Wrestling with a God Who Calls Us By Name: Sermon for October 20, 2019

If you would prefer to listen to the audio of this sermon (recommended), please click here: https://exeterucc.podbean.com/e/wrestling-with-a-god-who-calls-us-by-name-sermon-for-october-20-2019/

A lot of times when ministers talk about our relationship with God, our journey with God, we talk about our “walk” with God. Have you ever heard those terms? It sounds so gentle and so nice. Like you’re just out for a walk in the fall leaves. And for some people, somewhere, I’ve got to believe their relationship is like a walk. But for some of us, it’s a little different.

Personally, my life has felt a lot less like a walk with God than it has like a wrestling match with God. Maybe that’s the same for some of you. 

If you’ve ever felt that way, you’re not alone. There’s a story in the book of Genesis, the story that Peg just read for us today, about a man named Jacob, who was one of the great patriarchs of the faith. Jacob was going to another land and one night he was alone and came across this man. And this man just grabbed him and started wrestling with him. 

And all night long Jacob wrestled. They grappled until the morning light. And finally at the very end, right before dawn, the man tells Jacob “let me go”. But Jacob won’t let him go. Jacob holds on and says,“I will not let you go until you bless me.” It’s only when Jacob is blessed that he learns he has been wrestling with God all night, has seen God face-to-face, and has lived to tell about it.

Like I said…a wrestling match kind of faith. Have any of you ever had that? Maybe just for brief periods, even?

So many of us too have fought with ourselves like we’ve fought with God. And we’ve grappled, and we’ve refused to let go, desperate for some sign of a blessing from God. And it has not been easy, but we have found that at the end of the longest night, God has been with us in the morning, still right there with us, still blessing us. In fact, our blessing, like Jacob’s, comes in large part from the fact that we have dared to grapple with God, and when we could have walked away, we have not let go. 

So if we can wrestle God and receive a blessing, what happens when we wrestle with the very real work of loving ourselves? If God can wrestle us all night and bless us, why are we so reluctant to bless and love ourselves too? What would it look like if we stopped fighting ourselves, and started to accept that if God loves us enough to stay connected to us even through the hardest nights, and to give us grace, then maybe that means that we should start hanging on to ourselves too?

You’ve probably heard the saying: “To thine own self be true.” It’s actually from Hamlet, but it works well for Christians. When we say it we are reminded ourselves not to do anything that feels at odds with who we know ourselves to be. Who God created us to be. It’s all about respecting ourselves, and for those of us who follow Christ, it means this: Your true self is the you who belongs to God and is loved by God, so don’t treat yourself as anything less than God’s beloved.

Until we can learn to be true to ourselves, and love ourselves, we can’t do the true work that God calls us to do in the second part of the great commandment. You know the first part is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, but that second part is this: “love your neighbor as yourself”.  But if we do not know how to love ourselves how can we ever love our neighbor? We will never do it well, we can’t hope to do it well, until we know and love ourselves. 

When a couple comes to me for premarital counseling, intent on getting married, I first ask them something. I ask them if they’ve figured out who they are (for the most part anyway) and if they really are ready to make a lifelong commitment to someone else. 

It sometimes becomes clear that neither party has ever really figured themselves out. The odds of the marriage lasting, and being healthy, are not good. The partners are trying to find their identity rather than intimacy in one another. But when I do premarital counseling with partners who have done their own work ahead of time, and have wrestled with God and themselves, I know that the marriage will likely be a long and happy one. 

I think that’s true of every relationship, including the one between a pastor and a congregation. And so, I’m going to talk a little about myself today, and I’m always loathe to do this except as like a quick story. And I’m doing this not because I want the attention to be on me, but because I want to model something that I think is important. I want to show what it means to be fully ourselves in Christian community. 

I tell people sometimes that I know that at least some of the world wants people like me dead. That might sound stark, but it’s true. I’m female-bodied, gay, and I’m the kind of person who has always felt more at home in bow ties than dresses. That’s been true my entire life. You should see my baby pictures. 

From an early age I knew that the standard boxes didn’t fit me. That’s deeply inconvenient to some, and outright infuriating to others but, it’s who I am. 

It used to bother me. I spent my youth and early young adult years going through life trying to take up as little space as possible. I wanted to change, but not in ways that were true to myself. If I just dressed a little less masculine things would be fine. Or, if I swallowed my words and stood back, then I could rise to a position where I could actually change things. If I succeeded, on other’s terms, then maybe I could love myself.

I tried to love myself right out of existence. That happens far too often. Because the world wants some part of us dead and we too often oblige. When everything around you tells you that you are wrong, you start to believe it, and you start to hate yourself enough to destroy yourself. Shame becomes the constant shackle that holds you back.

