Wrestling with God and Names

Sermons are deeply contextual, and they also speak throughout their time and place to people hearing regardless of time and place.

Here’s a sermon for Pridetide, delivered at University Church Chicago on 2 June 2019.

Good Morning, Church! It is a joy to be with you here, in God’s house, celebrating Pride month. Thank you for the invitation to preach here today.

As you know, my name is River. I’m named after the New River of West Virginia and the Upper Iowa River of Northeast Iowa – these rivers were my friends when I needed to tell my story and there was no one who could listen. The New River was there when I first started to understand myself as outside the cisgender heterosexual mainstream. The Upper Iowa held me up when I first publicly came out and had nowhere to go. These two rivers were places where I met God and wrestled with all the information I thought I had, and the realities that I was living.

When I was struggling to understand my faith and my queerness, when I was first coming out, I spoke to my Hebrew teacher, who pointed me to the stories of the so-called patriarchs, shared between the Jewish and Christian traditions. Jacob and his son Joseph quickly became my favorite patriarchs. Joseph, because of his extravagant and gender non-conforming clothing, and Jacob because he was just a bit different. Queer Biblical Scholar, Michael Carden explains how Jacob breaks down the athletic, hunting, provider role of men and instead fills the requirements of patriarchy through sly thinking and plotting. Often these traits are viewed as things to be avoided, yet throughout my years, I’ve learned that thinking on my feet and planning for a variety of contingencies have helped me stay alive and kept me safely housed.

The text today provides an interlude in family drama. The story begins by the Jabbok River, now called the Zarqa or Blue River. Jacob, his family, and his property are traveling from the home he made with his wives and their father Laban, and are returning to the land where Jacob was born. The land of Canaan where Jacob got both his brother’s birthright and his father, Isaac’s blessing on his firstborn. After parting ways on less than ideal terms, and being estranged for about five chapters, Jacob and Esau are about to see each other again. Jacob’s brother, Esau, is coming to meet him; this is the night before the big meeting, and Jacob has prepared for a variety of responses.

In the autobiography I Know What Heaven Looks Like, Rev. Lawrence Richardson, a black trans United Church of Christ pastor, tells a story of family discord and housing insecurity. In his story, he talks about his family kicking him out even as a teenager, before he was Lawrence, because he did not fit into their notions of religious propriety. As he worked his way through high school as a gas station attendant, he would ride city buses and walk along the Mississippi River to bide his time until he could find a friends house to crash at, or a low-traffic location to squat sleep. He sought out reconciliation with his grandmother – who had kicked him out because of his sexual orientation – through a phone call. She allowed him to come back to her home, but with strings attached. He could return only with the promise of rejecting queer identity.

Like Lawrence, Jacob is faced with potential familial rejection and faces the next part of his journey alone. We find Jacob sending his family across the River Jabbok. Jacob’s wives, children, servants, and possessions cross the river and Jacob stays on the other side. For what is perhaps the first time in many years, Jacob is all alone. And he doesn’t even get to go to bed or eat food; there is no mention of anything happening until “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

How exhausting! You’re about to meet your brother you haven’t seen in many years, who may hate you, and you can’t even sleep the night before. Not only can you not sleep, but you spend the night wrestling, with someone or something, perhaps even with God.

We don’t know who Jacob wrestled with by the Jabbok, there are many interpretations offered. In the Jewish tradition, Jacob wrestles with an Angel. In some Christian Traditions, Jacob wrestles with a pre-incarnate Christ. When the encounter finally ends, with the being asking for release, Jacob is blessed with a new name – Israel. Jacob offers his own interpretation of the text – that God, through an angel, has given him a new name; Hosea affirms this interpretation later in the Biblical text.

Many of the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are filled with wrestling with God and with churches and families. There is so often a deep desire to remain connected with the traditions that have provided grounding and framework for life, along with deep fear of rejection from these same traditions. Jacob must have felt some of these hopes and fears of reconnection and rejection, as he anticipated meeting his long-estranged brother, Esau. Would it be a moment of reconciliation between the two of them, would Esau harm him and the family and possessions he accumulated? Would Esau ignore the entire announcement and overture from Jacob?

