Fairhaven Sermon 9-3-2023


Rev. Dylan Parson begins the sermon by describing how he discovered as a child that falling asleep made long car trips go by faster. As a kid, Rev. Parson would try to distract himself on road trips by bringing lots of books, music, etc. However, distraction came at the cost of missing sights along the journey. The sermon then transitions to Moses noticing the burning bush while distracted with the work of shepherding.

God spoke to Moses through the bush because Moses took the time to notice it. Rev. Parson explains that we must believe God still speaks to us and take time to notice the signs God puts in our lives. Though modern technology offers endless distraction, we must cultivate the willingness to notice God’s voice by stopping, breathing, and listening. God promises to be with us when we follow his call. The question is whether we will take the time to notice God speaking to us.


It took me a strangely long time to discover one of the most miraculous travel tricks to make a trip easier, and that is, of course, to fall asleep. While this doesn’t work whenever you’re the driver, it is amazing how much faster a trip can go. I remember the very first time I discovered this, I was probably like 12, 13, I had placed a pillow on my lap and folded myself in half as my grandmother was driving my sister and I to Chicago, across what is quite possibly one of the most boring roads in America, and that is the Ohio Turnpike. There is no worse drive that I have ever experienced.

 Before I had this revelation that you could just fall asleep, my preferred method to improve long drives was intense efforts at distraction. More than clothes or toiletries, my bags for vacation when I was a kid were loaded with just hilariously unrealistic numbers of books, of cassette tapes, you know, before the world briefly transitioned to CDs. My bag was always so heavy I could barely carry it because there were like a dozen books in there. My mom would always, You’re never going to read all those.

 And I didn’t. And then as we got in the car at three in the morning to head down to the beach, I would I’d build myself an isolation pod in the back of our van. You know, we’d have, I’d have a wall of pillows and blankets separating me from my sister, which was absolutely necessary. I’d have a backpack full of entertainment at my feet.

 And the moment we left the driveway for our 12 hour trip to North Carolina, my headphones went on. And immediately, my Walkman was blasting Radio Disney kid jams. Volume one or two, I think they’re at like volume 73 by now. And then I would crack into the first of my half a dozen Nancy Drews, which I inherited from my mom’s collection.

 I had like 40 of them. Now, 12 or more hours in the back of a minivan, waiting to smell the ocean, is a really long time no matter what, especially whenever you get about 2/3 of the way there. You’re on I-95 in standstill traffic. The sun’s baking you through the window.

 But distraction, I found out, was the best way to cope. Distraction comes with a cost, though. I was constantly missing things. Part of the glory of the trip was all these landmarks that I always look forward to seeing every year.

 The route down is just littered with landmarks that I would always be waiting for to know. They were just getting closer and closer. Cool things that you don’t get to see at home, right? I was always thrilled to see the castle in Berkeley Springs. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with this route down south.

 The castle in Berkeley Springs, there’s a giant roller skate in Front Royal that’s like 10 feet tall. I was excited to see that. There are apple statues around Winchester. The city is loaded with just these like huge 10 foot apples that are painted in all kinds of different colors.

 I’m always look forward to the tunnel that I hated to sleep through in Newport News and then all the aircraft carriers and the warships in Norfolk and then the grave digger monster truck in Curry Tuck, all these big, exciting landmarks. I wanted to see them, But it was extremely difficult for my mom to get my attention over the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera and past whatever mystery I was reading. And by the time she could reach around all the cooler and everything to shake my leg, it was gone. Whatever it was was gone.

 And so I’d miss almost everything. I’d usually see one of those things per year. Even if I decided I was going to be ready for the next landmark, I always allowed myself over the next couple hours to just fade into distraction once more. Because that’s what I wanted anyway, right? I wanted to be distracted.

 And then once you decide that, there you go. And there is inherent conflict between keeping oneself distracted and on the other hand, noticing. You cannot do both things at once. And distraction now doesn’t take that much effort, maybe now more than ever.

 And this feels like such a crotchety old person thing say, but the world we live in is designed to distract us now. I’m not sure my phone ever goes much longer than 15 minutes without a call, a text, some kind of social media notification, an alert that the Dollar General app has a Saturday coupon. And immediately whatever focus that I’ve mustered up on whatever task that I’m working on is just gone. It is so much harder for me to just read a book now than it was when I was a kid because there’s always something.

 And social media, news apps the same way, are literally designed to just keep us scrolling and refreshing, reading more stuff, just desiring to keep opening it because that’s how they get money. And we’re almost never bored anymore because there’s always something at hand that we can use to distract ourselves. Whether we’re sitting in traffic, whether we’re waiting on food at a restaurant. Now I have to believe that some kids have never in their lives at this point experienced riding in a car with nothing to do but look out the window.

