Sermon: Sunday, August 3, 2014: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Genesis 32:22-31  +  Psalm 17:1-7,15  +  Romans 9:1-5  +  Matthew 14:13-21

bigstockphoto_red_name_tag_2108230-300x226“What is your name?”

“What is your name?” is the question the divine figure asks Jacob at the end of a long night of wrestling by the river.  On its own it’s not a very remarkable question. In fact aside from, perhaps, “how are you?” it’s got to be one of the most frequently asked questions and the one we’re readiest to answer. “Hi, I’m Erik, what’s your name?”

The question is odd though, since it’s being asked by a figure that Jacob later identifies with God when he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Gen. 32:30) We must assume that God knows Jacob’s name, and that God’s question is intentional. So, why is God asking Jacob for his name?

The question comes at the end of an incredible struggle, not just that night but throughout his life.  Jacob, you may remember, had a twin brother, Esau. Born together, but separated by their interests, their assets and their inheritances, Jacob and Esau had a troubled relationship as brothers. Early on, Jacob shows his envy of his brother’s birthright as the eldest son, a birthright Esau treats lightly, trading it for a bowl of lentil soup.

Later Jacob conspires with his mother, Rebekah, to trick his father into bestowing the blessing intended for Esau onto himself.  Disguising himself as his brother, Jacob approaches Father Isaac, who has become nearly blind in his old age.  “Who are you, my son?” Isaac asks.  “I am Esau, your firstborn,” Jacob replies. After a few rounds of this questioning, Isaac grants Jacob the blessing intended for Esau.

On one level we admire Jacob. He is clever, he is tenacious, he is goal-oriented and directed. He goes after what he wants and writes his own story. He is what we have been taught to be. On the other hand, what a tragic figure. He is the younger brother always living in the shadow of his older brother. He is the insecure son, wishing his father would do for him what he has promised to do for another. Furthermore, Jacob’s identity crisis creates new problems. Fleeing from his Esau’s vengeance, Jacob spends years away from his family among his uncle’s people, where he is on the receiving end of the same kind of trickery that got him into this predicament.

Finally Jacob is ready to be reconciled with his brother, to bring an end to a lifetime of struggle. So he sends word to Esau that he is coming to meet him along with all his wives and children and servants and wealth, a sign that he’s done well for himself. Word comes back that Esau is coming to meet him as well, and that he’s brought four hundred men along with him. It sounds like trouble, but who can be sure? They’ve been competing with one another their whole lives, a struggle that’s been leading to this moment. Will it be a moment of conflict, or a moment of reconciliation? No one knows.

So when Jacob encounters the divine figure in the night by the banks of the river Jabbok, he has already been wrestling for a very long time with the question of his identity. Who is he trying to be? Has he learned anything from his lifelong struggle with jealousy? Has he outgrown his habit of taking whatever he wants, regardless of the cost? Is he ready to live the life God has in store for him, to receive the blessing God wants to give to him? Has he come to grips with who he is? Does he know his own name?

God’s question to Jacob, “what is your name?” is what makes this story so powerful and so accessible to people of every time and place. Who among us doesn’t struggle with trying to understand who we are and why we do the things we do? Who hasn’t looked back over their lives and seen how the desire to be someone else, to live someone else’s life, has destroyed the happiness or the future with which God was trying to bless us? We all know what it’s like to look in the mirror, to see the image of our own face looking back at us, eyes red from crying, skin etched with the map of the years, and wonder who that is looking back at us. Or we will.

What is your name?

logan-square-s-preeminentIt’s a question we get asked not only as people, but as neighborhoods, as nations. Residents at the Milshire Hotel, organizing in the face of eviction notices; the community at Lathrop Homes, calling attention to the millions of dollars and hundreds of housing vouchers being hoarded by the CHA; the swell of working class neighbors whose affordable rental housing is quickly disappearing from Logan Square, are all asking their neighbors, “what is your name?”  Families in Gaza, fleeing the rubble of bombed out homes and hospitals are calling out to the world as it watches, “what is your name?”  Children leaving lives of danger and desperation are showing up along our southern border, climbing fences and crossing rivers and as we struggle next to those waters, God is asking us, “what is your name?”

