FIRST LESSON: Exodus 34:29-35 (p. 142)
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 9:28-34 (p. 1609)
SERMON: “Face to Face”
When I was a senior at McCormick Theological Seminary, I discovered that the Synod of Lincoln Trails (Illinois and Indiana) along with many other synods, sponsored a program they called “Face to Face.” It was designed to be a training exercise for pastors and Candidates for ordination as well as for Pastor Nominating Committees. Instead of using your full 15-20 page PIF (personal information form) you developed a one-page version, and the PNC’s condensed their CIF (church information form) to one page. A couple of weeks before the 24-hour event, each pastor/candidate received the forms of all the churches participating and the PNC’s received all the one-page forms about the pastors and Candidates. Each chose 8 to 10 of the most appealing /best matches, and sent that information in to the synod office. Those folks then sorted it all out and paired Candidates and churches for five one hour “face to face” interviews.
The program was really designed to teach both potential pastors and church folk how to do a good interview, but it was also quite effective in getting some good matches made. Five interviews in 24 hours was a bargain for both groups. Sadly, I don’t know of any synods that still do Face to Face weekends.
Why not just read the forms and choose a church or a pastor based on what you get on paper? Because there is nothing like being in the same room with someone, seeing their body-language, hearing their tone of voice, interacting on a deeper level than résumés and dossiers can offer.
In this age of technology we have some great opportunities to connect with people that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. Our children and grandchildren can hardly fathom what it was like when we were growing up with rotary dial telephones, party lines and astronomical charges for long-distance. Texting is their preferred method of communication. A few years ago the confirmation class kids looked at me like I had just landed from Jupiter when I told them I didn’t own a cell phone. They can’t imagine it. Today if you need to meet with someone who just happens to be hundreds of miles away, that’s okay. You set up a FaceTime or Skype connection. We can take webinars for various kinds of training sessions, be in a class with hundreds of people we will never meet.
There are tremendous advantages to all of these technological advances. I serve as Moderator of the Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry and we need to interview the men and women under care at least once, usually twice, sometimes more times per year. For the folks who live and study here in Michigan, attending Western Theological Seminary in Holland, meeting with us in Portage isn’t much of a problem. But we have students at Union in New York, Princeton, NJ, Columbia, GA and Louisville, KY. Travel is expensive and it eats up two or three days for them to meet with us for an hour or so. So we have taken to doing interviews by Skype – except for the first time and the final assessment of readiness to receive a call. For those we still want to meet with the people under care face to face – because there’s nothing quite like being in the same space with someone, seeing them face to face to get to know them.
As the story goes, a certain ship was in a serious storm and in grave distress. The passengers were alarmed. One of them finally – against all orders -- went up to the deck and made his way to the pilot house. The pilot was at the wheel, but, seeing that the man was greatly frightened; he gave him a reassuring smile. Returning to the other passengers the man said, “I have seen the face of the pilot; he smiled. All is well.
People’s faces tell us things their words do not.
Moses went up on a mountain top to meet with God, face to face. The text tells us that when he came down from his face time with God the skin of his face was shining, so much so that Aaron and the rest of the gang were afraid to go near him, so Moses would put a veil over his face when he came down the mountain to talk with the people, and he would take the veil off whenever he went up to be with God.
What is the message of this passage for us, in this world of Skype, FaceTime, video chats, webinars and other virtual meetings?
Well Moses has sent us some text messages – not on your smart phone, but through the biblical text. What Moses texts us, informs us of the importance of face-to-face time with God. First, he texts us the words: Take the time to build a relationship with God. Remember the old hymn, Take Time to be Holy, speak oft with thy Lord. Abide in him always and feed on his Word.
Moses takes the time to climb the mountain. He doesn’t sit in the foothills waiting for God to text message him or ship him an e-mail. He doesn’t require God to fit into his busy schedule at times that are convenient for him. He takes the time to go to God. He spends 40 days and 40 nights getting close to God, soaking up everything God says to him and writing down everything he can. Moses takes the time he needs to build a relationship with God.
I’m not suggesting we all go out and get mountain-climbing gear. We can build that relationship through daily prayer, regular Bible study, a commitment to regular worship, reading and pondering the writings of gifted theologians and authors. All of these bring us into closer relationship with God.
A certain man complimented his pastor after a particularly meaningful worship service, telling him how it filled him up so that he didn’t think he’d need to come to church any more. The pastor nodded with understanding and said “I know just what you mean. My wife made me such a wonderful dinner last night – all my favorite foods – it really filled me up. But I can guarantee you that I will be hungry again by supper-time tonight.
We don’t really know how many times Moses went up and down the mountain to spend time with God, but we do know it wasn’t just a one-time thing. And every time he spent with God his relationship with God grew. And every time you spend time with God, your relationship with God will also grow.
The second text message here is that you can expect your encounters with God to change you. This passage in Exodus tells us that every time he came down from spending time with God, Moses face was shining so brightly it frightened the people. Our faces are not likely to shine like that. But spending time with God does transform us. When we get deep into relationship with God we become more compassionate, more loving, more forgiving and more truthful. We begin to think more about serving others than we do about serving ourselves. Our decisions are driven more by what is right than by what is profitable. Whether we are at work, at home with family, at school or in some community activity, the people around us will see evidence that we have been transformed by God as we seek to live as Jesus taught us. The classic question asks, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you.” As your relationship with God grows, so does the mountain of evidence.
The third text message from Moses is certain to make many, if not most, of us uncomfortable, as Moses teaches by example that we are called to reach out to everyone, even those who annoy us. Moses insists on face to face meetings, not just with God, but with those stiff-necked people of Israel. It’s not that difficult to get close to the people we love. Skype and virtual meetings have an appealing characteristic that we can keep our distance from people who get on our nerves. Moses not only goes up the mountain to have face-time with God. He comes down the mountain to the people of Israel. Imagine with me what changes there would be if in the great national pastime of partisan politics, instead of one group of people who mostly all agree with each other talking together on Fox and another group who agree talking on msnbc, what would happen if they got together Face to Face and talked with each other instead of at each other.
That brings us to the final text message from Moses today. You have to keep moving. Moses stayed a pretty good while – 40 days and 40 nights up on the mountain. But he always came back down to the people. But he didn’t stay with them forever either. Maintain a balance, the text suggests, between worship and work, between prayer and participation in the life of the community. If we focus only on God, we'll miss out on the important mission of serving a world in need. If we focus only on people, we'll miss the glory of God that brings inspiration and hope into the middle of human life.
Take time to build your relationship with God. Expect encounters with God to transform you. Reach out to others, even those who annoy you, and keep moving – give time to God, and to people, and back to God, then back to people.