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God of Our Ancestors

Isaac Villegas

In our passage from Exodus, when Moses talks with the burning bush, he asks the fire about its identity, about how to tell others about who this is, what kind of deity could this be. “The God of your ancestors”—that who this is, the voice says to Moses.

This weeks begins our two-month series on Bible passages that open our imagination about God, especially our gendered images of God, the pictures in our heads when we worship and pray, how we represent God in our minds.

Here in the church, through our worship, our songs, our theologians, we’ve inherited the God of our ancestors, and those ancestors have infused their sexism into our faith. Christianity, in the long view of history, has been sexist, even if things were different in the beginning, and even if there have been moments here and there, bright spots, episodes of egalitarianism.

You can see shifts happening in the New Testament itself, where some parts paint scenes of women and men in shared leadership; but as the Christian movement develops, we see restrictions put on the role of women in the communities. That’s what we read in what are called the deutero-pauline epistles, like First and Second Timothy and Titus, which were late additions to the New Testament and weren’t letters written by Paul. Those writers represent a Christianity that wouldn’t let women preach during worship or lead churches, which is different than what we read going on in the book of Acts, for example.

The same seems to be the case for our particular Christian tradition, the Anabaptist movement, which started out in the 16th century with women in leadership but soon restricted leadership roles to only men. Here in North America, the first Anabaptist community to ordain a woman was First Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, in 1911. The anniversary of Ann Allebach’s ordination is this week, on January 15. She is someone worth learning about. Not only was she the first woman ordained in our tradition, she was powerful and respected voice in the women’s suffrage movement in Philadelphia and New York City. A heart attack in 1918 cut short her ministry and activism. She was 43 years old when she died.

For of most history, the church has been far too comfortable with sustaining the power of men over women. We won’t fix everything in our series over the next couple months. But part of what I hope we’ll do is to start to untangle ourselves from the sexism that permeates our lives, that even flows through the history of our faith, passed on to us by our ancestors, the men who have taken their cues from our Scriptures, from passages like the one for today, which they use to justify their power, their dominance.

God says to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod 3:6). Disappeared from the list are the women, Sarah and Hagar, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. The ancestors are the fathers, they are the ones entrusted to pass along the faith through the generations, from one man to another, to instruct the people in the faith, as has been the case with who has developed our default theology, the people who have formed our imagination.

The theologians whose authority has been recognized by the church, over the years, have been men. They—we, I should say—have been doing most of the thinking and writing about God. So it’s no coincidence that God has been described in masculine terms and images, with male pronouns. Since men have done most of the theologizing for so long, it’s no mistake that our imaginations have been infected by sexist notions about God. Patriarchal language for God influences the way we think. We construct our images of God with the words we use.

To worry about our language for God isn’t only a modern concern. This concern is there at the beginning of the people of God, when Moses asks God for a name, for God’s name. “Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I tell them?’” (Exod 3:13)

The request seems straightforward enough: Moses wants to get a sense for the identity of this voice speaking from the mysterious burning bush. “What’s your name?” Moses says to the fire. You can’t really blame Moses for wanting a little more information, as he stands barefoot before this bewildering scene.

The voice from the burning bush answers him, giving Moses all that he needs to know. “I am the God of your ancestors,” the flames say, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” This voice claims to be the One who has been with Moses’ people through the generations. I am the God, the fire says, the God who has been with your people, who has walked with you, who has cared for your lives.

This is how God wants to be known: God wants to be known as the God of Israel, the One who loves and cares for a people, the One who will save these same people from slavery in Egypt.

This is an important point, in thinking through how to name God. This passage weaves together the identity of God and the identity of the people, the one has everything to do with the other. God will not be known without the people, to know God involves knowing God’s people, and to know the people is to begin to know God. The people reveal God. The people speak the name of God with their lives: to look upon Israel is to see the face of God, to experience the life of the people is to discover what God is like.

But Moses wants a name that is more specific; Moses wants a God like all the gods of the land, a God with an identity he can imagine, a God with a name he can use, a proper name for a proper God.

But, what we discover in this passage is that the God who speaks with fire will not be like all the others, a God with a name like the other Gods. Instead, the fire gives a name that isn’t really a name, an identity that isn’t really an identity. The fire speaks an unpronounceable word: “I am who I am,” the flames say, according to one translation. Other translators have the fire say things like, “I am what I am,” or “I will be what I will be” (v. 14).

