Letting Go of Self

The Rev. Scott Walters
Christ Church, Little Rock
October 16, 2011
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24A

Have you ever tried really hard to see something that you can’t? I’ll bet you have.

Early in our lives it’s the refrigerator light. You wonder if it’s always on or if the appliance mysteriously knows that you’re coming after the milk. Eventually, though, you discover that if you close the door very slowly and watch very carefully, the light goes off just before it closes. Then you spend the rest of the afternoon pushing and releasing the little button that you find controls the light, and the number of mysteries in your world is diminished by one.

But sometime later you’re in the bathroom. Actually any encounter with a mirror will do. But hopefully you’re alone. You’re standing at the sink when, in a fit of self consciousness, it suddenly seems a little creepy that the image in the mirror is always looking you right in the eye. So you look away. And then turn back really fast, only to find yourself already looking at you, unimpressed by your real self’s catlike quickness.

You try again with an extra dose of nonchalance, pretending that you don’t really want to see what you can’t quite see. But that doesn’t work either. So you turn more slowly the next time. Trying with your peripheral vision to see that your eyes are not looking at you. But as soon as you cross some elusive threshold, beyond which you really are looking at something, there you are looking back, as if you’ve been waiting for yourself all day.

I’m not going to ask for a show of hands to find out how many of you have tried this little game for yourselves. And lest you think that this illustration finally proves that your preacher is a few peas short of a casserole, you should know that I’ve never done this little reflection chase for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch… twenty at most.

It’s tantalizing to almost be able to see something. And for most of us humans, catching a glimpse of God seems as impossible as seeing yourself looking away in the mirror.

Moses, however, is apparently the exception. Here was one person who saw God regularly and clearly. Shortly before our reading from Exodus for today, we’re told that a pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent of meeting, a special tent set outside the camp for such encounters. We’re told that Yahweh would speak to Moses there “as one speaks to a friend.” To most of us this sounds as unlikely as us catching our own reflection unawares. But it’s all described pretty matter-of-factly in the story.

Moses and God talk. They go back and forth and back and forth. Moses is forever negotiating with God in Exodus, like a teenager wearing down a parent. More than once he actually manages to change God’s mind about something or another. And the relationship seems to settle into a pattern. God decrees and Moses talks God down or butters God up or reminds God of a few extenuating circumstances that might alter a recent judgment.

It’s actually kind of reassuring to see this great prophet whose chief method of prayer was an especially forceful sort of pestering. Maybe our own prayers don’t have to be so carefully edited. Maybe the toned down language and expectations we end up offering are, in the end, something less or something other than prayer.

But in our reading today the prayers of Moses change. And maybe Moses does too.

Strange as it sounds, even meeting on a regular basis with the cloud pillar that sends forth the divine voice, Moses realizes that he’s never really seen God at all. It’s as if he suddenly awoke to the fact that for all the mornings that he’d stared bleary eyed at the same dull face in the mirror, he’d never seen his own eyes looking away. He sees that he hasn’t seen God at all. And suddenly he wants nothing more than one real impossible glimpse.

“Show me your glory,” Moses prays. And “Show me your glory” is a different kind of prayer. Moses has known for some time that he is known by God. God knows Moses by name. But in a flash, Moses realizes that the God he’s been trying to extract mercy or patience or favor from all this time is a God he doesn’t really know. “Forget the favors. Just show me your glory. As much of it as I can survive.”

To be known by God is to have a powerful friend in a high place. But to want to know God is less like securing an ally, and more like falling in love. “What do you look like? Tell me the sound of your name.” Suddenly these are the useless things Moses wants to know. Lovers, not arbitrators, want to know useless things.

And incredibly, God says, “OK.” On Mt Sinai the next morning God places Moses in the cleft of the rock and covers him with a hand as the backside of God’s glory passes by as the divine name is pronounced. God reveals all the glory Moses can take in.

This story may well mark a moment of conversion for Moses even more profound than his encounter at the burning bush. Because it’s one thing to discover that someone exists, even God. It’s another to actually want to know who they are. It’s one thing to wonder what someone can do for you. It’s quite another to wonder about what makes them tick, to wonder what their glory looks like. It’s quite another to wonder about useless things. And we are changed the moment we that do.

We Episcopalians tend to think of ourselves as reasonable, pragmatic people of faith. We’re comfortable with science and allegory and metaphor. Maybe we’re Christian because we want to be good, and sane, and well balanced people. This is all good and well, but we should remember that if pragmatism defined all our relationships in this life, we would never enter a real human relationship at all. If I can only manage to ask, “What’s in this for me?” there’s something of another person that I’ll never reach. The story of Moses suggests that the same is true when it comes to our faith. Maybe even with God, meaningful relationship begins when the useless curiosity does.

When we’re told about the Christian notion of agape, that selfless, self giving love that Jesus taught, we usually think of it in terms our kindergarten teacher might have taught us. We shouldn’t be so selfish. We should share our Tonka trucks or our time or our house in Aruba. It’s the right thing to do. Jesus would like that.

But I wonder if Jesus was really pointing us toward something closer to what Moses experienced when he told us to let go of our greed and our selfish ambition and love other people selflessly. Moses let go of his own self not out of obligation, but in fascination. He was freed from the small room of his own ego as he let himself wonder at the expansive but mostly useless mystery of God’s glory. Something is freed in us too in wonder’s outward turn.

Perhaps this is the necessary uselessness of all worship. Until we let go of obsession with ourselves, until we stop negotiating our place in this world and simply love it, we can be stuck and very much alone, even as the world showers us with its praise and its riches. Worship turns us toward the captivating mystery at the center of our lives. And in this turn we are changed.

We’re told that when Moses returned from Sinai his face was still shining. His own face had become a mystery to him. Maybe every time he passed by a mirror in the days to come he caught a glimpse of its brightness, its strangeness. And maybe that was enough. Maybe the mystery of his own strange face was enough to stir up that life changing wonder at the useless glory of God all over again. Amen.