What’s In A Name?
We had a Naming ceremony for Thea, a beautiful granddaughter of a couple from our congregation. This is the sermon I preached after the ceremony.
“What’s in a Name?”
As most of you know I spend some of my time teaching first year university students anatomy and human biology. I have 4 classes and 18 students in each class, so there are a lot of names to remember. And I am not very good at remembering names! I try hard, and have a few strategies, but usually it takes the whole semester to get most of them. It’s not that I don’t know the students belong to me and while I usually explain at the beginning of term that age wearies the memory a bit, I know that is not really enough.
Knowing someone’s name and being able to use it when talking to them is actually very important. When I call a student by name I can see it makes a difference. It tells them they are of worth, of value, that they have something to contribute and I respect them as an individual who is neither better nor worse than me. For people who are struggling with the course, the material, and if they are good enough to be there, it helps reassure them that they belong, they are included.
But a name is more than that. It gives us an identity. We are Karen or Jane or Tom or Melissa. We are a person in our own right, with a history, with passions and ideas and with commitments. We had a naming service today for Thea, to mark her as a person who will become an independent adult in the future, loved and cared for. But a person in her own right.
Christianity has had its share of dead ends, even today, but a constant from Jesus and from the original letters of Paul is that it is an inclusive religion. Everyone is of value, everyone is to be included in the great banquet of life, everyone is of worth. Everyone is a vessel holding the divine spark, the divine light and love, even my young, slightly crazy students. When we love others like ourselves we give a nod to that reality. When we fight for others rights and the just sharing of resources we give a nod to that reality. When we share our money and our time with others we give a nod to that reality.
Two of the readings we heard today, reflect this inclusive message. The first, from Psalm 139:7-12 is my favourite, a spoken reality from before Jesus was even thought of. The psalmist is expressing their deep understanding that there is nowhere we can go from God because God is a reality within us, always.
Where can I hide from thee, if I go to the ends of the earth you are there, if I sink into the biggest abyss you are there, closer than by own breath. God is found deep within each of us, a spark of life that is not restricted to those with the most wealth possessions, power or intellect. We are all God’s children and this God never leaves, goes on holiday or somehow decides we really aren’t worthy enough. Early Christians knew this and tried to act in the world in which they lived as though it was true.
But what if we lived at a time when we were a non-person. In Jesus time, there were many non-people, women and slaves in particular, who were seen as chattels to be bought and sold rather than a real people. In our past indigenous people were until the 1960s counted with the flora and fauna, with no voice and often no name. A terrible blight on Australia’s history.
The second reading we had today was from Paul’s letter to Philemon(1:1-20). I also love this short letter, an authentic Pauline letter, because it says so much about how we are to live today. Most of you might remember that Paul is in jail for upsetting the authorities, but sends a letter to his friend Philemon, a Christian convert about Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has escaped and run to Paul for protection. Paul is writing to Philemon asking him to let Onesimus go free, become a free man, and welcome him as a brother, for in the faith in which Paul stands, there is no difference been slave and free, between male and female, between Jew or Gentile because all are one in Christ Jesus. All are one in God’s spirit.
Paul is asking Philemon to do something very radical. In ancient times, it was okay to have slaves, and rarely were they acknowledged as anything but a useful commodity. They had no voice other than their master’s voice. Paul is asking Philemon to go against the norms and culture of the day, and risk a lot for his faith!
This story is a homecoming similar to the prodigal son. As Paul saw it, Philemon had a legal right to slaves but not a moral or spiritual one. Onesimus is not just a slave but a young man, with a name and identity. He is worthy for who he is as a child of God, rather than someone’s workhorse. As a follower of Jesus, the inclusive Jesus, Paul is asking Philemon to relinquish his power over someone rather than continue to dominate and exploit them. To free Onesimus from subordination, to free him of the burden of debt, to free him from the burden of shame, to pardon him and welcome him with open arms as an equal, as a beloved brother was a pretty big move in the 1stcentury.
Yet it appears that Philemon in fact did just that. We presume, for the letter was preserved, that Onesimus was freed and welcomed as though he was Paul! And the whole community celebrated a renewed relationship of mutual love. What a homecoming!
It paints a picture, today. of how radical this call is for us. To think of this inclusive love, this inclusive society when we are the dominant culture of the first world and hold all the power is very challenging. How do we give voices and free those who we have enslaved to sustain our lifestyles. How might we free them, both here and elsewhere?
Again I say pretty radical stuff.
But I don’t want to finish here. I want to go back to the source for Paul, which was Jesus. The radical message of Jesus, has led to the radical message of Paul. Jesus came and shook up those who had forgotten that his call, God’s call was an inclusive call, an inclusive reality, particularly those from the Jewish tradition that he was immersed in. They, instead, were imposing rules and laws about who was in and who was out of Gods kingdom. Much like we do today.
Cherry will read a passage from Luke’s gospel (4:14-30) which demonstrates this. Although the whole of the New Testament is littered with Jesus’s radical message.
Jesus Rejected at Nazareth
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read,17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[a]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,”he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[b]in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
In this reading Jesus is preaching in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth, announcing to his community and to his family who he is. He stands up in the synagogue, reads from the scriptures, and suggests he is going to bring in a different way of being by what he says. Jesus was his name and he has come to change the world.
He does it as a young man who had grown up in this town, and the people thought that they knew him. Oh yes, he’s the son of Joseph and Mary, the carpenters son. Little did they realise what was coming! He is announcing something totally unexpected to those who thought they knew him.
Initially the listeners were well pleased as he had taken a reading from Isaiah. But as he continued, by using two stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, ones they would have known, he infuriates them. The point of the two extra stories is that both the widow mentioned and Naaman the Syrian were NOT Jews. Not part of the “chosen people” who the prophets, Eliza and Elisha go and help. What!, they are outsiders, the listeners would have cried. Jesus was suggesting, very strongly, that God chooses to touch and bless those on the outside of the Jewish tradition as well as those inside. And the task of those who are called to serve God, is to follow God, and to go to those outside the boundaries, outside the fold.
Jesus is widening Gods spirit, Gods love to include everyone, not just Jews and is calling his community to stop being so exclusive. And they were not happy. He barely got out alive!
Jesus was a baby then a boy, with a tradition and parents who loved him. But there came a time for him to forge his own way, to reveal the passions and commitment and path he would follow. This is a turning point. Jesus was choosing his own way, a spirit driven way that included love and justice for all. An inclusive message picked up and lived by Paul and many who have followed Jesus. And suddenly he wasn’t welcome!
So we can hear in this small story how it takes commitment to see the world in this way. Its challenging, and a bit scary.
But as Thea starts her journey or for all of us whose journey has been going for some time, the message is the same. It’s about choosing life, for everyone. It is about loving and being loved, fully and completely. It’s about the message that all people including ourselves are of worth, God’s divine spark. It is about making a commitment to this way of seeing the world, and not being swayed by those who seek to divide us, to belittle us, who tell us we need more possessions, power or money to be loved, or that others have to suffer in order for us to be happy.
We have heard it today in each of our reading, from different times. Now we face our time.
I pray that each one of us sees in the Jesus message the message of inclusion and love and justice, and we head out to make a difference in the world. Whether we are 6 months or 86!
For this is the way to fullness of life.