Why Are Names So Important?

I have been thinking about this sermon since last October when my family went to Disney and I became obsessed with name tags and then again since April and I was preaching on the resurrection narrative out of John and noticed that Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus until he called her by name.  It was a long time coming and the coolest part was that we had a fundraising event at Hillside Country Club the next day and everyone who showed up to help wore their name tag – without me sending out a reminder!

I wrote some liturgy to go along with this – I will get it posted this week!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 28, 2019

Genesis 17:1-8
Isaiah 45:1-8
John 20:11-18

Why Are Names So Important?

When we were in Disney last fall, one of the details I noticed (remember from last week – no detail left unturned!) was the fact that not only did all of the “cast members” wear nametags, but that the nametags also include where the person is from, as well – what they consider their home town to be.

And for some reason, this really stuck with me; I think, because, this simple nametag – this seemingly insignificant 1”x 2” oval name tag – not only gave someone an identity with a name, but also a story with where they were from.

In other words, the person driving the magical express was not just a bus driver, they were Matthew from Jacksonville, Florida; or the person walking around with Mickey was not just a character handler, they were Melanie from Sweden; or the person at the gift shop was not just a cashier, they were Jeffrey from Boston, Massachusetts.

And because I knew this information, I could, first of all, greet them by name and then I could strike up a conversation with them based on one simple fact.

Hi Matthew, have you lived in Florida your whole life?
Melanie, how long have you lived in the United States?
You’re from Boston, Jeffrey?  We are from Massachusetts, too!

I was not only able to affirm them as a person, but I was able to engage them in a conversation and there but by the grace of God and a really small nametag, two strangers were able to see the humanity in one another and find a sense of unity and commonality.

So I came home on a little bit of a nametag mission.  I am honestly not sure if this was before or after the soap mission that I talked about last week (and if you have no idea what I am talking about, I would encourage you to go listen to my sermon, “Why Is It Important To Talk About Hospitality?” and you can hear all about the soap-acolypse).  But I will say that there was not a unanimous reaction to this particular mission of mine.  While there were some people that were extremely supportive – even excited at the prospect of becoming a “name tag church” – there were others that resisted the movement.

I already know everybody’s name.
Everyone knows my name.
But I already hate wearing my nametag at work.
I will never remember to bring it with me.

Or, my favorite:

Why?

Well, let’s tackle that question today.  Why?

I wanted to talk about the importance of names at some point during this sermon series on hospitality because, like the soap, I believe this is a hospitality issue.  Because I believe that every single person in this world deserves to be called by their name; their name that identifies and affirms them as a child of God worthy of being seen and heard and acknowledged in this world. And so I wanted to look at the ways in which scripture addresses this very subject.

I chose three stories to read this week so we could look at the ways different literature within the bible address this particular topic.  We have a reading from Genesis, the first book of the story of the Hebrew people, a reading from the Prophet Isaiah and then, into the New Testament, a reading from the Gospel of John.

Full disclosure – these three readings, in no way, fully encapsulate what the entire bible says about this subject; they are just a small snippet.  But their diversity from one another is what I love the most, because it means that there is this reoccurring theme throughout God’s entire creating narrative that boldly proclaims that what we, as human beings, are called matters.

I have always loved the story of Abraham and Sarah – partially because, as a child, I thought it was so cool that my name appears, in a somewhat prominent form, in the bible.  But what I love about this story, especially this partof the story, is the fact that God marks this transition in Abraham’s life – this covenant that he will become the ancestor of a multitude of nations – by calling him by a new name.

Abraham’s new name is part of a new covenantal identity. It takes his given name, Abram, and combines it with the Hebrew word for “father” – abba – and “multitude” – hamon.

Abraham.

No long shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.[1]

There is so much in a name.  Often it not only identifies a person, but it also tells their story and when you call someone by their name you are not only affirming who they are, but you are affirming their story and very often the legacy of those who came before them.

And that is why I love this passage from the Prophet Isaiah.

For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name[2]

The Book of Isaiah is the first of the major prophets.  It is a composite work, meaning it is not actually the writings of one prophet, but of several different prophets who were active at different points throughout Israel’s history.  It was written during the time of the Babylonian Exile and this particular scripture likely comes from during the time of the exile, itself – around 545-539 BC.

In this prophecy, God is speaking to Cyrus, who was a Persian King, the only non-Israelite designated as “anointed” in the Old Testament.  God names Cyrus as the one who is going to carry out God’s commission.  And here’s the thing:  Cyrus does not actually know who God is, but God knows who Cyrus is; God chooses Cyrus and calls him by name to be his servant in this world.

