Sunday, July 14, 2013

What is Your Name?

Preached at St Johns United Methodist Church (Memphis)
Summer Preaching Series
(Assignment: Select a children's story and use it along with a scripture text for the sermon. I chose Rumpelstiltskin and Exodus 3:1-15)
July 14, 2013

My name is Elaine. I’m told that my mother chose the name. She liked it because it was not too common and not too unusual. I wouldn’t meet my name coming and going and I wouldn’t be thought odd. At least not because of my name. It wasn’t until I was an adult, pregnant with my own baby and looking in the Dell Book of Baby Names (something I got at the grocery store check-out line,) that I learned what the name “Elaine” means. Light. Bright. Ahh. That fits. I was amazed that my mother, only minutes after meeting me, could have known me so well. 

Through the years there have been those who have given me other names. I have been known by some as the one who gets invited and included. I have been known by others as the one to shun and leave out.  I am recognized as wealthy by some while others would wonder how I get by on what I have in this world. In some situations I might seem the victim and in other situations I appear to have power. You have probably had the same experience. The world around us will do its best to define and categorize us, to name us and identify us according to the needs and pleasures of the world. Home, work, play and out on the sidewalk in the anonymity of the crowd.  If we let them, the people around us, will end our deeply personal and spiritual search for our name, our true identity. 

We come to this earth as we are, perfectly ourselves. And from the moment when we first breathe air into our lungs until the moment we breathe our last, we are living with the forces of sexism, racism, economic injustice, jealousy, resentment, self-doubt and fear. In the midst of this sea of sinful forces, how do we know our own name? How do we learn to recognize and claim the power of our own identity?

Rumpelstiltskin saves the girl (She’s never given a name.) whose father, a poor miller, wanted to impress the king. So he has made an outrageous claim to the king: My daughter can spin straw into gold. Wow! This pleases the king and he demands that the girl get to work. He puts her in a room with straw and a spinning wheel. If the straw has not been spun into gold by morning, she is doomed to die. Notice that it is not the father’s life on the line here. He is apparently off safely doing whatever millers do. We never hear another thing about him. Instead the story leaves us with this girl who has been identified as one capable of doing the impossible. We feel helpless sitting beside her as she stares at all that straw, stifling and trapped.

All of a sudden a little man walks in the room and he spins the straw into gold for her. She gives him her necklace in return. The next night he spins again when the king greedily demands more gold be spun by the girl. She gives her ring for his service. But on the third night when the little man spins straw into gold, the girl has nothing more to give in return and so the little man demands her first born should she and the king marry and have a child. “Of course!” she says. All of this seems unlikely to her.  After all-she was three days ago only a poor miller’s daughter, an ordinary piece of straw herself. 

The king is no dummy. He wants to keep for himself this spinner of gold. So he marries her and she has a child. Sure enough, the little man shows up again and insists that the baby belongs to him. Again the girl is challenged. Is she helpless? Is she only a victim? Her  strategy involves broken hearted sobs  which soften the heart of the little man. “Well, if in three days you can call me by my name—then I will relent and you can keep your child.”
Being the wife of the king, she utilizes her resources and sends royal messengers out into the kingdom in search of the little man’s name. One of the messenger’s overhears a little man singing as he danced around a fire in the woods: “Oh soon I’ll make my royal claim; the queen will never guess my name! Rumpelstiltskin in the wood; she would guess it if she could!” The queen’s messenger left the light of the burning camp-fire and returned to the palace with enough information to redeem the queen. The ordinary straw of her own life and identity became gold when she speaks the name: Could it be, then, Rumpelstiltskin? Ahhh. We are so satisfied by this ending! The nameless girl becomes the smart girl, the queen, and she leaves helplessness behind.

In the scripture story from the book of Exodus, we find Moses standing beside a fire while keeping sheep for his father-in-law. A bush is burning. A bush that oddly enough is not burning away. In the light of this strange fire, Moses hears the sound of his name. And he is called to do the impossible. “Go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let my people go.” Who am I? Moses wants to know. He reminds God, the one who is calling from the burning bush, about his speech problem, his manslaughter charge back in Egypt and his deep longing to live in peace with his family. An ordinary life in Midian is not so bad. 

But the light of the fire burns on and Moses is feeling challenged. Is he not the victim any longer, the baby in the basket at the mercy of pharaoh’s fears and jealousy? Is he no longer the outcast running from Egypt and pharaoh’s palace where he was a foster child never really belonging in the first place? The bush burns and pressure mounts for Moses to respond. He is being challenged to accept a new identity, to become somebody he is not—not yet.

“Well,” and we feel Moses’ frustration as he asks, “Who are you and what is your name? If I were to return to Egypt, who shall I say has sent me?” 

