October 18, 2020

Until We Have Faces

Until We Have Faces

The Rev. Heidi Thorsen

Associate Chaplain, Episcopal Church at Yale

October 18, 2020

Exodus 33:12-23 / Psalm 99 / 1 Thess. 1:1-10 / Matthew 22:15-22

Title: Until We Have Faces

Reflection at the beginning of the service:

Faces
By Kahlil Gibran
I have seen a face with a thousand countenances, and a face that was but a single countenance as if held in a mould.
I have seen a face whose sheen I could look through to the ugliness beneath, and a face whose sheen I had to lift to see how beautiful it was.
I have seen an old face much lined with nothing, and a smooth face in which all things were graven.
I know faces, because I look through the fabric of my own eye weaves, and behold the reality beneath.
Between the words that I speak and the words that are heard, may God’s spirit be present. Amen.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” These words, from our gospel lesson today, are powerful, complicated words to hear on the eve of a fraught election. We could unpack these words, and talk about the oppressive role of the Roman Empire in Jesus’ time. We could talk about what or who makes us think of emperors and empires today. We could talk about the relationship between politics and religion, and what we owe to the empire – and what we owe to God.
For the record, I do believe that we can, and should, talk about politics in church. Politics is all about how people relate to one another, and care for one another through systems and structures. While we cannot be partisan, the church has to be a place where we talk about things that matter. And that includes being able to talk about politics.
And yet, I don’t want to preach to your political angst today. I want to preach to your heart and soul. I want to preach to those of you who can’t tune into the news sometimes because it’s too much. I want to preach to those of you who are tired and afraid. I want to preach to the dark corners of my own soul that whisper the lie that nothing I do will make a difference. In sum, I want to preach to a world that is bigger than the world of politics. And I also want to preach about faces.
Yes, faces.
In our reading from Exodus today we continue with the story of Moses, leading the people of Israel out of bondage and into the wilderness, towards freedom. It is helpful to note that Moses was very much a political leader. There were spiritual dimensions of his leadership too, yes. And yet there was a whole tribe of priests whose responsibility was spiritual leadership, separate from the kind of political mantle that Moses took on. In our reading today, Moses meets with God in the wilderness, following that disastrous episode with the golden calf, and they have a conversation about the journey ahead. Moses needs confirmation that God is with him – with all of them. And so God strikes a compromise. God says: “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” After this portion that we read in Exodus today, God invites Moses back to the top of Mount Sinai. And in that place, Moses encounters God, much in the way that is described in our reading today. God renews God’s covenant with the people of Israel. And then Moses goes back down the mountain with his own face shining – glowing from this experience, this close encounter with God.
It is easy to get caught up in thinking about the face of God. What does that look like? Is God male, female, both, neither? Is God even human? And yet this story isn’t so much about the face of God, I think, as it is about the face of Moses – a face that becomes more radiant, more authentic, more true to the person within – at least for that short period of time following his close encounter with God. This is the gift of drawing close to God – not simply greater knowledge or awareness of some divine being, but rather greater knowledge and awareness of the self. In drawing close to God, Moses becomes more himself. And that is what Moses truly needs to lead his people. That kind of strength. That authenticity.
The face of God and the face of Moses – these are not the only faces that I think of, when I reflect on our lectionary readings for today. I also think of another face: the face of the coin that shows the head of the current emperor in Jesus’ time, in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
This portrait – this face – reminds of the ways that we seek self-actualization outside of God. We seek to find meaning through success. Through conquering. Through making money. Through accomplishments. Although most of us haven’t conquered a vast mediterranean empire in our lifetimes, there are other ways that we seek power. There are other ways that we grasp for love and attention. We may not have our faces printed on standard issue coins – but many of us have Facebook profile pictures, or Twitter handles, or (God forbid) yes, we even have Linkedin accounts – if that’s even relevant anymore. And all of us, whether you’re on social media or not, have a face that we present to the world. And it’s a different face, or perhaps a slightly dimmer one, than the face that God sees in us when we draw near to the heart of God. Too often the faces that we show mask who we really are – perhaps because we are afraid that who we are is not important enough, or not good enough, to matter.
And yet the gospel tells us this: we are loved. We matter. We matter enough that God sent Jesus to become fully human, to live and die as one of us, to save us from our sin – or perhaps, to put it plainly, to save us from ourselves. Too often we are like the Pharisees in our gospel passage today. We approach Jesus with our cleverness – with hypothetical debates and word games – instead of approaching Jesus with our whole selves. With our hearts. Our failures. Our vulnerability.
Taken altogether, our scripture passages for today tell me this, and it’s something I want to share with all of you: our calling, as Christians, is to find our true faces. Our calling as Christians is to glow with the kind of brightness that radiated from Moses’ face, after he drew close to God. Our calling as Christians is to find our faces – not the faces that we project to the world, but our true faces. The faces that allow us to be real to one another and to God. While I’ve deliberately tried not to talk too much about politics today in this season of political exhaustion, I think it’s worth noting that we should seek the same kind of authenticity, and truthfulness in our leaders that we seek in ourselves. We deserve leaders with true faces, and not just emperors carved into stone.
This idea of finding our true faces is not original to me. I believe this idea is really there in the scripture. And I also have to say that my sermon for today was deeply influenced by a book I once read by C.S. Lewis, his novel, Till We Have Faces. It’s a book with a complicated, political, mythological plot, loosely based on the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche. It is too complicated for me to summarize in any meaningful way right now – though I wanted to share one quote from the book. It is a quote about authenticity – the kind of authenticity that faith demands of each one of us. Lewis writes:
“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
How can God meet us face to face till we have faces?
My prayer, for every one of us, is that we are able to strip off our masks before God – so that we can be seen, and known, and loved for who we truly are. And I believe that when we do this, it changes how we live as well. When our hearts are on fire, when our faces are glowing – we will live more justly, and we will love more boldly – just as Jesus lived and loved. Our broken world will not be fixed, our broken nation will not be healed, until we have faces.
When we break out into groups in just a moment, I invite you to reflect on this question: what things make it easier to show your face to the world? What things make it hard?
I pray that God will guide us towards that promised land where we can live face to face: facing our fears, facing our neighbors, facing ourselves in the mirror, and facing our God – who knows us completely, and still loves us completely. In the name of the Holy One, who is to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and also Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer – a God of many faces, who is also one. Amen.

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