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Known Unknowns

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

September 10, 2017
Exodus 3:1-15

A Reading from Exodus:

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “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 bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “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?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.


In 2007, before he took the helm of the new Star Trek and Star Wars movies, filmmaker J.J. Abrams gave a now-famous TED talk in which he talked about his mystery box. The story goes like this, that Abrams had a grandfather who loved to show him how things worked. He was a tinkerer, and he was always unscrewing the backs of things and looking at the gears and young J.J. would watch in amazement, enthralled to the discovering the mechanics behind it all. And then one day, his grandfather took him to this magic shop, midtown Manhattan, Lou Tannen’s Magic Store. Of course young J.J. loved magic, because what young boy fascinated with how things work wouldn’t also love magic. But J.J. doesn’t come home that day with a new set of trick cards or a stovepipe-hat with a rabbit latched inside. Instead, he comes home with a box. A grab-bag of magic store merchandise, stuffed in a sealed box, $50 worth of magic for only fifteen bucks. So you don’t know what you’re going to get, but you’re going to get a value.

At this point in the story, in 2007, J.J. pulls the box out on stage. It’s about the size of two shoeboxes, cardboard, taped along the sides. And taped along the flaps. In fact, the box is as sealed today as it was back when they bought it, because J.J. has never decided to open the thing and see what’s on the inside. And of course there are legions of toy collectors who keep things in the box all the time, but this feels a bit different — there’s no clear plastic, we have no idea what’s in there, and of course that’s precisely the point. By now, the mystery is a better story than anything that could possibly be on the inside. The box isn’t just full of magical trinkets; for J.J., at least, the box is magic, because it means there’s always something left to be discovered. “The thing is that it represents infinite possibility,” he says. “It represents hope. It represents potential. And I realize that mystery is the catalyst for imagination.”

Now, ten years later, this thing in some circles has become a bit of a joke. And a bit of a commodity — by now, you can go on JJ’s website and buy a whole variety of mystery-box-themed products, and some of them are even mystery boxes. But at the time, critics were pretty quick to observe that sometimes J.J. is a bit over-eager to use the magic box in his own creations. He’s the king of the mystery box McGuffin — in Mission: Impossible 3, the bad guys steal an object called the Rabbit’s Foot and the good guys try to get it back but nobody ever explains what it is or what it does, it’s just there to get the plot going. And this is probably never more in focus than with his signature television creation, Lost, which strung viewers like me along for six seasons on the predication that somebody somewhere would answer our questions about that island and what it was and how it worked and what it was all for except that for J.J. answering those kinds of questions has never been the point. The point is the story that happens once you start asking. So the mystery box stays closed. And the story begins.

And so we find ourselves, here in this second week of our journey through Exodus, here at the mystery that truly begins the story. Last week, of course, we met Moses as the infant, the child drawn out of the water. But Exodus isn’t just the story of Moses; it’s the story of Israel led by Moses, getting to know God, the story of God and Israel forming a relationship together. It’s a relationship that will take them out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, into the wilderness, and eventually, of course, into the land of milk and honey, but that relationship has to start somewhere, and it starts here, in the third of chapter of Exodus, somewhere in the vicinity of Mount Horeb, as Moses is tending his flocks and then God starts talking to him out of a burning bush. This is such an iconic moment in scripture that it’s hard to do justice to the weirdness of it. It’s always hard to read these stories as if you haven’t heard them before and as if we don’t know where it’s all going. But of course Moses at this point has no idea where this is going, or who he’s talking to, or why the bush is on fire, or any of it. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Of course, it doesn’t all stay mysterious for long. God puts a lot of exposition on the table very quickly. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and of course Moses has heard those stories, about the God who called Abraham to the Promised Land and the God who wrestled with Jacob at the river’s edge, though probably he’s never heard of that God showing up in a bush. But times have changed. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt, and I have come down to deliver them out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” And again. Read in hindsight, this stuff abounds with poetry and promise. But read in the moment, it sounds looney. And Moses knows it. “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?” Which I think is a valid question to ask of a bush that claims to speak for the Creator of all things: who the heck do you think you are?

But we don’t get much of an answer. I mean, it’s a famous answer, but it’s a little mysterious. “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” And at this point if I had some really good Hebrew acrobatics to show you, I would do it. I mean, I’d love to open up this phrase, tell you something about verb parsing or linguistic evolution, something that would make these words into something like a satisfying answer. I’d love to take off the tape and open the flaps and shine a light inside and prove this thing to be somehow less mysterious than it actually is, but the truth is, it’s just mysterious. The truth is that it’s a fragment of Hebrew whose strangeness has been carefully preserved across the millennia, and whose English translations if anything make it more sensical than it is in the native tongue. And yes, there are a whole variety of philosophical notions that one can locate by staring into the heart of this phrase, but every one of them could have been articulated better with other grammar. Instead, we have a mystery box. Here at the beginning. Underneath all the exposition. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham. Yes, but who are you? I will deliver you from this land and into a land of milk and honey! Yes, but who are you? I am who I am. Yes, but who are you?

In 2002, during the long run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was giving a press conference in which he was asked about the lack of evidence to support a popular theory that Iraq was supplying terrorist groups with weapons of mass destruction. Rumsfeld’s answer has become famous over time, if not for political context, than surely for its philosophical poetry: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And … it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” At the time, Rumsfeld’s answer became a bit of a punching bag, but in my mind, divorced from its political context, I think it has a bit of beauty to it. He’s not wrong. There are of course things that we know that we know, facts upon facts upon facts. And there are of course things that we don’t know that we don’t know — answers we can’t grasp to questions we haven’t imagined. But then somewhere in the middle are the known unknowns. The questions we have to ask, even when the answers remain out of reach. I am who I am. Yes, but who are you?

“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?” We never get a straight answer. “I am who I am” is one of the most famous turns of phrase in all of scripture but it’s not much of an answer, it’s vague at best and elusive at worst, it’s the mystery box at the heart of the story, $50 bucks worth of magic and maybe inside it’s not worth a dime. But it makes for such good questions. And Moses asks such good questions. And maybe the power of this story isn’t about God giving mediocre answers but rather about Moses asking particularly good questions. Maybe this whole relationships starts with Moses asking particularly good questions. Maybe this whole story starts with Moses asking such good questions. Biblical scholar Terence Fretheim writes of this elusive name of God that “Israel both understands its history from the name and the name from its history. The name shapes Israel’s story, and the story gives greater texture to the name.” But of course the story really begins when Israel responds, “Yes, but who are you?” And that question will pull them across the wilderness. And that question will accompany them through the narrow seas. And that question will haunt them all the way to the Promised Land. Because that’s what makes the box magical. “There’s always something left to be discovered.”

We ask questions. Who are you? Who is this God that sends us through the wilderness? Who is this God that meets us on the mountaintop? We ask questions, the questions that sent us on this journey in the first place, the questions that bring us here this morning. After all, this is a place where we ask questions. It’s not all we do, of course: there are the known knowns, the fundamentals, proclamations, benedictions that form the center of who we are called to be: love God; love your neighbor as yourself; love your enemy. But also there are the known unknowns. There are the questions that drive us. There are the questions that send us.  There are the questions that gather us. There are the questions that keep us awake in the still small hour. Who are you, God of all things? Why would the God of all things care for us? Why would the God of all things care for me? Why does the world break even despite the God of all things? Why do the storms rage despite the God of all things? Why does the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike? Why, God, have you turned your back on me? My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? We ask questions.

I can’t answer all of them for you. This may not be a popular answer in a University church in a University town: you all are very smart people and I’ve spent a lot of time with very smart people and as a general rule very smart people don’t often like questions that they can’t answer. But this isn’t a gadget where we can unscrew the back and look at the gears. It’s not even a cardboard box of magic toys; even if I wanted to I couldn’t peel off the packaging tape and show you all the tricks inside. They’re not mine to show. But I can proclaim a Gospel. And the Gospel for the morning is this. If you come here this morning with a question on your heart, you are not alone. From the very beginning, believers have come before God with questions, and not just with questions but because of questions; it is the questions that start us along the way. It is the questions that drive us through the wilderness and send us into the Promised Land and gather us even around the foot of the manger. But of course Mary has questions: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” And of course Elizabeth has questions: “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” And of course the disciples are all question, from the first chapter to the last, and even Jesus, even the one in whom God reveals so much, even Jesus keeps a few things close to the chest.

Still, we ask. We ask, with believers of every age and every inclination. We ask, across boundaries of history and culture and ideology. We ask, with all the saints of every time and place. We all love a good mystery. And we have found one. A good mystery. The great inscrutable I AM. The great unfathomable I AM. I do not know his name, but in the wilderness, he was there. I do not know her name, but amid the waters, she was there. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, the great IAM is with us, cares for us, shelters us, loves us, and walks with us. God is here, and loves you. I do not know its name, but I know that the great I AM has sent me to you, and has sent you to me, and has gathered us together for this time and place as indeed pilgrims have been gathered in every time and place. I do not know all the answers. But I do have questions. And I know you have questions. And I know that the real story happens once we start asking.