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August 31, 2014
Names are important. From what we call one another, to what we buy at the grocery store, to the subjects our children are taught in school – names have the power to shape our world. We name all sorts of things. We name our emotions, we name the colors we see, we name things that are good and bad. We use names to build up, we use names to bully, we use names to honor and dishonor. We mourn the names that are no longer answered to in our community: KC, Martha, Donna, Stephen. We rejoice in the names newly spoken into our community: Juniper, Deb, Selete. Names help us shape our community and help us make sense of our identities.
Think of the weight your own name carries – the name you were given at your birth. Your name is your very first possession, the thing that allows you entry into society. In some traditions, a newborn baby is not yet recognized as a true person until he or she receives a name.
Our names inhabit a special place in our psyche. Have you ever been in a noisy restaurant and over the din of music, silverware clanking, cooks shouting orders, and table conversations, you heard someone say your name – even though you weren’t particularly listening for it. Our minds are trained to respond to the name we’ve been given. Yet the name on our birth certificate is not the only name we answer to. I answer to John, Husband, Son, Brother, Uncle, Cousin, Friend, Bro, Hey You, and so on. Our names not only give us a unique identifier, but also shape our relationships.
Names also communicate what we do with our lives. Many of us here answer to the names of teacher, doctor, musician, artist, pastor, lawyer, salesperson, software designer, manager, scientist, student, writer, banker, or Amy’s ice cream scoop technician. We also are known by the names of our passions: UT football fan, triathlete, fly fisherman, baker, music junkie, NPR listener, yoga student, republican, democrat, activist, reader, blogger, quilter, Trekkie, Whovian, Gryffindor, stargazer, foodie, world traveler, animal shelter volunteer, or professional underwater basket weaver. If you were to compile all the names you answer to, your names would tell the story of your life. Our names are our story.
Over the course of these past several sweltering weeks of summer, we have heard the stories of our community of faith in many different ways. We have undertaken a sweeping project to collect and record your stories and memories of life here at UPC so that generations of church members down the road can experience the history of this church we call home. As one of the camera jockeys, I heard many of your names that were recorded on film: choir member, church treasurer, UPLift volunteer, children’s choir director, banner designer, pastor nominating committee member, Sunday School teacher, and even a “ there’s a snake in the basement” removal technician.
Each week we have also heard testimonies from UPC members about how they have seen God working in their lives. The names of the storytellers were different each week, but each of them spoke of powerful experiences where God was made real to them. And in our sermon series, we have listened to the ancient stories of the people of God in Genesis and Exodus as they sought to make sense of the God that brought them into being. So we arrive today, the last Sunday in our sermon series, at another moment in scripture where names are important. And we arrive with the sandals off our feet, a shepherd’s staff in our hands, and our eyes full of wonder and awe at the sight laid before us.
Moses stands before the otherworldly visage. Gone are the familiar sights and sounds of the world he left at the base of the holy mountain – the soft bleating of sheep replaced by the roar of holy fire, the green leaves of the trees replaced by a bush that would not burn. And even though he wasn’t listening for it over the din of the crackling fire and rushing wind, his ears picked up the sound of his name. “Moses.” With a trembling voice, Moses responds, “Here I am.” The voice from beyond 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.”
Images began to race before Moses’ eyes. So many memories of the land of his childhood, back when he lived in the courts of pharaoh. But the Egyptians were not Moses’ people. Other images rose up within him. Men struck down as they toiled in the sun, women separated from their children, the cruel whip punishing those who fell behind. Those were his people. The people he had fled from. The voice pulled him from his remembrances. “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.”
Yes, Moses did remember something of this land that his ancestors spoke of. But such distant promises seemed empty now. The voice again called him back. “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” Time stood still. Only the constant crackling of the burning bush filled his ears.
Me? Really? I mean, I can think of five really good reasons just off the top of my head that anyone else in all the world would be a better choice. “I will be with you”, the voice whispered inside of him. “And I will see you and my people again, on this very mountain.”
Okay, say that I do this. Say that I leave this mountain and my new family here in Midian, my stable job as a shepherd, grab my staff and march right into the courts of Pharaoh and into the slums of my people and say, alright folks, time to go. Do you have any idea what they would do to me? I’m a nobody in Egypt – maybe even worse, a traitor! This can’t be happening. I don’t even know if I’m awake right now. I don’t even know who you are! What if they ask me the name of the voice that sent me? The crackling of the fire seemed to fade to silence – the mountain grew very still as if all of heaven and earth were holding its breath. “I Am Who I Am.”
There are many times when I read the Bible and am so very glad that I am not the person in one of these complicated God-being-God situations. I know myself too well. If I had been Moses in the moment, when the name of the Supreme Creator of the Universe had been uttered, my first words would have been, What?? I Am Who I Am? What does that even mean? All the Egyptians gods have these awesome and powerful sounding names like Osiris and Anubis and Nut – you know, nice proper nouns that are easy to carve into stuff. Well, great, your name is a verb. What am I supposed to do with that? It kind of sounds like that comedy sketch “Who’s on First?” The Israelites gather around Moses. Who is this God who is going to save us? “I am who I am.” Yes, we know you’re Moses, but who is this God? What’s his name? “I am who I am.” Knock it off Moses.
What are we to make of this mysterious name of God? Well, for starters, the name of God written in our Bibles is as close to a translation as we are going to get from the Hebrew. The name of God is actually four Hebrew letters, yod heh vav heh, known to us as the tetragrammaton. This four letter name for God is also made up of only consonants, no vowels – making it unpronounceable.
