I Am What I Am
Isaiah 6:1-8 (9-13); Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
February 10, 2019 – Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
I am what I am. That is about as powerful a statement as can be expressed in human speech. The only thing I can think of that might come close to it is God’s answer to Moses.
Moses has been drawn to the burning bush. God calls to him out of the flame, “I have a ministry for you…and it’s a dandy.” Moses makes all kinds of excuses – like every other prophet that is called from human striving to divine purpose.
“Who am I that I should go for you?” God tells him to go anyway, even though it looks improbable because, “I will be with you.”
So Moses – not that he’s not in awe of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – says, “Okay. So let’s say that I go and tell your people that they are to follow me out of Egypt…out of bondage…into the wilderness....back into the Promised Land…and they say, “What is his name who has sent you to call us?” Then what shall I tell them?
Do you remember God’s answer to Moses…out of the burning bush? God said, “I am that I am. Tell them I AM sent you.”
You can’t be any more than who you really are, dear Moses…but you can be all of that. You are called to be all of that…blessed to be a blessing. No matter where you have been. No matter what has happened to you. I choose you…to live.
You are still the gift God sent into the world. Don’t ask, “Who am I that I should go?” Just say these two little words. They will wipe away everything that has transpired in your life and in your world.
They will show you new friends. You will be surprised who you friends are. They will show you that you know far more than you thought you knew. You will say to yourself…because it is too embarrassing to say it to anyone else:… “I didn’t know that I knew that.”
These are the two little words to say when you don’t know what else to say, say: “Yes, Lord.” We are equipped in ways that we cannot see. That is our blind spot. We are called in ways that we cannot hear, because we are too judgmental about ourselves. Just say, “Yes, Lord.”
“Who am I?” you say. You sit in worship in a Christian church and you ask, “Who am I?” I ask you: Who else is there? If you, my United Methodist friends, are not called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the widow and the orphan and welcome the sojourner…well, who is?
Paul had more excuses than Moses had. He had not just killed an Egyptian who had oppressed a Jew. He had persecuted the church of Christ, the body of Christ in the world.
He had held the cloaks of those who had stoned the Apostle Stephen, the church’s first martyr. He was on his way to kill a few more when he was called to the great mystery of ministry that became the church we know today.
He would be despised by the Pharisees as a traitor to his class and he would be suspected to by his fellow believers who found it hard to trust he had really changed… that he was not a spy collecting names for future persecutions.
Paul had to wander through his wilderness, too, as the people of Israel had been called to do…as Jesus had done…as Abraham had done…as Matthew and Mark and Luke and John did.
Today, Paul acknowledges all of this: “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am.”
But Paul does not stop here. He goes on, to proclaim the power of the Word to all who can hear: “and God’s grace to me was not without effect.”
Isaiah is called to a great ministry to a people who will lose their coutry, will be forced into Exile, and who will not see their government rule their land for 1900 years. “I am ruined!” he cries when he hears the call from the Word into his world, “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the LORD Almighty.”
He is humbled. He is unworthy. He is called. So one of the seraphim touches him on the lips with a live coal and says, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Of course we are unworthy. Of course we are unequipped. But we are alive and so long as we are alive, my fellow Christians, we are called and the answer to that question… the only answer that is available to you…is “Yes, Lord.”
Mike Mansfield was unworthy, according to The Powers That Be in Washington, D.C. back in 1963 when President Kennedy was facing a tough reelection fight and his legislative agenda had not found its way through Congress, and particularly the Senate.
When Lyndon Johnson had been Majority Leader he leaned on people and pressured people and made them do what he wanted them to do. Sen. Mansfield just told his fellow Senators to do the work of the nation and had left them to follow their own best judgment.
And not much had happened. It got so bad that Mansfield prepared a major policy speech to answer his critics and he asked for time on Friday to deliver it.
But that was Friday, November 22, 1963 and when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, he simply asked unanimous consent the next Wednesday to insert the text into the Congressional Record, the daily transcript of Senate proceedings.
Between that Friday and that Wednesday, of course, he had spoken in the Capitol Rotunda, in memory of the late President, and he had given his surprisingly poetic talk about the President’s widow leaning over the coffin, saying, “She took a ring from her finger and placed it in his hands.”
Alone among all the important people of the greatest capital in the world, he had seen that this was not just a great event in American history or world history, it was an unspeakable tragedy that had befallen a family…our First Family … he alone saw a widow and her children.
There was no more talk about him being out of his depth as Majority Leader or a mistake of history. But in his prepared text, he had said, "There is reference (by members and the media), to be sure, to time wasting, to laziness, to absenteeism, to standing still, and so forth. But who are the time wasters in the Senate, Mr. President? Who is lazy? Who is an absentee?
“Each member can make his own judgment of his individual performance. I make no apologies for mine. Nor will I sit in judgment on any other member. On that score, each of us will answer to his own conscience, if not to his constituents.”
He built to a crescendo, far more dramatic than anyone had expected to deliver the humble truth. “I shall not don any Mandarin's robes or any skin other than that to which I am accustomed in order that I may look like a majority leader or sound like a majority leader--however a majority leader is supposed to look or sound. I am what I am, and no title, political face-lifter, or image-maker can alter it.”
It was in this frame of mind, with this speech in his hand that he had heard of the tragedy in Dallas and simply made his record with a silent transcript after standing in the Rotunda of the United States Capital to express sincere condolences to a family who had just been stricken with a terrible blow. Job would have understood …and so had the gentleman from Montana.
He was who he was and he could not be any more than that…but he refused to be any less, too. Paul was who he was, and he was willing to become all of that…even though it would cost him dearly.
And Paul, the Jew who was a Pharisee of Pharisees, the Greek who had studied at the foot of Gamaliel, and the Roman who would become a prisoner in Caesar’s household, was the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of his day…all rolled into one.
When he finally admitted that he was not who he wanted to be but was who he was…that was when he became better than his intentions… that he was more powerful than all the powers in the world…and greater than greatest of his day… and wrote words read around the world 2,000 years later.
Mansfield showed us that we become extraordinary when we acknowledge how ordinary we are and we become great because we give the Good Lord permission to make us great.
Fast forward 11 years, from 1963 to 1974, to Watergate (with Vietnam still going on) and he is the most trusted man in an untrusting country. I was finishing law school and working in the Senate Democratic Cloakroom. Peggy DiMichelle, his Montana Office manager was in a snit one day when I walked in.
I asked her what the problem was. She told me that she had finally told “the boss” the day before that the whole nation was looking to him for leadership and it was time for him to start buying his suits somewhere besides J.C. Penny. “So?” I asked.
“Well, last night he went out and bought a new suit!” she said. “So?” I asked. “He bought it at J.C. Penny!” she said. And just then, the Senator came out of his office and walked by us…with this mischievous grin on his face.
Peggy was having a very bad day and the boss was having a lot of fun …because he was who he was… nothing more…and he refused to be anything less.
We are a little church on the shore of a magnificent lake in a great valley next to the most beautiful park in the world. One day Ollie told me, by the way, that he knew what “GNP” meant.
I was surprised but I bit anyway. “What does GNP stand for?” “Glacier National Park!”
So are we a little church or are we a church next to the greatest place in the world? Are we unworthy or are we called? Are we who we want to be or who God wants us to be?
Every now and then all our shrugs and denials fall away from us. From time to time we can no longer deny what we might become. Finally, no matter what else we do…no matter what else we had thought for so long…we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the hall mirror and we cannot get that image out of our minds…or out of our lives.
I am what I am, you are what you are, and we are what we are…
and God calls us to do what God needs to be done.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me….this day? Amen.