure. Just a minute.”

Jesus tells the Pharisees to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give him the coin that has his face on it. That is not where the battle between good and evil is to be fought and won, and if you stand and fight there…you have already lost the battle…you have taken your eye from the prize of the upward call.

But that is not all that he says. He also says they must give to God that which is God’s. It is not about having status in the community or having power over your neighbors. It is about calling people into community and loving your neighbor.

We live on the shores of a magnificent lake. We enjoy the treasures of the mountains around us as if they were our birthright. This land is mine. God gave this land to me.

But we know, too, that we live in a place that was once under 4,000 feet of ice. Looking at the mountain peaks on the cover of our bulletins we can see with our eyes that they have been carved by great sheets of ice. We know, too, that the ice was once as deep as the mountains are tall.

But now the ice is gone and we can all see that the climate is evolving… rapidly…before our eyes. We might all live to see the disappearance of the glaciers that we once thought would be here for a thousand years or ten thousand years. Maybe, in that sense, we will have witnessed a thousand years of earth’s life.

Does God care who we pay taxes to, or is God more concerned about our souls…how we spend the days we have been given…how we live our lives…whether we love God or not…whether we love our neighbors or not?

Not all of this would have occurred to the Pharisees that day, but they could see that they had conceived an artificial question that had been exposed for what it was by a real answer.

Moses is offered an angel to go before the Nation of Israel to scatter the people who are there, so that they will be able to occupy the land. But it is Moses who says, “That is not enough. We need more than land. We need your wisdom in our hearts and your love on our words…or we will surely perish as a nation.

Without you, we are dust in the wind. It is only through our faith in your truth and love that we can be people worthy to follow you.

Again, Moses shows himself as America’s prophet. In the opening paragraph of our Declaration of Independence, the founders of our nation claimed, “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.”

And in the closing paragraph, they claim“for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Yes, they promised to give all that they had, but they also threw in their lives…and something far more valuable…their sacred honor…because of their reliance – their firm reliance – on the protection of a Divine Providence.

We were placed in a cleft of the rock between great oceans buffering us from the tumult of great military powers…until World War II. We have been placed in a cleft of the rock…the third rock from the sun …so that we might observe today something that happened 130 millions years ago…

and wonder at it …

and grow into it …

and perhaps to find favor with God Almighty so long as we can remain faithful to God…and serve God and not mammon…and seek only life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for ourselves and for all humankind.

That is what we have been given as a quest, as a calling, as a mission…

to be neither slave to…

nor master of…

any other people…or Earth itself.

And so we pray that God is with us and will remain with us…

and that we are with God…

that our minds are set on things above and not just things on earth…

that we give to God what is God’s as faithfully as we give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…

as we prepare to leave the wilderness and find a vision of our destiny in a cleft of the rock. Amen.