3-5-17 Sermon - “Child of God: Naming Each Other”
(This is the second in our series for Lent, "Roll Down Justice.")
“What’s in a name. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. In that passage, Juliet takes exception to the idea that she should not fall in love with Romeo simply because he is from the house of Montague.
The name, she insists, doesn’t matter.
Does naming matter? Does a name define us?
Is it merely a label that is placed on us at birth
by hopeful parents or is it more than that?
What does a name same about us? Well, you know of course, that in this day and age all we have to do is turn to Google to find out. So I did.
"Jay," often a shortened version of Jason or Jared or some other “J” name, gained popularity as a proper name in its own right in the 18th century in honor of the colonial era statesman, John Jay. Among its American and German meanings, according to the website sheknows.com, is “swift.” In Sanskrit it means “victorious,” while in the Hindu religion there are various deities named “Jay.” The French meaning, though, which is the one most often found in “baby name” books, is “like a Bluejay,” or, “one who talks a lot.” Hmmm.
Guess I’m going to have to own that last one.
But to go back to the root of Shakespeare’s original question, what’s in a name? I don’t know about you, but I was the first, and I believe the only person in my family named Jay - there is no historical or family tradition tied to my name. My father’s name was Ralph, and while I loved my father dearly, I’m SO glad my parents didn’t name me after my dad. But even more than that, both, not one but both, of my grandfathers were named Clarence. Need I say more? So it could have been worse?
Naming is important. In Scripture, in the creation stories in Genesis, one of the first responsibilities that humans are given in their charge to be good stewards of all of creation comes with the responsibility given to Adam, whose name by the way means literally “dirt man,” is to give names to all of the animals.
So naming, in all of its varied forms, is important in our society, in our culture, in our faith and life journeys. The authority to bestow a name comes with much responsibility and suggests much power.
Sometimes, such as when a family name is passed down from generation to generation, naming can serve the purpose of uniting, of bringing people together around a shared heritage, journey, or even a common value. The continuity of a name passed down through time adds layer upon layer of meaning.
Sometimes, though, naming can be used to separate or discriminate, not unify. I heard a story on the radio Thursday about a research study done about the home rental company, Air BNB. Have you heard of this resource? On Air BNB you can rent a person’s house or condo or apartment for when you travel instead of staying in a hotel. And if you have a space to rent, you can advertised it there, so it matches up people with space to people who have a need. What they found in this research project was interesting, to say the least. Applications were submitted for potential renters that were identical in every respect except for one.
In some of them applications they provided stereotypical African-American sounding names, like Lakeisha or Malik, while on others they provided stereotypical Caucasian sounding names, like Emily or Steve. In over 80% of the cases, all other things being equal, the potential renters with the Caucasian sounding names were chosen over those with the African-American sounding names.
In the Nazi era names were among the first things used to separate people out for the death camps. People with obviously Jewish or Polish sounding names were separated out, sent off to camps, and eventually 6 million of them would be killed by the Nazi regime. And most people cringe at that thought, at the acknowledgement of that sort of evil and darkness being part and parcel with the human condition. But it continues nonetheless.
If we’re completely honest with ourselves, we have to admit that when we call Customer Support somewhere for computer, or internet, or cellphone assistance, we are quietly relieved when the person on the other end of the line is named John or Mary instead of Juan or Maria.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit to ourselves at least, that for some, when we’re introduced to a Steve or Susan we’re much more comfortable than when we’re introduced to a Mohammad or a Khalil, or an Osama. That’s when a name oftentimes produces a visceral reaction in us, when an emotional wall goes up.
What if it’s not a proper name, but a label of some kind? If the label attached to another person, either by their choice or by our labeling, is something different than the label we attach to ourselves, doesn’t that often create a bit of separation for us, feed into that idea of “us” and “them,” in some way?
