Well, I think that some of you know that I, like our Reverend Marchiene Rienstra and our Reverend Ginny Makita, graduated from an interfaith seminary in New York City. That meant that during our seminary years, we didn't just study Christianity, we studied all of the world's major faith traditions. And now, although I graduated almost 15 years ago, I am still involved with the interfaith seminary and many of their classes and workshops and services, which are held online.
And a recent service began with a reader starting a prayer by saying this – she said, “We come to you, O God of many names.”
And I really liked that – God of many names – because there are so many names for God. We've got Yahweh and Jehovah, we've got Abba, Adonai, Allah, Brahman – there are hundreds of names for God. In today's Old Testament reading from the book of Exodus, which Kathleen read for us, Moses comes right out and asks God point blank, what is your name? And we actually get an answer!
This story, of course, is the famous story of Moses and the burning bush. You all know it, and I've spoken about it with you many times before. It is a highly symbolic story. Moses climbs up Mount Sinai, the holy mountain, the mountain of God, and they're all alone. He experiences this burning bush.
Symbolically, whenever we see mountains in the Bible, it symbolizes a place of higher consciousness. And whenever we see fire and flames in the Bible, it symbolizes the presence of the Divine. And so my friends, we, like Moses, can actually ascend to a place of higher consciousness. You don't have to physically climb a mountain, that you can ascend within.
Remember this quote from St. Isaac, the Syrian? He said, “The ladder to the kingdom of heaven is within you. Dive down deep, and you will find the steps with which to ascend.” That's what he said.
So we can experience the presence of God. We can. And you know, in the United Church of Christ, our motto is, “God is still speaking,” which means that we can not only experience the presence of God, we can also hear God's voice. But we've got to get still and quiet, and go within so that we can ascend to that place of higher consciousness like Moses did.
Now, in that place of higher consciousness, Moses hears God's voice, and the voice says, “You must leave the mountain, and you must lead the people out of Egypt, out of bondage.” And Moses says, “Well, what should I tell the people? Who should I tell them sent me? What's your name?” And God says, “I Am that I Am. Tell the people that I Am sent you.”
So that’s God’s name, I am the great I AM.
Those two words are so powerful. And it's why Scripture tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still and know that I Am the presence and power of God that is with you and within you.
And it's why Jesus gave us not one but seven “I Am” statements, things like “I am the light of the world. I am the bread of life. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
When Jesus spoke those “I Am” statements, he wasn't speaking as Jesus of Nazareth, the personal “I,” he was speaking from his I AM consciousness, his divine consciousness, his Christ consciousness.
And that, my friends is the purpose of the spiritual life, that's why we're here. Our purpose is to decrease the I, and to increase the I AM.
All of us have a personal self, which some spiritual teachers call a small self, or an ego self. The purpose of the spiritual life is to stop being led by that ego self, and to start being led by that spiritual self that I AM self.
That's why the front of your bulletin today says Spirit-led Living.
Now, I love in today's Gospel reading that Jesus, as he his calling together his first followers, actually says something that wouldn't really make sense if you were trying to get followers. He says, “Whoever wants to follow me, you must deny yourself and you must take up your cross every day.”
Now, why would you say that to people if you were trying to get them to follow you?
What Jesus was talking about when he said you must deny yourself, is that small self, that ego self. I loved our words of integration and guidance this morning by Reverend Polly Mooore that Kathleen read for us. And I loved what she said about having an “Out of Ego Experience” when she was visiting her friend in need. She said as my friend wept, telling me her story. My own story suddenly evaporated, she snapped me out of my fixation on me. And as I listened to her needs, my ego self didn't matter to me, only she mattered. Her tears, crucified my ego, and resurrected God.
The more we can have these out of ego experiences, the happier we'll be. That's why, my friends, if you notice Jesus's teachings, they were all about having out-of-ego experiences.
So he said things like, serve others, especially the least of these. Bless those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy, because when we do those things, we stop paying attention to the ego, the ego that says, “Love my enemy! You don't know what he did to me, I'll never forgive him.” That's being led by the ego.
Jesus wanted us to crucify the ego, so that we could resurrect the I Am presence that is within us. And that is what it means to take up your cross. When Jesus said, if you want to follow me, you'll have to take up your cross every day, he didn't mean you have to suffer every day. When you follow this way of life, these instructions of Jesus, you don't suffer. You're freed. You're freed from the bonds of the ego.
That's what it meant when Moses is instructed to lead the people out of Egypt, to lead them out of bondage. So that you could experience freedom, freedom from that ego self.
I've shared with you before that I love the symbol of the cross. I don't view it as a symbol of death. I view it as a symbol of resurrection and new life. For me, it represents the place where that human self, that personal ego self meets the I AM spiritual self and becomes one with it. It's where the earthly and the spiritual meet. It's where the finite meets the infinite and is transformed and becomes one with it.
Jesus said I and the Father are One. You are in Me. I am in you. We are all one. The purpose of crucifying the ego is to recognize the oneness in everyone. And it is why that contemporary spiritual teacher, James Twyman, wrote in a book called The Moses Code that we should put a comma in the name of God. Now you know we in the UCC love commas. I have them here on my stole.
James Twyman is not a UCC person, but I love what he said. He said in God's name, I Am That I Am, there should be a comma after “that.”
It should be, “I Am That, I Am.” Meaning, that when you look up at the night sky, you say, I Am THAT, I Am!
When you look at a sunset, when you look at a baby, when your cat is purring in your lap, you say “I Am That, I Am.”
And when you look at one another, especially those whom you find it really hard to love, you say, “I am That, I am.”
And when you look in the mirror, my friends, and you're looking for the face of God, you say, “I am that, I am,” because the presence and power, the light and the life of God, that I Am Presence, is with you and within you. So that's what I would like to invite you to do this week.
I want you to go to a place of higher consciousness, find time every day to be still and know the I Am.
And in that place of higher consciousness, connect with that light of God that is within you, and listen for that still-speaking voice of God.
And then when you leave that place of higher consciousness and go out into the world, then recognize that presence and power in everything, in all of creation, in one another, and within yourself.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
by Rev. Polly Moore
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked if we could talk, so we had lunch together. She poured out her heart about the problems she was having. As she wept, telling her story, my own story suddenly evaporated. She snapped me out of my fixation on me: my needs, my urges, grudges, ideas, plans, schemes, etc., which fill up so much of my life but aren't the essence of my life at all. Later I realized that while I listened, I had an out-of-ego experience. I was there, but only that which was essential about me was present. My ego-self didn't matter to me. Only she mattered. Her story was a sad and hard one, but she did something wonderful for me in sharing it. Her tears crucified my ego, and resurrected God, who is the loving, listening presence within me. The more often we can have what I call "out-of-ego experiences," the happier we'll be. If we can wake up to the fact that our egos are artificial constructions of our minds, then we can live more in harmony with God and with one another. That was the essential message of Jesus. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says: "If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." When Jesus said 'Deny thyself', what he meant was: Negate (and thus undo) the illusion of self. The whole point of the Christian faith is to turn life into an out-of-ego experience in which we live and love and serve from the divine center of our being, which we share with all other beings. The cross is the symbol of the universal human experience, shared across all religions, of the figurative "death" of the ego that resurrects and awakens us to our true divine nature.
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