Sunday, November 25, 2001

"I Am, I Said"
Who God is, and how it affects who we are

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 25, 2001
Text: Exodus 3:1-14

In preparation for Remembrance Day this year, I read a number of different books about the history of the wars that have involved Canada.

In one of the books there is a very moving story of two soldiers who were faced with a challenge. One of their fellow soldiers was shot and killed. In the battlefield of France, they could not return to their battalion, for their battalion had moved on. The great dilemma was what do they do with the body of their friend. Do they just bury him in the ground and leave him, or do they try to take him to a safe place worthy of a burial? They decided to do the latter, and they walked through the woods of Normandy until finally they came to a little church in a clearing.

They carried the body to the door and knocked, and an elderly priest came out. They said: "Father, we have lost our friend and we were wondering if you would bury him."

The priest, in a most gracious and generous spirit, said: "I would be honoured to do that but I have one question. Was this man a Roman Catholic?"

The two soldiers looked at one another in dismay and realized that no, their companion was a Protestant. But feeling they had to be honest with the man, they said: "Sorry. No, he was Protestant, but he was a believer."

The priest said: "In that case, I would be more than pleased to perform the ceremony, but I have to let you know that according to the rules I will have to bury him outside the fence of the cemetery."

So the two men went the next morning, and a hole was dug and the ceremony was held and a small stone was erected with a cross, and they left their friend.

When the war was over, the two men went back to the burial site, to bring flowers to remember their buddy. But when they got there they found that the headstone was no longer there, and they were furious. "What have they done with our friend?" they thought. So they stormed into the church and they spoke to the priest and they were angry. They said: "We have looked and our friend is no longer there."

The priest just smiled and calmed them down. He said: "The night after I performed the burial, the Lord spoke to me. He reminded me that the man I had buried was a Christian, so in fact the body is no longer outside the fence. That night, I moved the fence."

That night I moved the fence. The story of the call of Moses this morning is a story of God moving the fence. It is God's acceptance of Moses. It is the moment in Moses' life, the moment that would secure his identity and make him come face to face not only with God, but also with his calling.

But it was also a way in which God moved the fence of His own covenant and His own power. He extended it to draw the people of Israel in. He did so by calling this man Moses.

So this story is no mythological epic. This is not a Harry Potter of 3,000 years ago; nor is it a biography of this man, as if we find out much about Moses' background. It is a simple statement about the power of God's call in our lives and it says that when that call comes, when God actually speaks to us, when God chooses us, the fence is forever moved.


And so I want to look at the way in which the fence is moved by looking at this encounter, because the first person to be changed by this encounter is Moses. For the first time in Moses' life, he realizes his identity and his life is transformed.

Now, in the modern world in which we live, how we identify the individual is very much based on the modern view of who we are. It is based, for example, primarily on the philosophy of Descartes. Descartes had that wonderful line: Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. That Cartesian understanding of the human being is one that has predominated over the last three or four hundred years, because for Descartes it was his reason, it was his self-understanding, it was his scientific knowledge of himself that determined his identity.

So much of how we identify ourselves as human beings is predicated on what Descartes had to say about the individual: that we are, because we are rational beings, because we think and that is why we exist.

Hegel came along some years later and suggested that really, individual identity is wrapped up in the cosmological identity; that everything is united and connected, and nothing is separated. How goes history, so go we. So the individual gets caught up in the flow of the cosmos and we are, in a sense, along with our God, on this ever-evolving process of becoming.

Then Freud came along. In a very powerful piece entitled Moses and Monotheism (which I think is fitting today) he said that the issue of who we are as individuals is a matter of our sense of powerlessness. Because we feel powerless before a God, we therefore, in a sense, create a God who can give us the power when we don't possess it ourselves.

Now, Freud's argument is a bit more complex than that and it's a very strange argument in many ways, with all kinds of myths and legends thrown in; but the fact of the matter is that we think therefore, in many ways, that God is the creation of our identity; that God is a mirror image of who we are, and so, in a sense, it is God who is imaged on the basis of our identity.