It’s a question we have been asking ourselves as well, as a congregation, for many years.  We, who came into this world like fraternal twins during an era when congregations were being birthed at the same time all over this city, we might look around and see other congregations that are thriving in ways that make us long for easier times, that might make us wish we’d been granted a different blessing, that we had a different identity, that we were living some other congregation’s life.  I know I feel that way sometimes.  I grew up in a large Lutheran church with hundreds of members, multiple pastors, a youth program that drew children and families in from miles away, and enough money to put staff time into a wide range of ministries, local and global.  I know what it’s like to wish for someone else’s blessings, and so do you.

Some of you are of an age that you remember when the church was something your parents and other adults provided for you, when church — like school — was a program designed to mold and nurture you, to meet your needs. You may be longing for the blessings of a church that manages itself, that can get by without you, but will still be here when you drop in.

Others of you remember very different days here at St. Luke’s, when the pews were fuller and families were more settled. Times when you knew everybody’s names, and they knew yours, and you had relationships that went back decades. When everyone knew the same songs, and loved the same food, and cherished the same traditions. You may be longing for the blessings of a church that can preserve the treasures of the past in spite of all that’s changing in the present.

I spent the last two days with your Church Council and the members of the Strategic Listening Team as they read through and discussed all the feedback and stories they gleaned from each of you through the last three months of interviews about your experience of St. Luke’s. Here’s what I want you to know: you have an incredible Church Council that cares very much about you and your families, that wants to preserve this congregation’s legacy even as it shapes its future. Many of you already know this, because you have taken a turn or two on Council, and you know how hard, but also how rewarding, that work can be. They have heard your calls for improved ministry to children and families, they have heard the need for small groups and social gatherings that make it easier for newcomers to find a home in the congregation, they have heard your concerns about the state of our property and your questions about how much longer we can sustain it. They are wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling — so much so that it feels like they’ve been wrestling all night long, holding on for a blessing. As they continue to work, as they listen to your input and invite your participation in plotting the course for our shared future, the question before them is the same question God put to Jacob:

What is your name?

Who are we?  Not “who do we wish we were?” Not even “who do we think we ought to be?”  But, “who are we?” What is our name? What is our identity? We see the blessings God has prepared for our brothers and sisters elsewhere, we may even covet them, but God has a blessing in store for us as well — a blessing that is already present among us, like loaves and fishes, a blessing that is more than enough for the future into which God is calling us.

The next day, after wrestling with God all night long, a struggle that left Jacob with a limp for the rest of his days, he went out to meet his brother and see what the future held. In the distance he could see Esau and the four hundred men advancing on him, but once they were close enough to see each other face to face, Esau ran to met Jacob and fell into his arms and together they wept for all that had passed between them. Jacob blessed Esau, saying, “please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” (Gen. 33:11)

Friends, that is the spirit in which we will find our blessings.  When we can look at ourselves in the mirror, accept ourselves for who we are and who God created us to be, when we can stop coveting the blessings of our brothers and sisters and can instead count the blessings God has already given each one of us; when, out of gratitude we can release all we may have been hiding or hoarding for the sake of those in need, those who are all — in the final analysis — our sisters and brothers, then there will be enough to care for the whole world and more.



Sermon: Sunday, July 7, 2013: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  2 Kings 5:1-14  +  Psalm 30  +  Galatians 6:1-16  +  Luke 10:1-11,16-20

When I was in junior high, or sometime very early in high school, the guidance counselor gave us all a vocational aptitude test to get us thinking about what kinds of work each of us might be best suited for.  When the results came back, my answers indicated that I might have the right set of interests and talents to be a performer, a politician, or pastor.  I remember wondering what those three jobs had in common, then finding the answer in the lyrics of a song by the Police, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da:”

Poets, Priests and Politicians have words to thank for their positions, words that scream for your submission.

That made sense to me.  Even at a pretty early age, I’d figured out that words were my friends.  I knew how to use them to get permission, to bring a smile, to avoid a fight, to win an argument.  I saw how they fit together to direct lines of thinking and steer conversations.  I could tell there was power in them.

