Last Epiphany, Year A, 2017–Final Sermon at St. Paul’s, Ivy

“Lord, it is good for us to be here!”

Jesus has started getting real with his disciples. In Chapter 16, Matthew tells us that Jesus has started warning them that he will undergo great suffering. This has the disciples on edge. Ministry has been exciting so far—following Jesus around, watching miracles, learning from a great teacher. They have become comfortable in their new routine of moving from place to place following their teacher and friend. But now, Jesus is kind of ruining it with his dark talk.

Peter even confronts Jesus about this. You can just imagine him pulling Jesus aside, “Come on man, you’re being a real downer. Let’s just go make some blind people see, okay?” Jesus looks right at him and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”

So, things have been a little tense. Maybe the disciples are second guessing their choices to drop everything in their lives to follow Jesus. Maybe things are getting a little too real for them.

Whatever the reason, God arranges a huge gift for Jesus, Peter, James and John. They hike up a mountain and suddenly Jesus becomes transformed. The disciples see the divinity with him and suddenly they also see Moses and Elijah flanking him. To gild the lily, God’s voice breaks through and says, “This is my son, The Beloved” Whatever doubts they have had are suddenly washed away. THIS is the transcendent experience they hoped for when they began following Jesus.

And when we have a transcendent experience, we want to bottle it, right? We want to stay in that moment of connection with God. We want to make it our every day. Peter does, too. He makes the generous offer to set up three tents so Jesus, Elijah and Moses can hang out indefinitely. It’ll be great! They can invite the other disciples up the mountain and then they can just party there for the next fifty years or so.

Lord, it is good for us to be here!

But if Jesus and the disciples stayed on the mountain, God’s good news for people would never have spread. We wouldn’t know how much God loves us or how we all belong to each other.

Jesus is going to suffer. The disciples’ lives are going to get dangerous. They cannot avoid the hard part of their ministry. But the experience of the transfiguration also transforms the disciples so that they will have the strength to carry on even through difficult times.

The trip up the mountain was important. The trip up the mountain was renewing. But the trip up the mountain was never meant to be permanent.

Jesus is not a top of the mountain kind of guy. Sure, he goes up periodically to get renewed, but he always comes back down again. He spends his time in the midst of human beings experiencing all the pain that comes with being human. He is Emmanuel—God with us.

This is the God who chose to be incarnate. He is 100% divine and 100% human. He can experience the glory of being in the presence of Moses, Elijah and God the father. But he doesn’t choose to stay there. He chooses to be with us.

If I leave you with anything from our four years together, this is what I want you to know: Jesus is with you. Jesus is not up in the clouds looking down on you in judgment. Jesus isn’t off on a mountain somewhere communing with the Saints. Jesus is here with you in this sacred space.

Lord, it is good for us to be here.

And Jesus is not just here with you. Jesus is out there with you. Jesus is with you when you brush your teeth, when you wrangle yourself and your family out the door, when you walk into your office, when you are in the grocery store, while you’re driving, when you greet a stranger, when you’re doing every ordinary and extraordinary thing you do in your life.

Jesus does not run away when things get hard, either. Whenever you or someone you love is suffering, Jesus is right alongside of you. He is not afraid of your pain. He is not turned off by your mistakes. He is with you to remind you that you are deeply loved, just as you are.

Jesus isn’t with you just to make you feel good. Jesus wants more than your affection. Jesus wants you to be his disciple. Jesus wants you to change your world by following him in all those ordinary and extraordinary moments of your life.

[At the 10:30 service] today we will our baptismal vows—those promises we make when we decide to follow Jesus. We promise to renounce the demonic, evil and sin. We promise to trust that Jesus loves us and to follow him. When we walk this path, God transforms us. As we get closer to Jesus, we don’t sin less, necessarily, but we realize it sooner. And we have more courage to ask for forgiveness and to work for reconciliation. We have more energy to reach out to those who are in need and to fight for justice. But it all starts with that knowledge that Jesus is already with you.

