Exodus 33:12-23; Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
By Jennifer Strawbridge
My brother, whom I have to defend before telling this story as one of the people I most respect in this world, a dear friend, and an upstanding citizen, spent his third year of university studying abroad in Jamaica. At the innocent suggestion or our mother, he brought along two disposable waterproof cameras to capture the year in this fascinating place. When he returned, my mother found them in his suitcase while unpacking, and wanting to be helpful, dropped them off at the local store to be developed.
But when she went back to pick up the photos, mind you, in this conservative Texas town, she was asked not to bring film for processing to that store again due to the graphic nature of the pictures. To her horror and my brother’s delight, every single picture on both cameras were underwater photographs of people’s bare backsides. Moon art, as my brother called it, while explaining further that he had simply taken pictures of his course mates’ best sides. Certainly there are times when we all know the truth behind that statement!
And it’s fascinating that God has just as shocking a sense of humor as we enter into the dispute between Moses and God in Exodus. Here Moses is about to embark on a journey deeper into the wilderness with people who don’t have the best track record. They have rebelled against him and God, they have built a golden calf to worship, and they have grumbled and complained a whole lot — and the journey has only started.
And we find Moses pleading with God not to abandon them or him and in the process demands to see God, to see his glory and be sure of God’s commitment to the whole enterprise. At which point, God passes by, showing only his backside such that had my brother been there with his camera, he would have another photo for his collection. But this story is not so much about how God chooses to reveal himself but more about Moses’ worry, anxiety, and concern.
Just as in the Gospel for today we find the Pharisees struggling with how to balance their lives and their decisions about what is important as they try to entrap Jesus, so too we encounter Moses struggling to find a balance and to come to grips with his numerous moments of self-doubt and anxiety. Both the questions of the Pharisees and the challenge of Moses to God come from a place of uncertainty, the same one that we face throughout our lives and perhaps especially at the start of a new academic year, the imposter syndrome that can run so rampant in this place.
At some point in our lives, I would wager we all suffer from this. That psychological phenomenon in which we cannot see the good things in life, and despite all external evidence of our competence and gifts, we are convinced that we are frauds and that any day people will realize we are not as good or as intelligent or as competent as people believe us to be.
Maybe it’s in a relationship where we worry that if people really knew us, they wouldn’t love us as they do and stay with us for the long haul. Maybe it’s in a job where we worry that any day someone might discover that we just have really good timing or great luck and these are really responsible for any of our accomplishments.
Or maybe it’s in the academic setting where we are convinced that we are nowhere near as smart or capable as our teachers and our peers think. It’s that moment of sheer terror when we know we have fallen short in some way and allow it to affect and question the very core of our being. And where we encounter Moses today, he is in the midst of this sort of crisis when God passes by with his glory and shows him his backside.
Few of us experience God’s call and presence as dramatically as Moses did, and yet even he doesn’t believe he is worthy to be called by God or has anything to contribute. He tells God directly and repeatedly that he has the wrong guy and has made a huge mistake, but God doesn’t give up. And now that God’s people have really fallen short, Moses demands proof that God is still with them, God is still present, God’s glory still shines. Hence the backside. And there are really two ways we can respond to this story.
The first is to conclude that we really only know God’s presence in our lives in hindsight. Humorous as it sounds, that does carry an element of truth. When, like the Pharisees in the Gospel, we stand face to face with the living God, we are often so distracted or self-absorbed or exhausted that we don’t realize until later, sometimes much later, that God was in our midst, that God has touched our lives, that God cares for and loves us even at the darkest and most confusing moments. In those moments, those times we feel trapped and stuck, we don’t always look for God, but in hindsight we know that God was in our midst.
The other conclusion we can draw from this is that while, yes, hindsight is always 20/20 and if we stop and look back across our lives we can see where God has been present, at the same time, God is also present in each moment here and now, if only we were not so worried and distracted by that might be and all the things we cannot but still do our best to control.
As some of you may know, I have a new dog, a rescue dog, who is a model of good behavior in every way except on a lead. For the first month, he tried to bite everyone we would pass on a walk. Not exactly ideal. And when I consulted a trainer, I was told that this behavior by the dog was my fault. I was so worried and anxious that the dog was going to bite each person we passed that the dog picked up on my extreme anxiety and didn’t know what to do to make it stop except lash out against everyone who came near. A lesson in itself, not just for the dog. The trainer told me I really needed to chill, not worry so much, and live in the present moment. And sure enough, for the most part, that fixed it.
But what the trainer didn’t expect was my enthusiastic reaction to this wisdom he had shared. It already confused him enough that I wore a dog collar of another sort, but as I thought aloud about how this applies to all our lives, to all those moments when we worry so much about what might go wrong that we stop living in the present, but rather in a perpetual state of anxiety that we inflict on those around us. He reassured me that he really was just a dog trainer.
But the thing is, we don’t get to a place where we earn the respect of our peers and our colleagues, or to glimpse God’s glory in our lives each day, by worrying about all the things that could go wrong or by carrying an overwhelming sense of anxiety about what everyone might think of us but only by living each moment as it happens, mindful of the future and thankful for what we have been given.
As much as Moses complains that he is not worthy and as much as we might feel that we aren’t either, it’s not up to Moses or to us when and where God will enter our lives and change us. Because the reality is that God is already there. So rather than worrying about how and when we will find time to spend with God, the real question is how and when God is going to speak to us, surprise us in the quiet moments, in a conversation, in the words of Scripture, in the wonders of the world around us. In all our relationships and all our lives we are called to be attentive, looking for all the ways that God will and does affirm that we are loved now and that we are not imposters.
Certainly Moses is not alone in feeling like an imposter and being aware of his shortcomings, but he also knows that he needs God each moment and needs to know God’s glory, even if it’s just God’s backside. Awareness of our weakness is a good and necessary thing because it forces us, like Moses, to rely on God rather than our talents and strengths. It doesn’t mean laying it all down and waiting for God to do everything for us. But it does mean that we know our limitations as we work to be an instrument of blessing in the world.
God is always leading us beyond our limited selves, the safe spaces we create, and the cautious boundaries we mark out to something bigger, into a vision and hope that doesn’t include words of fraud or defeat. Because, as we see in the readings today and throughout our lives, God’s answer to our protests of inadequacy and weakness is always the same: I will be with you. I will not leave and forsake you. These passages speak to all of us by reminding us not only about the love of God, in whose image we are made, but of the need to embrace the present moment, the time we are given, and not get so far ahead of ourselves that we miss God when he passes us by or stands before us.
No matter how much we might be filled with doubt about whether we are worthy, if we can really be loved, if we really belong where we are at this moment, we have examples throughout the Scriptures reminding us that despite all our worries and anxieties about what the future holds, God is faithful and will not leave or forsake us. God’s glory is always passing us by, always around us, always before us and behind us, always calling us to deeper life. May we not be so absorbed in ourselves or our anxiety that we miss God’s glory in our midst, even if most days, we might only catch a glimpse of his backside.
The Rev. Dr. Canon Jennifer Strawbridge is associate professor in New Testament at Oxford University and G.B. Caird Fellow in Theology at Mansfield College.