16th Sunday after Pentecost

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					17th Sunday after Pentecost Sermon 9.23.07 Scripture: Exodus 3:1-15 Earth‟s crammed with heaven And every common bush afire with God. ~Elizabeth Barrett Browning When a baby acquires language, she also acquires the ability to imagine. Before language there is only immediate experience. If something is not close enough to be felt or seen or tasted, to a baby it doesn‟t exist. For this reason, a baby‟s immediate contact with her mother—mother, that is, either by birth or adoption or default—is essential, because she doesn‟t know herself apart from her mother, and if her mother doesn‟t exist than neither does she. This is very frightening, I imagine—the worst feeling of desolation possible, and one we have all felt even if only for a minute or two. After all, each of us was a baby once. When a baby acquires language, though, things begin to change for that one, as now she can imagine the continued existence of even those things she can‟t feel or see or taste or hear. Acquiring language is not just about acquiring the ability to vocalize but also to invoke. I remember when Toby first began to say my name, his first word being “Mama” or rather “Mamamamamamamamama,” as is the case for so many babies. Before this, when waking up and finding himself alone in his crib in his room, he would cry until I came to him. But when he could say my name, he would wake up and spend the first few moments of his day saying, “Mamamamamamamama.” At other times of the day too, if he had a few minutes to himself, he would start up, “Mamamamamamama.” And while sometimes he seemed to be calling me to his side, just as often he seemed to be calling me to his mind. He had discovered that he could bring “Mamamamamama” with him wherever he went, and with that he could go further out on his own with every passing day. This is the gift that God gave to Moses and Moses gave to humankind in speaking forth the name that had never before been spoken forth. It‟s a strange name—Yahweh, spelled here with four letters: “YHWH.” Most English Bibles translate this as “Lord,” though the Jerusalem Bible retains the proper name as far as we know it to be: “Yahweh.” The four letters indicate the first person imperfect form of the verb “to be,” thus Moses‟ hearing it as “I Am that I Am,” or a moment later in the story simply, “I Am.” This is one of those great stories in the Bible that are so often referred to and therefore familiar to us but so strange when considered in their original form. We know the burning bush like 1

we know the tree of knowledge and the great flood and the parting of the Red Sea. These are tame images to us now. But imagine being a shepherd tending the flock of your father-in-law. You are a passionate man, deeply concerned about the plight of your people back in Egypt, a land from which you recently fled after murdering a slave driver. Now, married to the daughter of Midian priest named Jethro, you have apprenticed yourself to him as both priest and shepherd. And on this day, with those sheep, you have wandered further than ever before, even beyond the wilderness and into Horeb. Here, waiting for you it would seem, is this strange, then awesome, perhaps even frightening sight—a bush ablaze yet not consumed. As you know, this is what happened to Moses, this man who had been set apart starting at birth to lead a remarkable life, though opposite of all other remarkable ancient heroes. Unlike most, Moses was not born into nobility, banished into obscurity, raised into peasantry, and at last avenged back into nobility. Moses was born into slavery at the time when Pharaoh ordered all Israelite infants be killed. Yet he was saved when his mother placed him in a basket and dropped him in to the river where Pharaoh‟s daughter found him then to raise him as if royalty family, complete with a nursemaid who was none other than Moses‟ natural mother. His avenging return would be to his status as slave, God as his deliverer, which reveals a God wholly unexpected—one concerned with the oppressed, one who chooses slaves as saviors. And no one was as unaware of this divine reversal as Moses, who seemed merely curious at the sight of the burning bush, saying to himself, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” Yet this notice was all the Lord needed in order to begin this remarkable conversation, “Moses, Moses!” And the answer he received is likely exactly what he was hoping for: “Here I am,” said Moses. Here I am: what a profound thing to be able to say about yourself, no less so for each of us as for Abraham who said so to God when he was in the pagan land of Ur, or Jacob said so to the angel when he was in the wilderness that night, or Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel all said so when first called to the life of a prophet by God. Here I am, which is to understand oneself, when said in relation to the great “I Am,” as Emerson wrote, part and particle of a perfect whole. “Here I am,” said Moses, to whom the Lord then said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said further, “I am the God of you father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And, as Moses hid his face for fear of looking at God, the Lord continued, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to 2

