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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Easter Hope

Happy Easter!  I have so much to say about our Easter service, but for the time being, I will leave you with my Easter sermon.  It was short and sweet, but that’s the way I like Easter sermons – after all, the story speaks for itself!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 21, 2019

John 20:1-18

Easter Hope

A few weeks ago, my in-laws were here and they gave Harrison a tomato plant.  We watered it a few times and then transplanted it into a bigger pot.  I excitedly explained to my sweet toddler as we cared for this little plant that eventually we were going to put it in our vegetable garden outside and that it was going to get bigger and grow tomatoes that we were going to eat.

About a week later, I was at church getting ready for worship when I got a text from Bruce that simply read, “I hate her.”

A few seconds later a picture came through; a picture of our sweet toddler’s little tomato plant – or, at least, what was left of it after the cat ate it the night before.

So we took a deep breath and decided not to give up on the plant.  We moved it to a different location – one that we thought (foreshadowing!) the cat would not be able to get to and made sure it had plenty of water and sun.  Much to our delight, new growth emerged.

And then a week later, the cat found it again.

But since we are gluttons for gardening punishment, we decided, again, not to give up on this plant; and, again, with some nurturing and some patience and some time, new growth has emerged.

I was all set to use this story as my big illustration for an Easter sermon on resurrection and hope and then on Monday I saw the notification on my phone that the Cathedral at Notre Dame was on fire. And then I watched, probably with millions of people around the world, as that fire engulfed the iconic cathedral.

At the time, my silly story of a tomato plant seemed so insignificant and trivial.  I wasn’t really sure it would really be appropriate to joke about it once I watched the spire of that 800-year-old building collapse in the fire.

I kept thinking that, as a pastor, I am trained to respond with this narrative of the Bodyof Christ and not the Buildingof Christ.  We, as Christians, know that the Church is not defined by a physical structure, but by the people who have enthusiastically responded to the call to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.

But it was hard not to be devastated as I watched that building burn.

I immediately started thinking about a different message to share on Easter morning, a message of hope; a reminder, perhaps, that the story is not over yet, that God does really great work in the midst of devastation and loss and ash.

And then photos started to emerge from the interior of the cathedral.  And those photos boldly spoke that message of hope in a way that words would never be able to.  Photos of ancient relics still in tact – the cross, the altar, the stained glass windows, the bell towers, the crown of thorns believed to be worn by Jesus, himself.

Just like the tiny little leaves that have emerged on Harrison’s chewed-down tomato plant, those photos were real and powerful reminders that resurrection is always possible; that even when it seems as though hope is lost, God is not finished.

God is not finished with the little and seemingly insignificant and trivial things and God is not finished with the big things, either.

The Easter story is a story of hope.  It tells us that there are no lost causes, that God’s power in this world is greater than everything, even death, itself.  The Easter story reminds us that God never abandons us during out times of great need; that in fact, that God does the most incredibly-inspiring and grace-filled work in those moments.  It shows us that it is in our moments of grief and sorrow and confusion that angels are in our midst and that Christ will appear to us – in some way – and call us by name.  It teaches us that the tomb was empty because God saw the brokenness of our humanity and said, this story is not over yet.

We live in world that desperately needs to hear this message of hope proclaimed.  We live in a world where people are hurting, where they are experiencing loss and heartache and stress and pain.  We live in a world where people weep, like Mary Magdalene, because it seems as though their world is crumbling.  We live in a world where people feel the depths of their brokenness.

And it is in this world that people need to know that second chances are always possible, that in the darkest moments of their lives, God’s light will shine.

And so today we tell this story of hope to a world that is broken.  We tell this story of our God whose love is so powerful that it triumphed over death, itself.  We tell this story of a man named Jesus whose Gospel we now live out in our own lives today. We tell this story of how resurrection once turned the world upside down and how it still can, today.  We tell this story of how redemption can be found in the smallest leaves on a tomato plant or in priceless relics discovered in the ash of a fire.  We tell this story of how there are no lost causes and how hope is real, hope is powerful and hope is alive in our lives today.

Happy Easter, friends!  May you feel the hope of God’s resurrecting love as you remember this story.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Believe In The Magic Of The Season

I am almost done catching up on posting, so I am going to post my Advent, Christmas and Star Sunday sermons today!  I went off of the Year of Mark so that I could just “Do Christmas” and it was the best decision I could have made.  I loved getting to really be intentional about preaching within the season and touched on some scriptures that we read every year, but rarely in a service where I have time to actually preach on them.

Here is my sermon from the first Sunday of Advent!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
December 2, 2018

John 1:1-18

Believe In The Magic Of The Season

We are going to take a brief hiatus from the Year of Mark for the Advent and Christmas season.  We will pick it up again in January, after Star Sunday.

(Which, if you were here last year on Star Sunday, I hope you will consider sharing your Star Story with us.  If you were not here last year on Star Sunday and have no clue what I am talking about, I hope you will join us that Sunday, January 6th, because it is a really good service.)

Here’s why we are taking a hiatus from the Year of Mark:  I told my clergy covenant group this week that I am just not in the mood to do anything but Christmas right now – and that includes when I do church, as well.  And while I have some good stuff that I really want to dig into next with the Year of Mark – some stuff that is coming up and some stuff that I want to circle back to – right now, I am just not in the mood to do anything but Christmas.

