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“I Am Who I Am”

Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Corinthians 13:8-13
Exodus 3:1-15

 

1 Corinthians 13:8-13

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

 

Exodus 3:1-15

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. 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. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 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.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 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.

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, 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. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 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.”

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?” 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.’” 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.


 

If you spent any time in Sunday School as a child, you probably know well this story of Moses and the burning bush.  It is a beautiful and most surprising story – how God meets with Moses in a bush that is burning but not consumed!  And this story is also most relatable, as Moses makes every excuse he can think of, before accepting God’s call and following in obedience.

It makes me love Moses even more!

 

It strikes me on this reading that a bush that burns, yet is not consumed is what we want from our lives.  We want to burn with passion, energy, ideas, strength, and power…without being consumed.  But alas, quite often we burn until there is nothing left.  We are consumed.  We burn out.  We have long sought out pills and remedies, herbs and vitamins, exercises and regimens, energy drinks and caffeine, gurus and yogis…  But the fact remains:  our energy is limited.  We reach our limits.  And we must refuel.  We must rest.  We must retreat.  We must restore.

But here is God – speaking through a bush, on fire, yet not consumed.

God is that eternal source of energy, of passion, of brightness and hot power.  And yet God does not grow weary or reach the limits.  God does not have to put the cell phone on “Do Not Disturb” and take a break from the masses, seeking God out.

And I don’t know for sure about you, but I have long sought to live beyond my limits.  I have chosen to ignore my own bodily and emotional needs, to serve others.  But we are not God.  We cannot burn that brightly, without being consumed.  God is God and we are not.

And I find this attribute of God most reassuring.  When we sing the old hymn, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” we can sing that with the confidence, that God’s hands are steadfast, reliable, unwavering.  When we pray at all hours of the day and night, we are confident God hears our prayers.  In whatever state we find ourselves, high on life and feeling good or scraping the bottom of the barrel, God is there for the finding.

Thanks be to God!

 

I am also struck that Moses is in this wilderness precisely because he raged hot with anger.  He burned with passion over the mistreatment of the Israelite people and took matters into his own hands, killing the Egyptian who’d been beating an enslaved worker.  This Moses was a passionate young man, and it got him here – in the middle of the wilderness, alone, and needing to find himself again in running away and a quiet life.  He burned so brightly with rage that he utterly burned out, for decades!  And it takes God – burning hot in that bush but not consuming it – to get Moses’ attention and to set him back effectively on the path of freeing his people.

 

The second thing that strikes me about this story is God’s response to Moses’ question:  “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?”  God responds, “I am who I am… Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

Now, is this not one of the most vague answers ever?  What does it even mean?
“I Am” is not a name, is it?  …And yet, there is so much this says and doesn’t say about God.

First off, it is not gendered.  Though Moses’ question assumes a male, God’s answer does not.  God is not to be limited by a name.  God is not to be hedged in by our assumptions about a name.  God is God.  God is.  And God is indescribable.

In the Hebrew faith tradition that would emerge from these stories and experiences with God, the people took to calling God Yahweh.  But the name was never to be written with the vowels.  With consonants only, it was a word never to be spoken.  It was considered too sacred to be uttered.  And perhaps they recognized that every name would be too small to hold the God of all the Universe in its meaning.

God’s answer, “I Am who I Am,” refuses to be pigeon-holed.  It is a name that instantly reminds the listener, that God is far and away, above and beyond anything the listener could understand or imagine.  No words are enough.  But God is real.  God is alive.   And God is present.

 

What would happen if we started using these words for God:  I Am?

Would it cause us to pause for a moment?

Might we stop to realize that God is unknowable, God is unpredictable, God is surprising and uncontainable?

Might we step back from our efforts to the control – those efforts that seem so well justified because we are so very sure we are right?

Might our entire positioning…change
When we remember, rightly, that we now only “see, as through a mirror, dimly”?

Might we expect to be amazed and humbled when we finally see the great I AM, face to face?

 

Might we remember humbly,
…That God is God, and we are not?

 

 

Listen to the Song, “Cannot Keep You” by Gungor. 

They tried to keep you in a tent
They could not keep you in a temple
Or any of their idols
To see and understand
We cannot keep you in a church
We cannot keep you in a Bible
It’s just another idol
To box you in
They could not keep you in their walls
We cannot keep you in ours either
For You are so much greater
Who is like the Lord?
The maker of the heavens
Who dwells with the poor
He lifts them from the ashes
And seats them among princes
Who is like the Lord?
We’ve tried to keep you in a tent
We’ve tried to keep you in a temples
We’ve worshiped all their idols
We want all that to end
So we will find you in the streets
And we will find you in the prisons
And even in our Bibles, and churches
Who is like the Lord?
The maker of the heavens
Who dwells with the poor
He lifts them from the ashes
And seats them among princes
Who is like the Lord?
We cannot contain
Cannot contain the glory of Your name
We cannot contain
Cannot contain the glory of Your name
We cannot contain
Cannot contain the glory of Your name
Who is like the Lord?
You took me from the ashes
And healed me of my blindness
Who is like the Lord?

 

 

PRAYERS                     (Iona Abby WB)

O God, you have set before us a great hope that your kingdom will come on earth, and have taught us to pray for its coming;  make us ready to thank you for the signs of its dawning, and to pray and work for the perfect day when your will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

O Christ, you are within each one of us.  It is not just the interior of these walls:  it is our own inner being that you have renewed.  We are your temple, not made with hands.  We are your body.  If every wall should crumble, and every church decay, we are your habitation.  Nearer are you than breathing, closer than hands and feet.  Ours are the eyes with which you, in the mystery, look out with compassion on the world.  Yet we bless you for this place, for your directing of us, your redeeming of us, and your indwelling.  Take us outside, O Christ, outside holiness, out to where soldiers curse and nations clash at the crossroads of the world.  So shall this building continue to be justified.  We ask it for your own name’s sake.

 

 

 

“Connecting the Dots”

Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Peter 3:13-22
Acts 17:22-34

 

1 Peter 3:13-22

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 

Acts 17:22-34

 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


 

I appreciate this passage about Paul’s time in Athens.

He went through the city and was distressed to see so very many idols through-out the city.

I imagine most of us would want to leave as quickly as possible or would be likely to condemn and to judge the people.  After all, they were partaking in and passing on lies as truth; for idols are anything other than God, that we lift up in the place of God.  And these human-made infatuations are not worthy of our love and devotion.  They cannot protect us and do not care.  They are not worthy of our lives.

But I love Paul’s response:  when asked to speak about the gospel he had been arguing in the temple and the marketplace, he begins by connecting his experience of Jesus Christ with their own experiences and belief in “an unknown god.”  For rather than outright despising the people or fleeing from them, he dug in, wandering the streets and reading inscriptions on their idols and statues.  He had found an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.”  How marvelous!

 

First of all, this shows great humility, as in truth, to all of us, God is mysterious and a great bit unknown and not understood.  Paul grounds his message in their own experience and belief.  It is wise and helpful to the people because it gives them a way to understand and themselves explore Paul’s message, rather than outright reject it.

Furthermore, though Paul is distressed by the presence of so many idols, he chooses to see the glass half full, rather than half-empty.  In other words, he recognizes in this plethora of idolatry, their seeking for God.  He recognizes this search as something holy and beautiful.  He praises their search, for in speaking of people through-out time he says, “…that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him.”

Paul has acknowledged the people’s own sacred searching for God.  And he comes as one to close the gap, between their searching and their finding.  Paul would fulfill God’s call on his life to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in their midst!

And Paul goes yet another step further, connecting the dots for the people:  he connects the words of one of their poets Aratus, to the gospel message.  In Aratus’ poem invoking Zeus, he says, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  And rather than allow any open distress at this misguided sentiment, Paul again recognizes these words as true – not of Zeus, but of God Almighty, as known and seen in the person of Jesus Christ.

 

You see the people HAD been seeking for God, groping for God.  They had recognized that God was far more and far bigger than they could even grasp or understand.  And they knew that their own lives were tied in some way to God, who enables all of life.

And though they did not know the name of Jesus, though the gospel had not yet been preached among them, many among them had indeed been seeking God, the unknown god, for whom they had no name…  And scripture assures us that when we seek, we shall find, if we seek with all our hearts.

 

Through-out time, God has been known and seen through the things God has made.  Paul wrote this.  And he was onto something.  Indeed, truth is truth, no matter the time or place.  God is God, no matter the time or place.  And even though folks had fallen short in their understanding of God, they had also hit the mark in moments, just as we all do.  They had understood bits about God, and Paul recognized this work of God among them.

Through many well-intentioned mission outreaches to other cultures and lands, we have slowly learned – by standing on the shoulders of those who have come before – both healthy and unhealthy ways of sharing the gospel.  There has been much remorse over the years at the way we stripped other cultures of their story, trying to replace their stories with our story.  While some actions and traditions of cultures are most clearly evil, many others are good and of God, for God has been seeking them out, from the beginning of time.  And to truly honor and respect another people, is to humble ourselves and to endeavor to see the world through their eyes.  In doing so, we become better equipped to respect and honor their stories, naming God’s presence in their histories and acknowledging their holy efforts to seek out and find the Almighty. 

 

And this is precisely what we see, modeled here by Paul.  Paul can only connect the dots for the people – between the God they have sought and the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth – by taking the time to learn their culture.  And he already had the benefit of having one foot in both worlds; he was both a Roman citizen and a Jewish leader.  Paul was uniquely equipped to help folks connect the dots, and he took this calling and responsibility seriously.

Most of us are likely indebted to him for having heard the good news of Jesus Christ at all!  Paul worked hard to operate within culture, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of that culture; encouraging people by example, to live less and less according to the ways of the world, and more and more into the Kingdom of God in their midst.  But Paul’s ability to do both – to conform and challenge, to respect and inform, to proclaim the good news and to humble himself – these tools made his work mightily more effective. 

