Gen 32:22-32, Luke 9:18-24

Commitment or choice – family or restaurant?

Sermon by Anne Stewart

How many of you can remember being called names, other than those your parents gave you, when you were younger?  It seems to be a thing with children doesn’t it.  I’m not sure why the name we were given needs to be elaborated on or changed to something less flattering but doing this seems to give some people a lot of pleasure and others a great deal of pain.  Sometimes giving someone a different name is a flattering thing to do, like a term of endearment.  My father often called me ‘gerty’ which I quite liked, whereas my brothers called me ‘tubby’ which I didn’t like and, so knowing that, they continued to call me tubby right through into my adulthood.  One day one of my brothers rang the office where I worked, in my twenties, and asked to speak to ‘tubby’, fortunately, at that stage, I was the receptionist and so I was able to cut that off before it went any further!

As a child, if you tell an adult that someone is calling you names, you will generally be told that old platitude, sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.  Remember that?  Load of rubbish, isn’t it!  Being called some names can really hurt and leave a scar.  The sentiment, of course, is meant to help you brush off the hurt that uninvited names can bring.  Fortunately, for me, the name tubby became so normal that it lost its original meaning.  As a well-fed toddler it was probably an apt description.  By the time I was more aware of things I was so definitely not tubby that the name was funny because it was so obviously not true.  I do notice that none of my brothers are brave enough to bring the name back now that I seem to be growing into the name again.  Maybe they too, have grown up enough to know that I am the only one with the authority to comment on my own body shape!!  But names can be hurtful and can leave behind damage that can be hard to shake.  They say that if you tell a child often enough that they are stupid, unimportant or bad that very soon they will take that as being true, and, if this is not attended to, they can go into adulthood with an unhelpful pile of issues.

This is a little bit like the point where we meet Jacob in today’s story; the point where he is re-named.  Names in the ancient world were more than just something to call someone, they are descriptors, indicators of character.  Jacob, literally means ‘heel’, which makes sense given he was born grasping at his twin brother Esau’s heel.  Up until the point we entered the story this morning Jacob has not always handled himself all that well.  Firstly, he swindled his brother of his birth right and then cheated him of his blessing.  Then he fled his home leaving his brother angry and grief-stricken.  Having left behind a trail of destruction Jacob then learns that his brother Esau is coming to meet him, with an army of 400 men!  Jacob is justifiably terrified at the prospect of this meeting.  So, he sends bribes to soften his brother.  When this fails, he sends his wives and children in the hope that Esau will take pity on him.  While he waits his anxious wait, he is set on by a man who wrestles with him.  After a night of struggling the visitor reaches out and dislocates Jacob’s hip and Jacob knows this is no ordinary man and so he asks for a blessing.  But first the visitor demands to know Jacob’s name: Who are you?  And Jacob, in revealing his name, has to come clean about who he is.  But when he does do this, he finds that his adversary responds by giving him a new name, and a new start because he belongs to something much bigger than his name.  The names we had thrown at us when we were younger are never the whole story, we are always more than someone else’s idea of us.  Are we to find our true identity elsewhere?

This idea of who we are, or how we understand our identity, came up for me as I worked through my study leave project while in the UK earlier this year.  I think this central question of who we are has been puzzling humanity forever, right from the time those early humans sat around the campfire and asked ‘who are we, and where did we come from’.  In our own context, I think the whole question has become more and more complicated as we move away from the external cultural frameworks we used to know, in order to explain who, we are.  Where once we were defined by what we did, we were an accountant, a mother or a mechanic and so on, now people are often reluctant to be identified by just one aspect of their lives.  Today too, we seem to have grasped the idea that we are to identify ourselves, which may change depending on the particular context we are in.  One of the authors I read while I was away was Dwight Zsceille, an American pastor and theologian who asserts that these days, “The self is a project one works on over the course of one’s life through a series of choices requiring endless self-reflection.”[1]   Having cast off the labels of yesterday we are now free to determine our own identity.  But freedom always brings responsibility.  If we are free to determine our own identity, we are also responsible for choosing who and how we will be.  No wonder anxiety is the most prominent social issue of our time.  When I think of the anxiety, I used to experience over what to wear each day – imagine what it would have been like if I had had to decide who I was each day, as well.  The fickle nature of who we are and the lack of a fixed identity can bring considerable insecurity and anxiety.