By calling Cyrus by name, God is validating who he is and who God is calling him to be in this world.

Back in April, I was writing my Easter sermon and I was looking at this text from the Gospel of John and, knowing that I wanted to spend the summer focusing on hospitality, I could not help but notice the fact that when Jesus appears before Mary Magdalene after she finds that the tomb is empty, she does not recognize him until he calls her by name.

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’  She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).[3]

Don’t you find it striking that Mary finally recognized the resurrected Christ in her midst when he called her by name?  When he acknowledged who she was and who God was calling her to be?  That was the moment when she realized that resurrection was possible; that was the moment when she saw grace in a real and bold and life-changing way.

I think names are important.  I think they are important because they allow us to affirm the identity and the humanity of other people.  I think they are important because we know from scripture that God thinks we are all worthy of that affirmation.  I think they are important because it is in that affirmation that others, like Mary Magdalene, are able to see the presence of Christ and find grace in unexpected ways and places.

So we have, for better or worse, become a nametag church.

Well – we are trying, anyway.

Last December, we very excitedly passed clipboards around to collect names and towns and Kathy and I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s printing, cutting, laminating, punching and attaching name tags to clips in our enthusiastic DIY attempt at making nametags.

And I think three people consistently wore them.

However, refusing to admit defeat, I consulted some of my clergy colleagues and looked to see how other churches are doing the nametag thing.  We put a little bit more money towards the project this second time around, purchasing RCC lanyards and perforated nametag sheets that use templates to make printing easier.  Sometimes we remind people to wear their nametags, sometimes we encourage them, sometimes we beg them and sometimes we flat-out lecture them.

And we have had a little bit more success.

Deacons wear their nametags when they staff funeral services, I have noticed people wearing them at community events and meals and people really do seem to be tryingto remember them on Sunday mornings. We even added this fancy little “I Give Electronically” sticker for electronic givers so they can flash their nametag at the ushers when the offering plates come around they do not have a physical offering to put in.

It is not perfect – but we are trying.  We are trying because we believe that every single person that walks through the doors of this church deserves to be called by their name; to be acknowledged and affirmed as a child of God.  We are trying believe we believe that we will bear witness to the resurrected Christ as we acknowledge one another by name; that we will discover grace in the most unexpected ways and places.

So here is my plea:

First of all, wear your nametag.  Even if you think everyone knows you or you know everyone – please, wear your nametag.  We are trying to create a culture.  You never know when someone is going to walk through our doors for the first time or even if someone is newer to the community and has not quite gotten everyone’s names yet.  Knowing someone’s name breaks down an invisible barrier that oftentimes prevents someone else from starting a conversation with them.  So let us make it easy for people – allpeople – to approach one another and have a conversation.

A second of all, try to learn other people’s names.  And then call them bytheir names.  Affirm who they are a child of God, who God is calling them to be and what God is calling them to do in this world and how they can be part of this church, this village, this Body of Christ.

So go therefore out into the world and call one another by name.  May we affirm the identity of one another and may we discover grace – unexpected – along the way.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Genesis 17:5, NRSV
[2]Isaiah 45:4, NRSV
[3]John 20:15-16, NRSV

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A Faith Like Abraham’s (All Of It!)

Hi Friends!

Ignore the fact that I kind of sound like a baritone in the audio this week.  I’m pretty sure one of us has been sick at some point throughout the entire month of February.  I’m SO ready for spring!

I decided to preach through the Epistle selections in the lectionary throughout the Lenten season this year.  Obviously, I preached the Gospel last week (Lent 1 = Jesus in the wilderness), but I am going to try to stay in the letters from here on out.  I preached out of Romans this week, which was paired with the Abraham narrative in Genesis, because Paul talks about having a faith like Abraham’s.  We sang and danced to Father Abraham during the children’s sermon and then I talked about looking at the entire Abraham narrative when we think about having faith like his.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Romans 4:13-25

A Faith Like Abraham’s (All Of It!)

Bruce and I met when we were both on staff at a youth leadership program at Lancaster Seminary called Leadership Now. The mission of the program – the tagline that was on all of our brochures and shirts and other SWAG – was, “Cultivating a faith that celebrates questions.”

