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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Why Is It Important To Talk About Hospitality?

Hi friends!  Since the Year of Mark is over, we are taking a few weeks to talk about hospitality before we kick off the fall with a new sermon series.  I’m not sure where we will go next – the Year of Mark was compelling because of the continual narrative, which we all really liked.  We’ll see!  I’m still trying to think through some stuff.  To be continued!

We kicked off our summer sermon series on hospitality with a very hot and humid day and worship in the air conditioned Fellowship Hall!  It was definitely a wonderful alternative and a nice example of how sometimes you have to adjust your plans if circumstances change!  The topic was, why is the important anyway?

Enjoy …

***

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

Romans 15:1-21

Why Is It Important To Talk About Hospitality?

When I looked at the forecast this week and saw that the temperature was supposed to hit 98° degrees on the same Sunday we were scheduled to start a sermon series on hospitality, I decided the most hospitable thing we could possibly do would be to move worship into Fellowship Hall. I figured whatever point I might have tried to make in the sanctuary likely would have been lost as we sat sweltering, 25 feet from a room with functioning air conditioning, just because we are used to worshiping in a specific location.

And so this might be the first lesson that we all learn during this sermon series:  Hospitality means that sometimes we might have to change our plans and do things a little bit differently if the circumstances change.

And that is okay.  God is still with us even though we are sitting on folding chairs instead of old pews.

A few months ago, every single member of the Executive Board looked at me as if I had lost my mind when I was ten minutes into my defense on why I thought we needed better-smelling hand soap in the bathrooms.

“This is a hospitality issue!” I said as I vigorously shook my finger at the table of people sitting around me.  “We do not want people to remember us by how badly their hands smell after they wash them here.”

Admittedly, it was not one of my finer moments in ministry.

However, I have had some time to reflect on my soap-ocalypse of 2019 and what I have come to realize is that my escalating opinion about soap scents really was not just about the soap – it was about the experience I wanted people to have when they walked through our doors.

Last fall, my entire family spent a week at Disney. And what always amazes me about Disney is the way that no detail is left unturned.  For example – our first full day there, we went to Animal Kingdom. Bruce and I spent a lot of time in Dino-Land that day, because there was a lot of stuff for little kids to do and it was perfect for Harrison.  I had never been in this particular part of the park before, so I was looking around and I remember my gaze fell to the ground at one point and I realized that when they build this part of the park they intentionally molded tire tracks into the sidewalk to make it look like there were these big excavating trucks driving around digging up the roads.

No detail left unturned.

When I returned to Rehoboth I started noticing things more and thinking about the ways that we could be more attentive to the details that surround us as we gather every week.  And I realize we do not have the budget or the bandwidth to do what Disney does, but I also think there is a reason that millions of people visit their parks every year; it is about an experience.

And I think there is an important lesson in this for us.  Because we have a really important story to share with the world, right?  But we need to think carefully about how we tell the story so that people feel compelled to listen.  We need to pay attention to the details.  We have to create an experience; an experience that touches people as they walk through our doors and enables them to connect with God and strengthen their faith.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Letter to the Romans.

Now – we are officially done with the Year of Mark, which means that, for the next six weeks, anyway, as we work through a topical sermon series, we are not going to be looking at a linear story or piece of writing, we are going to be jumping around the bible a little bit.  But context is still important, right?  So before we get into the passage we just heard, let’s first let’s talk about Romans.

If you start at the beginning of the New Testament, the first four books are the Gospels, which are the narratives of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  The next section of books are called, epistles, which are letters; letters written to churches and communities that were later canonized as part of scripture. Many of these letters were written by the Apostle Paul and they were arranged in order of length – from longest to shortest.  The letter to the Romans is the longest of the epistles, so it is the first in this section.

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome, however this was not actually a church that Paul, himself, established, so he really did not know the people he was writing to on a personal level.  But he wrote this letter addressing rumors of tensions between the Christian Gentiles and the returning Christian Jews – tensions about how to interpret the Gospel and now live out this mission in community with others.

This is actually a reoccurring theme in a lot of Paul’s letters – on the one hand, you have Christian Jews were raised with rules and traditions who now believe in the promise and hope of resurrection and redemption in Jesus Christ, but who also believe you still have to follow the old rules and traditions.  On the other hand, you have this community of new believers, who are drinking up as much of the Gospel as they can and do not understand why they also have to follow the structure of this old religion that they do not claim as their own.

And so the reason I chose this particular passage to kick off our six weeks of talking about hospitality is because, in the midst of conflict between two different groups of people, Paul did not take sides or try to bring everyone to one opinion; instead, Paul called the Roman people to simply welcome one another as they built this community together.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.[1]

I realize it might be a stretch to say that my newfound soap obsession is for the glory of God, but think about it for a second – we want to put our best face forward.  We want people to walk through our doors and see the pride we have for our community and our space.  We want people to know that we love this church so much that we do not leave an detail unturned.  We want it to look like we believe this story is still worth telling – and still telling well.  We want people to feel like this is home, like there is a place for them here.  We want to create a space where we can, like Paul told the Romans, build one another up.

And this we do for the glory of God.

We are coming off of the Year of Mark, which means we know what it means for Christ to welcome us.  We saw Jesus put the needs of others before the needs of himself; we saw him feed people who were hungry, heal people who were sick and welcome all people into his ministry.

Paul said that mimicking this welcome with one another is one of the foundational pieces of what it means to be in community as the Body of Christ.  This is how we transcend differences and find unity.  This is how we build churches that not only thrive, but change people’s lives. This is how we share the Gospel and invite others into the narrative of Jesus.

Paul never held back in his letters and, while this is certainly one of the things that often challenges me about Paul, it is also one of the things that I admire and respect about him, as well.  Because he was unapologetic about who he was and the story that he was telling.  At the end of this passage he told the Roman people that he was writing “rather boldly by way of reminder … to be a minister of Christ Jesus.”

We should all be so bold.

We should all be so bold in how we tell this story, how we welcome people into our space and how we work together as a community, for the glory of God.

I think the details matter.  I think paying attention to the details is a testament to just how important you think something is.  And so while people still may think I am off my rocker when it comes to the soap thing, I think we can all agree that, as a church, we need to be bold in how we welcome others.

I think we need to be bold in how we welcome one another and bold in how we welcome people who walk through our doors for the very first time.  I am talking about everything from the soap in the bathrooms to the bulletins people are handed before worship.  I am talking about the name tags we wear to the coffee they drink.  I am talking about what people see, hear, taste and smell when they are here and also what people feel when they are here.

This summer we are going to talk about hospitality. We are going to talk about why it is so important, celebrate what we are already doing and then think about how we can be better.  We are going to try to practice what we preach throughout the summer and then (hopefully!) kick off the new program year with a renewed vision and focus in the fall.

So may we all welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Romans 15:7, NRSV

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