January 1, 2017 - Rev. Gary Baird
Allow me a moment to file a note before I go to the homily. There are those who do not like a deacon’s sermon. I don’t blame you one bit. The deacon’s job is to take the “Good News” out into the world and to bring the “Bad News” back to the church. And who likes to hear bad news. Sorry… it is just what deacons have been commissioned to do. If you want to hear the “Good News” just go outside these church walls and I will be there soon. There is a little good news. Given these lessons for today it is a little hard to work a deacon’s sermon into it. The bad news is I am going to try.
According to Webster:
NAME: A word or phrase that constitutes the distinctive designations of a person or thing. A word or symbol used to designate an entity. A descriptive often disparaging epithet. A person or thing with a reputation. Appearance as opposed to reality.
NAME CALLING: The use of offensive names especially to win an argument or to induce rejection or condemnation of a person or a project without objective consideration of the facts.
In the book of Genesis, in the creation story, when God spoke, things came to be and after they came into existence he named them. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” When God named something he was taking control of it. He owned it. Later in the story we are told that after creating man God created all the animals of the earth and God brought them to the man to see what he would call them. By allowing man to name them God was giving humans control over all the animals. Such is the power of a name.
When I was born my parents were responsible for giving me a name. They did not even bother to ask me my opinion about what I would like to be called. The just pulled from their life experience and then said he will be called Gary Clifton Baird. Baird was assumed and traditional as it was the family name of my father and Clifton came from him as well as it was his middle name. But I guess they were not interested in having a junior to him so instead of James they chose Gary. Where they came up with Gary I don’t have the slightest clue and since no one else in the family has a name even close to Gary perhaps they did not either. They just liked to sound of it. Mary and Joseph would have been under the same obligation to name their child. But we are told from different sources that the naming of the child was not up to them. It was God himself that named the child; “And he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” The message is clear. God is the true parent. The child is his Son and God is in control. Humankind does not control the life of Jesus, rather it is God.
This, of course, is no ordinary child. This is the Son of God, the Word of God who has taken flesh and dwelt among us. At the birth of this child God entered into the world of all humanity; the humanity that we all experience from Adam to this day. And this is a special day for this child. In the calendar of the church this is not only the day we remember that he receives his name, Jesus, but through circumcision becomes a child of the covenant with Abraham. Jesus begins his life story as a member of the Hebrew faith. The author of the history of Israel now becomes subject to all that history requires. We sometimes forget that Jesus was a Jew and was raised up in that tradition.
Later in life as Jesus begins his formal teaching ministry he will be called many things; some of them with honor and some of them not so honorable. He will be called Rabbi and he will be called a false prophet. He will be called Messiah and he will be called traitor. He will be called savior and he will also be called sinner. He will be given many names over the course of his ministry. All of them, whether honorable or not so honorable will be an effort by others to name him and in some form or another to control him. Even the title Messiah, as honorable as it is, came with a set of political expectations and the use of it for some meant they saw a purpose that fit their cause. But Jesus was not to be controlled. His ministry came from the Father. The same God who once told Moses when Moses asked for God’s name said, “’I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God was not going to be nailed down with a name. At least not yet.
Nothing has really changed. We still try to name Jesus beyond the name given to him by his Father, and we need to be aware that we do and be so very careful with our naming. Was Jesus “Liberal Jesus” or was he “Conservative Jesus”? In either case, honorable or not, we are trying to control Jesus to match our own way of thought. The fact of the matter is that he is neither, and both, at some point in his ministry. We have to allow Jesus to be Jesus and try and let him teach us. As we relive his life this year from birth to teaching ministry, to passion and death, to resurrection and beyond, we have to listen to the story and allow Jesus to be Jesus.
But we do not stop there. We name each other. We have to be so careful when we name people. Even the most honorable attempts can have an unwanted affect. In the days of Jesus to name someone a leper meant that they lost their real name to everyone but maybe the closest of persons. To be named a leper could mean an opportunity for expressing a ministry of love, which Jesus did, or it could mean a warning of a life of loneliness and seclusion. The name changed a person’s life. It controlled them. It dictated what they could and could not be or do. We need to be careful when we call people a name. When we say, “Poor” is it a name of opportunity or is it a name of warning. “Poor People”, is it… “Due to a job loss this family is poor and is going to need support to get them through this.” Or is it… “Due to a job loss this family is poor and going to drain all our resources that we have set aside in our budget for outreach for the whole year. How do we control this?” Mentally Ill: a name of opportunity or a name of warning? Homeless: a name of opportunity or the name of warning?
Now if I am going to be perfectly fair in this discussion I am going to have to let Jesus be Jesus. Some of you may have already gone ahead of me but for full disclosure I will just note it here. There was one time when Jesus did utter the words, “You brood of vipers.” And I get the feeling every once in a while he may have had a certain tone in his voice when he said the words, “Pharisees and Sadducees”. And then there was that Cleansing of the Temple event. But prophets have a license and an authority in the heat of battle that I do not have as a deacon. Or do we? Wouldn’t that make for an interesting discussion?
Back in 2000 I was given a new name by the church. Actually, I think they call it a title, but people, when they want to get my attention will often use the name, deacon. It’s a name that changed things for the church and for me. It is a name that came with expectations. Before they gave me that name they asked me a lot of questions: Will you study Holy Scriptures to seek nourishment from them, and model your life upon them? Will you make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship? Will you interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world? Will you assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments? Will you look for Christ in all others, being ready to help and serve those in need? And probably most important they asked me, Will you in all things seek not your glory but the glory of the Lord Christ? If you will… then go forth into the world and be a deacon in the name of Jesus and the church.
But then again, you were given a name as well. At every Baptism, when we renew our vows, we are given that name once more and we are asked questions. Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Then we are told, “If you will… then ‘Go forth in the name of Christ’” Go and be Jesus out in the world. Let Jesus be Jesus in you and in the world. Feel the passion. Let the Holy Spirit take you were the Spirit will. Howard Thurman once wrote…
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs, is people who have come alive.”
Let me summarize what I need to tell you today.
The bad news is… that the Kingdom of God has not arrived in all its fullness yet. The Good News is… God is hopeful. He is still sending us forth in his holy name.