In contrast, my Christian faith has taught me taught me that loving ourselves isn’t just a nice thing to do; it’s a radical act. To love ourselves in a world that literally profits off of our self-hatred is an act of resistance to the world and an act of faith in God. 

The poet e.e. cummings once wrote, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” In other words, to be yourself is to wrestle daily with the world, and to dare to live as a person of God, a person of integrity, the person who God has created you to be.

Now, I want to be a person of integrity. A while back I learned that “integrity” and “integrated” actually come from the same Latin root word meaning “whole”. And so I try to be a person who is whole and presents myself that way. But recently, though I’ve never tried to hide, I have been thinking about something. And I’ve realized that maybe I have been completely honest about my whole self with all of you. 

Since I’ve come back from sabbatical you may have noticed that I’ve been a little more serious, a little more preoccupied. This weekend I was writing this sermon and I kept being pulled here, and I kept trying to write about something else, but being pulled back. This is a good way that preachers know that they’re supposed to preach about something. And, truth be told, until about an hour before service I was still going back and forth, but I’ve learned that when I’m wrestling with God that God’s going to win in the end. And I’ve learned that God’s going to bless me. 

There’s a lot of talk in our society about why it’s important to use someone’s correct pronouns. Maybe you’ve heard some of it. For some people it’s he/him/his. For others it’s she/her/hers. And for still others it’s they/them/theirs. Maybe you’ve seen it on name tags and email signatures.

That last one, that singular they, or they/them/their, that’s actually my correct pronoun. Some of you know that. Some of you use that very consistently. And others of you, we’ve never really talked about it and I’ve just kind of figured that it’s fine. 

But I’ve always felt sort of in between. Not a man, but not exactly a woman. I’ve never pushed this, I’ve never had this formal discussion, because I didn’t know how it would go over. I’ve asked others what they’ve thought, and they’ve said “yeah, you know, you’re not transitioning to another sex so just let your church people call you what they want to call you.”

I wasn’t sure if people would be okay with it, and I was content with letting people see me as they needed to see me.

So, here’s the thing, if you don’t get this, if the pronouns don’t make sense to you yet, it’s okay. Take your time. If you accidentally call me by the wrong ones, it’s fine. We’ll be fine. 

But I want you to hear that I have wrestled and I think in my wrestling God has blessed me and given me this name, and I know who I am.

If you ever want to talk about it, my door is open. And if you have to wrestle with it, I get that too. Believe me, I wrestled for years. 

So why am I telling you this now and asking you to do this? It’s because something has changed in the past few years. In our congregation now we have trans and non-binary kids and adults in our midst. People who use all kinds of pronouns. And what I haven’t been modeling for them is that they deserve to be treated with respect and they deserve to be seen in church. 

And a few people have been asking me lately about why I don’t insist on my correct pronouns, and it really made me think what I was modeling, and it finally struck me that I was causing other folks, especially these kids, real harm. 

These kids are so brave, and their pastor should be too. 

So to those people, especially our youth, I owe you an apology. You deserved better. You deserved for your pastor to model this better, and I am sorry. 

I never want this to be the kind of place where you can’t be where you are and be seen for who God created you to be. Because we all wrestle. There’s something in you that you are likely wrestling with right now. Some truth you can’t yet speak. Or some desire to be seen. Maybe something that you know that no one else knows. And maybe you walk in here on Sunday thinking “If you knew who I was, I wouldn’t be welcome here” Or maybe you walk in here, feeling unseen.

But that’s not how it should be. You have wrestled with God, and God has blessed you and given you the name of one who dares to wrestle with God. When Jacob wrestled with God at the end God said “your name is no longer Jacob…now it is Israel.” Who are we to not use the names that God has given us? 

Now I don’t want you to take away from this sermon that “the pastor’s pronouns are ‘they’”. I mean, I do. Please remember that. But I want you to know that I know each of us has wrestled and looked for God’s blessing. We’ve all struggled to speak the truth of who we are, and I want you to hear that whatever is inside of you, whatever you’re wrestling with, this is the kind of place where you can talk about what God has blessed in you. And you will be heard. And you will be seen. And you will be honored. Because this is who God made you.

I want our children and youth and their parents to hear that especially. You can be whole here and you can be blessed. The night is long and dark, but the dawn comes. And God holds on to us even still. Amen?

4 thoughts on “Wrestling with a God Who Calls Us By Name: Sermon for October 20, 2019

  1. This is an amazing sermon. Your congregation is very lucky to have you; to have you noticing, listening, hearing, acknowledging, and supporting them.

    From the First Church in Dedham,Ma,
    Jane Kelly

  2. Emily,
    Thank you for your honesty, courage, and love. You are a wonderful example and leader.
    I’m grateful to know you.
    Every Blessing +++
    Janet James

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