Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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I did a few updates tonight.  There is a new section here for articles I have published here.

Now, you can hear me preach from your own computer!  So far, just one sermon is up, but I’ll be adding more as I get more comfortable with the process.  Click the orange button to hear me!

I also realized how far behind i am in posting manuscripts.  I’ll work on that soon.  FPC Cartersville has removed the sermon page, so mine are no longer posted there.

Also, if you come here often (or at all) you may notice the photos int he headers all change.  Those are my photos, taken at various places.  They change each time you visit, or reload the page.  Take a look!

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Sermon for Easter: The End is the Beginning

Mark 16:1-8


The End is the Beginning
Rev. Julie Jensen
April 5, 2015 First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville GA

We don’t often think of approaching Easter with fear. This is the day we sing “Christ is Risen” and say “Alleliua” as many times as we can count to express our joy at Christ’s triumph over death. We wear bright colors to celebrate the resurrection and our return to joy after the sorrow of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. This is the high point of the liturgical year for us as Christians and a chance to celebrate that in his Resurrection, Christ’s work is complete. Yet the Gospel reading for today is not filled with joy, it instead tells the story of the women who went to anoint Jesus. They had been delayed in this task by the approaching Sabbath, and wanted to complete what they thought would be their final act of service to their Lord. They were still serving him even in his death.

They were so preoccupied when they approached the tomb; they almost didn’t notice at first that the stone had been rolled away for them. They hear the news that Jesus is not there, and they are told to go and tell Peter and the Disciples that Jesus has gone ahead and will see them in Galilee. The women are scared. Which is understandable – there is a stranger in the tomb and the one they came to see is gone. They are seized with terror and amazement – ecstasy in the Greek – and they run away and don’t tell anyone what they have seen.

This was the original end of the story. There was no Jesus in this account, no one telling the good news, no one rejoicing that Our Lord has risen as he said he would. There is no encounter with the resurrected Christ, to call the disciples to faith, which is what we get in the other Gospels. There is just an abrupt ending leaving us all a little confused and wanting more. So it makes sense that if you look at this passage in your Bibles – you will find it on pages 55 and 56, you will see a shorter and longer ending containing what we may hope to see – an end to the story.

But what if – what if this is exactly where Mark intended to end the story. Not with Alleluia, but with the failure of the women to share the good news, and an abrupt ending? It actually makes sense. If you go all the way back to the beginning of Mark you hear this: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

Mark set us up for the abrupt ending with an abrupt beginning. The entirety of the Good News of Jesus Christ is not contained in this Gospel. No, the beginning of the Good News is what we see here. Even in the first verse we read that Christ has been sent ahead of us to prepare the way. So the Gospel ending with the words that Christ has gone ahead of the women to Galilee echoes back to where we began. Many times we see what one scholar has pointed out – “that the people who should know what’s going on, like the disciples, don’t. Jesus predicts his passion three different times and yet they still don’t understand, are surprised by what happens, and don’t believe what he said. Again and again, the disciples disappoint, and so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that these women who, let’s remember, had the courage to stay with Jesus to the end and then ventured to his tomb to tend him, nevertheless fail like the other disciples.” (David Loose.

Then we realize that “the people who do realize who Jesus is can’t be trusted to tell. Take, for instance, the demon who possesses a young man at Garazene. He recognizes Jesus, asking, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Mark 5:7). The demon knows who Jesus is, but can you count on a demon for a testimony?! And then there’s the Roman centurion, who immediately after watching Jesus dies states, “Truly, this man was God’s son” (Mark 15:39). But can you count on a Roman centurion for a testimony?”

“So here we are. All the people who should know, don’t. And those who do, can’t be counted on. So it appears we’re in a bind. Except … except there’s one other person who has seen and heard everything Jesus has said and done. One other who heard Jesus’ predictions and then watched as they came true. One other who listened to the amazing news at the empty tomb and heard the order to go and tell. Do you know who what other person is? It’s you. And me. And all the readers of Mark’s gospel” (

We, the ones who have been with Jesus since the beginning, since we lit candles on Christmas Eve and sang Silent night at his birth, know all that he has said and done. We, the ones who heard the stories of miracles and listened to his parables, know what he has done. We are the ones who ate at table with him, and watched his crucifixion. And we are the one who heard him predict his death and resurrection, and know that this is good news.

The end of the Gospel of Mark is not the end of the story. We knew this even before we walked to the tomb with the women. We had seen and heard and believed, and today we know that we have the same task given to those who discovered the empty tomb. Our task is to tell what we have seen and heard and know.

God is not finished with us. Not by a long shot. Easter is just the beginning. The Alleluias we sing today should not die on our lips as we walk out the door. The music filling our souls should not be silenced when we sit down to brunch. We are called Disciples, and it is our job to continue the story.
How do we do that in this day and age? That is a central question to out faith. How do we continue to be witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

We continue when we answer his call to love one another.
We continue when we serve those we consider the least of these, those who are marginalized, bullied, cast aside.
We continue when we gather around font and table, and come to church to hear and re-hear the stories of our faith.
We continue when we teach our children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and students and all we care for what it means to follow Jesus.
We bear witness to the Good News when we remember that in his death, Christ has overcome death once and for all, for all of us.
We bear witness when we refuse to participate in business practices that hurt rather than help, which cheat or rob rather than model the ethics of Christ.
When we fight for justice, when we stand up for what is right, we continue to tell the story.
When we model care and compassion we model what it looks like to be a faithful Christ follower.
When we step up to serve in the church as part of the body of Christ, we continue the story.
And, just as the Gospel is the beginning of the story, this list is the beginning as well. God is not finished with us, not even close.

Yesterday, my niece went to see her first live performance of a Broadway show. She is 4, and for Christmas their family received tickets to see The Lion King Musical. If you have not seen it, the first act is pretty long, and the second act is shorter. Act 1 ends with an exiled Simba – the lion king -who has been found by a meer kat and a warthog and taken into their family. If you are 4, it seems like a good place for the story to end. As the curtain came up for intermission, Charlotte looked at my sister and said “Is the story over? Is it time to go home?” No, the story was not over, and there was more to see.
Friends, this is only the beginning for us, and the story is not yet over. Mark invites us to enter into the Easter story as the ones who have seen it all – from the beginning to the – no, not the end — how about the intermission? It’s time for us to pick up where the women left off, and share the good news and rejoice! Christ is risen – Alleluia! Share the joy, the good news, and be part of the work God is doing now and always. Amen.