 We cannot stand to just do nothing. And I mean this is me, this is everybody. Literally as I wrote this sermon, I put off going to the mechanic to get my leaking tire repaired because until Stormy got home from work to pick me up, I knew that I had to sit down there and just sit and wait for them to fix my tire with nothing to do than sitting with the old guy, scratched his lottery tickets off across from me. Nothing to do but sit.

 And I put it off. And then I went down there and I did it in ten minutes. And so you’re walking down the sidewalk and there is a bush smoldering from within but not burning up. You’re walking down the sidewalk.

 Do you notice it right off beside you? If God were trying to get your attention to speak to you as he did to Moses, would you keep on walking or would you notice? The great Jewish Rabbi Rashi says that God’s choice to appear in the form of a bush was completely intentional. He chooses a bush precisely because it’s small, it’s not grand or commanding. Other Middle Eastern gods at that time were often associated with these huge trees or sacred forest, but God chooses to be like his people were in their slavery. Small, flimsy, insignificant, just one among many.

 They’re just a bush in the midst of this scrubland. And you know, there’s really no such thing as a beautiful shrub. At best, they’re interesting, I guess. And not really when they’re scattered across desert scrubland where there’s just patches of thorny bushes, that’s just not pretty.

 The Lord could have chosen to be this grand cedar tree, the kind that the emperors of the day built their palaces out of. He could have chosen to tear the clouds in two to get Moses’ attention with a voice of thunder, but he doesn’t. So keep in mind that Moses at this point in his life, we’re just kind of jumping into the Moses story so we miss kind of the background here, but Moses at this point in his life is not having a good time. He is a man without a people.

 He’s a Hebrew, he’s come to find out recently, but he was raised by Egyptians. He’s a fugitive from the land of Egypt where he grew up because he murdered an Egyptian in a fit of righteous rage. He saw this Egyptian officer mistreat a Hebrew, one of his cousins, and he killed him. And so now he’s fled Egypt entirely He’s living with his wife and his father-in-law in the foreign land of Midian, which is three days journey across the desert from the place he’s known as home.

 And he is doing one of the most low skill, unpleasant, boring jobs imaginable. Far away from his new wife. I mean, at least he’d be excited to have a new wife, right? But he’s far away from her most of the time anyway. He’s out being a shepherd.

 So conceivably, reasonably, Moses could have been shepherding in complete dismay. I promise you he was not looking forward to each new day at work. He probably could have been out there doing his best to dissociate from the reality where he finds himself. He does not want to be here.

 He wants it to be over. Moses, who was once a baby rescued by a princess from the reeds along the Nile. He was once a young man who lived in Pharaoh’s court along this great and mighty river. He has lost everything.

 And now he finds himself, and you could literally translate it as the backside of the desert, not just regular desert. This is far into the desert. And he’s on this mountain, Mount Hermon, that means parched. He’s known water, he’s known luxury, he’s known this urban, exciting lifestyle, and now he’s carrying sheep from place to place on this desert mountain.

 So you could forgive him if he was just trying to do the stupid job, moving the sheep from place to place, supervising, wandering around in low-grade sorrow, and just waiting till he finally gets to go home to his tent– he’s living in a tent now, I’m sure– with his wife. But when he comes upon this bush, he notices. His eyes aren’t on his feet as he walks. They’re not just zoned out looking at the horizon as he keeps walking.

 He sees the bush and he says, Let me check out this amazing site and find out why the bush isn’t burning up. He chooses to drop what he’s doing. He could have just powered through the day, but he chooses to stop, to drop what he’s doing and see what is going on. And notice this, because I think this is very important.

 just half a sentence that it’s easy to skim over. Then God calls him. God speaks to him out of the bush but not until he goes to look. God is not in the burning bush and saying, Moses come over here.

 That’s not what’s happening. If Moses had not bothered to notice or if he saw the bush out of the corner of his eye and went, Huh, weird, and kept walking, I don’t think that God would have yelled for him to come back. I think it’s very possible that the entire saga of the Exodus here, all that is to come in Moses’s life as he becomes the instrument through which God liberates his people, none of that happens if he doesn’t decide to drop what he’s doing for just a second to go check out that weird thing. He hasn’t enveloped himself in the many distractions he could have And so he hears God’s voice because he’s available to hear it.

 And then Moses, Moses cries a voice from the bush. Here I am, Moses replies. Here I am. And history has changed forever.

 Now it’s not smooth sailing from that moment forward. The promise is actually kind of difficult that God gives in that moment because God says, you know, you’ll know that this comes true whenever you’re back on this mountain after you free your people. There’s a lot of stuff in between here and there. But God expresses exactly what he’s gonna do.

