Sermon, 10/17/21: A Case of Mistaken Identity

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21 Pentecost

Psalm 104:1–9, 25, 37b; Job 38.1–7, 34–41; Hebrews 5:1–10; Mk. 10:35–45

God answered [Moses], I am that I am.  Tell them that I AM has sent you to them. Exodus 3:14

In our desire—nay, I would go so far even to say, in our need to describe for ourselves and to others who the God of creation is and what attributes, what characteristics that God has, we people of faith have attempted over millennia to arrive at a universally acceptable description of God.  This is the issue placed before us in the lectionary for today, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost.  And the best solution or answer which I can offer, is that found in the Book of Exodus.  Moses, tasked by God to lead the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt, did the absolutely proper thing.  Anticipating the questions of the Israelites, by whose authority he, Moses, was to do what he was to do, Moses posed the question to God. 

And God responded straightforwardly: “I am that I am.  Tell them that I AM has sent you to them.” (Ex. 3:14)   That description of God proved ultimately insufficient to the Israelites, and even unto our own day inadequate.  I am not versed in today’s lingo, but in my youthful years, an individual describing God as “I AM,” would have been called a “weirdo.”  Still, a better, more precise description of God has yet to be offered.  “I am that I am.  Tell them that I AM has sent you to them.” 

At home, among my books on bookshelves stands a two-volume edition of The New Yorker: Encyclopedia of Cartoons.  This collection was given me by a very dear friend who used to save weekly editions of the same named magazine, and after ca. 2, 3 months drop them off at my office on campus or bring them to me at Eucharist.  I needed to know, said she, what was going on in the world, the real world, which for her was New York City.  As politely as I could, not fearing that I would lose her friendship after 25 years, I informed her that she could tell me what was going on in the New York City world simply by cutting out the cartoons and giving them to me in an 8 x 11” envelope.  Instead, she gifted me with a two-volume, historical-to-present collection of New Yorker cartoon.

As the muse dictates, I will from time to time leaf through that collection.  There is one cartoon that initially caught my fancy and might perhaps be my favorite.  Even now, it brings a smile to my face each time I look at it.  You would be justified to ask, “And what does that have to do with the lectionary story of Job and with James and John, sons of Zebedee, and even more specifically, with us here at St. James?”  Well, the cartoon showed a stereotypical depiction of God, standing on the clouds in a long flowing robe and a long white beard.  On a table before God stood a vase of flowers. Beneath the cartoon, the caption read: “And on the Seventh Day, God rearranged his flowers.”  That caption is typical of a New Yorker cartoon, without which, as far as I am concerned, the magazine would lose its reason to publish.  This cartoon prompted the question, not about the gender of God, which tradition attributes as masculine, but a more perplexing and fundamental one: What does God do all day long?

A possible answer to that question, though not one which one expects, is found in today’s Old Testament reading of Job and in the Gospel.  Goaded on by his friends who see how shabbily he has been treated, despite his righteousness, Job raises the question about the role that God plays in our individual lives.  James and John, for their part, want a share of that power that comes from being in control.  The two brothers, each, want to be like mini-gods, sitting on thrones, dispensing favors, and issuing orders, simply because they will have been given power, power to play God!  

When I was younger, I thought of God in very anthropomorphic terms.  God was essentially a very big human being—superhuman, to be sure, but human just the same.  God could do amazing things.  I imagined God as being in a million places simultaneously, a master of time, kind of like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, managing to visit every home on the earth, at the same time.  I didn’t know just how God managed to do it, but as a child I knew that God could and did.

As I have grown older, I admit to having some kind of sense of that same thing.  There was no epiphany, nothing great Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road.  I still do not fully understand it.  “I Am that I Am” is everywhere.  I have come to learn and to accept that as possible, not because God is superhuman, but precisely because God is not human at all.  It is, you see, from my human experience, that I perceive and experience God. But, from what other perspective can I envisage God.  God is an entity quite beyond my comprehension, but no less real for it.  It is not simply for ritual sake that I end our Eucharistic celebration with those truly humbling words, “the peace of God that passeth all understanding.”  For me, God does exceed anything that I can understand, because I am human, and God is God.  God is “I AM that I am.”  Anything less than that, makes God more like me, limited.