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Sermon: Luke 1:26-38 Mary Answers the Angel

Mary Answers the Angel
Luke 1:26-38
Preached at First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
Rev. Julie Jensen

The Annunication

The Annunciation (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) Artist: South Netherlandish Painter (ca. 1460) Medium: Oil on wood, gold ground Dimensions: 39 x 37 in. (99.1 x 94 cm) Classification: Paintings Credit Line: The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 Accession Number: 32.100.38

Hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a painting of a teenage girl being visited by angels.  She leans against a tree, looking resigned, worried, stoic, and resolved to do what she is being called to do.  In her face is a mix of determination and fear.  Behind her are 2 angelic figures, looking very ephemeral and blending into the background.  The painting is large  -almost 8 feet by 9 feet – and the girl seems lifelike – looking as if she will walk off the canvas and into her future.  The painting is called Joan of Arc, painted in 1879 by French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage.[1]  In it I see what I imagine was also in Mary’s face the day she was visited by the Angel Gabriel.  Resolution, fear, wonder, awe, and determination.

Most of the artistic depictions of the annunciation have a few things in common.  Mary is dressed in blue, obviously pregnant, with a book in hand, and is looking over at the angel quite calmly.  In the depiction I like the best by a Netherlands painter, Mary has her hands raised and an expression of “what will be will be”.[2]  The painter has not given her a look of resignation or excitement or joy but of bemused acceptance.

Whether she looked like the painting of Joan of Arc or the way the painter from the Netherlands portrayed her, one thing is evident – -Mary certainly was caught off guard, and no artist can capture that exact moment.  Here was a young teenage girl, engaged to be married, which is the happy way to say she was property ready to be transferred to her husband, trying to figure out her future.  She probably could not read and write, and was certainly not expecting the news she was about to receive on this day.  So imagine her surprise when one day Gabriel appears, and says “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Surprise may be putting it mildly.  How about shock, fear, or confusion?  We may have responded with the words “who are you and why are you in my house?  I’m calling the police.”  But there was no 911 for Mary, and so she ponders the greeting.  Gabriel must have figured out she was more than a little nervous, for he gets to the heart of the matter quite quickly.

Have you ever noticed that Angels do not enter quietly, they usually cause a fuss, and they always have to tell people not to be afraid? They know their arrival is going to change things, going to toss the world upside down a little bit, and so they begin by reminding the person they are visiting that God is with them.  The angels come to make announcements from God that topple kingdoms and make us open tombs looking for those who are not there.  They come and deliver news that we did not expect, and often are not excited to hear.  These are not the cherubs from Greeting cards  – they are forces to be reckoned with.  Gabriel has been busy.  Before he visited Mary, he visited Elizabeth to tell her the good news that she would bear a son, even though she was past the age of this being possible.  Gabriel has already begun to deliver the news of God that will shake up the world.  His presence announces that God is bringing salvation and redemption, and not in the way we most expect it.  Angels come and things change.

Mary is still recovering from the shock of Gabriel telling her God is with her, when he tells her the big news, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And then everything changed.  For you see, it can be argued that Mary had a choice.  She was not pregnant yet – -the reading says “ in the sixth month” referring to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, not hers.  Mary can still say no, theoretically.  How you say no to the angel Gabriel is a question I can’t answer.  How you say “no” to God, –  well, usually when we say “No”, God gets God’s way someway or another.  I know lots of second career pastors who can tell that story better than I can.  When she asks her question “how can that be, for I am a virgin” we hear her begin to make up her mind.  Gabriel explains to her about Elizabeth becoming pregnant and tells her that nothing is impossible with God, and Mary gives her answer.  “”Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

When the movie Doubt premiered, lead actresses Meryl Streep and Amy Adams were interviewed by the ABC News film critic.  One of the questions he asked was “what are you sure of, and what are you not sure of?”  He was asking them what they were certain of in themselves, and what they doubted about themselves.  The tension was palpable, as neither actress was going to admit her insecurities about herself on national television.  But Meryl Streep said something interesting.  She said actors live with constant uncertainty, about themselves and about when they will next work again; or where their next job is coming from.  She still wonders when one project finishes, what the next one will be and who will offer it to her.  This woman that seems so secure, has doubts.  I wonder if we asked Mary the same question, what she would have said.  Mary, of what are you certain, and what do you doubt?

Mary was certain of one thing – -that nothing is impossible with God.  She would have clung to that certainty as she dealt with the aftermath of Gabriel’s visit.  In her time, unwed mothers were stuff of stonings and complete exile from the community and all that you knew.  You were outcast and disowned, if you were lucky, dead if you weren’t.  Mary knew all of this.  I imagine her trekking to see Elizabeth, the only one who might possibly understand, muttering to herself over and over again “nothing is impossible with God.”  I imagine that as the days drew near for her to deliver that she had doubts that many first time parents have – doubts about her readiness, her ability to deliver, in her case, doubts about where she would be physically.  But instead of focusing on them, she praises God, using some of the words Miriam used.  “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”  Mary’s response to the angel shattering her world as she knew it was to say yes and praise God.

Anne Lawson, in the Iona Community Book Hay and Stardust has some different questions for Mary, questions that I imagine many of us ask.  Listen to the beginning of her poem:

Is this what you had in mind Mary?

Is this what you dreamed of,

idly planned and chattered of with the girls in Nazareth?

Did you dream that your first child would be

born out of wedlock

of an unknown father?

Born miles from home

in a place fit only for animals?

Is this the birth you dreamed of for your first child?

Did you dream your firstborn son would be

greeted by strangers?

Greeted by shepherds,

Outcasts of society?

Greeted by wise men

from strange far-off countries?

Greeted by the host of angels?

Is this the welcome you dreamed of for your son?

Did you dream of this life for your firstborn son?

A birth in a stable?

A desperate flight for safety?

A life as a refugee?

A peripatetic life?

A life in which other women cared for him?

A life with no wife, no family?

A life lived in the shadow of hostility?

A life ending in a criminal’s death?

A horrific death?

Is this the life you dreamed of for your son?

Did you dream of your own life?

A happy marriage?

A growing family?

Sons and daughters to care for you in your old age?

Did you dream of this for your own life?

And if you had known, in those days of idle teenage chatter,

as a girl in Nazareth,

what you know now,

would you have said “yes” to God’s angel so quickly?

I am not sure Mary knew what all was in store for her son.  I am not sure she knew he was going to have the life he did, the death he did.  She knew that she was favored by God, and she was chosen to bear the son of God into this world.  Mary knew that through her God would come and be Emmanuel – -God with us.  Mary knew nothing was impossible with God, and that with God she would bear this child.  Mary knew that the appearance of the Angel Gabriel had changed her life, and changed the world.

I am sure though that God has not finished, not even close.  God continues to break into our world, to make annunciations and proclamations, and to be with us.  There may not be appearances of Gabriel or virgin births, but God did not stop working with the birth of our savior and redeemer.  God did not stop working when we reached the cross, and God did not stop working at the tomb.  I am sure that one of the messages of Advent is for us to continue to look for God at work in the world, to continue to be alert for the Kingdom of God that will come, to continue to watch for opportunities to say, “here am I, servant of the Lord” and to hear that “nothing is impossible with God.”  This advent is quickly coming to a close – -I can hear the bells and see the angels waiting to deliver the news, just on the horizon.  The cattle are getting restless and Mary and Joseph approach Bethlehem, wondering what will happen next, wondering what this birth will look like, and if they are ready.  Do they know the angels will appear again proclaiming the birth of their son, and that the world will never, ever be the same?  Do they know what this all means?  A teenage mother and her husband are getting ready to witness the birth of our salvation – -do they know?  How could they truly grasp what is about to happen?  They probably are not certain about much but this – God is with them, and with God all things are possible.  And for now, that is more than enough.



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Sermon from Sunday: Golden Cows and Burnt Offerings

Exodus 32:1-14
32When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 2Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.’ 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
7 The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ 9The LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, ‘O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ 14And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Golden Cows and Burnt Offerings
Rev. Julie A. Jensen
FPC Cartersville, October 12, 2014

The wife of a colleague of mine who pastors a church in Kalamazoo, MI shared the following thought with me as she and her husband Barrett worked through their study of the book of Exodus. “Moses’ greatest pastoral achievement was not killing his people.” After the reading for this week, I have to say that I can agree. For you see, Moses did not lead a docile people. No, he lead a bunch of whining, complaining, grumpy, disobedient people. In the book of Exodus, we read the story of Moses and the account of his life. God speaks to Moses when God appears to him in the burning bush, telling him to go back to Egypt and get the Israelites released from slavery so that they may enter the promised land that God has prepared for them Moses and God argue about this for a little bit – Moses is sure he is not eloquent enough to speak to the king or to lead the people. In a bit of a comedy routine, God tells Moses to go and Moses says “but what if they ask who sent me?” God says “Tell them I am who I am sent you.” “But what if they don’t believe me?” Moses asks. I can see God sighing. God instructs Moses to throw down his staff – when he does, it turns into a snake. The God instructs Moses to pick it back up and it turns back into a staff. God gives Moses a second sign — he places his hand in his cloak and it emerges covered with leprosy. When he replaces it, the condition disappears. If that’s not enough, God gives Moses the ability to pour water from the river on the ground, where it turns into blood. Moses still is not convinced, and offers another excuse “I’m not very eloquent. I hate speaking in front of people. Really, God, I’m not your guy.” And like when a child that has pushed his parents too far, this was the last straw, and God got mad. “Well, too bad Moses. Take your brother Aaron, and give him the words to speak. He can do it – he will speak for you to the people. Now, take your staff and go.”

I wonder when we reach today’s reading if God wishes God had made a different choice in selecting the people who would lead the Israelites out of slavery. After the plagues sent by God convinced the Pharaoh to let the people go, God led them out of Egypt by the long way – even then God knew everyone was not happy about this decision. The Lord led them through the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When they draw near to the Red Sea, they prepare to battle the Egyptians to cross the border. As they get ready to cross the waters of the sea, not yet parted by God, the grumbling begins. “Seriously, Moses? You brought us all the way out here to die? We could have stayed enslaved in Egypt and been better off than this. A least there were graves there for us to be buried in. They crossed the sea unscathed and dry and continued on. When they reached Marah, the only water was bitter, and the people complained again. Moses relied on the Lord, and made the water palatable. And the pattern continues as the people cross the desert. Time and time again they complain – like kids on a road trip in the car “I’m hungry….I’m thirsty.” “I don’t like manna, where’s the meat? I’m thirsty and all you can do is make water come out of this rock.” And on and on and on. Each of their complaints in met with Moses looking to the Lord for answers, and the Lord meeting the needs of the people. Finally, they reached Mt. Saini. Moses climbed the mountain and God spoke to him the words he was to speak to the people – the Covenant.

We read in Exodus 19:5-6 “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’” If the people keep the rules God sets for them, then they shall be God’s people. The entirety of the people agree in one voice that they will do everything the lord has spoken.

Moses ascends the mountain and received the 10 commandments, and shares them with the people. Moses gets a lot of exercise on this mountain – he ascends and descends 4 times bringing the laws and statutes and ordinances to the people to follow. The first 10 begin with God declaring that “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”

And then, well, what happens next is what makes me think that Barrett’s words about Moses’ greatest pastoral achievement might be true. Moses gives them the first set of rules immediately following the promise of the people to do whatever God commanded them to do. He was gone 40 days and they broke the first two rules. The people get restless. Fredrick Buechner uses the wonderful turn of phrase, “With Moses lingering so long on Mt. Sinai, that some thought he’d settled down and gone into real estate, the people turned to Aaron for leadership.” It’s been 40 days. Not too terribly long – the same amount of time as between the Wednesday of Labor day and today. When you have been wandering as long as the Israelites, 40 days is not much time at all. They are still settling into camp, for all intents and purposes. Yet, they get bored. They get impatient. They get anxious. Can you hear them talking to Aaron? “Where’s Moses? He’s left us. That God we all agreed to follow isn’t doing anything for us. Make us new gods to keep us happy.” And for whatever reason, Aaron said “Ok.”