 He’s gonna use Moses to free his people from slavery under Pharaoh and he’s gonna bring them out of Egypt into a broad land flowing with milk and honey. And Moses asks what any reasonable person would. Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Who am I? It’s gonna be the challenge of a lifetime.

 There’s nothing that Moses could have done to prepare him for this. You can’t learn some kind of leadership to lead your people out of slavery. You can’t prepare yourself to do these miracles that God is gonna work through you. It’s going to be an impossible challenge for him to do and he knows that.

 The author Elie Wiesel, who was a Holocaust survivor, writes of Moses. Moses was the greatest legislator and commander-in-chief of the first liberation army. He was a prophet, God’s representative to the people and the people’s representative to God. And he never had a good day in his life.

 But God makes a promise that guarantees it’s going to be worth it. I’ll be with you, God says. And God even tells Moses something that no human being had ever heard before. His name.

 I am who I am. Or I will be who I will be. God is the one who stands beyond everything. The world changes, empires rise and fall, people are born and die, continents drift apart and crash together, the years just blow away.

 But God is. God will be. God’s promise, the hope that we can build our lives on, is in God’s very name that he gives to Moses. I am what I am.

 And all of this happens because Moses noticed this bush. I don’t think we often believe it deep down, but God is still speaking. God is still calling. God is leaving signs for you in your life, waiting for you to see them.

 And so the first thing you have to do is to decide to live your life in such a way as if God is still at work and speaking. That the book that we read from every Sunday is not some dead history book, but an account of the God called I will be who I will be. That’s a future, infinite name. The God who was and is and is to come.

 Whenever the book gets to the end, it’s not over. That alone is a first step, to really choose to believe that. It’s one thing to believe that in the abstract. It’s another thing to decide to live as if the God that led the Hebrews through the Red Sea just might light a bush on fire in front of you on your way out the door today.

 Why not? But the next thing, and I know that I struggle with this one every day, is to cultivate a willingness to notice. And again, we all know this, that we are just smothered in distraction, and we like it that way. It feels a whole lot better not to have to experience silence, whenever you can just turn up the white noise instead, whatever that is. So it doesn’t really matter if God lights that bush on fire, if you’re too wound up in the cares of your day, the stresses of work and family, and the countless distractions that bombard us.

 If you’re too busy to even see that, it doesn’t matter if the bush is burning so close it that might light your pant leg on fire. God will let us keep walking and deal with all of our little stuff if we’re not ready to hear God on the big stuff. It’s in our commitment to stop, to breathe, to simply shut up on the inside and the outside that we encounter God’s voice. How many times, and I know this is me too, how many times have you taken a moment to pray and not said anything.

 Now it’s constantly words going up. Is there any room for words to come back down? God is speaking to you. God is calling you to something special and crucial to God’s work in the world. It might be easy.

 It might be hard. But I am promises to be with you every step of the way. The question is whether you will take the time to notice. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Back to School Blessing

We will have a back-to-school blessing in worship on Sunday, August 27, 2023 and students and teachers/aides/bus drivers/everyone who works in schools are invited to come forward to be prayed over after the final hymn. 

 Dylan made keychain blessing tags to be given to everyone who comes forward.  These can be put on a backpack or somewhere else significant to your part in the education process. All are welcome!

Fairhaven Sermon 8-20-2023


In this sermon, the Pastor Dylan Parson discusses Jesus’ interaction with a Canaanite woman in the Gospel of Matthew. The pastor explains that Christians often view themselves as the “hero” or “main character” when reading Bible stories, but in this case, we are not the children of Israel – we are the outsiders, the “dogs” who Jesus initially rejects.

Pastor Dylan goes on to analyze how Jesus tests the Canaanite woman’s faith and humility by rejecting her request for healing at first. However, the woman persists in asking for mercy, arguing that even dogs get the crumbs from their master’s table. Jesus recognizes the sincerity of her faith and heals her daughter. The pastor argues we must humble ourselves like this woman, recognizing our unworthiness and total dependence on God’s grace. As adopted children, we cannot become arrogant and think we can decide who deserves God’s mercy. We must make room at the table for more of society’s outcasts, just as Jesus welcomed the Canaanite woman.

This summarizes the key points about not assuming we are the hero in Bible stories, demonstrating humble faith like the Canaanite woman, and avoiding arrogance about who deserves God’s grace. Let me know if you would like me to expand or modify the summary further.


So who do you think you are? Who do you think you are? As we approach our gospel reading this morning, the first thing you need to know is Jesus is talking to you and maybe in a way that will make you uncomfortable. This story has something to say to you. A friend of mine pointed out that when reading scripture, Christians often have a terrible case of what kids these days call main character syndrome. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with that phrase.
 But main character syndrome is this– the situation where we often unknowingly view ourselves as the center of the world. Whatever the plot line of the story is, it’s about us, really. We’re simply the main character, you know? So reading the Bible too, it’s about us, right? And we are by implication, because this is what the main character always is, the hero, or at least on the right team. Not so in this case.
 And frankly, most of the time in scripture, if we’re reading it thinking that we’re the good guy in whatever story we’re reading, we’re probably making a mistake. We American Christians much more closely resemble, say, the Egyptians than the enslaved Hebrews in Exodus. Their situation is much more similar to ours than the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. In the New Testament, on the other hand, we’re much more like the Romans or other pagans than like the Jewish minority, let alone the brave little Christian sect threatened with persecution for our faithful living.
 That’s not a reality we live in. We’re not going to be crucified, we’re not going to be fed to lions, we’re not going to be pressed out of polite society for our faith. So when Jesus looks at the Canaanite woman in the eye and calls her and her demon stricken daughter dogs who do not deserve to eat the food that belongs to the children, we have to understand that we in this situation are the dogs. We’re not the children, we are the dogs.
 And dogs in Israel at this time were not like dogs today. And if we’re shocked by Jesus’s sharpness here, we shouldn’t be embarrassed that Jesus is talking like this to other people, right? But chastened by the fact that Jesus is talking like this to us, reminding us of our place in the story of salvation. This woman, who you should know is not an oppressed foreigner. It’s not like she’s existing on the bottom of society there, but she’s a member of a people who throughout Jewish history and continuing through Roman times has long oppressed the Jews.
 Like she’s a more powerful person than Jesus is. She has come to beg for help from a Jewish rabbi. And that’s a really bold move. It comes at him, she comes at him hard.
 She’s certainly not a Jew and yet she addresses Jesus by the title that his followers give him. She’s speaking the language of faith that’s not even hers. And she says, Show me mercy, son of David. And first he ignores her, but then when she keeps it up, she just keeps yelling after him.
 She keeps following him as he’s going down the street. Jesus snaps back at her, essentially saying, You’re not my problem. I don’t owe you anything. And he’s absolutely right.
 As we go through scripture, the vast majority of all the prophetic promises about the Messiah that we see from, oh, geez, from Abraham all the way through David, all the way up through the later books of the Old Testament. All of those promises are that the Messiah is going to come for Israel’s salvation, Israel’s redemption. This woman’s a Canaanite. Jesus is not coming for her.
 The Jews are awaiting the fulfillment of promises God has made them since Abraham and Isaac, which we’ve been talking about in my past sermons for the past month or so, and later to King David. And Gentiles are at best an afterthought. You don’t see a lot of Gentiles in the Old Testament in any kind of positive light. And instead, they’re more frequently an outright obstacle to what God wants to do.
 They’re an obstacle to the restoration of God’s chosen people. So whenever we come around to Easter once more, when we get to Palm Sunday and Jesus rides in on the donkey to Jerusalem, his followers expect him to go take the throne that belongs to him as the son of David. And they’re disappointed when that’s not what happens because that’s what they’re expecting, that God is going to restore his people to their rightful place. But the Gentile woman keeps following Jesus.
 She keeps yelling after him. She keeps going, refusing to just leave him alone to continue his journey, and even calls him stunningly Lord. The same thing his apostles call him. And finally, he stops and he engages with her.
 And it’s still not polite. He says, It’s not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs. That is, he’s saying something like, You know what, I’ve got my own people to save. Go get your own Messiah.
 But her desperate love for her daughter is too strong for her to let it go. She keeps pushing him, and she argues with him, which is something that we see a lot of the Old Testament heroes do. Abraham argues with God whenever he wants to help somebody else. And she says, Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their master’s table.
 She lays her deep need out before him, not with any sense of entitlement to his grace, not like this belongs to me, but in complete humility and knowing that he can do something about it. And there’s something else there too, because she insists by implication that there’s a place for dogs in the household of God too, sharing the same father as their master. They still get to live in the house. And Jesus has stopped in his tracks as she pushes back on him, as she presents us in a different kind of way.
 And you imagine he must have been smiling. And he says, Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish. And right then her daughter is healed.
 The demons are cast out without him even having to touch her or pray over her or anything, the demons are cast out and she’s free. And it’s a really beautiful moment. And it’s not that she changes Jesus’s mind or something about who God loves or who Jesus has come to save. She just proves that she really gets it.
 Her nothing held back, prideless humility is the same way that we as Gentiles, who are not originally God’s chosen people, are included and welcomed, grafted into the promises that God made thousands of years ago to God’s chosen people. Whenever we beg for grace, God gives it to us. And Matthew throughout this section of his gospel is hammering home this idea of humility before God’s unearned grace. The position of the previous portion of the chapter, the part we started with, this run-in with the Pharisees is no coincidence.
 You know, whenever you see two stories back to back in scripture, they’re usually there for a reason and not just that they happened in a row. So our reading today opens with Jesus speaking to a crowd. Some background is that the Pharisees insist on all kinds of rituals and purity beyond what the law of Moses says. Specifically, what they’re talking about is ritual hand washing.
 To be clean before you ate, you had to wash your hands, but not like with soap and water. That is good. Jesus is not saying not to do that. Jesus is saying that you don’t have to be ritually clean before you eat.
 And Jesus argues, no. You’re adding all of these rules about purity, all of these things that you have to do to keep yourself clean, but what you eat doesn’t contaminate you. It’s not that you eat something that’s not kosher or eat something that’s unclean that harms your soul. It’s the other way around.
