God knows your name.

6-3-18

 

1 Samuel 3:1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

 

This sermon is not just a chance to talk about my dog but I’m going to start by talking about my dog. As many of you know, Maggie and I adopted a German Shepherd named Abe about six weeks ago, but that wasn’t his name when we got him. Abe came with the name Sarge, because the people at the rescue didn’t like Baruka, which was his original family’s name for him. So the rescue put a picture of him on facebook and essentially had a caption contest to determine his new name: the winner was Sarge. Now what you have to understand is that Abe looks terrifying. People cross the street when they see us coming. He’s a Western Lines German Shepherd and bred for police work, so the name Sarge LOOKS like it fits. It doesn’t. This dog was scared by a rabbit the other night. I’ve never heard him bark, except when he’s dreaming. All he wants is to hold hands, or sit on your feet and lean against you. He loves children, but is not great with shadows and loud noises. In short, he’s a lovable dweeb. An Abe, not a Sarge.

But the people who just saw his picture online couldn’t know that. They couldn’t really give him a name because they didn’t know him. Name, identity and relationship are all connected, and in this story today of God calling Samuel by his name we can see some of those same connections.

We all really like our names and care when people get them wrong. Savvy marketers and waiters try to manipulate us by auto-populating our names or reading our name off our credit cards and saying them back to us when they bring the bill. Manipulation aside though, one of the first things we learn about someone is their name, and if we don’t know their name it’s clear we don’t really know them.

In the Old Testament names were even more intimate and powerful than they are today. When something important happens to someone in the Old Testament they often get a new name: Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, Naomi says to call her Mara after her sons die, Jacob becomes Israel.

But we never really know God’s name. There’s a sense that to know God’s name would be to get too cozy, like an extreme version of calling your professor by their first name. The closest we have, YHWH, is simply an approximation pronunciation-wise, and even so many Jews say “ha Shem” which means “the name” because YHWH is too holy. All the things we call God, with the exception of Jesus as part of the Trinity and perhaps YHWH, are titles or metaphors, not names. We don’t really know God like that.

But God does know us. It says here in 1st Samuel that Samuel didn’t know God yet, but God knew Samuel. And in the Psalm that goes with this reading for today it says,

“O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
139:2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
139:3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
139:4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.”

These are meant to be comforting things. I think sometimes God’s knowledge of us has been used as a threat, and there is some caution in that, but that’s not the context of these scriptures: God knows us from our names to our thoughts to the tips of our ears, and knowing all of that does not give up on us.

God calls to Samuel four different times in this story, patiently waiting for him to realize it’s not Eli’s voice. And I think it’s important that God calls Samuel by his name, unlike from the whirlwind or earthquake or fire that marks the appearance God other places in the Old Testament. Instead God called Samuel’s name in a voice that sounded so familiar, Samuel was positive it was Eli in the next room. And of course it was Eli that figured out who the voice was.

It’s often the Elis in our lives who point out the things that aren’t clear to us about ourselves and where God may be calling us. We all need people we trust who can see and hear the things about ourselves that we get confused. Sometimes it’s our Elis more than anything else that point to where God is calling us. Sometimes we hear the voice of God more directly in prayer or meditation, or indirectly in a series of strange coincidences or an idea that just won’t leave us alone. But we know a call by what Howard Thurman calls “the sound of the genuine” that echoes with something deep in ourselves. We might not know why exactly but just that this thing is real and right for us. Almost as if someone had called your name and said “Pay attention to this!” As if someone who knows you is persistently directing you back to where you should engage right now.

But it’s okay if it takes a while. If you’re unclear or if you head off in another direction, God isn’t going anywhere. God knows your name and God knows you.

Sometimes we hear the voice of God ourselves, sometimes we need the Elis in our lives to let us know what they perceive about us, and sometimes it feels like we’re just kind of like Samuel lying on the floor in the dark, wondering if the voice will call our names again. But God always does. Knowing you and knowing your name, God is not going to give up on you.

The things that you are called to do are often not easy. Samuel became a beloved and powerful prophet, but his very first job was to go and tell Eli that Eli’s own biological sons, who were horribly corrupt priests, were going to die. God rarely pushes people towards a super easy life. Instead God calls our names and points us to engage with what is complex and sometimes painful in ourselves and the world around us.

In the Lutheran ordination rite, after the new pastor has made lots of impossible promises about following God’s call, the bishop says to them, “May God who has given you the will to do these things, graciously give you the strength and power to attain them.” The promise that comes with all difficult calls is that we are not alone, we will have both God and a community beside us, and we will be given strength.

God knows your name, and God knows and cares for you. Wherever you are in your own heart and your own life, God is not going to give up on you.

 

Past the End of the Story.

4-1-18

Luke 24:13-35

Part 1:

13Now on that same day [that is Easter] two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 

 

            It’s technically still Easter but the story has already been told. We have heard the readings, and songs, and acclamations and now it’s over.  The candy is on clearance, the flowers are wilting and those of us who attempted a nice Spring Easter dress have given up and gone back to snow boats. And maybe snow boots aren’t the only things we’ve been resigning ourselves to in the past days and months. In our national life, but also our personal and communal ones, I have lately felt a tired sense that we have heard this story through. That for all the sound and fury of change, the deep down stories of who we most fundamentally are, the harm we do to one another, and what we expect God to be able to do amidst and within us have basically been told before and now are done.

            Cleopas and his friend were also facing a story that was over. They set out on the road to Emmaus because there was no longer much need for them in Jerusalem. Jesus had died, and in spite his body being missing and some women having claimed to see angels, there wasn’t really anything left to stay for. Jesus was gone, they’d waited a couple days while the dust settled, and now it was time to go back to whatever they had been planning to do before all this drama and tragedy. So they set out on the road, still trying to make sense of what had happened, and how it was that their hopes had been so completely dashed.

 

Part 2:

Verse 25: 25Then [Jesus] said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” 

 

            This response seems like an odd way to go about comforting your grieving disciples, but I suppose it’s good to see that even in resurrection Jesus has not lost his characteristic bluntness. I like to think though that “Oh how foolish you are” was spoken with some affection, rather like saying to someone who thinks you don’t care anymore, “Oh darling, you could not be more wrong.” Then Jesus starts again with the beginning of the story, God’s strange and complicated love story with humanity, and tells it all from his side. All of the care, grief, anger, delight and longing of God’s long and troubled relationship with humans pouring out as the three of them walk along. It must have been marvelous to hear scripture exegeted by the one who was in and through it all, and who could recount not just the words but the memory hanging behind each of them. But still Cleopas and his friend don’t see the connection to their own story, and the story of a dead man who had claimed to be the son of God.

 

Part 3:

Verse 28: 28As they came near the village to which they were going, [Jesus] walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

 

            It was Jesus next to them, Jesus telling his own story, close enough to touch, and they had no idea. Until he sits down to eat, and in the familiarity of a gesture they’ve seen a hundred times across a table there’s a flash of recognition. Frederick Buechner has a beautiful little book on preaching that illuminates the gospel as a tragedy, a comedy and a fairy tale. Here in the microcosm of this story we have all three. What a tragedy to be next to the one you are mourning and only recognize them at the end. What a comedy to spend hours on the road with an old friend who is talking about himself the whole way and mistake him for someone else. What a fairy tale for the dusty stranger on the road to be revealed as your heart’s desire. But whatever type of story it is, suddenly it’s not over! Jesus has walked with them right past the end of the story. Jesus has walked with them past what they know to be the way the world is, past who they thought themselves to be, and past who they thought God to be. Resurrection, this strange Christian belief that life can come after death, has broken into the end of the story.

We praise Jesus’ resurrection because it “burst the chains of death,” because our God is a God of abundant life and cannot be held by even the worst of what we could do. But we also praise it because we know that it is for us as well, and that through Jesus we also are drawn into new life, not only at the times our death but daily in ways personal and communal, mundane and dramatic. Because we have been buried with Christ in baptism the end of our stories is not the end.

So when you have reached the end: the words spoken that can’t be taken back, the grief of a loss that changes life forever, the quiet resignation that this is how things are and how they always will be, or even death itself, God will be with you to tell you that you have not in fact reached the end. Jesus will walk with you past the end of all those stories. Jesus will walk with you in landscapes colored by grief in which there is still beauty. Jesus will walk with you past the death of who you thought you were and into the slow resurrection of abundant life. Jesus will walk with you in the midst of love tested and hope lost. Because for God that is never the end of the story. With God life can come from death, hope can come from despair, and beauty can come from the worst life will throw your way. You are traveling with God, and God is not done with the story of the resurrection.

 

Verse 33: 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The gospel of the Lord.

 

 

 

You are loved. Pass it on.

2-11-18

Mark 1:9-15

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

 

            I saw a slightly cheesy comic online the other day. It shows two small furry creatures, prairie dogs maybe, talking to each other. One says, “The world is hurting. I want to help, but how?” and the other small furry creature just gives him a hug and says, “You are loved. Pass it on.” So the second furry creature finds a rhino and hugs her and says, “You are loved. Pass it on” and the rhino finds a lion and gives him a hug and says “You are loved. Pass it on” and the lion finds a giraffe and pretty soon whole world is saying “You are loved. Pass it on.”

            Like I said, slightly cheesy. But also a lot like what is happening in the gospel of Mark today and what we are doing tonight and what most of the whole church around the world is doing for Lent, saying again and again, “You are loved. Pass it on.” Or as Jan Richardson put it in the poem “Beloved is where we begin.”

            Lent can feel like a time doing a lot of things, and it often is, but the doing of all the things is not where we start. It’s not even where Jesus starts. That was chapter one of Mark, the first gospel to be written, and the first appearance Jesus makes. You might expect a grand entrance of miracle working or a speech, but instead Jesus goes to get baptized by someone else. In this first scene we don’t hear Jesus speak at all, instead he hears a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” That’s where Jesus whole ministry starts, with being beloved.

            Now Jesus hears this at his baptism and baptism is an important manifestation of God’s love for us and the ways we promise to pass that on, but baptism formalizes that relationship, it doesn’t create it. Jesus was thirty years old when he was baptized. It’s not like until then he had been walking around with God thinking, “I don’t know about this guy” and then baptism changed God’s mind. God already knew that Jesus was his beloved son, and whether or not you have been baptized, God already knows that you too are God’s beloved child. Baptism is important to bring up today though because it gives us a context for our use of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Part of the baptismal ritual is to trace a cross on the baptizee’s forehead with olive oil and say “You, child of God, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” In other words, you are beloved and you have an identity completely apart from what you do or what happens to you. When we put ashes on each other’s foreheads tonight it’s also with olive oil and in the shape of a cross, but now we say “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It doesn’t contradict the words at baptism, it adds to them. That blessing of “child of God” is always underneath the new words and where this Ash Wednesday ritual begins. The ashes that are added to the oil add another truth, “You, child of God, are mortal. You, child of God, are flawed. And you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

You are loved is always where we begin, but the reason that that comic struck me as kind of cheesy is because we all know it’s more complicated than that. If we could just pass hugs around and achieve world peace I think we would have done it by now. But it’s more complicated because we are flawed, the churchy word would be sinful. We all make decisions and get caught up in systems that harm ourselves, each other and God’s creation. And so ashes are a sign of repentance, that means stopping that harm and living a different way. In the Old Testament when people realized just how messed up they or their communities had gotten, they would put ashes on their heads as a sign of that repentance. So that is part of what we do today. Because I know that everyone in this room knows how messed up things have gotten, and the ways that each of us has participated in that or at least stepped back and watched it happen. And we want to do better, we want our communities to be better. But in order to actually live differently we have to not only acknowledge that we’ve messed things up, but hear that God still loves us and we still love each other, and it really is worth it to try to do better. That’s what confession lets us do: acknowledge the mess out loud, commit to trying to do better and hear that we are still loved and that it’s still worth it to keep trying. 

            But we also use ashes and the words with them, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” to remind us of our mortality. We are not forever. We are not limitless or the complete captains of our own destiny. We die, and people who we love die. Even in the sincerest hope and belief that death is not the end for us, being mortal is difficult and often filled with grief. We put ashes on our foreheads both to be honest about that fact, but also to set it right next to that promise that you are a beloved child of God. Yes, we will return to dust, but doesn’t make us meaningless, because before and through that truth is the truth that you are loved, that is where you begin and that part of your identity will last forever.

