Scripture: Exodus 33
[Following is the transcript of a homily delivered by congregation member Kendra Moore on July 2, 2017. No audio is available.]
Good Morning! So I’ve been attending United Parish for almost three years, and I’m about to begin the second year of my PhD in religious studies, specifically studying psychology of religion at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies. My interest lies in understanding how religious images and concepts of God influence human behavior and the formation of our identities. I grew up in an Evangelical Christian home, attended a small liberal arts university in Abilene, Texas, and through a series of events was able to carve out a corner for myself in Boston and call it home. My journey from childhood where I thought I’d grow up to be a princess, cat trainer, magician, or marine biologist to now as a 25-year-old hoping to find a job as a university professor someday has been a journey overflowing with life lessons, but I believe one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is how to handle failure, disappointment, and confusion.
Today I want to share with you what it means to me to have expectations of God and of life that don’t always hold up when tested. Last year during Spring Break, I travelled to Israel and Palestine for a class trip at BU’s School of Theology. Part of this trip for me was a sort of internal journey I had with myself during our visits to several holy sites. The thing about holy sites is that there is so much hype surrounding these locations. When you spend your entire life hearing stories that involve these places that always feel so mythical and far away, there is a certain level of expectation you have on the day of finally encountering the place itself.
So, the day we arrived at the Old City of Jerusalem, I felt this building pressure to have some sort of holy, mystical experience. I was lucky, after all, to have come to a part of the world that is dripping with the sacred and is considered by all of the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—to be of ultimate significance. So I walked with our group, resting my eyes on the sunlit trees and limestone paths. Along the way, I considered what that place must have been like 2000 years ago, and what experiences the ground beneath us kept hidden within the dirt and stone. Any moment, I thought, the mystical cloud of God would swoop down over me, elucidating some hidden truth that I was supposed to find while we were there. I don’t know if it was the mixture of tension and irritation hanging in the air because of the surrounding protests and general unrest, or if it was my own heavy burden of expectation for a “religious experience,” but I felt nothing significant or spiritual occurring within myself. I almost felt a melancholic sadness in the disappointment of this missed opportunity. I also realized how comical the whole situation was to even have an expectation of such proportions, as if a spiritual awakening was a package deal with the visit itself. Regardless, I thought a lot about that internal expectation of mine, and I even had conversations with other classmates who felt similarly as we walked through other holy sites. No one would be receiving spiritual enlightenment.
Toward the end of our trip on one of the evenings after dinner, I revisited that day at the Old City in my mind. I was dwelling on a reading from another class, one from 4th century St. Gregory of Nyssa, and I realized suddenly how relevant this reading was to my current non-mystical situation on the other side of the world. St. Gregory of Nyssa has a work called The Life of Moses that provides a beautiful and somewhat unorthodox commentary on the story found in Exodus 33 where Moses is instructed to turn his back to God so that God may pass by, and only after God passes can Moses turn to look on him so that Moses does not see God’s face and become overwhelmed by the terrifying and glorious sight. Let us hear again the passage from Exodus 33:18-23:
18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” 19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” 21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
As a kid, I had heard many people in my Evangelical church interpret this story that the reason Moses could not look upon the face of God was because Moses was not worthy enough as a human to bear it. However, St. Gregory of Nyssa interprets it with a twist that I found particularly enlightening for my experience in the Old City of Jerusalem. For St. Gregory, the reason Moses waited to look only upon the back of God was not because Moses was lesser or unworthy of seeing God, but instead, this view of God’s back signals a following of God. In Gregory’s words, he says, “So Moses, who eagerly seeks to behold God, is now taught how he can behold Him: to follow God wherever he might lead is to behold God. His passing by signifies his guiding the one who follows, for someone who does not know the way cannot complete his journey safely in any other way than by following behind his guide” (Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 119). Moses was to follow God even if he never was able to capture God wholly, but despite not having that full picture and full understanding, Moses would continue to follow and seek God to know as much as he could anyway because of his responsibilities.