Often, seven or so passages of scripture, the so-called clobber passages, are used to silence and reject lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people. Much of LGBTQ theology and biblical interpretation centers around how to neutralize or reimagine these specific aspects of our faith tradition. When I was coming out, this is where I spent most of my time wrestling. During that time I participated in a directed reading class, where I was first introduced to the idea that there was more to life than trying to prove I was worthy of love, dignity, and respect. There were serious scholars of Christianity who believed that LGBTQ people had specific gifts and perspectives that enriched Christianity and the Church.

There are many names that we place on ourselves or society places on us, such as our sexual orientation, gender identity, racial identity, economic class, education level, job title, religious affiliation, social cliques and national identities. Some of these, like our sexual orientation and gender identities are names we give ourselves; Others, are placed on us by those around us such as graduate, being named as a foreigner because someone speaks with an accent. Each of these names gives us different perspectives on the ways we look at the world, and each of these names are gifts that enrich us as a community and as individuals.
Throughout the Bible, the names or identities which people brought into the community enriched our story of faith and our experience of the Divine, from Ruth, the Moabite, who became an Ancestor of Jesus, to Lydia who hosted an early Christian community in her home.

This week, in Chicago, two mainstays in gay community life have made horribly racist decisions. They’ve chosen to mark their places as unsafe for some, and they’ve attempted to rewrite history, forcibly removing the cultural contributions of certain parts of the queer community. Their actions said that certain parts of the LGBTQIA+ community are more welcome than others. They’ve said that some of the names and identities which we use are more acceptable than others. The act of erasing people and saying some people are less welcome or less acceptable is contrary to the message of God who liberates. Society has rules for who can and cannot be included. Throughout the Bible, the people who society says should be left out are often the people through whom God works.

One of the things I love most about names is they can change. When I first acknowledged my queerness, I used words like gay and man to describe myself. As my experiences in the world and of others changed, I’ve shifted the language I’ve used.

Throughout the Bible, names can shift and change and become something new and reimagined. One of the first stories of naming happens when Hagar, running from Abram and Sarai, received the promise of Ishmael from an Angel of God, who she gave the name “You are the God who sees me.” Just a chapter later, God comes to an older Abram and Sarai, promises them a son named Isaac, and changes their names to Abraham and Sarah.

In the Christian Testament, Jesus asks the simple yet loaded question “Who do YOU say that I am?” Simon responds with the words of faith we still declare today: Jesus, You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and at this declaration, Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter.

These stories all point to the ways in which God is present with humans during times of change and uncertaintly. Even when God doesn’t change your name, God is present in the tumult.

A couple years after the attempt at reconciliation between Lawrence and his grandmother, he experienced a period of disruption in his life, and attempted suicide. During his recovery in the psychiatric ward, his grandmother came to visit him. She told him the story of how she visited him every night while he was recovering in the Intensive Care Unit, how she found his apartment, which he had prepared for whoever was contacted if he had died. She read his journal, and saw his prayers begging for God to make him cis and straight. She told her story of recognizing that God did not tell her to push Lawrence away, but rather her congregation did, and she welcomed Lawrence back into her home after he was discharged, both to continue to heal and as part of the reconciliation of their family.

Shortly after I moved to Chicago for seminary, I tried on new names and identities to see what might fit better. As I tried on new names and identities, I realized that I wanted to change my given name. The identity that my old name conjured up in my mind and the minds of others no longer matched the reality I was living. I decided to become River. So I gathered some friends of mine, and on a cool early fall evening, we walked out to the lake, with our memories, our hopes, and our fears. We commended them all to the care of God who sees, knows and guides. During the short ritual, each of my friends said that my name would be River. And so it was.

God welcomes you into the beloved community with the names and identities you call yourself. God calls us to welcome others as we have been welcomed. During this Month of Pride, we turn our eyes to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer members of God’s family who rioted and organized so they could be themselves in peace. In many Christian theological circles they fought too, for churches to recognize their position as part of God’s family. To recognize that when we are welcomed into God’s family, we are given an additional name Beloved of God.

Thanks Be To God

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