Our first reading this morning is presented as a dialogue between God and Moses. Moses was up on Mt. Sinai asking for God to be always present with him and his people. And God replied, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Remember that, “I know you by name.”
Then Moses asked to see God’s glory. But God explained to Moses, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there’s a place by me where you shall stand upon 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.”
I don’t believe for a minute that God was literally walking by Moses on a high mountain, as if God were some kind of creature who walks – some kind of super human. But the story points to a common human experience. As much as we want to know, with certainty, that God is present with us—much more frequently we see God’s presence and activity in hindsight, that is, we see God’s back. Our vision is limited.
We might choose a vocation, fall in love, even have a painful experience, and only later discern the hand of God that changed our lives. At the time, we didn’t see clearly (almost like a hand covered our eyes) but looking back we can say with confidence, “It was a God thing.”
In the church, we put a lot of emphasis on knowing God. We encourage worship, prayer, contemplation, and Bible study, all in the hope that these practices will lead us into a deeper knowledge of God. This is right and good, and it speaks to a deep desire of the human heart: we want to know. Know ourselves, know God, know each other.
But this week’s reading suggests that God understands something much more elemental about our hearts: we want to be known. “I know you by name”. As the old theme song from Cheers has it, “We want to go where everybody knows our name.”
Late last year the Church in Southern Ohio sent out a list of those who had been ordained in November and December. I was ordained a priest in December, 1972. But my name—at least my real name—wasn’t there. There was a John Padon who was on the list.
I can’t tell you how hurt and dismayed I was. I’ve been part of this Diocese, on and off, since 1949, ordained deacon and priest in 1972, assistant priest in one parish, rector of two parishes, and now priest-in-charge of yet another congregation—and the people in Cincinnati don’t even know my name.
It’s not really a matter of depression or despair—not like the childhood rhyme
“Nobody loves me
Everybody hates me
Think I’ll go eat worms”
Rather, I, like most people, simply want to be known. Certainly known by family and friends, church, a community of acquaintances . . . and especially by God.
We often hear the question asked, “Do you know God? Do you know Jesus?” And I think that’s important. On the one hand, God is mysterious, unknowable. But our faith says that Jesus has made God known. Jesus, God incarnate, God in the flesh—has revealed the values and the nature of God. But God, as God, is much more that anything we can know because we are only human—limited in our capacity and our understanding . . . we only see God in hindsight.
But the far more significant question isn’t “Do you know God? But, does God know you?”
Hear these words from Isaiah, chapter 45.
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
When we baptize in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we say the proper name of the person being baptized, their first and middle name. This is their Christian name . . . the name by which they are known by God. In the case of infants and younger children, they know nothing about God. And in the case of older folk, we know precious little about the Divine mystery. But God knows us, as He says, “I call you by name.”
Our Gospel reading today is about Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the Herodians. Trying to trap him, they asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. If he said “Yes,” he would be discredited among his followers as a collaborator with the hated Romans. But if he said “No,” then he would be subject to immediate arrest. That’s when he asked to see a Roman coin, a denarius; and holding it up he asked whose head and title were on the coin? They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Every last Jew in Jesus’ hearing that day knew the Genesis affirmation that all human beings were created in the image of God. Caesar’s image may be on the coin, but God’s image is stamped on you! Never give yourselves or your hearts to the emperor. You belong to God.
We’re all stamped with God’s image, but we too often forget . . . we forget that we have God’s image within us and we forget or ignore God’s presence in others. Our regard for ourselves is transformed when we remember that God is part of us and knows our name.
When Martin Luther was at a low point, attacked as he was, by many in Church and state, he found strength and courage by saying to himself, “I am baptized.” In other words, “It makes no difference, I need not be discouraged, because God knows my name.”