Adventures in Naming

Inspired by Luke 1:57-66

So, you might be wondering, why in the world are we celebrating the nativity of John the Baptist today? Well, it occurs every year on June 24th, but it only lands on a Sunday every once in a while. So, whenever a special day lands on a Sunday, I like to observe it. And if you’re wondering why June 24th, there’s two reasons: one, it’s exactly six months before Christmas Eve (remember, Luke records that Elizabeth was six months pregnant when the angel told Mary that she would have a child); but also because, it’s close to the summer solstice, when the daylight begins to be shorter with each passing day, in the same way that John the Baptist said that he would decrease, so that Jesus could increase. So, there’s a little Bible trivia for you. Use that at your next cocktail party if you find yourself talking to someone that you just want to get rid of.

But let’s move on. My family has had quite an adventure when it comes to naming our children. Our poor firstborn got stuck with a boy’s name because someone was absolutely sure we were going to have a boy! And when our daughter showed up, we hadn’t considered any other names, so Jonah she was. And we really had fallen in love with that name, which comes from the Hebrew word for dove. Little did we know how much in common she would have with the Bible character of the same name!

After she was born we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to have another due to Sara’s endometriosis, and after yet another miscarriage, we had all but given up hope for another baby. But then our second daughter beat the odds and arrived just in time for Christmas on December 23rd, and it only seemed appropriate to name her Grace, which comes from the Latin word for thankful. And as if the name Jonah wasn’t hard enough for my parents to grasp, when they heard Grace, their first response was, “That’s a word not a name!” Until I said, “You know, like Grace Kelly!” Then they were like, “Oh, well that’s beautiful!”

Then we were graced with one more, another daughter. And this is probably the craziest of our naming stories. So, we have this baby naming book that we used to gather ideas for all of our children’s names. And when we spotted Jesha, spelled just the way it sounds, J E S H A, we immediately fell in love with it and its meaning. Then, a little further into Sara’s pregnancy, I was thumbing through that baby name book and lo and behold, Jesha’s name wasn’t there anymore! I know, creepy! I showed it to Sara and said “Look! It’s gone!” She couldn’t find it either! Now, it turns out this was no miracle, we’re just kinda dumb. Cuz you see, each name in this book began with a highly stylized first letter in calligraphy.

So what we thought was Jesha, was actually Iesha, which although a pretty name, we didn’t like it! We were so bummed because, like Jonah, we had already fallen in love with it. But meanings of names were important to us. So I was then on a mission to find out if Jesha was indeed a real name, and if so, what did it mean! It took forever, but thanks to the internet, I finally found an occurrence of it in a Jewish short story, written in Hebrew. And with a little more research found that it comes from the Hebrew word for salvation, the same root that Jesus’ name comes from. And with a sigh of relief, we were sold—and Jesha she was.

In our Gospel story for today, we have the story of the naming of John the Baptist. So the story really revolves around his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. The day should really be named after them! They are an extraordinary couple, with some very rich stories surrounding them, and this story is no exception. And they too have one hell of an adventure naming their new baby boy!

We didn’t read this part so as a quick reminder, the reason why Zechariah had to write the name on a tablet was because he lost his ability to speak. Nine months prior, an angel appeared to him to announce the birth of his son and Zechariah didn’t believe the angel because they were already very old and had suffered through infertility on top of that! Who would blame him for having a few questions about this supposed pregnancy? Regardless, the angel took away his ability to speak as punishment.

So, they were already off to a rough start in this baby naming adventure. Then, when it comes time for Elizabeth to announce the name to the family, she gets even more grief. You know how in-laws can be! They weren’t having any of this “ohn” business because no one in the family had that name! Now, this might sound kind of weird to us westerners but we have to understand that they treated first names very similarly to the way we treat last names.

Think of it this way, it would be like me giving each of my children a different last name, a last name that had no connection in any way to either my wife and I, like: Jonah Solo, Grace Skywalker, or Jesha Amidala. Oh, I kinda like that sound of those. Why didn’t we do that? Anyway, that’s how ridiculous this John business was to them. This wasn’t just about a first name for them, this was about family, this was about heritage, ethnicity, legacy! And to Zechariah’s family, they were throwing all of that away in one fell swoop.

So for Elizabeth to say “his name will be John”, that was a powerful statement of faith in and of itself. And she knew what the reaction would be, and yet, she still stood there, and I imagine her taking a deep breath before she said, “his name will be John.” And of course, they were living in a sexist, patriarchal society, and so they dismissed her and looked to Zechariah to tell them that the old lady’s lost her mind! But no, he asks for a tablet to write on, I’m assuming it was an IPad, and he writes the name John. I imagine an audible gasp in the room as they read the name! And then something miraculous happens. As soon as he writes the name John, he can speak again, he is released, he is freed. And it’s no surprise that the name John means God is gracious.

