Moses is weary. He’s on a journey with no clear destination and just wants to see God. He says, “We don’t want to go a step further if you can’t assure us that You will be with us.” He’s been leading a nation of complaining wayfarers through wilderness and is tired of trying to figure out correct directions with none of the usual road signs. God has been leading the way—a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night—but Moses yearns to know this God: “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight…Show my your glory, I pray.” Or, in Modern English parlance, “For Pete’s sake, will you just let me catch a glimpse of you?!”
It makes me think of a memorable dream I had recently. I seldom remember my dreams but I awakened from this one feeling like I had been in it for hours. In the dream I was at the church I previously served. That church has an enormous facility with three floors of classrooms at one section. In the dream I was in charge of leading a memorial service and I couldn’t find my way into the sanctuary. Somehow there was no easy route on the main floor. I was given the advice that I should go up to the third-floor to cross between two wings to then descend into the sanctuary. I knew that the service should have already started. While anxiously running into dead ends I met up with the custodian. I told him I needed my clergy robe and my notebook. He assured me he could get those for me. I was relieved but still anxious because I was barefoot. Typically my bad dreams have to do with not being able to pull off worship in the right way at the right time. People are waiting and the prelude loops back several times, waiting for me to show up. In the worst worship nightmares I am barefoot, a sign of my vulnerability and humiliation. In this dream my clothing wasn’t suitable for leading worship so I wanted to wear my clerical robe over my clothing. When the custodian did mercifully arrive back by my side he brought some sort of dry cleaning items and not a robe. Useless. The notebook he brought me was not for worship but a cookbook our church had put together some time ago. That was not going to help me with the eulogy! To make matters worse there was an all-male group of musicians in burgundy costumes who were scheduled to rehearse in the sanctuary immediately following the memorial service. So there was a time crunch. Because I wasn’t starting on time we were running late with the service and that was going to be inconvenient for the musicians. Mourners were already gathered for the memorial service, upset that nothing was happening. Yet I was powerless to find my way into the sanctuary in this space that was strangely familiar.
I met by zoom with my spiritual director last week and brought up the dream. She quietly asked me what I thought was the message of the dream. As you might guess, it was not all together apparent! So she helped me examine it.
I couldn’t find my way into the sanctuary. I have led worship in sanctuaries for 35 years. This is familiar territory for me but I was confused. I had gone back to a church that I served before but I’d forgotten some of the landmarks. It was both strange and familiar. I couldn’t navigate my way into the sanctuary in spite of the guidance of people around me. Because I wasn’t prepared for this situation I wasn’t dressed appropriately for it and, in fact, I didn’t even have shoes to make the journey respectable and more comfortable.
Do you remember what God asked Moses to do when he was called into service? Moses saw the burning bush which was a remarkable spectacle. As he went over to examine it God spoke to him from within the bush. Remove your sandals, Moses, for you are standing on holy ground.
Sometimes God gets our attention when we have forgotten our shoes. Sometimes we are most apt to see God when chaos surrounds us and we lose our way. When we can no longer take refuge in our sanctuary, our safe space, our faith wanes. We find ourselves among a nation of people who are all looking for sanctuary, buzzing around with arguments over masks and political candidates and church programs that have to adapt to survive. But even though we’re sharing space with a lot of people, we’re not really connecting with them. We go into Meijer now and can barely recognize anyone because of our masks. Our goal is to get in and out of the store quickly so that we don’t end up carrying COVID out of the store along with our groceries. So we put our heads down, throw a few items in our cart and run out. We head home feeling more alone than ever. Our grocery trip feels strangely familiar.
Moses has been leading a huge congregation of people at the time of this passage. They’re in the wilderness. They’re complaining. They’re blaming him. They’re picking fights. And Moses is weary. He suggests to God that it might be wise to take good care of these people. “These are your people, God, remember?! Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if other nations who worship other gods saw the Israelites perish in the wilderness because You failed to provide for them?” I find it funny that Moses thinks he can manipulate God by threatening international humiliation if the chosen people languish. Hoping for swift action to keep his people—and himself—sane, he cries out in desperation to God: “Show me Your glory, I pray.”
I don’t know if you’ve noticed but tensions run high these days. With forfeited agendas, lack of employment, and frazzled parents homeschooling their children, tempers flare and chaos ensues. Those in leadership positions face unprecedented pressures in making decisions. In today’s climate, there is no way to please all the people all the time. Just ask Governor Whitmer.
In the midst of his leadership crisis (which also happened to be a spiritual crisis) Moses begged God to show him the divine face. Moses somehow knew that being able to see God would give him the strength he needed for another day. Remember how Aaron fashioned an idol for the people in Moses absence last week? We worship most readily that which is in front of us and tangible. Moses wanted just a piece, a tiny piece, of God. He experienced God’s glory on the mountain while his people danced wildly around a golden calf in his absence. When he came down into the valley, he was glowing with God’s presence. They called it the Shekinah glory. The Israelites couldn’t even look at him because his face was so brilliant with holy radiance. “Just give me a bit of that light now please, God, because I’m not sure I can hang on for another moment in this land that has become strangely familiar.”
My dream reflects a COVID reality. I was in familiar territory but I couldn’t find my way. I knew the job I was supposed to do but I couldn’t find the tools to do it. I knew my people were gathered somewhere, waiting to grieve their losses, but I couldn’t get to them. I was dressed inappropriately for a search that had gone on much longer than I could have imagined. I was confused, tense and embarrassed that I wasn’t better prepared. All of this was happening in a place that was strangely familiar: God’s house, Christ’s Church, the place where the Spirit guides those who have lost their way. I woke up before there was any resolution to the challenges my dream posed. I was still stuck in an uncomfortable place with no assurance that I would ever find my way into the sanctuary in time to connect with my people. I was barefoot and missing my eulogy.
This story reminds us that the sacred is all around us. We may not be making it into our churches or offices. We may not be seeing family members from across the country. We probably feel vulnerable in this new world where a virus slams our lives into an indefinite hold pattern. But the colorful trees and bushes are all around us. As many as there are flaming trees filling us with autumn awe, that is how close our God is to us. We remember how it all began for dear Moses, who never wanted the job description God gave him. Almost foreshadowing what was to come, Moses met God in the heat of the desert. A bush was on fire: strangely familiar. But from the bush came a commissioning. “Take off your sandals, Moses, for the ground you are standing on is holy.” The road forked at that moment in his life and Moses partnered up with this strange God. Saying “yes” to the summons didn’t get him out of trouble. It didn’t give him clear directions. It didn’t awaken him from a nightmare with an assurance that everything was fine, after all. It didn’t even allow him, after years of faithful service, to enter the Promised Land along with his people. What his partnership with God gave him was a glimpse of God’s glory, just the backside, mind you! But that was…enough.