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 Simple Promise

I preached this sermon during the second Sunday of Advent.  I started off by talking about a rough week, but was vague about details, because they weren’t really my details to share at the time.  Looking back, I can see where God was at work and how the light truly did shine in the midst of the darkness.  My family is almost on the other side of the particularly journey we started back in December and as the days get longer and the sun shines longer, I am reminded once again just how true this promise it.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
December 9, 2018

Isaiah 9:1-7

A Simple Promise

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

I have to be honest; my family and I had kind of a tough week.  And I don’t mean to be vague, but they are also not my stories to tell, so I am not really going to get into it; however, I offer that as sort of a disclaimer that we kind of walked through that darkness this week.  We needed to be reassured of that promise that light would shine.

My sister said to me at one point, “Oh, it’s Christmas, it’s supposed to be a joyful season,” and I thought, yes, but isn’t this why we needed Christmas in the first place?  It is because of our brokenness that we needed God to come into our midst and make us whole again.  It is because our world was and is imperfect and flawed and heartbreaking at times that we needed and still need a Gospel that is full of light and love and grace.  It is because we are human that we needed God to come into our midst, to experience our world in the most vulnerable and precious way.

That is the amazing part about the Christmas story, thought.  Over the years we have sort trained ourselves to think it is all about lights and cheer and fun traditions and Starbucks holiday cups, but it started with a promise.

A promise that even in the darkest moments of our lives, light would still shine.

If you did not know that this morning’s scripture reading was from the Book of Isaiah, you would probably think that it was part of Jesus’ birth narrative, right?

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

But these words were written long before Jesus entered this world; before Mary and Joseph made the 80 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, before an innkeeper welcomed these weary travelers into his home, before the angels heralded Christ’s arrival, before the shepherds ran to see for themselves what had happened and before the wise men followed a star to bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Book of Isaiah is dated as far back as the late 8thcentury BCE.  It is thought to have been composed primarily during the Babylonian Exile, which lasted about 70 years, beginning with the destruction of Jerusalem.  The darkness that the prophet refers to in this book is not a metaphorical darkness, but a real and hard and desperate and human darkness. Jerusalem had been destroyed; people were displaced and being held captive in a foreign land.  They were separated from their families and familiar surroundings; their safety and security was gone.

And yet, there was this promise.

A promise that even in the darkest moments of their lives, light would still shine.

A promise that they would rejoice in the same way that they would if they were experiencing the joy of a great harvest.

A promise that their burdens would be lifted from them; that they would be freed from the heavy weight of their oppressors.

A promise that the warriors fighting against them would be destroyed.

A promise that a child of Messianic Hope would be born; that he would bring with him the hope of eternal life.

As people living on this side of the resurrection, we know that this promise has been fulfilled.  We know, not only how the Christmas story ends, but also how the Easter story ends.  We know that the exile did come to an end; that light did shine as the Jews were released from captivity and Jerusalem started to rebuild.  We know that, 600 years later, against all odds, a child was born to a virgin named Mary and delivered safely into this broken and imperfect world under the light of a star that led wise men there so they could pay him homage.  We know that this child grew up and lived in this world and, despite its brokenness and its imperfection, held fast to a law of love and a Gospel of peace.  We know that while he was put to death, on the third day after he died, as the morning light began to shine over the tomb where they had laid his body, they realized that the tomb was empty; that death, in fact, did not – and does not – have the final word, that resurrection is real and that grace is more powerful than we can ever comprehend.

And this all came from a simple promise.

A promise that even in the darkest moments of our lives, light will still shine.

I know it has not been an easy year for a lot of you.  I know that right now, a lot of you are feeling as though you are living in this land of deep darkness.  I know that people are grieving, frustrated, scared, stressed and feeling uncertain.  And I want you to know that somehow – someway – this promise will be fulfilled.  Light will shine.

I was with my sister this week and we were in the car and O Holy Night came on and those words, “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,” echoed through me as I thought about this passage from Isaiah and what it means to be a weary world waiting desperately for that thrill of hope.

I think in different ways we are all kind of waiting right now.

And it is coming; I promise.  That promise has been fulfilled before – and it will be again.

Christmas is hard for a lot of people because the world is kind of mandating this joy that you cannot really escape from.  We even kind of mandate it at church – I figured out how to light the wreaths on the walls, for goodness’ sake!