This program was built on the opposite foundation of blindly following religious doctrine. Students were encouraged to ask questions; about their faith, about their parents’ faith, about the church, about the bible, about worship and about the world we live in (everything, really). This program wanted to resist spoon-fed Christianity; rather, they wanted each student to foster their own beliefs.

This idea was new to me. I did not grow up in a heavily indoctrinated church, but I think I always kind of took thinks at face value. I do remember sitting in Sunday School one week and our teacher was explaining the meaning of the word, “Amen,” which essentially means, “So it be.” When you say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer, in a way, you are affirming whatever was just said in the prayer. My Sunday School teacher said she was going to read several statements and we were to respond affirmatively with the phrase, “So it be,” to each statement as our way of saying, “Amen,” and agreeing with what she said. I piped up, “Well, what if I don’t agree with what you said?” (Sorry – even the most well behaved preacher’s kids have their moments.) I distinctly remember her taking a deep breath, raising her eyebrows at me and exasperatedly saying, “Trust me, you’ll agree with these statements.”

And I did; she certainly was not saying anything controversial. The point of the exercise was not to stir up an intense theological debate; it was to teach us the meaning of the word, “Amen.”

But that moment always kind of stuck with me. Because I never really thought I was allowed to ask questions about what I was being taught in church or – gasp! – have doubts.

I was heavily influenced by Leadership Now; now, I take the same approach of “celebrating questions” when I teach confirmation and lead bible study. Even here in worship, I think it is okay (albeit frustrating for you at times) for me to look at a scripture and say, “I am just not sure I believe this” or, “I struggle with this story,” or, “I cannot reconcile what this means.”

Which is why, at first glance, our two scriptures for this morning – read in conjunction with one another – are a little bit troublesome for me.

Let’s start with the second passage we heard from the New Testament; Paul was writing to the church in Rome in response to growing tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. He was addressing the differences between adherence to the law (which Jewish Christians were accustomed to) and righteousness of faith (the path understood by many of the Gentile Christians, who just did not grow up following the law). Paul’s point was that it was not the law that mattered most in how they lived their lives and built their church, but their faith.

In other words, Gentile Christians – even without strict adherence to the law – had the same access to God through the grace of Jesus Christ that Jewish Christians did.

For the record, I completely agree with the point Paul was trying to make.

But there is another layer to the grace we receive through faith that I want to explore this morning. In this particular passage, Paul points to Abraham, which, of course, leads us back to this morning’s Old Testament reading from the book of Genesis.

I want to take a slight detour for a moment and talk about how I choose our readings every week. For the most part, I follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three-year cycle of weekly readings from the bible used by many Protestant and Catholic churches in the United States and Canada. Every week there is a passage from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the letters of the New Testament and the Gospels. The reading from the Gospel follows the rhythm of the church year and the other passages are often thematically related to it. Preachers can choose one or any combination of the four passages for their weekly worship.

I was recently asked about the lectionary and why I follow it and I thought my responses were worth repeating here, in case anyone was curious. Do I have to follow the lectionary? No. There are advantages and disadvantages to it. The advantage is that is brings me around the bible and encourages me to preach on books and passages I might otherwise overlook. It is nice that the passages are often thematically linked, which creates a more cohesive understanding of the bible. It is also nice that a lot of my colleagues are also following the lectionary, so we are all essentially preaching on the same thing and can brainstorm together. The disadvantage, though, is that sometimes, because it jumps around so much, we only get pieces of the story.

Which is kind of the problem this morning.

Okay, let’s get off of our detour and jump back into this morning’s text. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul points to Abraham when he talks about the righteousness of faith.

“The promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed … to those who share the faith of Abraham.”[1]
“Hoping against hope, [Abraham] believed.”[2]
“[Abraham] did not weaken in faith.”[3]
“No distrust made [Abraham] waver.”[4]

Paul paints Abraham as the picture of obedience and then, in the passages from Genesis that have been paired with the lectionary readings, this picture is kind of set up for us.

