Sermon: Saying Everything and Nothing

September 3, 2023

Exodus 3:1-15
Matthew 16:21-28

If you asked me my name, and I said, “I am what I am,” you might believe that I had mistaken myself for Popeye. Or, I suppose, you might wonder what happens when I eat canned spinach.

I’ve got you wondering now, haven’t I?

If you asked me my name and I said, “I am who I am,” you might think, “Oh, that’s all very nice, he’s got a sense of self and of identity. That’s a good thing in a person.”

But you’d probably ask me again, “What is your name?” “I am who I am” is a true enough statement, but it’s not a name.

When God told Moses, “I am who I am,” God said everything, and God said nothing.

The Hebrew language has some interesting characteristics. A couple of them pop up in this very sentence. The Hebrew reads, “Yihyeh asher yiyeh.” That’s three words, because you don’t need to provide a pronoun for some verbs in Hebrew.

“Yihyeh” means “I am.” But it also means, “I will be.” I don’t want you to think that Hebrew has no sense of past, present, and future, but with this verb it turns out that present and future aren’t easily disentangled. They meld and flow into one another. “I am who I am” also means “I will be who I will be.” And it also means “I will be who I am” as well as meaning “I am who I will be.”

It’s a mind-warping statement of God’s identity. God’s identity can’t be precisely defined in time. Human beings display some consistency over time, but they also display change. But God is who God will be, and God will be who God is. We may be in the image of God, but our relationship to time is not God’s relationship to time.

God said everything and nothing.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber told a story about the Hasidic rabbi Zusya. As Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild tells it, “On his deathbed he began to cry uncontrollably and his students and disciples tried hard to comfort him. They asked him, ‘Rabbi, why do you weep? You are almost as wise as Moses, you are almost as hospitable as Abraham, and surely heaven will judge you favourably.’

“Zusya answered them: ‘It is true. When I get to heaven, I won’t worry so much if God asks me, “Zusya, why were you not more like Abraham?” or “Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?”  I know I would be able to answer these questions.  After all, I was not given the righteousness of Abraham or the faith of Moses but I tried to be both hospitable and thoughtful.  But what will I say when God asks me, “Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?”’”

What God told Moses was that God would be God, no matter what name anyone else cared to use. God was God, would be God, will always be God. God said that the crucial thing was not a name, but the reality of God’s presence and support. The One who had been with the ancestors is the same as the One who is present now, and the One who will be present in the days to come.

God is apparently quite good at being more like God.

That became the invitation to Moses as well – and it’s one Moses struggled with all along. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” was the first thing Moses asked. “Who am I?” God went straight to the comforting words, “I will be with you,” but God might have said something like, “You are who you are. You are what you are. Moses, be like Moses.”

Karla Suomala writes at Working Preacher, “Is it possible that God tells Moses to take his shoes off because he wants Moses to be himself? To remove all pretense? To be vulnerable and open to what God has to say? The closest analogy I can think of is walking into the CEO’s office for an important meeting with my shoes off – something I can hardly imagine doing because I would feel too exposed.”

The world exerts a lot of pressures on people to be… something. Successful. Wealthy. Powerful. Happy. Parents. Professionals. Occasionally, there’s pressure on people to be pastors, however odd that might seem.

In these days there is a lot of excitement, and occasionally sensible discussion, about certain people struggling to understand who they are and how to do that. I’m referring to those who describe themselves as trans or as something other than simply masculine or feminine. Imagine, for a moment, how stressful it must be to have a body that identifies you as one thing, while your internal feeling identify you as something else. A lot of people would tell that person to be what their body says. They insist. They demand.

Ancient Hawaiians had another category: Mahu. Mahu were not precisely men, and not precisely women, and they were valued for wisdom and as teachers. According to kumu hula Kaua’i Iki, parents would ask mahu to name their children.

When God calls, I think God calls us to be ourselves, just as God is God’s self. I don’t think God called Moses because Moses happened to be convenient. I think God called Moses because a Moses who was completely Moses was one who led the people of Israel out of bondage. God didn’t call Moses to become somebody else. God called Moses to become more of himself.

So let’s be careful about what we say to and about one another. Let’s encourage one another to be ourselves, to become more ourselves, to grow into ourselves. Let’s sympathize with the things that didn’t go well – because they’ll happen, for certain – and rejoice in the things that produce satisfaction and delight. And let’s be as generous with ourselves as we are with others, to celebrate the accomplishments and comfort the disappointments.

Let’s be who we are.


by Eric Anderson

Watch the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric always make changes while preaching, and today is no exception.

The image is Le buisson ardent by Henry Daras, vers 1895-1900. Digital image by Jack ma – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on September 3, 2023

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