Rev. Rebecca M. Heilman, Associate Pastor
(Exodus 33:12-23)

“Stuck between a rock and a hard place.” I often use this phrase when making a difficult decision. In fact, in the past month or so, I was faced with a decision that seemed impossible. A friend and I endlessly talked through the decision, making a pro and con list, and she said “yep, this is a tough one. I don’t see a way out of it. You might as well settle into that space between the rock and the hard place with a cozy armchair, a lamp, and a nice long book. Every way you look at it, you’ll be back to that spot.” What an interesting perspective on this
phrase. Why not settle in since there’s no way out. I finally made the decision and she was right, with every obstacle and following decision, I found myself back in that cozy armchair having to ponder what to do next. I’m stuck in that rock and a hard place. And so instead of my friend feeling pity for me or trying to solve my problem, she’s instead invites me to embrace the difficulty of the decision. She invites me to get cozy in that place with my back against the rock while watching what might unfold from the previous decision and then making a new decision from there.

Moses, he himself has found his way into that rock and a hard place, almost literally in our passage today. Leading up to today’s Scripture, Moses has been talking with God on the mountaintop. Moses has no idea what is going on down below with his people. Well, let me tell you, his people got tired of Moses always going up to talk to God for days on end and leaving them behind. They were tired of it feeling like God was not present with them. So the Israelites convince Aaron to build them a golden calf to worship. We all know how that turned out.
Moses came down from the mountain angry with his people. He burns the golden calf into ashes, scatters the ashes into water and makes the Israelites drink the water. God is angry too and sends a plague to punish them. And if that wasn’t punishment enough God then says that the Israelite people still need to go to the land flowing with milk and honey that God has promised to them, but that God would not go with them. This devastates Moses and his people. Moses is angry, he does not understand why God would do this to them. And that’s where our story takes off this morning, Moses is stuck between that rock in a hard place. “Do I let this go and do what God says?” “Or can I argue with God and change God’s mind?” Moses decides to fight and it’s a good argument.

It starts out with Moses giving God a piece of his mind, “Look, you’re telling me…” Ohhh boy, Moses sure knows how to start an argument. He continues, “Look, you’re telling me ‘Lead these people forward.’ But you haven’t told me whom you will send with me. Yet you’ve assured me, ‘I know you by name and think highly of you.’ Now if that’s true, if you think highly of me, God, show me
your ways so that I may know you and so that you may really approve of me. Remember, God, that this nation is your people.” Yikes! Moses really skools God, doesn’t he? I’m glad I was not in that tent when it all went down. God replies, hearing what Moses wants, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. Don’t worry Moses!” And it’s almost like Moses does not hear this sentence with his next words. I imagine Moses pacing back and forth, stuck in his own head, preparing his comeback words for whatever God might say. You know what I’m talking about. Moses replies, obviously not listening, “If you will not go yourself, don’t make us leave here. Because how will anyone know that we are your people, unless you go with us. Only that distinguishes us, me and your people, from every other people on the earth.”Ouch, Moses is really letting God have it.

And God continues to listen to Moses, as God so beautifully does for God’s flawed and angry people. God replies, “you’re right, I’ll do exactly what you’ve asked because you are my people and I know you by name.” You can imagine at this moment, Moses’s anger shifting with those words to shock, to relief, to desperation. “Please, God, please show me your glorious presence,” Moses insists. And God does, but in such a God way. First God reclaims the power in the argument saying, “I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim
my name, ‘the Lord’. I will also be kind to whomever I want to be kind to and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate to. But you may not see my face because no one can see me and live. ”And so God places Moses in the crevasse, a small gap, of a rock. That space between a rock and a hard place where Moses will be allowed to see God, but not completely. Just enough to
know it’s God from the back, but not enough to know exactly what God looks like from the front. God will pass by and Moses will be able to see where God just was.