When we can choose who we are and are able to change it as easily as making just another choice, we can become detached from any sense of a solid base.  This detachment can leave us fixated with finding security because our way of life is profoundly insecure at a basic level.

I asked earlier, where do we find our true identity?  Isn’t it as God’s beloved children?  Therefore, our belonging to a church community is held by something far more solid than a simple choice.  Would you agree with me that belonging to a church community is a recognition and acceptance that we are part of God’s family?  There is a deep security in this from which we can find a peace only found in God, and be freed to find ourselves, as we were created to be.  There is still choice here about whether or not to respond to some prior nudge or call from God.  But this is different from simply choosing from a range of options available to us to help us in our personal development.  God speaks first, and we are left with the choice to hear and then respond with a commitment to belonging in a God-shaped world.  Without this, the age-old question of, ‘why are we here’, is often answered by the lifelong pursuit of a series of individually gratifying experiences.  Leaving us to compile our ‘bucket lists’ which generally are filled with thoughts of travel and adventure.  In the pursuit of pleasing ourselves, there is a risk that other people only matter to the degree that we are affected by them and we only like particular people for the good things they bring to our lives.  If we take this even further it follows that, even God exists (if allowed), to satisfy our individual desires – as another component of what can make our lives better.  This is a profoundly individualistic way of being and the spiritual writer Richard Rohr Rohr contends that the rise and dominance of individualism in our current world almost makes church impossible.

Community is a dynamic that counters the excesses of individualism.  Community gives us a place to work things out; a place where we are focused on more than just ourselves, a place full of different ideas and thinking.  It enables our perspectives to be widened and stretched.  It requires that we listen to one another and learn from one another.  A church community takes this further because it is led by something beyond the individuals in it.  It is led by God!  Its why we pray ‘thy will be done’.  Lead us God, we say, show us where we are needed and what we can do to help you in making your kingdom and its ways known.

Communities are like families.  We are all part of a family in some form or other.  In a family that is functioning well you know that you need to take both the good and the bad.  You forgive and let go of things because we are all in this together.  You seek the peace of the family so that everyone can be free to be themselves, because the whole matters more than the parts.  But always there is that loyalty and commitment to this group of people we call family.  We can, and do, ride out the rough stuff and commit to reconciling our differences.  Once we have committed to belong to a community like this our choices change shape because we know who, or whose, we are.

Being in community is in contrast to what we experience in, say, a restaurant, where you are presented with a menu from which you must choose what you want to eat.  You can make good choices which make you happy, or bad ones that leave you disappointed, but always what you consume is decided by your choice.  How much you eat is also your choice, as is whether it is always good for you.  Has church become just one more item on the menu of life?  Is church a choice we make, or is it something we are called to and then hold to through commitment?

Many of our more mature folk seem to have a good grasp on commitment and their affiliation has helped us knit a robust community of friends.  Commitment meant faithfulness.  A risk can be that commitment alone can have the effect of ‘going through the motions’ and limit openness to spiritual transformation.  A place where Sunday worship could become an event to be observed; a show to watch, rather than something to enter into, participate in and grow from.  Wouldn’t we hope that church is a place where an interpretation of scripture is considered good not because it backs up previously held beliefs but because it challenges and prods in order to invite growth.

Jacob and Esau were inextricably linked – they were family and the difficulties between them needed to be addressed.  After Jacob wrestled with his night-time visitor, he was given a new name – Israel.  We, The Village, are family too and we live with the strange, and beautiful ways we each have.  We take a deep breath when someone makes a remark before they have thought about its effect; we look for and celebrate the positive things about one another because we are bound by something bigger than us and our changeable whims.  This is a community where we should be able to ask the hard questions, safely.  Because here we are made new or re-named by what comes of our jointly wrestling with God while being held together by a robust commitment to doing life together.  It’s not always easy of course, but at least we have firm foundations and an abundance of grace with which to keep us connected, in God’s love.  As Michael Leunig tells us, “Love one another.  It’s as simple and difficult as that.  There is no other way.”

[1] D. Zscheile Agile Church pp16-17