We heard the rest of the story this morning – everyone takes off their gold jewelry and Aaron melts it down and pours it into a mold shaped like a calf. When it is cooled, he presents it to the people “Here are your gods that brought you out of Egypt.” Many preachers preach this passage and focus on the sin of idolatry – worshipping other things besides God, and we will touch on that today. What I wonder though, is if the sin of impatience was perhaps at the root of the events of the day?

The worship Committee and I have been preparing some prayer stations to connect owht our fall Stewardship Season that begins next week. You will see one outside the Upper Room and one outside the sanctuary when you come to worship next week. As I’ve been preparing, I’ve noticed that many of the books I read about stewardship season remind me that “where your treasure is, there your heart also lies.” This is usually in the chapter that encourages us to take out our checkbooks and see where most of our money goes, especially the portion that we set aside as giving to God. I agree that our checkbooks, or online banking apps can be spiritual documents. I also have learned the same about our calendars. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, in her book Sabbath in the Suburbs describes our calendars as spiritual documents as well -how we spend the gift of time that we have been given. Where does our time go? One of the commandments given by God is to remember the Sabbath as a day of rest, and remembrance of the 24-7 work done in slavery. To remember that some of our time is holy time, meant to be spent in simply honoring God and resting from our labors. And then I look at my calendar, I hear about other’s calendars, and I wonder if we perhaps have made an idol of being busy. I wonder if we have placed such a high value on work, production, and results that we are unable to leave any time unscheduled. Do we make idols of our schedules? Do we see it as a badge of honor to not rest, but to be committed with activities that we “have to” do for the sake of ourselves and our families?

As the women in our Sunday School class can tell you, we have been wrestling with these questions for a few weeks. But posing that question next to the story of the golden calf raises some interesting points. For, I think many of us have made time an idol. We make it a commodity that is doled out to others not with joy, but with a sense of giving away something precious. It breaks my heart when I hear people say “you’re too busy to need to come visit” or “that’s time you need to spend with someone else.” There is enough time. Just as there was enough manna in the wilderness. But when we make idols of our calendars and schedules, do we lose sight of the fact that our days, weeks, months, and years are all a gift from God to be thankful for, not the god we worship and give our lives over to?

For you see, when time feels in short supply, that’s when we get impatient. Which is possibly the root of all the issues in today’s reading. I will agree that the Israelites were stubborn. They were whiners. They complained when anything new happened, or when anything changed. They didn’t like the meal options or the beverage choices and made a big deal out of not getting their way. But I really, really don’t think they were evil. They just messed up. They got impatient because they did not see immediate results from their covenant with God. They got impatient when Moses went back up the mountain to get more rules and laws. This is a great example of a people who don’t like to wait, and who want things to happen immediately, on time and in our terms.

Have you had to wait this week? In line. At the grocery store. For children in the car-rider line. For your phone to ring? For the internet to load? When you sent an e-mail and did not get an immediate answer, or left a message and three hours later the call had not been returned. Are you waiting right now – for the preacher to stop preaching so we can get on with the service and get on with our days? If so, that’s another sermon for another day… I know I get impatient at times, as do we all. One of the blog posts I read this week, by Rick Morley, cast a different light on waiting:

“There is great spiritual treasure to be found in waiting—the practice of cultivating patience. It’s a practice that raises faith to a profound trust that God is working, and moving even when things seem to be going nowhere. And that God’s good time, is the right time. That glaciers move, even against all appearances to the contrary.
It’s a practice which forces us to put our own needs to the side for a bit, and focus on seeing the world and the unfolding of God’s plan and revelation as God sees fit to unfold it.
It can be frustrating. But, it can also be beautiful.”

Remember, while the Israelites were all getting impatient, God and Moses were hard at work. God was revealing the details of covenantal life to Moses. How the newly promised people of God were going to live that out. And these things take time. The practice of waiting is a practice that requires us to allow for the time and space for god to do God’s work. The practice of waiting means we do not get to dictate the terms, but instead must trust that somewhere progress is being made that will allow us to move forward. In waiting, we allow ourselves time to look for God in the midst of our days, weeks, months, and years. In waiting we relinquish our grip on the idols of business and calendars, and instead cling to the truth that God is indeed in the details of our days.

I wonder what would happen if we truly embraced the waiting. If we recognized that this was indeed the space where God is at work. I wonder what it might look like if rather than wishing the light would turn green so I would not be late – again – I recognized that I cannot make it go any faster, and simply was still for a moment. If instead of cursing the train and racing around to Church Street to beat it, if I waited for it to pass. What idols of time do you worship? What would it look like for you if you waited and looked for where God was at work rather than moved on to the next thing? How can we fill our lives not with more entries on the calendar, but with more spaces for God to be at work? I wonder.

For generations, the people of God have been impatient. For generations, we have wanted answers now, and wanted to know what will happen next. Since Moses ascended Saini the first time, we have wanted to know what God is saying and doing without delay. Friends, I invite us to spend this week waiting. Waiting patiently and seeking to find God at work in the time we spend paused before the next thing. I invite you to practice patience as a spiritual discipline this week and encounter God at work. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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Sermon for Sunday: If…Then

Philippians 2:1-13The Message (MSG)

2 1-4 If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
12-13 What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.