Lynn and I just saw the film, “Moonlight,” that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the opening scene of the film depicts a young black boy running away from a group of older black boys who are chasing after him, calling him names, and threatening to beat up him up.
Later, when he’s talking to an adult who befriends him he asks the man, “What’s a faggot?” The man, understanding where this question is coming from having witnessed the boy’s encounter with the gang of boys, thoughtfully replies, “It’s a word used to make gay people feel bad.” The young Chiron then asks, “Am I a faggot?” to which the adult responds, “No, you might be gay, but you don’t need to feel bad about that.” Naming matters. And when the power of naming is used to separate, and to bring harm, it’s sin.
In Luke’s gospel, which has been our focal gospel this year, there are a couple of powerful naming stories. The first occurs when Elizabeth and Zachariah become parents, and the people ask them what their son’s name will be. Elizabeth tells them that his name will be John, which the community rejects because John has not been a family name. So they turn to Zachariah, who you will remember had been rendered mute ever since he was in the Holy of Holies doing his duty as a priest and was told that Elizabeth was pregnant. Besides the obvious sexism at play here, it is only when Zachariah confirms what Elizabeth has said that the community accept the name John for their son. A little further on, then, we read the story of Jesus’ baptism. And it is in Jesus’ baptism that the power of naming is seen as God names Jesus.
And what are the names that God bestows on Jesus? Son. Beloved. One in whom God finds happiness. There is power in naming.
In our baptismal liturgy, after we have shared in the Thanksgiving over the Water, the baptismal equivalent to the Great Thanksgiving of Holy Communion, and we’re in the heart of the matter, the pastor places their hand in the water, places it on the head of the one being baptized…and speaks their name:
Jay, Sue, Joe, Carol, I baptize you in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. So be it.
There is a great and awesome power in naming. What you may not know, is that in the hymnal or the Book of Worship, just prior to those words are these instructions to the pastor:
Each candidate is baptized and receives the laying on of hands individually. The pastor uses the first (Christian) name(s), but not the family name: -
Have you ever noticed that before? Why is this, do you suppose? In early Christianity it was the tradition to only give a name at the time of Christening or baptism, or to change a name given previously at the time of one’s baptism. So, that might be part of it. But honestly, I think there’s more to it than than. While our surname distinguishes us a family, it is our first name, our given name, that identifies us as an individual.
And baptism is the most individual of sacraments, is it not? Even though we don’t do baptisms in private, it’s part of a communal service, it’s still an uniquely spiritual moment for an individual. We do not, for example, have a naming rite in the sacrament of Holy Communion - we come a a group, as a family, to the common, communal table. In baptism, though, in the midst of community, we are named as an individual. One person takes water, and in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that water is used in the naming, the specification, the welcoming of one person, not into our earthly family, but into the family of God. In the sacrament of baptism, God’s prevenient grace, God’s preexisting love, is proclaimed publicly and permanently in this ritual action of water and the Spirit. The proclamation of the love of God here, is the same proclamation given in Jesus’ baptism, and is the same as in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, when he says,
So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? [God] didn’t spare [God’s] own Son but gave him for us all. Won’t [God] also freely give us all things…?
God’s love, Paul says, is self-sacrificial. In Jesus’ baptism Jesus is named Son, beloved, and one with whom God finds much happiness. Within our naming in our baptism is reflected the fact that God gave so deeply, so completely, as to give God’s Son for us. And that means that if God did that, God will do anything, give anything, to ensure our spiritual flourishing, our inclusion as beloved children of God,
and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. And Paul goes on to make the case:
Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us.
If God will give the one whom he loved so deeply, that he called Son, beloved, bringer of happiness, then God must love us at least as much, Paul says. So…
Who will separate us from Christ’s love?, he asks.
Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
Separation is a real concern in our lives, isn’t it. Every choice we make along the way necessarily separates us from some other option. We cannot do everything, and so, when we do anything, we must exclude something. Every “yes” we make to one thing is a “no” to something else. Such exclusion, such “leaving behind,” can be a source of great pain in human living. Even the most natural thing, like growing up, involves leaving something behind. We can’t become an adult without leaving childhood behind. As much as we try, we can’t stay young forever, and so we leave behind our young adulthood. The choice to be married means leaving behind the life of singleness.
Separation from things and people we love, at some level and to some degree, is at the very heart of what it means to be human. And that is hard. Life is hard. But hardship or troubles are included in Paul’s list, as is distress. When we can’t finish what we’re doing, can’t get to where we’re going, we become distressed.
Paul also lists persecution. The violence done to men and women because of their inclusion in one group or another, or because of a name or a label that is attached to them, remains a force with devastating capacity to separate. And Paul goes on to name famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword; forces that cause separation are many. We know these things, we feel these things, they overwhelm us. Paul says of them,
It’s as if we are being put to death all day long…
We are treated like sheep for slaughter.
So with all of this on the table, it’s utterly remarkable to hear Paul proclaim to these powers loudly and firmly, “NO!”
…in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Romans 8:31-39, CEB)
NOTHING, past, present, future, real, or imagined, done, thought, or said - NOTHING can separate us from God’s love - Paul proclaims. Why? Because we are named as beloved children of God, even before our birth, even before our baptism, as we are knit in the womb, we are named by God.
Some have said that these nine verses in Romans are the greatest, the most important thing that Paul wrote in all of his letters. But besides being a loud, bold, and certain proclamation of God’s unfailing love for us as beloved children of God, the text also stands as judgment against our own complicity with the forces that separate and withhold justice. The church itself has far too often been an instrument of the very persecution Paul writes about. Many of those who claim to be believers, to be followers, have either fostered hardship, distress, and famine, or have allowed them to fester undisturbed. Remember, both the Ku Klux Klan and those who protest at the funerals of U.S. service men and women, claim Christianity as their faith.
But the grace and mercy of the God who is love, the God who is justice, and who names even us as God’s beloved children, can turn the heart, retune the heart, re-cognize the soul of even those who come to recognize their own complicity with the powers that seek to separate us, one from another.
The firm no to the powers of separation proclaimed in this text can form a rallying cry for those who, as our baptismal liturgy commands of us, resist the powers of sin and evil.
It’s like a biblical version of the song “We Shall Overcome,” where we sing first,
“We Shall Overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day.”
But then, this song, this anthem to the hope of God’s justice, takes us deeper:
“We’ll walk hand in hand,” we sing. “We’ll walk hand in hand.”
“We shall all be free,” we proclaim. “We shall ALL be free.”
“We shall live in peace,” we continue, “We shall live in peace.”
And then in a final statement of certainty built on our relationship with the God who names us beloved child of God, we sing
“The Lord will see us through, the Lord will see us through. The Lord will see us through some day. Deep in my heart, I do believe, The Lord will see us through some day.”
As followers of Jesus, as heirs with Jesus, we’re called to God’s work of walking hand in hand with others, of living in peace with others, of working for the freedom of others who are imprisoned in one way or another.
God’s restorative justice demands that we reach out to the world God so loved, the world outside our church doors, both near and far, the world that may not know the story of Jesus and of God’s unconditional love for all of humanity. And Paul proclaims loudly and boldly that there is nothing, no thing, done or undone, said or unsaid, that can separate us from God’s love.
That is the love that sets us free, that is the love that brings us peace, that is the love through which we can find abundant life. That is the good news of the gospel, given to each and every child of God, through which God’s justice will roll down like the water of an ever-flowing stream.
So, as we conclude, I invite you to just turn to someone near you, find out their name if you don’t know it and say this to them,
“[Name], you are a child of God.”
Look around you, leave no one out of this - you are a child of God!
Now let us sing together:
Reprise of Song as Response to the Word
No matter what people say,
say or think about you,
you are a child, you are a child of God.