I want to decorate my church and my office. I want to listen to Christmas music. I want to indulge in delicious Christmas treats.  I want to preach about this amazing story that, year after year, brings us hope, peace, joy and love.

I just want to step out of reality and believe in the magic of the season.

It has, at times, been a challenging year. Natural disasters have devastated communities, here in our country and around the world.  Senseless violence has threatened people’s safety and refuge. Our country continues to face political upheaval.  And our own church community has experienced a lot of really hard losses.

And here’s the thing – I do not want to put on rose-colored glasses, ignore the problems that need to be talked about and pretend that everything is fine.

But I also want to believe in the magic of Christmas, the magic of the Advent season of waiting, the magic of the incarnation and the magic of these beautiful words from the Gospel of John that the Word became flesh and lived among us.  I want to believe in the magic of the glory of the Word, a Word full of grace and truth.

And even though I know there is evil and imperfection and sorrow and grief and uncertainty in this world, I want to believe in that grace and truth.

So we will pick Mark back up again in January. This morning I wanted to kick off our Advent season with this passage from the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John is the most mystical of the four Gospels; so it is fitting, right?  I want to believe in the magic of the season so I am bringing us into the most magical collection of the stories told about Jesus.

The reading that we just heard is from the very beginning of the Gospel; it is the prologue, which serves the purpose of first describing the cosmic and philosophical nature of our universe (that we cannot really comprehend), but then boldly declares this being – this person, this man, Jesus – as a physical manifestation of this cosmic and philosophical aura.

This passage from John is one of the most beautiful and poetic pieces of scripture.  I have always found it hard to wrap my head around what the Gospel writer is saying here, but I also do not think we need to necessarily understand it in order for us to believe it to be true.

That being said, I do think these words are supposed to remind us, like I talked about last Sunday, of the incarnational nature of our faith; that faith is meant to be lived out, in the flesh.

And this year, I just want to believe.  I want to believe in the magic of the incarnation; not only in the magic of the incarnation of God in Jesus 2,000 years ago, but also in the incarnation of God in our world today as good and kind-hearted and faithful individuals seek to do God’s work in their lives.  I want to believe in the magic of the kind of incarnation that propels people to be kind and love one another.  I want to believe in magic of the kind of incarnation that calls people to shine light into the darkness an unequivocally believe that love can and will always win.  I want to believe in the magic of this kind of incarnation.

A few years ago, in lieu of a traditional Advent-candle-lighting liturgy, I invited people to share a testimony about where they were finding hope, peace, joy and love in their lives.  These testimonies were beautiful representations of the incarnational nature of our faith.  Through people’s stories we bore witness to the ways the Advent promises of hope, peace, joy and love were happening in our midst; through these stories the Word that was full of grace and truth became flash and lived and dwelled among us.

This morning I thought I would officially kick off our Advent season by talking about how God is incarnate in our world still today; how I see these promises of hope, peace, joy and love being fulfilled, even in the midst of a sometimes-challenging season of life.

Today we lit the first candle on our Advent wreath, the candle of hope.  I found hope this week in an unexpected way – in increments of $17.21 as people supported our church through our Giving Tuesday campaign.

In my line of work, I hear a lot about how the church is dying; how mainline protestant churches around the country are struggling with dwindling numbers and struggling finances.  As a church that falls in that demographic, we are not immune from those struggles.

And yet, this week, I had hope.  I had hope as, all day, I received notifications from PayPal that people were donating to our Giving Tuesday campaign.  I had hope as people stopped by the church office with checks and cash throughout the day.  I had hope as people took pride in what we were doing and celebrated each goal that we met.  I had hope as I read the nicest notes and comments that people wrote with their donations.  I had hope when, at the end of the day, we had raised over $2,400.

I have hope for the future of this church.

Next week we will light the second candle on our Advent wreath, the candle of peace.  I found peace last Sunday at our monthly Taizé worship service.  If you have never been to our Taizé services, they are approximately 40 minutes long – and we spend 15 minutes in complete silence at the end of every service.

I love that silence.  It is a time where I can talk to God, talk to myself, (think about my home renovations) and just be. We always say that style of worship is not for everyone, but for me it is just so peaceful.

The third candle we will light on our Advent wreath is the candle of joy.  And I found joy last Sunday in the 28 children that attended worship and our Advent workshop.

28!

GUYS.  Do you know why we started the all-ages Advent workshop a couple of years ago?  Because we had such low Church School attendance the Sunday after Thanksgiving and we could never get enough teachers so it made sense to combine everyone and do something simple.

And this year we had 28 kids.

The growth this church has seen this year, particularly with our young families, brings me so much joy.

The last candle on our Advent wreath is the candle of love.  And I saw a bold and powerful witness to love this week when I put out a quick request on Facebook on Wednesday evening to see if anyone could make a meal for the Eckilsons while Audrey recovers from her heart attack and less than 24 hours later had 12 people signed up to make meals over the next three weeks.

I see love in action here at the Rehoboth Congregational Church.

This year I want to encourage you all the believe in the magic of this season.  Believe in the Word made flesh, in the miraculously holy arrival of Emmanuel, God with us.  Believe in the incarnation – as it was, as it as and as it still has the potential to be. Believe in hope, believe in peace, believe joy, believe in love.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.