Sunday, October 3, 2021

Phil Kniss: Am not! Are too!

God’s name is revealed: The burning bush
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary

Exodus 2:23-25, 3:1-15, 4:10-17

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When people visualize Moses, it’s either him
holding up his hands to part the Red Sea . . . or
holding up 10 commandments on stone tablets . . . or
it’s him bowing down before a burning bush that doesn’t burn up.
Today’s burning bush story in Exodus is iconic.
You can see it in your mind,
probably the way it looked
in a Bible story book from your childhood.

But really, what’s up in this otherworldly scene?
Sure, this is the call of Moses to go back to Egypt,
and tell Pharaoh to free the Hebrews from slavery.
Everything in the storyline is about this call—
God issuing the call from the bush,
Moses objecting,
God reassuring,
Moses objecting again,
God offering a compromise,
Moses finally saying yes.
Actually, we don’t hear a verbal “yes” from Moses.
He just ends up going.

The lesson we’ve been taught from this story,
in children’s Sunday School or preachers’ pulpits,
is a lesson to always say “yes” to God,
and say it right away.
Good lesson, of course.
It’s good to say “yes.”
But . . . we never say “yes” to God in a vacuum.
There is always a backdrop to that yes, there’s a context.

This story from Exodus
is about Moses and God establishing a relationship,
so that Moses has a context, in which he can say yes.
Even if reluctantly.
This is a story about relationship, and identity.

You know, in everyday life, if a stranger asks you
to do something, out of the blue,
“Yes” does not come immediately, if at all.
You need to know who is asking . . . and . . .
who you are in relation to the one asking.
We say, “Who are you, and why do you ask me?”

That’s the bare minimum of context we need,
to know how to respond.
If someone at an intersection holds a cardboard sign toward me,
that asks me to give money for food or shelter,
and I keep my window rolled up and look another direction,
I am probably, rightly or wrongly,
making a couple calculations—
(1) I don’t know the person who is asking that of me,
and (2) we don’t have a real relationship,
and can’t establish one sitting in heavy traffic
for 30 seconds on Rt. 33.

But if someone I know well asks me to borrow my truck,
I don’t hesitate,
because I know who the person is,
and I know how we are in relationship to each other.

I know, because both scenarios happen regularly,
and that’s how I respond 99% of the time.

The scenario Moses faced in the desert,
was more like the cardboard sign on Rt. 33,
than a friend asking to borrow a truck.
The main difference,
is the cardboard sign was not asking for loose change,
it was asking Moses to put his life on the line.

So Moses was not—hear me now, he was not—
making a cheap excuse or hollow protest.
He asked what any rational human being would ask:
“Who are you?” and “What is our relationship?”
In other words, why do you ask me? . . .
why should I trust you?

Moses had not been schooled in his own faith tradition.
He did not go to synagogue, because they weren’t invented yet.
Raised as a Hebrew Egyptian in Pharaoh’s palace,
Moses had no first-hand knowledge or second-hand knowledge,
of the God of Abraham, his ancestor.
The burning bush was his first-time introduction.

I admire Moses
that he would even engage this unknown being,
and ask a few fact-finding questions,
instead of roll up the window and look another direction.

By the time Moses left this encounter,
Moses and the God of his ancestors
were on a first-name basis.
Here is where Moses learned God’s name.

We don’t usually address God by name,
or even refer to God by name.
We just say, “God,”
which is a title, a role, a relationship description.
It’s like calling someone “Mom,” or “Uncle.”
Or like some of you addressing me as “Pastor,”
or like Dot and Tilli calling me “Vicar.”
I’m going to miss that when they move to Iowa!
Generic names like that
underscore the relationship, which is great.

