What names do you claim?

Sermon at Church of the Apostles, Seattle

Feast of the Holy Name, January 1 2012

Today’s grandiose-sounding “Feast of the Holy Name” is really nothing more than an official remembrance of the circumcision of Jesus.  A human act, marking a turning-point in the human life, of this baby born Son of God, Son of Man.

Like every other Jewish male since Abraham, Jesus son of Mary, joined the Covenant of Israel by having skin cut from the foreskin of his penis, a permanent, bodily symbol of incorporation into the company of the people chosen to be a light to the nations, partners with God in the redemption of the world.

During this ceremony, a child is also given the name by which he will be known.  And for Mary and Joseph, there was no question what that name would be –

Jesus, the name given by the angel in dreams to each of them;
Jesus, prepared for this baby before he was conceived;
Jesus, because he would save his people from sin.

Jesus, or Yeshua, as Joseph and Mary might have pronounced it, means “God saves,” and it’s the same name as Joshua, successor to Moses, who brought the people of Israel into the promised land – bringing to completion the act of salvation which God began in their deliverance from Egypt, and which Moses stewarded through the long wilderness journey.

Jesus.  I wonder when this child of Nazareth realized that his name, and his mission, were one.

We know almost nothing about the boy Jesus – besides this moment, on the 8th day, his presentation in the Temple (which we celebrate a month from now, on the 40th day), and then his day of teenage chutzpah when he ditches his parents to stay in the temple and delve deep into the teachings of his faith.

But the name – Jesus – must have stirred in him, shaping his life and his passions, as names sometimes do.

In Genesis, the first humans are given the job of naming all the animals – tapirs and tarantulas, armadillos and anteaters, llamas and lobsters – and by the act of being named, they find their place in the order of the universe.

In Numbers, God gives Aaron and the priests the words of blessing, to “put my name on the Israelites” – by that name, mark them as God’s own people.

Christians have claimed much power for the name of Jesus; power to pray and baptize and heal – power, too, we must confess, to condemn and persecute, to oppress and kill.

We have, in our own lives, many names, powerful ones, perhaps.  Names we have chosen, names that were given to us.

Our names may reflect our families, or the trends of the time.  If you were born in 2011, you might bear the popular of names Mason, Liam, Noah or Ethan; Emma, Olivia, Sophia or Isabella.  Or maybe your name says something about your culture, the people into which you were born.  My brother’s middle name is Llywelyn – a common but impossible to say or spell Welsh name that makes visible our heritage.

How were you named?  What does your name say about you?  Has it shaped you?  Have you struggled against it?

For me, my name Joshua, was cool – for a while.  He fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down, after all.  Strong, single minded (a little stubborn), a leader, successful, committed – the kind of character that children’s story Bibles (and Veggie Tales episodes) are made for.

Later, I read those biblical stories more closely, to discover that the hero Joshua, at the command of God, carried out wholesale slaughter against the Canaanites, dispossessing the existing occupants of the Promised Land, to make it ready for his people.   Who knows – maybe this struggle with my violent, biblical namesake secretly shaped my vocation toward reconciliation and peace.

Sometimes the most powerful names in our lives are those we struggle with, those names that curse us, rather than bless.  Despite the old saying about stick and stones, we know that names can hurt so, so much.  Our culture is awash in names that humiliate, exclude, reject – nerd, fat, heretic, fag, terrorist, worthless, failure … the list goes on.  Names spoken by our enemies, names spoken by those who say they love us.  Names that limit us; names that pressure us; names that claim to speak truth about us – but which we know, deep down, are lies.

Because somewhere in those depths of our soul, we know that God has named us “beloved,” that Christ has called us “friend,” that the divine image – and the divine name – are written on our hearts just as much as they were on the heart Jesus.

That name, above any name this world might call us.
That name, exalted over all.
That name, before whom the powers of this earth, crumble.
That name, Jesus – is our inheritance, too.
That name, in Baptism, is joined to the name given us at our birth
– Joshua, Lacey, Meghan, Nat, Elizabeth, Daughter of God, Son of Man, beloved, blessed.

At this turning of the year, we have another chance for a fresh start – a chance to claim the names that will shape us; names we choose to become; names that speak truth of who we are; names that give power to heal the world; names given to you by God before you were born.
What names will you join with your name this year – prophet, apostle, advocate, lover, friend, dreamer, builder, hopeful one, creative spirit, reconciler, welcoming presence.  What pain-filled, sin-drenched, hurtful, names will you leave behind?

As these twelve days of Christmas come to an end, we see the light of the star that guided the Magi to the child Jesus begin to shine more brightly.

The season of Epiphany is coming soon, when we celebrate that the Good News of God in Jesus was revealed to the whole world – from those ‘three kings of orient are’ to us, to day.  It’s a chance to give voice to our names, our gifts, our passions.  To speak them aloud.  To shine the light of the truth that we find through the presence of Christ – in our own lives, and in this congregation.

“We shine in the light of your love,” we’ll sing often, in the season ahead.

Bring your voice, your story, your true name – and get ready, to shine.