The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Take a moment and cast your mind back to the pre-COVID era. You’ve received an invitation to an intriguing reception where there will be many people gathered whom you don’t know. It promises to be a great opportunity for networking and simply having a fine time. You enter the reception, make your way to the beverage counter, grab an hors d’oeuvre and put on your best smile and cast about for some interesting faces. Now, there are two questions which frequently arise when we meet someone for the first time. The first, (predictably enough) is: “What’s your name?” And here, we’re not simply being curious. The fact is, you can’t have a relationship with someone until you know their name. The second most-popular question is “What do you do?” It’s all a matter of taking the first steps toward getting to know who a person is.
This is what brings us to the Old Testament Lesson for this morning. On that particular day some three thousand years in the past, as Moses was taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep. Meanwhile, life back in Egypt was not going well for the people of God. At this point in the Book of Exodus we know that Moses has escaped after killing one of their taskmasters and, all things considered, he was relatively safe our there in Midian; but his people—well, they were still trapped in slavery: brought low, pressed down, suffering. And they were doing what suffering people do (what we might be doing, in fact). They called upon God for help in the midst of their misery. The people of God groaned, cried out, raised their hands to the heavens, and moaned. And, in a parallel fashion, God responded. God heard, remembered, saw and took notice. And this is what brings us to Moses, hiding out there in the hinterland of Midian with his father-in-law’s flock of sheep.
On that day when Moses espied the burning bush and God’s voice called out to him, these are the words he heard: “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…”
God lays out the plan, one in which a former sheep herder named Moses is to take upon himself the task of shepherding his people out of their appalling circumstance. And Moses inquires: “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? In other words: “What is your name?” And God responds: “I AM WHO I AM”, or “I will be present to whom I will be present”.
This enigmatic name can be translated several ways, but the essence of it seems to be that God simply is. God is not the product of other beings, forces, or resources. Everything else in the world—think of it, absolutely everything, has been made, developed or evolved. Only God simply is—self existent, independent, sovereign, beyond the control of any other power. And that’s the point, isn’t it. Nothing else has control over God. God simply is.
Now, take a look at how this name comes about—it arises out of a sequence of questions and answers: “Who am I?” “I will be with you.” “What is your name?” “I accomplish what I promise.” In other words, God is saying “You can know me by what I do. I am with you, I accomplish what I promise.”
What makes this all the more remarkable is that this being, God, has bound God’s self with an unbreakable promise to a community of humans who appear destined to continually disappoint the Almighty. Notice how God identifies as “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” God, it seems, chooses to act through people within their history. So, when we learn that God has heard the suffering of the Hebrews, we realize that one of the ways in which we come to know this God is through history—a history that becomes our story as well.
But back to the pre-COVID reception to which you have been invited. Studies show that first impressions are formed within seven seconds of meeting an individual. Think of it, we are that quick to put people in boxes. If you don’t believe me, consider the conclusions drawn if you are introduced to someone named “Bubba” and an individual sporting the name “Alastair Bancroft III”. More than likely you already have a picture in your mind of these individuals—their demeanor, is their shirt tucked in? Do they speak in aristocratic tones or a southern twang? Which one is holding a wine glass and which one is carrying a six pack of Budweiser? God, however, refuses to be so easily pigeonholed. “I will be who I will be.” In other words, no matter how hard we try, there is no boxing in the Almighty.
So, here is a takaway from today’s lesson. It might be that we, like the people of Israel, would like to think we get to name God—and by naming God, we hope to get the kind of God we want. That is, a god after our own likeness. But God refuses to let Moses or the people of Israel—or ourselves—assume that we can name the One who saves us. God, you see, cannot be claimed as belonging to a particular country, football team or political party; God cannot be contained or manipulated so easily. In many ways today’s lesson tells us that God is beyond our understanding. Yet, God can be known.
Here’s what we know: God acts. God indeed is true to God’s word, and here, through the account in Exodus, we see that God is with Moses and with the people of Israel. God accomplishes what God promises. God rescues the people of Israel through the Red Sea; God brings them to the promised land. In time God comes to us through the incarnation. Through Jesus God heals, forgives and reconciles. God raises Jesus from the dead. God promises us life and immortality. God, we come to learn, is love.
This is why, as we make our way through crisis after crisis in this ghastly year of 2020: with over 180,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, rampant unemployment, educational conundrums, Wildfires in California, Hurricanes on the southern coast of our country; what none of us doubt will be a contentious election and a host of other miseries camped out at our doorstep, we can be sure that God does hear us when we pray. God, indeed, is with us, and perhaps more often than we are aware, God is working through the hands and hearts of those whom God has called—even reluctant prophets (such as Moses) who hear and respond to God’s voice. This week, listen for God to call your name—perhaps not so startlingly as from a burning bush; but in the quiet, still places of your heart, urging you to act, urging you to bring God’s love to a world in pain. In Jesus’ name. Amen.