You can click here to read this week’s scripture.
I am. I am.
How often do we make that statement? I am.
We all tend to use these words as a precursor to something else.
Our state of being: I am excited. I’m disappointed that it’s a rainy day. I am scared. I am sleepy, frustrated.
Or our current activity: I am writing a letter. I’m playing with my children. I’m going to the store.
A descriptor of some kind: I am gentle. I am not so gentle.
We identify ourselves with how we feel, with what we do, with our experience of ourselves, as well as other people’s experience of us.
And, most definitely, we identify ourselves with our roles:
I am a mother. I am a father. I’m a daughter, a son. I’m a priest, I’m a nurse, a teacher, a musician, a waitress, a salesperson, an administrator… the parent of an honor roll student, as our bumper stickers say.
With our names and what they mean: I like mine, actually. I’m Michelle. It means God-like.
And, most especially in our culture, we identify ourselves with the products we use: I’m a Honda driver, a Costco shopper, an iphone user. We identify ourselves with organizations and causes we support: I’m an animal-rights activist, a democrat, a republican, a Yankees/Mets fan, a member of the ACLU.
By what we’re against: I’m anti-war, anti-big government, anti-abortion.
With our culture: American. Which gets conflated with religion: I’m a Christian… forgetting the fact that Americans are also Muslims and Jews. I’m Episcopalian, Roman Catholic.
Which can get conflated with race and ethnicity… I’m white, I’m African-American, I’m Latino, I’m Arab.
We identify with our body or our body image… I’m skinny, I’m tall, I’m short, I’m handicapped, I’m fit, I’m fat.
And as if this wasn’t enough, we heap on some incredibly negative identities: I’m a loser. I’m stupid. I’m worthless. I’m ugly. I’m wrong. I’m bad.
It’s astounding. We have so many competing identities, no wonder we forget who we really are. Our mind is full, so busy articulating ourselves, defining ourselves, creating faces for ourselves, no wonder we fail to remember who we really belong to.
Without noticing, we separate ourselves from one another and we forget, seeing only what we want to see in the other and hoping that they will only see the faces we present.
So, we have Moses.
Moses – an Israelite in Egypt. Just few verses before today’s passage, Moses names his son Gershom. ‘Ger’ is Hebrew for ‘alien.’ He passes on this identity to his son and says, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”
Here’s what we know about Moses. He survived genocide, we know this from last week’s reading. By order of the Pharaoh, the baby boys were supposed to be put to death and the midwives defied the law in order to see through God’s will, which is sometimes necessary.
Because Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was raised in the home of his enslaver and attempted murderer. When he grew up, Moses killed an Egyptian for beating his own Hebrew kinsfolk and became an outlaw, forced to hide in Midian.
While in hiding, Moses defended a group of women at a well and was taken in by a priest. He married Zipporah and fathered a son.
Moses had many, many faces. He was a survivor, a victim, a killer, an outlaw, an advocate, a son, a brother, a father, a man, an Israelite, an alien. Moses understood himself in a very particular way with a variety of identities. As we all do.
And one day, Moses, this alien, went looking. The scripture says he went beyond the wilderness (in scripture, the place of being lost), beyond the state of being lost, beyond the state of forgetting, beyond the identity-laden, confusing, day-to-day wilderness of who we take ourselves to be. And Moses went to Horeb, to the mountain of God.
Moses had become curious, you see, longing to hear God call his name.
Have you ever experienced that? You just want to leave all you think you are and all you think you know behind because of a yearning to know something deeper, something truer about yourself?
Is there something else to this? Am I something bigger, something deeper, something more?
When we are really ready to experience the truth, God shows up.
For Moses, it was the voice of God calling to him out of some magical, unconsumed, burning bush. And in the presence of the holy, the eternal, in the presence of the Almighty and everlasting God of all, the ground of our being in the presence of that awe, the identities we have taken such care to create, mean absolutely nothing.
And so, Moses hid his face. Moses hid his most identifiable feature, his worldly identity. Because he knew.
All of these things that we think we are… all of these affiliations, identities, preferences, descriptors, all of these faces mean nothing to God.
No longer victim. No longer killer. No longer advocate or husband or son or outlaw. No longer alien.
So, there is Moses… stripped of his identity, everything he thinks he knows about himself, everything he thinks he knows about God… gone.
And he asks, “Who am I?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”
God tells him, “I will be with you.”
In that one phrase, God is saying, “You are mine, Moses. That’s who you are. You belong to me.”
And there even in the presence of God, even hearing God tell him who he is, Moses in his glorious humanity, still can’t fully trust, still can’t fully believe this astounding, humbling, overwhelming truth. That who he is, is enough.
Because he asks, “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 responds with: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. I AM WHO I AM.
