As Usual

I did pretty well at blogging through January, but February rolled through with an avalanche of lectures for which I didn’t have presentations prepared, along with two book manuscripts, a couple of lectures, and so on and so forth. February was a blogging washout.
 
But March is still young, and I preached this morning at St Mary’s, and I’ll be preaching next week at St Aidan’s, so maybe I can jump start this blog. We’ll see — but for now, here’s this morning’s sermon. (Video below, text in the ‘continue’ link.)
 

 


 

3 Lent C / 3 March 2013
 
+
 
St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow
 
Exodus 3:1-15 / 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 / Luke 13:1-9
 
 
“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?”
 
 
+ In Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

   My name confuses some people. Not over here, I should say — no one in Scotland has ever expressed perplexity over Andrew Keith Malcolm Adam, a proud Scottish name, handed down from ancestors who go back to Lochwinnoch hundreds of years ago — but over in the States, a great many people had trouble remembering whether to address me as ‘Andrew’ or ‘Adam’, or whether my family name was ‘Adam’, ‘Adams’, or ‘Andrews’, or some other variation on that theme. So if you’ve wondered why my nickname AKMA sticks so firmly to me, part of the explanation is that my American acquaintances find it easier to cope with an unusual appellation than to remember which name is which, and whether it has an ‘s’ or not.
 
   But the puzzlement that my name elicits is as nothing compared to the bafflement evoked by the Name of God; and my name confuses people accidentally — whereas it seems as though the Divine Name is chosen deliberately to puzzle people. Just in the verses from this morning’s lesson, God provides three somewhat different versions of the Name: first ‘I Am Who I Am’ (or, as scholars have been pointing out for a long time, probably ‘I Will Be Who I Will Be’); then just ‘I AM’; then at last God gives the Divine Name itself, as the tradition has come to know it — the Name too holy to be pronounced, which our English translations used to render as ‘Jehovah’, and now is usually printed as ‘the LORD’ with upper-case letters.
 
   This revelation makes one of the breakthrough moments of the Bible — although God has been interacting with humanity all along, only at this moment does God confide in Moses the Name. In one of my favourite interpretive traditions, it is said that for a breathless moment all of creation stilled: when God uttered the Divine Name ‘no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, none of the Ophanim (the wheels of the divine chariot seen by Ezekiel) stirred a wing, the Seraphim did not say “Holy, Holy”, the sea did not roar, the creatures spoke not, the whole world was hushed into breathless silence and the voice went forth: I am the LORD thy God.’
 
   This is the turning point; this, the transformation; this, the big cinematic reveal, the first kiss of the beloved, the ‘Be it unto me according to thy word’. And for millennia, nobody has been precisely sure what that Name means.
 
   The sages who translated Exodus into Greek rendered God‘s Name as ‘the One Who Is’, or ‘the Being One’. The story-tellers expanded the scene, so that God answers Moses, ‘You want to know My Name? My Name is according to My acts. When I judge My creatures, I am called Elohim; when I rise up to do battle against the sinners, I am Lord Sabaoth, “the Lord of hosts”; when I wait with long-suffering patience for the improvement of the sinner, My name is El Shaddai ; when I have mercy upon the world, I am Adonai. But to the children of Israel you shall say that I am He that was, that is, and that ever will be, and I am He that is with them in their bondage now, and He that shall be with them in the bondage of the time to come.’
 
   The God who (as we say in the Creed) has spoken through the prophets, has opened to us the secret of God’s own identity — and it turns out that God’s identity is as almost mysterious as our ignorance of God had been. If — as Cedric reminded us last Sunday — God is emphatically not a beardy old white man (and for some reason I myself tend to suppose that beards partake of the divine more than does Cedric!), neither is God any other recognisable persona. ‘I will be who I will be’, says God — ‘not who you want me to be, nor what you’re ready to think that I am, nor what it makes you feel better to imagine me as.’ Our desire, our will, our need does not bind God; our mind does not capture God. Even when God addresses humanity directly, with the ultimate secret, we perceive only a faint trace of what God reveals.
 