Oh, when have we been in that similar scenario as Moses? When have we known that anger towards God? That feeling of God only giving us a glimpse of who God is? Some days, it feels like God is not on this journey or unwilling to go with us. That we can’t feel God’s presence, only the rock and the hard place. The jagged, sharp edges poking at our sides. And as we stand there in the difficulty of life, God’s presence is literally walking away from us. It’s feels like that sometimes. There are days, we want to scream at God to come back, to look back, to notice us, to not leave us. We want God to turn so we can fight and then understand, to argue and then feel loved, be in shock and then renewed with God’s presence. Jan Richardson, a poet puts this longing for God clearly in her poem titled, In the Cleaving a Blessing. A cleaving is that crevasse, the split or gap in that rock where Moses was placed. Richardson writes,
“Believe me,
I know how
this blessing looks:
like it is leaving you,
like it is walking away
while you stand there,
feeling the press
of every sharp edge,
every jagged corner
in the fearsome hollow
that holds you.

I know how hard it is
to abide this blessing
when some part of it
remains always hidden
from view
even as it sees you
from every angle,
inhabits your entire being,
calls you
by your name.

I know the ache
of vision that comes
in such fragments,
the terrible wonder
of glory that arrives
but in glimpses.

So I am not here
to make excuses
for this blessing,
for how it turns
its face from us
when we need to see it most.

But I want to believe,
it will always
find its way to us
when we are in the place
made by cleaving–
the space left
by what is torn apart
even as it is joined
in the fierce union
that comes only
in the fissure.

I want to be unafraid
to turn toward
this blessing
that binds itself to us
even in the rending;
this blessing
that unhinges us
even as it
makes us whole.”1

Moses may have not been allowed to see God’s face, or even a full idea of God’s image. But Moses was invited to see the place where God just was. And how when God passes by, not only, as God says in the passage, that God’s goodness is left behind, but also, God’s glorious presence as well. The place where God just was is filled with the lingering presence of God, as if God is an aroma, who lingers in the spaces of our lives even if we can’t see it. This lingering presence is often how I encounter God. Throughout our days, we don’t have time to stop and notice if God is present. We have work, carpool, pick-up, drop off, grocery runs, meetings, Zoom calls, you name it. From the time we wake up to the time we fall asleep, our lives are full. In a conversation the other day with several members, they mentioned how exhausted they are with the reopening.

“For me, it’s almost embarrassing to say, but I liked the slowness of the pandemic. Yes, it was great and tragic loss, AND in that loss, there was a gift, there was space for some of us to slow down and feel God.” Another member mentioned a friend who has to get up early to go on morning walks just to feel God’s presence because she can’t feel God any other time of the day. The early mornings are when there is stillness, a sense of calm, that restful energy. I remember those feelings in NYC, too. Another person mentioned how difficult it is to be still, when the world is moving and shifting so quickly around them now. Friends, as our world continues to be busy, as we find it hard to be still or to sense God’s presence in the moment, it’s okay. It’s okay. That’s our life right now. What this story tells us is that in those rugged, sharp moments in life, in the busyness and joys of our lives, in the anger and the frustrations of our lives we can lean in knowing that God was there through it all. God passed by and lingered where we were, even if we weren’t aware of it. We can look back on our day, our week, our year and see where God just was. See where God showed up through a friendly masked face at the grocery store. Or through the hands of a nurse who stayed by our side when no one else could. Or through the kind words of a friend as we cried with despair. Or through the comforting weight of a dog laying on our chest at night. Or through the child who makes up jokes, and giggles at dad jokes. Or through the conversations at baseball games, camp drop off or school pick-up lines. If we can’t see God immediately, we’ll be able to see God’s goodness and glorious presence in those moments later on. And so, think about this week. Think about the difficult moments, the moments that made you angry. Think about moments that made you laugh and that made you cry. Can you see where God just was? You don’t want to miss it! It’s filled with goodness and a glorious presence. This story gets me every time. It starts out with anger, an argument, human reactions and then, leaves us absolutely speechless, filled and full of God. We think we can’t feel God’s presence, and then God reminds us
where God just was.

1 Jan Richardson, In a Cleaving a Blessing,