Seeing God

During his time in graduate school, my brother Andrew lived in the upstairs apartment of an old house.  When he moved in, the homeowner explained to Andrew that some years before, the elderly woman who lived upstairs had fallen and died in the apartment.  On its own, this didn’t phase Andrew, but next the landlord explained that subsequent tenants had seen strange things in the apartment, indications that the elderly woman’s spirit lingered in that space.  Andrew got the woolies, but he was a poor grad student, and the apartment was cheap, so he paid his deposit and moved in.

"He saw an image in the corner of his eye."

“He saw an image in the corner of his eye.”

A few weeks later, Andrew was cooking his breakfast at the kitchenette, when he saw an image in the corner of his eye, beside his bookcase.  Startled, he turned to look, but when he faced the bookcase head-on, he saw nothing.  Turning back to the eggs on the stove, he again saw to his right an image.  It was of a woman, aged and gentle, gazing at the titles on the spines of Andrew’s books.  She was neither fearsome nor threatening, but the sense of her presence was palpable.  Andrew experienced her several more times during his tenure in the apartment.  He could never look at her straight on, but when he was attentive to the periphery of his vision, Andrew glimpsed a reality otherwise missed, and over time he considered that communion a blessing.

Every morning on my way in to work, I listen to John Lienhard’s NPR series, “The Engines of our Ingenuity.”  Lienhard usually discusses the wonder of manmade devices such as the airplane or steam engine, but some months ago he instead discussed the incredible physiology of bees.[i]  Specifically, Lienhard focused on bees’ eyes, which are much more complex than our own.  Bees, it turns out, see a much wider color spectrum than do humans.  Whereas our eyes capture violet-to-red, bees can see ultra-violet through orange.  Additionally, bees have three additional eyes between their large compound eyes, and rather than discerning shapes, these smaller lenses sense minute changes in light and shadow.

"When the honeybee and i gaze at the same flower, we see different things."

“When the honeybee and i gaze at the same flower, we see different things.”

When the honeybee and I gaze at the same flower, in other words, we literally see different things.  Or, more specifically, the bee sees vastly more than I see: blazing color, nuanced light, life-giving nectar.  There are realities before us both that are entirely hidden to me.  John Lienhard concludes that our knowledge all begins and ends with what we see.

It’s amazing the things we do not see.  We walk blithely through the world as with blinders on, while color, light, and wonders true are all about us.  We live in our heads, and our cognitive selves tell and teach us that what we cannot see is not there, what we cannot empirically measure is not real, what we cannot explain with didactic precision is nothing but illusion.

In Exodus today, Moses is feeling this way.  He has been given the law in great specificity.  He has been given architectural plans for the tabernacle and the customary for proper religious observance.  All of these things are concrete.  They are real.  But what’s behind them?  What is their source?  What gives them life and power and meaning?  He isn’t sure, not entirely, and that makes him wonder if he’s playing the fool.  Moses yearns to see.

So, Moses asks God for a sign.  (How like us he is!)  And the Creator of heaven and earth agrees to show himself.  “I will make all my goodness pass before you,” says God.  God will reveal himself in the periphery of Moses’ vision, in a way that even Moses’ feeble human eyes can see.  In the beginning, God had declared the whole creation good, and God grants Moses a glimpse of this reality—deep reality, the world infused by grace and by God.  A chapter later, when Moses descends the mountain, his countenance is shining.  He is different.  He has an aura about him, because he has seen God, and the world the way it truly is, and he has been changed—body and soul—by the encounter.

"I will make all my goodness pass before you."

“I will make all my goodness pass before you.”

This happens again and again in the chronicle of Holy Scripture: to Abraham, on the Mount of Transfiguration, on Paul’s way to Damascus.  The veil is lifted.  Eyes are opened.  Reality is revealed deeper than what we can measure or even fully describe.  Such epiphanies didn’t end with the writing of Holy Scripture.  They happen every day to otherwise ordinary people like you and me.  (In fact, we’ve just hosted a weekend symposium on this very topic.)  We, too, sometimes catch sight out of the periphery of our vision, receive momentary and fleeting glimpses of the goodness of God that nevertheless change us profoundly and irrevocably.

There are striking commonalities in the reported encounters with God by people from ancient days to our own.  They include the pervasiveness of love that is experienced as flowing all around and through us, like the air we breathe.  And they include an intuition of the interconnectedness of all things, of the infinite ways in which—through the Spirit of God—we are conjoined to one another and to the world all around us.

What does this mean?  It means, in a way profoundly more than we previously realized, that this world belongs to God. Not a stone, not a shadow, not a honeybee’s eye belongs to any other.  God creates and flows through them all.  God is in them, and they are his.  And his goodness, his very image, is imprinted upon the whole creation.

This truth is crucial to today’s Gospel passage, which at first seems primarily to be about the propriety of paying taxes.  The Pharisees ask Jesus that very question: “Are we required to pay taxes to Caesar?”

"The coin is Caesar's.  He stamped it with his image.  Give back to Caesar his own."

“The coin is Caesar’s. He stamped it with his image. Give back to Caesar his own.”

The coin the Romans required for the payment of taxes was a coin with Caesar’s image stamped upon it, with the slogan, “Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of God.”

When asked if it was appropriate for Jews to pay this coin in taxes to Caesar, Jesus responds, “The coin is Caesar’s.  He minted it.  He stamped it with his own image.  He put it in circulation and thus gave it to you to begin with.  Sure, give back to Caesar his own.”

But the deeper truth is found in Jesus’ wily addendum: “And give to God that which is God’s.

And what belongs to God?  What is revealed in our holy encounters to be infused with God’s goodness in ways our feeble eyes can barely see?  On what is imprinted God’s very image?  Everything.

It is worth saying again in this month of our Every Member Canvass, as each of us decides what we will give back to God in the coming year: What belongs to God is everything.  Our financial abundance, yes, but also our joy, our loved ones, our most cherished memories, our sorrows, our needs, and our hopes.  All of these things are made buoyant by the Spirit of God, through whom and for whom they were made.  It is all God’s, because it is all of God.

"And what belongs to God?  Everything."

“And what belongs to God? Everything.”

If only we had the eyes of a honeybee.  What we might see even here, even now!  As we gaze straight forward at the altar of God, the eyes of the Savior gaze down upon us from the periphery of our vision, through the light of these blessed windows.  Just out of our sightline, the archangels are perched on these rafters, ready to carry our prayers to the throne of God.  The Spirit of the Divine flows through this place—and this world—like crackling electricity.  It’s all here!  It is the reality we barely see.  God says to Moses, and God says to us, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.”  Even here.  Even now.  Thanks be to God.

[i] Lienhard, John H.  “Engines of Our Ingenuity,” No. 2877, “What Bees See,” http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2877.htm.

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