Sunday, October 1, 2023

Sermon: “K.I.S.S.”, Exodus 3:1-15 (October 1, 2023)

Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?” His point, of course, was to say that one’s name is unimportant, that it doesn’t change who the person behind the name is. While that sentiment does have SOME merit, it’s ultimately irrelevant: a name may not change who a person is, but it definitely impacts how we move about in the world and how we’re perceived. (And this is, whether intentionally or not, exactly what Romeo and Juliet wound up proving in the end.)

I mean, think about it. If what we call ourselves isn’t important, then why do we put so much thought into bestowing names, so much effort into earning titles, and so much pride into sharing them? As a Katey who gets called “Kathy” more often than I would like, and as someone who earned the title “Reverend” in a world where my ordination isn’t always recognized as valid, I can certainly attest to the very real power of a name. And that goes double for royalty: for example, King Charles’ full official title is “His Majesty Charles the Third, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith” (and don’t you forget it!).

Okay, I may have made up that last part. But my point remains that the British crown wouldn’t bother with all that if it didn’t matter. Our names and titles reflect both how we see ourselves AND how we want others to see us. They’re shorthand for our identity.

Scripture tells us that Moses’ name was full of meaning from the beginning,[1] and it only became more complicated from there. Ancient Egyptian royals had their own naming conventions, and he was Egyptian royalty by adoption. But he was also Israelite by birth, and his origins weren’t a secret. Moses’ identity was so complex that he could have wound up with an official title even more impressive than that of modern British royalty. His full official name might have been something like, “Prince Moses, drawn from the river, son of the Princess, grandson of the Pharoah, Hebrew by birth, Egyptian by divine will”. That’s a lot to live up to!

One’s name tends to follow them around, so I imagine that Moses struggled to reconcile these conflicting parts of his identity every day. He was permanently caught between two VERY different worlds, both of which had a claim on him. So, when he witnessed these words colliding in injustice – an Egyptian beating a Hebrew[2] – it’s no surprise that his response was complicated. He didn’t know how to be an Egyptian AND a Hebrew in that moment, so he reacted emotionally, secretly killing the Egyptian and hiding the body. In doing this, he essentially betrayed BOTH parts of his identity, instead of honoring either. Because of his position in court, he wasn’t respected by the Hebrew slaves for what he’d done,[3] and because of his heritage, he wasn’t exempted from the Pharaoh’s wrath.[4]

So, it's little wonder that he ultimately fled Egypt, where he’d lived his entire life, to become an immigrant in Midian. Instead of “Prince Moses, drawn from the river, son of the Princess, grandson of the Pharoah, Hebrew by birth, Egyptian by divine will,” he became “Zipporah’s husband”. Living in a place where his name had no meaning at all was a far more appealing prospect to him than living in a place where his name carried an identity whose aspects he couldn’t reconcile and whose weight he couldn’t bear.

But, as lots of people say and I definitely didn’t make up just now, you can take the man out of the complexity, but you can’t take the complexity out of the man. So, when God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush and calls him to once again right a wrong for the Hebrew people, Moses immediately starts to think through all of the complicating factors. After all, he’d tried to take justice into his own hands once before, and it had backfired pretty egregiously – and that was back when he was just a Hebrew living as an Egyptian. Now, he’d have to reclaim those titles as well as add “expat” and “Midianite-by-marriage” to his identity, so how was THAT supposed to work? Which identity should he lean into? Who would he need to be, and how could he possibly figure out how to be it?

Moses ultimately objects to God’s plan for five different reasons, but the first two – the two contained in today’s reading – are the most significant. His first question addresses his concerns about his own identity: “Who am I to free the Israelites? How could this mess of a human being possibly help with this enormous undertaking?” Remember, his conflicting identities had gotten him in pretty deep trouble the last time he’d tried to help. God answers, “Don’t worry about it. You’re exactly who I need you to be, just as you are, right now. I am with you.”

That doesn’t compute for Moses, so he says, “Well, if I can’t explain what makes ME the right person to do this, then at least I should be able to explain who YOU are to the Israelites. Who should I tell them sent me?” Moses might have expected a long list of divine titles and attributes, something like, “I am Yahweh, maker of heaven and earth, eternal one, all-knowing and all-powerful, God above all gods, covenant-keeper and ruler of creation.” But instead, God answers, “I Am Who I Am. Tell them ‘I Am’ has sent you.” God is who God is, and that is enough for the people to know.

