St Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany, CA, August 28, 2011
I am. I am.
How often do we make that statement? I am.
What I’ve witnessed in my mere 43 years walking amongst my fellow humans, is that we all tend to use these words as a precursor to something else.
Our state of being… I am excited. I am scared. I am sleepy. I’m 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 mean.
It’s funny, we also tend to shorten the phase… from I am to I’m… contracting it, removing the space, as if the I and the am are not as important as what comes after. Indeed, that’s what we focus on, isn’t it? We have many personas, many faces… and we have to know what they are.
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. Michelle means God-like.
And, most especially in our culture, we identify ourselves with the products we use… I’m a Honda driver, a Pepsi drinker, a Costco customer, a MAC user. We identify ourselves with organizations and causes we support… I’m an animal-rights activist, a democrat, an A’s fan, a Giant’s fan, a member of the ACLU. By what we’re against… I’m anti-war, anti-big government, anti-abortion, I’m anti-MAC.
With our culture… American, European, Southern, Californian. Which gets conflated with our religion… I’m a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, I’m Episcopalian, Evangelical, Roman Catholic… I’m spiritual but not religious. And conflated with our race, our ancestry… I’m Caucasian, I’m African-American, I’m Latino.
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.
As an Enneagram teacher, I am familiar with the tendency to identify ourselves with our personality as defined by whatever system we’re following – I’m a 4 or a 2 or a 9, I’m a Leo or a Virgo, I’m an INTJ, I’m a Winter.
And a little side-note… I always enjoy it when someone refuses to use one of these systems because they don’t want to be put into a box. Yet, as I’ve just demonstrated we are constantly putting ourselves into boxes… all the boxes I’ve listed… and then some.
It’s astounding. We have so many competing identities, no wonder we forget. Our mind is full, so busy articulating ourselves, defining ourselves, creating faces for ourselves… no wonder we fail to remember. So caught up in this world… labeling, describing, classifying, characterizing… that we, without noticing, separate ourselves from one another and forget… seeing only the faces of the other and hoping that they will only see the faces we put forward.
So, we have Moses. Moses – an Israelite in Egypt. Earlier in Exodus, 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.”
Moses survived genocide because the baby boys were supposed to be put to death. He was rescued by the daughter of the Pharaoh and, hence, 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 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, the alien, went looking. The scripture says he went beyond the wilderness, beyond the state of being lost, beyond the state of forgetting, beyond the competing, 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, longing to hear God call his name.
So, was he really all that surprised when he heard God calling to him out of some magical, unconsumed, burning bush? Was he really all that surprised that God showed up?
I don’t think so. But that didn’t make it easy. Moses seems to have had a tough time there in the presence of God. He hid his face.
Moses hid his most identifiable feature. Indeed, his worldly identity.
Because, you see, in that moment he suddenly got it. All of these things that we think we are… all of these affiliations, identities, preferences, descriptors… all of these faces… mean nothing to God. And Moses lost his alien status.
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.” 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.
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 or even just looking at you, put a label on you and proceed to treat you with some prescribed disdain or condescension or even flattery?
We do this all the time. 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 in a soap opera or a crime drama. We put them in a box on a shelf in our consciousness and refer to them by the identity we’ve afforded them. We narrow the field of our understanding to simple stereotypes, caricatures of people.
And most tragically, perhaps, we do this to ourselves. We limit our own identity both by the parts we are proud of, the parts we want to be noticed… and by the parts we cannot own about ourselves, these shadows that lurk in the corners of our awareness. If we don’t look, we won’t see it. We keep it safe, keep it easy, keep it in control. And because of this, we lose our curiosity.
And just like that, we trade love for power. Because the way love is most genuinely manifested is 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… 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 – 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.
It’s the moment right before definition. I am. Like that state between being awake and asleep where our dreams slip away. EHYEH. Here I am.
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. It is this mysterious moment where we know ourselves but haven’t yet wielded a face.
So, the question becomes… Can you be curious about this part of yourself? About this part of other people?
Because I bet you’ve seen it. Where you look at someone and for one instant you recognize something so profound and beautiful and then one of you looks away. Babies are great for this, because they haven’t yet learned how to be shy.
EHYEH. It’s like breathing. It’s that basic. It’s that intrinsic to us. EHYEH
It isn’t valued by our culture. Just as it’s never been seen or rewarded in any powerful culture since time began. It’s rarely seen by others… even those who love us. So, no wonder it’s hard to know ourselves as… this moment. Yet, it’s our very nucleus, our substance, our heart. And on some level, we know it. And we’ve been longing to be called back to its mystery.
Moses, whose name, interestingly enough means “out of the water”, is an alien… a person without origin. Moses approached God and when God called him, he responded with the knowledge of his own true identity. “Here I am.”
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 been in the presence of God, we forget. Moses questions, worries, demands, denies. Just like us. He’s tempted by the human need to define, to characterize, to label.
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 need for the power to define, instead of 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. To remember who we are and whose we are. To hear the call and to respond, “here I am.”
And we’ll forget because we do. We sin. We miss the mark as we will continue to do. But Jesus calls us back to the heart of God again and again. The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is just that… a calling back, a remembering…
That this body, this flesh, this soul… your exquisite, human, breathing, thinking, heart-beating, coffee-drinking, MAC using, belief-holding , judgment-wielding self… your precious self has a heart that belongs utterly to God.
You are this mysterious moment without definition, this breath.