Liberation from the False Self
This sermon was delivered on
August 16, 2020
At Common Ground Church
In New York, New York.
Text: Exodus 4:1-17
What if they don’t believe me?
What if I fail?
What if I fail, because I don’t actually have anything to give?”
These are the questions that so often plague us when we are invited to step into the depths of who we are.
In The Courage to Be, theologian Paul Tillich writes, “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
Tillich is not making the case that we serve more than one God. He is actually making the case that we hold a notion of God that never fully captures the entirety of God. Who we understand God to be is always limited by our knowledge, culture, experiences, etc. Anxiety has a way of working in all of us, though. And it is in those moments of incredible anxiety and doubt about who we are, who God is, and how we will even find a way forward, that the God who exists beyond our understanding manifests and becomes the foundation of our courage to continue in spite of life’s grueling nature.
This is the God that Moses encounters in Exodus 4. The God who meets Moses in his place of doubt. The God who shows Moses that he is more than he believes he can be. The God who becomes the wellspring of Moses’ courage in spite of his incredible fear that he is unable follow this call.
Who or what is your wellspring of courage in the midst of your doubt and fear? What do you draw from to know that you can find the courage to be, the courage to exist, the courage to thrive in the midst of a space where there seems to be no way?
When I was 14 years old, I was sitting at the dining table with my grandmother and my cousin, Brandi. It started as a casual conversation about our lives, but it quickly became one of those conversations that I revisit often. My cousin asked, “What do you want to do with your life?”
For several years at that point, I had told people that I was going to be a teacher. I wanted to help people and I loved the way that my teachers inspired me. But when I opened my mouth, unexpected words came out with clarity and confidence, “I think I wanna be a preacher.”
My grandmother gently placed her hand upon mine, looked into my eyes, and replied with the same clarity and confidence, “I always knew.”
That moment of clarity and confidence felt rooted in a God that I had recently fallen in love with at 14 years old. I had learned about the Christian faith--or at least one version of it--at an early age, because of my grandmother. And now I was making this faith my own. I was building my own dynamic relationship with this God that my grandmother had always told me about. And I felt as though that God had something special for me to do.
But this was hard to believe. I was quiet, soft-spoken, afraid of the world, uncertain about myself, and hated public speaking. The amount of agony that I experienced in seventh grade speech class was enough for me to say that I was not called by God to be a preacher. Yet, there was something greater than my fear inviting me into this calling. So I went for it.
Leaning into this calling has not been a linear process by any means, though. Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees, writes about her own spiritual journey and the way that she learned that finding the true self involves “taking the long way round.” This is certainly true of my own process to lean into this calling that I have been pursuing since I was 14 years old and it is true of Moses’ own journey and I would wager to say that it is true of most (if not all) of our journeys as we pursue liberation. The common thread throughout my story, Sue Monk Kidd’s story, and Moses’ story is that a theology of liberation is incomplete without personal liberation. A liberation to be our truest selves.
In the beginning of Exodus chapter 4, we witness an exchange between Moses and this divine mystery whom he has just encountered in the burning bush. Moses has heard a call to pursue the emancipation of his people, but we learn through this exchange that Moses must first be liberated from his own doubt and fear.
Moses beginning his dialogue with God by saying, “What if they don’t believe me?” is incredibly honest and human. Moses is simply doing what is most natural to his brain. Like Moses, we are all hardwired to ask the catastrophic “What if” questions. Our brains are amazing and they have evolved to keep us alive by learning to be hypervigilant and look for the danger around us. As we continue this evolution journey, however, we find that our brains continue to look for this danger all around us still--even when it is not there.
We easily and quickly move into the “What if” questions as soon as we are presented with something new that challenges our understanding of our identity.
Fear and doubt are normal reactions to God’s invitation to liberation.
About 16 months ago, I remember sitting on the Staten Island Ferry with Lucas with a head and heart that were filled with depression, anxiety, fear, and doubt. The “what if’s” were all that I could hear in my mind.
As a reaction to that fear, I said to Lucas, “What if I stop pursuing ordination? I mean, I could give up. I could move on and do something else.” I thought that I sounded confident and collected. I thought that I was asking a question out of my own emancipated self. “I don’t need to be ordained,” I said to myself. The implicit thoughts that I wasn’t aware of were really thoughts of fear and doubt, “What if they won’t recognize my calling? What if they won’t see what I’ve seen? What if they won’t believe what I say?”
In that moment, Lucas served as the voice of the divine, challenging me to not give up. To keep going. He recognized my calling even when I was ready to give up. Ready to throw in the towel. And he challenged me to remain steadfast. He believed in me when I struggled to believe in myself.
