Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sermon: "In the Name of Love"

King Street UCC, Danbury CT
January 16, 2011

John was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
John 1:35-37

“In the Name of Love”

John 1:29-42

A name can be a powerful thing.
My father was christened Nicholas Augustus F******.
He was named after his father and his grandfather and his great grandfather before him.
As the fourth generation first born male to be given the name Nicholas, my father had big shoes to fill.
To be called Nicholas he had no choice but to walk in the shadow of the patriarchs that came before him.
Three strong willed, hard working Italian men who expected their sons, their namesakes, to follow in their footsteps and to do them proud.
But my father never had the chance to be a Nicholas.

When he was a baby, his mother took to calling him “Bubby” – a nickname that sprung from her southern upbringing – and she and the rest of the family continued to call him “Bubby” for the first five years of his life.
When it came time to register her son for school my grandmother inadvertently reversed my father’s first and middle names on the registration form.
But when his teachers called him by his middle name "Augustus" - and his friends started calling him "Gus" – my father didn't correct them because he didn't know that his given name was actually Nicholas.  
At home he had always been Bubby.
At five years old my father had been given a new identity.
And he was Gus for the rest of his life.

In many ways my father was spared the pressure of having to live up to his name. When he heard the name Nicholas spoken in his house there was no confusion as to whether it was he who was being referred to, or his father.
As Augustus he was allowed to forge his own identity rather than have one thrust upon him.
In the end he did turn out to be a strong-willed, hard-working man just like his father but he did it without having to drag the weight of a name that tied him to those who came before him.

My father did name his first son Nicholas, and he in turn named his first son Nicholas as well, so the tradition has continued.
But my father will never be a Nicholas to me or to anyone who knew him, he’ll always be Augustus, grandpa Gus, Gus the WWII Navy vet who married Ruth, raised ten children and lived 79 happy years in this world.

A name can be a powerful thing.

A friend of mine from seminary told me a similar story of having been named Jennifer at birth but not realizing it until later in life because her parents always called her by her middle name, Anne. She went through most of her life as Anne until one day as a middle-aged, recovering alcoholic she decided to reclaim the name Jennifer in an effort to create a new identity and leave her past behind.
But when she stood up in her AA meetings and introduced herself as Jennifer she said it didn’t feel right.
She explained, “Anne had this rich history, but Jennifer did not.
At the AA meetings I couldn't introduce myself as Jennifer because Jen wasn't the drunk, Anne was.”

A name can be a powerful thing.

As Anne’s story demonstrates, “Names have memory, history, a story behind them” and it’s hard for us to peel off those layers once they’ve been applied.
Our names become a part of who we are.

With this in mind, imagine what it must have been like for Jesus, when he stumbled upon John the Baptist – a crazy eyed preacher who was dunking his followers beneath the waters of the river Jordan - proclaiming them to be baptized in the name of God.

Jesus was a carpenter’s son from a backwater town called Nazareth.
His family and friends knew him as Yeshua.  
A fairly common Hebrew name which means “God saves.”

The Nativity stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us that Mary and Joseph were instructed to call their son Yeshua, for he was destined to save the people of the world from sin.
The gospel of Matthew also tells us that in fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah Jesus would be known as Immanuel – meaning “God with us.” This was not intended to be Jesus’ name but rather it was a description of the role that Jesus would fill during his time in this world.

But how many people who encountered Jesus in his time knew the true meaning of his name?
For those of us who have the benefit of hindsight, and 2000 years of Christianity under our belt, when we hear the name Jesus we think of only one man, a man whom many of us believe to be fully human yet fully divine. A man whom many of us believe was God incarnated.

But for the first 30 years of his life, Jesus was just another devout Jew, who studied at the feet of learned Rabbis and who most likely drove his elders crazy with his constant questioning and his tendency to push against the boundaries that held him in place.
To everyone apart from his parents, those present at his birth, and a few prophetic voices, Jesus was Yeshua.  And he was no different from the many other Yeshuas that they undoubtedly encountered in their daily comings and goings.

But that changed when this particular Yeshua crossed paths with John the Baptist.
John the Baptist claimed that he had received a revelation from God and in sharing that revelation he applied names to Jesus that must have shocked those standing before him.
When he saw Jesus coming toward him, John declared,
"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God

The Lamb of God, the Son of God.
What thoughts must have run through Jesus’ mind when he heard these names being applied to him?
After John’s proclamation, John’s disciples approached Jesus and endowed him with more names – Rabbi, Teacher, the Messiah, the anointed one. 
For centuries theologians have debated whether Jesus knew who he was when he walked this earth. Did he actually believe that he was the Messiah, God incarnated, THE Son of God, or were these titles thrust upon him by others, in particular by his later followers, and by the authors of the Gospels, who wrote their Jesus stories 40-70 years after his death?