When we realize that Jesus is with us always, suddenly it is good to be everywhere! We don’t need to stay in our transcendent spaces if the transcendent goes with us. The beauty of the incarnation is that every place in our life is holy, no matter how mundane it may feel. A cubicle becomes holy when Jesus is there. A hospital bed becomes holy when Jesus is there. A grocery cart becomes holy when Jesus is there. You bring the transcendent with you and you can offer it to the world as a gift.

One of the gifts of being your priest has been these little glimpses of how you bring Jesus into the world. I have seen patients who offer kindness to their nurses, even though they are in pain. I have heard many stories of ministry happening at the Harris Teeter. I have seen a chef collecting unused produce from his colleagues for our food pantry. I have seen doctors taking extra steps to care for their patients. I have seen those who have walked through the experience of loving someone with Alzheimers mentor others going through the same thing. I have seen parents doing their best to raise children who contribute to the world. I have seen teachers create a safe and loving space for their students. I have seen you loving people who are difficult to love.

You, cooperating with Jesus, make it good for people to be where you are.

Lord, it has been good to be here. It has been good to be here with Eric and the rest of your church staff who work so hard every day. It has been good to be reunited with Allison and with those of you who had been at Emmanuel. It has been good to meet some of you for the first time, and have the privilege of walking along side life with you. It has been good to be with you at bedsides and weddings, in yoga and Sunday School classes, around lunch tables and over coffee.

Thank you, Eric, for inviting me to serve here. And thank all of you for your many kindnesses to Charlie and to me. It is always a challenge when a priest moves on from a congregation. This has been a stressful year in the world and it is hard not to carry that stress with us wherever we go. We will miss each other and saying goodbye brings anxiety. One way you can honor the relationship we have had in this transition is to take the words Ra often says at the end of our church yoga class to heart:

“Offer compassion to yourself and others. Every one is doing the best they can with what they think they know with where they are from.”

Jesus is with you. Jesus is with you in staff meetings, and vestry meetings, and in every conversation you have here at church. He will show up for you. It is good for you to be here.

May God bless you, your ministry in this place, and your ministry in the world.

Amen.

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Easter 3, Year C, 2016

What do you do the day after?

You have mourned Jesus’ death. You have been astonished by his empty grave. Your heart almost stopped when you saw him in person in the upper room.

But now, it’s the next day. What do you do?

If you’re Peter, you go fishing. Fishing is comfortable. Fishing has a rhythm and clear expectations. In your boat you know how to act, know what to expect.

What Peter does not expect is that he is going to see Jesus again. So, when a mysterious man tells Peter and the other disciples to place their nets on the side of the boat, they do. And when the nets hang heavy with fish as they draw them back into their boats, Peter has his moment of recognition. Apparently fishing is hot work, because Peter is naked. So, Peter frantically throws his clothes on and then splashes into the water, swimming as fast as he can to get to Jesus.

Jesus and the disciples share a breakfast of broiled fish, and then Jesus pulls Peter aside.

Jesus has had been plans for Peter since their first meeting. Jesus changed Peter’s name from Simon, because Peter means rock, and Jesus intends for Peter to be the rock on which the church will be built. But even after the resurrection, Peter is not quite ready. Peter thinks he can just go back to his old life, back to fishing. Jesus has other plans.

Peter has always been passionate about Jesus, but impetuous. And he’s just denied being Jesus’ follower three times. And so Jesus and Peter need to have a little conversation, a literal come-to-Jesus.

Jesus does not berate, Peter. He simply asks Peter if he loves him. Peter, ever passionate cries “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!” This pattern repeats a total of three times, perhaps reversing the three fold denial of Jesus that happened previously. Each time Peter replies “You know that I love you!”, Jesus tells him to feed or tend to Jesus’ sheep.

Peter’s future is not in fishing. Peter’s future is giving God’s people spiritual food. In Matthew’s Gospel we have the Great Commission, in which Jesus tells his followers to go out into the world and spread the good news. In the Gospel of John we have this intimate conversation between Jesus and Peter. Peter is loved by Jesus, even after his denial. Peter has experienced the power of God in the resurrected Jesus. Peter has first hand understanding that Jesus loves us just as we are, but also has big plans for us.

