Thursday, August 25, 2016

Does God Know Your Name?

photo by Geoffrey Fairchild / flickr

A man standing in the checkout line of the grocery store came up to pay and get his groceries sacked. As the bag boy was sacking his groceries, the man turned to him and said, “What is your name?” The boy said, “Humphrey Bogart.” The man said, “Well, that’s a pretty well-known name.” The boy said, “Well, it orta be. I’ve been sacking groceries here for four years!”

When Paul wrote a circular letter to the churches in Asia Minor, he wrote for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons he wrote was for them to get a clear understanding of who they were. He also wanted them to catch a vision of a church big enough to take everybody in.

Not just Jews. Not just Gentiles. He had already told them what his intention was in that first chapter. “God has made known to us the mystery of his will…as a plan for the fullness of time to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” If that was not enough, a few paragraphs later he says, “God has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in our body through the cross.”

He gets at this dream by using a word over and over. Remember. Remember who you are. Sit down for just a moment. Relax. Put on your thinking cap. Remember. “Remember that at one time your Gentiles by birth (outsiders) called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’ (insiders)—remember that at that time you were without Christ…aliens…strangers…having no hope and without God.” Do you remember? Paul said.

It is a word for us too, Sit down. Relax if you can. Put on your thinking cap. Remember who you are, Paul says. Remember. When we begin to remember, it begins to come back in focus. Things get a little clearer. We begin to make connections that we have never made before. All this happens when we remember.

He asked them to remember three things. Remember who you are and who you are not. Buried in that nineteenth verse of that second chapter of Ephesians, he gives us the answer. Remember “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

Listen to what he says. You are no longer strangers. The Greek word here means“foreigner.” Outsider. Those that were regarded with suspicion and disliked. They had no rights in the community. They were the uncircumcised. They did not bear the mark. They didn’t really belong.

photo by Dennis Skley / flickr
There were four courts in the old temple. It was ringed in four circles. Larger. Smaller. Even Smaller. Very Small. The largest ring, the outer ring, was called the Court of the Gentiles. Anybody could come there. It was furthest away from the altar. Way up in the balcony, you could hardly see and certainly couldn’t hear. Maybe stuck behind a post. Then next there was the court of the women. It was a little closer. Sorta like the top of the mezzanine. It was real high and if you looked straight down you could get dizzy. Some people couldn’t sit there. But that’s where the women had to sit. But then closer to the altar were God’s chosen people, in the orchestra section. The real bonafide Israelites—male, of course—they could sit there. They could all see—and they could hear every word. It was a good view. Then there was even a smaller circle. First and second rows probably. It was called the Court of the Priests. God’s anointed, of course. Not just anybody could come. But they had a big sign by the Court of the Gentiles that read: “No foreigner may enter within the fence and enclosure surrounding the sanctuary area. Whoever is caught so doing will have himself to blame for the death which is to inevitably follow.” You could be killed if your broke rank. That was some pecking order.

Have you ever felt like you were in one of those outer circles—left out? Have you ever felt not quite a part? One of my favorite stories is the one Merle Miller tells about President Truman, who after he retired, moved back to Independence, Missouri. He built his Presidential Library there and he loved to walk down every morning with his cane and greet the boys and girls and talk to them and find out where they were from. One morning as he was visiting, a little tiny boy with hair and big ears raised his hand when they had the question and answer time. He asked, “Mister President, wuz you popular when you wuz a boy?” Mr. Truman sorts of smiled and looked over his steel-rimmed glasses and said, “Well, no. I was not popular. The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big tight fists. I was never like that. Without my glasses, I was blind as a bat. To tell you the truth, I was kind of a sissy. If there was any danger of a fight I would always run, and I guess that’s why I’m still here today.”

Merle Miller wrote that the boy began to clap and everybody else began to clap, until the President had been given a standing ovation. Merle Miller said it was an eminently satisfactory answer for all those of us who have ever run from a fight, which is really all of us.