But our formal names are also important to us.
We know, in our gut, just how important our name is.
When someone mispronounces, misspells, or just misses our name,
it irks us . . . deeply.
Our name is closely tied to our identity.
We were given a name at birth,
a name that forever links us to parents and a family of origin.
But sometimes people choose to change their name,
as their identity changes,
whether because of marriage, or shift in gender identity,
or reclaiming a certain ethnic heritage,
or a religious conversion.
All of those can result in name changes.
We all want, we need, people to say our name,
and say it correctly.
Our name signals our identity to others,
and hearing others say our name,
signals their respect for our identity.

Knowing and speaking each other’s names,
is not a casual thing.
Names matter because relationships matter.

So if God was asking Moses to trust God with his life,
Moses better well know God’s name—
for his own reassurance,
and to reassure his people back in Egypt.

So comes this interesting banter back-and-forth
between God and Moses, centered on the “who?” question.
Both God and Moses were finishing the phrase, “I am . . .”

God calls from the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
Moses answers, “Here . . . I am.”
That’s the first statement of identity.
I am one who is present. I am attentive. I am listening.

Then God gives a quick rundown of Moses’ assignment.
And Moses says, “I am unworthy.”
Or literally, “Who am I, to do this thing?”

God’s reply was also one of presence.
“I am with you. You will not be alone.
I will go with you.”

Then Moses turns the question around, “Who are you?”
I need to know your name.
If I go, I need to say who sent me.

Then God gives this oft-quoted, and cryptic, answer,
“I am who I am.”
Or literally, “I will be who I will be.”
I am the Essence of Being.
without whom there would be no being.
Introduce me that way to your people.
You can trust me, just as I trust you.

It was only then, after God so generously revealed God’s self
and God’s name to Moses,
that Moses deeply offended God.
He gave God a whole list of his own “I am” statements.
But, but, but . . . “I am clumsy in my choice of words.
I am slow of speech.
I am inarticulate.
I am tongue-tied.
I am unworthy.

Then God gets hot.
Literally. It says, “The Lord’s anger burned against Moses.”
And while God was angry—get this, while God was angry—
God gives Moses what he wants—a way out.
A substitute.
Someone to speak for him.
And there ends our reading.

There’s a lot more to explore. Go home and read it.
But for now, let me leave you with this observation.
After reading this dialogue,
I thought, “Sounds like two kids in a playground argument.
It’s the old “Am not! Are too!” argument.

Except, instead of trading insults,
God is trying to help Moses see something worthy in himself.
God bestows worth on Moses,
just by showing up and asking for something important.
But Moses retorts, “I am not worthy!”
“I am not able.”
And God retorts right back, “You are too!”
“Am not! Are too! Am not! Are too!”

Until it just gets too much for God,
and God gets mad and lets Moses get his way.
God drops the argument,
and just rolls with Moses, the way he is.

I wonder if God still works this way with us.
Not with the spectacle of burning bushes.
But when we push back against God’s purpose for our lives,
claiming ignorance, or fear, or incompetence . . .
whenever we say to God, “Am not!”
God comes back with, “Are too!”
I am who I am.
I am with you.
And that makes you worthy, and capable of saying “yes.”

There’s a ritual we do in the church
that is a vivid and visceral reminder
of the kind of relationship we have with God, in Christ.
It is communion.
God’s with-ness is powerfully symbolized in the bread and cup.
At the table, God says to us, “I am who I am,
and I am with you, in Jesus Christ.”
And at the table, our response is the same as Moses,’
“Here I am. I am here.”

And on this first Sunday in October, Worldwide Communion Sunday,
we are further reminded of our with-ness among Christians
all over this world.
Our siblings in faith everywhere are celebrating at the table today—
from Colombia to the Congo,
from Haiti to Hungary,
from Bangladesh, to border towns along our southern border.
Whether in large numbers or small,
whether in comfort, or in crisis,
we are in communion today
with the God who IS, and WILL BE,
and we are with each other.

Let us break bread together,
let us drink wine together,
let us praise God together.

—Phil Kniss, October 3, 2021

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