God in Movement

Jay Forth
Jay Forth
Scripture: Exodus 33:12-23
I think our time together needs to start with a personal confession, my personal
confession: I am struggling with despair this year. The events this year have weighed
heavily on me. The brazen fascism; an unyielding pandemic; a sudden economic
collapse; the increasing vulnerability black, brown, and immigrant communities in all of
this; and the coordinated political attack on reproductive justice feel far too much to
The murder of George Floyd by police officers was a particular touch point for me. His
death in Minneapolis on May 25th sparked a nationwide outcry. Subsequent protests
erupted from city to city, lead by the voices of those who recognize in the murder of
George Floyd their own ongoing suffocation at the hands of poverty, criminalization, and
imprisonment. That following week, I attended the protests, but this one felt different.
For me, it was the first time I witnessed flash bombs and such an unusually heavy
presence of MPD. I witnessed the growing presence of unmarked federal agents,
military vehicles commanding familiar streets, ad stories of tear gas and kettling--that is,
the encircling and mass arrest of protesters.
Never once did I feel the slightest danger from any of the protests. Instead, my despair
is rooted in witnessing such unflinching displays of state violence and repression. I
understand that none of this new--there a many the world over and in our own
neighborhoods who daily live under the terrorism of the state. However, this weighed on
me and tempts me with despair.
So when Sito invited me to worship with you all, the Eighth Day community, I received it
with joy--as a gift and an opportunity to process part of what is happening in our times
and to do so with others who share my faith.
In my fight against despair, I’m compelled to ask again:
What does a faith look like in the street?
What does devotion look like in resistance?
What is a spirituality of movements?
I ask these questions because I think it’s a question churches are facing as they feel
compelled to respond and maybe even participate in current and ongoing movements
for justice.
In today’s lectionary passage, we encounter Moses on Mt. Sinai. Wait. Let’s back up...
how did he get here?
Moses and the people of Israel have been rescued from years of slavery in Egypt. God
had dismantled the systems of state power and set the people of Israel free. But their
liberation was not complete: leaving Egypt set them on a path toward a new home, a
home so far yet unknown. Between the slavery of the past and the home of the future,
the people of Israel are on the move in the dessert wilderness. They are caught
between slavery and salvation, between liberation and rest. They are suspended
between two poles and are on the move. Some call this a liminal space--an in-between
space. And throughout their journey, they waiver between hoping for a home to come
and nostalgia for the familiarity of past oppression, between trust in God’s tending care
and resentment and doubt.
But in this particular scene, the people of Israel are at the base of Mt. Sinai while Moses
goes further up the mountain. I read this passage imagining the exasperation in
Moses’s voice. He’s tired of the challenges that come with seeking liberation and he’s
frustrated with his companions. And, while on the mountain, we read that God gives
Moses ample instructions about crafting the materials for assembling the
tabernacle--the roaming temple--that the people will take with them. These long
passages about building materials and construction reminds us that Moses had to learn
how to worship on the road, how to carry the presence of God while in transit. Now
here: exhausted from long wandering somewhere between being hostages in Egypt and
rest in a future home, tired from difficult and sometimes ungrateful companions, and
weary of learning new things along the journey--Moses prays with exasperation.
Moses prays for assurance from God. Assurance of God’s continued accompaniment in
this journey. “‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it
be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with
us?” Moses needs to know a nomadic God, a God on the move who wanders the vast,
windswept, and dry landscape with the people. Maybe simply knowing that God is in
movement--in transit, in flight--that God is a wanderer, too, then maybe Moses can get
the assurance he needs to keep moving as well. As a token of that assurance, Moses
demands of God: “Show me your glory.”
Then a very strange scene ensues:
And God said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before
you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will
show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for
no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘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.’