Similarly, I think, in terms of our genetic understanding of who we are as individuals, we break ourselves down into a series of things that we can understand and define. So, as human beings, we are the product really of the genetic make-up that forms us.

Now, all those four schools of thought about who we are as individuals have some truth to them. I mean, we think and therefore we are. There is a sense in which we are rational beings, and if we are not rational beings there is something wrong.

We are connected with one another. Hegel is right. There is this sense in which we are connected with the world and with one another and that our fate as individuals is tied to the fate of other individuals.

But Freud was right in the sense that we do have this tendency to create a God of our own making and create an image that gives us power when we do not have it ourselves. Furthermore, we are also the product of our genetic make-up.

But the biblical understanding of the individual is something that I fear our society is losing. It is something that I think we are losing because I think what we have today is what I call the Oprah Winfrey model of the human individual. We just sort of work at ourselves and improve ourselves and rationally figure out how we can be better and how we can expand and how God can reflect who and what we are. But the biblical notion is that our identity is determined by the I - Thou relationship, to quote Martin Buber, the relationship that we have with an Almighty God who calls us.

This is what we find in the story today with Moses. Moses is a shepherd. He has been living in Egypt. There are all kinds of wonderful stories about his life and his childhood. But the fact of the matter is that Moses is somebody who really until this moment when God calls him, has little or no identity, little or no sense of his purpose or his reason for being. But out of the bush we read that God speaks to Moses.

He says: "Moses, Moses." In the Hebrew, it is Moshe, Moshe. It's a wonderful play on words. It literally means I draw out, which is fitting in the light of what he was to do with the exodus.

Moses responds to God with those classic words: "Here I am."

In other words, his identity as a human being really takes its greatest ascent when he responds to the call of God, when he realizes out of this burning bush there is an invitation not only to be, but to be something much more - more than a shepherd, more than someone who is from Egypt, but who has been given an identity on the basis of the call of God.

But Moses, like many of us, was terrified. Once he had heard the voice and seen that the bush didn't burn up, he thought, "Oh my goodness, my life is over because they say anyone who sees God dies." Moses thought that he was in for it. He was told that this was a holy and sacred ground on which he was standing and so he felt that he wasn't worthy to be in the presence of the living God.

Now, there are many people in our society who, I believe, turn to other ways to define themselves because they are frightened of God. They have been brought up in a tradition. They have been brought up with a religious ritual or even with a myth that suggests that God is sort of an all-powerful dictator.

I have mentioned this to you before and I think it's worth repeating: Every time I go into a coffee shop with my clerical shirt on, people seem to approach me differently than when I go in my normal civilian clothes. Now, they don't get up and move to another table, thank God, but one of the things I have noticed is that they lower their voices in case I hear what they are talking about. The sound level of the coffee shop goes like this, and as soon as I walk out it goes like this again. I always feel like going in and out just to hear it go up and down, you know. What I am dying to say is: "You know, I actually heard what you had to say." That's what I really want to do!

But there is, I think, this sense in which the way God has been pictured. And Moses, as a monotheist, was someone who believed in one God, but really had no intimate knowledge of God because of that very same fear and awe and dread. But when God spoke to Moses, Moses began to change. He also changed in terms of his own self-esteem.

When God said to Moses, "I want you to go to Pharaoh and I want you to tell him to go and set my people free," Moses' response was "Well, who am I that You should call me? I am not worthy to do this. I have no right to be this."

So Moses had an identity crisis. His identity crisis was that when God spoke to him (for initially it was as if there was a disaster happening), it was as if in this moment of crisis everything he had been up to that point was ultimately now on the line and was going to change.

I was reading recently the story of Thomas Edison, who in 1914, in New Jersey, had his factory completely destroyed by fire. When that happened, his son Charles came running to him and said: "Dad, the most terrible thing has happened. Your factory is burnt up."

And so Thomas Edison went down to the factory with his son and he said to him: "I want you to go and call your mother." So the mother came and he said: "This is one of the most important moments in our lives and one of the most amazing things you'll ever see."

As the building burned to the ground, Thomas Edison said these words: "You know, my son, there is a great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burnt up and, thank God, we can start anew."

This is God, you see, extending the boundaries. We all know what Edison was able to do as a result.

