Encounter: Collateral Beauty

By Rebecca Messman

July 17, 2022

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

 

Exodus 33:18-23

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord,’ and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 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; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Let us pray. Lord uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

I think I would love stargazing more if it didn’t happen so late at night. I am better at star grazing or star lazing, which is the rigorous practice of seeing a few stars just before dozing off. Despite my “morning” orientation, several years ago, our family visited Joshua Tree National Park because it has some of the best stargazing in the country. And the whole place was breathtaking. Giant yucca plants with arms outstretched in praise stand stunned on sandy plains, adorned with granite monoliths and yellow rock piles. People and lizards climb all over the rocks that are set up like a life-sized Godly play scene. The sun rolls over the rocks by day heating the surface to 180 degrees at times, a punishing fireball, and by night, you can actually see clouds from the Milky Way. Dave and the kids scaled massive rocks and waved down at me, safe on the sand, like a shrub, taking pictures of their daring. I call myself the Momarazzi.

One morning, we went into the park extremely early, and from the cleft of a rock, we saw the stars fade and the sun rise, and we just sat there in awe as if God were passing by in the flaming royal procession of dawn. We probably would have stayed there for hours teary at the beauty of it, maybe saying quite Biblical things like “Who are humans that you are mindful of them?” or singing with voices echoing off the rocks, but that was not possible. Tears would soon become sweat and that safe rock, a pizza oven.

I think of that morning when I imagine Moses in today’s text. Moses wants to see God, face to face. He wants some proof, some certainty, that God is there. “Please show me your glory,” he begs. He is pretty desperate at this moment. His people had just melted all their jewelry into a golden calf, and in this usually overlooked conversation in Exodus, Moses wants something tangible of his own from God. We probably recognize his plea. He’s lonely and disappointed in other people. He’s tired after a journey that went on way longer than he thought it would. He’s doubting himself at this point, that he has enough charisma or vision to lead the people anymore. He’s doubting humanity in general, that his community would talk so much about freedom and faith and then as soon as they were free, they resumed their complaining and found some new shiny version of God to follow. And with all those clouds of doubt rolling in, the gleaming faith he once had started to fade too.

So, from the cleft of the rock, he said something like, Lord, show me some kind of sign that this is all going somewhere. Give me something undeniable, something certifiable, something tangible so I don’t have to rely on hope or faith anymore.

As a pastor, I have heard this plea more times than I can count. The person with cancer who says, “I just wish I had more faith, maybe then I wouldn’t feel so scared or angry or disappointed.” The Mom whose beloved son is somewhere in Florida on a bender again, probably safer in jail than wherever he is, who says: “I just wish he knew how loved he is. I wish God would scare some sense into him so he might have a chance at living his life.” And, I have probably said a version of Moses’ plea myself, “Show us your glory, God. Show us your realness. Everyone is upset. One on extreme, people are making craven images as if you are an American God of war. On the other extreme, people mock the idea of you completely, as if you are a security blanket of weak-minded people. Show yourself.”

Have you ever been in the cleft of a rock like that? Longing for a nod from God, a bowl of certainty in the morning so that the hunger of doubt goes away?

God tells Moses it would actually be impossible to see God face to face. So here in Exodus we get this image of God placing Moses in the cleft of a rock, shielding him from all that he could never comprehend and survive, then blasting Moses with the infernal beauty of God’s back. As ancient as this story is, some 4,000 years old, I find this remarkable. It reminds me that God gives us something better than bite-sized certainty and tiny trinkets of temptation. It promises me that in the wake of every place God has been, which is every place, there is ineffable astounding beauty. And it invites me to consider that, like Moses, we are often shielded from what we simply cannot take in.

I was a doozy of a kid in Presbyterian Churches. I was that dreaded hand that went up during the children’s message asking, “So how do you know that?” The one who made the minister clear his throat. My confirmation mentor was a man named Bob Knowles. Bob was an ordained pastor whose ministry was serving the poorest of the poor in Danville, and it was clear he was not daunted by my questions. One church night supper, I was absolutely grilling him on God and Jesus and the sticky societal problems I knew about in 1990 over a plate of turkey, green beans a perfect scoop of mashed potatoes, and he finally said, “You’re trying to see God through the windshield. But I have to say – I see God clearest through the rearview mirror.” I’ll never forget that.