   None of this should come as a surprise to us. If we have learned anything over years of retrospect, we ought to have learned that we humans show a persistent tendency to affirm a certainty that at last, we’ve figured everything out — only to be proved wrong very shortly thereafter. Our bold self-assertion points to proud accomplishments and staggering insights, but we still do not feed the hungry or melt the cannons. The leaps of progress from Glasgow’s own James Watt and William Hunter to modern industry and medicine have, sadly, been accompanied by tyranny and slaughter on a harrowing scale, made possible by our technological advances. We think we are standing, and forget to anticipate the possibility that we might fall. Even as history repeats to us the lesson of the human tendency to see ourselves as the exceptions, the enlightened ones, we balk at confessing our limitations. ‘About this, God, we must finally be right!’
 
   In response, God speaks again the Divine Name — and stops our mouths from boasting, for a moment at least.
 
   We do know God — and when we most truly know God, we know even more vividly how staggeringly limited is our understanding, how provincial our horizons, how narrow the range of possibilities that we can contemplate. At every turn we confess our narrow ethical horizons and blinkered moral imagination not because we feel miserable all the time, but because we acknowledge that in the flesh, in the mind, in the spirit, our desires and our determination gang aft agley and leave us nought but pain. We confess because the God whom we know, we know in love, not in meters and axioms and standard deviations and syllogisms. Love bids us take the wellies off our feet before we enter the presence of radiant majesty, and love embraces us, puzzled and partial, as bearers of a Divine secret.
 
   God entrusts us with the Divine Name, and instructs us not to invoke it in vain — we may not claim that God supports our side in conflict, that God approves us and rejects them, that God certifies that what we say is true. Knowing the Divine Name gives us no advantages, provides no leverage, discloses no hidden superpowers. God’s Name is no use to us whatsoever.
 
   But using the power of names ought not be what we’re about anyway. Indeed, if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is at all similar to what the prophets have been telling us all along, the Divine Name should be mysterious. All we can do is turn our hearts toward the Name, and trust its Bearer. All we can do, all that Ken and Anne and Andrew and Sue and Cedric and Adanna and Lisa can do is say, ‘Yup, that’s you, LORD: full of mystery and beauty and surprises and even some unwelcome stuff that we can’t cope with. You will be who you will be, and although we have no control over you, or even ourselves — we love you and we trust you. We’re with you in this mad, unpredictable mystery. Hallowed be your Name.’
 
   And when we hallow the Name — when we renounce the illusion that we can boss God around, tell God how to do the job of creating and sustaining the cosmos better than God’s been doing it apart from our guidance, when we opt out of claiming to know more than any humans can know, to judge what humans can’t have any perspective on; when we embrace the God who will be with us in our bondage, and trust God without presuming to control — God addresses us by our own true names, Kelvin and Greta and Udoka and Bruce and Muriel then all of a moment the trains stop, silent; the football terraces cease their chants; the traffic on the Great Western Road pulls over in wonder, the BBC’s microphones go mute; even the falling rain stops in midair and for just a moment, before the saints and angels and all the company of heaven, the sublime harmony of pure silence utters aloud the answer to Moses’s question.
 
   What shall we say to the world? Who sent us? The Name sent us, the unsearchable, impractical, illimitable Name above all Names. And at the silent sound of the Name, Moses’s face glows with the radiance of recognition. Sin and death shudder, grace and mercy flare, and in that briefest of instants water turns to wine, wine becomes blood, bread becomes life-giving flesh, and a variegated throng from an urban cathedral is transformed from glory to glory, a sign of sunlight in a dreich season, a sign of trust in a cynical world, a sign of Easter in the midst of Lent, a mystery that will be who it will be, our best reason and our only explanation, world without end —
 
   

Amen

 

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5 Responses to As Usual

  1. Chris Athorne says:

    Dear AKMA,

    I think you are being disingenuous in a number of ways in this sermon.

    You say, for instance, that “using the power of names ought not to be what we are about” – that God’s name “is of no use to us whatsoever.”

    This is a curious remark in the world after Wittgenstein and even the text from which you preached belies it. For saying “I AM” has sent me is one-up-manship of a very high order. This is a BIG God …. yeah? …. or a DEEP one, like, so deep he don’t need a name. Pharoah had better watch his p’s and q’s.