OPIN Group
Rev. Julie Jensen
This scripture passage was lived out across Bartow County yesterday. Over 225 people from 5 churches scattered to 25 worksites to illustrate the verses of this passage, “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” Yesterday was “Operation Inasmuch”. This event takes months of planning and coordination, and a lot of behind the scenes work to make happen. Add in volunteers and site coordinators, local businesses, local agencies and their employees, and there are hundreds who spend a morning forgetting themselves and lending a hand for others. The work is not glamorous. There are folks who arranged and delivered flowers, climbed in attics to fix pipes, scraped moldy ceilings, walked dogs, sorted papers and clothing, cooked casseroles, painted parking lots, planted and cleaned up gardens and yards, moved individuals who had to leave their homes, and this was only the tip of the iceburg. We have congregation members who could not come because they spent the day out at Red Top with their spring clean up, sold mattresses to support the band, or spent a portion of the week helping others through Meals on Wheels, the Victim’s Assistance Office, Family Promise, driving for the Shelter, being at Friendship Table or serving on the boards of local organizations. We live out the verse “forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”
The question folks ask is “why”? Why do the members of this church and so many others give of themselves so freely and fully to help others? Why do we give up our time and energy and resources to help strangers? This passage gives us some light on the answer – this is the effect of our loving Christ. The passage for today is part of a letter Paul writes from jail. He writes to a people who are in disagreement in this particular congregation, and this is his response – to remember Jesus. He writes, “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor:” There are 4 “if” statements here that tell us that because the love of Christ has made a difference in our lives, because being together in a community of faith matters to us, because we care, THEN we are called to do a few things, including lend a hand to those in need.
We can look at it like cause and effect. If it rains, then you will get wet without an umbrella. If you don’t brush your teeth, then you will get cavities. If your car is out of gas, then you will not be able to drive it. The cause of our actions is Christ. The effect Christ has on us is love of one another and helping those who need help. But, Paul is not saying that this is straight cause and effect. While there are some guaranteed outcomes – if you stand in the open during the rain you will get wet, Paul is talking about a different if-then. Not a direct effect, but rather a desired action as the result of the cause. I think about it as the Public Broadcasting approach. You may be familiar with the fund drives – I think they may being his week. In the fundraising, there are usually one or two segments detailing why people give. Usually it is as a result of what GPB has done for them – how it has changed their lives, or how they view the news, or how much they get from the programming offered. It is the inverse of cause and effect. “I get and so I give”, rather than “I give and so I get.” That’s where Paul is going – we have received and it has changed us and so we respond. Paul exhorts us to respond in some specific ways.
One of the reasons we are using the Message Translation today is that these are familiar words to us. We hear them preached here fairly regularly, read them frequently, and honestly, after spending a week with articles and commentaries, I found Eugene Peterson’s straight talk / modern language to be what we all might need to hear today. Paul tells us: “do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage.”
These words are counter-cultural today, and they were when Paul wrote them. We live in a society that places great importance on individuality, self-sufficiency, and achievement as the marks of success. We, as people, and as a community, strive to be in the top: to have the best schools and businesses, to have the best homes, to be able to say “I worked hard and look what I got.” We want to show off our “blessings” to praise our children for being at the top of the class, to do what we have to do to climb the corporate ladder to get ahead and to the top. We like to claim the privileges of power, of being one of the “cool kids” or in the right social group. As a society we like to do what we have to do to get to the top so we can enjoy the executive suite, the sky box, the corner office, the luxury home or vehicle, the first class flights to exotic locales. How much of our media consumption focuses on people undermining, backhanding, or competing with one another to win the prize? How many magazine covers show us how to be the “best you that you can be” or tell us how we can get money, power, or fame?
As a society, we have also become one that thrives on discord and disagreement. We think we can do it better than anyone else (whatever “it” might be) and so we stop listening to one another. We think our view of how the nation should be run is the best and only way, and so we shout the loudest on cable news or morning shows and don’t stop to consider the other side – and both sides of the political divide in our country are guilty of this. We live in a time where divisiveness is valued – from both sides. “We” don’t want to look like “them”, even when we have common interests. Paul’s letter describes a way that is the opposite of this.
Note that Paul does not say we cannot excel. Paul does not tell us that we cannot reap the rewards of hard work. Paul does not say that we cannot enjoy what we have been given. But, Paul calls us to other priorities as a result of the love of Christ. If the love of Christ means anything to us, if being in a community of the spirit means anything to us, if we have hearts, or if we care, then we are called to go against the mainstream culture.

Paul asks us to do him a favor. To agree with one another, to love each other, to be deep spirited friends.” Paul exhorts us to be a community of faith – not only within these walls, but in our world. The call to service is last. It comes after the call to be in community, to build relationships, and to listen to differences. Only after we do those, can we move to acts of service that truly follow the example of Christ. Acts of service not done to make us feel good or done so we can say “I did that” but done because it is the selfless “then” that follows the “if”. The effect that follows the cause.

When I looked at the group picture taken yesterday morning, I was moved. It is on the church Facebook album, or if you send me an e-mail, I can send it to you. When you look at it at first, it looks like any other group photo. Kids and short people in front. Those who want to hide are behind the tall people. Not everyone looks at the same place at the same time. 225 people in the Sanctuary at Heritage Baptist Church. We were 5 congregations with different practices and different beliefs. What moved me was what I knew about the behind the scenes. You see, Heritage Baptist does something like this monthly, on a smaller scale. The inclusion of the other congregations once a year came about partly as a result of our Thursday Morning coffee conversations. Each Thursday local clergy gather at Starbucks before we head into our churches for conversation and fellowship. I don’t know that y’all realize how rare this group is. Many communities have a “ministerium” that functions to plan community worship events, and meet weekly or monthly to conduct business. But this group did not begin to plan events. We began because our congregations were working together on Bartow Give a Kid a Chance, and as the clergy interacted during the planning meetings, we decided wanted to spend more time together. Not working, but as colleagues and friends. We talk about church in the broader sense – what is happening across the country or in the world with churches. We may discuss theology or local affairs. This group is open to any pastors who want to come. And it works because ingrained in the DNA of the group is the recognition that we will not all agree on everything. Theologically we are diverse, politically we are diverse. We are different ages and in different life stages. Our community in this setting is based on the common belief that Jesus is Lord. We all agree on that, and we all agree that we are not going to try to change one another’s minds about much else. However, we discuss, we listen, we debate (sometimes), we challenge one another. This is a place that models Paul’s letter. By our agreeing on the common tenet of our faith, we have been able to love one another and be “deep spirited friends”. We disagree with each other sometimes, we may not all share the same opinion, but we have been together long enough to build relationships with one another. There is no “our church is better than yours” or “look what we have done” or “our stewardship campaign beat yours because we did what we had to to get ahead.” This is not a place where we are trying to get to the top or put ourselves first personally or professionally. It is a place where we set ourselves, and our individual churches aside to help the body of Christ in this community succeed. It is because of the relationships nurtured over lattes and dark roast at a table that we can help others as a community in the community. If we put our ambitions aside, we can help others get ahead.

