They Cried to the Lord

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

“They cried to the Lord, and the Lord answered them” (Psalm 99:6b)

The Psalmist’s words will be the entrance into this week’s Scripture passages. The hope as we gather in our respective places of worship is that the words of the texts will not only say something, but also do something. Paul Simon’s song “Wartime Prayers” helps bridge that divide. Simon, who admits he is as surprised as anyone at how God keeps showing up as the subject of his songs, has the poet’s gift of speaking in image rather than in proposition. He also unashamedly joins the chorus of the needy.

“Show me your glory,” Moses cries to the Lord. His plea is occasioned by God’s command to leave the Mountain, the place of special revelation, for an unknown future. He yearns for certainty. “Show me your glory,” he cries.

According to Old Testament scholar Samuel Terrien, “the elusive presence” of God is at the heart of biblical faith. In the Old Testament there are two major approaches to this Presence in dynamic engagement with each other: “the mystical eye discerns the presence of God through the theological symbol of ‘glory.’ The ethical ear responds to the same presence through the theological symbol of ‘name’ (The Elusive Presence, xxviii).

One set of stories stresses “hearing sounds and voices and obeying words,” and the other stories stress “the vision of divine glory.” These two different sets of stories create “fields of force” which maintain both tension and equilibrium between “glory” and “the Name.” This dynamic tension gives Israel a “faith that transcends ritual without ever dispensing with cultic celebrations.”

The tension, however, is not of equal parts. In all three encounters between God and Moses (Exodus 3, 19, and 33), the revealing of the Name is primary. The ear takes precedence over the eye. God’s presence is real but unseen. God is invisible, yet speaks. The giving of the Name is integrally connected with Moses receiving his call to take his place in what God is doing; that is, intervening in history in response to the cries of his people.

Moses makes his plea to see God’s glory. Instead, God offers an enduring but elusive communion, one which is always on the move. From the cleft of the rock, Moses does not see God’s face but, instead, sees God’s goodness passing by (c.f. Psalm 27:13). This is a new form of presence which, Terrien writes, “will keep Israel in the vicinity of her God wherever the people may be,” even in the extremities after Temple and kingdom are destroyed. “Moses discovers unwillingly that theology is not to know God but to be aware of being grasped and called to do the will of God in history.”

Jesus arrives in Zion, the place of special revelation and unique presence. He cleanses the Temple, a provocative prophetic act that sets in motion a series of dangerously charged debates with unlikely coalitions. One of them has to do with imperial tribute. Paying the poll tax meant using specially minted coins bearing the image (i.e. the glory) and inscription of the current Caesar, a requirement that caused all but the most ardent collaborators to seethe with rage.

“Yes or no, Jesus?” they cried – in a cagy, calculated way – about paying the tax.

And the Lord did answer them. Jesus carried no such coins, so he had to borrow one, as if to say, “This is your burning issue, not mine. Repay Caesar in his own currency and pay God back in God’s currency.” His response amazed his accusers and hastened his execution. In his death Jesus rendered to Caesar what was truly God’s

There is a long sorry history of the Church making Jesus’ answer into a general principle that ends up giving Caesar a blank check, a response that is astoundingly tone deaf to Jesus’ irony. Like the coalition of conspirators, we too have often raised religious quandaries without any reference to the advent of the kingdom that becomes visible in the person of Jesus. We too can live our days without acknowledging that his life, death and resurrection are his enthronement. Yet in him goes up the glad cry that the Psalmist declares: “O Lord our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them” (99:8a).

The gift of God’s forgiveness made its way to one Saul of Tarsus, a fiery man full of misplaced zeal. Finding his heart rid of envy and his soul cleansed of rage, he too discovered unwillingly that theology meant to be grasped and called by the elusive Presence to do the will of God in history. He too was led into unlikely coalitions called ‘church.’ One of those communities was in Thessalonica. The believers there “received the word in much affliction” (1:6), imitating just what Paul had done. They cried to the Lord. But there was a distinctive tone to their cries – “joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

This is not to say that all cries of affliction were drowned out. Frank Thielman notes that the letter of I Thessalonians is bracketed by “faith, hope, and love” (1:3 and 5:8). In 3:6, however, hope is not mentioned along with faith and love; therefore, chapters 4-5 have to do with hope. However, as the Psalmist’s conviction that “I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” is followed by “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage” (27:13-14), so Paul gives thanks to God for how the believers “turned from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:9b-10).

So on this Lord’s Days, may the words of Holy Scripture not only say something, but do something. May we too unashamedly join with the chorus of the needy:

With every family scattered and broken
With a mother [who] murmurs in twilight sleep and draws her babies closer

With those so entangled in the currencies of our culture that even religious questions can be hypocritical and calculating.

But may the joy inspired by the Holy Spirit lead us to do more than

and try to muscle through
and try to rearrange [our] stuff

Wrapped in prayer, may we join with all those who cry to the Lord – with sister congregations in West Africa; and with the sisters and brothers of Wiltshire Baptist Church in Dallas, among whom is the widowed fiancé of the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. In these days when justified concern is often overrun with panic, that fellowship of believers cries out, “She’s part of our church. She is a full-fledged member. We love and care for her, and this is what we do as a church. We treat people as people and not as patients.”

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