It is not as if we experience fear and doubt once and then it’s over. Moses’ conversation with God highlights the ways that we need a lot of positive reinforcement. It is likely to take a great deal of time and convincing for us to be emancipated from the limited views of ourselves. It is foolish to think that we can undo years of conditioning in a matter of minutes, days, or even weeks.
And even after we may have a great deal of confirmation that we are held by a mystery that is greater than us and more powerful than us, we may still come to the conclusion that Moses does, “Please send someone else.”
In Moses’ negotiation with God, he finds a compromise. Nevertheless, at the end of the passage, Moses is the one left with his staff to perform the signs. Just as the passage started with God asking Moses what he had, so it ends with God reminding Moses of what he has.
At the end of it all, it is still Moses who still step into his calling. Moses will be liberated from his doubts, from his fears, and Moses will find the God beyond the God he knew in his anxiety. He will find the God who is greater than the thoughts of fear and danger that he holds.
In our quest for liberation, this is what we are looking for: a way forward. The reality is that oppressor and oppressed alike are in need of liberation. The entirety of the cosmos is seeking liberation. Our thoughts ensnare us and trap in what many mystics have called the “false self.” This is the self that we have been conditioned to become. This false self is the self that believes that there’s not enough love or compassion. That the gifts that we have been given are not enough. That we do not truly have it within us to become all that we are. That the long way around is really not worth it.
Like Moses, I have had to continue to do the work of wrestling with my doubts and fears. I have had to make space for the voice of the divine whispering another story. I have circled around the same mountains of fear and doubt many times. And I’m sure that you have to.
So what is our way forward? How do we keep moving in the midst of these mountains of fear and doubt? Because of our brain structure, these mountains are inevitable. They are often automatic. We move into fear and doubt without even thinking about it.
And because of our life experiences, we are often taught that we ought to remain close to these mountains. It does not take a lot for our fears and doubts to be confirmed. In fact, it often only takes one negative experience early on to teach us that we don’t have anywhere to go beyond these mountains.
But an encounter with the Ground of All Being that calls us to leave these mountains can change everything just as it did for Moses. We are likely to give all of the reasons and excuses for why we cannot or should not leave these mountains. And yet, God says, “Take your staff. Take that which has served you. That which you know. And see how it can be used for more than you thought. See how what you have is able to take you places you couldn’t imagine. See the magnificence that is the divine mystery within you.”
I’d like to leave you with a means for practicing this encounter with God. Christian mystics have used meditation and contemplative prayer since the earliest moments of Christianity as a means of discerning the call of God in their daily lives. What we learn from Moses is the importance of making space to hear this call if we are to find the courage to both liberate and be liberated.
To close, let’s join in a meditation where we’ll use a mantra. There are many mantras that can be used. For this exercise, though, we will use the mantra, “I have arrived. I am home” as a means of naming the way that we find our way back home when we hear the call of God.
Let’s begin by finding a posture that allows us to relax, remain alert, and breathe deeply. This is often found sitting up right or lying on your back. Take a moment to find that posture.
Once you’ve found that posture, I invite you to take a deep inhale and a slow exhale and close your eyes or find a soft gaze. We’ll do this 3 more times. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
Let’s begin by noticing what’s happening in us right now. You may find that your mind is full of chatter. You may find that you’re thinking of the next thing you need to do. You may find that you’re feeling a lot of emotions. Whatever is happening, welcome that. Say to yourself, “You are welcome here. It all belongs.”
With this acceptance, let’s shift our attention to our breath. I invite you to say, “I have arrived” on your inhale. And “I am home” on the exhale. “I have arrived...I am home.”
Keep repeating that mantra for the next few breaths.
“I have arrived...I am home.”
You are your dwelling place. Your body, your mind, your heart, your spirit. You are sacred. You are beautiful. You are beloved. You are called into being by Being itself. You are home within you.
Can you visualize God coming to you in this moment? Greet God. Allow God to embrace you and hold you.
What do you hear God saying to you?
What is your response to God?
Pray with me.
God who calls worlds into being,
We come to you with all that we are
You see us in our fears saying,
“What if I’m not good enough? Strong enough? Lovely enough? Smart enough?”
You hear us in our doubts saying,
“What I have to offer is not enough.”
Yet you appear to us in the midst of fear and doubt and
You call us into being
So grant us the courage to follow your call to return home
To our true selves
And find the courage to be free from the lies we tell ourselves
Free from the notion that we must remain as we are now
And free from the idea that change is impossible