Transcribed from the audio
Please pray with me. Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
In the words of William Shakespeare, “What’s in a name?” As Romeo and Juliet painfully discovered, there’s actually a lot in a name. Juliet wistfully said, “Tis but thy name that is mine enemy.” Don’t we wish it were that simple and straightforward? On this day that we celebrate as the Feast of the Holy Name, the giving of the name Jesus to God Incarnate, it seems appropriate that we spend a few minutes this morning reflecting on names. What do they mean? What import is there in them? Why does it matter how we use them?
We know that in Scripture the etymology of names was often very significant. In Hebrew Scriptures, God went about changing people’s names a few times. If you’ll recall, Abram became Abraham when he fulfilled God’s promise of being the father of many nations. Sarai became Sarah in like manner. And you’ll recall that when the three angels or strangers came to visit Abram and foretold that his wife would have a son and that this would happen in her old age, after decades of being barren, Sarai, who was listening at the edge of the tent, laughed because it was ludicrous that this miracle might come upon her. But, of course, they responded, “Nothing is impossible for the Lord.” Sure enough, she bore a son named Isaac, named because his name means “laughter.” She laughed at the proposition that she could bear a son. And of course there’s also Jacob—infamous Jacob, the trickster—who at the Jabbok River wrestles with the Angel overnight and in the morning asked for a blessing. He is told, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, one who strives with God.”
Then, moving into the New Testament, of course we remember that it was the angels who told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son and his name would be John, known to us as John the Baptizer. Looping in our Scripture from this morning and the Christmas Gospels that we’ve heard for the last eight days, it is the Angel who announces that Mary will bear a son, not just any son, but the Son of God and that his name shall be Jesus—in Hebrew meaning savior, deliverer. His very holy name connotes who he is, what he is called to do and to be, not just then, but over and over again.
Names have meaning and they matter. We know in contemporary times that names have import as well. Perhaps like some of you, you carry family names. I was named for my mother’s identical twin sister Jeannette, for my maternal grandmother, Louise. I was honored and remain humbled to bear those names of two remarkable women. But I knew that when my mother invoked Jeannette Louise, when referring to me, that it was not an honorific for something I had done. I knew that trouble followed. Names and how they are used matter.
As we begin this new year 2017, I know that many of us have remarked that we couldn’t wait for 2016 to be over. It was a hard year. It was a difficult year. It was a violent year. It was a year in which names were bandied about: ugly names, names that seek to categorize a person or a group of people. How they were used matters. There was an awful lot of tit for tat going on in 2016. Don’t we long for 2017 to be different? Don’t we want things to change? Mahatma Gandhi said that “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” If we want things to be different, if we want things to change, that begins with you and me.
There were so many categorizations of people that were bandied about in 2016. And if you need any reminders, and I doubt that you do, think about some of the most popular and best-selling books of last year: Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash—books about culture wars. I stand here and tell you that I’m embarrassed to say that I had no idea and did not fully comprehend and understand the deep divisions in our country; the depth and the breath of the fear, anger, the frustration, that seemed to infect our country and the past year. If we want things to change we must be about the business of that change. It starts with you and with me. Jesus showed us another way. Jesus said that our highest calling is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and spirit and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
One of the eye-opening books for me of the past year was one written by Ta-Nehisi Coates called Between the World and Me. It is a searing memoir that he writes as a letter to his teenage son about his experience growing up as a black man in America. It’s very hard to read but it is imperative to read. One of the quotes from the book that has stayed with me is his saying that “I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” Names and how we use them matter.
As followers of Christ, Jesus showed us another way. Think about how he encountered Zacchaeus, the reviled, loathed tax collector of his day which would not have made him popular with anyone. When Zacchaeus knew that Jesus was going through Jericho he wanted to see him. He was of short stature and he climbed up a sycamore tree. As Jesus passed and saw Zacchaeus he didn’t shout out you sorry tax collector and let it go at that, kind of throw up his hands and say he was done with that. No, he called him down from the tree and said, “Zacchaeus come down from that tree. I must stay at your house today.” He broke bread. He learned. He listened. He loved unconditionally. It was through that listening and learning and love that he touched and transformed a heart and a way of life. Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house… the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
I think too often, when we get in difficult and hard situations, it’s way too easy to just label a person or label a situation and a condition and wash our hands of it and say that we’re done; it’s too hard. But Jesus didn’t look at a hard situation and throw up his hands and give up. He engaged. He got involved and in doing that he changed and transformed person by person, one at a time. It’s not easy. The road of discipleship was never intended to be easy. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples, “take a ticket, join me on the love boat and take a cruise.” He said, if you seek to follow me, “pick up your cross and follow me.”
It is hard work, but it is transformative work and that is what we have been called to. It’s also hopeful work. Kathleen Norris writes that “For me, the Incarnation is the place…where hope contends with fear.” The great good news of Jesus coming and being born is not just that Jesus came and lived and loved and died and was resurrected, but that Jesus continues to come to live, to love, and to be resurrection in our midst.
As followers of Christ we are called to love God with all that we are and all that we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Let me leave you with this:
Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So be swift to love, make haste to be kind, and go in peace to love and serve the Lord. *
*Adapted from words by Henri-Frederic Amiel