Sunday, October 9, 2016

From Jacob to Israel: What's in a Name?

Genesis 32:22-31

Names often have meaning, of course.

I think for instance, of my hometown. At one point in its history it was called "Hangman's Town" --- referring to a more than unfortunate incident which took place downtown early in its existence. Later, community leaders renamed it to "Rochelle" --- almost on a whim. Legend has it that a train was passing through carrying a load of "Rochelle Salt" and they liked the name --- thinking it sounded better than "Hangman's Town." And while this may be so, in some ways, the fact that one of the uses of Rochelle Salt was as a laxative doesn't necessarily make it all that much better!)

It is true for towns and villages, congregations and buildings and streets. It is also true with people:
Indeed, I do an exercise with our middle school youth every year. I ask them how they came to be named what they are named. Sometimes they can tell me. From time to time their names have been passed along to them from a parent or grandparent. Most of the time, though, they have no idea. More often than not, it turns out their names were just a matter of the preference of Mom and Dad.

In the family I grew up in, the choice of names became something to be smiled at. Indeed, we were told that in that time before genders could be determined before the actual birth, my sisters and I were all supposed to be called "Tom" after our dad. As it turns out, all three of my sisters have Biblical names (Martha, Mary, and Sarah.) I'm not quite certain how they came up with my name --- except perhaps, like with so many they just "liked" it. I do, however, share the middle name of my maternal grandmother who died suddenly a few months before I was born.

So yes, names can be a way of representing our history. They can also tell us where we belong and to whom we belong. My dad, for instance, was the first born son of Tom Clark. Tom Clark died when he was all of five years old. Later his mother remarried and after a time, A.J. Hunt adopted him and his brother, giving them a new last name. A new place of belonging.

And so today we have before us, Jacob, who after a long night of struggle was given a new name which told the world something about who he was and who he would yet be. Of course, we know that the name, "Jacob" also had meaning. If you go to the website "Behind the Name," you will get a sense of what some of those meanings are. I have also heard that "Jacob" means 'trickster' or 'deceiver' or 'supplanter' -- and while Jacob could certainly be seen as such, it is likely that meaning is one that was added on later. Perhaps it would be right to simply understand Jacob for who he was at the time of his birth: the "holder of the heel" which apparently represents the actual literal meaning of his name more truly.

And yet, whatever the second son of Isaac and Rebekah's name was at birth, after the long night described for us now, we are told he would be known as Israel, a word which described and represented both him and the nation of Israel: "the one who has striven with God and humans and has prevailed."

This is not, of course, the first time nor is it the last when a 'name' is meant to be more than a label. Think of this with me:
  • Adam actually means 'earth.'
  • Eve means 'to breathe' or 'to live."
  • God changed Abram's name to Abraham to mean 'father or ancestor of a multitude.'
  • Likewise, Sarai's name was changed to Sarah, meaning 'lady, princess or noblewoman.'
  • Isaac means 'laughter' --- perhaps to represent the joy and surprise of both Abraham and Sarah at his birth.
  • And it goes on and on. (Unfortunately, given the patriarchal nature of the text, it appears there is more information about the names of men than there is about women.) 
And yes, Yahweh (YHWH) is said to mean, "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be." Indeed, many understand that this was the very name which Jacob was grasping to know at the end of the scene described for us now.

And so we know this: names often do represent something about the one so named.  And yes, as we sense in the scene described in Genesis 22, names, once known, give one a certain amount of power over another. Without a doubt, this is why Jacob pleaded for the name of the one who had kept him up all night long. For whoever he was wrestling, he knew the force of God was somehow behind and within that one. And to know the name of such power? Who wouldn't want that? Indeed, perhaps it is telling that in this case the name is not disclosed. I expect even this is a sure sign of God's power over Jacob. And all of us.

And so it is that Jacob ends this long night 'renamed.' And while it is so that he has already had quite the life, it is in the events which follow that the future of God's people truly begins to unfold, living out the truth of his new name:
  • In his encounter with his long estranged brother, Esau, in the very next verses.
  • In his settling at Bethel with his family.
  • In the drama which plays out between and among his sons. And in the ways in which God brings good out of that which was intended as harm. (See Joseph's words in Genesis 50:20)
  • In the family's move to Egypt, setting the stage for the God's liberating work in the Exodus.
  • And again and again in the lived history of Israel.
Oh, yes, in and through it all, the truth of Jacob's new name, "Israel" is made known. For it is shown again and again that not only the individual but the entire nation "strives with God and people and prevails." By God's grace and gift this is so.
  • Above I have offered a number of examples of times when 'names' are more than a label. What examples would you add?
  • Can you think of times when a name has been changed after a period of intense struggle like what Jacob experienced --- either literally or otherwise?
  • What does it mean to be one who 'strives with God and people and prevails?" This was true for Jacob and for the nation of Israel. Perhaps this is also true for you or your setting. How has this been so?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Tenth Leper and How God is Already at Work in the World