In this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis, we hear part of the story of Abraham. Abraham was 99 years old when God appeared to him and told him he was going to make a covenant with Abraham that he was going to be the father of all nations; and this covenant was not just between God and Abraham, but also between God and all of Abraham’s offspring, generation upon generation. This, God explained, would be an, “everlasting covenant.”[5]

I was reading a commentary this week that pointed out that, okay, this is all well and good and everything, but Abraham still had doubts along the way and did not fully submit to trusting God. Perhaps not in these particular passages, but when you look at the entire Abraham narrative, he stumbles once or twice. On not one, but two occasions when they were traveling as aliens outside of their own land, Abraham did not trust that God would protect them on their journey; Abraham took matters into his own hands and told people that his wife, Sarah, who was beautiful and desirable, was his sister so they would take her as a wife and his life would be spared.[6] And when Sarah was not able to bear him children, Abraham did not trust that God would reverse her fertility struggles; Abraham took Hagar, the Egyptian slave-girl, as a wife so that she could conceive his child.[7] And, in Genesis 17:17, which the lectionary conveniently cuts off one chapter before (this morning’s reading stops at chapter 16), Abraham literally fell on his face laughing after God told him that God was going make this covenant with him and he was going to have all these children.

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’[8]

This is not the picture of perfect obedience. This is the picture of a man who had doubts along the way; who sometimes took things into his own hands because he was unsure of where God was taking him. This is a man who sometimes had a hard time believing in the promises of God’s covenant.

I have to laugh because, in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he said that, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.”[9] No offense, Paul, but I beg to differ.

That being said, I do not think his distrust made Abraham an unfaithful man; I think it made him human.

I think we can do one of two things here. We can look at the picture of Abraham that we see solely from this morning’s lectionary and then read Roman’s reflections in his letter to the church in Rome and seek to have that kind of faith; the kind that does not waver, the kind that is strong and obedient, the kind that lives up to God’s covenant.

Or, we can remember the other parts of Abraham’s story and give ourselves permission to have that kind of faith. We can give ourselves permission have doubts along the way, to struggle to fully submit to God. We can be gentle with ourselves if we get impatient while we wait for God’s promises to come to fruition. We can laugh at God when those promises seem impossible and know that God is not going to take those promises away.

Because faith is believing in God’s promises, but it is also working through those moments when you do not.

Paul was trying to settle a dispute between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, saying that it is not strict adherence to the law that gives us access to God’s grace, but faith like Abraham. And I agree with him – but not necessarily for the reasons he gave. Paul kind of put on rose-colored glasses when it came to what Abraham’s faith looked like; but I love the whole story. Abraham’s story is a beautiful one, full of struggles, full of doubts and full of moments – just like the ones I experience in my own life – where he did not feel as though his faith was strong.

And absolutely, a faith like that will give us access to God’s grace.

Friends, I do think we should share the faith of Abraham – all of it. I think we should share his struggles. I think we should share the moments where he hesitantly takes things into his own hands. I think we should share the times when he believes that God is not listening. I think we should laugh when the promises seems out of reach or too good to be true.

But, then; then, we should remember that the everlasting covenant God made with Abraham is a covenant made with us as well. We should hold onto the hope of that bold truth that God is faithful; that the promises made to Abraham are still made to us today and that God is always with us.

Paul is right. The grace that comes from this kind of faith is not something we can get from the law.

So may our faith give you the strength to believe in the promises made to Abraham. May you allow yourself to have doubts, to be frustrated in God’s timing and even to laugh at the possibility of what those promises might look like. May you celebrate your questions and those child-like moments when you think, “But want if I don’t agree with that?”

This Lenten season, may you also hope against hope that God is with you on your journey; that Easter is coming, that redemption is always possible and that resurrection is real and true and powerful.

Thanks be to God!
Amen. 

[1] Romans 4:16, NRSV
[2] Romans 4:18, NRSV
[3] Romans 4:19, NRSV
[4] Romans 4:20, NRSV
[5] Genesis 17:7, NRSV
[6] Genesis 12:10-20, 2:1-18
[7] Genesis 16:1-16
[8] Genesis 17:17, NRSV
[9] Romans 4:20, NRSV

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Reset

Week two of our sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul and today’s topic is, Reset.  I’m not preaching next Sunday, so there won’t be a post or podcast.  If you want to know what I’m up to, check out the Facebook page for my dad’s musical this week and next. 😉

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 12, 2017

Genesis 12:1-4a
John 3:1-17

Reset (Lenten Sermon Series: Boot Camp for the Soul)

Do you ever wish that you could just start over?

Yesterday morning, I was out running errands when I noticed my gaslight was on. I pulled into the gas station and popped the cover to the gas tank, all the while grumbling about the fact that it was 18° and, who wants to pump gas when it is that cold? It was not until I got out of my car and went to run my debit card that I noticed the cover to my gas tank was frozen shut. It did not matter how many times I pulled the little lever, the cover would not open. So I tried to use my debit card to jimmy it open and promptly cracked the card.

