Moses & Super Grover 2.0

November 15, 2015
Exodus 3:1-6, 33:18-23; Matthew 7:7-12

I am going rogue on the lectionary today. Instead of the suggested scripture passages for this week – I decided it was time to share with you all some of the ideas from my grad school thesis. My thesis entitled: “Seeing, Revelation and Prophetic Witness: Moses Narratives as a Case Study for Theological Encounters with The Arts” was as full of academic jargon as the name sounds. But I would like to try to translate some of that jargon into some hopefully meaningful ideas today. Meaningful, particularly in light of the acts of terrorism and violence perpetrated on a large scale in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad this week and which occur in smaller scales every day. In the midst of such violence and incomprehension of our human ability to tear each other down it is all the more important that we continue to look for, and be, signs of God’s presence and movement in the world. And that is the message at the heart of my thesis work – it is an exploration of how we encounter God.

My thesis focused particularly on how God can been encountered through the arts, with a focus particularly on visual art, and included the creation of two images – reproductions of which are here on display today. The original pieces were made of gouache and color pencil, these are blown up reproductions that (if you come look at them close up) are a little pixelated due to the low resolution of the scan that I was able to get at the time before the originals were sold. Yet they will work fine to serve as a focal point for today and they even offer an alternative visual sermon if you want to choose to just explore them visual today instead of listening to me talk – feel free! [If you do that, I welcome your reflections or insights as feedback either during the sharing time today or via conversation or email this week.]

As educated people who have just heard the scripture passages for this morning read, you most likely recognize within these two images visual explorations of two moments of the Moses story from the book of Exodus. It is within these two moments that we find extraordinary examples of what it looks like for a very human person to ‘see’ God. Seeing, in a theological context, necessarily includes more than physical vision. To explore seeing as we are today, is to understand seeing not just as what those of us who are able to see with our eyes, but also as encounter, as wisdom, as a mode of knowing. Seeing can occur through physical vision, and also through listening, thinking, speaking, or relationship. Active seeing in the sense I am getting at looks beyond the surface of everyday things and triggers a response within our beings. It creates connections within us through memory, imagination, or possibility.

Active seeing heightens our awareness and opens us up to experiences of revelation, and revelation is an essential aspect of how God is made known. Dr Noel Erskine, Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Candler School of Theology, talks about revelation like this:

We often regard any new insight as revelation, but such a broad use expands the original meaning of the term.  Fundamentally, revelation means “removing the veil” – there is a disclosure, something previously hidden is revealed, that which is mysterious becomes less mysterious.[1]

Revelation, as an act of ‘removing the veil’ through which a mystery becomes less mysterious, is part of how we can begin to know, experience, and see our God whose presence mysteriously pervades all of creation and is revealed in and through that creation.

It is through creation that God reveal’s God’s self to Moses in Exodus 3. Here is Moses out in the wilderness doing the mundane work of tending a flock of sheep when he sees a bush apparently on fire:

“The bush is ablaze with fire and yet it is not consumed!” Moses said, “Let me go over and look at this remarkable sight.”

Something extraordinary presents itself, and Moses, because he opens himself to the possibility of seeing, is compelled to take a closer look in order to comprehend what is presented before his eyes – he must see for himself why the bush doesn’t burn up.

Moses opens himself to active seeing by stepping aside from his comfortable path to explore the burning bush. It is when we make the choice to actively look that we are offered a chance to truly see God. When Moses steps aside to explore the remarkable sight of the burning bush, God calls to him from the midst of the bush: “Moses! Moses!”

Now Moses does not simply step forward into the space of encounter but upon hearing his name, he chooses to declare his ability and intention to see by saying, “I am here.” This declaration of attendance and presence is another choice to engage in active seeing and affirms a willingness to encounter the revelation about to follow. If we do not offer attention and presence to moments of opportunity so that revelation can occur, we may pass by opportunities that are waiting and willing to be revealed.

Due to my current position as a parent of a toddler, I have recently come across another cultural icon that also exemplifies the power of presence: Super Grover 2.0. Some of you may remember the original Super Grover from Sesame Street: a door knob salesman in his ‘normal’ life who transforms into a dented helmet and cape wearing superhero when a time of need arises. Super Grover 2.0 is pretty much the same character upgraded with an undented helmet, a fancy super grover-mobile, and a catchy lead-in statement:

Super Grover 2.0…

He Observes…

He Questions…

He Investigates…

Super Grover 2.0…

He Shows Up.

