January 10, 2011

What's in a name? Epiphany 1A Sermon

I was in ninth grade when I learned that I would be a “preaching from notes” type of preacher. Of course I had no clue that one day I would be a preacher, but even then I knew that I would never be the type who could memorize long bits of text. It was early in my first semester in high school when my English teacher handed out a new assignment, we were to memorize and recite one of the two monologues from the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. The boys, of course, were Romeo, “What light through yonder window breaks...” The girls, of course, were Juliet, and while even then I couldn't remember the whole monologue I was supposed to recite, to this day I can recall, like most of you I'm sure, Juliet's famous line, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other word would smell as sweet.”
What's in a name? It is a question that comes to my mind more often than one would expect. It is a question that lies at the heart of who we are as Christians, a name whose literal translation is “a slave for Christ.” What's in a name? Jesus means “God saves.” Christ means “the anointed one.” God saves by his anointed one. Peter means “rock” and he was the rock upon which the Church was built. Steve means “crowned one” but I don't go around wearing a crown. (put crown on) Keith means warrior descending, but I have yet to see Keith run down a hill with a spear in his hand. I doubt he even has a trophy in the Robertsdale Spear Hunting Museum. Karla means “strong and womanly” which is actually a very appropriate name, but a name is only one way in which we claim our identity.
Before Christmas, Eliza was obsessed, for about three weeks with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, that old 1960's made-for-TV-stop-action-claymation special. I mean, obsessed. All day long she'd repeat over and over again "off", "off", "off" and if you weren't willing to sing the song to her, you'd better be able to start the DVD player. And fast. As parents do, over the course of her three-week obsession, I all but memorized the entire movie. Dialog, songs, backdrops, claymation oddities, I could probably storyboard the whole thing. Towards the middle of the 43 minutes program, Heremey, the ambiguously-gay-wants-to-be-a-dentist elf, pops up out of a snow drift having run away from the workshop. Rudolph happens to be sitting on that snow drift, and asks Heremey, "Who are you?" Hermey answers, "Well actually, I'm a dentist." Two things strike me about his response. First, he identifies himself not as Hermey or as an elf but by an occupation, I'm a dentist. And secondly, he isn't a dentist at all. Often we are identified by what we do (or what we used to do and even by what we wish we were doing). I'm a husband, a father, and a priest; among other things. You might be a doctor, a retired auto-worker, a therapist, retired military, a vestry member, a mother, or a grandfather. Maybe what you do (or did) defines who you are (or were).
Whether we choose to be defined by our name or by some title, there are still others who will at some time or another attempt to give us names themselves. Think back over all the different names you have been given. Some of them are pleasant enough. Well intentioned names like: boss, buddy, partner, or in my case, Spankey. Others maybe weren't so pleasant or well intentioned. Names like: idiot or egghead, fatty or toothpick, loser, or in my case know-it-all. Sometimes, when you hear those names enough times, they begin to define you.
What's in a name? Names are very important in the church. So important that there are at least two sacraments that invite people to change their name. The less well known opportunity to change ones name was at ordination in order to symbolically show the change that has taken place in someone's life. More well known, and long the tradition in the Church was for people to add a Christian name at their baptism; maybe one that would symbolize the life they hoped to live: Catherine meaning pure, Sarah meaning princess, Luke meaning bright, or Timothy meaning honoring God.
No matter the name; given or earned, polite or condescending, rich with meaning or ridiculously off point (put on crown) there is one identity that defines us beyond and before all others; the identity given to us by our Father in Heaven. The identity he gave his Only-begotten Son in the midst of the Jordan River. Beloved child of God.
This morning we hear the familiar story of Jesus' baptism by John in the River Jordan. Except for his death by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire, no single detail in the life of Jesus carries as much historical weight as his baptism. All four gospels tell of his dunking in the Jordan. All four tell of the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove. Three of the four have the voice of God saying something like, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This is a story we hear every year and yet is a story that is so easy to overlook because we think it has nothing to do with us. We think that because Jesus lived without sin, his anointing by the Spirit is in someway special only to him. We think that the blessing that alighted upon him stayed with him in a way that we can't have. And we are most certainly wrong.
Without skipping a beat Matthew takes Jesus from the waters of forgiveness to the wilderness of temptation; a place that all of us know all too well. The wilderness of temptation is the place where it feels like we are not at all like Jesus. It is the place where our fears and doubts run rampant. It is the place where our addictions and baggage call us by name. It is the place where our pride, envy, laziness, and greed look us straight in the eye. The wilderness of temptation is the place where it feels like our anointing by the Spirit dries up. It is the time when the blessing we hear promised every Sunday seems to disappear before our very eyes. And yet, the wilderness of temptation was not a place that was unknown to Jesus. We know he went there after his baptism. I think he went there upon entering the Temple on Palm Sunday. I think he was most certainly there in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed for the cup to pass his lips. He probably spent most of his first 30 years in the wilderness of temptation. Just because we enter the wilderness of temptation doesn't mean that the identity given to us by God goes away. Even in the midst of trails, temptations, sin, and brokenness we are, and forever will be, beloved children of God.
God announces his pleasure with Jesus even before he has begun his work. God starts out by saying how happy he is with his Son, and God feels the very same way about each and every one of you. No matter the name you've been given, no matter the ugly words you have been called, no matter the false-identities with which you've weighed yourself down, God loves you.
In just a few minutes we are going to join with members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church around the world in renewing our baptismal covenant. We will stand up and affirm our identity as beloved children of God. We will ask for God's help in living out our identity, knowing full well that we can't make it through the wilderness of temptation alone. We will give our hearts over to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We don't do it to earn God's love. We don't do it to please him. We do it as a response to his grace, a gift of thanks and praise. We offer him thanksgiving because he has created us, loved us, and promises that we will be pleasing to him.
What's in a name? Nothing really. Good or bad, the names that we carry are nothing compared to the identity we have been given by our creator God, “you are my beloved child.” And so, before we move on to renew our baptismal covenants, I invite you to take a moment to think of all the names good or bad you've been given, all the names good or bad you've been called, all the names good or bad you've called yourself.

Now listen. Listen for God as he speaks to you and says, “No! Those are not your names. Those do not define you. You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.” Amen.

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