When we encounter the Risen Christ in our own lives, whether at the moment of our baptism, an experience at the Eucharist, or an encounter with another Christian, we will never be the same again. A relationship with Christ is not just about this deep sense of being loved and forgiven, but is about being propelled forward in a life of faith.

First, I want to get at this sense of being loved and forgiven. Some of us are given a message when we are young that we are not enough, that we are unloveable. We believe that if we come before God, we are inviting his judgment and condemnation. But that is not the God that Jesus reveals to us. Jesus reveals a God who is able and willing to love a hot mess like Peter who abandoned him at Jesus’ real time of need. Jesus loves Peter in the midst of his imperfection. Notice that in that conversation, Jesus calls Peter: Simon, Son of John. Each time, Jesus drives home the point that he has known Peter since he was Simon. He has loved Peter since before Simon was transformed into Peter. He knows who Peter has been, and who Peter can be.

Jesus’ desire for Peter is for him to leaving fishing behind, and take up shepherding. Not sheep, like David and Moses before him, but shepherding human beings. Jesus wants people to be cared for, to be told the life giving news of the resurrection.

And Peter does it. Peter goes on to be the rock of the Church. He becomes a mature leader who helps the early church figure out what it means to follow a resurrected Jesus. Cowardly Peter bravely stands before the Sanhedrin authorities and claims his faith openly. He is given a vision that helps him understand that Jesus’ good news is not just meant for those of Jewish descent, but is for everyone. He begins the churches in Antioch and Rome. Peter changes the world.

Let me be clear. We do not earn God’s love by going out and doing what he wants us to do. The love always comes first. Part of the experience of being beloved of God is realizing we are worth something.   Peter was probably drowning in shame by the time he encountered Jesus on that beach, but by the time his encounter with Jesus was over, he was healed and ready to do big things for God.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been in the news this week because through some reporting and a DNA test, during Holy Week he learned that the man who raised him, Gavin Welby, an alcoholic whose ability to father was spotty at best, was not actually his father. His real biological father, Anthony Montague Brown, was a co-worker of his mother’s when they both worked for Winston Churchill. Justin Welby’s past was not the past of someone you would think would end up being the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Welby has long felt a deep sense of God’s love for him. The entire Telegraph article is worth a read, but one of the most moving parts is Welby’s response to the reporter’s question about whether he had found, in God, the father he had lacked in Gavin Welby. Welby replied,

“Yes!,” … “It wasn’t part of the package I was being sold. I thought it was about forgiveness, repentance and new life, which are all very important. But finding in the midst of looking after my father that here was a Father who was perfectly dependable and utterly true and who knew me deeply and loved me much more certainly, was a surprise beyond belief, wonderful.”

Welby experienced that profound parental love of God before he was called to do big things. God loved him first, then sent him out into the world.

God sees something in each of us. He sees the artist, the leader, the communicator, the compassionate heart—whatever our special gifts are. He knows who we have been, he knows our mistakes, but he also knows our potential.

God knows that with his love, we each have the potential to bring God’s kingdom a little closer to fruition. Some of us are called to fight for justice. Some of us are called to be reconcilers. Some of us are called to be teachers of God’s story. Some of us are called to spread God’s message of hope in a sometimes bleak world. Some of us are called to be prayer warriors. We are all called to help each other along the way.

And we don’t have to have some flashy job in the Kingdom like Peter or Justin Welby. We will do our work for God in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our offices.

I’ll leave you today with two questions this week.

  1. Where in your life is God trying to show you his love for you?
  2. How is God asking you to share that love with others?

Amen.

 

 

 

Easter 5, Year C, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

Yes, the Peter we read about today in our passage from Acts, is the same impetuous disciple who denied Jesus three times after his death.  In The Acts of the Apostles, we get to see Peter—and the other Apostles—grow up.  Peter begins functioning as the head of the church.

At this time, the church consisted primarily of disciples who found Jesus through the Jewish tradition. In fact, later in the 11th chapter of Acts, the author states the group was not referred to as Christians until a year after the events we read about today.

