Decatur Presbyterian begins a new theme for the 2017-2018 year this Sunday. Faith in Real Life began exploring “Wide-Open Doors” by discussing the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, from Exodus three. In the story, Moses grapples with the call God places on him–to deliver God’s people out of Egypt. Moses asks who he should say sent him, and God replies “I am who I am.” In this week’s blog, Vernon discusses how this mysterious name becomes a way point that directs us to look ever forward in search of God in the faces of those we encounter when we throw our doors wide open.
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. 2 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. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 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.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 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.
7 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, 8 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. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 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.”
13 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?” 14 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.’” 15 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.
Before we jump into the story of Moses, I want to reemphasize a couple of points from last week that will carry over into this week. Whenever we are talking about grace and judgment, Grace must come first. Grace is new to human thinking. It is God’s breaking into our world and the experience of grace violates human ideas of value and worth. Because it creates a new way of being and living it is profoundly saving but it is also nearly impossible to receive. Without grace, the judgments of the Bible are terrible. With grace, those same words of judgment become signposts on the journey to relationship and unity with God.
The question for us with the sheep and the goats is not who have we passed by (though that is something to be mindful of) but are we even oriented towards looking for God in the face of others? In the context of grace, the primary purpose of the judgments is to point us to where we should look instead of indicting us for our poor performance. The idea that God is found in relationship and that God is the advocate for the least of these—the oppressed and downtrodden—dramatically changes how and where we worship. Jesus is on the side of the oppressed. The care of others, as God’s children and as our neighbors, is one of the defining characteristics of Christianity. No wonder both the sheep and goats needed explanations.
We may not do it well, but the Christian faith claim is that it is in our care and service to our neighbor that we will find God. God’s activity is caring for his people, first identified as his chosen people, and later, radically extended by Jesus to all of us as God’s children. God’s call is that we do likewise. Grace cannot be taught with words and rules. It has to be lived and experienced. This is what we stand for.
The story of Moses and the Holy name is an important part of the beginning of this story. Hopefully the context of this story is familiar. The Hebrew people were immigrants in the land of Egypt. They were fleeing drought and starvation. The indigenous people began to see them as a threat, discriminated against them and finally enslaved them. The land of bounty and promise became a place of oppression and suffering. “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,” In Egypt, the Jews were the least of these. And standing for them was risky business—especially for Moses.
Moses had been convicted in absentia for the murder of an Egyptian taskmaster. Faced with wrongdoing and oppression, Moses did the human thing, he used violence to protest violence. As understandable as his reaction was, God calls Moses to a different way. He was told to confront Pharaoh—but not with violence. He was told to stand before Pharaoh, vulnerable and with only God to support him. This was not a job Moses wanted and he was persistent in his attempt to avoid this calling. He was afraid and he wanted assurances. So he asks, “Who shall I say sent me?” The answer is not very comforting. It was: “I am who I am.”
Moses wanted a big gun to have his back. In the cosmology of the time, the God of thunder and lightning would defeat the God of sunshine and butterflies every time. Moses wanted the God of thunder and lightning. In our day, we do the same thing. Think about how we claim authority. Typically we appeal to experts, people who already agree with us, logic, the Bible, science, military might, etc. All of these are designed to validate and to give weight and substance. That’s what Moses wanted. The idea that one man could stand before the forces of evil and say “‘I am who I am’ sent me” is a faith claim of enormous proportions. It flies in the face of all rational behavior and is literally dangerous.
In real life, we can get a glimpse of this kind of authority in interpersonal relationships whenever we are asked to justify ourselves. Why are you upset? Why do you feel that way? Why can’t you let it go? The very question implies that if you can’t explain yourself, how you feel shouldn’t be part of the discussion. To answer with, I cannot explain why I feel like I do but I know that’s how I feel, is actually unassailable. Personal authority is rooted in our claiming our own ‘I am who I am’.
I frequently see couples where an offence has been given—sometimes a major betrayal, sometimes a hurtful argument. The offending party wants it to be over with and is consistently frustrated when their promises of remorse are not received. One man said, “I said I was sorry, what else do you want?” In our society, as in ancient times, it is almost absurd to simply answer: ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be what I will be’. But it is the only authority we can ultimately stand on. You cannot argue someone out of their feelings. It is as foolish as yelling at frightened person on a high dive—telling them their fear is irrational—-even if true, is not going to help. But even our ‘irrational’ selves belong to God. Again, it is a huge faith claim that every part of us is God’s creation. Every part of us is safe with God.
We stand on the promise that God gives us value and worth and that value and worth cannot be added to or subtracted from by the powers of this world. Moses stood before Pharaoh with that promise and Jesus went to the cross with that promise.
To circle back to last week. It is of utmost importance that we articulate what we stand for. It is not enough to simply oppose oppression, we must also stand for the oppressed. We rarely know ‘what is right’ in any particular situation but the direction of our calling is clear. And we, like Moses, will struggle with where and how God is calling us.
We stand for the value and worth of all God’s children. We stand with and for the oppressed. We stand up to hate and violence. We refuse to use hate and violence to fight hate and violence. We answer when God calls us and we rely on God to sustain us. We trust that love will prevail. It is dangerous. It is always easier to stand against something than to stand for something. It is easier to say ‘a pox on both of your houses.’ That is not God’s way. God takes sides. God saw the suffering of the people and he sent his servant to stand up for them.
We rarely know ‘what is right’ in any particular situation but the direction of our calling is clear. We must stand with the least of these. In FIRL, we brushed against the struggles in Charlottesville and realized that very soon our community will be struggling with similar issues. When we talk about Decatur or Stone Mountain, there is an entirely different level of complexity. What will it mean for me—or for you—to stand up for the least of these? It starts getting personal. The same symbol can have very different meanings. But, no matter what our opinion is, we are called to be accountable to God. That is no small challenge.
Our theme for our church year is ‘Wide Open Doors.’ Those open doors are physical signs of our commitment to inclusivity, hospitality and respect for neighbor. Those open doors make it possible for the church to leave the building and for Christ to live in the world. We are his hands and his feet. We, like Moses, must be reminded of the least of these. We, like Moses, must leave our safe places and answer God’s call.
As usual, I must add the caveat. This is not a test. How each of us respond will be very variable. But we are expected to struggle with what we stand for and to look for God in the face of our neighbor. The direction we are headed is more important than how far we get.
Remember what and who we stand for. Rely upon ‘I am who I am’ to hold you accountable and to sustain you. Let it be so.