bring them out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me. So, come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt.” Moses wondered at this, and wondered at himself, saying, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And the Lord said, “I will be with you.” Moses asked then, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, „The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,‟ and they ask me, „What is his name?‟ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “I Am who I Am,” sometimes understood as “I will be that I will be,” or “I am what I will be.” Then he said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, „I Am has sent me to you… This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” Scholar Gil Baile explains this encounter: “…the cultic aspects of Midianite religiosity seem to have made little impact on Moses. He encountered the divine, not at Jethro‟s Midian shrine, but as a voice calling to him in the wilderness… It was in solitude, far from shrines and rituals, that Moses experienced the God he spent his life trying to place at the center of Israel‟s cultural enterprise. Asked to reveal his identity, the divine voice simply said, “I am who I am.” It was not the god of the mountains or thunder of rain or fertility that Moses met, nor was it the local god of the Midianites…. This was a God whose most defining feature was a refusal to be defined, a God openly hostile to the kind of cult idolatry that was synonymous with the conventional religious life of the age. Moses‟ God, in sum, was a God wary of religion.” Yet religion is what this God got in response to this first of many revelations of God-self. It began with his name, a strange name—for all we know of it, that is. For in our desire, as people of God, to keep this name sacred—not to take it in vain, in obedience to the 3rd commandment—we have perhaps lost to history much of what once was known. In spite of the fact that this name, “YHWH” appears 6,800 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, the actual pronunciation of it is a mystery to us because around the postexilic period, the time after the fall of the Temple in 586 B.C., there was attached to this name an increasing sanctity and a desire among the people not to say it except in absolutely appropriate times and ways, and then not to say it at all. There were many euphemisms in order to say that which had been decided could not be said: El Shaddai, Adonai, Elohim, Eloah, El, El Olam, El Berith, El Roi. This move was well-intended. After all, it was an ancient belief that knowledge of the name of a deity could be used to exert magical control over that deity or in partnership with that deity over humanity. Just so, it seems to me, God revealing God‟s name was a way of dispelling this myth at least in regard to this God, who is eternal, unquenchable, irresistible 3

being, and who therefore is beyond any human control. To know the name of I Am is to be in a relationship of the sort that serves as the ground of our being, the place of our being, and the end (that is purpose) of our being. To know the name of I Am is to know I Am‟s eternal existence, even when we can‟t feel I Am, even when we can‟t see I Am, even when we can‟t smell or hear or taste I Am. To know the name of I Am is to know the name by which we know ourselves, truly to know as Moses knew when called by I Am, “Here I Am.” No, to know the name of I Am is not to have I Am under control but instead to surrender all control over to the One who Is Living and Is Moving and Is Being and in whom we live and move and have our being. So I wonder how, after all the trouble of burning as a bush in the wilderness in wait for Moses to wander by, after introducing himself and giving his beloved creatures the power to call him to mind so to be encouraged and inspired by his reality and presence, I Am feels that we have stopped calling on his name, indeed lost to history how to call his name, even if out of reverence, even if out of awe, especially if out of fear? Perhaps this is one reason that so common a refrain in theophanies that follow this one is, “Be not afraid.” Late summer has become the season of some painful anniversaries: Hurricane Katrina and the loss of New Orleans, the terrorist attacks and the loss of the twin towers. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, it‟s a season that might have us remembering how terribly vulnerable we are, mere creatures clinging to a sometimes seemingly hostile creation. Old habit has us crediting God with such powerful and brutal acts—as if terrorist attacks were the will of God, and hurricane were an act of God. And we wonder what God was intending to communicate through such brute force. Who is to blame? Whose fault is this? Whose unrighteousness made such unmitigated disaster justified? We know so little about this God, the eternally present yet ever elusive “I Am,” that we cannot know exactly what God is doing, or why. But this we do know, as revealed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ: that while we crucify to death, God raises to life; while we look for one to punish or blame, God looks upon all in forgiveness and love; while we reject all suffering, forcing it as we can upon an other, God enters all suffering that it might be redeemed. This is perhaps cold comfort. After all, wouldn‟t a God who promised to prevent such suffering be better use to us than one who promises never to leave us to our suffering alone? Wouldn‟t a God who steers hurricanes away from coastlines be more what we want than one who stands with and within those who are hardest hit? The blessing that the Lord spoke to Moses that he should speak to Aaron and his sons, that they in turn should speak to the Israelites was this 4

familiar one spoken so often in church to the church: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” As one friend summed this blessing up, it is essentially saying that God is looking at us, and in God‟s seeing and recognizing us we are somehow blessed. This, I should say, is all well and good, but is it really enough? Can‟t we have some more practical assurance than that? These are legitimate questions, and I have no answers to them, which I probably should have told you before I took you with me on asking them. But this I do know: that there was a time in his first few weeks when both Tobias and Jack couldn‟t look at me in the eye, this is said because the mother is taken to be so powerful that eye contact on the infant‟s part is more he could bear. But then came a time when one deep look from me into each of them could calm them beyond what anything else could do, such that Aaron‟s blessing took on great meaning to me, as I could lift up my countenance upon each of these strange little animals and grant them peace. And then came a time for each when they knew my name, could take that sense of presence and comfort with them wherever they went, and were ever more encouraged and inspired to live fully into the world. This is the path that we are on with God—a path that leads from fear and awe to freely chosen love for this One who promises not that nothing bad will ever happen to us but that never will God leave us to ourselves alone, and who invites us each to call on him by name. There is no escape in this, but there is strength, enough for each of us to hold on to amidst all about life that overwhelms and then for us to offer others with whom we share this world and who know not yet this name. Thanks be to God.


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