Saturday, August 30, 2014

God the Verb

RCL Proper 22A
31 August 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

         At an early age I learned the importance of names.  This learning came from my experience within my immediate family circle.  My father and I share the same first name, but my dad was always ‘Dick’ and I have always been ‘Richard’.  However, visiting my grandparents in New York brought a shift in names.  For reasons that are still unknown to me, my grandfather, whose given name was ‘Donald’, was known in town as ‘Geyser Dick’.  This meant that in Saratoga Springs my father went from 'Dick' to ‘Richard’ and I became either ‘young Richard’ or ‘RG’, my initials.

         My sister and I also had family nicknames that are used only within the family circle.  A university friend of mine once visited my parents and overheard them using my family nickname.  During his visit he used that nickname several times.  After he left, my mother was quite put out and poor Dan was in the doghouse for some time.  Unfortunately, he never knew exactly why and I was ordered to keep silent!  Even Paula did not use my nickname until we were well and truly married.

         Names, whether our given names or nicknames, are deeply symbolic.  To speak someone’s name is to do more than simply identify one person from another; a name tells a story and describes an identity.  My children tell me that their close friends who have come to know our family and who have been part of many family dinners, car pools and just ‘hanging out’ at our house have a verb:  to leggett’.  ''To leggett' has a variety of meanings:  ‘to have spirited discussions’ or ‘to seek clarity of language’ or even ‘to form a united front within two seconds of having just had an argument with each other’.

         In the ancient world to know the name of a god or gods meant to know something about the character of the god and, in some cases, to have a lever to persuade the god to act in a particular way.  In a world where gods were numerous and each family or tribe or nation had its own gods, it was not enough to say simply, ‘God says this or that’; people wanted to know which god and whether the name of that god indicated that ‘this or that’ were actually in that god’s power to perform.

         So is it any wonder that Moses, when faced with the burning bush and the divine voice commanding him to undertake an extraordinary mission, would ask, in so many words, ‘Who are you?  Do you actually have any power to help me do what you are asking me to do?’  After all, this God is asking Moses to free the Hebrews from their slavery to the mightiest monarch of the time and to bring them into a new country which is already occupied by many tribes and peoples who are not likely to pack up and move because Moses comes and says, ‘Move.  God says this is our land.’

         What is most important in this revelation to Moses is that God does not give a noun as the divine name; God gives a verb.  The God who appears to Moses, the God who will save the Hebrews and the God whom we believe was present and active in Jesus of Nazareth and who continues to be present and active in the Spirit is a God who acts.  This is what is crucial to know about God:  we know God by what God does in time and space.

         To know this God, though, requires a relationship of trust.  Over the centuries scholars and teachers have wondered why the noun ‘God’ is repeated in the opening words:  ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ (Exodus 3.6a)  In one Jewish commentary on the Jewish prayer book the repetition of ‘God’ is understood to mean ‘that each person should believe in God on the basis of personal investigation, not merely tradition’. (The Jewish Study Bible, 111)  If we want to know God, we have to take a risk and enter into the challenges of life, trusting that we will find the strength, the help and the vision to do what must be done in order to work with God in making the divine vision reality.

         Think of it this way.  The first step in the liberation of the Hebrews is taken when Moses leaves the burning bush and turns towards Egypt.  How difficult a step that must have been, leaving family and security behind in order to pursue what most would consider a foolhardy if not suicidal mission.  This God has that effect on people; one burning bush and they’re off to save the world!  As we follow the story in Exodus, we will learn that Ha Shem, a Hebrew phrase meaning simply ‘the Name’, will be saviour, healer, revealer, covenant maker and more (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 91).  But every time the Hebrews think that they have put God in a convenient box, God breaks free and wreaks havoc with the status quo.  This is definitely not a 'tame' God (cf. C. S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia)

         If anyone wants to know who God is, then one must look aback at one’s own life and ask the question, ‘How has God acted in my life?’  This will not give you or me a ‘name’, but it will tell us something about the mystery of the Holy One who chooses to be with us and to be for us.  In remembering what God has done, we are presented with opportunities to act in our present as God has acted in our past.  It is not a matter of believing in God because of tradition; it is the personal commitment to choose to act like the God who will be who God will be, the God whose nature becomes evident from the actions that God does (The Jewish Study Bible, 111).

         As I grow older, I have become more reluctant to use the adverbs ‘always’ or ‘never’.  I have learned that when I use either in the context of my relationship with God, I am quickly confronted with a situation or a question where my ‘always’ or my ‘never’ are put to the test.  To be sure, there are some constants:  God expects me to act justly, to be steadfast in my relationships and to avoid thinking that I am the centre of the universe.  I have learned that ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’ is generally a quality of God’s relationship with creation.  I have found that God is more alluring because God is elusive.  Each day I realize that entering into the mystery of God is  like peeling an onion that becomes bigger rather than smaller with each layer (cf. C. S. Lewis).  What God asks of you and me is that we examine our own histories and then decide whether this God, this mysterious God, is worth trusting.

         I hope that we will all be like Moses and take the risk of faith in this God of the burning bush.  That faith will take us places that we never imagined; that faith may cost us some of the certainties we have always held.  But that faith will lead to genuine freedom, the freedom to be passionate for the well-being of all God’s beloved, the freedom to be compassionate to all those in need and trouble, the freedom to be who we are rather than who we are not.  Amen.

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