Monday, August 01, 2011

What is Your Name? Genesis 32:22-31

Sermon preached Sunday, July 31, 2011.

What is your name?

A being--man or angel or other—asks Jacob this question after wrestling with him all night, and it is not a casual question. Naming is important in the Bible; a person’s name usually reflected some aspect of character, parents’ emotions or incidents surrounding the birth, or significant life experiences. We see this in many stories: Abram and Sarai being re-named Abraham and Sarah; Simon being called Peter (the Rock) by Jesus; in the story of Ruth and Naomi, when Naomi returns to her people she tells them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.” Naomi means “pleasant”—Mara means “bitter.”

Jacob, born moments after his twin Esau, holding onto his older brother’s heel, is named accordingly: Jacob means “He takes by the heel” or “supplant”—meaning to overthrow or displace. And Jacob lives up to his name. He cons Esau out of his birthright, asking him to sell it to Jacob in order to get some stew after a long day working hard in the field. Jacob, with his mother Rebekah’s help, prepares a savory goat dish and wears goat skins and his brother’s clothes to trick his father Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Esau. He seems to meet his match in his uncle Laban, who tricks Jacob into marrying both of Laban’s daughters, but in the end, with the use of some cunning breeding practices he succeeds in taking most of Laban’s flock with him as he heads back to his home country.

We don’t see that kind of thing much today, at least in our society. A person’s name may reflect something of the parents’ personalities (traditional, radical, likes to follow trends), or family history if named after an ancestor. Sometimes, you might get an idea of the time of their birth—Rain, Summer, and Dandelion or Bertha, Edna, and Mildred—their ethnic background, or their parents’ interests, such as the kids named “ESPN” (spelled E-S-P-N after the cable sports network). But generally the names by which we are called don’t define us as much as they seemed to in the ancient world.

At least, our official names don’t.

But we have other names for ourselves. And society often gives us names as well. At times we refer to them as “labels.” In some instances they were names bestowed upon us by someone else; in others, we named ourselves.

What is your name?

“Lazy,” we respond inside. “The Chubby One.” “Bad Singer.” “Terrible With Numbers.” “Best at Everything.” “Klutz.” “Daydreamer.” “Not Good Enough.” “Not Pretty Enough.”

What is your name?

“Criminal,” “Outsider,” “Deviant,” “Troublemaker,” “Goody-Two-Shoes,” “Successful,” society names us, based on our appearance, history, background, circumstances.

And sometimes—probably more often than we’d want to admit—we live into these names as Jacob lived into his. Called “lazy” once by one teacher, we make choices which enforce that, because, well, that’s who we are, right? Having named ourselves “not good enough,” we don’t take risks that might persuade us otherwise. Labeled “Outsider” by society because of our country of origin, we do everything we can to blend in. While some names we become, others are admissions, confessions of who we are and where we’ve been in life. But either way, we carry these names with us, heavy weights of bad decisions, weaknesses, unrealistic expectations, inadequacies, or even shame. These names follow us into relationships and experiences, continuing to influence who we are, our way of being in the world.

Let’s go back to the story for a moment.

We meet Jacob on the edge of home. He earlier sent messengers ahead to alert Esau to his return; the messengers say that Esau will come out to meet him—with 400 men. Jacob is terrified that his past actions are about to catch up to him at last. He divides everything and everyone with him into two groups, hoping that if Esau captures or destroys one, the other will survive. He sends gifts of herds of goats, cattle, camels, and donkeys, hoping to win back Esau’s favor. And finally, he sends his wives, maids, and children ahead of him as well, perhaps hoping to further soothe Esau’s anger or at least provoke his pity. He is now alone, save for the being with whom he wrestles until just before dawn. The being cannot overtake Jacob, so he dislocates Jacob’s hip and tells Jacob to release him because it is almost day break. But Jacob, still not subdued, demands a blessing before he’ll let go. So the being says, “What is your name?” And in the answer is all the name implies. Jacob: usurper, trickster, thief.