Sound familiar? If we look closely, Super Grover 2.0 and Moses are following the same methods. They observe something happening, they question what is going on, they actively seek illumination and they are willing to be present as the mystery unfolds and revelation occurs.

This process that they both go through is also not so far removed from Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:

Ask and keep asking, and you will receive. Seek and keep seeking, and you will find. Knock and keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For the one who keeps asking, receives. The one who keeps seeking, finds. And the one who keeps knocking, enters.

Active participation in seeing and a willingness to be present, places us on holy ground.

Back to the Exodus text, God, upon hearing Moses declare his presence, sets the groundwork for revelation:

God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground!”

Holy ground is liminal ground, a space where the usual human experience of tension between matter and spirit eases and we can sense that God is near. A moment on holy ground can leave us inspired and comforted. It may also leave us full of fear and awe and, like Moses, afraid to look at the Holy One. For encounters with God not only offers us insight into the nature of God, they often include opportunities and requests to be part of God’s redemptive work in the world.

Work that, as Moses’ journey shows us, is demanding, daunting, and ultimately rewarding. By the time chapter 33 of the Exodus story comes around Moses’ experiences of revelation and redemptive work on behalf of God shifts his perspective from that of being afraid to see God in the burning bush to asking God for a direct encounter. By this point in the narrative, Moses has endured encounters with Pharaoh, freed the Hebrew people from slavery, and has brought them to the wilderness.  He has joined in their songs of praise after the crossing of the Red Sea and has been disappointed by them when they built a golden calf during his absence while he was receiving the first set of ten commandment tablets.  In each of these experiences God has been with and work through Moses to assure success.

Perhaps the encounters of Moses feel distant and unrealistic to us, but we need only take a look around us to see that God’s redemptive work is still being done in and through people in this world. Take for example the students of the University of Missouri this week who worked together to bring about change in an environment of systemic racism and injustice. It took the initial action of one to choose to take a stand for justice to inspire others to stand with him and bring about an opportunity for real change.

While Moses was hesitant to look at God during the first encounter of revelation at the burning bush, time and relationship with God brings about dramatic changes and it is now Moses who calls on God:

Then Moses said: “Please show me your glory!”

This confidence and assurance that there is more of God’s glory to be seen, comes from one who has chosen again and again to encounter God’s revelations and has seen the impact of actively working for God’s justice in the world. And God, who is a relational God who desires to be known responds with this:

“I will make all of my goodness pass before your eyes, and I will pronounce my Name, I AM, in your presence: I will show my grace to whom I will show my grace, and I will show my compassion to whom I will show my compassion. But you cannot see my face,” God continued. “No human can see my face and live.”

What God does concede to Moses is a glimpse of God’s backside saying:

“Look – here is a place beside me, where you can stand on a rock. When my glory passes you, I will place you in a cleft in the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. When I remove my hand you will see my back; but my face, you must not see.”

Even when God is actively at work revealing God’s self to us, we are not always able to see God in the moment, face to face; instead we are given the grace to recognize where God has passed by. Part of the journey of active seeing is to learn to recognize the back of God and to name the places we have seen God at work. To name and claim them for ourselves and also to name and share them with others. When we share our experiences of seeing God with each other, we provide additional opportunities for the on-going revelation of God in the world while also creating a space for accountability, encouragement, redemptive action and justice. For God does not just reveal God’s self to us individually, but also in and through community.

We are here to help and encourage each other to see and encounter God and to join in God’s redemptive work in the world. If you should find yourself watching an episode of Sesame Street and a Super Grover 2.0 segment comes on, you will quickly see that Super Grover’s super skills aren’t actually that helpful. Just as Moses was a very human worker whose effectiveness in his work for justice was aided by God and his community. It is not Super Grover 2.0 alone that ends up saving the day, it is the gathered community that comes together and works with Super Grover’s observations, questions and investigations to create a working solution to the problem at hand. Super Grover’s gift to the community is a willingness to show up and name what he sees going on.

May we too, like Moses and Super Grover 2.0, choose to observe, question and investigate the extraordinary in the ordinary as we seek to see God. May we courageously share our encounters and revelations of God with each other, together working to bring about God’s justice in the world. And may we be willing to step off of our comfortable paths for the opportunity to stand on holy ground.

[1]Noel Leo Erskine, In Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 33.