How are we building relationships here? Ask yourself this – when is the last time you spoke to someone new at church? Not new as in the sense of they have not been here very long – though I encourage that. New as in the sense of outside the group you normally encounter. When is the last time you sat at a different table at family night, or had a cup of coffee with someone you did not know very well? Have you – gasp – tried sitting in a different spot and making friends with the person whose head you have been looking at for years? I will confess it is hard to stretch in that way. We come to church to fellowship with those we know. We come looking forward to catching up with our friends that we have not seen all week. We want to nurture those relationships. I get it, and I am guilty of it myself. But what would happen if we actively sought out the company of those whom the only thing we have in common with is the fact that we confess Jesus is Lord? If we engaged in debate and discussion not worrying about what we will say next, but rather listened deeply to those who may be different. How can we build deeper friendships here, so that when we move to service, we have a solid foundation upon which to build?

I think sometimes we here at FPC are good at the serve others part. At the Mission Committee meeting last week we discussed the challenge of getting congregation members to sign up for mission at FPC because so many of us are involved in mission outside of our walls, and serve God that way. Where we can sometimes struggle is in setting aside our own wants and wishes, our own agendas and plans to simply be with one another, to listen without hope for personal gain, or a chance to show off our personal achievements.

This passage comes to my mind frequently in the life of this congregation. It comes to mind when I think about those who strive quietly to build relationships and then give a helping hand. I remember when I learned about one of our members who was instrumental in bringing a program for children and youth to Bartow county. He and I had spoken several times abut other facets of his life, but never about this. Yet the time and energy given to this endeavor were done quietly, and without a need for recognition. I was here yesterday after Operation Inasmuch and saw the car of a staff member and a volunteer in the parking lot – folks giving of their Saturdays quietly doing what needed to be done, not from a sense of needing recognition, not from a sense of personal advancement, not to be seen as better or a martyr, but simply because they serve. I listen to conversations where I know both parties disagree on a variety of social issues, and yet they plan an event together and think to myself, “that’s it, they got it.”

I know y’all well enough to know that the “if’s” of this passage are true. You all can proclaim that the love of Christ has made a difference in your lives. You can proclaim that you have gotten something out of following Christ. You value being in the community of the Spirit. You have heart, and you care – many of you care passionately and deeply. So if any of this is true for us, then what’s next? How will we then strive to agree with one another – not about everything but about the main thing? How do we then build deep-spirited friendships with the whole community? How then do we shift away from putting ourselves at the top of the list and the front of the line? How do we, as a community of faith do all of that so that we can forget ourselves long enough to continue to lend a helping hand where it is needed? The cause of our actions is Christ — what is the effect on how we live with one another and be the church together?

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Sermon: “In The Waters”

Psalm 46
1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Isaiah 43:1-7
43But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

NJ beach

“In the Waters”
Rev. Julie Jensen
FPC Cartersville, GA
August 17. 2014
As a friend of mine used to say, “this week’s been so rough it should count as two.” She worked in the journalism field and this comment often surfaced after weeks where there were many major stories all unfolding all at once on multiple fronts. A local story might need extensive coverage while national news broke overnight, and then a major international incident would get folded into the mix. We have lost touch over the years but I often think of her in weeks like this week. There has been a lot of upheaval in our community, nation, and in the world. When we learn on the same day that people in Gaza are tweeting people in Ferguson, Missouri to offer advice on how to survive in riots, that less than three miles from where we are sitting a shooting rampage ended with a suicide and car crashing into a construction trailer, we might feel a little unsettled. The death of a celebrity that brings issues of mental health and depression front and center might make us feel all sorts of feelings. Added into the mix is all the other news we are exposed to and everything happening in our personal lives. Kids here are back in school, while college students made and are making their journeys back to dorm rooms and classrooms. I could go on and on – illnesses, divorces, job changes, financial stresses, care and concern for those we love, situations we cannot control – each of us deals with that every day.

It is in times like these that I come back to these two scriptures. Over and over again they show me the sovereignty of God, God’s grace and mercy, and remind me that I don’t have to fix it all, that I can’t fix it all. These seemed like words that we may need to hear today, and so I offer them to you.
We spent a good amount of time this summer focusing on the idea of being still. Ted preached a sermon series that led off with this reading. For me, being still is just one facet of this psalm that speaks to me. In 2001, Psalm 46 was the lectionary Psalm for the Sunday after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The first time I ventured alone to Manhattan to explore I felt a little lost. The City is bustling. It is crowded. It is tall. Yet, in the midst of what we may remember from movies, from photos we have seen of Tomes Square, there are pockets of quiet. There are neighborhoods. There are tree lined streets with trash cans at the curbs just like we put out the trash here. There are churches and schools and everyday life. I happened to wander into a church that day and saw the words of verses 5-7 of this Psalm on a banner: 5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. 6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 7The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

