Text: Exodus 3:1-3; 9-11
Mary Oliver writes in her little poem, Sunrise… “You can die for it, an idea, or the world. People have done so, brilliantly, letting their small bodies be bound to the stake, creating an unforgettable fury of light. But, this morning, climbing the familiar hills in the familiar fabric of dawn, I thought of China, and India and Europe, and I thought how the sun blazes for everyone just so joyfully as it rises under the lashes of my own eyes, and I thought, I am so many! What is my name? What is the name of the deep breath I would take over and over, for all of us? Call it whatever you want, it is happiness, it is another one of the ways to enter the fire.”
What is ordination? A ticket to martyrdom in an unforgettable fury of light? One could get that idea, with Jesus’ dying on a cross, not by burning, but nonetheless, bound to the stake. Oliver seems to be blessing death for an idea, for the world, for some martyr’s flames have been unforgettable and they still inspire us today.
The unforgettable fury of light reminds me of Moses’ fury when, as a young man, having been adopted as an enslaved Hebrew child by the Princess of Egypt, he kills an Egyptian overseer who was beating an enslaved Hebrew man. Soon after, he tries to break up two Hebrew men fighting, they mock him asking him what authority he has over them—they know his story—and they sarcastically ask if he is going to kill them like he did the Egyptian. Realizing people know the crime of his fury, he chooses not to burn at the stake, but to run for the hills. Having betrayed his Egyptian loyalties, having been rejected by his Hebrew family—he is a man with an identity crisis.
Mary Oliver moves from heroic martyrdom to the daily routine of life. She took a walk early, mostly every morning, on the beaches and marshes of Cape Cod, as she writes, “climbing the familiar hills in the familiar fabric of dawn….” But this day she is transported and says, “I thought of China, and India and Europe, and I thought how the sun blazes for everyone just so joyfully….” She feels another fire, not a burning at the stake, but the blazing of the sun, rising and warming her, a joyful gift joining her with the world and, she says, “It rises under the lashes of my own eyes.” Meaning, this is an insight, something is dawning in her mind.
This takes me back to Moses who, having run away, has become a shepherd and is guiding his flock through the familiar fabric of the fields of shepherding, when he is transported. The text says he goes beyond the wilderness to a religious experience in which the verb “to see” is repeated. Moses must turn aside to see the bush that is blazing to see why it is not burned up.” When God saw that he had turned aside to see, God said, “I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt.” To encounter God is to see what God sees. And because this God is the God of Moses’ ancestors, the people who are in misery in Egypt are Moses’ people as well, and so his identity crisis is resolved. Moses’ revelation, his insight, is about his own identity.
Ordination is also an identity. But what is the nature of that identity?
In her sunrise ordination Mary Oliver is flummoxed. What does this insight mean for her identity? After “the sun blazes for everyone,” she writes, “and I thought, I am so many! What IS my name?...”
Moses’ identity, on the other hand, gives him a mission. God says, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt. Moses feels inadequate to the task and is looking for some leverage.
Unlike Oliver who wonders what her name is, Moses wonders what God’s name is. In the ancient context of magic beliefs, if one knew the true name of a person or a god then one could manipulate him or her. And Moses sees that the people will want to be able to call on that God who has the power to deliver them. So a name could be the leverage Moses is looking for.
We’re not far from that “magical names” idea today. One of my pastoral care professors in seminary had a rule—keep a box of 3x5 cards of your church members, with a family name at the top of each one and the first names of the family and the kids’ ages underneath. And, when you go to visit, before you get out of the car, read the cards, and it will appear as if you know their names, and they will think you’re a great pastor. Magic…
There is another use of names that used to have magic about it. You could place the denominational name of your church on the lawn and people of that identity would flock to it. Not so much anymore. Abby grew up in the Covenant Church—I was her minister for many of her growing up years. Now I have shifted my ordination to the United Church of Christ and she is being ordained a Lutheran. Those labels, as helpful as they are, aren’t our names, and don’t have the same magic they used to.
The answer Moses gets offers no leverage. God says, “I am who I am.” Or, “I will be who I will be.” Some scholars think this means “The one who causes things to be.” Others think it means, “The one who is.” I go with Buber and Rosenzwieg on this one, they see the phrase as signifying presence, “being-there.” Hence, they see God’s words as an assurance of God’s presence. As Moses tries to wriggle out of his mission several times, God answers all but once with the words, “I will be there with you,” and later says, “this is my name for the ages, my title from generation to generation.” I imagine Moses was disappointed, for this name is no name at all—at least in the traditional sense. What kind of power is in the name “being-there?”
It brings to mind the disciples coming to Jesus and warning that some other fellow who is not a part of their group, who hasn’t been in Jesus’ seminars nor on his field trips, is casting out demons in his name. Unless, you believe in magic, it wasn’t Jesus’ name that was casting out demons, it was the presence of being-there that was with the stranger, in the way that he was present. It is never just the name of Jesus that heals or liberates, nor any other name, for that matter. It is always also the act of being-there, the presence which Jesus practiced.
What is my name? Mary Oliver asks, and she gives a flummoxing answer as well: What is the name of the deep breath I would take over and over for all of us?
Her insight is that her identity is with everyone on the globe, and the fact that the breath is over and over means it is a way, a way of life, a way of being there for all of us, all the time. “Call it whatever you want,” she writes, “it is happiness, it is another one of the ways to enter the fire.”
Abigail Johnson grew up in a middle-class home that was spitting distance from suburbia. She had a loving family and a caring church, with wonderful summer experiences at church camp. She wanted to help people in their day-to-day life, and she had plans to make that happen. She was headed toward some kind of career in medicine as a neuroscience major—she is, after all, a very bright human being, and she had the classes laid out before her like a well-trod shepherd’s path.
But then she decided she would take six months and work in Ghana, volunteering in a school in a slum as a tutor for young girls. Poverty was pervasive, and the corporal punishment that was part of the culture was evident in the lives of many of the girls. However, she found joy among these people who weren’t driven to get their plans done, moving slowly through the day, taking time to taste the food they ate, stopping to enjoy the moment and yet, they were quick to hug and quick to dance.
When she returned to the United States, she had three days before she was thrust, unexpectedly, into directing the church camp she attended growing up—and there were all these mostly white suburban, highly privileged kids, like her. There she was a half a week at home and a half a world away from Ghana…and she didn’t know what her name was. She was in an identity crisis. She didn’t run away, as Moses did, but she retreated to process the experience. She began painting portraits of those young girls in Ghana, seeing not only their faces, but the joy in their hearts and the pain in their lives. Over time, she remembered a young girl in her class who came from a tough family, who was shuffled around from one unstable relative’s home to another. She was tired all the time, and Abby spent a lot of time just trying to keep her awake so she could learn the lesson. One day, the little girl’s head was down on her desk and Abby motioned for her to come to her. She lifted her on her lap and lay her head on her chest. After a few minutes the little girl sat up and reached to hold Abby’s face with both hands. “Miss Abigail,” she said, “I am so glad just to be held. Just to be held.” The process of painting of these portraits transported Abby, enlarged her identity, and she began to move from the well-planned path to neuroscience—into the uncharted territory called ministry.
What is our name? Being there with people where they are, being present to people as they are. This is the life into which we are ordaining Abigail Johnson. Sometimes it means taking to the streets without weapons or magic, with only your presence, and saying “Let my people go.” In our day, Black and Brown Lives Matter. That could lead to being burned at the stake. Sometimes it means telling the Trustees that the money is here for the building of the ministry of presence not the preservation of the ministry of buildings. That could get you burned at the stake too. At other times it means holding a little girl, or a homeless person, or a member of your congregation.
All these red stoles hanging on us ministers today speak to the fires of Pentecost, which joins together flame, and that breath known as spirit, which I would argue is the deep breath taken for all. The flame and the breath came together and gave birth to the church. In this institutional setting, you are ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament. That ministry is the ministry of real presence. It is a retrieval of God’s name, I am being there—the name of God from generation to generation for all ages—God, the fire, that beckons us all, even as it rises at every dawn.
Denny Moon is the grateful husband of Sally, the proud father of Brita, Aaron, and Julia, and he relishes being called “Buka” by Otto, Gus, and Arne. He is one of the ministers at South Church, UCC in Granby, Conn., and the founder of “Heads Up! Hartford!” Writing songs, hymns, and musicals makes him very happy, as does teaching the art of storytelling.
This sermon was written for the ordination of Abigail Johnson.