January 11, 2004   Shirley Macemon
  When God Calls Us by Name
Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:21-22


Isaiah 43:2 Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Luke 3: 21-22 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Naming ceremonies are common to all cultures and all times. They take many forms, and many meanings. One commonality of many ancient cultures is that names carried meanings that were appropriate to the individual as they matured. Some cultures--Native Americans, for instance, often took a new name as they became adults--the child name no longer appropriate for the adult they had become. In come cultures, names were given to shape the destiny. Thought I haven't seen the movie yet, I've been told about a wonderful scene in the movie Whale Rider, when the infant daughter of the Maori leader is given the name of the most revered ancestor--a name that would ordinarily be given to a male descendent. Her grandfather is incensed. She, however, defies the odds for girls in her society as she grows into a strong and courageous young woman.

Sometimes our names carry a part of who our families once were. In Western Europe, family names described family occupations: millers made flour out of grain, Bakers made bread out of flour, Coopers made barrels. In old Scandinavia and when I was in Iceland 30 years ago (I don't know about today!), one's last name was one's father first name, followed by one's gender. I would be Shirley Herbertsdaughter. My kids would be Jonsdaughters. I suspect that means that at the time in Erik's family's history when the naming traditions changed, the patriarch was Lars, hence, Larsen.

Sometimes in history names have been assigned--sometimes chosen. When my forefather came from Belgium in the mid 1800s, immigration officials heard him pronounce his name and they wrote it down. The family that had been Meysan in Belgium became Macemon in America. (Irene Jefferson has told me about her grandfather, who chose to take his owner's last name--Cox--at the time of emancipation, because of the treatment and opportunities he had received. Billy's grandfather chose the name of a president: Jefferson. His owner was not well liked!) In our Hebrew scripture, Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, father of the 12 tribes, became Israel after wrestling with God.

In earlier times, and now in some denominations infants are christened--a naming ceremony, done in the church, where they are introduced to the community and their "Christian" name is given. An industry had sprung up in the UK: one can pay a fee and have a Naming Ceremony for your child or children. No religious or legal significance, though it will be kept on file government office. This actually makes a great deal of sense to me--provides a secular ceremony for families without needing to dilute a sacrament or ritual. Last week on an episode of Judging Amy, I was surprised at the lack of research done on the part of the series writers. Amy's brother and sister-in-law are separated, and the sister-in-law wanted, I presume, a religious naming ceremony - a christening. She chose the Methodist church "Because that is my church. We did the Presbyterian church last time and this time I want it to be in my tradition.". Of course, my ears perked up, and I listened for what I think are key and special about baptism theology in the UMC: that infant baptisms are part of regular worship services because as we accept a new life into the community, the whole community changes with our pledge to help in the raising of the child. And, that baptism is not just a naming ceremony, but is a sacrament reflecting the continuing presence of God in the child. (of course, that is way beyond what a secular TV show might even begin to portray, but one could hope!.) Anyway, the family arranged for a private, Friday evening christening, in a Methodist church. And, typical for this family in this series, the ceremony fell apart before it began.

So we get back to John and Jesus at the river Jordan. A scene that is familiar--similarly recounted in all four Gospels. Jesus and others are baptized. And while Jesus prays, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends on him, "like a dove", and a voice from heaven announces, "This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am delighted"

And Jesus, like so many before and since, is named: the beloved son of God.

Now John had come under fire by Jerusalem Jewish leaders who didn't understand why he was baptizing Jews at all. In their minds, baptism was for the unclean Gentiles seeking to enter the faith. They believed Jews, already Sons of Abraham and you could not, needed no improvement upon perfection. John had already pointed out what he thought about the opinions of those who thought their heritage was enough relationship with God for them. Do you remember the Luke passage of a few weeks ago? John had already called them a brood of vipers, making it clear that action, not heritage was the important part of relationship with God.

Though baptism--a water ritual which in John's case called folks to turn their hearts to God--wasn't completely unique in the first century, it wasn't something that every street corner preacher called his followers to, either. Some current theologians think John focused on baptism because he was a member of the Essenes; a small group of desert monks who were ritualistically focused on austere living and ceremonial bathing. But John's baptism seems to me to be much more than symbolic ritualism. John's focus was on the intent behind the heart. It was that intent that lead to ritual, not ritual in lieu of intent.

Perhaps the writers of Judging Amy did understand just how some families come to have their infants "done", and how just how brittle that experience can be. Christening, or even baptism, is sometimes approached in isolation - as a rite of passage--as though this precious child is now spiritually inoculated in some way.

We've also been exposed to folks for whom the ritual is the action--showing up on Sunday is the only action taken toward a spiritual life.

Or, folks who wear their religion like a great expensive coat--as though they are part of an elite club. Their own experience of Christ is the single norm for all other's experience of Christ. Because they are part of the privileged who have had that single experience, or set of experiences, they set about making rules to exclude those with different experiences of the living Christ. They have no interest in understanding the multiplicity of ways that Jesus comes to each of us.

Will Willimon tells about a church gathering where people were taking turns giving testimonies about their religious experiences. One man stood and said, "I was a Methodist for 38 years before anybody told me about Jesus." Will said he scratched his head when he heard that. What the man probably should have said was, "I was a church member for 38 years before I really experienced my faith and began to live it." That is, he had a delayed response. He was a late bloomer. The problem, Will said, was the man sounded so smug when he said it. He made it sound as if there was an instantaneous experience that washed away his past. Well, says Will, what about all those teachers who put up with him while he was growing up in Sunday school? What about all of those preachers who tried their best to speak the gospel to him? What about all those Christians who tried to tell him about Jesus? Will felt like saying, "Listen, pal, it's nice that your faith is coming together, but what do you think we've been trying to get through your thick head for the last 38 years?" (http://www.sermons.com)

But to each of these, no matter how bull-headed, or thick-headed, open to listening, or gentle of heart and mind we are, there is One who calls our name: who continues to call our name until we finally are in a place and space to listen and hear

"Do not fear," God says, " for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." (Isaiah 43:2)

The words that Luke records at Jesus baptism, echo Isaiah 42:1,
"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights."

You see, with all this naming, and renaming, God refuses to be silent. It is Will Willimon who reminds us that "our faith is born out of the dialogue between a people and a God who refuses to be silent."

God delights in each of us.

At that moment, standing with Jesus as the heavens open, Or standing with a family, holding their child about to be baptized, or even being with someone like the man in Willimon's story--I get shivers down my spine--God delights in each of us. Through ritual, through scripture, through life, and sometimes--amazingly enough--through the church--God calls to us.

"Do not fear," God says, " for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine."

Jesus spent the 18 or so years before his baptism sort of out of sight. Some call them the "hidden years", with his baptism the first public act of his ministry. If that is the case, then it was at his baptism that Jesus came out, saying essentially; "From this moment on, I am no longer mine, but God's. May God do with me as God wills."

And of course, the response: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Are we ready to come out of hiding?

Are we ready to continue the dialogue with our God who refuses to be silent?

God who delights in us.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.

[1] "Between Two Advents: In the Interim", by Cornelius Plantinga, from Christian Century, 12-6-2000 >