We all need a place to find refuge. A place to turn down the din that constantly surrounds us. In conversation with colleagues this week we noted that it is hard to find a place to be quiet. You used to be able to sit in a waiting room surrounded by the sounds of a receptionist working and the Muzak in the background. Now folks are on their phones – despite what the signs say, and there are usually multiple TVS showing either commercials disguised as news touting the latest health advances, or a news program at a really loud volume. It’s no wonder my blood pressure goes up in the waiting room. Airports are just as bad. When I was traveling from Minneapolis to Philadelphia this summer to meet the mission trip team, there was some weather that caused enough upheaval in my travel schedule to make me cry. After learning that my luggage was on the standby flight that I wasn’t, being rebooked 3 times, and learning that there were no empty hotel rooms in the city (thanks to the All Star Baseball Game) I was at my wits end. I needed a quiet place to think and figure out what to do next. And there was none. Even the chapel had music playing and a couple had taken refuge in there to have a yelling match about who knows what – I didn’t stay to find out. And in the loudness of the day, all I could do was stop and say a prayer that something would get figured out. And it was. God showed up in ways I did not expect – a text from friends that they had a bed in their room given that they were staying an extra night. A text from the mission trip in the van saying I was in their prayers. I got on the tram and for the first time all day was able to be still and see God in the midst. God in the midst of the chaos, God in the midst of it all. Even here, where we talk about The City and the County, about going into Atlanta for a big event, or for work, we can resonate with these words too. They can be read as “God is in the midst of the places where we think we are safe or secure, places that we think cannot be moved or shaken. God is in the midst of wherever we are, and that cannot be changed.” When it feels as if the nations are in an uproar, or our plans are in an uproar, we remember that God is present.

I was asked this week what we should do about the violence against Christians in Iraq. My immediate response was to pray. God is in the midst of the city. God will help it when the morning dawns. When the rivers of life overwhelm us, as we hear in our reading from Isiah, when the waters rise, God promises to be with us. So I have to believe that for those who are in places where the physical or metaphorical waters are rising, that God is with them. God does not cause the violence, God does not cause the suffering and pain, God does not want that for us. We, as flawed people are the source, we has humans with free will are right in the middle of it. Yet God does not leave us. God does not leave those suffering. So we pray. We pray that we will remember that it is God who is sovereign. We find the silence and stop trying to “do”, to “fix”, or to “solve” and instead pray that God will reign over all.

That sovereignty part is the hinge upon which both of these texts hinge. Neither the prophet or Psalmist denies that the rivers will rise, or that the earth shall not shake or the waves come up from the sea. Neither offers promises of calm, of everything going right. But both affirm that God is the one who takes the lead in providing refuge, in calming the upheaval, and walking with us through the waters. The message of both of these texts is that we can’t do it on our own. We are called as followers of Christ to work for the Kingdom of God, to serve in ways that promote peace and justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with God. But nowhere does God say “you be in charge now and do it yourselves.” We believe that God’s got this, whatever “this” is, and we are called to discern how God calls us to be part of that work.

11 of us answered God’s call this summer to go be part of the work done in rebuilding place where these passages have scary significance. There are families in Point Pleasant, NJ who lost friends and loved ones when the Towers fell. The entire community was devastated when the waters rose. Point Pleasant is surrounded by water – the bay, river, and ocean. Most f the damage done by the superstorm – hurricane – was not from wind, but from rising waters on all sides. During our last night the worship team had a communion service on the beach. I would like to share the words I spoke to them with you:
Whether we realized it or not, the water has played a major role in our trip this week. Each time I stand in the ocean and feel the power of the waves, I feel the power of God. The pull of the tide, the crash of the waves. It makes me feel so small to stand by the edge of what feels infinite. Yet these waves also contain in them the promises of God to each of us – that when we pass through the waters, we are God’s. It is not up to us anymore, but it is up to God. These words can offer comfort to us as we think about the power of water on this part of the country. The damage here from Hurricane Sandy was not from wind, but from the rising water. The ocean and the bay met, the seas rose, and people’s lives were forever turned upside down overnight.

And yet, God is in the midst of this. God is in the midst of the power of the storm, and the power of those who have reached out to rebuild. When we baptize, we promise to love, nurture, care for, and support in the faith the children of God. Those promises were made at our baptisms for us, and we make them each time we sprinkle, dunk or pour and proclaim the work that God has done for each of us in our lives.

The command in the mist of chaos is this – be still. Remember that God is God and we are not God. We cannot control the universe, the world, or one another. We are not in charge – God is. In the stillness we recognize that reality. In the stillness we cry out to God from our hearts and ask that God will impart God’s stillness in us. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we come to God confessing that there are times when we have tried to be God, or be like God. That there are times when we forget God’s promises to be with us, and God’s promises to not overwhelm us. And then we remember that God welcomes us anyway.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sermon: The Names that Matter

The Names That Matter
Rev. Julie Jensen
August 3, 2014
Genesis 32:22-31
When we make lists of Biblical Heroes, Jacob is not a likely contender to make the list. From his entrance into the world – grasping the heel of his twin Brother Esau until our reading for today, we see him as a schemer, a crook, greedy, sneaky, and – if we can be honest about it – kind of a jerk. Jacob was born as the second twin – in a time when the firstborn son inherited twice what the others did, this was a bitter pill to swallow. Jacob tricked his older brother, Esau, into giving him both his rights as firstborn. Then he tricked his dying father into giving him the blessing reserved for the firstborn son placing him as the head of the family. When Esau realized what happened, he was furious and threatened to kill Jacob. Jacob had no choice and fled settling with his uncle Laban, for 20 years.
It is on his way to his uncle’s that Jacob is alone for the first time in his life. One night he laid his head down and fell into an exhausted sleep, dreaming of a ladder to heaven, with God at the top. Jacob promises to devote his life to God and worship only him. However, he has not changed his ways, and finally meets his match in Laban. Laban promised Jacob he could marry his daughter Rachel. When the day of the wedding came, Laban had secretly switched the bride for her sister, Leah. The now married Jacob was furious, and yet he remained and worked seven years to earn the hand of Rachel, and they were married. During the seven years Jacob worked for Laban, he amassed a fortune, due in part to his manipulating the breeding practices of the livestock to ensure that he received more than he should have.
Jacob is finally free to leave Laban, and he and his rather large family head out into the desert to follow what he believed was God’s call to go to the homeland of his father. Along the way, he receives word that his brother Esau is near. Jacob panics – the last he knew of his brother was the word he received that Esau wanted to kill him for stealing his blessing and birthright. Jacob has no idea what to expect when the two will finally meet. So, Jacob first sends word by his servants to Esau that he is near, he is rich, and he wishes to find favor with his brother. Jacob does not have to wait long for an answer. Esau approaches with 400 men. Terror grips the heart of Jacob, and he finally prays for divine direction. He takes matters into his own hands, sets aside a portion of his own holdings, and sends them ahead as a gift for Esau. Time passes and there is no response. Jacob has to decide – does he flee as he has in the past, or does he stay and face what is to come. Jacob’s trickster mind decided to divide his family into 2 camps – surely one of them will survive, and he sends them across the river. This is where we enter into today’s scripture reading from Genesis 32:22-31:
22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

