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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on January 1, 2006

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The Feast of the Holy Name, 2006

Sermon preached by
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler

January 1, 2006


In J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings, there is s a scene where the hobbits encounter an Ent - a talking tree. They ask the Ent his name and he replies: "I am not going to tell you my name; not yet, at any rate. For one thing, it would take a long while...I've lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things [to which] they belong." (Cited by David J. Shafer in What Makes This Day Different, p. 55) And that is true. In fact, in the part of the country where I grew up, a question often asked was "Who are your people?" that is, what is your family name? Because as the Ent said, our name tells the story of things to which we belong.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The name Jesus, of course, was a human name, a Greek version of the Hebrew name "Joshua" which means "God is salvation." Jesus' name was like a story, encompassing within it the salvation story of all that God had done before and would yet do to bring us to himself and name us as his own. It was the creation story of time before time, when in sheer power and absolute love, God created us in his image as his beloved children. It was the Hebrews' story of God transforming wandering, rebellious nomads into a great people, of God breathing new life into dry bones, and freeing people from a bondage that kept them from being the people they were called to be.

And it is the Jesus story, that story that epitomizes and summarizes how the salvation of God became enfleshed in the one who bore the name Jesus. In Christ's life, death and resurrection, we see concretely that we were created as God's children, so profoundly loved that when we again and again rejected God's presence revealed to us in the law and the prophets, God finally decided he'd just come himself in Jesus Christ. In this One in whom God's salvation dwelt, it began to dawn on us - however dimly - that we are regarded with such tenderness by God that no matter how far we stray, no matter how rebellious we become, no matter how many times we reject or forsake him, he will leave the entire flock and come looking just for us.

We know from the sorrows we've faced in life - times when we knew we simply couldn't make it another day - a strength beyond our own kept us going and somehow breathed new life into the dry bones of our seemingly hopeless lives. We know that despite our sins, forgiveness is continually offered us, allowing us to move beyond the bondage of sin into new life, reminding us that it's not falling down that's so bad but staying on the ground. We know from the story of Jesus' name which we have both heard and experienced that we belong to God.

And knowing that story then affects how we live our lives because as Christians, we share the name of Jesus Christ. We tell the story of God's salvation, grace, forgiveness and love in the way we live our lives. We live the story because we share the name.

In Madeleine L'Engle's fantasy book, A Wind in the Door, some children come upon a cherubim - not a chubby cherub like we see on Valentine cards but the biblical type cherubim, with all the wings and eyes and flames. The cherubim tells the children that he is a "namer." A "namer", he explains, is someone who knows your real name; who knows who you really are. He goes on to talk about the importance of knowing your own name and he says that if you know your name, if you know who you are, then you don't need to hate anymore.

Jesus knew his name and his story; he knew to whom he belonged. Because of that he didn't need to hate; he didn't need to distance, categorize or diminish others. He could be in a joyful relationship with those different from himself: sinners and tax collectors and Gentiles and notorious women. And because of that, he changed lives, bringing all sorts of people into a relationship with God so that they, too, knew to whom they belonged: to God and to one another.

Unfortunately we sometimes forget our name, forget to whom we belong. We forget the salvation story, and end up separating ourselves from others. Sometimes we separate ourselves by getting into the "I'm right, you're wrong" kind of thinking. Sometimes we distance ourselves from others by labeling them. Sometimes, we diminish the accomplishments of others in order to build ourselves up. As someone has said, "It's as though whenever someone makes her mark in the world, we all show up the next day with erasers."

Sometimes we separate ourselves from others by comparing ourselves to them, especially when it comes to sin. Someone may be doing something we think is just wrong and what do we say? "Now - I know I'm not perfect but at least I'm not doing that" - as though God rates sin on a scale from one to ten. But however we separate ourselves, it all comes down to the fact that we're insecure, we feel some great need to build ourselves up. Why? We've forgotten our name, we've forgotten who we are and to whom we belong.

Because, in the final analysis, our behavior toward others isn't to be based on who someone else is or what they've done. Our behavior is to be based on who we are and what God has done for us in Christ: made us his own, forgiven our sins, called us to new life; freed us from the bondage of sin and death. It is Jesus' name we bear and it is his story we are to live out in our lives - not just as individuals but as a cathedral community.

So often in parishes, people live not in community but in divisive ways that protect turf. We separate ourselves from others by distancing, diminishing and categorizing: "Well what can you expect from a bunch of musicians (or non-musicians)" or "You know how those financial people, or children's ed. people or outreach people are" or "Those poor, pitiful Rite I (or Rite II) people. They just don't understand a thing about liturgy."

But in Christian community, we grow through dealing with each other's differences. We learn to see things from another's point of view. We don't get into the "I'm right, you're wrong" but rather "I don't agree with you but could you help me understand why you think the way you do."

By God's grace, knowing our name, knowing who we really are as God's beloved child, changes us. Our patron saint, the apostle Paul - being a Pharisee - would have thanked God daily for not making him a Gentile, a slave or a woman. Yet he ended up writing the revolutionary words, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In remembering his real name, in remembering to whom he belonged, St. Paul no longer needed to distance, diminish or categorize. He knew that in the holy name of Jesus, all people were his people.

On this Feast of the Holy Name, we remember that the name of Jesus is like a story, a name and a story that tells us who we are and to whom we belong. It is a name and a story that assures us that we are unconditionally loved, joyfully forgiven and continually upheld by God. It is a name and a story that allows us to live in true community, so secure in our own identity that we don't need to distance, diminish or categorize others. It is a name and a story that reminds us, that when we know our name, when we know who we are, we don't need to hate anymore because as followers of Jesus Christ, we share the name and, by grace, live the story in which all people are God's people - and ours.

 

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2006 The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission