This will be month of mountaintop experiences.
We’ll explore stories in scripture where someone goes up a sacred summit and there encounters, has revealed to them something of the Holy One.
This week will be Moses’ encounter with the tremendous mystery of the Holy I Am, on Mt. Sinai, also known as Mt. Horeb. Next week will be Elijah, went up to a cave on Mt. Sinai, and encountered the transcendent power of God through what the story describes as a “humming stillness.” The week after that will be the flaming cloud on Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and we’ll also touch on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in order to explore the theme of the Goodness, Wisdom, and Justice that encounters with God compel us to. Then the last week of February will be the story of Jesus’ mountaintop Transfiguration.
Alright, ready? Strap on your packs, we’re going up!
When Moses had his first God experience, this famous story about a burning bush on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 3:1-15) it’s important to understand the desperation of his circumstances. We’re going to take seriously that these mountaintop experiences happened to people who were in the midst of the intensity of their lives.
Moses was part of an enslaved people. The Egyptians at that time held the Hebrew people as slaves and treated them with horrific brutality. Moses himself, however, was raised as the adopted child of Pharaoh’s daughter. He knew his Hebrew birth mother and he knew he was Hebrew, but he enjoyed the privilege of being raised in the Egyptian court.
One day when Moses was a grown man, he went out to the Hebrew slave camps. There he witnessed an Egyptian enslaver beating brutally a Hebrew man. Moses, just instinctively, went to the man’s defense. He attacked the Egyptian and he killed him. Moses now was not protected by the privilege of his upbringing.
He had to flee for his life. He fled Egypt, and ended up living as a foreigner, a refugee, on the other side of the Red Sea. There he was welcomed and was able to make a life for himself. But his fate now was now tied to the fate of his people and to the sacred possibility of their freedom from enslavement. And it was his encounter with the Holy One that drove this home.
To understand that encounter, let me first name here an important thing about the condition of enslavement:
Slavery is a system of violence in which an entire people are treated as if they had no personhood. It’s about denying the very soul of their being. It is treating people as objects, literally possessions to be bought and sold and bred and bartered over and discarded when broken.
I don’t know about what Egyptians believed at the time but I know at least in our country there has been a lot of effort put to justifying the practice of slavery in our history by concocting beliefs that people from Africa or indigenous Americans or whomever get enslaved are somehow not actually people, they are literally of a different animal species. Or if they are acknowledged to be of the same species, they are so deficient as humans, by nature or nurture, they do not deserve to be treated as if they are people. Racist beliefs take all kinds of forms throughout history, the beliefs people fabricate to justify denying the reality of someone’s very personhood, the very heart of someone’s being. It can be astounding, the creativity and capacity to tolerate contraction and absurdity that gets put into concocting reasons to believe that the fact that “we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights” doesn’t pertain to the people we don’t want it to pertain to, because of the color of their skin, or language or national origin, or citizenship status or whatever … or just because they happen to be the people who happen to be the victims of our violence or oppression. (For a seminal resource, see “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi)
This is what’s going on in all kinds of situations of oppression, not only the violence of slavery. In any kind of oppression there is a fundamental denial of someone’s beinghood, whatever the justification is. It’s very clearly apparent in the practice of slavery, being a brutally well-organized systems of violence that’s pretty honest about the fact that it’s denying the very beinghood of people. But that kind of denial or erasing of beinghood is going on in any situation of oppressive violence.
The reason why I name this when it comes to the story of Moses, is to lift up that liberation from oppression of whatever kind, requires the recovery of people’s Beinghood, the recovery and the re-assertion of the core of who someone is in their essence in their soul.
That’s what happened when Moses received a God-experience on Mt. Sinai. What revealed itself to Moses was the source of liberation, which is nothing less than the Source of All Being, the Great Creative Power behind all that is, all that was, and all that ever shall be.
The Holy I Am.
God said to Moses, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh: I am what I am,” and added, “Here is what to say to the people of Isra’el: ‘Ehyeh – I Am – has sent me to you.’” Not just a being among beings. But the Ground of All Being. The Eternal, the Infinite, the Self-Manifest, the Immutable Power behind all beinghood. This Holy One is Beyond anything we can properly name or properly imagine. The Name God revealed to Moses “Y-H-W-H” is beyond any meaning or even pronunciation.
I love the tradition within Judaism that teaches the pronunciation of “YHWH” to be the sound of breath itself, the cosmic breath of Being.
Through all this riddling of names in Exodus, what Moses discovered is that the infinite source of all being is intimately present to us as the source of our own being. Closer to me than my breath, as Luther would put it. Closer to me than my jugular vein, as the Koran puts it. Closer to my than I am to myself, as Augustine puts it.
That Holy I Am What I Am called to Moses by name: “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses responded: “Here I Am”.
Here. I. Am.
Then it was disclosed to Moses his purpose for being, which was to join his will with the Will of the Holy I Am to work to liberate his people from all the forces that would deny them their being.
To this, Moses replied, “Who am I? Who am I to do this?”
And God said, “I will be with you.”
The great Jewish teacher Martin Buber recounts a Hasidic story about a certain Rabbi named Zusya. He was on his death-bed, quickly approaching the end of his life. He turned to his students and he said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
The teaching in the story of Moses is not we must judge our own lives against the lives of the great prophets and liberators of history. But rather, someone like Moses or Harriett Tubman, or the Nobel Peace Laureates the youth are learning about, can be inspirations to us to open ourselves to the Holy Source of All Being – the Holy I Am What I Am, to hear that cosmic I Am call us by name.
And we ourselves respond by breathing in and breathing out and saying, “Here I Am.”
“When I rest in the silence of contemplation, you, Lord, speak within my heart, saying: ‘Be you your own and I will be yours’… You, Lord, cannot be mine if I am not my own.” – Nicholas of Cusa
It is in relationship with the living God we can experience the recovery of the of our own being, and enjoy their nourishment and restoration.
From there, being who-ever it is we are, whatever our gifts and limitations, whatever our place and time and condition, from there then we can know however it is we are called to help liberate others so they may be free to be who it is God has created them to be.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered Sunday, February 2, 2020 by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, United Church of Christ. Gratitude for David Bentley Hart’s book “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss”)