Luke 17:11-19

I find myself thinking of the 'faith of the outsider' this week as we pause in the familiar story of Jesus' healing of the ten lepers now. For while are surely called to focus on the powerful gift of Jesus' healing as demonstrated in this story, what stands out is the grateful response of the one. The Samaritan. Here is how my perspective is developing:

I was privileged to assist in leading a Dwelling in the World workshop this last Saturday. "Dwelling in the World" is one of the six missional practices which are taught through Church Innovations Institute. (If you are interested, you can find more information here.)

Simply put, the experience equips us to be 'detectives of divinity' in the world. Rooted in the sending imagery of Luke 10:1-12, it gives us some tools for encountering the stranger --- and in doing so receiving the gift of witnessing what God is already up to in their lives and in the world. It is, in fact, a way of being people of peace and looking for people of peace in the world. (Again, see Luke 10.)

  • It is not necessarily meant to be a way of gaining new members -- although it may lead to that.
  •  It is not necessarily even meant to be a means of offering an overt verbal witness to one's faith, although it may lead to that as well.
  • It is not even supposed to be a way of actually meeting the needs of another --- although similar conversations repeated and shared may well result in a congregational effort to address a particular need experienced by many in a community.
  •  It is simply a practice which has us intentionally speaking to strangers, expressing genuine interest in their lives. It can look like a brief exchange with the teller at the bank. It may mean hearing the life hurts and hopes of the cashier at the grocery store. One has no way of knowing, of course, what these brief encounters may result in. But what fun to be there and to wonder at what may come of it. And no matter what happens next, the world is already a better, safer place because of the effort to engage the stranger.

And so it was that late on Saturday morning the thirty gathered were sent out into the community to seek out a stranger and to try to engage them. They came back in time for lunch laden with stories --- some poignant and some marked by hilarity.

  • There was, for instance, the one who found himself disappointed by the terse exchange with his bank teller, but who encountered two young men in the parking lot who were new to the community. And who returned with a lively story to tell about what he learned.
  • There was another who carefully observed the young man in charge of hospitality at McDonald's and when he came near, commented at how hard his job was. He paused to say, 'Yes, it is hard to stay positive when so many refuse to acknowledge his efforts at kindness.'
  • And there was one who engaged the owner of a small downtown store --- and who heard her whole life story. Apparently at some point she offered that she had been sent to do this from our workshop. She left and another of our folks wandered in and sought to engage her. And the woman said, "Oh, are you from that Lutheran Church?" We laughed to hear this and then wondered what it might mean if Lutherans actually got a reputation for engaging the world in our community!
  • Still another had forgotten to take off her name-tag and was called by name by the owner of the gas station in her neighborhood, completely throwing her off in her effort to reach out to him!
  • And the stories went on and on
Perhaps by now you are wondering what any of this has to do with the Gospel story which is ours to share this week. Just this:
  • Without a doubt, God was already at work in the life of the Samaritan so that unlike the rest, he offered a grateful response to the unexpected gift of life restored that he received at the hands of Jesus. And I wonder how God might already be at work in the lives of strangers we encounter every day. Indeed, I do wonder how we might become more aware of that wondrous work. Even as thirty Lutherans did last Saturday morning.
  • And this: I wonder about how God already be at work in the life of someone we least expect who we might just encounter. Who would be a Samaritan --- an outsider --- in your community, neighborhood, congregation? And how might you engage them enough to hear how God may be at work? 
  • And also this: Jesus offered a gift of profound healing to the ten who approached him that day. I wonder how you and I might be agents of such healing in our world today. Indeed, in a world too often marked by fear and division, might healing just be ours to offer (and in turn, receive) if we simply reached out with a word of kindness, curiosity, or affirmation even to someone we have never seen before who we may never see again? Or to one who we have passed by a thousand times (as those ten lepers must have been passed by a thousand, thousand times) without even noticing before?
  • And finally this: More than just receiving physical healing, the ten lepers were actually restored to community by the healing they received. How might we be called to restore others to community by simply engaging them? Even in casual conversation. Even now.
Indeed, perhaps one of the best gifts of a practice like Dwelling in the World is that it invites us to look outside of ourselves to see where God might just be at work in the world. Even as God was at work in the Samaritan who returned giving thanks so long ago. Can you just imagine how we might all be changed by more intentionally Dwelling in the World God made and God so loves? Wouldn't that be something to see? Isn't that something you want to be a part of, too?