We all sometimes feel like an outsider, don’t we? A couple of years ago my phone rang and somebody on the other end of the line wouldn’t identify himself. He said, “You don’t know me, but I picked your number out of the phone book. I want to tell you a story and I want to ask you a question.  My girlfriend and I are going to get married about six months from now. I had a hard time, got downsized at work, lost my job, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought I was going to move back home, but my girl friend asked me to move in with her.” He kept saying, “We are going to get married in the fall.” And then he said, “We’ve been going to this particular church and last week we decided to join. So we walked down the aisle and joined the church. The next day the preacher called. He said he had been reading our cards and he asked, “Are you all married? You have different last names. I told him we weren’t and I told him my story about what a hard time I had. And the preacher said, “Well, you can’t join our church. We don’t take alcoholics or drug addicts and sure don’t take homosexuals and I want to make it clear. We don’t take people who are not married to each other and are living together.” I asked him if the pastor had helped him find a job or a place to live and he said no. This is what he asked me, “Can we come to your church?” I said, “It’s not my church. It’s God’s church. And if I understand it, everybody is welcome.”

Paul told those people scattered all across Asia Minor in that letter, “you are not foreigners. Even if you say up in the upper level where it is dizzying. You are not foreigners.” That’s not your name.

photo by Ted Eyton / flickr
And then Paul said, “But you are not aliens either.” The word in the Greek means “temporary residents.” It means visitors. It means those who have limited rights but they are not really residents.

The Greek word meant to live among the Jews, but not to be one of them. The word meant to dwell nearby. Sometimes it meant to visit. We all have been visitors at somebody’s house. And if you wash your hands in their bathroom, you don’t know what to do with that little bitty hand towel in the bathroom with all that fancy embroidery all over it. Are you supposed to touch it? I don’t ever know. You try to be quiet and hope you don’t knock over something on the coffee table. You are a guest. You don’t live there. Aliens were those that were in-between. Not really at home. Just a visitor.

Paul said you are not foreigners or aliens. No! He gives us all a new name. He says: You are citizens. You are citizens with the saints. You are members of the household of God. You belong. You are kin.

The Greek word here is oikos. This is where you live. You put your stuff in the drawer. Hang your clothes in the closet. You put your little photographs on the dresser and it’s home. Now that’s different from just being a guest or a visitor. This is the place where we all belong.

This is the only time in the New Testament that this word, citizen is used. But it flows out of acceptance and grace. And do you know how very rare that is in 2016? The divisions are everywhere. Rich--Poor. Black--white. Red-necks--sophisticated. Illegals--citizens.  Republicans--Democrats.  Men--women.  Us--them. And one of the worst categories going around: College-educated and Blue collar. We know about strangers. We’ve felt like that a lot. We know about visitors. We felt like an outsider just visiting a lot. But what about kinfolk? Have you ever felt like you are really a member of the household of God? That’s the name he calls us. 

Since it is getting to be football season very soon and the players are already at school and
photo by Sameh (Sam) Fahmi / flickr

practicing—it reminds me of a story. The greatest football player in the little county seat town lived way out in the country. He lived with his grandmother and she had been somebody's maid all her life. And so when the word got out about this young man who could really play football the scouts started coming. They’d find that little town and ask directions to the boy’s house and go down past the pavement where the red mud road began. And a mile or so down there they found the house. It happened over and over. Everybody knew the boy was good—very good. And everybody wanted him. Finally he made up his mind where he was going to school. And the TV commentators with their cameras came to that little four room house and got the signing on the news. Weeks later it was time for the boy to leave home. He would be the first child ever to go away to college. So that last morning his Grandmother got up early and put on the bacon and sausages and a slice of country ham. She made biscuits as big as your fists and there were eggs and grits galore. And then she called him and told him to get up and get dressed. Breakfast was ready. After finishing breakfast he went back to his room to get his suitcase tied with a cord. There was a car from the college waiting outside. And as he came back into the kitchen his ninety pound Grandma said, “Baby boy come here.” And she reached up, up and he had to lean down so she could put her little arms around the neck of this mountain of a grandson. She hugged him hard. And she tried not to cry. As he straightened up, she looked him straight in the eyes and whispered, “Son, remember who you is. Remember who you is.” And she kissed him. And he turned, picked up his suitcase and went out to the car.

I think this was what Paul was trying to tell his brothers and sisters in those little scattered churches. Remember who you are. Remember your name. You’re not a stranger and you’re not an alien—you are no visitor. We—you and I—have a different name. We are citizens with the saints. We are members of the household of God. We belong. We asl belong. Thanks be to God!

photo by Daniel Fuller / flickr
(This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton SC August 21, 2016)

--Roger Lovette /

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