"Just As I Am" by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
Exodus 3:1-6, 13-15; Acts 10:26-29, 34-35
Unlike Moses, I never have spoken to a burning bush or been addressed by one. However, I have sensed the divine presence in strange places, heard a compelling challenge that rang with sacred authority, and felt the need first to take off my shoes in reverence for standing on holy ground and then, quickly got up and got busy with work, I deemed entrusted to me by the Mystery Whom Iknow as the Lover, the One most of us call God. Such have been experiences in my life that served as a prologue to this hour.
Today is my 80th birthday. (I appreciate no one saying “Amen.”) One of the great priorities in my life has been to know who I am. I have always been haunted by the six-word comment in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman which I think is among the saddest lines in published script. Just after his father’s death, Biff, the son of Willie Loman, made this observation about his dad, “He never knew who he was!” The salesman lived with a pathetic obsession for pleasing others, meeting their deadlines, and attempting to comply with other people’s expectations so vigorously that he had no idea of what his life was or the importance of living out his own identity.
I have always feared trying to add up the amount of time in my life I have spent in slavish response to the expectations of others rather than freely in compliance with the rhythms of my own heart, desires of my soul, and thoughts of my mind.
I grew up thinking I needed to be who a lot of people thought I should be. I would be a failure if people did not like me. Wherever I was going, my mother always said “goodbye” with the words, “Be a good boy; don’t ruin your Christian influence.”
But that is not the way to live according to Holy Scriptures. In times of tumult and trouble, the apostle Paul admonished those who read his correspondence, "Remember who you are!"
For years I did not always know who I was. Being a young Baptist minister, I did not know whether to try to be another Billy Graham on stage or another Jerry Falwell on “The Old Time Gospel Hour.” Sometimes I tried to fool myself about who I was. Other times I quizzed myself internally but stayed quiet about what I discovered about myself. I remember well after several years of our marriage, one day Judy said to me, “I wish you would write a letter to God about who you are and then let me read what you wrote so I will know you better.”
The Exodus texts that we read earlier in the service played a great role in making my life more comfortable. God had called for Moses’ attention, “Moses, Moses!” Having just heard his name called from a burning bush, Moses wisely responded, “Who is talking? Who are you? What is your name?” God answered, “I AM WHO I AM.”
Being Godlike requires honesty, integrity, and being ourselves and letting others know who we are. I never wanted to be a divided person. I have always valued a wholistic life—not a person who is one day piously religious and another day miserably prejudiced. I strive to be the same person whenever and wherever I am.
If you grew up in an evangelical church in which a call-to-repent-and-come-to-Jesus took place twice every Sunday, you learned a gospel song that I hated. In the church of my childhood virtually every Sunday the pastor had us sing all eight verses of this song, often directing us to sing every verse of the song a second time if no one was “being saved.” You probably know the name of the song: Just as I Am.
On October 11, 2008, I was invited to preach in The Cathedral of Hope, a predominantly GLBTQI+ congregation, in Dallas, Texas. The occasion was the church’s observance of “Coming Out Sunday”—a day in which people are encouraged to not fear homophobia and to share with their friends and family the truth about their sexuality. As it happens, tomorrow is National Coming Out Day this year. I had never imagined that I would receive such an invitation.
On that Sunday morning, I began my sermon making two confessions to the congregation. My first words were, “The likelihood that I would ever stand in this pulpit on a ‘coming out’ weekend, filled with sadness because of the murder of our brother Matthew Shepherd as punishment for his sexual orientation and a personal commitment to work incessantly with his mother, a dear friend, to see that all people are God’s creation whatever their sexual orientation—that was about as slim a chance for that to happen as members of my home church’s fundamentalist congregation praising me for where I was preaching and what I was saying.
The second confession was, while preparing the sermon I wanted to deliver in Dallas, to my great surprise, the title of the sermon I wanted to use for that Sunday was the title of that old hymn that I probably disliked more than any other hymn unless it was Victory in Jesus.
Just as I Am!
That day I found myself preaching in two services somewhere I never thought I would be, reading with passion the lyrics of a song that early in my life I wanted to never hear again. I had realized that old gospel song conveyed a towering truth—God wants us to be who we are. The truth in that much-used hymn helped change my life.
In the first lines of the song written by Charlotte Eliot in 1835, truth—profound truth—appeared: Just as I am . . . Thou (God) bid’st me come to Thee. With multiple words, the songwriter described a horrendously bad person confronting God. The person was conflicted, poor, wretched, blind, filled with doubts, fighting, fears, sick mind, and living with a dark blot on the soul. Then, next, came a staggering truth: “Thou Bid’st me come to Thee” (more clearly sung as “You (God) called me; you (God) are inviting me”). The song makes clear that God welcomes and relieves the person just described with the gift of a loving embrace with unknown breadth, length, depth, and height.
Moses has always been one of my favorite biblical personalities. Surrounded by mystery, baffled by a voice that spoke with authority, and challenged to give the remainder of his life to the work of liberation, Moses shattered the awe of the mystical moment when he said, “I need to know who is speaking to me!" By the way, that's always a good question to ask in the realm of religion, especially when someone is telling you what you need to do.
“I AM!” the holy voice declared, just as centuries later the Son of God would declare, “I AM.” Identity is a profoundly important dimension in one’s life. Think of the matter this way. We are never more like God than when we claim our individual identity and through honest self-expression seek to reach the fullest potential of our appreciation for ourselves as well as the care we give to others.