We really don’t know how to pronounce the word. In Hebrew it’s four letters, all consonants, no vowels: YHWH, also called “the tetragrammaton,” which means “a word with four letters.” Some people supply a few vowels and guess at a way to say the word. I prefer the Jewish tradition that says that guessing at how to pronounce the name violates the sacredness of the name. So, instead of trying to turn YHWH into a proper name, with vowels, there’s a Jewish tradition of creating a stand-in for the name, a surrogate word: for example, Adonai, which means “my Lord,” or ha-shem, which is a Hebrew word that means “the Name.”[1]

After all, the whole point of the story is that the voice from the burning bush will not provide Moses, and us, with a proper name, a name that we can use to compare this presence with the other Gods. The whole point is to expose our desire to think we can know God with a name, with a special word.[2]

What I’m trying to say, with this passage from Exodus, is that deep within the memory of God’s people is the giving of an unpronounceable name that shatters all our conceptions about God, a name that questions our ways of thinking about God. Moses wants a God that makes sense within his world; but that’s not what he gets. This experience won’t let him be comfortable with his own categories for what counts as God, of what kind of thing or person or presence God is supposed to be. This God, Moses learns, is not a God but a mystery, an overwhelming presence, an unsettling presence: “Remove the sandals from your feet,” the flames say to Moses, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (v. 5).

All of this should make us realize that it’s hard to talk about God, at least if we mean the God of this story, of these Scriptures, the God who speaks from a fire, the One who wants to be known through the life of a people who bear this unspeakable name.

Like I said before, all of this should make us realize that it has always been difficult to talk about God, to represent God with our words, with pronouns, for example, because She is not a man, nor is He a woman. Or we could say the opposite, that She is kinda like a man and He is a kinda like a woman, because all people bear the characteristics of the Creator, each life revealing something about the one who created us, but there is not one person among us, not one type of person, not one gender, not one sexuality, not one race or class, that reveals all of who God is; no one is in a position to reveal the fullness of God. We can only stumble over our words as we reach for metaphors, for analogies, always inadequate, of course, always incomplete, but human words are all that we have, so we do the best we can, trying not to lead each other astray.

We are at a loss with our words for God. But this loss is good news because we are lead into other forms of expression, communication beyond language—to reveal God with our whole lives, not just our words, but to disclose the reality of God, the promise of God, with all of who we are, that our lives would bear the identity of God’s life.

And all of this brings us back to sexism, to the ways that the church, through the ages, has restricted who has been allowed to represent God, to name God, to display God’s life in their own lives. Sexism is a kind of blasphemy, a form of sacrilege because it deprives us of the fullness of God’s revelation. Sexism defaces God because it robs of the fullness of God’s image in human beings.

The call to us, from that burning bush, is to organize our life together as a church so that we spell out the name of God the best we can, with who we have here, with the fullness of God revealed in our life together as God’s people.

That’s why gender matters for us in who we commission to preach and who we authorize to serve Communion, who we ask to pray and read the Bible for us, in who signs up to provide childcare and who serves as deacons and congregational leaders. The gender of the people who we commission to do all of these things in our church is part of how we communicate the reality of God. Through us, God is gendered, as our lives reveal God’s life, the gender-full life of God among us.[3]

Several years ago we were talking about this passage in our Sunday School class. I think the cohort of kids in my class were around seven or eight at that point. After we read the story about the burning bush, I asked them what they thought God’s voice sounded like to Moses. There were so many wonderful answers, about the crackling sound of fire and the whispering sound of flames. From that discussion, I remember something that Adah said, which is basically what I’ve been trying to say in my sermon here.

When I asked the class what God’s voice might sound like today, after a long pause Adah spoke up. She said that God sounds like all of our voices, because we learn about God from each other, each of us speaking God’s words in our own way.

The good news is that God has drawn close to us, close enough to speak His love, to show Her power, through us, all of us. In God’s life there are no gender divisions; God is always gender crossing, transgressing the boundaries we’ve created. This is the reality, this gender crossing, that we reflect as a church, as God’s people, as the people who reveal God’s name.

As a church, we let God speak with of what we are and in all that we do, as God becomes flesh in us, as our gendered bodies are taken up into God, as we become the fire of God.

***

[1] Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1996), 45.

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a. 13, 9, and 1a. 13, 11: “If, however, a name were given to God, not as signifying his nature but referring to him as this thing, regarding him as an individual, such a proper name would be altogether incommunicable and in no way applicable to others.” “Even more appropriate is the Tetragrammaton which is used to signify the incommunicable.”

[3] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2002), 68: “the simple throwing up of compensating ‘feminine’ divine imagery may leave societal relationships between the sexes largely untouched; false apophaticism may leap to the place of ‘unknowing’, leaving curiously intact the sexual stereotypes it claims to overcome. The safer test for sexism overcome is not so much the purity or balance of an official doctrinal formulation, but the practical out-workings of the relationship between the sexes in society and Church.”