Now, when God names Godself, this is a big deal. After all, naming is a form of power. Being able to name, to define, to constrict another into an identity is a form of power over them.
Think about it. Isn’t it an infuriating thing when someone tells you who you are or what you’re feeling? When after spending just a few moments listening to you, someone puts a label on you and proceed to treat you in some particular way.
We do this all the time. We give people a name, a label. We reduce other people to a simple identity to feel safe so we know how to deal with them. We turn people into known quantities, like characters. We put them in a box on a shelf in our consciousness and refer to them by the identity that we have afforded them. We narrow the field of our understanding to simple stereotypes, caricatures of people.
And here’s the thing, when we do that, we stop being curious. And this is how we stop loving people.
How many times has it been easier to explain-away a confusing or a negative experience – they’re an idiot, a loser, a narcissist.
How often is it easier to make assumptions about people because of their weight or their gender? Their sexual orientation or their age? The language they speak or their religion? How often do we make assumptions about people because of the color of their skin or the way they dress or act or which street they happen to live on?
And just like that, we’ve traded love for power. Because the way love is most genuinely, most often manifested as curiosity.
When homeless people are asked “what is the most dehumanizing thing about being homeless?” They reply that it is being ignored, as if they don’t exist. When their fellow humans demonstrate indifference, a lack of curiosity in them.
Curiosity. Love. This means that we are willing to put aside what we think we know about ourselves, about one another.
We choose to go beyond the wilderness of all the faces so that we might remember our true identity and in doing so remember theirs as well – which is something that cannot be contained by human thought or words, cannot be enslaved by human identities.
Because our identity rests in God, and in God alone.
EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. This identity isn’t easily defined.
On the contrary, it’s full of mystery. EHYEH. I am.
What if we looked for this mystery in one another? What if we saw the Christ in one another, the spark of God that is the divine nature? That is the “I am.” That’s what we bring to God – the part of ourselves that is difficult to define, that has nothing to do with the world.
What if we simply offered ourselves to one another in our authentic, raw, human truth. What if we found the courage to stand before someone without the need to present any identity and just say, “Here I am.”
Would we be able to drop our expectations of others and just see the divine mystery alive, waiting to be spoken? Like a baby does?
Babies are great for this, because they haven’t yet learned how to be shy, they haven’t yet learned how to protect themselves. They just keep shining. And they just keep expecting us to shine right back. And we do.
We may think we have to be something – good, or strong, or smart, or helpful, or loyal, or self-sacrificing to be loved by God. But what God loves, is something so basic, so intrinsic to each of us that we have forgotten it because we have gotten lost in the wilderness.
EHYEH. It’s like breathing. It’s that basic.
It’s that intrinsic to us.
EHYEH, the Hebrew word for I am.
Moses, whose name, interestingly enough means “out of the water”, is an alien, a person without origin. Moses approaches God and when God called him, he responded the only way he could in the presence of God, with the knowledge of his own true identity. “Here I am.” EHYEH
But as Moses demonstrates, so beautifully in this story, even when we get it once, we continue to get lost in the wilderness. Even when we’ve experienced the presence of God, we forget. As we move through the Exodus story this fall, you’ll notice that Moses questions, worries, demands, denies. Just like us. He’s tempted by the human need to define, to characterize, to label.
Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas’ Let My People Go
Moses is the character who leads Israel out of slavery for this very reason. Because he has glimpsed the truth but is still confined by the world. He has tasted the liberation from the wilderness of identities. Moses has experienced the truth of who he is. EYEH. Like breath.
The ones who have experienced liberation on some level are the ones who are called to lead others to liberation.
This is what Jesus means when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Mt 16: 24-25
The part of ourselves that Jesus is calling us to deny is this persona we’ve created. These faces. This “life” that we have built based on the ways of the world. This need for the power to define, instead of the call to love.
He demands that we refuse the tempter both in our own voice and in the voice of our loved ones… “Get behind me, Satan.” Instead, he’s calling us to remember. EHYEH
To remember who we are and whose we are. To hear the call and to respond simply and clearly, “here I am.” Taking our full place in relationship to God.
And we’ll forget because we do. We’ll find ourselves in the wilderness. We’ll sin. We’ll miss the mark as we continue to do.
But Jesus continues to call us back to the heart of God again and again. The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that we offer here is just that, a calling back, a remembering. This is why we come to church every week, to come to remember to show up at this Table and say, EHYEH, Here I am.
The Table of Reconciliation is not just for us to reconcile with one another. It’s also to reconcile with ourselves and to be able to bring ourselves fully to God. Because that’s who we belong to.
You are a mysterious child of God, full of the mystery of the divine, called good from the moment the universe sparked into being. Please don’t forget this.