Saturday, August 27, 2011

I AM WHO I AM cannot be put in a box

Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28

Today, we have two very familiar stories to talk about. Moses, who was born and saved from the river in last week’s reading, has now grown up. After moving into the Pharaoh’s household, he hasn’t forgotten his Hebrew roots. One day, as he watched his people being mistreated, he killed an Egyptian. Guessing that he stands no chance at justice, he flees, and ends up in foreign territory. There he marries and has a family, and is living with his wife’s family.
One day, as he is out herding sheep, he notices something really weird: a bush that is on fire, but the bush is not burning up. Of course he has to go investigate, and has this amazing conversation with God. Mostly, this conversation shares Moses’ hesitancy to accept the job God has for him to do. Who am I to carry your message? Don’t you know who I am? He never says it, but I’m sure in the back of his mind is the serious worry: I killed an Egyptian! If I go anywhere near that place, they are going to kill me.
God has an answer to every one of Moses’ objections. I will give you the access to Pharaoh, I will help you convince him to let my people go, and your brother Aaron can speak for you. When Moses asks what is God’s name, God replies with the mysterious “I am who I am.
Moses, having been raised in two cultures, knows both the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and the gods of the Egyptians. And, since he has been living with the Midianites, he also knows their gods. It is time for him to get reconnected to the God of the Israelite people; it is time for him to know the power and purpose of this God who refuses to be put in a box by using the name I am who I am. It is time for Moses to learn that I am who I am will work through him to accomplish the impossible – freeing the Hebrews from slavery.
The Hebrew for this name also means “I was who I was,” and “I will be who I will be.” We can also assume this name means, “I will do what I will do and I have the power to make it happen.” This name means, this God can and will do anything to fulfill divine purposes. A God with this name and identity cannot be put into a box, cannot be limited by human definitions and dimensions, and will work wonders in very surprising-to-humans ways.
... John’s gospel makes frequent use of this name for God with the eight “I am” statements: I am the Good Shepherd, I am the vine, I am the bread of life, and so forth. “I am who I am” is no less mysterious a name for Jesus than it is for the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
In last week’s reading, Jesus praised Peter for voicing what so many people of their time were thinking – that Jesus is the Messiah they have all been waiting for. In this week’s reading, when Jesus begins to explain the rest of the plan, Peter blurts out his objection. “Oh, no, Lord, that will NEVER happen to you. Please think up a different plan!”
Surely, those of us who look on from 2,000 years later can shake our heads at him and say, “Oh, Peter, you just didn’t get it.” But we need to give Peter a break; the resurrection hadn’t happened yet!
Peter and all the people of his time had an image of who the Messiah would be, what he would look like, what he would do. The messiah fit into a particular box: he would be like King David, and like Moses, and like Elijah, and with powerful magic and military might and prophetic speech the messiah would get rid of the Roman oppressors and help the people reclaim their kingdom for themselves.
But, Jesus, the I AM of God – I AM WHO I AM – has a very different view of what the messiah will do. The crucifixion was Plan A, not Plan B. I am who I am carried out the plan for salvation. What Peter and the other disciples, and the Jewish leaders, – and often us today – didn’t understand, was that salvation was not just for the oppressed Jews of Peter’s time, but for all people of all time.
Jesus’ message was about how much God loves us all. Jesus’ message challenged the disciples, and all the people of his time, to take God out of the box they had created for God and to imagine God in a new way. Jesus challenged the people of his time, and ours, to return to the ancient name of God as given to Moses: I AM WHO I AM, and I will do what I will do.
... It’s just as easy for us today to put God in a box as it was for Peter and for Moses. We read the Scriptures and decide who God likes and who God hates. We look at the facts – the cash on hand, the number and gifts of available people, the condition of the building, and the comfort of the status quo, and we decide what God can and cannot do.
For example, several months ago, the evangelism committee came up with a plan: let’s upgrade the kitchen so we can safely serve meals to the community. Upgrading the kitchen means we can safely invite our neighbors to our meal events.
Why would we want to do that? First, because we can feed hungry people, and second, we can get to know who is in the community, and they can get to know us and know that we care about them. A practical, third, reason for upgrading the kitchen is liability. If we have a safe kitchen, we can say we have done everything we could to serve safe food.
I have heard some objections to this, mostly regarding the need for the upgrade. “It works just fine for us now. Why bother?” is the usual comment. That is true, but it is still not safe; for example, the glue that holds the counter top to the cabinets is degrading, oozing out at the seams, and this can host lots of icky bugs and bacteria.
Mainly, the upgrade should happen because our calling as a congregation is to be like Jesus and reach out to those around us. One of the best ways to do that is to invite them inside our doors. I often say it in fun, but it’s rather true – if we feed them, they will come. Let’s invite them in safely.
It will of course cost money to upgrade the kitchen. Some work is being done ourselves – Dick Regan and Vic Kahler have been hard at work painting the ceiling and walls. The cabinets will also be painted, so the kitchen will have a fresh new look to it, one we enjoy showing off and working in.
The congregation will be invited to make donations toward the project. The rest of the money, God has already provided for us, through the generosity of several members’ estates.
It would be easy to say we need to keep all this money, but the council and I agree that God gave us this money so it could be used for ministry in our community.
Let’s trust in I am who I am and assume that God will put the funds back in time, to use again when we need money for another project.
Let’s trust I am who I am and assume that our efforts to reach out to the community will not be wasted, and that people from the community will come.
Let’s work together to take God out of any boxes we try to put God into and remember that the God we love and serve is I am who I am.
Let’s work together to remember that I am who I am first loved us and died and was raised to prove it. If God can raise Jesus from the dead, who are we to say God can’t work through us and our kitchen to share God’s love with those around us.
Please pray with me this ancient prayer. "Lord God, I am who I am, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Children’s message
Props: shoes

Today, I want to start by talking about what happened to Moses. He saw something on fire, but it was not burning up. That was pretty strange, but who can tell me what the voice said to Moses?  

God’s voice said: “Take off your shoes! This is holy ground!
            Why do you think God said that?
When we take our shoes off outside, we can be closer to God’s creation – grass, sand, bugs.

Taking shoes off is one way people show respect for God. Would you like to take your shoes off when you come to worship? What would your feet feel if you took your shoes off in church?
            Hard floor, carpet
Do we usually take our shoes off in church?
No, we usually leave our shoes on to respect God.

What other things do we do in church to respect God?
            Sing, pray, listen, talk, walk slowly, bow, carry cross (acolyte), make sign of cross

Some churches do things differently than our church. Some churches sing and play really loud music and people raise their hands and jump around and clap. Do you think that respects God?
            Yes, it’s just different from what we do here.

Pray: Loving God, we gather here each week to worship you and give you thanks for everything you give to us. Help us respect you in all that we do. Amen