Saturday, January 09, 2010

By Name

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, The First Sunday after the Epiphany, the Baptism of Christ, January 10, 2010.

Text: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

When two creatures first awoke from the long journey from being just some other primates to being conscious humans, the first thing they must have done was to look at each other and speak a name. Even before verbs there were probably nouns, names. Man, woman, earth, sky, food, water: these must be the oldest nouns in the oldest tongue in the world.

In one of our foundational stories, God forms out of the ground every animal and bird and brings them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. Far from being the point of the story, this little detail reveals how ancient and how important is the notion of naming. We are not the only species with names, believe it or not. Research shows that dolphins have distinctive whistles to which they respond. But it is hard to imagine human beings without names. In fact it is hard to imagine a human being who can look at virtually anything without thinking of that thing as something with a name. When we encounter something previously unknown, our first impulse is to name it.

So when the prophet Isaiah, conveying words of God, writes, “I have called you by name, you are mine,” he is dealing with one of the oldest ideas in human experience and using it to describe the peculiarly intimate relationship between God and Israel. That is the sort of thing we either expect to hear in scripture and thus pass over without thinking, or the kind of thing that if we do think about it seems so strange that it hardly grabs us. I want to suggest three things today on this Feast of The Baptism of Christ. One is that naming is integral to understanding ourselves. A second is that naming is intricately related to baptism. A third is that naming is fundamental to understanding God.

First, naming is about understanding ourselves. When I was born, Daddy was away at war with several months to go before his return home. His mother named me Francis, after her oldest brother, and Gasque, her husband’s and my father’s middle name. Francis Gasque. I don’t know when I first heard, but I was fairly young when I learned that when Daddy came home he took a look at me and asked, “How come you named him Francis?” Daddy wasn’t the only one who had a problem. About the time I was of school age there was a series of movies featuring Francis the Talking Mule. I was not amused when people made a connection between one Francis and another. Not only that, but relatives frequently got confused because they knew of an older, more established Francis Dunn, one of Daddy’s first cousins. This was frighteningly confusing to me. But it was not quite as bad as the gender confusion that I already had in spades being exacerbated by the information that Francis could be a girl’s name as well as a boy’s, depending on whether one spelled it with an “e” or and “i.” Things were looking pretty bleak for young Francis when he went to first grade. And after a year of being the butt of jokes and the subject of confusion, I begged Mama to change my name before I went into second grade. And for fifty cents, paid to the South Carolina Bureau of Vital Statistics, I became legally and officially Frank.

I paid no attention whatsoever to the importance of any of that until years later when I was in seminary studying sacramental theology. Suddenly I came upon an important intersection of name-giving and baptism. I then realized how much of my personal history was either prefigured by or summed up in this narrative about my name. To a surprising extent the main themes of my very life are summed up in my name. Even the double-entendre of the name “Frank” is, I suspect, a key to my personality and even its shadow sides—as a signifier of frank as “free” and frank as “honest, to the point of being blunt.”

Lest you think that this is far too much about me, take a look at your own name and see if reveals any less about you. If you like your name or if you don’t, it is important. If you are known by a nickname, it is likely that it, too, has had an uncanny impact on the way you view yourself.

In the biblical tradition, as in other ancient traditions, to know someone’s name is to have a kind of power over that person. That is why, until recently, a person who stood in a socially inferior relationship would not dare call a superior by the first name. It signaled an affront, an offense of a major sort. And that is why one of the worst things one can do to another is to call a person by an unflattering or pejorative name. It can be the worst sort of insult.

But what about the names we give ourselves, more like labels? We can call ourselves “idiots” when we do something thoughtlessly or clumsily, “dorks” when we behave strangely and uncomfortably, “eggheads” when we are embarrassed about being intelligent, “dumb jocks” if we think our athletic ability vastly outstrips our intellectual capacity. Every time we call ourselves such names, we depreciate a bit, or more than a bit, our sense of self-esteem. In effect, we curse ourselves—which is really no better than cursing someone else, and sometimes as much or more poisonous.

So names are powerful. So powerful that it brings us to the second point: why naming is integral to baptism. The present Prayer Book does not make as big a deal of name-giving as its predecessors did. In the 1928 Prayer Book, for example, the priest said to the parents and godparents just prior to the pouring of water, “Name this child.” And the reply was, as the presentation still is, to give the “Christian” name to the child, not including the family name. In the tradition of the Church, we have no family name except “Christian.” We belong to Christ. So, properly speaking, people are known in the congregation by their Christian name, which is why, when we pray for our bishop, for example, he is called by his Christian name. When we are naming the sick, we frequently call them by their Christian names only, a sign of familial intimacy. I wouldn’t put too fine a point on it, however. When we are praying for “Jane” in this congregation, for example, you may find yourself distractedly wondering just who is standing in the need of prayer: Jane Bishop or Jane Lincoln or Jane Colgrove? Is it Elizabeth Finley or Elizabeth Palmberg who is celebrating a birthday? Which Jessica is it who is pregnant, and which John is it who has a new job? And so forth.

