In 1979, the National Hurricane Center developed a system of naming hurricanes that continues to this day. The Worldwide Tropical Cyclone Name List, now managed by the World Meteorological Organization, is a series of six cycles of alternating men’s and women’s names, listed in alphabetical order from A–W (skipping the letter Q, thankfully). If a storm is particularly destructive, its name is retired from the list, and another name replaces it. Otherwise, the names continue to cycle in and out every six years. I’m not sure what it means that, in a cycle of only 126 names – some of which are quite unusual, like Joaquin, Sebastien with an “e,” and Cristobal – that both Sean and Erika (yes, spelled with a “k”) are included in the current six-year cycle. Sean is the “s” hurricane name for this year, actually, and Erika will cycle around again in 2015. Nice to know that the St. Mark’s clergy are well represented in the world of hurricane nomenclature.
Hurricanes had names before 1979, too, but the systems for creating those names varied. Before then, North American hurricanes were given only women’s names. (So glad they adjusted that!) And prior to 1953, hurricanes were given names based on the phonetic alphabet or even by the saints’ day that fell closest to the storm. But no matter the system, people have always made an effort to identify these storms by name rather than just by coordinates on a map. Part of this, of course, is that names are a lot easier to communicate than longitude and latitude, particularly if there is more than one storm at a time, but I imagine that there is another reason for this practice as well. Naming storms makes them seem a little more human and therefore just a bit more understandable. If we call a storm by a human name – Irene, say – then suddenly “she” can have feelings, she can “rage” and “unleash her fury,” and as terrifying as this rage and fury might be, at least it’s something we’ve seen before, something we’ve had some practice responding to. But imagine that this was Storm 9 blowing around outside; then suddenly we are surrounded by a powerful atmospheric disturbance – something impersonal, other, soulless, and that is terrifying in a completely different way. As strange as it may seem, these names can help us to get a handle on things, to fit these storms into our understanding of the world, perhaps even to imagine that we can somehow control them, or at least control our response to them.
“Then Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the People of Israel and I tell them, “The God of your fathers sent me to you”; and they ask me, “What is his name?” What do I tell them?’” Here we have Moses – he has come to the backside of the wilderness, followed the beacon of the burning bush to the Holy Ground where God abides, heard the voice of God calling his name, and been told that he is in the presence of “the God of [his] father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He seems to have been thoroughly introduced. He knows who it is that he is talking with – knows it so acutely that he hides his face in terror.
And yet when God charges Moses to go into Egypt to collect His people from Pharaoh, Moses feels the need to ask for further clarification, further identification. Who am I, he asks again, who am I that you want me to go into Egypt? You are the one who goes with me, God responds. And what if the Hebrews want to know who you are? Moses asks. I know that we just met, but could you tell me your name again? What is it that Moses is up to here? Why does he need more than the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the patriarchs, the God of the entire arc of Israel’s history? What is the name that he is looking for?
The honest answer is that we’ll never really know. All that we can really know is that Moses is clearly trying to get out of his assignment. Perhaps he is just trying to prolong the conversation, put off the inevitable journey ahead of him. Perhaps he asks for God’s name because he’s afraid the Hebrew people will laugh at him when he arrives in Egypt. Perhaps he secretly hopes that God will refuse to give him His name, thus creating the perfect excuse for Moses to bow out of God’s plans. Or perhaps Moses is seeking God’s name because he hopes that knowing the proper name of Almighty God will afford him some control over the situation, give him some power that he clearly does not already have. After all, in ancient mythology, knowing someone’s proper name often means that you can claim a kind of authority over them. If you know the true name of a god or of a supernatural being, you can influence them, call upon them to act on your behalf, exert your control over their powers. Perhaps Moses really was that scared – and looking to name God in an attempt to get a handle on the situation, to gain some kind of control.
Whatever his reasons for asking for God’s name, Moses could have never anticipated the answer he would get. For God spoke to Moses this name, these holy, mysterious sounds, syllables that are so enigmatic that even today we aren’t entirely sure how to translate them. I AM WHO I AM, we sometimes say, or I will be what I will be, I am He-Who-Is, or I am being-there. The mysterious, powerful name of God whispers of the very depths of being itself; it refuses to be controlled or defined; even when shared it has such immense reality, such immense true-ness, that it cannot be diminished or mishandled. This name is very like the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters we sometimes speak as Yahweh, a name that is so revered, so holy, so other that even though it appears over 6500 times in the Hebrew Bible, it was traditionally said aloud only once a year, held on the lips of a high priest in the holy of holies on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The One Who Is is a name that defies description and limitation; it is not a label but a verb. It is a powerful, terrible, mighty verb, one that reminds Moses – and us – that the one who calls is the very one who called all of heaven and earth into being, the one who continues to breathe life into the cosmos, that continues, always, to be.
And yet it is The One Who Is who promises to go with Moses to the land of Egypt. It is The One Who Is who promises to stand with Moses when he tells Pharaoh, Let my people go. It is The One Who Is who reminds Moses and the Israelites again and again that He is their God – the God of their ancestors, the God of their history, their present, and their future. This great, mysterious, terrifying Being of Beings is one who chooses to be with His people, for His people, even chooses to be one of His people, to save them and make their state of being holy in his own.
Like Moses, we are about to embark upon a long, challenging journey. Like Moses, we have been called by name by God, by The One Who Is, and sent into the world to bring God’s people home. We sit here at the backside of summer, looking ahead to the program year, at all of the ministries that we are about to undertake in earnest. And that view, let’s be honest, can be frightening – there is so much need in the world that it swirls about us like the winds of a storm – it can make us want to hide our faces, and ask, Who am I? Who am I to take on the poverty of Philadelphia? Who am I to feed the hungry here in Center City, to teach the students in Allegheny West? Who am I to try to free people from addiction, to care for the dying, to visit the prisoner? Who am I to travel to the halls of power and speak words of truth there – to say let my people, all of God’s people, be fully free, fully blessed, and fully known? Who am I? You are the one, God says, who goes with me. Say to those people who come here looking for food, rest, forgiveness, and joy, that you are the one who walks with The One Who Is. You carry with you the power of God’s own Name, because God’s name is a promise – a promise to be with us and for us, in fair and stormy weather, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.
Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs
28 August 2011
St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia