Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sermon for Lent 2: Our Failures, God's Promise: A New Name

Genesis 17:1-7;15-16

            Once I posed the question on Facebook:  Does your name have a story?  If so, what is it?  What is the meaning of your name? 

            Of course, this is more than one question, actually.
             I learned in 9th grade Latin class that my name actually means, “Goddess” – something that impressed me briefly. 
            But as to the story of my name – how I got my name – I am not sure.  It may have something to do with the popularity of the Lennon sisters in the late 1950s. 
            Maybe my parents just paged through the Baby name book until they found a combination that sounded good.  I don’t know.  But what about you? 
            Do you know the meaning of your name?

            I remember a few people who answered the question. 
            One woman said that her name “Ellen” came from the name of the nurse who attended her mother throughout her pregnancy.  All the time they had a different name in mind, but at the last minute, the name “Ellen” just seemed right.
             Another woman said her parents had named her “Ruth” because it was a good solid name, and they couldn’t ever imagine a girl named “Ruth” misbehaving.   She said they may have changed their minds later in her childhood.

            So our names have stories attached to them – and our names have meaning. 
            And this is true as well for the names in the Bible. 
            For example, do you know that the name “Israel” means – the one who wrestles with God?  Jacob’s name was changed to Israel after he wrestled a blessing out of God out in the desert. 
            And “Isaac” means laughter because Sarah laughed when she heard that she was going to have a baby at 90. 
             Abram means “exalted father” – and Abraham – means “Father of a multitude of nations.”

            To us – Abraham is a name that makes sense. 
            But to Abraham, it must have hard to believe.  Or make that – impossible to believe.    Because Abraham had no children.  And he was 90. 

            The covenant with Abraham – and the story of his name – goes beyond this brief scripture reading.  It begins in Chapter 12 when God tells him to go – “to a place I will show you” – and that he would make his name great – which means, that he would bless Abraham with wealth, measured in offspring and property. 
            The promise and the story continues – God promises that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars, he promises that he will be a great nation.  
            At one point, the promise seems so impossible to believe that Abraham and Sarah decide to take matters into their own hands.  Sarah’s slave, Hagar, has a baby for Abraham. 
            But it turns out t that God has something else in mind, another child, through Sarah. 

            It’s a complicated, messy story of trust and doubt, faithfulness and impatience and  cruelty. 
            At one point Sarah is jealous of Hagar and Ishmael her son, and orders Abraham to cast them out.  Which he does.    
            And when Hagar cries out to God in the wilderness, believing that she will die, God comes to her and makes promises to her and her son as well.
             And by the way, the name Ishmael, the name of Abraham’s other son?  It means, “God listens.” 

            Names are important. 
            They tell us who we are, and they tell us who God is for us.  They give us a promise – and they give us a mission. 
            And sometimes it is tempting only to remember the promise.  Abraham will be blessed and Abraham will be a blessing. 
            His name will mean father of a multitude  of nations– and sometimes he believes it – but other times – he doesn’t. 
            Other times he acts like someone who has to take matters into his own hands, who doesn’t trust that God will come through for him, who doesn’t trust what God is already doing through him.   
            Sometimes Abraham is a hero of faith, and sometimes he acts like a coward. 

            But God still makes a covenant with him, God still makes a promise to him – and to Sarah.
            God promises to bless him – to give him descendants and land – and to make him a blessing. 
            And he gives him a new name – Abraham – father of a multitude of nations.”   
            His descendants will be as numerous as the stars.   And they are, you know. 
            The descendants of Abraham are as numerous as the stars.  Three religions claim him as their patriarch. 
            We do, of course the Jewish people do, and the Islamic nations claim Abraham as their faith too.

            Names are important.  They tell us who we are, and they tell us who God is for us. 
            And they tell us our mission too. 
            Our names tell us that we are blessed – and they also tell us that we are a blessing.  
            But sometimes we fail to believe the promise.  Sometimes we fail to trust the mission.

            When we are baptized – for some of us it’s the time we received our names.  I was baptized about six weeks after I was born.  “Diane Marie” – that is the name that my parents gave me.  
             I had a colleague that didn’t think you should say a baby’s name until after they are baptized. 
            But I always disagreed with that because that’s not the most important thing that’s happening at baptism. 
            After all – some people are baptized when they are six weeks, and some people are baptized when they are 4 and some people are baptized when they are 8 or even 18 – or 80.   
            No – the name that we receive at baptism is this one:  “Christ.”  We are given Christ’s name – and our names are written in the book of life.  That’s the promise. 
            We are given the name of the one who suffered – and died – and rose to life – for the love of the world. 

            And the mission?  We, like Abraham, are blessed to be a blessing to the world. 
            We are given a promise that God will never let us go – all of our lives, and into eternal life – we are his.  He knows our names. 
            And we are also given a mission – to be Christ-bearers. 

            There are times, I will confess, that I have a hard time believing that the promise is for ME. 
            But mostly it’s the second thing I doubt – that God could use me to be an instrument of his peace, and grace, and hope. 
            What about you?  What about all of us … Grace church?   We have a name too.

            Names are important.   Ellen.  Ruth.  Abraham.  James.  Ava.  Shelby.  Connor.  Gabriela.  And Grace.  I believe that God has a mission for us.
             I see the children – at the school, but not just at the school – here, among us.  God has sent them to us.  We are not barren.  God has a mission for us – nurturing life,  making sure they know Jesus, the one who is Grace, the one who gave himself for us. 

            So often we fail.  But God’s love is wider than our failures. 
            Look at the sky and number the stars.  See if you can count them.    You’re up there.  We’re up there.  So shall our descendants be. 


Wednesday, February 14, 2018


I was going to wear my good alb for Ash Wednesday worship, except that it's not my good alb any more.

I bought this one a few years ago, just before I traveled to South Dakota for one of my congregations' 100th Anniversary.  It seemed like a good occasion to splurge, to show my congregation that I had come up in the world, even just a little.  I had made do for many years with the least expensive robe I could find.  It had velcro at the top, and fastened with velcro too.  The new one had buttons!  and two pockets.  I had saved up a little money, so I bought it.

A couple of weeks ago I brought my robe to a wedding where I would be officiating.  It was an outdoor wedding, and I was undecided about whether I would wear it or not.  I decided I would not.  But when I got home, it looked wrinkled, and I thought I would put it in the wash.  And in the dryer.

When I came out, I discovered that I had left a ballpoint pen in the pocket.

This was a terrible mistake.

There were great big blotches of ink all over the robe.  I mean ALL OVER.  I sprayed and put the robe in the wash again.  I soaked it for a week, and sprayed it again.  And washed it again.  Some of the spots have become a little lighter.

But not much.

I briefly considered wearing the alb anyway, on Ash Wednesday.  If you see it, you might see why.  It is a great (or terrible, depending on your point of view) visual aid of the presence and persistence of sin in our lives.  We are all marked.  And we can't get the stains out, no matter how hard we try.

I briefly considered wearing the alb anyway, but I just couldn't.  I decided that it was just too embarrassing.  I just couldn't stand up there with all those ink spots, and imagining everyone looking at me, thinking, "What HAPPENED?" or "How dumb could she BE?"

There are times when I wonder, too, about wearing the ashes, on Ash Wednesday.  I wonder about it because I always read the gospel of Matthew, which tells me not to practice my piety in front of others, so that they will say, "Good job!  You're so religious!"  And I have thought of the ashes as an act of piety.

But today I think that the ashes are more like that stained alb that I won't wear, because it's too embarrassing.  To wear the ashes is to admit my fault, my sin, my failure.  To wear the ashes is to confess my impiety.  I am in the company of those who have failed.  I am in the company of those who have done stupendously dumb things, like wash clothes with a pen in the pocket.  I am in the company of those who have done mean things, and ignorant things, who have majored in minors, and not paid attention to the most important things.

So, I will not wear the robe tonight.  I'll wear the older one.  That one has a tear in the pocket, and some other flaws you might notice if you look closely.

Most of the time we don't want people to look too closely.  But on Ash Wednesday, some of us dare to stand together, marked, and tell each other the truth about our sad and beautiful lives.  There is power in that.  God can change us then.  Into what, I only have a vague idea, except that he promised that we would be transformed from one degree of glory into another.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Sermon for Epiphany 5: "Ordinary Miracle"

based on Mark 1:29-39
            The theme for pre-school chapel this week was “Jesus' Many Miracles.”  With a theme like that, where do you begin?
             The feeding of the 5,000?  The four men who lowered their  friend through the roof so that Jesus could heal him
             The ten lepers who were cleansed?  The two blind men Jesus healed?  The one little girl he raised from the dead? 

            I started with this one – the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. 
            Notice it happens RIGHT after Jesus leaves the synagogue – right after his teaching and casting out of the demon. 
            He goes to Simon Peter’s house and Simon’s mother-in-law is sick.  She has a fever.  And I say to all of the children, “Have you ever had a fever?” – and they all said “Yes!”

            It’s an ordinary sickness, something all of us can understand, especially in a year when there is a particularly scary variety of flu going around. 
            We have all had a fever – although it might help to remember that there was a time when a fever was a lot more worrisome than it usually is now. 
            I remember hearing a story at a funeral once – the woman who died, I was told, had a secret. 
            She had been married once, briefly, before her current marriage.  But her husband had died after they were married only a short time, maybe a year. 
            He died of an infection.  Her second husband got sick with an infection, but he got well – because in the intervening two years – they had discovered – penicillin. It must have seemed like a miracle.

            So a fever – it’s a common sickness – an ordinary sickness – and maybe we can even imagine being healed from a fever – more than we can imagine some Jesus’ other miracles. 
            Peter’s mother in law was sick in bed with aches and pains and she couldn’t do the things that she was used to doing – and Jesus came right up to her – not worried about germs or anything – and he took her by the hand and healed her

            And she got up and served them.
             And I have thought of this scene in somewhat humorous ways, I’ll admit
            – I’ve pictured her as a sort of first century version of Raymond’s mother on Everybody Loves Raymond, getting up and putting on a big pot of stew, because that’s what Jesus and his disciples needed right now.
            “You hungry?  Sit down.  I’m better now.”

            Women’s work is never done, am I right?
            There’s something about this scene that I love – and – I’ll confess – something about it that bothers me. 
            I love it because it shows that Peter’s mother-in-law is fully healed.  And you know, I’ve had a fever, and even when it leaves, getting up and cooking –that’s not the first thing I want to do. 
            Well, actually, though I love cooking “a little” – it’s not always my favorite thing, so maybe part of what bothers me is the idea that she’s the one who has to do it.   
            I know that she’s doing it with love – and I know that she’s doing it as well out of gratitude and love --- she’s serving for the same reason all of us do ANYTHING – to show our gratitude and thanksgiving.   
            So I love that this scene shows this woman getting up with energy – and giving back with gratitude – and not in some big and dramatic way, but in an ordinary way.
             Really, it’s an example of living generously.  She is a giver – and when she is healed, what is the first thing she does? 
            She gives.  She serves.  She cooks and makes her guests feel at home.

            So this is a great example of how healing is not an end point – it’s a beginning point. 
            Or maybe it’s both an end – and a beginning. 
            When we are healed by Jesus, when we are set free by Jesus, when we are given life and forgiveness and hope by Jesus – it’s the end of one thing – but it’s the beginning of another. 
            It’s the beginning of a new purpose in life, the beginning of hands and  hearts and lives more open – the beginning of living with generosity. 

            But here’s what else I think about – when I think about Peter’s mother-in-law – I just hate to have her gifts restricted to cooking and cleaning. 
            Those are good gifts.  But they are not the only gifts – and not the only gifts for women. 
            Recently I read somewhere that the word here for service – it’s the greek word “diakonia” by the way, is used in scripture two different ways.  If the subject is a woman, diakonia is translated “serve” or “wait on”. 
            But if the subject is a man, or men, the word is translated as “served as a deacon”, “did a deacon’s job.” 
             And what was a deacon’s job?  In the early church, deacons were servants, that’s for sure.
             But what they did was organize in the church to make sure that those who were needy got their needs met by the resources of the community. 
            They operated the food bank, for example.  Made sure the money collected went to the people who needed it.    As one commentator put it – they connected “the need with the resource.”

            And this perspective answers a question that I have about this scripture reading.  How did all of those people – the needy people – find out about Jesus, and where he was staying?  Was it just the mysterious Holy Spirit? 
            Maybe.  OR maybe Peter’s mother-in-law was doing a deacon’s job – not just making the stew and cleaning the house – but going out and telling people where the resource could be found – the healer for all of their hearts, and bodies and souls. 

            Need – and resource.  That’s what it means to be a deacon.  That’s what it means to be a servant.  
             I recently read a story about a priest In Bolivia, Father Pedro Arrupe. 
            One day Father Arrupe was invited to the home of a poor member of his congregation. 
            “The man had a gift for the padre, he explained.  So Arrupe accompanied the man and was led to a shack, where the man lived with his wife and children.  It was so rough, small, and spare, it took Arrupe’s breath away.  He was moved so deeply, his eyes brimmed with tears.  Then The man led him to a huge opening  in the wall.  Not a window but just a hole, and he pointed.  It was a sunset.   That was his gift.  *

            Need – and resource.   He brought the priest to the Sunset – and it was an ordinary miracle.

            Because we all need healing – of some kind or another – and we all have gifts to share – holes through which we show and share the glory of God.  
            And there is more kind of healing – and what do we do – when we leave here?   And when we share – when we serve – we become ordinary miracles. 
            Because despite everything about us that is marred and flawed and wounded and broken, we show forth the glory of God. 
            We connect our children to the one who made sunsets, and beauty, and them. 
            We connect homeless families with food and shelter and the love of God.  We connect sinners with the source of healing and hope.
            Need – and resource.
            Come to the table and open your hands to receive the life and healing you need. 
            And then go – as an ordinary miracle – to share that healing with others. 

*the story about Father Aruppe I found in “Barking tothe Choir,” Father Gregory Boyle

For the insight about the work of the deacons in the early church, I am indebted to Richard Swanson, and his essay from "Provoking the Gospel"