But the point is that we are not isolated, nameless bubbles in the household of faith. We have names. “I have called you by name; you are mine,” says the Holy One of Israel. It is easy for us to see that in a congregation like this one, where there is a high degree of acceptance and mutual caring. But the family of God into which we are baptized includes not only St. Stephen and the Incarnation, but All Saints, Chevy Chase, and Christ Church, Akkokeek. It includes not only Anglicans but the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington and Bishop Harry Jackson of wherever it is in Maryland. It includes not only Desmund Tutu but George W. Bush. You get the picture. The issue is not that we have to agree with or like everybody in the household of God, but that we are committed by our baptism to respect the dignity of every human being.

And, I would argue, the naming of persons does not stop at the walls of the Church universal. It extends to the whole of the human family and even beyond that to the whole cosmos. Why? Because the Church does not exist so that only those who are in it can be accorded the dignity of personhood but in order to bring the world into union with its creator, whose will it is that everything in all creation be redeemed, saved, and whole. In other words, our baptism is not a badge of specialness for an in-group, but a vocation, a calling, to proclaim the truth, love, and justice of God to the whole world. Ultimately the message of Jesus goes beyond even the marvelous words of Isaiah: “you are mine” is intended to be heard by the whole world, not just Israel.

And that is the third thing: naming is fundamental to our understanding of God. In a sense, no one fully understands God, and we are fooling ourselves if we think we do. Fred Craddock, a noted preacher and homiletician, once quipped that sometimes you hear people talking about God as if they had walked all around God taking pictures. But that is not to say that we understand nothing about God. Through the long experience of homo sapiens, we have come to understand that there is something intensely responsive about the universe. Our scientific investigations show that even the smallest particles respond to each other. It is in the nature of things that something on one side of the universe has an effect on something quite remote. But all of that is tangential to the poetry, if you will, that we read in the face of Jesus. For, to quote St. Paul, “the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’” At the center of our faith is not an idea or an event or a book or a law but a person with a name. And it is through a person with a name that we come to encounter the maker and ruler and ground and heart of the universe. Outside of Jesus himself the great revelation of God to us is the revelation of the divine Name, so sacred that our forefathers and foremothers did not dare pronounce it, “I AM who I AM.” I am being itself. And I will be what I will be. Whatever else Jesus reveals about God, he makes plain again and again that God is not an impersonal, unfeeling, entity divorced from the experience of the world of human joys and tragedies. God is “Abba,” sweeping creation to find the lost, running with tears of joy to welcome home the wanderer, prowling the mountainside to rescue the perishing, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked as if they were the most important business in all creation. God does not have a name, God is a name. And that great “I AM” has a predicate nominative, love. Boundless, deep, passionate love.

In one of C. S. Lewis’s books the character Orual asks, “How can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?” It is the same question that dogged the Swiss doctor and pastoral theologian Paul Tournier in the middle of the last century. Tournier was a Christian from childhood, but only until he had what he called a “face to face encounter with God” did his whole life and work and orientation change. In a letter to his patients he wrote, “I can speak endlessly of myself, to myself or to someone else, without ever succeeding in giving a complete and truthful picture of myself. The same thing happens with all these people who come to see me, and take so much trouble over their efforts to describe themselves to me with strict accuracy; inevitably I form an image of them which derives as much from myself as from them.” The whole question of the meaning of persons which had enchanted him for twenty years boiled down to one simple question, “who am I, really, myself?”

If you read St. Luke’s story carefully, you will see that Jesus’ whole life was in a sense a commentary on the name given to him before his birth: Yeshua, for he shall save…” What did it mean? Where would it take him? What secrets did it contain? It is the same mystery that lies at the bottom of your deepest longing and your highest hope. It is the gold that lines your despair when your work seems to amount to nothing and the ecstacy that dazzles you when your bump into a person who so thoroughly loves you that you are changed inside and out. “Who am I, really, myself?” And all those false names which we would give as answers are wide of the mark. “I have called you by your name. You are mine.” Your name. Your name. Your name.

And if there is one thing that ever happened to Jesus that most assuredly has happened or will happen to you, it is that at that very moment, heaven is open and the Creator cries back, “You are my child, my beloved. And I couldn’t be more pleased.”

© Frank G. Dunn, 2010

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