At that point, I just kind of sighed and wished I could have started the day over.

Jesus said that yes, in fact, we can start over. In our Gospel reading for this morning Jesus was talking with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Jesus told Nicodemus that, through God, it was possible to start over; that though we are all born of the flesh, we can be born of the spirit. And this spirit gives us a chance to seek redemption, to uncover grace and to start over in those moments in our lives when we need it most.

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[1]

Though I am not sure Jesus was talking about different better choices when it comes to what one might use to defrost a gas tank cover, I do believe that one of the foundational pieces of who we are a Christian is the beautiful and overwhelmingly remarkable truth that we can always start over.

This exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is overflowing with what clergy nerds would refer to as eschatology. Eschatology is a doctrine that talks about the end of the world, the Second Coming and what happens to humans when their earthly lives come to a close. Jesus talks about what it means to be “born again” and is fairly straightforward in his dialogue with Nicodemus about what this means for people.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.[2]

Christians often use this scripture to answer questions such as, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” and, “How do you get into heaven?” And yet, I do not think Jesus was just talking about what happens after we die here. I do not think, as Christians, we are called to be changed by the Gospel only in our death; I believe we are called to be changed by the Gospel in our lives, as well.

Our reading from the Old Testament comes from the book of Genesis; it is the call of Abram. In this story, God told Abram to leave his home – his house, his people and the life he was accustomed to – and go to a place God would show him; it would be there where Abram would begin a new life.

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.[3]

Abram lived out the call to start over quite literally. His story reminds us that, good or bad, no matter how established, comfortable or settled we are into our own lives and routines, it is possible to do something different.

God makes the big changes in our lives possible; this was true for Abram and this is true for all of us. But in order for God to do this great work within us, we have to believe that we are worthy of starting over.

And we also have to believe that it is never too late or too soon for a new beginning in our lives.

It is the second Sunday of Lent and we are in the middle of the Lenten sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul. Last week we talked about the need for change and this week’s topic is, reset. I love this topic because I believe, as Christians, one of the most radical and redeeming truths of our faith is that we have the ability to reset ourselves when we feel like we are starting to drift, when we lose our way and when our faith starts to weaken. And this is not a once and done thing, this is something that can happen over and over and over again.

Someone once shared with me that the reason they love coming to church is because they feel like they get to hit the reset button every week, whether it be in worship, at bible study or through some sort of community activity. Coming to church not only holds us all accountable in our faith, but it also opens our eyes to the possibilities within our faith, as well. Just like God asked Abram to reset the course of his life and journey, God asks this of us, in our lives as well. God not only creates this space for us to hit the reset button, but God also asks us to hit it, as well. God wants us to be changed by our faith; God wants our lives to be transformed by the new beginnings that are always possible.

I do have to caution you, though, not to get caught up in the enormity of what we often read in scripture or the stories that have a tendency to make headlines. While I do believe the Gospel calls for radical change in our lives, this does not mean that we have to make massive changes, week after week. Jesus’ call to be born of the spirit does not mean we need to give ourselves spiritual whiplash, but instead seek spiritual wholeness.

I believe God makes the big changes in our lives possible, but I also believe God makes the small changes possible, as well and the small changes are just as important as the big ones. The important thing to remember is that the Gospel creates a sort of malleability within all of us and God is always at work within our lives and our faith; through the big changes, through the small changes and through all the weekly (and perhaps even daily) resets we need.

Last week, in our conversation about Boot Camp for the Soul, we talked about why people take part in various types of boot camps, one of those reasons being that they see a need for change in their lives and they are ready make that change. I encouraged you all to think about the need for change in your own lives and now this week, together, we hit that reset button, allow God to draw us back in and reorient ourselves with our faith. We think about who we are, who we want to be and who God is calling us to be. We look at the week ahead, full of possibilities and grace yet to be uncovered.

We use this Lenten season as an opportunity to think about what it will mean to experience resurrection on Easter morning and reset ourselves so we can make that happen.

So hit that reset button in your life; let yourself be born of the spirit – over and over and over again. As we journey towards the cross this Lenten season, let us remember that God loves us so much that God sent Jesus to this earth to live in our midst, to share in our suffering and to prove that resurrection is not only possible, but that it is all around us. We are all worthy, not just of God’s love and grace, but also of God’s second chances, as well.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] John 3:6, NRSV
[2] John 3:16, NRSV
[3] Genesis 12:2, NRSV