 What comes out of the mouth makes you unclean. We can’t obey our way into holiness, Jesus says. Instead, it has to come from the inside out. You don’t keep yourself holy by following all the rules of what you’re allowed to eat and touch and where you’re allowed to go and who you’re allowed to talk to.
 It starts in the heart. And the position of our heart affects everything else about how we live. And the Pharisees, this kind of flips up the whole chessboard of all their moral teaching. And they’re furious.
 And as apostles say, you know, the Pharisees are very, very upset with what you’re saying. And Jesus, as he often does, just pushes further and he explains himself to the apostles why he’s saying what he’s saying. Don’t you understand yet, he says. Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart.
 And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. Out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults, these contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight. And Jesus is purposely being kind of crude here.
 He’s saying, what you eat is literally gonna come back out again and be flushed away. He’s being very dismissive, very crude about the whole thing. But the words that you say, the actions that you take that start with the thoughts of your heart, Those are the things that matters. The heart steers it all, and that’s what God is looking at.
 Those are the things that are eternal. Those are the things that God cares about. And so notice, as soon as Jesus finishes explaining this, as soon as he finishes explaining what real holiness, real faithfulness is, that’s when he decides to go to Tyre and Sidon in the northern land of Canaan. This is also Lebanon, Syria, Phoenicia.
 he’s going up north to a land where it’s not Jewish anymore, it’s Canaanite, and he’s acting out exactly what he’s just taught. I think that’s why he goes. He sets himself in this sea of completely impure people. It’s like the parable of the Good Samaritan.
 You know, half the point of the Good Samaritan is that Jews and Samaritans are not supposed to interact the same way Jews and Canaanites are not supposed to interact. Jewish men are not supposed to to interact with Jewish women in public. There’s these strong barriers between where you’re supposed to be and where you’re not. You’re keeping yourself clean.
 So imagine the scandal if Jesus is God going to Canaan in the flesh. Not only is this isn’t some great prophet disobeying the rules, going to a place where Jews aren’t supposed to go. This is God saying, No, I am going to Canaan. So some biblical scholars argue about whether Jesus is purposely going to the Canaanite village, or if it’s just a necessary path on his way elsewhere.
 But I think given this context, immediately after he confronts the Pharisees about holiness, I think he’s doing this completely on purpose. He wants exactly what happens in this story to happen. He’s trying to get an interaction like this. He wants exactly the kind of meeting he has with this Canaanite woman.
 And so he meets this woman who is first of all a woman and is deeply impure to his people and tradition. He shouldn’t be talking to her as a woman at all. He shouldn’t be in Canaan. He shouldn’t be talking to Canaanite people and they certainly shouldn’t be asking him for anything.
 And he gives her away into the household of God. And in this story, we see that God’s come not only to drive out the Gentile oppressors of his people, but to drive out the demons that are oppressing the Gentiles. If we want it. The condition of the heart determines what’s holy and what’s defiling.
 And it turns out that this woman’s heart is in a posture of holiness. She is welcoming the Lord in and telling the demons to go. She’s operating completely out of this love for her daughter. She’s tracking Jesus down, not for any selfish reasons, not because she’s trying to be a faithful Jew or something like that, trying to follow the rules, but because she wants to heal her daughter.
 Her heritage, her purity, wherever she’s been, whoever she’s been, are irrelevant, and her deep love and her humility as someone who’s really far higher in standing than Jesus makes her able to receive his grace. She humbles herself, and then she brings that grace back to her people. And she demonstrates the power of God to a people who don’t know God. They’re not expecting a Messiah because he’s not their God.
 And the dogs are welcomed into their master’s household. And Jesus is ready to open the door to as many rescues as need a home. There are enough crumbs under the table for everybody. We already saw that at the feeding of the 5,000.
 There’s always enough crumbs. But there’s something else here too. Again, we’re adopted and rescued once not a people, but now God’s people because of God’s grace. There’s a real facet here that this is totally unearned.
 But now we’re in the house, right? I mean, this is our church, you know, this is our God, this is our Lord, and that main character syndrome can kick in again. And we start to feel like we own the house that Jesus lets us live in. Or that we get to decide who gets a seat at the table whenever we’re here to eat the crumbs. We get to decide who really gets the crumbs.
 Those belong to us. We have some authority over where they go. And we start to feel, as many dogs do, like we have the right to decide who comes in the front door. God knows that my dogs think that that is their choice.
 And so we need a reality check. We have to keep in mind the level of hubris and arrogance it takes for us as dogs, guests ourselves in the house, right, to decide who deserves God’s grace and who doesn’t. If we’re ever tempted to write anybody off for reasons of, well, anything, but class or immigration status, sexuality, whatever, Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees applies to us too. You are not here because you did anything special.
 You’re not here because you earned it. You are here because Jesus let you in. inviting you to open your heart and be saved, to feed on the crumbs that were originally given to another people entirely. You’re not the children the bread is for, you’re the dogs.
 And I have to think that the apostles were repulsed by a Canaanite woman calling Jesus Lord or Son of David. That would have had to bother them a lot. Like, who are you? And then I think about how many Christians feel, In many traditions, hearing a woman preach, how you might hear a gay person proclaiming the word of God, or that some church is helping immigrants or refugees or convicts or addicts. Who do these people think they are? Using the name of God, daring to talk about Jesus, using his name to talk about these people that we’d rather not associate with.
 And Jesus in this story, throws it back in our face. Who do you think you are? You think this is your house? You think this is your bread, your crumbs? And so we pray with the Canaanite woman, show us mercy, son of David. Lord, help us. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their master’s table.
 Set us free from the demons that bind us and help us always to scoot over and make room for more strays under the table. Thanks be to God in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. [BLANK_AUDIO].

