Sermon: You shall see My back

A sermon on The Book of Exodus 33:12-23 for Reformation Day celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the 16th Century Reformation, preached at Central Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minnesota.

With all that’s happening in the world these days, many thoughtful people wonder about the nature of God, or conclude there is no God, that the whole thing is a made-up story to serve our own purposes rather than seeing something real that cannot be seen.

“See, there is a place by Me” [says God to Moses in the wilderness] “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” (Ex. 33:22-23).

This strange reading from the Book of Exodus which puts a face on God —  God has no face, no hands, no feet — may just be the text to help us get reality straighter than we had before the crisis that imperils the human species itself: the onset of climate departure. Not just climate change, but climate departure, the point of no return to nature as we have known it. Maybe God has put us again in the cleft of the rock and is passing by. We only get to see God’s back.

While our hearts and minds are reeling on the edge of the abyss of despair over the rise of the KKK and the alt-right in Charlottesville, the hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes in Houston, Puerto Rico, northern California, and Mexico City to say nothing of the inexplicable massacre of more than 500 concert-goers in Las Vegas while two little boys with matches in Washington and Phnom-pen play chicken with nuclear toys, we are like Moses in the wilderness pleading to see God’s glory. We are teetering on the edge of an abyss into which we dare not look.

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world,” wrote Karl Barth. Elsewhere he insisted that the God we know in Jesus Christ is essentially unknowable. So today we clasp our hands again asking about God, asking about what, if anything, is ultimately and finally Real. We only see God from the back, clasping our hands in prayer — the beginning of an uprising against the present disorder of the world.

Like Moses in the cleft of the rock — between a rock and a hard place — in the wilderness where nothing is certain — we have forgotten, to paraphrase our Lord, that “Humankind does not live by tweets alone…but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

In the Hebrew mind, to see someone’s face is to know them. But God says to Moses, “You cannot see My face and live. I will put you in the cleft of the rock, cover you with My hand and passed by. Only after I have passed by can you see My back.”

Why the back? Why not the face?

We are mortals who don’t want to be mortal, mammals who don’t want to be mammals. We are part of nature, not the masters of nature, not the exception to it. “You are dust,” says the Creator in Genesis, “and to dust you shall return.” Mammals are not meant to wake up with morning tweets from a mortal who can’t sleep and needs to hear Echo’s voice before breakfast and coffee.

We are living in the period of Narcissus of the Greek myth who dies because he cannot take his eyes off his reflection in the pond — his own face, his own image, his own glory.  A mere a mortal who must eat and drink to survive, Narcissus dies because to drink would have disturbed the pond in which he sees only himself. And, when he dies, a flower blooms on that very spot.

On this Reformation Sunday and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we do well to pay heed to a declaration that may strike us as curious: “Human nature is, so to speak, a perpetual factory of idols.”

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me!     Who said that:

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, or someone else?

Would you believe it was John Calvin, the much misunderstood 16th century reformer whose work was turned into stone by the Calvinists who mistook his face for God’s, turning his work into an idol?

The issue for Calvin and the Reformed theological tradition which is Central’s tradition, was not atheism. It wasn’t unbelief. It was idolatry. It was misplaced worship of the products, phantasms and fantasies produced by the human heart and mind, the substitutes for ultimate reality that command our worship.

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me! Who said:

“The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labors under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth” —

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, William Barber II, Cornel West, Elizabeth Warren, or John Calvin?

“I will cover you with My hand while I pass by. You can see me from the back.”

There is in the Hebrew Bible, and in the writings of Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, a profound sense of God’s absence as well as presence. By the time Moses gets to see God from the back, God has already passed by.

In the Lutheran and Reformed tradition from Luther to Calvin to Bonhoeffer to Bill McKibben, there is a long-standing recognition of God’s absence or hiddenness.  Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. …

 Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness. . .

 Humans are challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. One must therefore plunge oneself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transform it. . . To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism. . . but to be a human being. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.. . .

One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman . . . This is what I mean by worldliness—taking life in stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly in the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, and that is what makes a human and a Christian. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

 The world may be God-less, but it is not without gods. The idols are everywhere. And the chief idol of our time is the prosperity gospel: the gospel of greed that escapes all suffering.