What I take from Jacob’s encounter with God this week is the power that names have over us, and the transformative power of this night. In Near-eastern culture, a name was not just what you called someone. A name told everyone who heard it the most basic character traits of the one who held it, and sometimes revealed their destiny. As one scholar writes, “to know a person’s name is to have a certain power over that person, for no matter what he or she says or does, you can reply “Hey – you can’t get away with that – I know you.”
My name comes from the name Julia, which means “downy-haired or youthful.” Well, I do have baby fine hair, and when I reveal my age, folks can hardly believe it. I looked up a few others for folks on our staff. Ted means “divine gift.” Angie is “heavenly messenger”, Rebecca means “tied”, Katie means “pure”, and Pamela means “all honey”. If we were all with Jacob, when folks heard our names, they would automatically think of the meanings at the same time. When Jacob is at the verge of utter exhaustion and ready to finish the wrestling match, he demands a blessing from the stranger. Instead, comes the request – what is your name? When Jacob utters the two syllables that tell who he is, he also lays out the worst and best of who he is. “Jacob” means heel – he was born grasping at his brother’s heel. It means “supplanter”, “usurper”, and can also be loosely thought of as “the cheat”. How appropriate for this man who spent his whole life figuring out how to get ahead without worrying about what it may do to others.
Jacob knows all of this when he speaks his name. He knows when he says it, he will be exposed for who he really is. He can no longer run from the consequences of his actions, but must instead face his history. The response of the one with whom Jacob wrestles is not what we may have hoped. There is no outcry of “ah-ha – got you!” no come-uppance or vengeance-is-mine. What comes instead is a blessing – in the form of a new name. “From now on you shall be called Israel – for you have striven with God and humans and prevailed.” In that moment Jacob has a new start, and we learn who his opponent has been all night.
Jacob wrestled with the Lord and was the name of Israel. If you look that up in the Hebrew Baby Book, it means “God contends” or “one who contends with God”. Jacob has changed in this battle. He has been marked forever with a limp as the sign he contended with God, but more importantly, he has a new name and a new destiny. In the name Israel is the promise of God to God’s people. Jacob carries with him the promise that he will be the father of many who will become the 12 tribes of Israel – a people who still bear his name to this day.
I think it is probably not an accident that this encounter with God occurred on the side of the Jabbok River. The story of Jacob’s fight with God illustrates what happens to us when we enter the waters of Baptism. When we come to the font, when we feel the water, we too are marked by God and claimed as God’s own. We receive a new name – child of God, God’s beloved, and Christian.
This new name says so much about who we are. When it is spoken, it brings up all the good and all the bad. We can’t run from people, because they say, “hey – I know you, and you aren’t supposed to act like that.” The name Christian sets us apart as those who follow Christ, live as he taught, and believe in him. The name says something about whom and what we value. It also says something about what we have left behind – the sins we have committed, the grievances we have carried, the brokenness that is ours.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Were you taught this rhyme as a child, or did you teach it to your children? This is good advice for living in a world where people can be cruel and names can be called in an attempt to wound deeply. Yet, when we wrestle with the truths of our lives, we wrestle with the names we carry with us – the names we have been given by parents and family. The names we have been called that wounded, and the names that have built us up. These names have power over us. Adults still remember when classmates called them stupid, when parents called them worthless, when friends called them ugly. I want to invite you to take a moment and think about your names. What is your name? What do others call you? What do you call yourself? What is the name that you can hardly say because of shame, anger, or disappointment? What are the names that hurt you? As you hear those names – names from the past or present, I invite you to hear a louder voice – the voice of God that gives you a new name – the name of beloved, the name Child of God, the name Christian, the name “mine”. As we confess the ugliness of our past names, we make room to be filled with the power of the new names we are given by God.
This is the place each week where we can bring the old names and what they have done to us, where we can bring our brokenness and shame and offer them to God, and be reminded that we have a new identity in Christ. We have a new name to mark our transformation by God. Jacob was marked by his encounter with God – he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. We too, are marked by our encounters with God. We have been marked in our baptisms by the water of Christ. We are marked with hope we have both now and eternally in Jesus Christ. We have been marked by what we reject and by what we embrace. We are marked by our common name – Christian – and our common heritage in claiming that for ourselves.

Bring the old names and the brokenness here. Drown them in the font, or lay them on the table. When we participate in the Lord’s Supper together, we are affirming that we have been recreated in Christ, that we have been transformed, and that we will continually be transformed. Together we confess the past and live into the promises of new life for our futures.

Lose is quoted in another article as saying, “Law and Gospel is all about naming reality. It’s about telling the truth, twice. First we hear the difficult truth of our brokenness, our fears, and (our) sins. And second we hear the good and gracious news about God’s response to our condition, for Christ’s sake, no matter what.” In Jacob’s story, the first truth is that he was a cheater, a liar, a trickster, a deceiver, and the deceived. What is the truth of your life story? After that truth is faced, God gives Jacob a new name, and we see the second truth of who he is becoming. A new man, the father of a new nation. One who can embrace his brother and be forgiven. Jacob, who spent much of his life being all about Jacob, is transformed into a wise patriarch who leads a nation. We too have encountered God, and there is a truth about who we are, and who we are becoming. What is that truth about your life story as a beloved child of God?

Our new names, our true names are the ones we find in our identity as the body of Christ, and as members of it. Our names are the ones we are given in this place, and our traits are the ones we seek to emulate in our walk of discipleship. Week after week we come together as a community to tell each other the truth – the truth that while we are broken, it is here we can find healing. The truth that while we are imperfect, flawed, and sinners, it is here we will hear the words of forgiveness and grace. The truth that while we may not always be loveable, we are always loved by God, and we carry that love with us always. Amen.