The translators of the Hebrew Scriptures couldn’t just copy down an unspeakable word, so whenever you see in your Bible the word Lord written in all capital letters, you are actually reading the translated word Adonai which stands as a substitute for the divine name. In rabbinic writings, the tetragrammaton is often referred to as simply hashem, or the name. The closest word in Hebrew that we can pull from these four little letters is hayah, meaning the verb “to be.” But because there is not a direct translation, the name of God could be interpreted as I Am Who I Am, or I Am What I Will Be, or even I Am What I Will Cause To Be. Why would God choose to reveal such an enigmatic and perplexing name to Moses and the people of Israel?
Alright, congregational pop quiz time. Think back to the Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20. Now without looking at your Bible, because that would be cheating and therefore bearing false witness see commandment number 9, with your fingers – hold up the number of the commandment that forbids the making of idols. It’s okay, I won’t judge you if you get it wrong, that’s God’s job. — In Exodus 20, the second commandment says that we are not to create for ourselves any idols or to bow down and worship them.
You see, the power of idols is that we as humans can control them. We can set them up where we want, make them to look how we want, we can give them names. Think again of the power that your name has. When you were growing up, how many of you would stop cold and dead in your tracks when you heard your momma use your full name. John Douglas Leedy you come here right now. Game over.
Names are powerful. When the ancient near eastern peoples knew the name of a god, they could control that god. They could manipulate that god to do their will. They could shape that god into their image, instead of the other way around. I think this is the reason God gives Moses the name I Am Who I Am – it enables God to be truly sovereign, free to be what God will be. I Am Who I Am cannot be defined, cannot be put into a convenient box only to be hauled out when the harvest fails or there isn’t an open parking spot at the mall. God is sovereign, awesome, and inscrutable. If names have power, then God’s name tops them all. And it is in the wake of hearing the name of the Almighty that Moses stands before the burning bush, awash in the mystery of the moment.
The air around Moses seemed to exhale. The flames grew a bit brighter as the voice of the Lord continued. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I Am has sent me to you. The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has sent me to you.” Moses had heard of this great family of faith – those faithful wandering nomads seeking the land God had promised them so very long ago. Images again flashed before Moses’ eyes – ghosts of the ancient stories of his people. Moses saw Sarah giving birth in the midst of her barrenness, of blind Isaac blessing the younger of his sons, of Jacob wrestling with the angel, of Joseph embracing his long lost brothers. Then Moses saw himself, standing in the courts of Pharaoh, leading the people through the sea, following pillars of fire and cloud through the wilderness, and looking out over the Jordan River to the Promised Land. “This is my name forever, the voice said, and this is my title for all generations.”
The more I reflect on the name “I Am Who I Am”, the more I realize that Moses wasn’t given a name at all. Moses was given a story. I Am has sent me to you. The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, of Noah and his sons, the God of Sarah and Hagar, of Moses and Joshua, Deborah and Samson, David and Josiah, Elijah and Isaiah, of Peter and Paul, the God of you and of me. The name of God is an infinite, never ending story, one that stretches from before the beginning of all things and will extend past the end of all things. And if we understand the name of God as a verb, I Am Who I Am, or I Am What I Will Be, the name of God becomes a breathtaking mosaic of all the wonders our God has been and will be.
As I reviewed the stories from Scripture that we have read this summer, I saw the names of God flowing and changing with each passing story.
God-eternal. Creator. Spirit. Light-bringer.
Earth-shaper. Sky-stretcher. Gardener.
Star-maker. Chief zoologist. Life-giver.
Sabbath-taker. Companion. Heartbroken One.
Food-provider. Covenant Maker. Flood bringer.
Rescuer. Rainbow painter. Language teacher.
Genealogist. Ever-Calling one. Promise maker.
Travel agent. Protector. Blessed one.
Fertility Specialist. Welcoming One. Midwife.
Well digger. Sacrifice demander. Child Protective Services agent.
Promise keeper. Match maker. Conflict manager.
Wrestler. Name changer. Dream weaver.
Human resources representative. Weather forecaster. 3 Guys and a Camel moving service provider.
Forgiving one. Hearer of the oppressed. Advocate.
River Basket navigator. Arboreal pyrotechnician. I Am Who I Am.
I Am Who I Will Be.
And the name of God continues to grow as the story of God continues throughout scripture.
Deliverer. Commandment giver. Manna dropper.
Snakebite healer. Promise fulfiller. King maker.
Justice seeker. Judgment bringer. Exile Comforter.
Poet. Baby. Rabbi.
Miracle worker. Healer. Hillside catering server.
Truth teller. Bread breaker. Cup blesser.
Crucified one. Risen one. Missionary.
Church builder. Alpha. Omega. God eternal.
And the name of God continues grow here and now, as the stories we share in this place intersect with the eternal story of the God who will be what God will be.
UPlifter. Music lover. Youth leader.
Consoler. Greeter. Spiritual guide.
Pilgrim. Caretaker. Art Inspirer.
Sunday school teacher. I Am Who I Am.
The God of your ancestor’s story.
The God of your story.
The God of the story of the world until the end of time.
This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations.
As we close out the summer and stand upon the brink of a new cycle of education and service in the life of the church, we find ourselves waiting in anticipation of what new names God will reveal to us this year. In what new ways will God be who God is in this church, at the UT campus, and in our community? What new stories will we have to share this time next year? In what ways will we grow in our faith and our service to the world? The story of this coming year remains to be written, the page lays before us, blank, untitled, and full of the promise of I Am Who I Will Be. Amen.