Below is a link to listen to the sermon by The Rev. Posey Krakowsky on the Fifth Sunday of Easter.
Easter 5, Year A
I would like to start by wishing everyone a happy mother’s day — to all of you who are mothers, in whatever way. You are a blessing to the world and to the children you shelter and hold. We do not have to be biological mothers to generate mothering energy in this world — nor do we have to essentialize that ability to only those who have given physical birth. All of us have the capacity to mother each other — in the best sense — to gaze with attentive love and affection on others — to truly see them in all of their glo-rious particularity — and to hold them up and encircle them with blessing. Good moth-ering is a gift we can all bestow. So I wish this special day’s blessings on all of us mothers, each and every one. And special love as well to those who are missing their mothers who have become saints in light. We see you too. And we hold you close to our hearts.
And speaking of mothering — I’d like to add a shout out to Mother Liz Maxwell — I heard through the grapevine that this month marks the 5th anniversary of her becoming the rector of Ascension — talk about mothering energy! Liz, you mother us in all the best ways, and we are incredibly blessed to be guided by you We cannot thank you enough, Liz. Truly.
So, I’d like to begin by reading you a short passage from Exodus chp 3.
Then 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 God’s name?’ What shall I say to them?”
And God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” 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; the God of Sarah, the God of Rebekah, and the God of Rachel, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations.”
I am who I am.
You might be wondering why you are hearing Exodus today, especially because it is not one of the scriptures assigned for this Sunday.
But I don’t think we can hear John’s gospel and NOT think about Moses and what God says to him on the mountain.
I am who I am.
In fact, if we DON’T think about Moses and that specific conversation when we listen to John’s gospel, then it is very likely that we will go astray in our interpretations. Because John’s gospel Is a narrative that is chock a block full of Jesus saying the words: “I am.”
I am the bread of life.
I am the gate.
I am the living water.
I am the true vine.
I am the light of the world.
I am the good shepherd.
I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.
I am the way.
I am the truth.
I am the resurrection and the life.
Scholars call these particular verses in John the “ego eimi” sayings — the “I AM” state-ments. And I want to pause for a moment and say how grateful I am to Mo. Liz for priming us in her sermon last week – for pointing out so accurately the tendency to misuse these “ego eimi” statements as justification for not only gatekeeping around salvation, but also straight up antisemitism. We need to keep this in mind today, because our passage contains a corollary statement that has become one of the major proof texts for asserting Christian supremacy. And that supremacy is not even afforded to all Christians, just a specific subset of Christians.
When we put these passages into the larger Judeo-Christian conversation, we avoid going down that same road and causing damage by what we say about them.
The verse I am talking about is, of course:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Honestly, I’ve heard this sentence misused so often, it pretty much sets my hair on fire and makes me want to run screaming from the room.
So let’s put that fire out.
Let’s not let the literalist inerrancy believers have the last say.
Let’s sit with the discomfort and allow it to speak to us.
Let’s reclaim this passage.
As Christians who follow the way of Love, reaching back to the passage in Exodus helps us put out the outrage fire so that the real fire — the fire of the gospel — can kindle our hearts and shine out into the world.
We all know that our scriptures should never be heard in isolation. Every one of them is in conversation with those that came before it — and indeed, with those that came after. John’s gospel was the last of the four canonical gospels to be written, so this text itself was not only in conversation with the Hebrew scriptures, but also with the other early Christian texts that were in circulation at the time, including many that did not make it into the canon.
We also know that John’s gospel utilizes much more overtly poetic language than any of the three synoptics. Right out of the gate in the prologue John seeks to move us into a totally different head space: “In the beginning was the Word.” John’s prologue is right brain, poetic, untamable language — full of sounds, images, symbols, and pictures. It’s in sharp contrast to Luke, who begins his gospel by describing it as “an account (…) just as (was) reported to us by those who from the beginning were eye witnesses.” John’s version is not a biographical narrative.Believe it or not, I have even heard some scholars suggest that John’s gospel was written as the script for a play.
So, given the poetic voice of this gospel, for me, there is little question that the I AM statements are in direct conversation with what God says to Moses in Exodus. What better way to let us know immediately that we are talking about the in-breaking of God — the shift from transcendence to immanence? John takes us directly back to one of the most hallowed moments in the history of the people of Israel — the theophany of God on the mountain. That theophany: the story of the burning bush, of Moses removing his sandals, of Moses hiding his own face so that he would not see God’s own face — all of this marks the beginning of the liberation story for the people of Israel, just as John’s prologue is the beginning of the Christian liberation story. Both are stories of God reaching out in love to shelter us with mothering energy — working to partner with us in order to save God’s people.
The burning bush resonance takes us straight into the heart of the mystery — and John knows that. He deliberately uses the repetitive I AM statements in his gospel to invite us to follow him into that same mystery.
Perhaps many of us have lost the sense of mystery in these texts because we have heard them so often. It might help us to hear a few lines from a related text — one that was written sometime in the 300 year period that straddles the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Discovered among the buried ancient scrolls found in Nag Hammadi, scholars refer to this particular text as The Thunder Perfect Mind.
I am the first and the last.
I am she who is honored and she who is mocked.
I am the whore and the holy woman.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the limbs of my mother.
I am a sterile woman and she has many children.