On the one hand, it might have come out as a confession: yes, these are the things I’ve done, this is who I have been. On the other, one could also imagine resignation in his voice. Here he has wrestled all night, on the eve of meeting his brother after fifteen years or so, of finally facing the music, and he had prevailed over this stranger…and he’s reminded of his name. Of his history. Of all the events leading up to that moment. He is his name.

But then. Then the being says, no, that is no longer your name. You are no longer someone who displaces another, but someone who has wrestled with God and with humans and prevailed. You are bigger than that name. Jacob realizes that the Wrestler is God. God responds to Jacob by saying, “No, that is not the end of the story. You are more than that.”

Can we listen closely, and hear God saying that to us too? It is not easy, to be sure, to let go of those names. It may require wrestling and struggle, maybe even some pain. We might end up with scars.

Let us take a few moments, silently or out loud as we feel moved, to confess and acknowledge these names that we call ourselves, the names we’ve been called, the names that haunt and pursue us.

And now listen. Hear God’s response. Hear Him telling you that these names are not the whole story. Names can cause and carry hurt and anguish, but they can also provide healing and mercy. God has names for us, too: Beloved. Child of God. Vessel of Spirit. Worthy. Created in God’s Image. Bearer of Light. Christ’s Own. Beautiful. Welcome at the Table. Seeker of Truth. Cherished. Known and Forgiven. Keeper of Faith. Deserving of Grace. Blessed and a Blessing.

Again, it probably won’t be easy to let go of our old names and claim who God names us to be. Especially if God starts calling us by a name we don’t think we’re ready for. Take it from one who heard God name her “Pastor” and thought God had lost Her sweet divine mind. Talk about a wrestling match. And hey, even Jacob didn’t get it the first time—God appears to Jacob again in chapter 35 to repeat the re-naming process. Just remember, if God’s names for us seem hard to accept or believe, and if those other names still find us and seem more true, remember that God knows us inside and out, knows our strengths and weaknesses, our disappointments and successes, better than we know ourselves. So listen closely to what God has to say when you’re asked, “What is your name?”

Let us pray. God of many names, who is and was and always will be, claim us, name us, and make us yours. Amen.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Soccer, SAT prep, and Sunday School

I'm in the midst of reading Kendra Creasy Dean's book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Tennagers is Telling the American Church, and I just finished a short section about how "highly devoted" teenagers (according to the survey on which Dean bases her book), also tend to be happier, have greater success, are more compassionate, have closer relationships with their parents, and healthier lifestyle choices than their peers. She singles out Mormon teenagers as an example of this (most likely to be "highly devoted" in the survey), and also points out that they are required to go to seminary to learn about their faith every day before school, waking at dawn to do so.

Hm. I'm not sure the youth I work with would do that. It's sometimes tough to get them here for youth group on Sunday nights. They generally do not attend worship Sunday mornings, considering our meetings their "church." What if we told them they had to come here every morning before school to make sure they had a good theological education?

And yet I know some of them get up early to do sports (ahem, hockey). Or stay late for the same. Or add music lessons, SAT prep courses, and other commitments to their schedule for the purpose of being "well-rounded" and prepared for college.

Here I could go off on a tangent about sports. I will refrain, for the moment.

Instead, I wonder if parents aren't seeing that regular, devoted involvement with a faith community is one of the paths or tools to help raise a happy, healthy, successful individual. Maybe sports and music and clubs and SAT prep help too, sure. But I get the sense that those are seen as the steps to a goal, whereas church is a nice side item. Almost like classes in school vs. extracurricular activities.

And I'm not saying that church should be used simply as a tool to help reach an end goal (because Lord knows we'd never reach it), but that acknowledging the tangible influence such involvement can have on young people might nudge parents--and therefore their teenagers-- to move church a little higher up on the priority list.

