Who Are You?
Last week, we talked about this question that Jesus asked Peter and the disciples, “who do you say I am?” Today we have another question, and it’s a very similar question, except this time it’s Moses asking God, and in some ways Moses seems to be asking the question about himself as well: “who are you?” Who are you?
Some of you may remember a story I told some time ago about the giant caterpillar that I found in my garden once, and how it reminded me of that big, talking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. If you’ve seen the Disney movie, or if you’ve read the book, you’ll remember that scene where Alice comes across this big, talking caterpillar sitting on a mushroom, and the caterpillar asks Alice “who are you?”
Now, Alice has already been through a whole lot at this point in the story – she’s gotten lost in a strange world that doesn’t make any sense at all, and it’s filled with all of these unusual characters. At one point Alice grew to be nearly the size of a giant, and then at another point she shrunk down to be only a few inches tall. So of course she’s disoriented, and now, when she’s asked this question – who are you – she’s not sure how to answer.
She says, “I hardly know… I’ve changed so many times since this morning, you see.” And the caterpillar responds, “I do not see… explain yourself.” Then Alice replies, “I can’t explain myself because I’m not myself… I really can’t put it more clearly because it isn’t clear to me.”
You know, I imagine most of us would struggle to answer that question too. Maybe that’s why we don’t usually ask each other, even when we meet people for the first time, “who are you?” It would be a strange thing to ask because it’s too big of a question. What do you even say to that? Would you be able to come up with an answer?
And so most of us, when we meet someone at a party or on a plane or even at church, we introduce ourselves and then we ask something like, “so, what do you do?” Which of course doesn’t just mean what do you do all day, but what do you do for a living. What’s your job? Or if you’re retired, what is it that you did before? Or if you’re in school, what are you preparing to do?
Of course there’s nothing wrong with that as a way to get to know each other. It’s a really good starting place. And for some of us, our work says a lot about who we are because it reflects the things that we’re passionate about. For others, that isn’t always the case. But it never tells the full story of who we are. Isn’t it interesting, though, how much we identify ourselves with our work?
Well, since it’s Labor Day weekend, a time when we should all get to take a break from work, I wonder if it’s a good time to reflect on that question without just thinking about the things we have to do all day. Deep down, who are you? What inspires you and moves you? What experiences have shaped you? How do you believe God is calling you, and how might you respond to that call?
That’s the stuff that Moses is wrestling with in this story from Exodus. At first, he was just trying to do his job, watching over his father-in-law’s flock, and probably paying careful attention to all of the sheep, making sure none of them wandered off or got hurt. But then he leads the flock past the desert, out beyond the wilderness,and we don’t know why he goes there, but it all seems to foreshadow things to come. This shepherd would soon be called to be a shepherd to God’s people, leading them through the wilderness. And so it’s no accident that Moses winds up at Horeb, the mountain of God. The mountain where God shows up.
Although Moses doesn’t seem to know it yet, everything in his life, every moment in his life that came before this one seemed to lead to this place and time when he would wander into an encounter with God. And that’s when he comes across a bush that’s on fire but doesn’t seem to be burning away. Of course he wants to get closer to try to see and understand what’s happening, but he freezes in his steps when he hears a voice call out his name.
I imagine any of us would be terrified if we came across a fire from out of nowhere and heard a voice speaking to us even if we did have an idea that we were experiencing the presence of God, probably especially so. But not Moses. Even though this is his first encounter with God, Moses just says, “yeah… I’m here.” Like you do.
But the Lord speaks to Moses and says, Moses you need to take off your shoes because you’re standing on holy ground. God is telling Moses this moment right now matters, and I want you to pay attention. And God says, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Isaac Jacob… and I have heard the cries of my people who are suffering in Egypt.’
You see, God’s people had been enslaved in Egypt and forced into terrible labor, working day and night. Back in chapter two, we read that God’s people groaned under their slavery and they cried out to God, and God hears their cries. The Lord says ‘I know their suffering and I have come down to save them… and here’s the thing Moses – I’m going to do that with you.’
This is what God is calling Moses to do… to be a part of God’s saving mission, to participate in God’s rescuing of his people. This is who God is calling Moses to be. But Moses says, ‘wait a minute! Who am I? Who am I that you would call me to go up against an entire world power like Egypt, and rescue all of these people? Who am I, that you think I could do anything like that?’