But remember the magic of the Christmas season doesn’t come from twinkly lights or peppermint mochas or matching pajamas (even though I love all of those things).  The magic of the Christmas season comes from that promise that even in the darkest moments of our lives, light will always shine.

And that is the kind of magic I think we all need.

So wherever you are on your journey through life right now – wherever you find yourself this Christmas season – believe in this promise.  Believe that light will shine, that you will feel joy and that the weight of your burdens will be lifted.  Believe that God will break forth into this world – into this broken and imperfect, but also beautiful and grace-filled world – and meet us where we are.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

Let that light shine.  Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Sharing The Good News

I preached this sermon at the installation of the Rev. Dr. Gregory Gray as the pastor of the Thompson Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.  I was so honored he asked me to preach!  It kind of felt like a full-circle moment, because I preached at his husband Jon’s installation in 2013 – at the time, Greg was still in Georgia!  It’s crazy to look back at how far we – and our churches! – have come since them.

***

Sarah Weaver
Thompson Congregational Church
Thompson, CT
September 16, 2018

Psalm 9
Isaiah 61:1-4
Romans 10:5-15
Luke 4:14-21

Sharing This Good News

I hope the prophet Isaiah will forgive me, but I felt compelled to paraphrase his words, just a bit …

The Holy Spirit has come upon me,
because the Rev. Dr. Greg Gray has asked me to preach at his installation;
he has called me to preach the Gospel to everyone who has gathered here today,
to encourage those in this congregation, wherever they are on their journey through life,
to proclaim an official end to the transition time between settled pastors,
and to tell the church that something really amazing is happening in their midst;
to proclaim a time of new beginnings
a celebration of the conclusion of one chapter;
and the beginning of a new one;
to reassure you that this new chapter is full of great possibilities, grace that is still yet to be uncovered and hope that surpasses all understanding—
to give you courage in the face of adversity,
joy and gratefulness instead of fear and frustration,
a bold voice of praise and thanksgiving instead of a trepid heart.
They will be called Thompson Congregational, United Church of Christ,
the church called to show this community what it means to love God will all your hearts, soul, mind and strength; as well to love your neighbors just as much. And also what it means to teach this love to others creating new disciples.
They shall continue their efforts to re-build after the fire,
they shall repair not only the physical space, but the spiritual space, as well;
they shall repair the building that has been damaged,
but hold fast to the truth that their community is and will be strengthened and lifted up by God and God alone; for they are the Church, the Body of Christ, Thompson Congregational, United Church of Christ.

Friends, allow me to introduce myself – I am the Rev. Sarah Weaver; I am the pastor of the Rehoboth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Rehoboth, MA.  I bring greetings and congratulations from my congregation, who – seven years later – still remembers what it feels like to take a giant exhale when the search process and transition between settled pastors was finally over.

So let’s start off by taking that big exhale, shall we?

It is an honor and a privilege and a joy to be here with you all this afternoon.  Greg, I never shared this with you, but I was truly touched that you asked me to preach today; that you trusted me with this moment, what I know is an important moment for you all, as a church.  So thank you, Greg, thank you, Thompson Congregational Church and thank you to the Windham Association for welcoming me here today.

“Hope is the belief in the good that is yet to come. It is the thing that gives us the courage to keep going forward.”

I am quoting two of your own members from a video called “Advent Hope” that was posted on your church Facebook page last December.  Greg opened the video with images from during and immediately following the devastating fire you experienced in 2016, but then, in a bold testament to the strength and perseverance of this church, said these powerful words:

“But we still find hope here.”

You were asked to answer the question, “What does hope mean to you?” and I was so touched by those two responses, “Hope is the belief in the good that is yet to come” and, “Hope is the thing that gives us the courage keep going forward,” because they showed me that, even in times of uncertainty, you know that God is still calling you to journey forward. Thompson Congregational Church, you havethat hope that surpasses all understanding; hope that your story is not over yet, hope that you will rebuild, hope that your church will not only survive, but thrive in the days and weeks and months and years to come, generation after generation.

Our Gospel reading comes to us from the Gospel of Luke, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.  He began his ministry by reading the same words that we just heard read from the Prophet Isaiah.  What I love about looking at these two passages next to one another is that it reminds us – it reassures us – that these prophesies were not a one-time thing; that they can still be fulfilled today.  These words were just as relevant to those that Jesus spoke to as the ones Isaiah was prophesying to.