In high school I joined the debate team.  I loved doing the issue research and coming up with arguments, filed away on index cards with quotes and citations that could be deployed like pieces on a chess board to defeat the opposing team.  That sense of power was irresistible to the brainy kid who did well at school, but not at sports, at an age when it seemed like real power was completely out of my hands.

We were all trying to find our power at that age.  Some of us found it in words, others in fists, or in appearances.  It’s tempting to look back and try to rank which kinds of power were more noble, more enviable.  I think the truth is that power itself, no matter the form, was value-neutral.  It was the ends towards which we used them that gave our powers their meaning and worth.  Mostly, at that age, we were using whatever powers we’d begun to master to try and protect ourselves as we maneuvered through the treacherous path from childhood to adulthood, deploying them like a shield against the dangers of our neighborhoods, our schools, even our homes.

Childhood is such a terribly vulnerable time.  Physically we are weaker than most of the people that surround us.  Emotionally we are defined by dependencies to others who may or may not have the resources to nurture us or meet our needs.  Intellectually we are always playing catch-up, learning the rules of an incredibly complicated game as we go.  It is entirely understandable that we cling to whatever powers we discover early on, and begin to identify ourselves with them.  They are our ticket out of the vulnerability of youth.  We are no longer geeks or nerds, but techies and entrepreneurs.  No longer jocks and cheerleaders, but managers and marketers, turning childhood pass-times into professions and careers.  We learn to tell stories about ourselves in which we identify our personhood with our power as professionals or parents.  What we are in charge of becomes what we are.

So I become a pastor, and you become a teacher, or a banker, or a lawyer, or a musician, or a nurse, or a manager, or a parent, or an editor, or a soldier, or a spouse and it becomes clear who you are…

… until the day you get called into the office and told that your position is being being eliminated, or your place of employment — a school, a factory — is being closed.

… until the day your doctor sits you down and gives you the diagnosis you’d spent your life dreading: the cancer your mother had, the virus that killed your friends.

… until the day your spouse dies, or your partner leaves you, and the relationship that defined you is now in your past.

Who are you then?  Where is your power?

This morning is our last with the prophets of First and Second Kings, Elijah and Elisha, whose stories have formed the first unit in our summer school for prophets.  Next week we’ll be moving on to the prophet Amos, then Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Last week we studied the transfer of power from Elijah to Elisha as the former was taken into heaven and the latter was left with the company of prophets to continue his work.

Today we are reminded that, for all his power, Elisha was a prophet to a conquered people.  Israel may have had a king, but there were other kings in other countries with military forces far more powerful than Israel’s.  Aram was one of those countries, and the commander of its army, Naaman, kept a slave girl in his house who’d been taken from her home on one of Aram’s successful raids of Israel.

Can we even imagine how powerless that girl must have felt in her position?  Stolen from her family, taken from her land, forced to serve the very people who had invaded her home and destroyed her way of life.  Even the story conspires to disempower her, robbing her of something as basic as a name.

By contrast, Naaman, the master of the house in which she serves seems blessed in a variety of ways.  He has strength, he has wealth, he has connections to the king of a powerful nation.  His victory over Israel is described as divinely ordered, yet this man has leprosy.  His flesh is infected and he may well be contagious, which is why those with leprosy were quarantined away from the rest of the community, so that the illness would not spread.

Naaman, a man defined by his power, faces becoming a pariah.  So he, like the unnamed slave girl in his house, faces having everything he knows and loves taken from him by a disease over which he has no power.

It not difficult to imagine the enslaved servants in Naaman’s house secretly delighting in their master’s misfortune.  Perhaps they saw it as divine justice, humbling the man who had humiliated them.  Or, perhaps they were terrified as well, since their well-being now depended upon their master’s well-being, their future on his future.  However she felt about it, the young Israelite slave girl knew firsthand what it felt like to stand before your future feeling utterly powerless.

She in her slavery and Naaman in his illness had learned the same lesson: that despite all illusions our lives are not entirely in our own hands, and that we will all be forced to rely upon one another in this life.