And God responds from the light of the fire: I am who I am. Tell them you have been sent by I am. 

It seems to be enough information. Moses begins his journey, living into his true identity; becoming the person he was created to be before the sins of this world caused him to see himself as something less than who he was. Moses moved into a deep relationship with God and he moved God’s people out of captivity and into freedom. The ordinary straw of his life was spun into gold. 

Our God is a liberating God. The story that brings us together for worship today (and every Sunday throughout the year) is a story of a redeeming and liberating God. We have placed our faith in a God who names us, claims us and sets us free to be co-creators with God—to take the ordinary straw of our lives and spin it into gold with God’s love as our inspiration. We identify ourselves as people who are moving toward the Promised Land with the God of love and life who created us and created the Promises that keep us moving forward with hope. 

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to go to Tijuana on a mission trip with the feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and nine other women. We saw first-hand the United States Border Patrol. We saw the walls, multiple walls that our tax money has built, each one with gaps and each one costing millions of dollars. We went into Tijuana, the television making capital of the world. The television in your home was most likely made by workers, probably women, in Tijuana.  Many of the men leave their wives and children in Tijuana and they go north with hope that they might find the Promised Land. 

So the women work in factories owned by citizens of the United States. These factories are called miguiladoras.  Women work long hours for very little pay in these maguiladoras. You and I own televisions, toasters, radios and cell phones made by our neighbors to the south. These women faithfully go to work, leaving their children in huts and shanties, breathing air, drinking water and playing in sand made dangerous and toxic by the pollution created by the waste from the maquiladoras where they work. The women work with a Velcro band around their wrist. When they need to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water the band is removed and the time- clock stops. They are not paid while taking care of their human needs. 

Nameless women, put in positions where they are asked to do the impossible. Provide for your family and keep them safe while the very factory where you work is spewing pollution in to the air, water and soil. 

On our mission trip we had the privilege of meeting the twelve women of the Tijuana Colectivo. They are mothers who want a safe environment for their children. They are women who have devoted themselves to the struggle for justice. They are committed to exposing the illegal practices of the maquiladoras. Globalization gives corporations the freedom to move around the world seeking cheaper labor and more lax environmental regulations. There are environmental regulations in Tijuana but those regulations often have no teeth, no one to see that they are enforced. Because after all—these neighbors to the south of us are simply straw, ordinary poor people. We don’t even know their names.
The twelve women of the Colectivo are at work every day, focused on cleaning up the environment by forcing the maquiladoras to change their practices. These women are poor; they live in an area they call shantytown with ten thousand other families. Their homes are made of discarded garage doors; three garage doors leaned against each other with a piece of tin for a roof.

Yet the women of the Colectivo are wealthy in their understanding of each person's right and responsibility to find purpose. They are wealthy in their capacity to connect with other people. They are rich in their respect for hard work and its rewards. The women of the Colectivo see themselves as stewards of the earth. They are training their children and their neighbors to respect the earth and to recognize responsible care of the earth as everyone’s sacred duty. The women have adopted as their slogan: “Tijuana is no trash can!”  Supported by the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition, a cross-border group advocating for a safer environment, the Colectivo has an office building in Tijuana and a plan for the future. And they have been empowered to spin straw into gold, to convince even Pharaoh to do what is right.  Their faith has been rewarded with some big victories in Tijuana.

The women of the Colectivo took us to their office where we were served lunch. They were so poor. (If you had seen the huts where they live and raise their children. Pictures of Jesus on the wall. The dirt floor swept clean. Colorful rugs.) So poor in my eyes. Yet they prepared a wonderful lunch for us and they were so happy to be hosting us at their work site, so delighted to be serving us good food. We ate tostados until we were full.

And then we asked questions. I wanted to know, since the living conditions are so dreadful and dangerous in Tijuana, why the women stay. “Why don’t you go further south where the land is greener and safer?”

Maria responded to my question and Carlos translated. “I do not stay in Tijuana for myself. I do not stay here for my children although they are a big part of my inspiration and motivation. I stay in Tijuana and I work for justice because the earth depends on me. She is my mother. She gives me life and because of her goodness and generosity I was able to give life to my children. We work together: me, the air, the water, the soil. Together we make life. The earth is being spoiled by those who have forgotten to love their mother. The earth is being abused by those who care more for personal profit than life itself. I am here and I will stay here in Tijuana not because I want to but because I heard my name called from the burning furnaces of the maguiladoras.”

This is how we know our name. This is how we learn to recognize and claim the power of our own identity. As people of The Story-we turn, turn, turn and trust the one who brought us here in the first place. We hear the great I Am calling our name and inviting us to spin the ordinary straw of our lives into gold.