“Holy Gaps”

I want to start by talking to the children for a moment. I’m going to tell you about a little boy named Andrew. His story is from a book called Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting. Andrew and his dad don’t have a home. Have you ever been to the airport? Who’s been to the airport? That’s where Andrew and his dad stay. They try very hard not to be noticed so that security won’t kick them out. They keep their clothes clean. They sleep sitting up in the chairs, at a different airline every night. They wash up in the bathrooms really early in the morning. ‘Sometimes,’ Andrew explains, ‘I watch people meeting people.’ [They say to each other] “We missed you.” [and] “It’s so good to be home. ‘Sometimes I get so mad, and I want to run at them and push them and shout, “Why do you have homes when we don’t? What makes you so special?” That would get us noticed, all right. Sometimes I just want to cry. I think Dad and I will be here forever. Then I remember the bird [I saw trapped in the airport]. It took a while, but a door opened. And when the bird left, when it flew free, I know it was singing.’

Right now, we’re in the middle of something we call our “generosity campaign”. Those are big words, but what we’re trying to do is remember all the blessings we have in our lives and then think about how God is asking us to share those good things with others. So, today, we’re going to have you (the children) do some drawing and writing. What are your blessings? What are the good things in your life? The story of Andrew reminds us that having a home to live in is a blessing. What else can you think of? I’d invite our kids to go to the back and work with Aaron during the rest of the sermon– draw or write about your blessings- and we’ll have you share some of those things in the prayer time today.

The Children’s Sabbath is a national, interfaith observance. This year, the materials call our attention to what is called the “achievement gap”. Consider the startling statistics on the bulletin insert: In 2000, nine percent of Minnesota children lived in poverty; by 2010 15.2% of children lived in poverty, an increase of 62%. Grouping all Minnesota children together in 2009, the poverty rate was 14%, but among African-American kids it was 47%, among Hispanic children 32% and among Asians 22%. White, non-Hispanic youngsters figured at 8%. (Data are from the 2011 American Community Survey, released by the US Census Bureau, and the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota.)

Now that’s some gap. According to Sharon Rolenc of the public news service, “Minnesota ranks near the top nationally for overall academic achievement, but also has one of America’s widest gaps in terms of racial achievement.” (January 17, 2011, “MN Achievement Gap One of the Worst” http://www.publicnewsservice.org/index.php?/content/article/17895-1)

In a recent editoral piece in the Star Tribune, Brian Rusche of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, writes: “Do you hear the alarm bells? Does anyone seriously think we can be a healthy, prosperous, competitive and peaceful state if one in seven children (and a much higher rate among children of color) lives in economic deprivation?… It is now believed that sustained toxic stress, especially in early years, can inhibit brain development and lead to serious long-term consequences. Moving from basement to living room to homeless shelter; not having enough to eat; growing up in neighborhoods where parents worry about stray bullets; changing schools and teachers and classmates over and over again – these are the sorts of stressors we know to be damaging.” (Star Tribune, “When Hard Work Isn’t Enough”, Oct 9, 2011)

For the last few weeks, we’ve been focusing on the story of Exodus. In last week’s episode, the people melted down all their jewelry and formed it into a golden calf, which they worshipped rather than God. Idolatry, of course, isn’t really about bowing to animal statues, it is about centering our lives in some force other than God. We are living with a lot of gaps, interconnected in their impact– the racial achievement gap the income gap pointed out by the Occupy Wallstreet protest, the civil rights gap between GLBT families and families of other types (come and hear more about this during 2nd hour, as we discuss the marriage amendment with Javen Swanson from Outfront MN) Then there’s the chasm that stands between the wealth most Americans enjoy and the poverty of so much of the rest of the world.

All these gaps point out our idolatry. They show us that, as a society, we are worshiping some sovereign power besides the living, liberating God, who created heaven and earth, who makes every child in God’s own image, who names each little one “beloved”, who yearns to see all the small bodies, minds and spirits develop as they should. Up until the incident with the Golden Calf, God personally accompanies the Israelites on their journey, as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Now God refuses to continue to travel with the people, saying, “I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way.”

Moses begs God not to abandon him or the people of Israel. An angel isn’t enough, he argues, we need your full companionship and guidance. When God responds with what Moses perceives to be a somewhat lukewarm promise to be with them, he presses God for more. “If your presence doesn’t take the lead here, call this trip off right now!” “All right.” God replies, “Just as you say; this also I will do, for I know you well and you are special to me. I know you by name.”

But still, Moses requests more. “Show me your glory, I pray.” It’s hard to know exactly what Moses is asking for here … he has, after all, already come upon God in a blazing bush, conversed with God in the tent of meeting “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exod 33:11) Indeed, seen the glory of God on Mt. Sinai. Despite those intimate encounters with God, Moses is hoping for more. Moses wants to see God as God really is. That’s impossible, is basically God’s response.

God’s goodness will pass before Moses. God’s name—which, in Jewish tradition, human beings cannot utter at all, will be spoken in Moses’ hearing. God’s glory will brush by Moses, but God will hide Moses in the cleft of a rock and cover Moses with the divine hand. Moses will not get to see God’s face, only the back of God. As funny as it is to think of God having a backside, that’s really a mistranslation. Disappointing, I know. Lawrence Kushner explains that: “The Hebrew word for “My back” is achorai. In Hebrew it connotes not so much something spatial as temporal. God says to Moses, “You can see My afterward.” (Lawrence Kushner and David Mamet, Five Cities of Refuge: Weekly Reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy ;New York: Schocken Books, 2003, p. 73.)

The Chatam Sofer, an 18th century Rabbi, interprets the exchange this way: “A period of time can only be understood once we are able to view the entire context of events and happenings. In the same way, we are only able to comprehend God’s way and recognize how God works in the world in retrospect… And this is the real meaning of ‘You will see My back’. God says, in effect, ‘Only at the end of the days will you see and understand Me. But my face cannot be seen,’ not while the events themselves are happening, for ‘in the midst of things, you will not be able to see Me.’ (http://www.kolel.org/pages/5764/kitisa.html)

It’s tempting, because we can’t see God, or touch God, to place our trust in something else. We look for evidence that God is at work and instead we come face to face with our broken selves and our hurting world. Is God with us at all? we wonder. God, we pray, show us your glory! Show us your face! And yet, in all our longing and doubt, our anger and grief, the gap between what is and what should be can become a holy gap, holy ground. We are called to follow Jesus, who said, ”whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes me” (Matt 18: 5) We are called to live with and be in prayer with the stories of little ones like Andrew, who don’t have the basic resources every child deserves. We are called to center our hearts and our lives in their cries for home and safety and healthcare and food. We are called to share the blessings, the good things, with abundant generosity, all the while knowing that these gifts will not be a quick fix. We are called to resist despair, to honor the birds of freedom that bring hope. And someday, looking back on it all, we may just see the afterward of God, a trace of divine glory, a glimpse of a different world. Amen.