Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
Names were very important in the Ancient World. It was very common for people’s names to incorporate the name of their god, both the claim that god and to receive that god’s power. For example, King Tut (Tutankh-Amun) was a follower of the god Amun. His father Akhenaten (Akhen-Aten) was a follower of Aten. In the same way Melchizedek (Melchi-Zedek)was a follower of Zedek, and Nathani-el, Micha-el, and Isra-el were followers of El, coming from Elohim, the Hebrew word for god (or gods).
Having been raised in Egypt, Moses knew that there were many gods in the spiritual pantheon. It makes sense, when he encountered the burning bush, to ask just which one he was talking to. The Hebrew word “Elohim” is a generic word for God. Moses wanted a little more detail. If Moses was doing to do something big, he would need this god’s power. So Moses asked this god’s name… and the God of the burning bush responded with a verb.
More specifically, the God of the burning bush responded with four consonants, often referred to the Tetragrammaton. So that the name of God would never be taken in vain, the consonants were written without vowels. In fact, the texts of the Dead Sea scrolls does not even use the consonants, replacing them with four dots instead. (Some modern theologians follow this practice, writing God as “G-d.”) In English, the four consonants are YHWH, which is usually pronounced Yahweh. Because 19th century German scholars wrote the consonants as JHVH, the older pronunciation was “Jehovah.” English translations of the Bible typically use capital L-O-R-D when the Tetragrammaton occurs. “Lord,” with just a capitol L is “Adonai” – the Hebrew word meaning “Lord.” “El” is translated as “God” and depending on context, “Elohim” (plural), sometimes as gods. “Adonai Elohim” is translated as “Lord God.” Back to the burning bush, the importance of this dialogue with Moses is not just the consonants God gives but the the word they represent. As I said above, the name of God is a verb. The four consonants are the verb “to be,” or, as translated in this morning’s text, “I am.”
This is a truly revolutionary concept. The God speaking to Moses is far beyond a name or gender, pronoun or any kind of personification. The God speaking to Moses is the ground of all being, the isness of all that is, the source of all life, all light, all existence, in the universe itself. The God speaking to Moses is not just the creator who put the whole thing in motion. This God is the is the ongoing source and force of life that is in everything, that connects everything, and that keeps it all going today. Even to those who have gotten used to the idea of church as a verb, the idea of God as a verb is mind-blowing. Very simply, Moses’ God is the “is” of all that is, the ground of all being – the ongoing source and force of and love and life and light– of the universe itself.
Whether it’s worship, or outreach or spiritual growth or fellowship, our job is to connect people to that. As Christians, our task is to help people connect to the source of all being, all life and all light in the universe, and to do that through the power of word and sacrament and the redeeming, reconciling, and reparative love of Jesus Christ. That, not any superficial feel-good spirituality or self-help or even social service work, is our product. This is what we are called to share.
An example of this comes from St. Patrick, remembered with enthusiasm this time every year. St. Patrick is known for bringing Christianity to Ireland. St. Patrick didn’t destroy Celtic holy sites or practices, he Christianized them. He didn’t deny Celtic thin places; he honored them, respected, and made sure they were remembered and recognized as holy ground. He didn’t tell people they were wrong. He told them they were right. He told them that they were experiencing something holy in their holy places, that they were connecting with God in nature, in community, in story and in song. He simply took them one step farther, telling them that their God had a name and that they could connect with that God – with the life force of the universe itself — through Jesus. Using the shamrock and the idea of the Trinity, Patrick showed them that it was possible to experience the one God in different ways. For Patrick, faith was both/and. The hierarchical, linear, masculine religion of Rome and the communal, circular, feminine religion of the Celtic people could be combined. Incarnational sacramental theology says that we can experience spiritual things through physical things. There is no dichotomy. All points to and is connected to God. All points to and is connected to Christ.
Many people are afraid of going to church because they think Christians will judge them, tell them that they are wrong and that their experience of spirituality in nature, in relationship with others, or in other modes and modalities is somehow deficient. Imagine what would happen if we followed Patrick’s example, turned this around and told them that they were right. Image what would happen if we told them that what they were experiencing in yoga, in mindfulness, in running, in sunsets, in walking on the beach, in listening to music, in the joy of a crowd or in the closeness of a friend was indeed God – a God who welcomed and accepted just as they were. Now imagine what would happen if, like St. Patrick, we told them that this God had a name – and showed them how they could access this God in a personal way through Jesus and the worship and sacraments and communion and community of the church.
This morning’s gospel tells the parable of a fig tree: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” Like the owner of the vineyard, God has been waiting several years for us to bear fruit. Jesus has negotiated a little more time… but the message is clear — it’s time to get to work. God understands how much we have struggled over the past two years just to keep ourselves and our church going. Now it’s time to remember why we did all that. Now it’s time to connect people to God who is a verb. In today’s lessons Moses, Jesus, and St. Patrick show us how.