Dutch theologian Soren Kierkegaard said it this way, “Life is lived forwards and understood backwards.”

The poet Emily Dickinson said it this way, “Tell the truth but tell it slant. The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.”

I think this is different than saying everything in life will make sense. Different than saying we’ve seen the spreadsheets, and the Year To Date accounting of God’s receipts is to our liking. Different than answers to our pleas for signs and certainties. It is more like taking a break from control for a minute to gaze at the collateral beauty in the rearview mirror. It’s like watching a sunset so red on the clouds that it hushes your frantic questions and gives you whole new ones.

My friend Janet had been a widow for 2 years when we started going to breakfast. Then one day, over grits, I asked a newbie question, “Do you ever get over it? Grief, I mean.”  She said, “Believe me, I don’t plan to get over George. But there was a day when dinner rolled around, and I realized had been too busy that day to be sad. I’d played cards, gone to lunch, and worked in the garden. All these little shoots of life sprouted up without my knowing it and I said, “well, would you look at that?” I tell people, God’s healing sneaks up on you like that.”

The term collateral beauty was a gift from a woman from my former church. Her beautiful, creative, deeply attentive son struggled so much. She wished he felt the warm wash of welcome that other kids did but as a gay kid, some of his light was on a spectrum that other people couldn’t see, including himself. But, over 15 years, she would send me these beautiful text messages, like snapshots from the cleft in the rock where God had brushed past. Something their family built together. #collateral beauty. His beautiful faith statement in confirmation that brought everyone to tears. #collateral beauty. A note from one of her ESL students saying “You helped me get better and in other classes I did not get better. You made me feel welcome. I hope God blesses you.” #Collateral beauty. Those texts were her view from the cleft of the rock where she couldn’t see everything but saw enough to know beauty was there and beauty is God’s handwriting.

Today’s Gospel reading wonders if maybe the reason we don’t experience God’s beauty is not doubt actually, but distraction and worry. There is Martha, upset at those who seem to be enjoying life rather than trying to fix it. She works so hard because she truly wants the itinerary of God on her clipboard to work out. Truth be told, I am firmly in her camp most of the time. So are most Presbyterians. We would like for God to stand at a certain point in the bulletin, and ideally, notify us of any holy plans a few weeks in advance. And we exhaust ourselves doing so. New York times writer Tim Krieder calls this the “Busy Trap,” where “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness” (https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/)

And then there is Mary, Martha’s sister, just sitting there at Jesus’ feet. She is not building an institution. She is not answering to the crowds. She is just experiencing a kind of incarnate grace that for a moment is in her living room. And, in the kindest way possible, Jesus says Mary is on the right path. Mary is experiencing God in the here and now rather than bookkeeping for the past or the future. Mary, like Moses long before her, sat in the cleft of the rock with the light of the world. She couldn’t control it anyway so she let herself enjoy it.

When I saw the images from the James Webb telescope this week, it took my breath away. There it was: the red tail of an expanding universe captured on film. The glory of God shown to us, on the front of the Washington Post. The reminder of how much is there that we cannot see, yet it is as true as anything, and beautiful as a billion sunsets. It is infrared so our eyes can’t register it. It travels over billenia and our bodies are briefer than that. But nevertheless, it is undeniable. Certifiable. Tangible. Granted, seeing those images didn’t make my day all of a sudden easier. I still had to make lunch and drive a child to camp and take out the trash. I still experienced waves of grief for the dying stars in my own life. I still had to bring this little light of mine to bear on the issues facing the here and now. But I let myself sit in the cleft of the rock and enjoy the beauty, a universe 13+ billion years old and somehow still benevolently bringing forth tomatoes in the neighbor’s yard. The Mary part of me quieted the Martha part of me, and I delighted in the eternal and ever new light of God right there in my living room.

Maybe there are some here today who feel anxious, who have been making urgent and reasonable pleas for God to show up, who feel tired and distracted. Today invites you to look with intention to the rearview mirror of your life for collateral beauty. Share it. Let it fuel your hope as you serve in the here and now. Today invites you to trust that the light of Christ is with you even if it is at a register your eyes can’t receive yet. Trust that it might just sneak up on you. And finally, if that kind of joy is in your living room, for heaven sake, don’t rush it away.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it this way, “Earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God but only the one who sees takes off their shoes.”