Rev'd Rory Redmayne and Rev'd Cameron Pickering
I AM WHO I AM
From our childhood days of matching playing cards we all know that the fishmonger is Mr Fish and the cobbler is Mr Boot.
And no one would call the fishmonger Mr Boot - unless of course he sold sole!
The point is that the names of the various tradespeople in the game were appropriate to their occupation.
The funny thing is that this practice of matching names to occupations is not just a fanciful thing to do in children’s games.
Have you noticed how often people who appear as experts being interviewed on television have names which are appropriate to their particular area of expertise?
When this happens it sets me thinking; did Mr Fish become a fishmonger purely by chance, or was there - at least sometimes - a sort of association of ideas which led Mr Fish to choose fishmongery?
Now, let’s just ponder on this for a minute:
There seems to be pros and cons about the fishmonger being called Mr Fish.
On the one hand the name Mr fish is a useful descriptor of this individual and points to where he fits in his community.
As against that, knowing the fishmonger as Mr Fish might get in the way of looking for and recognizing that Mr Fish actually has some other splendid attributes.
We know him as a fishmonger; we don’t notice that he’s actually a fine public speaker or a splendid gardener.
Knowing the fishmonger as Mr Fish could easily blind us from noticing his other attributes.
It puts him in a box marked ‘fish’ in which nothing else is expected to be found.
This trivial but important example of one of the origins of prejudice.
I’ll come back to Mr Fish in a minute, but first I want us to turn our attention to Horeb, the mountain of the Lord, and to the burning bush, about which we have just heard.
There was Moses tending his father-in-law’s flock.
He led the flock to Mount Horeb.
“There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush.”, (Ex. 3:2).
Having thus caught Moses’ attention God speaks to him, introducing Himself as the God of Moses’ revered forebears.
God goes on to observe that he has seen how the Egyptians are oppressing the exiled Israelites and announces that he has “come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and bring them up …. to a land flowing with milk and honey.”, (Ex. 3:8).
From Moses’ point of view that is the good news.
What comes next is far less welcome as God declares that He will “send (Moses) to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”, (Ex. 3:10).
Moses is greatly alarmed and raises all sorts of objections.
His protests culminate in this question: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The god of your ancestors has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”, (Ex.3:13).
To this God replies, “’I AM WHO I AM.’”, (Ex. 3:14).
Now one could not take exception if Moses were to think indignantly, “ I AM WHO I AM? what sort of an answer is that?”.
Now let’s just pause a mo before we join Moses in his supposed indignation; pause and ask ourselves why it might be that God gave such a vague answer?
Could it be that God was thinking something like this: “mmm; now if I say, ‘tell the Israelites I am the God of rescues, then they might think that that is the essence of who I am. I am the God who rescues people. They might not even suspect that I am the God who made everything that is, or the God who loves everything I’ve made, or the God of mercy and forgiveness. I might simply become Mr God, the Rescuer.
“No. I AM WHO I AM will be the least confusing name. My people will get to know me by what I do, not by what I’m called.”
Now maybe you are making some connections with Mr Fish the fishmonger?
Perhaps you are noticing that just as calling the fishmonger Mr Fish carries the danger of limiting how we see Mr Fish as being only good for fish things, so calling God the Rescuer runs the danger of thinking of God only in terms of the God who rescues.
At best that means we only see God in situations where He is rescuing.
At worst it so reduces our apprehension of God’s Being that our naming of God is positively blasphemous in the way it reduces God’s all encompassing Being.
Now these thoughts led me down two paths.
Along the first path I am reminded to be cautious about how I speak of God.
For example, one might ask whether it’s helpful to declare a blessing in the name of “God, Creator, Redeemer and Giver of life”?
Does that unduly focus our minds on certain aspects of God’s Being?
Maybe - sometimes at least - the priest should simply declare ‘the blessing of God be upon you this day and forever.’ - or even ‘the blessing of the One Who Is be upon you this day and forever.’
If that thought-path is rather too esoteric, the other path is far more practical.
Genesis chapter 1 tells us that “God created human kind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”, (Gen. 1:27).
So, if I am indeed in the image of God then should I too be named merely ‘I am who I am’?
In my case that might protect me from being deemed an imposter; after all Rory Redmayne are both names which would lead you to believe that I have red hair!
More seriously, though, isn’t it likely that any name or descriptor we apply to ourself or to another is in danger of stereotyping that person and putting them in a box.
For example, I wonder what comes into people’s minds when the television reports that a man was killed while the police were making an arrest.
And what difference would it make to the way we think if the report went on to say that the man was a member of the Mongrel Mob, or was a Maori, or perhaps an Anglican priest!
You see what I’m getting at? By applying descriptors, which are in effect names, we feed into the hearers’ prejudices and the hearers pigeon-hole the person described.
By way of positive example, have you noticed that the prime minister and the director-general of health have both avoided saying anything descriptive about the first people who were discovered to have contracted the current Coronavirus outbreak.
Had they done so, I wonder what prejudices that would have re-enforced, if any?
And as we listen to endless political speeches in the coming weeks, I wonder how often candidates will disparage certain sectors of the community by the descriptors they use - not names you understand, but people named by easily recognised descriptors.
So, let me conclude by re-iterating these three points:
1) In talking to Moses, God named Godself by saying his name was I AM WHO I AM, thus preventing the Israelites - or anyone else - from jumping to conclusions about God’s nature based only upon God’s name.
2) We, who are made in the image of God, should be careful about how we describe ourselves to avoid being pigeon-holed based only on our name.
3) And, more importantly, we should be careful about the names and descriptors we apply to other people lest we promote our prejudices or feed into the prejudices of those we speak to.
We surely can do no better in this matter than to follow the example of the One who is named I AM WHO I AM.
About 1290 words Filed as Sermon 20aAugust
1. All Souls Merivle St Albasns 8, 9.30, 11.30 OT 22 30 August 2020
(Also on Wednesday 2 September 2020)