Preached from the Pulpit of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on Sunday, October 19, 2014, by The Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman:
We human beings are all, to one degree or another, in love with certainty. We like to be certain, or at least feel certain. And, to tell the truth, we can’t always tell the difference. This thirst for certainty takes a variety of forms. One is our hankering for perfect safety: we want to know exactly how things will go before we commit too much of ourselves to them. Another is the thirst for a precise kind of righteousness: we want to know exactly who’s right and when and how—and make sure that it’s our side, not the other side.
And this morning, in two quite different stories from scripture, God deftly undermines both kinds of certainty. Sorry about that. But let’s take closer look.
Let’s start with the search for precise righteousness. We all know about this. People want you to agree with them about what God really wants, and they tend to have pretty precise definitions of that. Maybe God wants you to say you’re born again and provide date and time. Maybe God wants you to reject all that sort of religion and just be welcoming. Maybe God wants you to subordinate women to men and oppose same-sex marriage. Or maybe God wants you to endorse gender equality and, above all, to stop calling God “he.” It’s not a conservative thing or a liberal thing, this passion for certainty. It’s a human thing, affecting all of us.
The real issue, before long, becomes not the position itself, but maintaining the position. In other words, what starts off as a religious principle turns into a political one. If you don’t agree with my politics, I’ll treat you as an enemy. I’ll try to checkmate you some way or other and I’ll be confident not only that I’m doing the right thing but that I’m actually doing God a favor. This kind of thirst for certainty lies at the root of religious wars: mostly, right now, in the context of Islam; but Christians have had our full share of them, too.
So it was a political as well as a theological problem that Jesus faced in this morning’s Gospel reading. One of the great, existential questions for religious people in Judea in Jesus’ time was how far could you legitimately submit to the rule of the pagan Roman Empire. How far must you keep clear of its defiling influence? For one example, could people pay their temple tax in Roman coins, which had the image of the divine emperor on them and often the images of other pagan gods as well? No, they could not. You had to exchange your Roman coins for other, less pagan-looking ones.
Some of the people who approached Jesus in this morning’s story were asking about the further subject of paying any taxes to Rome. Some of them may have been looking for some religious reflection on the topic. But some of them were just taking advantage of the political ramifications to get him into trouble. If Jesus objected to paying the tax, he would be classifying himself as an enemy of Rome. On the other hand, if he encouraged people to pay it, he would be the enemy of the religious purists who regarded the Roman regime as illegitimate and unclean. Either way, they expected to catch him in a trap and force him to violate the certainties of one side or the other.
Jesus, as you remember, responded instead with a joke: he looks at the coin and he asks, “Say, whose picture is this? Whose name is this?” When they say, “The emperor’s”—they’re being deliberately polite; so they can’t add, “you stupid Galilean hick,” but they’re thinking it—he replies as if he were not in fact very bright: “Well, if it belongs to the emperor, you should give it back to him. Oh, and give God what belongs to God.”
It doesn’t make any obvious sense, does it? Christians have spent millennia trying to define exactly what belongs to the emperor (or, in more modern terms, the civil state) and what belongs to God. But that’s precisely not the point. The point, rather, is to undercut the whole search for absolute certainty.
Everything belongs to God. The whole universe has God’s name written all over it. The creation story in Genesis 1 tells us that we, in particular, bear God’s image. That means that even the Roman emperor had something to do with God, however little he may have wished to acknowledge it. That means that the world at large and our neighbor in particular have a claim on us that is a part of God’s claim on us. You can’t shift your obligations to God off into a safe corner that makes it easy to ignore the complexity of life in God’s created world.
To people wanting to pin down exactly how far you could go in collaborating with the Romans, how far you had to go in resisting them—and there were lots of them—Jesus says, “Give it up. You won’t ever get it perfectly right.”
And what is Jesus’ alternative? Love God and love your neighbor. It’s vague. It’s frustratingly vague. It means we have to keep rethinking it and reworking it and learning how to do it better. We do what we can and remain open to new discoveries. When we try to pin everything down once and for all, we are actually in danger of turning our backs on God in the effort to keep our perfect theological system working. That’s why Jesus wants to undermine our certainty.
For when Jesus tells us to stay focused on God, he isn’t giving us a substitute certainty. As the wonderful story we heard from Exodus emphasizes, there is no certain and conclusive human way to grasp God. What God gives us is purpose and direction, not certainty.
Moses—to give him full credit—has already risked all sorts of uncertainty in the service of this God who met him in the burning bush. He has gone back to a place where he’s a wanted man for murdering an Egyptian guard. He has taken up the cause of an enslaved people. He has no army behind him and no talent for public oratory. He has just a few miraculous powers with which to impress Pharaoh. And what has he succeeded in doing? He’s led a big crowd of people through the Red Sea and into a desert wilderness where it would be a challenge to support life even for a much smaller group. And you can be sure that there are plenty of worries and complaints.
Worse yet, Moses has never really had much in the way of assurance. Back in his interview at the burning bush, God says to him, “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” (Ex. 3:12) Moses will get the sign only after he’s done the job.
So we should have every sympathy with Moses when he complains, rather politely, that everything is still rather hanging fire. He and the people of Israel are still stumbling from one crisis to the next. There are no guarantees. It’s a tough job. Even God seems to see the value in providing some encouragement.
But when Moses asks for what he really wants—full certainty, direct, face-to-face knowledge of God’s ways, the kind of certainty that would banish all doubt and anxiety and fear—God says, “I’m sorry. There’s no way we can do that.” “You cannot see my face;” God says, “for no one shall see me and live.” The gulf between God’s complete fullness of being and our own contingent, partial, uncertain kind of reality is too wide to cross directly. There is no way to transfer God’s certainty into a human mind and heart; all it could do is break us apart.
But there is a bridge across the gulf. It’s not the bridge Moses wanted. It’s not the bridge of certainty. Yes, he will see something of God—but only after God has passed by, only in hindsight, like all the rest of us. Still, the point here is not what Moses will see or know. It’s not certainty. The main thing is the love that God proclaims:
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.
That’s the only bridge there is between God and us—the bridge of God’s self-revelation, which means God’s profession of love, God’s determination to be gracious and to show mercy. No real certainty, even here—no road map. But at least there is a sense of the overall direction of reality from God’s perspective.
I don’t mean by this that we know nothing. No, we’ve learned, by God’s grace, a great deal abut who we are and who God is. I only mean that we shouldn’t confuse this knowledge, which is really a form of love, with the kind of knowledge that is articulated in rules and prohibitions and self-confidence.
Jesus gave people trouble when they tried to do that. He undercut our clearcut distinctions. He even made a joke of them. Even to Moses, who had risked so much and accomplished so much, God couldn’t give the kind of certainty he asked for. What God can give us and does give us is the awareness of a love that made the universe at the beginning and continues to make all things new. To know God means to be in love with God. Being in love is an ongoing process and we can’t know it fully in advance. But it’s enough. It’s all that’s truly important.