All this has me thinking about the hard work of naming. And I don’t just mean naming babies. However, that is definitely hard work as we have heard today. But I’m also talking about naming things, and not just tangible things but intangible things, both positive and negative. Let me give you an example, let’s start with negative things so we can end on a positive note. Let’s talk about how hard it is to come to terms with our sin, our shortcomings, our flaws.

Think about how hard it is to admit them! Many of us grew up in generations or in families where admitting something like that was a sign of weakness! But even if you didn’t, no one likes to admit their flaws, or wrongdoings! That’s one of the worst feelings in the world! But until we can name it, we cannot overcome it. And this applies both to our sins as individuals, but also our corporate sins, which could be our sins as a family, or our sins as a congregation, or our sins as a nation.

My family and I were watching the news the other night, the night that audio recording was released of children in an “immigration detention center.” I asked if they had heard it yet, and they hadn’t, and so before I played it for them, I explained what it was that they were about to hear. Jesha’s response, before I even played the recording, was, “So, they’re torturing kids now?” The one whom we named Jesha asked, “they’re torturing kids now?” And you know, my knee-jerk reaction to that in my mind was “No! Our country doesn’t do that!”

And then we sat there and listened to the whole thing. And if you haven’t done that yet, please do. Your pastor is requesting that of you. We sat there and listened to little children crying, crying for their papa, crying for their tia. We listened to a six-year-old negotiate with a guard to get a phone call. We listened to little children alone, abandoned, horrified, scarred for life, with hope bleeding out of them. When it was over I turned to the one we named Jesha and said, I think you were right to begin with. Our country is now torturing little children. My friends, as difficult as it is, sin has to be named for what it is, if we have any chance of overcoming it, of being released from it, of being freed from it.

But I told you that we’d end on a positive note and I am many things but I am not a liar! We also struggle with naming positive things about ourselves too. When was the last time you heard someone say “I am really good at blank.” It is so hard for many of us to say something like that! Some of us are better at it than others but I think for most of us, that is an impossible task! Thanks again to our upbringing! We’ve been trained to be humble, to not be a brag.

But imagine if we could bring ourselves to name our God-given gifts and abilities! I honestly don’t think we would fall into some kind of egotistical self-righteous realm that we are afraid of! I think it would motivate us to use those gifts even more, free us to live into those gifts as God intended! Try it sometime! Try it with someone safe that you know won’t judge you. Name what you’re good at and see what kind of effect that might have on you. And if you’re already good at that, teach one of us who struggles with that how to do it!

Naming has power my friends. Whether it’s the naming of child, or a puppy, or a car, or a sin, or a gift. Naming has power. Power to release. Power to free. Power to grow, to transform. Naming has the power to push us to live out our days as the body of Christ that we were made for, so that we can release and free the world around us, just as we have been.

But remember, it’s hard work this naming business. It’s a buckle your seatbelt kind of adventure; a keep your arms and legs inside at all times kind of ride. And sometimes, it’ll go against our grain, or those around us. And we will be tempted to just leave this naming business to someone else. When you feel that temptation, to not do the hard work of naming, I want you to picture in your mind’s eye, Elizabeth, standing tall amidst a room full of naysayers, steeling herself with a deep breath, and proclaiming with a confident faith, “His name is John.” Thanks be to God. Amen.


Parable of the Mustard Weed

Inspired by Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:30-32

Our first reading, from Ezekiel, gives us a very particular image of the kindom of God. The author pictures it as a mighty cedar growing on a high and lofty mountainside, looking down on the rest of creation, with branches spreading out far for all to see. Think Bob Ross and one of his majestic paintings of snowy mountain tops and a tree to match. This is how that author describes God’s realm in the world. It’s big, it’s showy, it’s unmistakable, and overpowering.

Most authors in the Hebrew scriptures saw God’s dominion that way. And as such, God’s people, saw themselves that way as well, for good or ill. They saw themselves as part of this larger than life superpower over the rest of the world. And surprisingly, the church fell right into this same pattern of thinking, going so far as to become a tyrannical empire up until the Reformation.

