Knowing Whose We Are - July 20, 2014

Exodus 6:2-9

A month ago today the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference opened with members from churches in Washington and the panhandle of Idaho, both lay and clergy. Our theme was, "What's the Next Act?" The theme is set by our Bishop. It guides worship, for which I have particular responsibilities as the chair of the worship team, and the overall work of the conference.
The Bishop also chose theme Scriptures which we used at worship and in an early morning Bible Study led by Dr. Jeffrey Kuan, president of the Claremont School of Theology and an Old Testament scholar.
To share with you some of what took place at Conference, we'll spend the next three weeks exploring some of those Scriptures. We'll also use some of the liturgy. Our own CH drew the pictures used for the worship bulletins and we'll use those too.
"What's our Next Act?" was Bishop Hagiya's way of helping us to think about how the church moves forward into the future. Before moving forward it is necessary to remember who we are and whose we are.
At Annual Conference that remembering took place on our first day as we gathered together. Clergy are required to attend and many churches send the same lay members year after year. Others are new to Conference, as were our two lay members, so gathering means both reunion with old friends and making new ones.
This year the Opening service took a special focus because of where we were: the Puyallup Fairgrounds. During World War II they were an assembly center for Japanese Americans being sent to internment camps. It was called Camp Harmony. To acknowledge this sad history, Japanese Americans who were at the camps read poems and shared stories. Our Bishop, a third generation Japanese American who was born after the war, shared some of his family's experiences. It was a deeply moving time.

In fact, as my team planned worship, the Camp Harmony theme took on a life of its own. We used origami cranes as a central visual, both in honor of their meaning as signs of peace for Japanese Americans and as signs of healing and hope for our Conference. Moscow contributed as the PEO group to which many of you belong donated cranes they have given to their members facing illness and loss.
Friday evening of Conference is the Memorial Service at which we remember clergy and beloved laity who have died in the last year. This year two of the laity had Moscow connections: Erin Walker and Stan Thomas. Because the fairgrounds forbids the use of live flame, we gave their family members cranes instead of lighting candles.
The people we remember at this service were role models in faith and ministry for many of us. They were the ones who taught us that we belong to God. They were the ones who showed us how to follow God's call into a land of promise.
The Scripture for the day was the text from Exodus read earlier. "God also spoke to Moses and said to him, 'I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name, 'the LORD' I did not make myself known to them."
Earlier, Moses had encountered God in a bush which burned without being consumed. God had called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt and Moses had asked for God's name. "I am who I am," God told Moses. In Hebrew that is printed as four letters, YHWH. Our best attempt at pronunciation is Yahweh.
The Hebrew people believed that God's name was so holy it should never be pronounced aloud. They substituted 'The LORD' in its place.
This passage notes that the patriarchs had known God by another name. Our translation says, "God Almighty." The Hebrew is Shadday or El Shaddai. The exact meaning is uncertain. Some believe it was a reference to a mountain – sadu. It may have originally meant the mountain god, one who was as firm and solid as a mountain.
Others look to the root, sdd which means "to deal violently, devastate, or ruin." Later translations of the Bible put it as Almighty. The emphasis is on power or might.
Moses was the first one to know God's personal name. In our day and age, when we use first names so casually, it may be tough to understand what a big deal this was for Moses. Some of you are old enough to remember a time when people used titles more often. I am usually comfortable with first names, though with Bishop Hagiya I can't get there. He always introduces himself and signs emails to me as "Grant," and I call him Bishop Hagiya.
"Call me Yahweh," God says to Moses. The one who is. Five times in the eight verses of our reading we hear: "I am the LORD" Moses knows who he is. More importantly he knows whose he is: he belongs to Yahweh God, the One who is.
God further reiterates the covenant made first with Abraham, to give to God's people the land of Canaan. The people had fled famine and ended up as slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. Now, God renews the old promise. Moses is to lead them out of slavery back to the Promised Land. "I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment." In Bible times, to redeem meant to buy back. If ancestral land had to be sold, extended family members had first right of refusal, to keep it in the family. Likewise relatives could purchase family members who had been sold into slavery. In both cases the purchaser was called a kinsman-redeemer. It was a sacred obligation.
When God says to the Hebrew people, "I will redeem you with an outstretched arm," it indicates God's protective action toward those who belong to God. Enslaved by the Egyptians for centuries, God now promises to act as kinsman-redeemer for God's people. The covenant which had bound them to God since the days of Abraham was as valid now as it had always been.
"Moses told this to the Israelites, but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery." Four centuries of oppression had so beaten them down that they could not hear the hope of liberation Moses held before them. We know that even after they did follow Moses out of Egypt they were as plagued by doubts and fears as the Egyptians were by flies and frogs. Time and again they wondered if they had been better off in slavery than they were as free people.
Doubt and fear still break our spirits. It is hard to dare to hope when life has been filled with sorrow and hardship. "I'm not worthy of this blessing," we say, convinced of our sinfulness, unable to accept God's forgiveness.
The good news of God appears to resilient spirits that refuse to be enslaved or oppressed. At Annual Conference we celebrated the resilient spirits of the Japanese American people. Deprived of their freedom, treated as traitors though they were loyal citizens, whole families packed into horse stalls, still they dared to hope. Young men volunteered for military duty, risking their lives for the country that interred them. The music at the opening worship was led by the Minidoka Swing Band, because, we were told, the people in the camps listened to swing band music.
Japanese Americans lost property and possessions when they went to the camps. Japanese American churches often lost their buildings and land, unable to reclaim them after the war. One exception was the Seattle Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church. When it was founded Japanese Americans were not allowed to own property, so Mr. Ed Blaine from Seattle First Methodist signed the deed. When the order to go to the camps was issued, Mr. Blaine promised to watch over the church. After the war it was returned to them in good order, almost a modern form of a kinsmen-redeemer. It is now called the Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church in honor of that resilient spirit. It is still a vibrant faith community, reflecting a multi-Asian and multi-ethnic character of the Seattle area. They know whose and who they are: God's people who know the Great I Am.
Another thing we heard about at Conference was the Ministry Fund Drive. We'll be taking a closer look at that in a few weeks. For now let me say that the drive hopes to raise money to do three things: start new churches, revitalize existing ones, and support the Imagine No Malaria fund. I am very proud that our Church Council set a goal of a minimum of $10,000 for our contribution to that campaign. We're still working out how to raise that amount and whether to designate it for any of the three areas.
What excites me about our goal is that it is a way of being kinsmen-redeemers for churches with broken spirits who don't know how to move forward into God's future. That may mean starting new churches in under-served areas, perhaps for ethnic populations. It may be bringing new life to struggling churches or enhancing already vibrant churches like ours. We know who we are and whose we are: the people of God bound in covenant to a land of promise still before us.