Readings: Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-end, Matthew 16:21-end
Beginning a new job is often a daunting experience and sometimes a steep learning curve. Shortly after I was ordained going to work at Lambeth Palace was one of those experiences for me. Having to learn the niceties of protocol at high speed and on the job, I once accompanied the Archbishop to a diplomatic reception and was walking ahead of him. Before his presence was announced to the assembly, he quickly leant forward and murmured in my ear” Get behind me Satan.” We heard these words of course today. Just as behind has a double meaning in English, so the Greek word opiso also has a double meaning. Behind is not just a physical position but also conveys the sense of being behind someone in the school of life as we learn from them. That’s the sense I want to convey today, as we get behind the agenda of God, so we are caught up into the Divine life. The Divine life is conveyed today by the name of God which we are given in the first reading. I AM. This of course is the Hebrew tetragrammaton, the four consonants of the name of God which is not a noun but a verb. And it’s three aspects of the verb God I want to explore briefly today as we look towards the Autumn and the renewal and refreshment which we hope and pray it will bring.
The name of God is the verb to be. In Hebrew, it’s 4 consonants without vowels – YHWH. When we transliterate this into the Latin script and the English language it becomes Yahweh or Jehovah. But it isn’t a noun or a name – it’s a verb, and the verb to be. Hebrew verbs also have no tenses, so the name I Am could be also translated I Was or I will be. Or I was who I am and will be. Here we are taken right into the heart of God who is without time, and as we get behind him, so we are caught up into the Jetstream of God, without time and pure action. Now if that doesn’t excite you on a beautiful September morning, then I guess something might be missing. So let’s look briefly at those three aspects. I Was. I am. I will be.
I was. The Christian Gospel of Good News works both with the natural order - through, for example, the rhythms and cycles of nature, and at the same time radically inverts them. In many ways, this is the central paradox of the Christian faith which takes the natural world, works with and through it, and at the same time subverts and turns it upside down. For example, the central image of Christianity – the cross – an instrument of painful death for convicted criminals, becomes the central symbol of the intersection of the timeless with time. Death, to the secular mind the end of things, becomes the beginning of things. Take the example of the tragedy which befell our community at Grenfell Tower. The indescribable horror of death by fire or asphyxiation or jumping remains the I was of secular mind. But in the timelessness of God, and in the complete inversion of the natural order which comes through the Christian Gospel, I was becomes I am and I will be simultaneously. Those who have died through this or any other tragedy, in fact all the dead are no longer I was but as we get behind God, we all become I am and Will Be. This is not some false security blanket or as Iris Murdoch said, “All that consoles is fake”. It’s the opposite. It’s the deep truth of our life in God, and the perspective we bring to our work, and the fuel which gives us the energy to keep on doing it.
Now I am. In many ways, I am, is the central image of western society and culture since the enlightenment. I think therefore I am. I shop therefore I am. The autonomous individual is King and whatever I want is my right. Technically, this is called affective individualism, and it means that the atomised individual is always sovereign. But here again, the Christian Gospel comes with its critique, as the teaching and the practice of the Christian Church was and is to show a radically different world from the so-called natural order of dog eat dog and the weak go the wall. In this new world, the Magnificat is the song in which the poor are fed and the humble lifted high. Affective individualism can never do this, which is one of the reasons that without the critique of the faith communities western society will end in sterile and arid ways from which disaffected individuals will seek violent release. Watch the 4 episodes of The State on Channel 4 which tells the dramatized stories of people disaffected by western society and going to fight for Islamic State, now in their final days. Having just come back from areas liberated from Da’esh or Islamic State I found it no accident that much of the violent and disturbing graffiti they left behind, especially in churches was in European languages. The I AM of western society, itself a kind of violent suppression, has become the trigger producing the ugly reaction which we see in Da’esh and other forms of violent reaction against western individualism. But my experience was also in the light of the reconstruction of life which the Easter people – the Christian Churches of Iraq- are doing with astonishing speed and energy. Here we see the real I AM, of life in God’s slipstream. Home communities being rebuilt with the energy of the Resurrection. This is the real I am, in the slip stream of God.
And finally, I will be. In 2017, I will be 10 kilos lighter. I will be Master of the universe when climb to the top of my organisational greasy pole. I will be many things. But in the eyes of God, all are seen simultaneously- I was, I am, I will be. One of the most powerful films I saw in 2016 was the film Arrival – which tells the story of 12 UFO’s coming to earth with creatures inside them. The world’s top linguistic experts cannot work out how to communicate with the creatures until it is discovered that their language is circular, not linear, and that they do not exist in time, by which time the creatures have become bored with trying to communicate with humans, and fly off again in their space ships. You can imagine why I found this so riveting. The power of religious language and life in God is that it is cyclical, not linear, and that it gives the power of seeing in multi-dimensional ways. It is not one dimensional. Take the responsibility, which we heard in the New Testament reading, to care for the stranger. You could say that this is simple effective social policy – but it’s much more than that, because our Christian tradition and religious language in general has the capacity to invert all that we see, where I am the refugee, or I was the refugee, or I will be the refugee. Even our use of language can powerfully demonstrate this multi-dimensional way of seeing things, especially when we think of the Christian status of the refugee. Please read this. Now read it from bottom to top.
I hope in these examples, I have given the sense of the Christian Church working through the natural order and at the same time subverting and inverting it. We live in God’s slipstream of time – Was, Am, and Will be simultaneously. As the season changes from summer to autumn, this is a small example of God’s natural world showing time as cyclical. In the Christian tradition, time is cyclical and not linear. This allows all of us to get caught up into God’s slip steam as we get behind him as I was becomes I am and will be. All at the same time. This is the life of the Resurrection as we enter the Autumn and why Alleluia is our constant song.
They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way
(When you have read this, now read it from the bottom to the top)