And, why is it surprising that Christianity fell into this same pattern of thinking? Because it’s not the way Jesus pictured God’s kindom. Hence the parable of the mustard seed. Now, I’m no botanist, and clearly, Jesus wasn’t either, but in order for any of this to make sense, we have to understand a few things about mustard. First off, it is not the smallest seed, nor is it the largest plant. Jesus was many things, wise teacher, religious leader, Son of God, savior of the world, but a botanist he was not. But hey, nobody’s perfect. So if it’s not the smallest seed nor the largest plant, what is it, what do we know about mustard? Well, it does come from a very small seed, and it can grow into a massive plant if left to its own devices. But if there is one word that describes it, it’s not "majestic tree" or "mighty vegetable plant", it’s…

…a weed! That’s right! Jesus depiction in this parable of God’s rule in this world, of the church in this world, of you in this world, is a weed—an ordinary plant, with many uses, but one that not everyone always wants around. As you can see in this picture, it’s a mess! It kind of reminds me of a blackberry bush! My uncle Dennis had a blackberry bush in his backyard, and every year he would go into battle with this thing. It was massive, and no matter how hard he tried each year, he could just not tame it! It looks like a mustard plant could be the same way.

However, in spite of the headaches it gives the farmer, it is a blessing to many others. Imagine all the wildlife that take shelter in a plant like that. It’s also a food source as the leaves can be eaten, in the same way we eat spinach leaves. The seeds are also edible. And on top of all that, it has medicinal properties that have been known for thousands of years.

But at the end of the day, it’s still a weed. Which shouldn’t surprise us at all that Jesus uses this image! This is his M.O.! Jesus, the savior of the world, ruler of the cosmos, God incarnate, came in the flesh not as a majestic ruler, but the child of a poor family, born in a smelly animal shelter and laid to sleep in a feed trough. I mean, if anyone knows how to enter a scene without any pizzazz, without any flare or majesty, it’s Jesus! This is the model that Jesus has set before us to follow. We are not called to be a majestic power towering over the world. But rather, we are called to be a source of nourishment and food for others, a source of healing and comfort, a source of shelter and protection, all with humility, without a need for attention and credit.

So, why is this important for us to hear from Jesus? Well, because I think we often have a skewed sense of self that can be a bit unhealthy for us. On the one hand, it’s almost as if we have over-corrected from that old Holy Roman Empire sense of self, to the point where we don’t think very highly of ourselves and our abilities. We have what theologians would call a low anthropology, a low sense of self, especially in relation to God—thanks to reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who got it from the theologian Augustine. And I think, this collective low self-esteem if you will, often gets in the way of us taking risks, answering God’s call, or having confidence in our God-given gifts and using them.

On the other hand, I also think we often dream of being more than we are. More what? I don’t know. Bigger, better, flashier, more…something. If you don’t know what I mean let me put it this way. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone compare us to Bayside, I could probably retire early! Why do we do that to ourselves? And what’s funny is that every time I hear someone do that, in the next breath they criticize Bayside for being who they are! As if that’s gonna make us feel better about ourselves or something. It never does though. What will make us feel better when we fall into either of these unhealthy self-images?

Remembering the parable of the mustard seed! This is who we are called to be. Not the mighty and majestic cedar tree of old, but a nourishing, life-giving, sheltering, healing, weed! We’re not called to turn heads or be something that people are gonna want to stop and take a picture of! I would argue, that the church is at her best, when our work in the world goes unnoticed, when we are so ordinary, we blend in with the world that we are called to serve. And that’s extraordinary! That’s nothing to be ashamed of! As a wise colleague said this past week, it’s about seeing the “extraordinary in the ordinary.”

In this parable of the mustard seed, Jesus calls us out of our low self-esteem, but he also says that there’s no need to be more than who we are, all at the same time. If you grew up in the church, confidence was probably not something that was proclaimed as a virtue. But in this parable, I hear Jesus proclaiming just that, be confident in who you are, because that is the way you were made. Claim your extraordinary ordinariness, and be proud of it—as you answer God’s call to be a source of shelter, nourishment, and healing for the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Family Disclaimers

Inspired by Mark 3:20-35

My family fights a lot. Ok, I should probably qualify that statement! We’re ok, I’m not about to announce a separation or some other kind of family trouble. But a normal way that our family operates is by fighting, some might call it “play-fighting.” And that phrase might work, as long as your idea of play-fighting means that we occasionally, inadvertently, make each other cry, or leave bruises. Ok, this is not helping. I’m just making things worse! Let me give you an analogy.

Have you ever seen dogs play? If you’re not a dog person, the first time you see dogs play, you might mistake it for a dogfight. They play hard. And sometimes they get a little carried away and leave crying and maybe even bruised. But that’s just the way they play. They will often play until someone submits, until one of them is on their back with the other’s teeth around their throat. And then they both get up and walk away like nothing happened.