Fairhaven Sermon 8-6-2023

The sermon explores the theme of spiritual maturity and identity formation through the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with God. Pastor Dylan describes how Jacob begins his life driven by self-interest, manipulating others and disconnected from God. After encountering God in a vision, Jacob begins a journey of growth, though he still relies on his own scheming. The pivotal moment comes when Jacob physically wrestles with a divine messenger, demanding a blessing. After this intense struggle, Jacob receives the new name Israel, symbolic of his identity shifting to one who wrestles with God.

Pastor Dylan connects this transformation to the Christian life. Though God’s grace and blessings are freely given, believers must actively “wrestle” to fully embrace their identity in Christ. Maturity means recognizing that life’s struggles belong to God rather than striving alone. Just as Jacob emerged from the fight a new man, Christians are continually called to surrender their old identities and accept the love remaking them as children of God.

Spiritual growth is an ongoing process of choosing faith over fear, allowing God to shape us into who we were created to be.


I mentioned this before probably, but my ethnic heritage is decidedly bland. It’s largely German, Swiss, large amount of Swiss, which is kind of weird actually. French, English, Irish, you know, your basic northern Europeans, not a lot of spices or tomato, you know. We’ve been here a good while.
 It’s been since the 1740s or earlier for a lot of the Swiss and the English, which is a very long time to remain in love with the promised land of Butler County. The French side is the most recent, and even that particular great-great-grandfather got here in 1900, so that’s still 120 years ago. Unsurprisingly though, the traditions that my ancestors may have brought with them across the Atlantic are virtually gone. I don’t know what they ate.
 I don’t know their religious customs. The churches in Porterville and elsewhere that many of my forebears would have helped found, they started as Swiss reform churches, but they’ve been Americanized into just Bible churches now, they’re called, for decades. My French great-great-grandfather, I imagine, was Catholic, but he’d have been traveling quite a ways every Sunday to find a mass, so presumably he just didn’t. And here we are.
 Accordingly, I look with envy upon some of the things the spicier ethnicities of Western PA have, you know, like clubs and pierogies and holiday traditions and special days at Kennywood. I’m especially jealous, you know, of the rare and unique ones, the Lithuanians, the Ruthenians, because I’m just American. And indeed, the US census shows that a lot of the English, a lot of the Scots, Irish families who have been in this region, in the Appalachian region for a long time have simply just marked American on their census for years and years and years, because any identity beyond that is gone. My homeland isn’t the Alpine lakes of Switzerland, though I’d like to see them.
 It’s the glacial valleys, the rolling hills of Slippery Rock Township. It’s changed. There’s a novelty t-shirt store at the Robinson Mall with a shirt in the window that I’ve seen many places elsewhere. and it says, American by birth, Italian by the grace of God.
 And that’s a joke, I assume. Maybe not for some Italians who are really into it. But there’s something to that also. We carry different identities at different depths within us.
 And the identity of our birth is not necessarily the one that we claim, the one we retain throughout our lives. Like in this example, an Italian-American who was born and raised in the US has a really wide choice as to how Italian they want to be, right? They could easily discard their home culture entirely as my European ancestors did eventually until American is what they are above all else and no one else, maybe not even their kids, knows their heritage without doing some hardcore research. Meanwhile, you could have an adopted child, right, who might identify with their biological family to some degree, and their DNA will never change, but it’s also quite likely that their last name will change and that they’ll consider themselves to be more fully a member of that adoptive family. It’s quite likely that their adoptive parents just become understood as their parents, right? And those who gave them birth might get that added distance of biological parents.
 You know, the same way a woman often changes her name upon marriage. Men do now occasionally. I have some friends who hyphenated theirs to symbol a new family as a fusion of the old. And whenever you change your name, it’s not that the old has gone away, but that you’ve chosen to become something.
 You’ve chosen to create something new, and that’s what you’re claiming now. The name that will one day be on your headstone, the name that your children will bear, that’s something that you choose, that you create together in a new marriage. So you get what I’m saying here, that identities are fluid, are complicated. Who you started as, even down to the level of your DNA, is not necessarily the determinant of who you end up as in life.