These small gods our hearts have manufactured are not real but they are no less powerful. When they are unmasked, we see their ashen faces – the faces we have created because we refuse to live as mortals who cannot see God’s face, discontent to spend time in the cleft of the rock in order to see God from the back, the scarred back of God, whipped and lashed by the hands of Narcissus’s god-filled world.

Presbyterians and others of the Reformed theological tradition often ask why our membership is declining. Are we dying?

On this Reformation Sunday in the year of the 500 Anniversary of the Reformation, could it be not because we haven’t kept up with the latest cultural trends and fads but because we’ve forgotten our identity? Could it be, in part, not because other churches have bands and are better at entertainment, and make God more accessible to a tweeting culture, but because we have surrendered the one thing that makes us Reformed Christians: humility before God — a profound sense of awe before the holiness of God whose face we cannot see?

Could it be that we have mis-translated the rallying call of the Reformed tradition to mean that the church must always be changing itself, that we are the agents of our own change. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda! is properly translated “The church reformed and always being reformed!” Which is to say, under the judgment and guidance of the Holy Spirit of the Living God, not changing our image in Narcissus’s reflecting pond. It is a theological-ethical perspective which, as McCormick Theological Seminary’s Anna Case-Winter wrote in Presbyterians Today (May, 2017), “neither blesses preservation for preservation’s sake nor change for change’s sake.”

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda . . . calls us to something more radical than we have imagined. It challenges both liberal and conservative impulses and the habits and agendas we have lately fallen into. It brings a prophetic critique to our cultural accommodation—either to the past or to the present—and calls us to communal and institutional repentance. It invites us, as people who worship and serve a living God, to be open to being “re-formed” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.”

“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All the saints adore Thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea; Holy, holy, holy!  Though the darkness hide Thee; Though the eye of sinfulness Thy glory cannot see, Holy, holy, holy! All Thy works shall praise Thy Name in earth and sky and sea!”

We don’t get to see God’s face. We cannot see God’s full glory.  But, as the disciples of Jesus Christ, we do see God’s back! And for mortals, that’s plenty good enough! And from the darkness of this cleft in the rock, we join with Luther in trembling before the Holy One, and join Barth and Bonhoeffer by clasping our hands together in the dark as the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim,

We tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,

For lo! his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

 

That word above all earthly powers,

No thanks to them, abideth;

The Spirit and the gifts are ours

Through Him who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

His Kingdom is for ever.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 29, 201

America’s socio-psychic health

Thanks to MinnPost.com for publishing this opinion piece on socio-psychic dynamics of the American political culture in 2017 as seen through the ancient myth of Narcissus.

Click Recalling Narcissus -and the roles of Echo and the pond to read the story on MinnPost. Then, if you choose, leave a comment on the MinnPost page or here on Views from the Edge.

In any case, as always, thanks for dropping by the evaporating pond!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 23, 2017.

When the Pond drives up and the Echo stops

scorched-earth

Classical Greek mythology held a deep wisdom familiar to the framers of the U.S. Constitution. They were well-schooled in the Greek and Roman classics.

In the Greek myth of Narcissus, two things keep Narcissus alive: the unruffled water of the pond that reflects back his self-image, and the voice of Echo, the beautiful wood nymph whose voice the gods have silenced, except to echo Narcissus’s speech.

Narcissus dies of thirst. He refuses to drink because to do so would mean disturbing  the pond’s reflection on which his sense of self depends. The pond and Echo are enduring metaphors of a deeper wisdom.

What happens to a president when the pond (the electorate) is disturbed or dries up and the voice from across the pond (the press) no longer echoes his words? Or, to the contrary, what happens to the pond and Echo when they placidly yield to the needs and voice of Narcissus?

Yesterday the President and his Press Secretary acted to shrink the pond and silence Echo by including Breitbart News and other alt-right media and by excluding the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and CNN from the informal “gaggle” White House Press Conference. They took another step toward shrinking and smoothing out Narcissus’s pond, and muting Echo’s own voice.

“No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.” – Thomas Jefferson.

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 25, 2017.

 

Praying for the President

Yesterday was at once heartening and frightening.