So, part of being an early follower of Jesus, was living a holy Jewish life.  That meant living faithfully to the Jewish law, including its dietary restrictions and becoming circumcised in order to become part of the community.

Peter has a vision that flies in the face of Peter’s understanding of holiness.  The vision is so shocking that we hear it twice in Acts—the first time when Peter is actually experiencing the vision and then this time when he is recounting his vision to the crowd in Judea.

To us, the vision is not that shocking.  Four footed animals, beast of prey, reptiles, birds—what’s so horrible about a day at the zoo?  But the animals Peter saw were all animals Jewish people were forbidden to eat.  We don’t have those kind of cultural restrictions on food or much else, really, so it can be hard to relate to Peter’s deep feelings of disgust.  But God is telling him in this vision to take up all these horrible, forbidden foods and eat them.  When Peter protests and says “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”  God says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter is receiving a life changing, world changing message, but he does not understand its full meaning quite yet.

When Peter wakes up from his vision, he gets a visitor, a Gentile named Cornelius.  Cornelius was an Italian Centurion who was a very godly person.  He gave money to charity regularly, he prayed every day, but he was still a Gentile.  Cornelius was instructed in a dream to go meet Peter.  When Cornelius showed up at his door, Peter suddenly fully understood his dream.

While God might be changing some dietary rules, what God really intends to communicate to Peter is that he is changing the rules about who is welcomed into God’s family.  No longer does someone have to be Jewish or become Jewish.  God’s chosen people are no longer members of one particular family, but the whole of humanity.

This is wonderful news, of course, but not to everyone.  The text helpfully points out that the circumcised believers in Judea criticized Jesus and questioned him about why he was spending time with uncircumcised people.  Their complaints echo the Pharisees complaints about Jesus, don’t they?  (If I were a man and had to get circumcised to join a religious tradition, I might be a little irritated with God’s new policy, too!)  When Peter explains God’s new vision for humanity, the circumcised Judeans are stunned into silence.  Even they cannot deny the weight of this good news.

God has been true to his vision—and God’s people now span over every continent, every race, and thousands of different languages.

And in the United States, which has embraced this same kind of pluralism, opening the doors to the stranger has been part of our religious tradition.  We have not always done this well.  Many a church still has the balcony where slaves sat when they were not allowed to sit next to their white masters.  Some churches still resist outsiders, especially if they are of other ethnicities.  But over all, Christians in this country, whether liberal or conservative, tend to believe that Jesus came for all people and that anyone who loves Jesus can become part of the family.

And this core belief is now putting religious leaders in Arizona in a moral bind.  In the immigration law recently passed in Arizona, there are two clauses that have the potential to affect churches.  The first is making it illegal to knowingly transport an illegal immigrant in a car.  The second is making it illegal to knowingly harbor an illegal immigrant.  Neither of these laws is directed at churches, specifically, but religious leaders are wondering if Christians could be prosecuted for driving a youth group that contained an illegal immigrant or whether feeding an illegal immigrant in a soup kitchen violates the law.

In the Unites States we are not often asked to choose between our faith and our country, because we are blessed to live in a country where laws generally support the principles of our faith.

However, when it comes to illegal immigration, Christians are forced to make a choice.  The United States has the right to make and enforce laws about who can and cannot come into this country.  Christians, however, come from a long tradition in which we are obligated to welcome and love the stranger, even if this comes in conflict with the law.

Catholic and Episcopal bishops in Arizona have made it clear that they will continue with soup kitchens and homeless shelters and youth group trips, without checking anyone’s papers.  They are making a choice to follow the Gospel, even if their government is not or cannot.

And we may think we are safely removed from the situation in Arizona, but did you know there are holding pens for detained immigrants right here in New Jersey?  My sister lives in New York and she is part of a ministry based out of Riverside Church that travels to Elizabeth, New Jersey on Saturday mornings to visit with non-criminal immigrants who have come to the United States seeking asylum from various countries.  Individuals are held in warehouses converted into detention centers with no access to the outdoors for months and occasionally years at a time until their cases are heard and decided.  And the warehouse in Elizabeth is only one of many throughout the United States.

Occasionally, my sister receives a jubilant phone call from someone who has been given permission to live in the United States, but more often people disappear and she does not know whether they have been deported or transferred to another facility.

These immigrants are not the ones that make the news.  These are immigrants from Somalia, Tibet, Columbia, Guinea, Senegal, India, Uzbekistan, Guatemala, Sri Lanka.  They are fleeing danger and oppression and seeking freedom in our country.  Instead they are caged.  The people of the Riverside Church have made a commitment to live out the full meaning of Peter’s vision—of seeking out the other, of offering love and humanity to people who have been denied both.

We may think of illegal immigrants as the lowest of the low in this country, but in God’s eyes they are his beloved children.  And if they are his children, that makes them our brothers and sisters.  And I know that to the good people of Trinity Church, I am preaching to the choir.  One of your greatest strengths as a church is the way you welcome the other.  But any of us, especially me, can be lulled into thinking that these kinds of laws and practices don’t have anything to do with our lives.

But God offers us the same challenge he offered Peter and asks us whether we can call profane a people he has made clean.  He asks us if we can accept a reality in which the church includes even those our culture sees as unclean.  He asks us to love our neighbor.

Amen.

Transfiguration, Year B, 2009

I occasionally wish that I lived in an earlier era.  Now, granted, I would want that era to have women’s rights and flushing toilets, so perhaps what I really want is a mythical earlier era.  In that imaginary era, I would never have seen a special effect.  So that, when I read the Bible, I would be awed by the stories it contains.

We 21st century people are jaded. We have seen waters part in The Ten Commandments.  We can see creation begin by turning on the Discovery Channel.  Noah’s flood has been replicated in any number of movies and cartoons.  And dead people appearing is nothing new. In the last calendar year alone, the television series House, Grey’s Anatomy, and Lost all had major characters who were dead.  Dead Amber appeared in House’s memory.  Dead Denny was hallucinated by Izzie.  Dead Christian-well, we still don’t know how he got on the island.  And that’s not even considering the dead characters on the show Medium!

We are not impressed by well-laundered clothes and Old Testament ghosts.  We have seen it all before.

Thankfully, Peter, James, and John are not jaded.  Their senses are still sharp and their minds are fresh and open.  For them, the transfiguration is the most incredible event they have ever witnessed. For Peter, James, and John the transfiguration is a moment of transcendence, a moment of understanding God in a new way.

It turns out for them, for Jesus, and for us, experiencing those moments of transcendence is a gift from God to help understand God better and to receive nourishment for the hard work of ministry.

Jesus and the disciples have been working hard.  In the eighth chapter of Mark, immediately before this reading, Jesus has:  miraculously fed 5,000 people bread and fish, walked miles and miles on foot, healed a blind man, informed his disciples that he was going to die tragically, and argued with Peter.  Talk about a heavy couple of days!

Jesus and the disciples must have been worn out-physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

Jesus leads three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up a mountain so they can spent some time away from the demands of their work.  While they are there two amazing things happen.  First, Jesus becomes illuminated.  His robes become so white they know the source must be supernatural.  Second, two great Old Testament Heroes appear next to Jesus: Moses and Elijah.

Why Moses and Elijah?  Why not Abraham or David?

The disciples are shown Moses and Elijah because of their unique, spiritual relationships to God. You might remember when Moses comes down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments his face shone with a supernatural light.  Peter, James and John would remember that story, look at Jesus’ shining clothes and realize that Jesus had the same ability to hear directly from God.

Legend has it that Elijah never died, but instead was assumed into heaven.  Jesus has just told his disciples that he will die and be resurrected.  They see Elijah as a kind of foreshadowing, to help them prepare for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.

I believe for these three disciples, Jesus’ transfiguration was their transformation.  While Jesus got time to rest and commune with his Father, the disciples had an incredible supernatural experience they would never forget.  On their walk, after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is.  They guess many things, but finally Peter gets it right.  Peter tells Jesus he thinks he is the Christ.