Losing sight of who we are or denying who we are leads to all kinds of problems emotional, psychological, physiological, ethical, and, yes, spiritual. When we fail to take seriously who we are, we forget both our limitations and our possibilities, our social nature and our need for privacy, our capacity for growth and change as well as our need for security and stability. Trying to beall things to all people by living into their expectations for us rather than by the convictions that reside within us spawns impaired visions and potentially destructive actions.
I have always been captivated by a familiar exchange in the popular novel Zorba the Greek. In a discussion on character, Zorba said to a friend, "The same thing's happening to you that happened to the crow." "What happened to the crow?" the friend responded. "Well, you see, he used to walk respectably, properly, well—like a crow. But one day he got it into hishead to try and strut about like a pigeon. And from that time on the poor fellow couldn't for the life of him recall his own way of walking. He was all mixed up, don't you see? He just hobbled about."
Without a grasp of “our own way of walking” and refusing to live out our true identity, we tend to stumble here and there, bumping into each other and sometimes running over other people, often losing sight of ourselves, those around us, and God.
Why me? I don’t know why, but I have counseled scores of people dreadfully fearful of “coming out,” being truthful about their sexual orientation. Usually our conversations together were painful as well as liberating. I learned a ton of wisdom from those people, lessons about the imperative of being honest regarding who we are.
The insights of which I speak now are for everybody. I am not talking about one group of people. I am talking about all of us. One day, a dear friend of mine, now gone—Herb Hamsher—told me he thought the world would be a better place if every individual had to examine his or her own sexuality seriously and sometime in adolescence “come out” at least to their parents if not others. I could not agree more. I have seen so much hurt that could have been avoided if all of us had let people know who we are, how we feel, how we really love, how we do not love but say so, and how we want to live. How true is a phrase I learned from the producer of State of Belief Radio, Ray Kirstein, who says, “You can’t come out to God!” The great I AM, created us to be who we are and to be proud of it.
My conversation with Herb was not about people verbally confessing, “I am gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, straight, or transgendered.” We were talking about “an existential moment when one has the overwhelming experience that, literally, all the forces of the Universe—one’s family, one’s religion, one’s culture, the legal system, the educational system, peer pressure (and the like) are pushing on you saying, ‘you must be this way.’ And you stand up and say, ‘No, actually that is not my truth. And my truth is between me and God who created me and in touch with whose creation I so powerfully feel.”
I am reminded of the ancient Hasidic wise man, Rabbi Zusya, who got it right. In the world to come, God will not ask me, "Why were you not Moses?" Instead, God will inquire of me, "Why were you not Zusya?"
The matter of self-identity must never be taken lightly. It is crucial for experiencing healthy spirituality and it is essential in the physical, emotional, and psychological life of every person. I feel the same way as many of the people with whom I have felt and talked. I would rather be disliked, criticized, and condemned for being who I am than being lauded and liked for trying to be someone I am not.
Obviously, I cannot define the totality of anyone else’s identity; I have no desire to do so. But I can speak about an important dimension of everybody’s identity, a foundation on which the remainder of the structure of who we are can be built. All of us are persons created in the image of God—the God who modeled the importance of self-revelation saying, I AM. That includes you—every one of you—all of us. And that means life is a gift to us. We are created, not self-made.
Gratitude should come naturally for us. Our creation in the image of God assures us of dignity and worth, a will to freely make both good and bad decisions. We are responsible beings who also are accountable to God and to one another. From the perspective of divine revelation, as people createdin God's image,both pride and humility should be our lot, but never, never, a pervasive sense of inferiority or a boisterous arrogance born of conceit.
One of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen, wrote, "Listen to your life.” See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. Yes, boredom and pain are part of life, but so are touch, taste, and smell. “All moments are key moments, and life itself (yourlife) (my life) is grace."
My friends, I AM WHO I AM. I am a God-oriented follower of Jesus of Nazareth dedicated to work on interfaith relations, religious freedom, human rights, compassionate ministry, an inclusive church, social justice issues, international peace, appreciation for both religion and culture and support a vibrant democracy. I want to live my life with my faith, love with no limits, priorities that make a difference for good, defense and protection for God’s creation, and my care for the people of the world.
With intentional repetition, when I say I AM I mean I would rather be hated for who I am than to live with the troubling consequences of being loved for who I am not.
Myron Madden, a chaplain I met many years ago in New Orleans, who became a great friend, told me a story about a small, African American girl he met in the hospital. Her name was I Am. Her mother told Myron her daughter’s full name was “I Am Christian Tucker” and then she explained: "So many people don't know who they are—I gave her a head start."
I encourage every one of you to be who you are and know that, as an individual, you can say to yourself, “The God identified as “I AM” loves me ‘just as I am’ and ‘just as you are.’”
Holy God, we are so tired of disappointments, arguments, lies, conflict, and worrisome fear. Knowing your name is Love, we come to worship this morning to thank you for your love and ask you what has happened to love in our world? Just as feeling embraced by love is heaven, longing and aching for the presence of love is hell.
When we are afraid, we need the transformative gift of love. We search for signs of love that give us expectation. When we are anxious, we need love’s calming presence. When we are hurting, we need the balm of love’s concern. When we are angry, we need the understanding of love. When we beg for the gift of love, we are desperate for hope.
No wonder the incarnation of love is so important. We have no interest in theories of love. We search for love made flesh. We listen for words of love, hold out our hands for touches of love, open our nostrils for scents of love, push aside our depression and fill us with a promise of love, and strain our eyes for sights of love coming our way.
Yes, you are love, Holy One. We sigh with relief, sing with joy, breathe with enthusiasm, and discover peace when we experience love. You give us real, honest love. Lover God, why can’t we love each other as you love us? As this morning we thank you for your love, we pray with passion that you can enable us to embody the gifts of love that give people life.