And they are just as relevant to us here today.

You, Thompson Congregational Church, are being given garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning. Installing Greg as your settled pastor will affirm what God has known to be true all along; that the hope you spoke about in last year’s Advent video is alive and not only inspiring you to rebuild, but also to continue to proclaim the Good News.

Because here is the really cool thing about you guys – you did not let a fire stop you from being the Church.

When Greg first asked me to preach today, I told him that I really wanted to come out and visit at some point so I could get to know you all before today.  But, life happened – and, of course, it is hard for pastors to be with other churches on Sunday mornings – and I never got to come out.  So this past week, I have been trying to get to know you virtually.  I clicked through your website and Facebook page and various articles that came up in a google search.  I looked through pictures and watched videos; and I was inspired by what I saw.

You see, I kind of expected to see more about the fire; about how the church was affected and what is going to happen next. But do you know what I saw instead?

A church that blesses backpacks that are going to be donated to the local schools, first responders in the community and animals, both small and large.

A church that is committed to making a stand against bullying, participating in anti-bullying rallies and offering support to children and youth in the community.

A church that reaches out to individuals and families who have been impacted by addiction through the Holbrook Fund.

A church that collaborates with civic organizations and the local recreation department to host events that are fun for people of all ages.  A church that knows that the true depth of their strength does not come from what happens inside their walls, but outside in the community.

A church that believes in the power of singing together and praying together and eating together.

Thompson Congregational Church, even in the face of adversity, you have continued to look outward.  You have continued to respond to Christ’s call to love God and then love others.  You have continued to proclaim the Good News of God’s love, light and grace and, as Paul wrote to the church in Roman, “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

And there are beautiful, beautiful feet in this congregation.

Which brings me to my next point.

Paul told the church in Rome that people will not hear the Good News without someone proclaiming it to them.  And this is a charge that we all need to take seriously today.  Christianity is an experiential and a shared religion; 2,000 years ago, the only reason people knew that Christ had risen was because the women who experienced the Risen Christ went and told other people about it.

And that piece of our faith – the piece where we tell others what we have experienced and how our faith (and, specifically, our church) has changed our lives – is more important now than it ever has been.

Paul said that, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the death, you will be saved.”  Thompson Congregational Church, there is an amazing story that is being written here; a story of hope, a story of resurrection and a story of new possibilities. You need to confess that story with your lips; you need to tell your family and your friends, your neighbors and your coworkers.  You need to tell the people that you know and the strangers that you have just met.

You have to tell people about the ways that God has worked within this church and the ways that God is still working within this church; the ways that God has kept hope alive in this church, the ways that the God that you put your faith and trust in has never left your side.  Display the glory of God, like Isaiah prophesied. Bring this Good News to your community; invite people into your story; pray that their lives might be changed, too.

Greg, I have two gifts for you this morning. The first is a framed print of that passage from Romans, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Because I think this passage is going to define a lot of what you all do here at Thompson Congregational Church.

And I am not just talking about your shoe collection, either.

Because of devastating circumstances, you all understand that a church is more than its building; you all understand what it means to be church and to do church out in the community.  You know that it takes collaboration, creativity, patience.  You believe that it is the hard work you do, but also the grace God gives that enables you to make a difference.  You all are ready to march, dance, stroll, crawl and skip out into the community and bring the Good News.

And I, for one, cannot wait to see how the community will be changed.

The second gift I have for you this morning comes from a stained glass artist in Chepachet, Rhode Island.  You see, one of the things I have always been drawn to is the sun rising behind the church in your logo.  Because it reminds me that, even in the darkest part of night, the sun will always rise again.

As Christians, we hold fast to the truth that, even in the darkest moments of our lives, the Son – S-O-N – will always rise again.  The Good News that he preached, that he lived out and that he called us into will rise up above all else.

This is the Good News, friends.  This is the Good News.

And it is time to share it with the world.

Congratulations, Thompson Congregational Church.  Continue the work that has already started.  Hold onto that hope you spoke so poignantly of last year.  May your ashes be turn into garland; your mourning into gladness; your faint spirit into a mantle of praise.

And may your feet be beautiful as they are called to bring the Good News.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.