Just a thought.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

What I'm Doing for Lent

I am not following my own advice. I told my congregation to take up ONE thing for Lent. And then I told them last night to maybe also think of something meaningful to give up. I'm doing both...and something else. In my defense, the practice added and the thing given up are both really specific and concrete, and the something else is more over-arching. But anyway.

I'm adding: giving thanks before I eat. Sitting in front of me is a 3/4 eaten grapefruit for which I forgot to give thanks. Doh. That's why I'm adding it--I tried and failed last year. I'm trying again.

I'm taking away: the snooze button. This may make for my most difficult Lent yet. It may sound frivolous, but I've gotten into the habit of hitting snooze for about 2 hours. Those are two hours I had other plans for--like reading the Bible and exercising--that get pushed aside when I press that button. So, in the interest of self-care, when the alarm goes off, the only button I can hit to stop it is "off," so I'd better get up if I don't want to oversleep.

And finally, I've signed up to participate in the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast. My over-arching focus for Lent is giving up carbon--or at least giving up some. Today, I'm using the natural light let in by my window for as long as possible in my office. I've brought an extra sweater to avoid turning up the heat. I'm buying lunch, but I'll walk the mile or so to get it, rather than drive (which will also help burn off last night's Shrove Tuesday pancakes). I have an Ash Wednesday service tonight at church, so I'll stay at the office late to avoid another round trip home. Soon I should be able to ride my bike to work again.

Lent is about paying attention, becoming aware, lengthening (the root of Lent) the amount of time we focus on God.

So for the next six weeks, I will pay attention to how fortunate I am to be eating the bounty brought forth by God and the hard work of humans. I will lengthen the amount of time to do God's work by getting up when my alarm goes off. And I will become aware of how my actions and lifestyle affect God's creation.

How are you observing Lent?

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Monday, March 07, 2011

Razzle Dazzle: Sermon On Matthew 17:1-9

Here is the sermon I preached yesterday, Transfiguration Sunday 2011. It was well-received by the congregation. If I can figure out how to create a "podcast" of the audio recording, I will post that as well. If I can get the video recording, I'll also post that. But for now, here's the transcript!

Let us pray. Gracious God, in all that we say and do, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

The mountain. The dazzling white clothes. The appearance of Moses and Elijah. Peter’s misguided offer to build three dwelling places. The voice from the sky. For those of you who have been attending church for at least a few years, this story is probably starting to become pretty familiar. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the cusp of his journey to Jerusalem and the events that will ultimately lead to his death appears every year on the Sunday before Lent begins. In our church, the texts for each Sunday are chosen following the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a three-year cycle through the Scriptures and generally each Sunday there is scheduled a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles—which are the letters in the New Testament—and a selection from one of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. John is kind of the oddball Gospel, so each year—labeled A, B, or C—works through a good chunk of one of the other three, which are called the Synoptic Gospels, and they include many of the same stories. This year, year A, which began with Advent, we’re working our way through Matthew. Now, in our worship services, we usually only read two pieces of scripture, so it’s possible that even if you’ve been coming to this church for quite a few years, you haven’t heard this text read every time, if the preacher hasn’t chosen it from the four scheduled texts. But it is scheduled, every year—it’s one of the stories that is included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, so depending on the lectionary, we read either Mark’s, Matthew’s, or Luke’s version, which all vary slightly from each other, but basically share the same core story.

As a story that comes around every year, well, it can get a little stale. I’m still very early in my career, and I don’t preach every Sunday, so this hasn’t really happened to me yet, but at some point you can look at a text and wonder what else there is to preach. It’s all been said. In some ways, that’s always true. These texts are thousands of years old; odds are whatever spin or insight or interpretation we come up with, it’s been thought of before. But. God is still speaking, right? Of course, even that UCC catch phrase came from something someone else said: John Robinson, sending forth our spiritual forebears from Europe to the New World in 1620. He said, “There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word.” God is still speaking.