So the slave girl uses what is, perhaps, her last remaining power — her faith — to assist the very person who has robbed her of the rest.  She gives her testimony to Naaman’s wife, her knowledge that there is a prophet in Israel through whom God had acted to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, and to raise the dead.

In this act, this nameless servant of the Lord exemplifies the counsel Paul gives in his letter to the Galatians, where he writes:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith … for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal. 6:10,15)

Circumcision, you may remember, is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham.  So, the point Paul is making to the Galatians is that we are called to work for the good of all our neighbors, local and global, those who share our faith and those who do not.  Like Naaman’s slave, whose own vulnerability gave her compassion for the vulnerability of even her master.

But we are not quick to give up on our power.  When Naaman hears that there is the possibility of a cure for his weakness in Israel, he gets permission from his own king to go to Israel, where he shows up with a royal letter of reference and deep coffers — ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  When he arrives at Elisha’s door he seems determined to hide his weakness behind his connections and his wealth, as he pulls up on his horse and chariot.

Now it is Naaman who is in a foreign land, among foreigners, even the very people who he’d previously conquered and defeated, and he has to ask one of their prophets for the cure to his illness.  Even now, at his weakest, Naaman tries to cover up his vulnerability with the things he’d come to believe made him powerful.

Friends, I’ve been playing Naaman’s game since I was a child.  The more trouble I was in, the faster I talked.  Word after word after word.  I know I’m not the only one.  I wonder what power you’ve put your trust in, what source of strength you’ve relied on, even when it was clear to you and everyone around you that it was no match for the magnitude of your circumstances.  At some point, all our strengths fail us: clever words, gruff exteriors, piles of money, beauty and charm, even hard work.

In that moment, let’s pray God sends us to someone like Elisha, who refuses to play Naaman’s game.  Knowing that the deepest form of healing will not only cure Naaman of his leprosy, but will also relieve him of his isolating self-sufficiency, Elisha offers a treatment that forces Naaman to strip himself of his illusions of power and to learn to trust in God, the source of all power.

Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to go wash in the Jordan river seven times.  It sounds like a terrible bedside manner, but Elisha knows that Naaman needs to be relieved of his sense of exceptionalism.  So he gives the military commander something to do that is so simple, anyone could do it.

This is the power the church offers to people like Naaman, to people like you and me.  Washed in the same common water that bathed our parents and grandparents, our friends and neighbors, waters that have baptized enemies and allies, the elite and the unknown, we are sent with the power to relieve the world of its false distinctions and to heal the sickness caused by the false superiorities that infect us all and so quickly spread between us.

Here at St. Luke’s we are just a little more than one week away from the launch of a new project that will bring all our neighbors together, the hungry and the well-fed, for a weekly meal in Haberland Hall.  The tagline for these Community Dinners is “hospitality, not charity,” because we recognize that the deepest form of healing we can work for is more than food in the belly, it’s freedom from the bondage of slavery to our separations from one another.

As we prepare to begin this work, we are challenged to reach out to our neighbors, some of whom will enthusiastically support this work, others who may be frightened by the presence of strangers, who are really unknown neighbors, showing up on their doorsteps.  Our hope is to lay the groundwork for this project by showing up on their doorsteps first.  Sent out in twos, just like Jesus sent the seventy, the company of prophets working alongside him throughout his ministry, we hope to knock on the doors of households throughout this neighborhood to tell them about the work we are doing, and to invite them to come and see this healing taking place right next door.  We know that we will not be warmly received at every door on which we knock, but we refuse to be distracted from the work God has given us to love and serve our neighbors, all of them, hungry and well-fed.

My prayer for us in this coming week is that we will remember the lesson Naaman learned by the banks of the River Jordan, that we will take off our armor and let down our guard.  That we will ring the doorbells of our neighbors’ homes, not armed with answers and arguments, but equipped with compassionate hearts and open minds, ready to listen to the hopes and fears of the people living all around us, each with their own stories of hurt and hope, each waiting for a cure whose form they might never have expected, for a word from an unknown messenger.

Maybe it will be you.