Sermon as Pastoral Letter for June 4, 2016

God’s grace, mercy and peace be with you,

“And also with you.”

Beloved in Christ,                            

Thank you for your kindness following the recent illnesses and death of both of my parent’s. When our parents die, the world rearranges unexpectedly.

The day my mother died, I buried my name. I didn’t know it then of course, standing by her grave with twenty-five or so of her closest friends. Maybe it's the fact that I buried my father at the same time, he to ashes, she to dust. The Ver that was his Verne and the Lee that was her Leola finally laid to rest after a long battle for remembrance.

It’s not that the name Verlee Anne has held me back. It has simply wearied me. Years of Verle, VER lee, Verily, Berly and even, of all things Veronica, have grown tiresome. Since childhood, few could pronounce it, fewer could spell it, and no one could remember it. I appreciate my parent’s efforts, I really do, creating something remarkable in the world, a life born from both of them. But then Mom always called Dad by his middle name Verne, instead of his first name William. If she’d had her wits about her she might have named me Will-Lee for William and Leola instead. Perhaps I could have made peace with that. 

To my mother’s credit she came from a long line of oddly named women. My birth name was Verlee Anne, the daughter of Leola June, the daughter of Elva Estil, a name so odd that after she died no one could be sure how to spell it on her death certificate. We simply called her Gramma Elvie forever, who was the daughter of Lura Dean.

Therefore I take this moment to tell you that my friends now call me Anna and I humbly invite you to do the same. I’ll always respond if you forget Pastor Anna and call me Pastor Verlee, of course. It’s not as if you could actually be speaking to someone else in the room, or even on the planet.

The idea of changing my name didn’t come all at once, in case you think me daft. On the many trips to Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Cuba to build houses or support education across the years, my middle name in Spanish was simply easier: Anne Verlee, Anna Verlita. No Spanish speaking parent would ever think to name their child with the unpronounceable “V” consonant, though my Spanish speaking friends nodded in understanding when the order switched to Anna Verlita.

I have to wonder what my mother was thinking, she who always hated and seldom admitted that her middle name was June for the month she was born. Perhaps she felt her parents unimaginative in that selection, and so vowed to create a more memorable union of consonants and vowels, a distinct name like no other. She clearly succeeded.

Long before I ever thought to bear children of my own, I promised my unborn progeny names that anyone could say or spell, safe names, Biblical names with a noble heritage like Micah and Joshua. Apparently I failed. My youngest son tells me he has suffered under a lifetime of Meeka and Misha and Mica, MICA, and Mik-eye-ell. Some people, thinking he must certainly be mistaken, call him Michael whether that is actually his name or not. Apparently not so many people read their Bible or hear it read aloud in church or synagogue as I had imagined. I’m so sorry son. Next time around I’ll name you Frank. Our youngest child won the name lottery with Kimberly Anne, for which she is no doubt grateful.

Beloved in Christ, whatever my name or your own, the one given to you by your parents, the one you have chosen, or the beloved nickname you have acquired across the years, God calls you Beloved Daughter, Beloved Son.

And here’s the point. This God mercifully grants each of us a certain number of days to use for the glory of God and our joy. Life is as simple as that. The Psalmist who wrote our word for today invites us to praise this God with our name, with our works, with our resources, with our service, with our gratitude, with our intention, with our love for one another, and for all people as ourselves.

Barbara Brown Taylor, a well-known theologian, writer and now college professor, once struggled with God’s plan or purpose for her life. Should she do this or that, go here or there, love this one or that one, or both? One day in prayer she heard the clear and compelling message from the One to whom she prayed. “Do what you want and belong to me.” Really?

Yup, the message is clear. God intends for us to enjoy this sweet, short life and to do whatever we do for God’s sake and God’s pleasure. Conversely, if what we are about  doesn’t please God, resist! It’s easy to miss the mark on this.

I once believed that as long as anyone in the world is suffering I could not be happy. It seemed selfish to be radiantly joyful when people around me struggled. If I were too happy, it seemed as selfish as eating the last piece of birthday cake in front of a busload of hungry people.

I could almost hear this little voice in my head saying, “Who are you to be so happy?” It turns out that was the voice of a depressed relative several generations back, not of the Lord. God’s voice is different than that. To the question, “Who am I to be happy in the face of the sorrows of the world?” God responds, “Who are you not to be?”

The world is not some rehab project on God’s reality television that we fix up and flip over to God. This messy and messed up world isn’t handed to us like some school problem to be solved. It isn’t as if we fail to get an A in the school of life as long as there are problems to solve or messes to clean up. The messes of the world aren’t our mess. People make their own messes, including us. In the middle of their muddle and our own, God reveals to us the incredible beauty and gifts that emerge from the worst of human flaws and foibles and struggle. God shows us God’s miraculous ways by taking a pile of seemingly incongruent pieces and welding them to treasure.

Our radiant joy becomes birthday cake for the world. Rather than a selfish gift to be hoarded, our joy for God’s glory becomes bread to be shared. It feeds people.

Two of my friends struggled deeply with whether or not to attend the wedding of a couple whose match they felt ill-advised and for a number of reasons they did not approve. They admitted that of all the extended family, they were the only two people who regularly attended church and had faith. In fact, one of the biggest issues they had with the marriage of their niece was that the wedding was an entirely secular affair, in their eyes, devoid of meaning. They were having trouble showing up to bless what they couldn’t affirm.

In the end, God showed them that this young couple would be even more unlikely ever to come to faith if the only family members who went by the name Christian, either stayed home out of judgment or showed up with long, dismal, disapproving faces. If that’s what it looks like to be a Christian, they finally reasoned, what witness could that possibly bring to God’s hope for this young couple’s future?

Instead of staying home, they decided to remember their name, Christian, who they were as followers of the way of Jesus, and to whom they belonged. They washed their stricken faces and bought new wedding clothes and plane tickets, and they WILL dance to the glory of God and their joy at the wedding banquet to come. They remembered that God calls all people by name, whether we at first hear and respond to that call or not.

Once we have heard God call our name and come home to our most authentic self, we join the search party for all children lost in the wilderness. When they are found, we do not stop to consider whether or not they are worthy of rescue. We do not starve ourselves because they have been so long lost and cold and hungry. No, we leave the porch light on and the soup pot simmering and the fires of love burning, for them. We do so, that all may see through our joy and God’s welcome, the One who calls us and all people by whatever name.

Three days after my parents died, Jesus came to me in prayer. He asked me to kneel and he blessed me and he called me by the name I already knew in my heart was my own, “Anna. Like the new name given in many religious traditions to the newly baptized, this is now my Christian name.

I bore the names of my parents, Ver and Lee, like their banner in the world as long as they had life and breath. Out of respect and habit, and maybe because it would be too complicated to do otherwise, I plan to keep my legal name. It will stand on my gravestone and my social security card and one day, Medicare. Nevertheless, for this last third of my earthly life to come, think to call me Anna if you can. Unless you are my children, in which case Mom or Mama, or when you are mad at me, Mother, will always do. To my grandchildren, I will remain their Nana, and no doubt, my brother will call me whatever he wants.  

In the end, there is but one name that matters most.

That name is the name above all names: God, Lord of Life, King of Kings, Savior, Messiah, Holy One, Lamb of God, Jesus, Christ. By whatever name, this God-with-us calls us by the name given to us before ever we appeared in human imagination: “Beloved Daughter, Beloved Son, live your life this day for my glory and your joy. Remember who you are and to whom you belong. Do what you want, and belong to me.” 

Beloved Friends in Christ, God’s grace, mercy and peace be with you.

“And also with you.”

Your Pastor Anna