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A Spoonful of the Sea

August 31, 2014

“A Spoonful of the Sea” Exodus 3:1-15 © 8.31.14 Ordinary 22A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Have you ever asked questions of someone who clearly was trying his or her best not to give a straight answer? Maybe it’s a public official from whom you are trying to elicit a commitment to some project important to you. Or could be I want a customer service rep to tell me how to get satisfaction for some defective product I’ve ordered. Perhaps the conversation is with a teenager: “What did you do in school today?” “Stuff.” “Who will be at the party?” “People.” “Where are you going?” “Out.”

When Moses came to Mt. Horeb and encountered God in the fire in the midst of a bush, he was as frustrated or more than we are in his attempt to get a clear response to a very important query. When he went to the elders of Israel and claimed to be called by God to be their deliverer, obviously they would want to know the name of this God. If you don’t know who sent you, how can you be anything other than a fake and a charlatan? So, Moses wants to know how to refer to this deity who was so familiar to his own father and the great ancestors.

Ehyeh asher ehyeh” the Voice from the bush says. Or “Ehyeh” for short.

“Well, that clears things up,” Moses says. “Do you mean ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be who I will be’ or ‘I am who I will be’ or ‘I will be who I am’ or ‘I cause to be there’ or ‘I am there’ or ‘I will be there’?” Moses takes a breath. “Or ‘I am where I will be’ or ‘I will be where I am’ or how about ‘I am what I am’ or ‘I will be what I am wherever I will be’?” “‘I was, am and will be’?” Or “‘I am who I am wherever I am’?” (See http://www.bluethread.com/ehyeh.htm.)

“Yes,” comes the reply.

This is a God who will be not be pinned down, who is slippery and elusive and mysterious. Hebrew seems to be the perfect language in which to express the name which is no name. Even the tense of the verb “ehyeh” in the sentence is ambiguous, as is clear from the many ways it can be translated.

The name of God is really unpronounceable, which keeps it safe from manipulation and mischief, preserving the divine mystery and majesty. It’s represented by the four consonants YHWH, JHVH or even IHVH, depending on the language of the translator. Since it appears so many times in the text of the Hebrew scriptures, and we read those aloud, scholars have come up with a probable way to say the name, which is “Yahweh.” That’s the word that typically appears as “Lord” or sometimes “God” in small caps in our Bibles as a way of not saying the Name of God. That practice in translation came from the Hebrew custom of saying “Adonai,” “Sovereign One,” wherever “YHWH” appeared in the text. In copying manuscripts, medieval scribes started inserting the vowels of “Adonai” into the unpronounceable word “YHWH.” Nobody by that time remembered how to say the name, so the combination of consonants from one word with the vowels from another yielded “Jehovah.” The name is still with us in hymns like “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” and “Like a River Glorious,” which has the line “stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest.” And of course, we hear of or may have encountered “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Unfortunately, “Jehovah” may be a recognized English or German word, but it’s utter nonsense in Hebrew. There is no such name of God in the Hebrew Bible, and there is no evidence the name was ever pronounced that way in ancient times.

I can’t help but wonder if even though God revealed a name to Moses “for all generations” that he’s still keeping something under his hat, that there’s something he’s not telling us. Maybe like T.S. Eliot’s cats, with God there is an everyday name and even a particular, dignified name, but “above and beyond there’s still one name left over,/And that is the name that you never will guess;/The name that no human research can discover—/But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess… His ineffable effable/Effanineffable/Deep and inscrutable singular Name” (“Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/372536-old-possum-s-book-of-practical-cats). Says Revelation: “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself” (Revelation 19:11-12). “The secret things belong to Yahweh our God,” says Deuteronomy 29:29.

The God who was the Fire in the midst of the bush cannot and will not be categorized in doctrinal statements, confined in creeds or comprehended, in both senses of that word. This One defies all our attempts at domestication, domination, and definitive declaration. St. Augustine, of whom we will hear again in a few moments, observed “If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.” In our own day, A Declaration of Faith put it like this: “God is greater than our understanding. We do not fully comprehend who God is or how he works. God’s reality far exceeds all our words can say. The Lord’s requirements are not always what we think is best. The Lord’s care for us is not always what we want.”