The Women’s March participants refused to Echo, the tragic nymph of the Greek myth who, enchanted with Narcissus’ charm, loses her own voice except to echo Narcissus’ words as Narcissus stares at his own reflection across the pond. Meanwhile, on the same day, Narcissus, despairing of Echo’s recovered independence, went across the river to visit the CIA – the intelligence community he had scorned – in hopes they might become the new reflecting pond and echo that would confirm his claims to singular greatness as the new Commander-in-Chief.

The President is disintegrating before our eyes. Mental health is about integration – the spiritual/psychic process by which a person brings together the disparate parts of the self and the various conflicting sorts of experience into a greater psychic wholeness. This process requires a center that does not depend upon the adulation or negation of others.

Yesterday we saw a lonely, frightened man with neither the Echo nor the reflecting pond into which he stares to be reassured of his real self.  He is a sick man deserving of prayers and pity. But when a threatened narcissist has access to the nuclear codes no one else in the world has, prayers for this president become prayers for ourselves and the planet that reflect a greater glory than Narcissus’ reflection.

“The whole Earth is the theater of God’s glory.” – John Calvin.

As a member of the Confirmation Class  at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica in Queens, NY, a young Donald John Trump learned by heart the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Question: “What is the chief end (i.e. aim or purpose) of man?”

We have need to hope and pray the 70 year-old Donald remembers the antidote to the psychic integration and disintegration of Narcissus:

Answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

The Book of Common Worship (1946) in use at the time of the President’s confirmation includes this Election Day:

Almighty God, who dost hold us to account for the use of all our powers and privileges: Guide, we pray Thee, the people of these United States of their rulers and representatives; that by wise legislation and faithful administration of the rights of all may be protected, and our nation be enabled to fulfill Thy purposes. . . .  Amen.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 22, 2017.

 

 

American Echo and Narcissus

During the course of this election season much has been written about Narcissus, the self-absorbed figure of the classical myth of Narcissus. Less attention has been paid to the larger context in the myth itself and its application to the American political scene: the figure of Echo and the Pond which reflect back Narcissus’s claims for himself.

Without Echo, the scorned, talkative nymph who loses her voice except to echo Narcissus’s words, and without the Pond which reflects back the beautiful image Narcissus lives and dies to see, there would be no Narcissus.

narcissus-caravaggio-300x363

Narcissus painting by Caravaggio

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts . . . .”

The Mayo Clinic summarizes DSM-5’s symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as follows:

• Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
• Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
• Exaggerating your achievements and talents
• Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
• Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
• Requiring constant admiration
• Having a sense of entitlement
• Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
• Taking advantage of others to get what you want
• Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
• Being envious of others and believing others envy youBehaving in an arrogant or haughty manner.

If Donald Trump is elected President, it will be because he successfully channeled long-festering sources of anger—“Make America Great Again” as in a former age when Mexican immigrants, blacks, and non-Christians knew their place in a white, Christian nation with a manifest destiny—or because he echoed the American public’s deep frustration with political gridlock and partisan posturing.

If, on the other hand, Mr. Trump is refused the Oval Office, Echo will continue to be obsessed with his voice. Though not as alarming as a Narcissist with a nuclear arsenal at his command, there is little comfort in a disentitled Narcissus manipulating global media as his mirror.

The socio-psychic health of Echo and the Pond (the social mirror) will determine the extent to which the dynamics of the Narcissus myth become the permanent disorder of American political life.

It may help to remember that, according to Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, Narcissus will “live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself.

How long Narcissism prevails in American society depends on the American Echo and the mirror into which Narcissus looks—whether the American electorate will choose to see Narcissus and ourselves as we really are —a sad man with a public echo without self-knowledge.

In the ancient myth, Narcissus grows increasingly thirsty, but his reflection in the water is more important than slaking his thirst. Enamored with his own reflection but dying of thirst, he refuses to drink because he loses the reflected image whenever he gets close enough to sustain his life. Narcissus dies of thirst, and, according to the Greek myth, at that moment, a lovely flower – a Narcissus (daffodil or joncus) – blooms next to the pond.

narcissus-flower

Narcissus (daffodil)

In the wake of this electoral flirtation of Echo and Narcissus, the story won’t be over no matter who occupies the Oval Office. Yet there remains the hope that something more beautiful and natural than a personality disorder will rise next to the pond of what remains of the American democratic republic, and that Echo will get back her own voice.

• Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Oct. 25, 2016