Let’s understand the scene: Moses demands to see God’s glory. God responds, I will
show you all my glory and goodness, but, unfortunately, you are not able to see my
face. If you see my face you’ll die, so here’s what we’ll do: I’ll place you in a little divot, a
cleft, like a shallow cave--a gap--in the mountain wall. Then I’ll cover it with my hand
since you cannot see my face and I’ll pass by. As I pass by, I’ll remove my hand and
you will see my back. The glory of God given to Moses is not a static vision of a face, or
the mute portrait on a coin (ref Matt 22:15-22) that one can hold and put in ones
pocket--like a power to hold and spend as one likes. The glory of God shown to Moses
is one of movement, endless movement.
Commenting on this passage--this section of Scripture, but also this passage--of Moses
seeing God’s back as God passes by--one of favorite Christian thinkers, Gregory of
Nyssa writes: This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see
[God]. To see God is to never be satisfied in the desire to see God. For Gregory, the
spiritual life accumulates not in rest, but in ceaseless movement and a restless desire
as infinite as Godself.
The social movements we see today should be understood as exactly that,
movements. They are the restlessness of those squirming for justice, for air, and for
life. They are movements in the very bodily and tangible ways people dodge police
blockades; organize in person or online; endlessly educate each other to further political
analysis; in mutual care and nurture our communities; the way people chant in the
streets and march; and, I would argue, even the destruction of property all give voice to
movement, to an unsatisfied desire for liberation. These social movements should be
understood as movement. Movement, against which the state should be understood as
exactly that: static. Tactics of detaining, imprisoning, immobilizing, kettling, surveillance,
abduction, and infiltration as ways of arresting--yes, arresting--movement. The attempts
to put an end to movement.
In these times and in this context, I believe congregations, we--you and I--, can gain
from rethinking our model of God and the corresponding spiritual life. I wonder if our
understanding of God is too static. And, correspondingly, I wonder if our understanding
of faith is too static. Our understanding of tradition gives us models of spirituality that
evoke images of monastic retreat, quiet contemplation, or mystical visions that are
accompanied by terms such depth, height, interior, or inward. Though this tradition is
rich and I love it, I think sometimes it might hinder Christians who are looking to
understand where and how their faith can move across horizontal cityscape, along
downtown streets, in marches full of rage, or with footsteps of resistance. It might hinder
a vision of a nomadic God, God in transit, a God in movement
In his essay “On the Concept of History” 20th century writer Walter Benjamin challenges
those engaged in class struggle and the fight for liberation. He challenges those who
too often think believe that people must fight and secure food, shelter, and life before
they will be able to engage in spirituality and self-transformation. No. Instead, Benjamin
shows us that faith and the spirituality are the struggle for food, shelter, and life. “[Faith
and spirituality] are alive in this struggle as confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and
fortitude.” Spirituality is not something to add to social movements. The faith to stand up
against state terrorism; the fellowship and communion of organizing with each other; the
liturgy marching; the iconography of graffiti; the hymns of the chants "this is what
democracy looks like"; the sermons calling for deliverance given over a megaphone;
turning over a table by shattering a window; body and blood offering itself in resistance
to violence.
This is not to say that everyone must join in the marches. This is not to say that raised
fists are sufficient to bring liberation. The work of building a movement is
broad--encompassing community building, education, art creation--and it spans multiple
generations. Especially during the pandemic, these acts might not be available for some
of us. Some of us might be particularly vulnerable to the covid-19 virus. Some of us are
struggling to navigate the economic impact of the pandemic. And for others, we are
battling depression as we cope with being disconnected from our loved ones.
However, it’s my hope that we understand the ways that God is at work in social
movements. To understand God and faith at work in the acts of resistance that are
oftentimes narrated as violent or acts of barbarism in certain circuits. It’s my hope that
we can rethink faith starting from the places of resistance and, starting from there,
discover where faith practices and spirituality are already at work.
To recognize that maybe God is a God of movements. A nomadic God, a God in transit,
who accompanies the people in the wilderness--in the long journey to a final liberation in
all of its iterations. A God who teaches us to worship on the move--on streets, in
organizing spaces, as people desiring with a restless desire.