That’s my family. When we horse around the house it’s not uncommon for something to get broken. When we tease each other we are pretty brutal; words and phrases like dumb, stupid, or shut-up are daily occurrences. Our director of children, youth and family ministries, Lisa, got a dose of this last year when we took our high school youth to a youth gathering in southern California. At one point Lisa asked us, “Are you two ok?” And we were like, “Yeah, why?”

And then we had to explain how our family works. Although, I’m not sure our explanation made her feel any better! We play hard. But we do just about everything that way together. We don’t just play hard, we laugh hard, we cry hard, you get the picture. And this has me thinking, especially as my girls get older, I wonder if they’re going to have to give their significant other a warning, a disclaimer, before they bring them into our family?

I can just hear them now, this is how I imagine their conversation going in the car on their way to Thanksgiving dinner, “So, I should probably tell you a few things about my family before you meet them.” “What, are they racist?” “No, nothing like that. We may look like we’re fighting but we’re not. We might seem rude to each other but we’re not. We might seem like we don’t like each other but we do.” “So, how will I know if you’re really arguing? Like when someone cries?” “No, we might do that.” “So, like if it gets physical!” “No, we might do that too.” “Well, then how will I know if it’s serious? An ambulance?” “Yes, definitely if an ambulance is called, than you’ll know we’re not playing anymore…I think.” “I think I’d rather them be racist!” Oh, God be with anyone who wants to join our family!

Now, your family may not be quite like mine but I think you can relate to the family disclaimers. When you welcome people into your family, whether it’s permanently or just for a dinner, sometimes you have to warn people about certain things, or certain people. Sometimes you have to warn people about racist uncle Bob, or overprotective mom, or judgmental dad, or critical grandma.

Every family is quirky, every family is weird, every family needs a disclaimer or two or more. And your church family is no different! I think the first session of the Journey of Faith, that’s what we call our process for joining this church, the first session should include a disclaimer. That way everyone knows right out of the gate, what they are getting themselves into! I think sometimes people have an idealized expectation of what church life might be like, of what church people might be like.

As amazing as we might be, and I do think we are pretty amazing people, we are also human like everyone else. We fight and bicker like anyone else. We joke and tease each other like anyone else. We make each other laugh, we make each other cry, and make each other want to pull our hair out like nobody’s business. We can be endearing, and also very annoying to each other. The truth is, if people come to church expecting to find these superhuman people who never get angry, who never let our egos get in the way, who always do the right thing, boy, are they in for a rude awakening!

However, in spite of all that, at the end of the day, we all want the best for each other right? In spite of how much we might drive each other crazy, when one of us hurts, we all hurt, when one of us is in need, we are all in need, when one of us is attacked, we are all attacked—because that’s also, how family works. We ease each other’s pains, we fill each other’s needs, we defend and have each other’s backs.

In our reading from Mark, Jesus is redefining family for us. And it’s important to note that this is only in chapter 3 of this Gospel. This is at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has barely taught them anything at this point. Only healed a handful of people. And so his redefining of family at this point in the story, is as if he is saying, none of what you are about to experience is going to make any sense, unless you have a wider understanding of what family is. And for us, two thousand years later, it might sound more like, nothing you are about to read in this gospel, is going to make any sense, unless you can begin to have a wider understanding of what family is. Family is not about your family tree, it is something deeper than that, it is something harder than that.

Anyone can make a family tree, all you gotta do is starting connecting the dots between your dad’s dad, and his dad, and his dad, and your mom’s mom, and her mom, and her mom, throw in all the children, and boom, you got your family tree. Easy, especially because you don’t have to choose whose dad is whose, or whose mom is whose, or whose children are whose. You just fill in the blanks. What’s not so easy, is looking at total strangers, which you all were at one time, and seeing family.

Especially when, you don’t have to! You get to choose whether you want us as family or not! When you don’t get your way, or when the council makes a decision you don’t agree with, or when so and so pisses you off, or when your pastor uses the word “pisses” from the pulpit, twice no less—we can choose to leave any time we want to! People walk out on their families all the time—and for much lesser evils than I’ve mentioned.

But that’s easy! Which is why Jesus gives this disclaimer so early in his ministry! Jesus knows it’s hard work! If anyone knows that, it’s Jesus. But none of his teachings are going to make sense, unless we can reimagine how we see family. And Jesus knows this takes practice! Jesus knows this isn’t going to happen overnight! Which is why we come here, week in and week out, to practice this with each other!

So that, you think that’s hard, so that, we can practice this out there! Granted, we’ve been practicing this for two thousand years now, it’s bound to catch on! But the whole point of practicing this reimagining of family in here, is so we can practice it out there. Just as we here were once strangers and are now family, so too, we are strangers out there, and can be family. With a few disclaimers of course. Because that’s how family works. Thanks be to God. Amen.