Sideways Glance

Sermon preached October 19, 2014

Texts: Exodus 33:12-23

“God.”  It is amazing how three simple letters put together in this way can be so powerful.  Some think this combination of letters is a meaningless symbol, or a word pointing toward nothing that really exists.  If polls are any indication, these folks are in a minority.  For most of us, “God” is a word that denotes a reality.

For Christians, God matters.  There is no Christian faith without God.  Even the theologian who in the 1960s wrote a book entitled The Gospel of Christian Atheism, and was rather famous for being part of the “death of God” movement which made the cover of Time magazine, which meant more then, than it probably does today, even Thomas J. J. Altizer who wrote about the death of God continues to write and think about God.  The primary calling of the theologian is to name God…. While silence is now the primary path of the theologian, particularly silence about God, this is a silence which I have ever more deeply and comprehensively refused, for I am simply incapable of not naming God. (Living the Death of God: a theological memoir, xvii-xviii).  Whatever Altizer meant by the death of God, he continues to struggle with the reality of this God.

And for followers of Jesus, we are incapable of not naming God.  Jesus spoke often of God, and of “the kingdom of God.”  Jesus makes little sense outside of some notion of God, and for Christians one of our affirmations about Jesus is that in him, we know something more about God.  The theologian Marcus Borg, in his book about God, writes, “As a Jesus scholar, I have found it impossible to say very much about Jesus without also talking about God” (The God We Never Knew, vii).

God is central to Christian faith, and we look to the Bible, and especially to Jesus, to try and understand more about who God is.  When we do that, though, we discover that the God of the Bible, and the God of Jesus is a God of the glimpse, the soft breeze, the gentle touch, the sideways glance.  I appreciate how theologian Marjorie Suchocki writes about “the whisper quality of God’s creative word.”  It can easily be drowned out by the sheer weight of the past with which and through which it must work. It is clothed in the past, even as it bespeaks a future, and it leads us not through extraordinary leaps and bounds, but most often through a quite ordinary faithfulness in the midst of things.  God’s word is hidden incarnationally in the world.  It is a whisper. (The Whispered Word, 6)

God is present everywhere and at all times, but the presence of God can be elusive, hard to name.  God’s presence is the soft breeze.  God’s voice is the whisper.  Seeing God is the glimpse, the sideways glance.

One biblical story that speaks about this so eloquently is the one we read this morning about Moses.  To set some context: the people have been led to freedom from Egypt.  They are making their way to the promised land, but not without some hiccups along the way.  They have complained about food and drink.  They have gathered around Mount Sinai, and Moses has ascended to speak with God and receive commandments.  In his absence, the people decide to create a god, a golden calf.  Moses comes down the mountain, and breaks stone tablets with the commands when he sees what the people have done.  God and Moses continue to have conference, however, this time in Moses’ tent.  That’s where today’s scene takes place.  Moses and God are conversing, and Moses asks to see God’s glory.  God tells Moses that he has found favor and that the request will be granted.  The scene is filled with some tenderness and some humor.  No one can see the face of God, so God passes by, covering the face of Moses until God has passed, then taking away his hand so Moses could see his backside.

God is a God of the glimpse, of the sideways glance.  God can be a little cheeky, pun intended.  As with Moses, our own speech about God, our own experiences of God, have an indirectness about them – the glimpse, the glance, the breeze, the whisper.

Writer Patrick Henry is helpful to me here, when he writes about the grace of “a God of surprises.”  The grace of this God is mysterious, sneaky. Some Christians chalk things up much too easily, much too quickly to the grace of God….  I trust God’s grace, but hesitate to identify it in particular places.  It often blindsides me, regularly catches me off guard, seldom hits me square in the face.  When I know the grace of God, it’s nearly always after the fact, usually long afterward. (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 1-2).  God touches our lives in surprising ways.   God can be a little saucy, can be bold, can be playful – in short, a little cheeky.

Part of our task as a church is to help each other see God at work in our lives and in our world.  Part of our task as a church is to help each other be more open to the Spirit of God in our lives.  This is how we love each other into life.

So where are some of the places we help each other see God, feel God, know God – even if it is a glimpse, a sideways glance?  For many of us, the songs of the church, traditionally called “hymns” from the Greek word for “song of praise,” are places where we glimpse God.  Last week Ron Yardley led a discussion of the hymnal and he collected some favorite hymns.  We are going to sing some of them in a bit.  For some of you, they will provide a glimpse of God.

For others, the traditional language in some of the songs of our faith can be a barrier to connecting more deeply with God.  Perhaps one of the tasks of the church is to help re-vivify some of that traditional language, to help make it so it can speak to us, to make it a conduit for a sideways glance of God.  Yet we also need to acknowledge some limits to some traditional religious language.  In his book written following September 11, 2001, Rowen Williams, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote this:  Last words. We have had the chance to read the messages sent by passengers on the planes to their spouses and families in the desperate last minutes; and we have seen the spiritual advice apparently given to the terrorists by one of their number, the thoughts that should be their minds as they approach the death they have chosen….  The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.  The nonreligious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged. (Writing in the Dust, 3).  Perhaps the failure of some of our traditional religious language to connect deeply with life and with love is a reason communities of faith are struggling these days.  I will admit that sometimes a secular song helps me glimpse God even more vividly than a purportedly religious song.  Music, in itself can help us get a sideways glance at God.

So where else have there been some God-sightings and grace happenings?  The English poet William Blake, in his poem “The Divine Image” wrote, “Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell/There God is dwelling too.”  Acts of kindness give me glimpses of God and recently the great potato giveaway was a kind of glimpse of God.  The Ruby’s Pantry organization had potatoes they wanted to distribute, on short notice.  One member of our local committee was excited by the opportunity.  I was concerned.  This was to happen early in the week of our Roast Beef Dinner.  Would all the potatoes be gone by Thursday?  I was going to be out of town the day the potatoes were to arrive, and so was not going to be any help.  The potatoes came, and they went quicker than anyone might have imagined.  People are being fed.  A sideways glance toward God.

Renewed connections can be glimpses of God.  Last week, a young man who had been a part of the youth group I led when I was a youth pastor in Dallas contacted me.  It turns out that he is now in seminary, and part of what he wanted to do was tell me that I had been an important part of his spiritual journey, even though he told me he would have described himself as an atheist while he attended youth group.  A sideways glance toward God.

Poetry often helps me hear the whisper of God, though I know it has the exact opposite effect on some.  A well-turned phrase or image in a poem penetrates to the depth of my heart and soul.  Here is a Mary Oliver poem I bumped into the other day.

Who Said This?   (Red Bird, 58)

Something whispered something

that was not even a word.

It was more like a silence

that was understandable.

I was standing

at the edge of the pond.

Nothing living, what we call living,

was in sight.

And yet, the voice entered me,

my body-life,

with so much happiness.

And there was nothing there

but the water, the sky, the grass.


Perhaps that’s often how we get a glimpse of God, are granted a sideways glance, hear the whisper, feel the gentle breeze – as something whispering something that was not even a word, more like a silence that is understandable.

Where are you glimpsing God?  Where is God inviting you toward a sideways glance?  How are we helping each other catch glimpses of God, hear God’s whisper?  Amen.