Favorite Things: Keeping God’s Stories & Name

This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 29, 2018 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It is part of an introductory series loosely exploring some of my so-called favorite things about life following Jesus as the church. It’s based on texts from the Revised Common Lectionary. And it includes more personal, biographical information to help the people of Broken Bow get to know me.

It’s main text is Ephesians 3:14-21, and its secondary text is 2 Samuel 11:1-15.


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This is an example, not the actual sign I saw.

In one of my drives around the region recently, I saw a large gate over a long, ranch driveway. On it, there was a family name and a line that said, “since 1883,” or something like that. I wondered, as I drove by, if the members of that family ever felt any sort of pressure at carrying that family name. After all, each successive generation has the weight of carrying on this name and its ranch, and all that their name means, for another generation. And likely, that name means a lot. People around them probably know stories about them from their name. Perhaps some even assume they know what people with their name are like because of their name, like, “Oh, there’s another Fowler; we know what they’re like,” or “she’s from a good family.” Bearing a name means living into the story of others who’ve borne that name, of who they’ve been. And to live into one’s name is to live into the stories of those who’ve given that name to us.

In the Ancient Near Eastern traditions like Judaism, it was commonly believed that one’s name shaped and defined a person’s identity. To know someone’s name was to know their story and who they were. For example, the name Jesus is rooted in the name Joshua, which means God saves. Fitting, right? So, when Paul tells the gathering of Christians in Ephesus in the First Century that “every family in heaven and on earth takes its name” from God (v. 15) it’s a big deal, like a ranch sign.

To understand why God giving God’s name to us is important, let’s look at it from two angles. First, Paul is echoing the language of Genesis. Genesis 1:26 tells us that God placed God’s image within us. God giving us God’s name is like God making us in God’s image or filling us with God’s presence. It means we carry God for others.

Second, we would all agree that it feels good for someone to know our name, right? However, for Ancient Near Eastern people like Paul, a name was bigger than a label. Remember, there’s a commandment about not taking God’s name in vain. God’s name, Jewish people believe, is holy (so holy they won’t even pronounce it, so that LORD in our bibles is actually a substitute for the divine name). To know God’s name, and now to be labeled with God’s name, is to know intimately who God is and to be shaped foremost by God’s story. To take God’s name is to be bearers of God’s presence, image, identity, and history for the world. It’s like the ranch sign. We’re all bearers of God’s story.

Paul encourages the church, of Ephesus and today, to live into the name of God as a practice of faith. It’s a gift to be taken seriously. He prays that we would be strengthened through the Spirit so that Jesus would dwell in our hearts through faith and root us in love. And he continues praying that God would grow our faith so that God’s name, God’s story, would become the shaping mark of our character and our identity. Then, God’s name and story can be like a ranch sign over us: enabling people to know God when they know us. God empowers us to live into and bear God’s name, so that God can transform the world through us.

But here’s the thing about being marked by God’s name: it challenges us to know and live the stories of God well, so that others can clearly know God through us. And, quite frankly, this is a huge challenge. For example, I know a woman whose mother died of cancer when she was young. When her mother was diagnosed, a pastor told my friend, “God gave your mother cancer because God knew she was strong.” It turns out, strength has nothing to do with it, and I don’t believe God doles out diseases. But, this woman turned away from God and the church, figuring, if that’s what God’s like, I want nothing to do with God. This woman knew, inherently, that that pastor was not carrying the story and name of God well. We do that sometimes in the church: we mess up the story of God.

In preaching this month, I’ve been choosing my texts from the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a set of four possible readings for each Sunday. Today’s Old Testament option is a horrific story that you may be familiar with, but which I didn’t have the heart to read in worship (2 Samuel 11:1-15). (Kate Schell has a challenging reading of this text, that is even stronger if you’ve been in a tradition that has put the blame for this event anywhere away from David). The story goes like this.

David is the new king of Israel, and he’s uniting the kingdom under his rule. Instead of leading his troops against the Philistines, as was expected of kings, he was home, hanging out on his rooftop – was he lazy or scared or both? From there, he sees a woman, Bathsheba, bathing. He orders his servants to bring her to him so that he can “take” her (let your mind wander; it’s as bad as you think). Without the possibility of consent, he has his way with her and then sends her back home. Then he calls her husband Uriah back from the front lines to visit her. Two times, David tries to convince Uriah to go home to his wife – you know, to be romantic and stuff – but Uriah won’t go because all his buddies don’t get to go home (he’s a good guy). David is trying to cover up his rape so that, if Bathsheba gets pregnant, it will look like it was with Uriah. When this doesn’t work, he orders the troops around Uriah to pull back from fighting so that Uriah is killed. Then, David takes Bathsheba again, now pregnant, to be another one of his wives.

Ugh.

Let’s be clear rape and murder are not in line with God’s story and name, ever. Clearly, David isn’t living into the name and story of God. David is living into his macho – I can grab her anywhere I want – story. There’s no redemptive thread in this story. But this story does show us our calling: God calls us to learn and live into the story and name of God, so that God’s love can transform the world. God gives us God’s name so that we can live in ways that reflect God for others, and David, here couldn’t have been farther from the mark.

Paul knew, like we all do, that we have the capacity to be pretty awful and hurtful, sometimes in exceedingly horrific ways, as David shows us. However, Paul reminds us that, because God has given us God’s name and shaped us with God’s story, we can “know the love of Christ […and] be filled with all the fullness of God” (v. 19). And then, he encourages us that God’s power is at work in us to “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (v. 21). God empowers us to live into and bear God’s name, so that God can transform the world through us.

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And this is our mission as a United Methodist Church: we exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In our language today, God calls us to grow into God’s name, so that God’s presence in us transforms the world. In order to grow into God’s name, our task is first to commit to learning and telling the story of God. We grow into God’s name through our Christian practices, like worship, Bible study, and prayer. We grow into God’s name when we, through our regular practices, seek to know more and more fully who God is, how God works, and what God cares about. We grow into God’s name when we allow the story of God to shape our daily thoughts and actions.

After all, God gives us God’s name, so that we can be better than that hurtful pastor was to my friend. God gives us God’s name so that we can call out actions like David’s and stand beside his victims with grace and love. God gives us God’s name so that the world will know the true story of God’s creative love.

I wanted to avoid telling the David story today because it is ugly and unredeemable. But it’s the story of people in our lives. We, or others we know, have been abused, mistreated, and taken advantage of – sometimes by the church. We, or others we know, have been made to feel less than; some have been called incompatible. And sometimes, people have used God and a perversion of God’s story to justify hurt, abuse, and oppression. Such acts betray the name of God in us and fail God’s mission. God’s mission is for all to know and bear well the name and story of God revealed in Jesus. But God cannot accomplish God’s mission through us if we stay silent or avoid the uncomfortable stories of failure, sin, and abuse.

Telling the stories of survival, like Bathsheba, is vital to transformation.The world will not change if we silence or ignore victims. The world will not change if, in silencing, ignoring, or minimizing, we make ourselves comfortable with that with which we should be outraged. The world will not change if we have no God-breathed vision for how the world isn’t living into God’s story. The world will not change if we do not hold the stories of brokenness up next to the old, old story of God’s creative and re-creative love and call the brokenness what it is. God is seeking to transform the world to become “on earth as in heaven,” as we pray every week, which is why God empowers us to live into and bear God’s name, so that God can transform the world through us. May we learn, keep, and live God’s story well.

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