 Life happens, we grow, we change. Over time, some of us might as well become a new person entirely. And I would argue that’s actually exactly what Jesus calls us to over a lifetime of discipleship and growth. By the end of our lives, by our older years, with God’s help, with God’s shaping touch, we should be unrecognizable from who we started as, in the best way possible.
 You know, disciple of Jesus, child of God, should become our above-all identity as we grow over time. I remember the words of 2 Corinthians 5, 17. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away.
 Look, new things have come into being. Complete change, complete transformation until it’s just newness. And we see something like this happening within Jacob, a kind of metamorphosis. Over the last month or so, I’ve been working through Jacob’s saga in Genesis, and what we have seen over the last three, what you might call, episodes is the sprouting and maturing of Jacob’s faith.
 In today’s reading, we might reach what we might call that maturing. Jacob began his story as a man who, despite his heritage as a son of Isaac, as the grandson of the great patriarch Abraham had zero relationship with God. Instead, he’s what his given name describes. Jacob means supplanter or one who seizes, and indeed he seeks to build his own power and fortune by hustling.
 If there’s one thing Jacob is, it’s a hustler. He manipulates those around him. His only mention of God before his exile, you’ll recall, was this offhanded remark to to his father as he’s trying to embezzle him in the wake of extorting his brother Esau’s entire inheritance. Jacob uses God as a tool, just kind of a rhetorical device.
 Whenever he is sent into exile, whenever he sets up camp at Bethel, it’s there that he sees this vision of angels ascending and descending a staircase to heaven. And he hears the voice of God directly speaking to him for the first time in his life. He’s never met God before, he’s never had any concept of God, and then God breaks through in this vision. And for the first time, a real relationship opens up between Jacob and the Lord, despite Jacob never having sought one.
 It’s not like Jacob went into the wilderness to meet God. No, Jacob had no interest in that. But God promises to be with him even as he’s leaving his homeland until his destiny is fulfilled. God promises that he’s never alone, even as he wanders into the desert and away from his family into an uncertain future.
 And so for Jacob, after Bethel, God is no longer this abstraction belonging to his father and his grandfather. Faith isn’t just something that his parents and grandparents had. The God of Abraham is now his too. One that he knows personally, one that he’s met, one that he has spoken to.
 Surely God was in this place, but I didn’t know it, Jacob says. And so it’s been a couple chapters, we skipped a couple chapters, since we last encountered Jacob at the beginning of his exile. And since then, now that we’re in chapter 32, he’s grown up quite a bit. A lot has happened in his life.
 It’s been a while. He’s gotten himself a couple wives, Rachel and Leah, those are stories of their own, in his mother’s homeland. And he’s had a really successful run back there. He’s been working the land of his cousin Laban as kind of an indentured servant.
 He’s paying off his wives, right? He was, Laban promised to give him his wives if he would work for him for a number of years. And he and Rachel and Leah have begun having sons who will become the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. But now the land is getting a little bit tight for both Laban and Jacob to live in peace. Some friction is emerging between the two clans.
 Laban’s family is getting jealous because Jacob’s doing really well. He’s become a very successful farmer, very prosperous, got all these strong young boys, right? And God tells Jacob that it’s finally time to go back home and also to finally face his brother Esau, whom he pretty aggressively screwed over. His servants warn as he heads back to Canaan, the land of his father, that Esau, his brother, is coming to meet him with 400 men, which he reasonably assumes is probably not a great sign. Jacob, at the beginning of this chapter, is panicking.
 You know, his brother’s essentially raised an army that’s marching towards him, and he prays. Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, go back to your country and your relatives, and I’ll make sure things go well for you. I don’t deserve how loyal and truthful you’ve been to your servant. He’s right.
 I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, and now I’ve become two camps. Save me from my brother Esau. I’m afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers and their children. You were the one who told me.