When I turn to God in prayer or wonderment of the beauty of creation, God is there—just as assuredly as God can be present for and with each of you and for every being on this planet, or throughout the universe where others of God’s creation may have their being.  I haven’t the foggiest idea how, and I can never know with empirical, scientific certainty.  I am not Moses, nor have I enjoyed that relationship with God similar to that which my favorite disciple, Thomas, had with the resurrected Christ; we are not able to help God arrange the flowers in the vase.

Indeed, there are those times when I am tempted to believe that God does not exist or, if existing, that God is somewhat powerless.  This is what Rabbi Harold Kushner, now Rabbi laureate of Temple Israel in neighboring Natick, expressed in his first book When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Schocken Books:1981)  Especially is it so, when I read or hear accounts of abuse or neglect of children and other defenseless fellow human beings by political leaders who appear to place their own political ambition before and above the wellbeing of those under their care.  Those are the times that I would fain imitate Jesus and cry out, ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken us, your created ones?’

Job demanded and was granted an audience with God, a chance to lay out his case, as in a courtroom, and Job expects a justification from God for God’s poor handling of his (Job’s) existence, a righteous existence.  Instead, what Job receives, is a profound display of God’s power and majesty.  And it all comes in the form of questions, an interrogation by God: Have you ever visited the storehouse of the hail?  Do you tell the antelope when to calve?  Have you ever tried to teach the hawks to fly?  God responds in the only language that we humans are capable of comprehending.  While you humans are busy with your crazy little worlds, I am busy trying to keep creation alive, a creation which you are bent on destroying.  I have offered again and again covenants of reconciliation, by which you of limitations might achieve greatness, but you have rejected me, not I you.

The author of this great poem, which we call the Book of Job, was a mystic, one is tempted to say, someone who wants us to pause and to reflect about God’s awesomeness.  It is amazing, magnificent, and not at all clearly relevant to Job’s complaints.  God is far less concerned with answering what has suddenly become a rather petty complaint but offers instead an incredible litany of the wonders of the universe, reminding us that God is behind and within all things.  It is God who not only created the world, but also is intimately involved with its continuing creation, even down to the smallest detail.

As human beings, we seem to have an amazing knack for placing God in a box.  God, however, has responded quite forcefully with a rather different slant.  “I am that I am.”  I am not a golden calf.  I am not found in an offering of a pair of turtle doves.  You seek to confine me by your imagination, for your convenience’s sake.  To gain a description of me, look at what I have done, and what I do now.  That is it.  Pure and simple.

Our liturgy, for all repetitiveness, reminds us of the greatness of God’s unfathomable being.  And although we may be limited by our humanness, opportunity to share the good news of God’s greatness is all around us, you and me.  When you and I are able to recognize this, our relationship with God is more securely grounded.  When you and I are able to recognize that crucial and essential grounding in the Divine, our relationships with each other changes.  We no longer long to sit on our thrones and lord it over those of different opinions or different living circumstance, as James and John, the sons of Zebedee, would live out their ministry. 

God answered [Moses], I am that I am.  Tell them that I AM has sent you to them, God, a being that surpasses all human understanding.  In the final analysis, that is the simple truth of it all.  When we accept that, we can bring questions and wondering, hopes and queries, and all manner of feelings into the presence of the Divine.  God will take them, and still be God through it all.  It may not be what Job asked for, or James and John envisaged—indeed, it may not be what we ask for—but it is more than we might ever expect or deserve.  

Because the psalmist, in the psalm which we recited just minutes ago, has said it better, it is with a prayer which we intoned quite recently, that, recognizing with thanksgiving our dependence of the Great I Am, I should like us to approach God’s altar today.

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.