Our language fails when we try to speak of God. For example, we talk about God as “he” because our speech is so limited or I suppose because some people might actually believe God is male. But God is no more a “he” than a “she” or an object like a rock or a mountain or, yes, a fire that does not consume. God is beyond gender, beyond any conventions of human existence, yet includes all we know and are. Indeed, he is one with and includes the whole universe.

As a recent commentator has it: “As Moses begins his journey with YHWH, he is aware that he has no god on a leash, no genie in a lamp, no chip in the big game he can produce on demand. Humankind is on notice that this God is elusive; giving a name that is not a name, a moving, not a fixed, target, a God who is not here, not there, but everywhere” (William L. Hawkins, “A questionable God” www.christiancentury.org/article/2002-08/questionable-god).

Probably the best we can do is what the mystics recommend. The monk Juan de la Cruz—John of the Cross—spoke of God as nada, which in this case is translated as “no-thing.” As Barbara Brown Taylor describes John’s theology, because God is not a thing, he cannot be held onto, only encountered as that which surpasses all other reality (Learning to Walk in the Dark: 138). We can more readily say what God is not than what God is. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations. These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery.” So said the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu. The first-century Jewish wise man Philo of Alexandria wrote: “And God said, ‘At first say unto them, “I am that I am,” that, when they have learnt that there is a difference between him that is and him that is not, they may be further taught that there is no name whatever that can properly be assigned to me, who am the only being to whom existence belongs.’”

Folks that are uncomfortable with or actually unacquainted with Mystery writ large or even without the initial cap like to claim they have God figured out. They know what “he” wants; they have discerned whom he judges and whom he blesses. The condemned look and sound and live curiously like those the speaker already scorns or distrusts; the second, like the speaker himself or herself and those within some inner circle. And because these folks have God on speed-dial or actually, God consults with them on any important matter, they can also tell you exactly what his book means. And there is only one meaning, that may not be questioned.

Is it any wonder that there are so many forsaking the churches or that atheism is a viable option for enough people that there is a Freedom from Religion Foundation. All we have to do is connect the dots between a bad theology and a bad interpretation of the Bible and an aggressive, mean-spirited, even violent effort to promote a particular social and political agenda. Christians, with their boxed-in god and their truncated imaginations, have created the current situation by driving people away. Marcus Borg, the prominent biblical scholar, says that when people tell him they don’t believe in God, he asks them to tell him about the God they don’t believe in. “I don’t believe in that God, either,” he replies (Speaking Christian). Invariably, it is the invisible sky god, old man with a beard, who sits in a heaven somewhere judging and punishing, aloof from human affairs, occasionally coming down to intervene.

We may have been taught that the God of the Bible is like that, but the very name of God in the morning’s text puts the lie to that notion. The true God is beyond all words, all concepts, all doctrines, all religions, all understanding, all grasping and holding, all commanding. I Am Who I Will Be is sovereign and free, immense as an infinite ocean, unbounded and uncreated.

An old story from the 13th century, called the “Golden Legend,” tells of how St. Augustine met a little boy by the seashore. The child had dug out a little hollow in the sand and was scooping the ocean into it with a spoon. “What are you doing?” asked the saint. “I’m putting all the ocean in this hole,” said the boy. “What you’re trying to do is impossible,” Augustine chided. “The sea is immense, and your spoon is so little.” The boy turned and looked at the holy man. “I will more easily do that, however, than you will understand the mystery of what the Trinity is,” said the boy. And with that, he vanished (http://www.bible-topten.com/nature_of_god.htm).

The immensity of God was poured into a tiny hole in the sand in Jesus Christ, who is I Am in the flesh. In him, God saw, God delivered, God brought out. In him, God’s passion for justice, for deliverance, for the end of oppression burned unquenchably. In him, God chose to be pinned down, fixed to a cross. But even that cross, a shroud, and a sealed tomb could not extinguish the flame of God’s love. Because as theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, “God is the fire of sheer aliveness” (She Who Is: 238).

“I am who I am”; “I will be what I will be,” says God to Moses. And what this One is and was and will be is always and ever there for you and me, our neighbors in this place and on this planet, and indeed all creation. In Jesus, who suffered and died, he has seen and entered into our pain and grief. And in his resurrection, he makes good his promise for all generations: I am with you. Always.

Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” Praise the mysterious and lovely name of our Sovereign.

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