            These are difficult things to say: I am sinful. I will die. And yet there is a freedom in acknowledging our mortality and our world’s brokenness that exists even within our own hearts and minds. We know we are broken. We know we will die. What Lent asks us to remember with that is that we are loved. That sin and death do not have the last word on who we are and they are never our most foundational piece or the place where we begin. During Lent we’ll have plenty of opportunities to take that love and pass it on, but only because we are loved. In God’s eyes we are all mortal and loved, sinful and loved, but beloved is always where we begin.

 

 

Find the good

1-7-18

Matt. 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Around Christmas I saw Star Wars twice. I liked it a lot better the second time, but both times my favorite line was the same. No spoilers, but it’s when a character named Rose Tico has made has made a dramatic and risky judgment call (that I know not everyone here agrees with) and she explains it by saying, “We're going to win not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!” It’s a quote that sums up a lot of the story arc in the movie, but it also tells us something as the audience: Rose has found something that she believes is worth saving, and in spite of the chaos around her she believes it’s time to stop and recognize that.

I confess that this year I felt more hope from Star Wars than from Christmas. Not because of the stories themselves, but because of how they were each presented. In Star Wars I could see the struggle, the courage and the joy of the world the characters live in, but around Christmas time it’s like we pretend that Jesus was born in a snow globe, all pretty and walled off from the rest of the world. And that’s a problem, because the world that you and I live in can at times feel closer to a nasty galactic battle than sparkly snow drifting onto a softly lit manger scene. The truth is that I’m tired. And that if Jesus showed up in some fairy tale then I don’t see what good that does you or me.

So in a weird way it’s helpful to read today, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born.” King Herod was a nasty character, the sort of politician that will do anything to increase and hold onto his power no matter the cost to his people, or even those closest to him. He is among other things remembered for killing several immediate family members, including his second wife. In our own story, Herod is about to order the death of every baby boy in Bethlehem in the hopes that Jesus will be among them, and Jesus only survives by fleeing as a refugee to Egypt. If Jesus was born not in a snow globe, but in the time of King Herod then that is a world I can recognize. That is a world of struggle and courage. And yet today we hear not about fighting Herod, or even about saving anyone from him quite yet, but about searching, and bringing gifts, and joy.  

When the three wise men, probably astrologer priests from Iran, get to Judea they very logically go to the palace. After all they are looking for a prince. But when they find Herod, not Jesus, they are wise enough to leave and keep following the star until it stops above an ordinary house with an ordinary looking woman and her toddler inside. The wise men are wise, not so much because of their astrology, but because they recognize what is good when they find it. They recognize that it is Jesus that they have come to pay homage to, not Herod, and in finding him they are overwhelmed with joy. In spite of the fact that Herod is still out there, in spite of this not being what they expected, they recognize that with the star God has led them to something truly and purely good. So they stop and they give proper honor to what they have found and they offer what they can. It’s only after recognizing and rejoicing in finding something precious, that they protect it by defying Herod’s orders and sneaking out of town without telling him where to find and kill Jesus.

Many of us have spent a lot of energy in the past year fighting what we hate and protecting what we love. And that is good! But I at least also need to remember the wisdom of the wise men, to focus when God is trying to lead me to what is good and when I find it, to stop and recognize that. To bring what I can offer and to enjoy it! When he had grown up, Jesus took the time before saving us to make his first miracle changing water into wine at a wedding: simply recognizing what was good in that moment, what he had to offer and pausing with the joy of the people he had ultimately come to save. When we take the time to follow where we are being called, we also find what is good and what we have to offer, and our own joy in pausing there, in spite of the Herods, and as reason for the difficult decisions of when to fight and what to save.

So as this year begins I encourage you: find the good. Let God lead you towards the things in your own life that are precious, meaningful and of God, even if they’re more like a fragile baby in an ordinary house than the power and prestige of a palace. What is truly good is worth spending the time to find and to stay with. There will be times to save what you love, and even times to fight what you hate, but first there is time simply to find joy in the good that God has called us into.