Most sermons and studies and commentaries on the Transfiguration focus on one of two main areas. They’re either looking at what happened on the mountain—the transfiguration itself, Peter’s construction ideas, the voice from above, the appearance of the two men—or they focus on what happens after the mountain—where the Gospel story goes, or where we go and what we do after a “mountaintop” experience. All of these are perfectly valid, perfectly interesting, perfectly enriching to our spiritual lives and understanding of the Bible and how we read it today.

But. How do we get there? What comes before the razzle dazzle of transfiguration, before our journey down the mountain and back into life? How do we get up the mountain, how do we get to a point where we, too, can experience this overwhelmingly holy ecstatic moment that will leave us changed? The same way we get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

We know that we cannot pick up a cello one day and head to Carnegie Hall expecting to be able to play flawlessly. We know that we cannot pick up a French-English dictionary one morning and head to Paris that night speaking fluently. We know that we cannot reach for a basketball, computer, spatula, or car keys out of the blue and be able to hit the half-court shot, make a program do everything it’s supposed to, whip up a delicacy, or drive like Mario Andretti. We know that it takes time and effort and doing things over and over and over again to do it right and do it well. Yet, somehow we often think that the first time we talk to God in prayer or open a Bible, something big is supposed to happen. We want that mountaintop. We want to be transformed by God. And how many of us tried once and gave up? And then maybe a few months or years later, tried again. I’ll admit it. I’m often one of those people. I want to be able to pray to God and be transformed, have my whole outlook changed, be tempted by no sin. Poof! I want to open my Bible and see exactly the words I need to hear in that moment. Clear message from above! I want to walk into a worship space once and be profoundly and irrevocably moved by the Holy Spirit. Razzle dazzle me, God! Show me what you can do!

But. Praying is sometimes tedious, and my mind wanders. But. Reading the Bible is sometimes boring, and my mind wanders. But. Worship sometimes just doesn’t do it for me and I don’t like the hymns and the scripture readings are too complicated to understand and the sermon is ho-hum and why is this service so long, and my mind wanders.

Doesn’t work. No razzle dazzle transfiguration for me. I give up.

Why is it that we know that mastering pretty much anything else in our lives takes time, patience and lots and lots of practice? How many of us took piano lessons or had kids who took piano lessons and hated those boring exercises you start with? I wanted to sit down and play Für Elise! Teach me that! But good teachers know that there are steps to mastery, and that by doing over and over that which is sometimes tedious and boring and not at all what we’re hoping for, something happens.

I recently started reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This is a classic book based on a workshop that she taught on how to access our innate creativity. She brings a spiritual component to it, emphasizing that our Creator God, created us in God’s image, therefore created us as creators. It’s not just for artists. The book is set-up like a 12-week class with exercises and tasks to complete each week. The foundation of it all is the morning pages. Every morning, you are to get up and write—longhand, no computers—three pages. No matter the topic, three pages. Even if you complain about how you don’t want to write and have nothing to say over and over until you fill up three pages, three pages.

The point is that if you only write when you think you have something to say, you’ll hardly ever write. And if you expect that every time you write you’ll come to some major epiphany, you’ll never write because you’ll always be disappointed. But if you write every day, sometimes, you’ll get epiphanies. If you write every day you prepare a place to welcome any light to break through.

It’s like growing a garden. You don’t throw a seed into the grass and expect prize-winning tomatoes. You have to do the work to prepare the soil and nourish the plant and keep the weeds and bugs away. Most days, it’s boring and tedious and not at all uplifting. But then one day there’s a flower. And after some more weeding and watering and just plain staring at the plant every morning to see if something’s changed, a little green sphere appears, and over time, with mostly just unexciting work, the tomato grows and ripens and then, and only then, do you get that absolutely heavenly experience of biting into a sun-warmed fresh tomato that you’ve grown.

It’s the same with our faith. It takes practice and work. Praying every day, even when it’s tedious and our mind wanders and we have nothing to say. Reading the Bible regularly, even when it’s complicated and boring and makes no sense. Attending worship regularly, even when not every service speaks to you. Those spiritual practices are what build the foundation and prepare us for those holy, mountaintop, transfiguration moments of pure grace. If we haven’t done the preparation, we can’t expect anything to happen. If there’s no fertile ground, the tomatoes won’t grow. If we haven’t practiced our scales, we can’t play Für Elise.

