What's in a Name?

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
January 16, 2011 – A2
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-8 (read responsively)
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  And so goes the impassioned plea of Shakespeare's Juliet that is so watered down by time and over use that it seems trite and ridiculous to say.  But lest we forget the import of such a quote, we might want to remember that she is asking Romeo to deny his very name. And he offers to be "new baptiz'd", named only by the bond of love that has called them together.

From this point on there is but one unfortunate end for both Romeo and Juliet, and that is tragedy.  For characters in a play there can be only one end, and that is the one the playwright has chosen.  Some have chosen to interpret the Bible this way.  I would suggest that such a reading offers not only a limited understanding of our potential, but also a limited understanding of scripture, and (ultimately) of God.

Take the text from Isaiah for example.  God declares the intent, purpose, and calling of the prophet.  Isaiah's response is about the same as you get throughout the Bible.  "A baby at my old age? HA!"  "Oh, don't send me! I stu-stu-studder. Send Aaron." "Those people are giants."  "Woe is me!  I am an unclean man of an unclean people." "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" "No, you shall never wash my feet."

More than that, Isaiah's response is about what you get in the average PC(USA) congregation when they are focused on what they do not have – children, money, and time.  Isaiah says, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God."  This one line names and claims the tension between tragedy and hope that forms the tight ropes we walk on in this world, and it often seems like there is no net below us. 

Naming and claiming is one of the ways we survive in this world. Names can inspire us.  Just the mention of historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., or Thomas Jefferson, or Ghandi conjure up thoughts and feelings that can be positive or negative depending on the person.  Names also create new realities.  How many names have you had?  Perhaps you have been a Parent, Grandparent, Aunt or Uncle.  Maybe you have been a student, a soldier, or named by some profession.  Maybe you had a nickname as a child.  Perhaps you are known as a member of this church, a Christian, or just someone seeking to follow Jesus.  Whatever you have been or will be – a name is more often given to you than created by you.

Sure, we "make a name for ourselves," but that name has little currency outside of the perception of others.  That is why Jesus re-named Simon as Peter, to make the inward transformation undeniable to the outside world.  That's what also makes Jesus' baptism so remarkable.  For most people baptism meant accepting the authority of the teacher and taking on a new identity, but not for Jesus. His name means justice.  Instead of re-naming, John began proclaiming, describing, and acknowledging, "Here he is – the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world!"

Now here we are, the Body of Christ in the world.  Here we are balanced between the angst of feeling like our labor has been in vain and the knowledge that we, like the church in Corinth, have been "enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among us— so that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ."

How, then, do we tip the scale so that we are no longer walking a tight rope but falling into the safe embrace of the God of love, compassion, and mercy?  That seems to be a better question than, "How do we grow the church?"  I've been reading books about this, talking to colleagues, and going to seminars for quite a while now.  Given the fact that I grew up in the church during a period of decline, church growth is a topic that has been a part of my entire experience as a Christian.

Earlier this week I found some answers, or perhaps some good questions, when an elder and I took communion to the Gary's.  Willy and Rita are delightful people!  Whether you know them or not, I encourage you to call them or send them a card to let them know you care.  We talked about the way things were, who has died, who has not, and they told me about joining the church.  There were two particular insights they offered that I think we need to think about.  The first is that they joined the church because the church named and claimed them.  Rita said it this way, "Everybody was so nice that it just wasn't a question.  We had to join!"  Willy was more stoic, and he offered the second gem of wisdom.  "I guess the church was just the place where people went to be together.  It's not like that anymore."  Books upon books have been written to say just that, and I believe it comes down to this – we can not be the Body of Christ simply by coming to church and waiting for something dramatic to happen.  We, like the Psalmist, must sing a new song.  We must be like Andrew who went to get his brother because he listened when Jesus said, "Come and see."

You see, at this point, most people know who (or at least where) we are.  We are a 135 year old, land mark congregation.  Some people will come to us because of that, but unless we allow the experience of community we have here to spill into the streets and invade our lives the song remains the same.  The song that never changes is the song of tragedy and predetermined fate.

Tragedy is a part of human existence.  Though we celebrate social change, racism still impacts our community.  Though we congratulate those limited successes in places of disaster, there is more work to do in Haiti and here at home in the gulf.  Floods continue in Australia and Brazil, and violence breaks out on street corners for politicians and nobodies all at once in every city in our nation.

There is a song called "40" by the rock group U2 based on the Psalm of the same name.  The group was forged in the social conflicts of Belfast Ireland, and there are incredible live recordings of thousands chanting into the night, "I will sing, sing a new song...How long, must we sing this song?" 

I say we sing forever!  I say that we can not sing this song by ourselves.  I say that we must be compelled by our faith in Jesus Christ to invite and show others the reality of God in our midst, or we will not be compelling.  The buzz word in popular Christianity is relevant.  Is the church relevant?  I would suggest that if you have to ask that question then the answer is no.

Is this church relevant to the average college student, to a parent with young children, to someone struggling to be clean and sober, to a single mom, to a person who works third shift, to a platform worker, a corporate staffer, or the busboy at your restaurant?  No, but Jesus Christ is.  We don't need to worry about being relevant.  We need to worry about being compelled.  Even the most beautiful song will die in the night after the band leaves the stage.  What matters is not the melody, but the transformation we experience through it.

Ours is no scripted story of tragedy.  Ours is an unfolding reality in which the author of life has given us a pen.  Still, left to our own devices, we will probably end up with only one end.  It is when we place our hand in the hand of the Master Playwright that we find our story truly written.  That is the place of transformation, and it may take you places you do not want to go. I know members who have done this and ended up visiting others in hospital rooms, sorting through other people's junk in search of things to share, paying a neighbor's utility bill, and visiting with families that need supervision.  There is just no way to know where God will take you until you are there.

Ours is not to determine the course of the unnameable God.  Ours is to experience the indwelling of God's presence through worship, study, and acts of mercy and kindness that demonstrate the love we have received!  The people we have been called to reach out to will not come and beat down those doors, and our invitation to join will not be compelling unless we are compelled to experience God's presence in the midst of pain and suffering.  For then, and only then, can we truly be the Body of Christ, the sacrificial Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

Only then can we sing a song that is new.  Only then will we sing a new song to the Lamb, who is slain again and again and again for you and for me, and to the glory of God.  Amen.
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