Thankfully, regardless of what WE believe about Jesus’ identity or what we THINK he believed about himself, the story that we heard today from the Gospel of John is not just about that.
This is also a story about naming.

It’s a story that reveals the names that were given to Jesus, and sets the stage for further stories of how he came to live into those names.
It’s a story that lifts up those who became followers of Jesus right there in the flowing waters of the river Jordan simply because they heard those names and believed them to be true.
It’s a story that invites those who still doubt the validity of those names to dig deeper and discover what truths may be revealed about the man we know as Jesus, and what truths may be revealed about ourselves.

A name can be a powerful thing.

As we heard in the text from the Gospel of Matthew that Pastor Cindy preached on last week, like Jesus, God calls us each by name and says,
“This is my child, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

But too often we fail to hear God calling our name because our ears are resounding with the names called out by others, and the names we call ourselves.

St. Teresa of Avila wrote,
"A thousand souls hear God's call every second, but most every one then looks into their life's mirror and says, I am not worthy to leave this sadness."

For most of us, the name we are given at birth is the one that we carry with us throughout our lives.
We had no say in its choosing.
But there are other names that we willingly take on throughout our lives - nicknames, pet names, derogatory names, hurtful names.
Some we have chosen for ourselves, others have been given to us.
Some we joyfully embrace, others cause us to cringe every time we hear them. 
Some lift us up - others tear us down.

Many of us carry the scars of names bestowed upon us through childhood taunts, but just as many of us continue to taunt ourselves whenever we fail, make a mistake, or fall short of the mark that we were expecting to hit.
Like the proverbial playground bully we call ourselves names like “Stupid” “Loser” “Fatso” “Know-it-all” “Ugly” “Weakling” or “Crybaby”
And when we become accustomed to applying those names to ourselves, it becomes much easier to apply those same names to others.

We look in the mirror, and we look at each other, and see not a beloved child of God, but a hated child of God.
We may accept that we are children of God and that God loves us just as we are, but we have such a hard time extending that love to ourselves, and to each other. We find it so much easier to hate.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his book, Strength to Love:
Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.
Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity.
It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.

When we become obsessed with naming all the deficiencies that we see in ourselves and in others we leave little space for naming the good that we see.

And regardless of what we believe about the Divinity of Jesus, this is the one thing that we can glean from our Gospel text today.
We are called to name what is good.
We are called to notice what is good.
We are called to celebrate what is good.
In ourselves and in each other.
Because the more good that we see and name in this world, the less time we have to name what it is that we hate.

I invite you to take a moment to remember some of the more difficult names you have been called in your life, the names that no matter how long ago they were uttered endure in your memories, weighing you down during the day and haunting you at night.
I ask you to call to mind these names for one painful moment so that you may truly embrace the voice of God when God says, "No! That is not your name. For you are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased."

John the Baptist encountered Jesus and named him the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sin of the world.
Jesus then turned to John’s follower Simon and named him Peter – Cephas in Aramaic, Petra in Greek. Both of which mean Rock.
Jesus said to Simon, a mere human being who lived with constant doubt in his heart, you are a rock, and upon you I will build my church.

John the Baptist looked at a lowly carpenter’s son from Nazareth and saw in him the Son of God.
Jesus looked at a doubtful disciple who would one day deny him three times, and saw in him the foundation of his church.

What do we see when we look at each other?
What do we see when we look in the mirror?
Do we see the deficiencies? Or do we see the promise?

The names that we apply to ourselves and that others apply to us become a part of who we are.
A name can be a powerful thing.
The names we are given or take upon ourselves,
the names that arouse pride or shame,
the names that build us up or tear us down.
But the promise of the Gospel, the good news, is that no matter how powerful our earthly names, they do not define us. What defines us is the name given to us by God alone: the name of beloved child of God.

"A thousand souls hear God's call every second, but most every one then looks into their life's mirror and says, I am not worthy to leave this sadness."

The message of the Gospel is that we ARE worthy to leave that sadness.
The message of Psalm 40 is that God CALLS us to leave that sadness.
For upon hearing our cry God will draw us up from that desolate pit, and set our feet upon a rock, making our steps secure.
 God will put a new song in our mouth and a new name upon our lips.

And as we stand in cold flowing current of the river Jordan, watching the Spirit descend from Heaven as Yeshua receives the name Son of God, we too are called forward to receive our new name.
Child of God.
Disciple of Christ.
Purveyor of the Holy Spirit

Given to us all, by God, in the name of love.



Krista said...

Stumbled upon your blog today and am thankful for your post.

Marie in CT said...


And my father's nickname? Bubby!