Exodus 33: 1 – 14 – Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN – Today we begin our Lenten sermon series entitled, “Naming the Unnameable.” It is based on a book by Matthew Fox with the same title. Matthew Fox asks, “How many names for Divinity are there? Do the names for God change? Do we have permission – and may be a serious responsibility – to change our understanding and naming of God as we evolve as a species and as we face a critical time in human and planetary history?” (p.xxiii)
My answer to Matthew Fox’s questions is absolutely! Our names, images, understandings of the Divine are absolutely critical. Our concept of God forms us, shapes us, transforms us. If our concept of God is violent, we will be transformed into that violent image. If our concept of God is nonviolent, we will be transformed into that nonviolent image, whether or not that concept is true. Like an image in a mirror, our God concept reflects back to us the image of what we aspire to become. Judgmental and vengeful? Dominating and forceful? Kind and generous? Relational and respectful? What you think of the Divine matters. (McClaren, B., The Great Spiritual Migration, p. 94). It forms you, shapes you and transforms you.
For centuries, many Christians understood the Divine to be a violent God of domination. Such a theology supported a wide range of abuses from colonialism to environmental degradation, from the subordination of women to the stigmatization of LGBTQ folks, from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, clergy pedophilia to white privilege. This of course stands in direct contrast to what Jesus taught us about God. Our religions, unfortunately, often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for. This is true not only for Christianity, but for Jews, Muslims and others. The pattern is predictable. Founders are typically generous, visionary, bold and creative, but the religions that carry on the work often become the opposite: constricted, averse to change, fearful, and obsessed with boundary maintenance. “Instead of greeting the world with open arms as their founders did, their successors stand guard with clenched fists. Instead of empowering others as their founders did, they hoard power. Instead of unleashing moral imagination as their founders did, they refuse to think outside of the lines” (McClaren, p. 5). Religion, thus, becomes more of a cage than a guide, holding us back rather than summoning us onward. This is not the time to dig in our heels, however, but to open our minds. I believe it is a time for a spiritual migration. We have a serious responsibility to change our understanding and naming of the Divine as we evolve as humans and as a planet.
In our scripture passage this morning, Moses is out grazing the sheep and he sees that this bush is on fire. And that’s concerning, but even more concerning is the fact that while the fire is raging it doesn’t actually seem to be burning up the bush. Moses knows that he is on holy ground. Fire is a symbol in many cultures for the presence of God. It was true for Moses and it is true for us. The candles on our altar remind us that we are in the presence of God. God calls Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. Moses begins to think about the logistics of this and asks God, “Who shall I tell them sent me?”
God says this, “Tell the Israelites that ‘I am’ has sent you to me. This is my name. I am who I am.” In other words, God is vast. We cannot hold God down. We cannot box God into categories. God is mysterious. God’s name is a BE verb. God is action, movement, energy. Paul Tillich calls God, “The Ground of our Being.” This is not a distant deity, a punitive God sitting on a throne in a cloud reigning judgement. Divinity is to be found in the depth of things, the foundation of things, the profundity of things.
The Great “I Am” is the cosmic electricity, the divine vitality, the ruach (spirit, breath) that moves through the universe, the glue that holds life together. If you have ever found that when holding a newborn baby or hearing a favorite song or standing on the side of a mountain or floating in the ocean and you are aware that there is something more, something else going on just below the surface – something that is glorious or transcendent, that is God with us. Jesus was always aware that there was more going on beneath the surface – a meal was never just a meal – it’s never just bread and wine, a person was not just a person, a conversation was not just an exchange of words. Jesus saw what others missed. The invitation is for us to become more and more the kind of people who are aware of the divine presence in each and every moment, the sacred in all of life. What is the Divine’s name? I am.
My understanding of the Divine shifted radically when during a Sabbatical, I studied mysticism. I traveled to Findhorn, Scotland. A short distance from the Arctic Circle lies this remote community. In a place with soil as sandy and worthless as your local beach (a place that was once the home of a rubbish dump with rotting garbage, rusty bedsprings, bald tires and broken bottles) grows the most fantastic garden on earth, a garden of Eden. In Findhorn, they grow 42 pound cabbages, 60 pound broccoli plants, 8 ft delphinium and roses that bloom in the snow. Soil, climate and gardening experts have concluded that there must be some vital unknown at work, some extraordinarily powerful Factor X. To the astonished visitors who asked the secret of this garden in the middle of a wasteland of sand, the answer was simply “Love.” And I had the opportunity to work in that garden for an entire week where I was told to simply take delight in the plants and they will take delight in me. It was not necessarily what I did in the garden (weeding and deadheading) but it was the manner in which it was done with extraordinary care, love and dedication. For those who have green thumbs, it is not simply about water, soil and fertilizer – but it’s about the plants who actually feel love and appreciation. (We will talk more about this as we create our Resurrection Gardens this Lenten season.)
My understanding of God shifted from a distant deity to cosmic energy, divine vitality, love.
How many names for the Divine are there? The ancient Vedas of India tell us that, “The One Existence the wise call by many names.” The Muslim tradition boasts a powerful practice of reciting the “99 Most Beautiful Names” of God. The Bhagadvad Gita of Hinduism tells us this, “God has a million faces.” St. Thomas Aquinas, medieval theologian and mystic, goes even further. He says that every being is a name for God. What follows from that statement is that there are literally trillions upon trillions upon trillions of names for God. If there are trillions upon trillions upon trillions of names for God, who am I to choose only 6 for the 6 Sundays of this Lenten season? My hope is that when we come to the end of the Lenten season, you will add your own most wonderful and useful names for the Divine.
How we understand and imagine the Divine is critical to human and planetary evolution. I would like to conclude by sharing the ways that our children at RUCC understand God.
First image: God wears a big hat because of so many jobs.
Second image: This is God. (Looks like a heart to me.)
Third image: God is food.
Fourth image: God is a spirit in a colorful world, holding the world.
Fifth image: God is love.
Rather than Judge or Stern Father or distant Deity, these are the images of the Divine for our young people. The children will lead and the wise will follow…Indeed, “God is love” represents a profoundly healing direction for humanity and our planet. What about you? Who is the Holy for you? Amen.