For me, this wisdom of Christian thinkers to value mystery and incompleteness has helped me grow in theological humility as a consequence of failed expectations of who we think God ought to be in our image. Failed expectations help us realize that we can’t know, nor will we ever know, the full extent of God’s face or mind. Without mystery, it’s easy for us to build boxes that we think God will fit in and that our life will be modeled on, but if we accept mystery as a legitimate characteristic of God and our faith, then we have to trust the incomplete picture we have of God; we have to follow the back of God without seeing God’s face.
So, what is it exactly that I’m trying to tell you about failed expectations and the mystery of God? I think sometimes, experiences of uncertainty, let downs, and confusion are personal fires of transformation. When we don’t have a clear and precise understanding of life’s circumstances, our faith in the love of God can be our guide. Although we cannot see God’s face fully, we are committed to principles of love and justice, and these are principles we commit to manifesting in our own lives. Love and justice are the back of God, and we follow God into her mystery, knowing that we are led well by visions of love and justice even though we don’t know the whole story. Growing into the people we commit ourselves to be is a process and journey that is tested often by trials of ambiguity we never expected or prepared to handle: how do we address the coworker who bullies the new young woman when you thought everyone in your office was mature enough to act like adults, how do I have a cordial conversation with someone whose political beliefs I find detestable, how can I help bring justice and love into the world when I’m not even sure what those things are half the time?!? It is a difficult task, I’ll give you that. I guess I’m saying that failed expectations aren’t the point. Sure, fulfilled expectations are what we hope happens because we want that to be the point, just like having a mystical experience in the Old City of Jerusalem—or any holy site for that matter—would have guaranteed itself as the climax of my trip, a grand spectacle to behold. But failed expectations? They’re anti-climactic. They seem like dead ends we should not have followed. No one wants that to be the great story of any trip or life experience. Regardless, I think they are important.
Failed expectations are experiences that point us to the truth that life throws curveballs, forcing us to walk through transformative fires that instill virtues or renew a commitment to principles of love, justice, and truth even though we don’t know how the story ends. They should not dampen the potential lessons we can learn from them. They are, above all, signals to keep looking for a better way to adjust to life’s circumstances and become the people we wish to be. Despite having no mystical experience in what many consider the most sacred place on earth, this failed expectation of seeing God revealed fully in the Old City of Jerusalem cannot shake the fact that I’m committed to following God’s back despite not getting to see God’s face and despite what my feelings are for the day. Following love and justice is not about feeling like you understand everything all the time; it’s about the commitment to improve the state of the world despite the difficulties. This is what “living my faith” means to me. When you walk in on a Sunday morning expecting to find a sermon that speaks to you, and instead you feel you’ve been given a repeated and dull lesson, you look for a new angle and a fresh perspective to enliven familiar teachings. When you feel that suffering in the world has somehow grown to unfathomable depths you never thought possible or likely, you put your time and money in places that work to improve life’s conditions and alleviate pain instead of shrinking back in fear. When your partner tells you he in fact DID eat all the chips and salsa, you learn to make a new meal or snack together that enhances not only your relationship, but also the variety in your meal planning. Failed expectations give us the choice to walk away in resigned disappointment or follow the trail that gets left behind in the wake of the uncertainty, the trail that beckons to us, calling us to confront the trials that will test us and transform us. Failed expectations give us the chance to prove our commitment to principles, virtues, people, institutions, and social causes despite failure and disappointment along the way.
So for today, my wish for us all at United Parish is to let our failed expectations guide us deeper into self-transformation: May we forgive those we thought would never let us down. May we protect those even when our own safety waivers. May we emanate joy when the world mourns. May we be the light that overturns darkness. May we be the voice of reason in times of panic. May we look upon God’s back to follow where she leads. May we be fiercely brave in times of desperation. And may we persevere in spite of inevitable failure. Amen.