Now, you and I probably don’t have to face kingdoms and rulers, but we know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed. To feel like we aren’t up to the task, like we can’t handle all of the stuff in front of us right now, not on our own. Maybe it’s the hard stuff… maybe it’s pain or loss or suffering, and it feels like it’s all too much. Or maybe it’s some new beginning in life, and it feels a little scary, or a lot scary, because it feels like you’re wandering around in the wilderness. Or maybe it’s a calling. Maybe you feel like God is calling you into something really important, but you wonder how you can even respond. Who am I God, that you think I could take all this on?
Who am I? That’s what Moses wants to know.
But listen to what God says, “I will be with you.” God doesn’t answer the question Moses wants to ask, but God does give Moses the answer he needs to hear. “I will be with you.” The task in front of Moses is monumental; it’s the deliverance of God’s people; it’s their liberation from oppression. But God tells Moses, ‘listen, I’m the one doing the saving. I just want you to be a part of it. And I will be with you.’
But then Moses says well, who are you? I mean if I’m going to go to these people and tell them that the God of our ancestors has sent me to you, they’re going to ask me your name. They’re going to ask me who I say that you are? And God says, tell them I AM sent you. The God who is. The God who was with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The God who is with you. That’s who I am, the Lord says. The God who is with, and I am with you.
Maybe that’s what we need to hear too. Because there are times, good times and bad times, when we wonder and we pray and we cry out, God I just don’t know what I’m doing right now. If there’s something that you want me to do in this moment, it sure is hard for me to see right now, and it sure would be nice if you could just tell me. And it’s like we want to get a firmer grip on who God is and what God is doing. But maybe what God wants us to know in this moment and what God wants us to hear today is just that. “I am with you.”
Ok God, but who am I? Who am I that you think I could handle any of this? And God says, ‘well, you’re with me.’
I’m with you and you’re with me, and that’s what matters. Our with-ness. God isn’t far away, and you and I aren’t alone, not ever. And that’s good news. God is with us because that’s who God is.
But then that also tells us something about our calling. Who are we and how is God calling us? And I believe we’re called to with-ness, to being with each other. That’s who we are. A people drawn together by God to be with each other and to be with people in need. And when we do that, just like Moses, we get to participate in what God is doing. It’s like sacred solidarity. Being in relationship and community with each other so that we can stand with each other during all of our new adventures and during all of our difficult trials.
You know, Paul writes about this in his second letter to the Corinthians. He says God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. God has given us this calling to be with people, to heal relationships, to invite people into the community of faith. He says Christ healed our relationship with God, and now we have this ministry, this calling to heal relationships with each other. God is with us, and we get to participate in what God is doing, and the way we do that is through being with each other.
That’s what we do as God’s church. And Paul says when we do that, we are co-workers with God. We’re co-laborers with God. That’s who we are.
I want to show you this picture. This is actually a picture of two Beech trees even if it looks like one. Sometimes when two trees are right next to each other, and the branches of one is severed, a fascinating thing happens, they become fused together. See, the limbs of the larger tree here grew into the other. This is a process called inosculation. And when the smaller tree was cut down, the larger tree held it up, and provided life sustaining nourishment. In fact now they are both transformed into something new, something more connected.
I wonder if that’s who we are. I wonder if the church, at our best, is like a forest of these kinds of trees. Maybe we have our severed branches, and yet God’s grace sustains us and enables us to hold each other up, to be connected with each other so that we can thrive together. Standing together, lending each other strength, all in sacred solidarity.
A writer named Christopher Wright says that’s the mission of the church – to be a “transformed and transforming community of reconciliation and blessing in the world.” To be God’s co-workers in God’s work of healing and rescuing and saving.
There are times when we feel like Alice in Wonderland. Like the whole world around us makes no sense at all, and during those times we can feel disoriented and lost. We might feel like there’s so much change in our lives at times that we barely know who we are or what we’re doing or how we’re going to do it.
But God says to us: ‘I am with you. That’s who I am. And you’re with me – that’s who you are. Now, go be with each other.’