 I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea so many you won’t be able to count them. He’s terrified. And he anticipates crossing back over the river to his homeland to face these skeletons that he prayed would stay in his closet forever. He thought all that was long gone.
 And on one hand, he really trusts that God is calling him back. He does go after all, but still not fully. He isn’t both feet in. Deep down, he’s still that desperate boy who hung on to his brother’s heel at birth, trying to control his own fate by force of will.
 And so he prepares this big strategy, right? This big game of showering Esau with gifts. He’s sending before him all kinds of dozens of animals and this fortune and so all these presents to Esau. So by the time Jacob arrives, Esau’s softened up a little bit. He’s like, Oh, well, this is nice.
 And when a reading this morning begins, he sends the first group over into the land to encounter Esau and offer this peacemaking gift. So he sent his wives, his children, the servants, a lot of animals ahead, but he stays behind on the riverbank, and this mysterious man shows up and starts wrestling him. What a weird moment. And they wrestle, and they wrestle through the night, And the man takes a cheap shot eventually, ’cause it’s gone on too long, and he either rips Jacob’s thigh muscle or dislocates his hip, depending on which translation that you read.
 And yet he still doesn’t win. Jacob persists, insisting that he won’t let this man out of a headlock until he gives him a blessing, which is a recurring theme for Jacob, you’ll notice. He’s always trying to get that blessing. And so he does.
 The man gives him that blessing. He asks him his name, Jacob, but then he renames him and he says, Your name won’t be Jacob anymore, but Israel, because you struggled with God and men and won. Israel means struggles with God. This mysterious attacker turns out to be God himself, but he refuses to speak his own name.
 In the midst of the struggle with himself, with his fear, and directly now with God, Jacob becomes a new man with a new name. His identity now has been forged in his wrestling with God. He started out that fight. He started out on that side of the river as Jacob, but now he’s Israel.
 Supplanter is who he was born as, this schemer, this striver. What wrestles with God is who he’s become. And that’s a really different way to live. Finally, Jacob, now Israel, sees God’s blessing and grace as his own, as really, truly being something he has.
 It’s striking, I think, in this story that God has already promised Jacob his blessing and promise like decades ago now, back at that night at Bethel when they first met. Years and years have passed. God already promised back at Bethel that all this stuff was going to be Jacob’s. Jacob already had God’s blessing without even asking for it.
 But it’s only whenever he wrestles with God that he demands it, that he then truly accepts the love and the grace of God given to him. God essentially has to like reverse psychology Jacob into finally getting it. He had to fight him so he knew that he wouldn’t have to fight anymore. God has to force Jacob to see that a path of grace has been laid wide open for him his whole life if he’s just willing to go.
 And our paths as Christians are not so different. No mysterious men are wrestling us on the side of the road, hopefully. But the promise God places upon our lives, that we are reborn and renewed and claimed as children of God through Jesus, is given to us at baptism. It’s totally free, it doesn’t require a single thing from us, just like whenever God promised Jacob at Bethel.
 We are marked and sealed as God’s beloved from the very beginning, before we even ask. But it’s most often in wrestling with God and man, in the words of Genesis, over the course of our lives, that who we have always been in Christ becomes the identity we claim deep in our souls. Grace and blessing are free. They’re always free, and yet we have to learn to receive them.
 Our lives are not so different than Jacob’s journey from home to exile and back home again. times will come and continue to come over and over and over again when we stand on the riverbank and we can choose to strive and flail and scrap on our own, looking with anxiety on what is to come, or accept that God is already with us, fighting for us in the midst of life’s battles, calling us to be more than we were born to be. And this is what spiritual maturity looks like. And I suspect it’s rarely a one-time thing for most of us.
 Maturity is just getting it right more often, right? But a decision we have to make over and over again. Is this my struggle to deal with myself? Is it on me? Or is it God’s? hand it over to God, to accept the blessing, is to transcend our own identities and to be renamed. We’re not striving, we’re not supplanting, we’re not scrapping anymore. We’re renamed.
 God has given you and me every single thing that we need. The question is whether we’ll break down, surrender and just accept the grace and love that has been ours all along. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.