The transfiguration is a way for these disciples to really internalize and understand at a more intuitive level what it means that Jesus is the Christ.  When your friend is the Christ, weird, supernatural things happen.  When your friend is the Christ, he can glow at will.  When your friend is the Christ, biblical heroes who have been dead hundreds of years will suddenly appear.  When your friend is the Christ, the voice of God will pour out of the sky, filled with love.

These memories of the transfiguration will be something Peter, James and John will be able to hold onto during their darkest moments of doubt.  Even as Peter lies about his association with Jesus on Good Friday, perhaps a small part of his mind was reminding him that everything was going to be okay.  His friend, Jesus, was bigger than death and more powerful than the laws of nature.

The transfiguration was the spiritual experience Peter, James, and John were given so they could keep on going, keep on “running the race”, as Paul phrases it in 1st Corinthians.  After they leave the mountain, Jesus and the disciples get right back to work, right back to ministry, but now they can do it with a little more energy, a little more bounce in their step.  They now know, in a concrete way, that God is with them.

Now, I think it is fair to conjecture that none of us will ever experience the transfiguration.  However, I do know many of you who have had some kind of spiritual experience.  I think we are all capable of that kind of experience.

Some of you have had spiritual experiences when you have taken time away from your own family and work and retreated for a few days in prayer and meditation.  Others of you have experienced the holy when you have traveled to holy places like Iona, or Shrinemont.  Others of you encounter God through singing sacred music. Still others of you have experienced the divine when you had your first child or understood God’s love for you through the love of another.   There are many ways and places where God can break in and speak to us.

Those moments may be few and far between, but they are great gifts to us.  They give us courage to go back to our ministries and give all we have to them.  Those moments feed us spiritual nourishment that sustains us through difficult times.  Those transcendent moments remind us that God is real and that he is with us.  When we experience a spiritual moment we are invited to savor the time we are given with God and use the energy the experience gives us to return to our daily lives and ministries and give back to those around us.

We may be jaded.  We may have seen it all, but like the disciples, we still need God.  We still need reminders that he loves us.  We still need the transfiguration.

Amen.

Holy Name Day, Year B, 2006

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Pretty good, huh?  That’s the one piece of literature I was asked to memorize in high school and the girl’s still got it!  Most of us recognize this piece as part of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Juliet is lamenting that she cannot be with her true love because his name happens to be that of a family her father hates.

A name is a powerful thing.  A name can separate two lovers, prevent a person from getting a job, give a person access to family wealth and prestige. 

When a parent chooses a name for their child, they choose it with care.  Some of you have wonderful names, loaded with meaning.  Blake and Corin Hunter were named after literary figures-William Blake and the character Corin from Chronicles of Narnia.  Chuck and Leith’s names were chosen because they were family names.  Janice was supposed to be named Elaine, but her mother took one look at her and knew she was a Janice.  My sister and my names were carefully chosen from a baby book with the sole criteria that they could not be reduced to stupid or embarrassing nicknames. 

Do me a favor.  Take a moment and tell the person next to you how you got your name.  If you’re in the Witness Protection Program and some government agent gave you your new name, just invent a story. . .

(Pause)

Today we celebrate Holy Name day, the day when Mary obeyed the Angel Gabriel and named her son Jesus.  No one names anyone in the bible by accident, so we can learn a lot about a person by what he is named.  The word for Jesus can also be translated as Joshua.  If you were here Christmas morning, you heard Chuck talk about the connection between Jesus and the Old Testament figure of Joshua.  After the Israelites were liberated from the Pharaoh through Moses’ intervention, they wandered around the desert for forty years.  Joshua, who was a generation younger than Moses, ended up leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan.  So, when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary to name the baby Jesus, which literally means God Saves, you start to have a clue that big things are in store for this baby. 

