“I Am Who I Am”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 10, 2017

Exodus 3:1-15


These days, I see Egypt everywhere.

Nothing against that North African country, home of pyramids and sphinx, Nile and Sahara.  But in today’s scripture reading, Egypt is a place of suffering—a place where the Israelites were forced to toil in slavery, a place of making bricks without straw, a place of hard labor under a hot sun with nary a drop of cool water to drink, a place where children were born into bondage, a place where injustice was the law of the land.  Egypt was a place of menial work and poverty wages.  An enormous gap between rich and poor, haves and have-nots.  A ruler with no heart for the people.  Oppression on the basis of ethnicity, gender, religion, language, national origin, and immigration status.

These days, I see Egypt everywhere.  Do you know what I mean?

These days, with Egypt all around us, a good-hearted person could understandably be tempted to follow in Moses’ footsteps—that is, the footsteps Moses made in the chapter before the reading we heard this morning.  In that passage, we learn that Moses was an Israelite who escaped Pharaoh’s genocidal edicts, which rendered a death sentence to every baby boy born to the Israelites.  His mother set him afloat in the Nile in a basket in a last-ditch effort to save her son, and he was plucked from the water by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him as a member of the royal household.  Later, having grown up and become aware of the suffering of his people, Moses resisted the oppressive system, got himself into hot water, and fled.  He ran for the hills of Midian, on the other side of the Sinai Peninsula, in what is now Saudi Arabia, where he found his way into the household of a local priest named Jethro and settled down to tend the flocks and raise a family.

Maybe he put Egypt out of his mind.  There was nothing he could do for his long-lost family and friends now, he figured, so he’d just wish them well from afar and focus his energies on the little life he had built for himself in Midian.

Or maybe he was as heartsick as I have been lately, as heartsick as I know you have been, too, at the pain and suffering of our sisters and brothers, near and far.  Maybe he lay in bed at night worrying about natural disasters, about oppressive laws, about discrimination, about violence, about racism and sexism and all the other isms and phobias.  Maybe he wondered what had become of his mother and his sister, or what his cousins would do for health care when they got sick, or how his friends would afford to eat on the woefully inadequate wages they received, or what new unjust policy Pharaoh would impose tomorrow, or which person who shared his Israelite features would be next to be hurt or killed because of the disgust and fear and inhumanity with which they were regarded by the Egyptians.

I suspect Moses felt pretty powerless, and also pretty afraid.  You can understand why he decided that staying put in Midian was the best way to go.  So much hardship, so much suffering, so much bad news can overwhelm you, wear you down, sap your strength, make you feel like you are too small and inconsequential, and the powers that be are too big and mighty, and you can’t make any difference at all.


But then God showed up.  And God said, “Moses, I have work for you to do.  I have heard the cry of your people and mine.  I know their suffering.  And I am going to do something about it—but I need your help.”

Moses’ first question was, “Who, me?  Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and rescue the Israelites?”  And God didn’t reassure him directly.  God didn’t say, “Oh, Moses, you know you have exactly what it takes.  Don’t worry.  You’ll do great!”  God knew that the work to which Moses was called would be no easy task.

Instead, God said, “I will be with you.”

Then, Moses asked his second question.  “Who are you?”  And God gave Moses an enormous gift:  the gift of God’s own name.  Only, like so many of God’s gifts, it’s a little hard to understand.

The Hebrew that is rendered here as, “I Am Who I Am,” is an enigmatic phrase that could also be rendered in a variety of other ways.  I Am That I Am, I Am What I Will Be, I Will Be Who I Will Be—or, as some more creative and poetic translators have written, I Will Be What I Want to Be, or I Exist and Fulfil My Promises, or I Will Be What Tomorrow Demands.

God’s very name evokes God’s existence from before the beginning to after the end and everywhere in between.  God’s name says, “I am the One who flung the stars into orbit.  I am the One who wove your genes into chromosomes, your cells into organs, your body into life.  I have been loving this world forever, and I’m not about to stop.”  God’s name says, “No matter how bad things look, no matter how hard things get, my justice and mercy will triumph in the end.  And no matter what—no matter what!—I will be with you.”

And then God sent Moses into the teeth of the storm of Pharaoh’s oppressive wrath.  God sent Moses to speak truth to power.  God sent Moses to lead the people from being slaves to Pharaoh to being servants of God.  And God was with Moses every step of the way, from Midian to Egypt to the Red Sea to the wilderness, and at long last, a lifetime later, to the promised land.


It’s the essence of who God is, embedded in God’s very name—to take heed of the cries of all who suffer, to call forth leaders for such a time as this, to cajole and correct and nurture and nudge them into the right words and actions at the right moments, to lift people from harm to safety, from dead ends to new life.

If God would do it for Moses, then I have to believe that God will do it—that God is doing it—for us, too.  If Egypt is everywhere, then God is everywhere, and if God is everywhere, then God is here, now, with us, with you.  Even in this very moment, we are being called forth, inspired and guided, to be agents of change, makers of justice, beacons of light, bearers of love—called to go into the teeth of the storms of oppression and violence and suffering that cloud this world—and accompanied, every blessed step of the way, by the power and the love of I Am Who I Am, the One who was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen.


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