I am both awareness and obliviousness.
I am humiliation and pride.
I am she who exists in all fears and in the trembling of boldness.
I am the coming together and the falling apart.
I am the enduring and the disintegration.
The tension in those couplets is palpable.
There is so much power in holding the opposites together.
The poetic language of the Thunder Perfect Mind jolts us into a totally different way of being. We are not reading a biography here. We are reaching out to try to touch the ineffable — pointing our fingers at the moon, as our Buddhist friends say.
And God said to Moses: I am who I am.
This is a statement that points to ultimacy, to being itself, to the source of all that is.
This is a statement that also points to intimacy — to an inexplicable kind of self aware knowing.
Will we ever fully understand what it means? Can we fully explain it with words?
And that’s the point.
To explain it is to lose its potency. To explain it is to lose its resonance.
We cannot explain it with words, because we cannot explain God with words.
We cannot explain it with words, because our words always fall short.
We cannot explain it with words, because the only way to truly approach it, is to experience it and to feel it.
“Be Still,” God says in Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.”
When John’s Jesus uses “I am” statements, he is describing exactly that — a way of being — a way of knowing — a way of living in relationship. This is the kind of person-al relationship that is built on trust, not on score keeping. It’s the kind of personal relationship that one has with someone one would call Abba, Mother, Sister, Father, Brother, Friend, Sweetheart, Beloved.
When John writes “no one comes to the Father except through me” he is describing a universal human experience — the experience of being in an “I/Thou” relationship that is based on mutuality. John seeks to differentiate that type of relationship from the kind of master/servant, “I/It” relationship that has been the basis of human power dynamics from the dawn of time. It doesn’t matter what name we give to this all encompassing and ineffable mutuality that is the great I AM. It is too big to ever belong to only one group or species or planet or universe. As Christians, we call it Christ. Muslims call it Allah. Buddhists call it the Ground of Being. Hindus call it by many, many names: Dur-ga, Ram, Devi, Shiva, Krishna, Shakti.
Whatever name you use, to this creator, we are not objects, we are subjects. When we walk with this God, we discover that what we are, our very being, is relationship. And we understand that our own self cannot truly exist without others. There is no I without Thou. An individual self does not “have experiences.” The individual self instead IS its experiences. There is no existence outside of relationship. As the Zulu people express it, “I am because We are.”
John’s “I AM” statements are telling us that God IS mutuality. God IS relationship itself. And so are we. God breathed life into creation, because God did not wish to be alone. God does not wish us to be alone either. In fact, we cannot even be if we are alone. Jesus is calling us to trust that this is so — that we are seen, we are beloved, we are heard, we are known, we are held.
In this passage, Jesus says: “Believe in God, believe also in me.” It is a statement about the kind of mutuality that exists in relationships built on trust — not relationships built on coercion.
John is describing relationships where all of the parties are fully aware of our mutual interdependence — that they are because we are. It is no coincidence that our passage today comes shortly after Jesus has washed the disciples feet and given the new commandment to the disciples: “…that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
If all of this sounds too metaphysical — I invite you to close your eyes briefly and experience it for a few moments. Just close your eyes and breathe.
Breathe in, and let the calm settle within you. Breathe out and feel the panic release.
Breathe in, and feel God’s love flow into you. Breathe out and send that love back out to the world.
Breathe in, and feel the Spirit enter your lungs. Breathe out — and return that blessing to the world.
In this difficult and increasingly divisive time in our country — indeed in the world — as this pandemic continues to ravage the globe and to erode trust—as beautiful black lives like Sean Reed and Ahmaud Arbery continue to be cut short in our streets, people of faith are called to be the light and to call forth the light in others, even in those who do their best to tamp it out within themselves.
Two weeks ago, Fr. Ed spoke about continuing to nurture the light within ourselves, and how that was so increasingly important in this time. His sermon helped me hear the first line of our passage today in a totally different way than I ever had before.
Do not let your hearts be troubled.
Before Ed’s sermon, I had always heard that as the equivalent of “do not be afraid, trust in God.”
Don’t let fear overtake you.
But now, I hear it differently.
I also hear it saying to us, “do not let your hearts become twisted” — once again, an Exodus reference: do not let your heart be hardened like Pharaoh’s heart.
No matter what happens, do not become someone who deliberately tamps down the light within you.
So here are some new I AM statements that I wrote for us in our current time.
I am the hands of the check out clerk at the grocery.
I am the feet of the Postal Worker.
I am the legs of the nurses blocking protesters from cutting ambulance access to the hospital in Denver.
I am the masked face of the security guard being yelled at in the Michigan state house.
I am the hard won skills of the doctors inserting the tubes.
I am the fingers of the nurse who holds the hands of the dying.
I am the heart of the hospital chaplain who prays for the patients.
I am the compassion of the funeral directors.
I am the arms of the inmate digging graves on Hart Island.
Take another moment: Breathe in. Breathe out.
Last Friday night, I read a lovely Sabbath prayer posted by a Jewish colleague.
I’d like to share it with you now:
The lighting of the lamps.
Don’t forget to light the lamps within.
God’s love flames where is is kindled. Shabbat Shalom.
(Leah Robinson Rousmaniere — Facebook Sacred Arts Ministries group – Friday May 1, 2020)
The Rev. Posey Krakowsky