Lent is the perfect opportunity to learn how to begin or improve our practices. It’s a time of preparation—a time to lay down a foundation to be ready for the razzle dazzle of Easter. Six weeks to practice the scales, refine the jump shots, and roto-till the ground of our faith. I encourage you to pick ONE thing to practice during Lent, whether it’s praying every morning, reading a chapter of the Bible, giving thanks before eating, following our “green” Lenten calendar, picking a new hymn to learn every week, giving $2 to a different charity every day…whatever. But ONE thing. Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to play Für Elise on Ash Wednesday, because you’ll never make it to Easter. And whatever that thing is, try to do it every day. If you miss one day, pick right back up where you left off. But the every day practice will allow that light and truth to break through, will create a habit, will step by step bring us up the mountain closer to God, the razzle dazzle of Christ’s resurrection on Easter, and beyond.

Let us pray: Razzle Dazzle God, teach us how to practice our faith, every day, and help us to keep going even when it’s tedious, boring, and we just plain don’t feel like it, so that we may better prepare our hearts to be moved by you. Amen.

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Monday, February 07, 2011

Monday Morning Meditation: A Different Approach to Prayer

I was reading today's entry in Oswald Chambers devotional My Utmost for His Highest when I ran across this line: "The purpose of prayer is that we get ahold of God, not of the answer."

This feels so counter-intuitive. Usually when we pray, we pray for something: for healing to occur, for action to be taken, for answer to be given. In the U.S., anyway, we're very results-oriented. So if we don't get what we want, what we prayed for--on our timetable, there's a sense of dejection, of being let down.

How many of us, when we pray, pray just to be in God's presence?

I'll be honest: I don't, very often. Usually when I pray, I've got a list of people, situations, problems,'s like I've set up a meeting with God and am running through an agenda. And if we reviewed the minutes of that prayer time, there probably wasn't a lot of pausing to let God get a word in edgewise.

This makes me think of children. Many times, when they leave their activity and come to see an adult, it's because of a need or want. I'm hungry, I'm thirsty, I'm bored, etc. But have you ever had a child come hang out with you just to be near you? They're not looking for an answer, just your presence and company for a while.

I think I'm going to give this "get ahold of God, not of the answer" thing a try. I'll try and update you on how it goes. And if you try it out, let me know what happens.

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Monday, January 31, 2011

Yes God

In my duties as Associate Pastor in my congregation, I usually say the assurance of pardon after the unison prayer of confession in worship. Sometimes I'll use the one provided by the UCC's Worship Ways, especially if we're using that call to worship and prayer of confession. But often I just get up and say something. I usually don't have anything planned, and I usually feel anxious and then just glad it's over with. I wonder if I've sounded trite, or repetitive, or if I actually believe that it is because of Christ that we're offered such free forgiveness.

This was not the case yesterday. Yesterday's prayer of confession ended kind of oddly, with a question. Generally it goes from "we did all these things wrong" to an upswing of "help us to do better." Yesterday's prayer asked, "Can you forgive us once again?"

Stepping up to the lectern, still more worried about moving around the liturgist and deciding to relax and let Spirit take over, I simply started, "Yes." And then I repeated it. "Yes, and yes, and yes, God's answer is always yes. However many times we ask, 'Can you forgive us once again?' God's answer is yes. Amen."

However much I generally feel the need to push this congregation of privilege towards more action, more community-building, more taking on responsibility for caring for our neighbors, they also feel hurt and sorrow and regret and struggle with living God's love in their lives, and just as much as anyone else, need to hear about a God who says "Yes, you're forgiven. Yes, welcome back. Yes, we can begin again."

I think that was the first Sunday I've ever gotten a comment about my assurance of pardon.

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