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.