January 10, 2021

Help, Thanks, Wow! The Lord’s Prayer, II: How’d You Know My Name?

Passage: Exodus 3:1–15

Katie Lancaster’s sabbatical project that she is working on while she’s away from us is called Prayer in Uncertain Times. A very relevant topic, right for the times we’re going through, and so out of solidarity with Katie, Christine, and I are preaching a sermon series during Epiphany which is called Help, Thanks, Wow! The Lord’s Prayer. Help, thanks, wow are the three best payers according Anne Lamott. According to Jesus of Nazareth, the best prayer is only 38 words long (at least in the Gospel of Luke). Annie and Jesus are both masters of the simple.

"Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But 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 say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations."

College football has been so insane and truncated this season that I haven’t been paying as much attention as I do in most years. Plus my team is terrible. That takes all the fun out of it.

But I started paying attention when Northwestern contended for the Big Ten Championship, and I started noticing all these strange headlines in the media. “Sermon Breaks Record.”  “Sermon Is a New Weapon.”  “Sermon Is a New Dynamic.” “LeBron Praises Sermon.”

I was jubilant. Most of the time these days it seems to preachers as if they’re preaching in outer space, where there is neither sound nor congregation. No one hears you. And then your words drop instantly into a ravenous black hole and are never heard from again. So when I hear that a sermon breaks a record or is admired by LeBron James, I get all excited.

The headlines, of course, were talking about Ohio State running back Trey Sermon, who piled up 331 yards against Northwestern and broke a record. I don’t know how Trey got that surname, but I looked it up, and it’s likely that one of his ancestors was a preacher.

Names can mislead you. Or they can tell you exactly who a person is. Nomen omen, said the Romans.[1] Nomen omen: the name is a sign.

I went to school with Mr. and Mrs. Barr’s daughter. They named her Candy. She was sweet.

For 35 years my father worked for the aeronautics company Lear Siegler, which was founded by Bill Lear, who also founded Lear Jet. He named his daughter Shanda. She was bright.

Mr. and Mrs. Case named their son ‘Justin.’

Nomenclature is destiny. They tell me that Winston Churchill’s neurosurgeon was Lord Brain.

The conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra is Sir Simon Rattle. He is good with percussion and brass.

There is a preacher named Peter Popoff.

In the 80's there was a champion 400-meter hurdler named Marina Stepanova. She was just steppin’ova those hurdles.

Nomen omen. The name is a sign. Thus, one of the most beloved stories in the Hebrew Bible. Before he became famous, future freedom fighter Moses is out in the wilderness tending his father-in-law’s sheep when he sees the most remarkable sight: a burning bush that sparks and flames on and on without dying away and turning to a pile of ash.

Moses turns aside to see this marvelous thing, and discovers that not only does this bush have inexhaustible fuel, but a voice too. It not only burns; it talks.

And it says, “Moses, come no closer! Take off your shoes; you’re standing on holy ground!” This flaming tree is a theophany.

Sensibly, Moses asks, “Who are you?” And for the first time in the Biblical narrative God speaks God’s holy name. God says, “I am who I am,” or perhaps better, “I will be what I will be.” God says, “My name is Yahweh.”

It is called the tetragrammaton, or the four consonants: Y, H, W, H.  God’s name is some mysterious variant of the third person singular of the Hebrew verb “to be.” “I will be what I will be,” or “I cause to be.”

Well, what in the world does that mean? It’s intentionally slippery; it is inscrutable on purpose. Because God will not be pinned down.  God will not be owned.

Moses asks, “What is your name?” God says “Yahweh,” and maybe the best translation might be “That’s none of your business, Moses. You just tell Pharaoh to let my people go.”

It’s a holy and cryptic mystery; still God deigns to share God’s name with God’s people, and instantly the deus absconditus becomes the deus revelatus: the hidden God becomes the revealed God.

And when Jesus teaches the perfect prayer to his best friends, the first thing he does is tell us where God lives—in Heaven—and the second thing he instructs us to do is to make a promise: “Hallowed be thy name.” Sacred stay your sobriquet. Holy hold your handle.

God is holy, different, other, set apart. There is nothing like God in all creation. Well, what am I saying? God is not IN creation. God does not exist. Existence is for protons, plankton, peonies, ponderosa pines, pandas, porpoises, and Presbyterians.

God stands outside all creation, and God’s name must be kept holy, so when we pray “Holy be your name,” we are promising to make our lives pale copies and dim echoes of God’s unapproachable splendor. We promise to live lunar lives. That is to say, the moon has no incandescence of its own. It borrows its sheen from the sun. So with my own small, quiet life: I must show a reflected glory to the world.

Sometimes the sacred reaches down to sanctify the secular. When John Sexton was President of New York University, he taught the most wonderful class: Baseball as a Road to God. Gosh, I wish I’d gone to NYU, but they wouldn’t have me.

Dr. Sexton says that some people find the Holy at mass. Others discover the Holy in a Beethoven symphony. For others, a Sandy Koufax curve ball.

Then Dr. Sexton quotes James Joyce: “Almost anything may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.”[2] So you might find a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods at Holy Name Cathedral or at Wrigley Field. By the way, do you notice that Chicago’s cathedral gets its name from the Lord’s Prayer?

Sometimes the sacred reaches down to sanctify the secular. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are semi-sacred scriptures for Americans; even for the whole world; many existing democracies learned how to do it from those documents; only the Dutch and the Swiss and some aboriginal tribes got there before Jefferson, though I guess you could argue that the English curtsied in the direction of democracy with the Magna Carta. Our soldiers and sailors are willing to die for those scriptures; many have.

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in..."

Ever since President Lincoln spoke those immortal words in his greatest speech under the brand new Capitol Dome in 1865, that Dome has stood as an emblem of liberty and a standard of democracy for the entire world.

That’s why so many of us are horrified and broken over what we witnessed on Wednesday. It was a profanation of the semi-sacred.

Parading the Confederate flag, a symbol of chattel slavery, beneath that Dome was obscene, literally. A Camp Auschwitz T-Shirt in that space was a profanation of the semi-sacred.

Now it’s up to us to re-sanctify the semi-sacred. You know how we do that? We re-sanctify the semi-sacred by telling each other the truth. Because The Truth—capital ‘T’—is holy. The Truth is a sine qua non of every healthy, peaceful, human community. Lies are lethal. They kill, literally. The Truth is obligatory for every last one of us, including Presidents and Mayors.

Truth and Transparency: two pillars of shrewd leadership—in church, in academia, in business, and in government. You can’t manage a great city like Chicago from under an opaque shroud of secrecy. “The truth will out,” says Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice (II, ii).

So, as fellow citizens of the United States of America, and as faithful disciples of the One who taught us to pray, we strive to keep holy things holy—the semi-sacred symbols of our democracy, and the holy name of God.

At that burning bush, God stooped down low to speak God’s own name to God’s own people—Yahweh; “I Will Be What I Will Be.”

But that relationship is reciprocal: God knows our names too. You’ve probably guessed where my sermon title comes from. The story is probably apocryphal, but stories can be apocryphal but also theologically profound. It’s what a little boy heard when he first began learning The Lord’s Prayer. He prayed, “Our Father which art in heaven, how’d you know my name?” And God will answer, “I made you, and I will never forget.”

[1]My single year of undergraduate Latin was so long ago that I would not have known this unless I’d read the very fine article “Notes from a Baby Names Obsessive,” by Laura Collins in The New Yorker, August 7–14, 2017, pp. 24–28.

[2]John Sexton, Baseball as a Road to God (New York: Gotham Books, 2013), p. 212.