Moses’ whole life had been shaped by the names given to him by others and the way he defined himself, and he assumed that he needed to figure out “who he was”, to make sense of his complicated identity and figure out where it fit in the world before he could help anyone. But no one is more complicated, more enigmatic to the human mind than God, and God doesn’t feel that way at all. God doesn’t need to make sense in order to help God’s people. God doesn’t need to justify why God does what God does in order to do it. God could rightly claim all sorts of titles, have an imposing name that goes on for days, but God chooses to self-identify as simply as possible: “I Am Who I Am.” God might as well have answered Moses by saying, “I’m just me. Tell them that ‘Just Me’ has sent you.”

A name DOES change the way you’re seen and perceived, but trying to calculate one that encompasses every aspect of yourself precisely will only distract you, weigh you down, and box you in. It’s far better to just keep it simple. Moses can’t help the Hebrew people if he keeps trying to fit the conflicting pieces of himself together as a puzzle first – that’s next to impossible. He has to stop worrying about who he could be or should be and just be the person that he is, complexity, confusion, and all. In order to answer God’s call, Moses, too, needs to let go of the names and titles that pull him in different directions, and declare for himself, “I am who I am, too.” Simple and sufficient.

I like to imagine God as getting a little sassy when people (frequently) resist God’s call, so when God says, “I Am Who I Am,” I hear it in my head less as a booming pronouncement from heaven and more as the hook of a one-hit wonder from the ‘80s. Edie Brickell’s 1988 song, “What I Am,” is about her frustration with the way philosophy and religion are so often used to unnecessarily complicate the way people understand themselves. The hook is her announcing that “What I am is what I am. Are you what YOU are, or what?” And that’s EXACTLY what I hear God saying here. “Keep it simple, stupid! You may think of yourself as ‘The prophet formerly known as Prince Moses, drawn from the river, son of the Princess, grandson of the Pharoah, Hebrew by birth, Expat of Egypt, Midian immigrant,’ but none of that helps to free the Israelites. I am what I am – are you what YOU are, or what?”

Like Moses, we try to complicate things – both personally and as the Church – in our desire to “do things right”. We rack up titles and achievements (Presbyterian clergy are especially guilty of this!), we spend time and money and energy trying to “market” ourselves in a way that will bring in new members, we construct polity and liturgy and tradition to govern and order our actions. We try to make all of these things a part of who we are, cramming them into our mission statements and mottos at the same time that we try to ignore the reality of our declining numbers, perceived irrelevance, and collective apathy. All of this is in an effort to build a more and more impressive name for ourselves. We think THAT is what will ultimately make us faithful disciples.

But titles don’t feed the hungry. Marketing doesn’t help the sick. Tradition doesn’t comfort the outcast. The Church is not the sum of its programs or the bottom line of its budget or the size of its membership. The only name we should be concerned with is “the body of Christ in the world”. And Christ sacrificed his body for the sake of others – at the end of the day, that’s the simple truth about what his name means; that’s who HE is. Is that who WE are, or what?

We each have labels we give ourselves, expectations that others place upon us, that try to complicate our sense of call, making us believe that we can’t or that we’re not ready yet. In my own life, it’s been my struggle with mental illness combined with my physical and emotional limitations. I tire easily. I’m often uncomfortable in my own body. Long days are difficult to recover from. My self-doubt can be debilitating. I am Katey, the exhausted, the weary, the introverted, anxious Fibromyalgia sufferer. Certainly, I’m not cut out for ministry.

But God disagrees. I have clearly heard God’s call, and so I stand before you each week with God by my side, helping me to live out my call as the messy, complicated person that I am in this moment. We figure it out as we go, together. God says, “I am,” and so do I. I am, no more and no less, and I am enough. You are, and you are enough, too.

Or, as Edie Brickell would say, “What I am is what I am. Are you what YOU are, or what?”



[1] Exodus 2:10.
[2] Exodus 2:11-12.
[3] Exodus 2:14.
[4] Exodus 2:15.

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