 

Today in America, we live in post-Christendom.  There was a time when Christianity here was the norm.  That is no longer the case.  Today, spirituality is common but religion is largely mistrusted.  And folks have various and valid reasons for their caution to embrace institutionalized religion.  After all, for all the good it has done, the institution of the church also has a history of grappling for power, wielding scripture as a weapon, and reducing Christ’s words to mere guilt and threat – missing the power and point of Christ’s coming in the first place.

And just as Paul did, we can respect folks’ reasons for caution, while inspiring and inviting folks into the fellowship of Christ’s body here on earth.  We can be in the world while not being of the world.  We can get to know and understand our own secular cultures, while also pushing the boundaries of culture, toward a more just and loving community – the Kindom of God.

In the same way that Paul’s great outreach in Athens yielded some who received the good news with joy, and others who scoffed and walked away, we too will meet with similar results.  But may we press on in courage and faith, for only God will know the impact our life and witness, our words and our actions, our loving and our serving.  And one day, along with all the saints who have gone before, may we too hear the voice of our Lord saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!  Enter into the joy of your God.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“And Still Life Emerges”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:7-12
Matthew 3:1-12

 

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

 

Romans 15:7-12

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

 

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”


 

 

I am struck by this image of a branch growing out of the roots of a tree – the stump of the tree of Jesse, scripture says.

I’ll read you this excerpt from the book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” by Peter Wohlleben.

12'8'19 And Still Life Emerges Insert 112'8'19 And Still Life Emerges Insert 2

It is amazing that a tree felled four to five hundred years earlier would still be alive…at the roots.  As a scientist with understanding of trees, it is even more amazing, because you know that the green color in these roots was only possible by chlorophyll, which this stump could not possibly create, having no leaves.

It became clear to this Arborist that this stump was being fed by neighboring trees…all these many four to five hundred years.

What a mystery!

Understanding how trees are connected by a web of fungi underneath the ground we walk on, is an emerging area of scientific research.  We had no idea before that trees were interconnected.  We had no idea that when we planted a tree in our yards, that we were asking it to survive on its own, without a community, without a support network developed over hundreds and thousands of years in a forest.

 

 

And so we return to this scripture, where we hear of a shoot coming out of the stump of the tree of Jesse, a branch growing from the roots of this stump…

Jesse was the father of David, King David, “a man after God’s own heart,” scripture tells us.  And David’s throne was promised to be forever.  But how could that be?

Over time, Israel falls to the Neo Assyrian empire.  Judah alone remains, the smaller, less densely populated remnant of the Jewish people.  But then there is Babylon, and despite Jeremiah’s warnings, the people are carried away into captivity.  And the temple and the land are laid waste, baron and devoid of life.

 

So far, God’s promise that there will never cease to be a descendant of David on the throne, seems to be a false prophecy.  There is no one on the throne of David.

 

But God calls Zechariah to return to the land and rebuilt the temple.  And after that, the first resettlements of Jews occur to the holy land.

And then there is King Herod, who makes the temple mount bigger and better, and who rebuilds the temple, more glorious and magnificent that it had ever been before.

 

So, Israel seems to have hope again.  But their hope is starting to be placed in the might of architecture.  And their light is dim, with injustice and corruption rampant.

 

How can they be a light to the nations, if they themselves are barely shining? 

 

And this is the Jewish nation into which Jesus is born.

 

Born of a woman who became pregnant by the Spirit of God, out of wed-lock.  Born to a family from the po-dunk town of Nazareth.  Born obscurely, in the shed for animals.  Laid to rest in a feed trough….

This Christ came out of nowhere.  Though a descendant of David, his lineage took turns through the most unholy of places, like the Moabite Naomi and Ruth.  He was, by all worldly means, a nobody of nobodies.

…And yet, no star has shone so brightly, before or since, to mark the birth of this holy child.  And yet, there were those who recognized him and rejoiced greatly in his coming, like Anna and Simeon.   And yet, the wise men of the day traveled from far off places to come and pay him homage.

What mystery!

Indeed, a branch grew from the roots of the stump of Jesse.

 

Though light and hope and justice were dim, GOD was still at work, working all things for good, coming to this world as a little child, that ALL might finally know God’s love.

All along, this promise that David’s throne would have no end – it wasn’t for the sake of Israel alone, it was always for the sake of the whole world.

And despite the many times Israel stumbled and fell…  Despite the times they were defeated and exiled…  Despite the rise and fall of their kings and prophets…  Despite the good and the evil of their religious elite…  God showed up.

 

Even when they had been cut down.  Even when their trunk had rotted away.  Even when all that remained were the roots, even then life emerged.  Even then, hope sprang up.  Even then, God still came, and lived among us.

What joy!  That even when we have made a thorough mess of all God’s good gifts to us, Christ can still redeem.  Christ can still save.  God still makes whole, what has been broken.

 

And so let us come, in our brokenness and incompleteness.

Let us come, with our failures and imperfection.

Let us come, even after death has stolen from us all that was beautiful and good.

 

For our God is not finished with us yet.

And our God can make life spring up, out of death.

Halleluia!!