Sunday, August 26, 2007

August 26 Sermon--What's in a Name

Sermon Texts: Jeremiah and Luke

Today I adapted a sermon by Will Willemon to our particular context. If you would rather read his sermon, it can be found here.

Lara and I love pouring over names for our next child (no, this isn't an announcement, just a sermon illustration.) This is one of our favorite activities, although we rarely find a name that we can both agree on. Atticus Rex Mattox sounds great in my estimation, but it’s going to take some convincing.
All of us have friends who are hard to imagine with some other name. Some names conjure up definite pictures in all of our minds: Poindexter. Can you see him? He looks like a Poindexter. Grace. See her? She is her name. She is gracious, grace-filled. She is Grace. It’s like someone saw these people, got to know them, then said, “Yep, you should be called Poindexter.” But of course, that’s hardly ever the way it is with names. You get a name, then you grow to it. Maybe he’s Poindexter because that’s what he was given, and over time, he became as he was called. Poindexter. I think that’s the way it is with Grace. Grace. Probably too big, too high-sounding a name for a wild little girl romping about the house. But over time, she’s called Grace she became Grace, gracious, graceful. Grace. Rarely do we pick our names for ourselves. Our names pick us. Our parents give us our names. Other people bestow names upon us, and sometimes these names, these nicknames, are not at all the names we would have chosen for ourselves.
On the high school football team, everyone had to have a name — and I understand that it is this way even today: “Goofus,” “The Beast,” “Slim,” “Mad Dog,” “Timmy.” Sometimes the names were in loving jest, designating what we loved in a person. I just had a phone conversation this past week with a friend who’s getting his PhD at Duke whom we always called “Noodle” in college. Smart guy, that noodle, we’d say to ourselves in dorm meetings.
All through my life, every coach I’ve ever had has shortened my name to “Nate” instead of “Nathan.” That’s fine with me. My mom calls me “Natty Bumpo,” after the James Fenmore Cooper character, and telemarketers call me “Michael” and I promptly hang up on them. (They call me Michael because it’s my first name.) I suppose I look like a Matt, because I oftentimes am called Matt. Maybe people are just trying to remember that my last name has two tts instead of two dds. Yet there were other not so generous names — “Small Fry,” “Fatty, Fatty No Neck,” “Hunchback,” “Cripple,” “Ugly,” “Retard.” Sometimes these names represent our cruelty toward others, rather than our love.
I can remember
Can you feel that pain, do you know that pain, the pain of a name that hurts, traps, confines, cuts to the heart? It makes much difference how we are named. Today’s gospel is a story about a woman. In my Bible she is identified as “the bent woman.” How would you like to be immortalized in Scripture that way? She was bent over, had been bent over, staring at the ground, back terribly contorted, for many, many years. She doesn’t appear to have a name to anyone in town. When they saw her, creeping down the street, body bent, eyes attempting to lift up from the ground, they didn’t say “Here comes Mary,” or “Look, its Elizabeth.” They said, “Here comes the bent woman, the crippled woman.”
That was her name and in her name was her life, her destiny, her whole sad fate. Part of us may be a bit amused by the current attempts to speak of persons not by some of our traditional designations, such as “crippled,” “blind,” or “deaf,” but rather as “person with disabilities,” “persons with special needs,” “visually challenged person,” and so on. Surely this is a good attempt by persons who are different from the majority to name themselves, to gain some freedom from having the majority name them, label them, pigeonhole them and thus discriminate against them. The woman doesn’t have a name, other than the one given to her by the town, a name based upon her disability. She doesn’t have an identity other than that of a victim. She doesn’t have a family, it seems, no occupation, nothing other than her deformity. She is the one who is bent, stooped, bearing upon her shoulders an invisible yet very heavy burden, the burden of being different, the burden of not looking like everyone else, the burden of not being able to do what everyone else does. She is the crooked woman, the bent woman. She is there, I think, for everyone who is so named. She is “just a drunk,” or “retarded,” “slow,” “stupid,” “grossly overweight,” “blind as a bat,” “gimp.” She is encountered by Jesus. And how Jesus refers to her. Jesus heals her, and that’s wonderful. For the first time in her adult life, she is able to stand up straight, to look straight ahead, to be restored to what we call normalcy. But perhaps just as wonderful is the way Jesus speaks to her, what Jesus says about her. He does not call her disabled, or hindered, or a victim of life’s unfairness, though from most points of view, she is. Jesus seems to have no need in making her a professional victim, so that her disability defines her whole life. Rather, Jesus calls her “a daughter of Abraham.” I think that’s significant. This one whom we, even my Bible, calls the crooked woman, the bent woman, is called by Jesus a daughter of Abraham. What does that mean? Who was Abraham? Abraham was the great, great-granddaddy of Israel. Abraham was the one to whom, one starry night, a promise was given. God promised to make a great nation out of Abraham, a nation through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed. She is a daughter of Abraham. She is an heir to the blessings of God. Moreover, as a daughter of Abraham, she is called to be a blessing to the whole world. She is meant for more than superficial, cruel, limiting labeling. She, bent over though she is, is part of God’s great salvation of the whole world. She stands up straight. Even if her back had not been healed by Jesus, I think she would now have stood up straight. Her life had been caught up in God’s promises to the world. Her life had been renamed, not as a long story of injustice, victimization, and sadness, but as part of the great drama of God’s redemption. Let us therefore remember her, not as just one more sad victim, not as the woman with a bent back, but as a daughter of Abraham. Jesus means to name you. He will not let you acquiesce to the names the world wants to lay upon you. Our God knows us better than that. Our text from Jeremiah shows God speaking to Jeremiah and all of us, “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” You are daughters, sons of Abraham. You life is meant to count for something, to take its place on stage in God’s great drama of redemption. God says, “before you were born, I consecrated you.”
Therefore, in our church, when we baptize a baby, we ask what name has been given to the child. And then, though the parents may have named the child “Zane,” or “Wesley,” “Mollie,” or “Atticus,” we now lay on the child a much more determinative, revealing name — “Christian.” We predict that this child’s life will be long story of growing into that name, living into God’s gracious dreams for us. You also are a daughter or son of Abraham. Your name, whatever else we may call you, is “Christian.” Stand up straight, act like it, go in peace. Fred Craddock tells of meeting a man one day in a restaurant. “You a preacher?” the man asked. Somewhat embarrassed, Fred said, “Yes.” The man pulled a chair up to Fred’s table. “Preacher, I’ll tell you a story. There was once a little boy who grew up said. Life was tough because my mama had me but she had never been married. Do you know how a small Tennessee town treats people like that? Do you know the words they use to name kids that don’t have no father? “Well, we never went to church, nobody asked us. But for some reason or other, we went to church one night when they was having a revival. They had a big, tall preacher, visiting to do to the revival and he was all dressed in black. He had a thunderous voice that shook the little church. “We sat toward the back, Mama and me. Well, that preacher got to preaching, about what I don’t know, stalking up and down the aisle of that little church preaching. It was something. “After the service, we were slipping out the back door when I felt that big preacher’s hand on my shoulder. I was scared. He looked way down at me, looked me in the eye and says, ‘Boy, who’s your Daddy?’ “I didn’t have no Daddy. That’s what I told him in trembling voice, ‘I ain’t got no Daddy.’ “‘O yes you do,’ boomed that big preacher, ‘you’re a child of the Kingdom, you have been bought with a price, you are a child of the King!’ “I was never the same after that. Preacher, for God’s sake, preach that.” The man pulled his chair away from the table. He extended his hand and introduced himself. Craddock said the name rang a bell. He was Ben Hooper, the legendary former governor of the state of Tennessee.

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