So it is with Moses. This was a moment of crisis when God called him. He was frightened. He was low in his self-esteem. He had no idea what he was going to do. "Who am I that you should call me?" But when God spoke to him it was the beginning of a whole new path for Moses and a life that would do great things for God.


But this was also a profound moment of transformation in the very power of God himself. This is something that we often do not understand. Moses, as I said, had been brought up believing in one God, but to a large extent this God was ineffable, this God had few if any identifying qualities. This was not a God who spoke, this was not a God really who had much except an identity with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses knew nothing more than this. He had a view of God that was very distant and awesome and frightening. But then God spoke to him and Moses did what I think any rational person would do. He wanted to know: "Well, who is it that's calling me? Who is it? I mean, I'm not just going to go and run in to Pharaoh and say 'Excuse me, I think you should let my people go.' I'm not just going to go to the elders of the community and say 'Oh, excuse me, Moses here from Egypt. I'm wondering if you would join me in leaving this Pharaoh and moving to a promised land.' If I am going to do this, I want to know right now who it is that is calling me."

He was faced with a decision and it was a troubling one.

I am reminded of a story that I heard of a man whose name was Ed, and it's got no reference to Mr. Connell here. Ed was someone who had spent his whole life having to make decisions, and always making the wrong ones. When he played craps he always called out the wrong number. When he went to the racetrack he put his money on the wrong horse. When he voted for a politician in the hope that he could get a kickback, his party lost. Ed was not a happy man and he didn't like making decisions, and so he gave up on the whole enterprise.

He was very happy one day when he had to take a flight to a remote, northern community and realized that there was only one airline that he could fly on. (Clearly he must have known about the situation here in Canada at the time, I think.) Anyway, he hopped on the plane thinking "Gee, I finally don't have to make a decision. I can't be wrong."

After they had been up in the air for 20 minutes, the announcement came over the sound system: "Both our engines have fallen off the plane and we are about to crash."

So, he plummeted to the ground, and was taken up into Heaven. When he got there, he said: "Oh, finally! Thank goodness! But this is really upsetting. The only time in my life when I didn't have to make a decision, I actually died. This is just atrocious."

A voice came to him and said: "Well, did you call on my name?"

He said: "Yes, I did. I called on your name, St. Francis."

The voice came back and said: "Now, before I open the Pearly Gates, was that a prayer to St. Francis of Assisi or St. Francis Xavier, for this will determine the outcome of your life?"

Knowing on whom you are calling really does matter. There are many false gods, and there always have been. The need to call on the name of the Lord is very important, because when Moses did this, God answered him. Here is the beauty of the story. God said to Moses: "When you go, tell them that I Am has sent you. This is my name, ego, emi [in Greek] I Am. I am the one who is eternal, and I am the one who was before time. I am the one who created and I am the one who was with Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph."

But he does not only say I Am. There is another twist to the Hebrew and it's something that we don't capture and it's what I really want our new members to capture this morning. It is that I Will Be, I Will Be. And what God is saying to Moses is I will be with you. And then in the most personal and profound of terms, God said to Moses: "You know, I have seen the affliction of my people. I have heard the cries of my people. I know the suffering of my people and I have come down and I am sending you that you might release them. It is I Am and the I Am says I will be with you."

There are many people who in their lives do not have this faith. They really do believe that they are all alone, that their sense of identity ends when they reach the grave. They believe that their sense of purpose ends when the world tells them that they are no longer useful. There are people who really do believe that they are alone and that there is no God to be with them, to go with them. There are many people who believe that the fence is firmly stuck in the ground and they will be buried outside it.

The God of Moses is a God who says: "I have moved the fence, and in moving it, I am drawing you in and I am calling you by name. I am not only calling you by name, but also I am and I will be with you from this moment on."

And as to those of you who are joining the church this morning, when God called Moses He gave Himself an identity and He gave Moses a promise - the promise that He would be with him forevermore. This is the promise that the world needs to hear. When people say, "What is the name of your God?" tell them it is I Am, the One who will be with us. We don't need to know any more than that at this point. Amen.

This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.