    You can’t escape from the fact that that “I AM” is a political and philosophical construction as is every other name of every other god and it’s one that has been very appealing to the modern mind with our only lately shed obsession with “being”. We were all “I AM”‘s until some point during the last century.

    And that leads into the other disingenuousness – one admittedly shared by the church as a whole. “Whereof one cannot speak one should remain silent.” If we say we can’t talk about God, why do we insist on continuing to do so? What are we doing when we talk about “being”? I think you, as preacher, owe it to us yourself to dismantle your own sermon to see how you have used the “I AM” as a vehicle to promote a very specific idea of God and our relation to reality whilst claiming not to do so ;-)

    What I personally want from the preacher is something less “high”, less “inspired”, more pragmatic, more earthed.

    After all, the rain it raineth every day.

    Ciao,
    Chris.

  2. AKMA says:

    Dear Chris,

    Without making any pretence that my reasoning blunts the force of your criticism, I’ll explain what I was thinking.

    The commandment against taking the Name in vain might be construed variously, but I read it as forbidding the instrumental use of the revealed Name. Thus, when (in the example you cite) Moses responds to the question he anticipates, his saying ‘I AM sent me’ is not fairly counted as instrumental — he is not trying to extort allegiance, or to use the Name as a conjuring device (as in antiquity exorcists, especially, were known to have used the names of whatever gods they knew about).

    The obsession with being/Being is indeed a headache, and I tried to divert attention from the Name as (as it were) a guarantor of actuality or individuality, to the Name as something of a self-subverting vacuity of meaning. Again, if we want the Divine Name to serve as a Transcendental Signifier to pin meaning and existence and our morning cup of coffee in place, against the forces of nihilistic chaos, I’d count that as the instrumental use against which I had already inveighed.

    As to my complicity to a relation to the Name that is self-absorbed rather than, if I understand you aright, centrifugal — fair play, I did not take the sermon that direction. That was at least in part deliberate: I have been nettled by churches that substituted unreflective activitism (if I be permitted a barbarism) for thoughtful, self-critical, theologically-grounded discipleship. You quite rightly chastise me for not pointing the way, not leading the way to engaged embodiment of the sort of Way I have in view. Perhaps that leaks out at other times, in other sermons or other interactions — or perhaps I’m just not up to the job of promulgating every bit of what I understand the Gospel to call for.

    I’m sleepy, so yet another possibility is that I haven’t fully understood your comment. Rather than nattering on drowsily, I’ll call it a night, and will (as usual) endeavour more soundly to preach next time around.

    ???? ????? ???!
    (whoops, not Unicode compliant — for now, I’ll just say ‘À bientôt!’)
    AKMA

  3. Chris Athorne says:

    Bonjour AKMA,

    Well, I think you are exactly wrong in your second paragraph when you say “his saying ‘I AM sent me’ is not fairly counted as instrumental — he is not trying to extort allegiance, or to use the Name as a conjuring device.” If that were the case then Moses would be given no answer and given nothing to say to the Israelites or to Pharoah. He would be given only empty nothingness – which is, of course, all we DO have. But no, this “I AM” has a use, as all language must: the use is to let the hearers know that Moses is the representative of something of an order of magnitude beyond what they had imagined and must therefore be taken seriously. It is an upping of the stakes in the game of naming gods. Moses is trying to gain the allegiance of the Israelites and to conjure the cooperation of Pharoah.

    Chris.

  4. AKMA says:

    Chris,

    I think we read the Moses-before-Pharaoh incident very differently. Fair play, words are ambiguous.

    I see Moses as doing lots and lots to convey to Pharaoh that the poor immortal glorious monarch of all Egypt was out of his depth in dealing with Israel’s God, but the Name of God doesn’t seem to anyone in the story to demand particular attention. Tricks with snakes, rivers, and ultimately the massacre of the first-born — the narrative focuses on this sort of challenge, but Pharaoh’s dismissive ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go’ seems pretty clearly to suggest that he doesn’t receive the divine Name as any big deal.

    But evidently your mileage does indeed vary, as they say online.

  5. Chris Athorne says:

    That the instrument failed to work makes it no less an instrument. Chris.

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