The significance of names in the Bible did not begin with Jesus.  Adam was called on to name every animal and when Adam first sees his wife, he spontaneously names her in awe and wonder.  From that time on, the names people choose for their children, or even for themselves, in the Bible are careful, rich expressions of their circumstances.  For example, barren women in the Bible who end up becoming pregnant, often name their children in thanksgiving to God.  Hannah names her son Samuel, which means “name of God”, because she had prayed for his conception.

With this legacy behind us, we have the privilege of naming each other and using each other’s names. 

With that privilege comes power.  One of the most powerful ways you can demean a person, remove his humanity, is to alter or remove his name.  This begins in the playground, when kids will taunt one another with unpleasant variations of each other’s names. 

As adults we can do this insidiously.  I have an acquaintance who has some co workers who drive her crazy.  Instead of referring to them by name, she calls them “that black accountant” or “that Mexican girl in human resources”.  She manages to both negate their identity and demean their entire race in one fell swoop with just a handful of careless words.

Unnaming’s most terrible manifestation comes when people’s names are removed altogether, such as in concentration camps during world war II, when people’s names were replaced by a number.  Dehumanizing prisoners in this way, enabled the guards to treat them as people who were far less than fully human, worse even than a normal person would treat an animal

Names are precious.  They are a symbol of all we are and who we hope to become.  Just as Adam carefully chose the first names, and God chose Jesus’ name, we are called to be careful with the names of those around us, to use them tenderly, with respect.

How you speak a person’s name reveals so much about how much you value the person to whom you are speaking.  Listen to these differences:

Hello Chuck! (Say once with enthusiasm, once with boredom, once with disdain, etc.)

Depending on how I used his name, Chuck would immediately know whether I valued him as a person that particular day. 

We hold this power of naming and unnaming, not only over others, but also over ourself.  When I first moved to town, two thirteen year old girls came to my door selling magazines for a school fundraiser.  As I filled out the paperwork the girls started to bicker with each other, saying things like, “You are so stupid.  No you’re stupid!”  They stared at me blankly as I preached to them about the importance of self respect and using positive language.  One of them said to me, “Oh, no, you don’t understand.  It’s okay.  We’re best friends!” 

What these girls didn’t realize is that we become what we name ourselves.  If we allow others to call us stupid, we begin to call ourselves stupid.  If we begin to call ourselves stupid, then eventually we won’t see much need to respect ourselves and will begin limiting our opportunities or even putting ourselves in danger.

In contrast, if we call ourselves nice names, we’ll eventually live into them.  Working at Emmanuel has been disorienting for me, because I have never in my life been called the nice things that I have been since I’ve moved here.  Chuck in particular has a remarkable gift of naming.  If you’ve spent five minutes with him, all of a sudden you feel like you are a fabulous person who was solely responsible for hanging the moon.  My poor sister has the exhausting job of reminding me that I’m the same-old-Sarah and to not get too big of a head. Despite her best efforts, though, I actually find myself being nicer, doing better, because you all treat me like that is who I am. 

When you think of yourselves, what names to do use?  Despite all the lofty events of the last few weeks, I do not think of myself as Sarah-the-Priest nearly as often as I think of myself as “Sarah-who-has-gained-five-pounds-since-she-moved-here.”

Take another moment, this time silently, to think of the names that you use for yourself.

(Pause)

Hopefully, many of those names are positive, but if they aren’t I want to offer you hope. 

First, remember that the maker of the universe created you.  He calls you by name and sees who you truly are.  When the Father speaks your name, he speaks it with the greatest tenderness and affection. 

Jesus, whose name we celebrate today, also has some names for you.  Remember, this is the same Jesus who called the impulsive, flailing Simon, Peter, which means Rock.  He not only called Simon by name, but he added a new name full of hope and pride. 

If your head is full of names that are demeaning, think for a moment about Jesus’ primary names for you:  Friend, brother, and sister.  Jesus, who is all of God, sees you as a partner.  He knows who you are now and he sees who you can become.  He believes in your potential and is eager for you to believe in yourself.

And if your name is not enough for you to believe in, and it probably shouldn’t be, remember that you can cling to the name of the Lord and the name of Jesus-for by revealing these names to us, God declares his desire for intimacy with us and his determination to be in relationship with us forever.