Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Ultimate Name Tag

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 1, 2012

The Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Luke 2:15-21

The Ultimate Name tag

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name – a principal feast of the Church - but I’m sure most of us are more focused on turning the page from 2011 to 2012. It’s a time when we look back on the year that’s drawing to a close. And for many of us 2011 was a year we’re happy to see come an end. It was a rough year for the world with much bloodshed, political upheaval, continued economic weakness and horrific natural and man-made disasters.

For many of us here it was a rough year, too. Although for Sue and me the year finished joyfully with our return to Grace Church, for us it was mostly a year that had more than its share of loneliness, anxiety, disappointment, and uncertainty.

For some of us, it was a year when some of our relationships got broken.

It was a year when some of us lost jobs or worried about losing work.

It was a year when some of us faced a serious illness or injury.

It was a year when people close to us died – some of us lost spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbors, and friends.

And it was a year when Grace Church suffered some especially painful losses. I really feel the absence Joe Adamczyk, John Cassidy, Bill Foster, Larry Taber and Phyllis Hendry. All of them - each in their own way - contributed so much to our life together and are so dearly missed.

But, even in the rough year just behind us lots of wonderful things happened, too. Some of us got married or attended the weddings of family or friends. Some of us began new relationships filled with hope and promise. Some of us took on new jobs or reached for new opportunities. Some of us recovered from illnesses and personal setbacks. Some of us watched in wonder as our children and grandchildren continued to grow into fine young people.

Here in church there have been beautiful services filled with exceptional music and so many people doing remarkable ministry in ways large and small, known and unknown. There were weddings and lots of baptisms – 21 of them in all!

And in the last year many new people have discovered Grace Church and found a home in this wonderful place – something that I’ve realized because there are so many people who weren’t here in August 2010 whose names I don’t know and am trying to learn.

Which is why I was so grateful that last month was our first-ever name tag month. It was a huge help to match names to faces – mostly names of new parishioners, but also I have to admit also the occasional name that I had forgotten.

It was interesting watching how people responded to name tag month. Some people happily filled out their name tag, sometimes with just a first name or sometimes with first and last names.

Some people were reluctant to fill out the name tag but did it grudgingly.

Some people didn’t see the table and missed the whole name tag thing.

And some people just flat out refused to join in our celebration of name tag month.

And I can understand that, actually. I can understand not wanting everyone to know your name just by looking at you. It’s kind of a personal thing to tell someone your name, isn’t it?

Especially in the age of google and facebook we can learn a whole lot about someone once we have their name.

A couple of years ago I visited an Episcopal church in California for several services. As I was leaving I greeted the priest and introduced myself, “Hi I’m Tom Murphy. I’m a priest from the Diocese of Newark. I’m here visiting for a few days…”

The priest shook my hand, welcomed me, but didn’t tell me his name.

The next time I was there it was a different priest but the exact same thing happened.

I remember feeling irritated that I had shared something personal – I told them my name! I had shared something of my identity – and that sharing had not been reciprocated.

So, sharing our name can be a big deal. But, that’s nothing compared to the importance of names in the ancient world. Back then there was a very close connection between people and their names.

In the ancient world knowing someone’s name would provide an enormous amount of information. Today it might be like knowing someone’s Social Security number or having access to credit and medical records.

In the ancient world the name revealed a person’s identity – who they were and how they lived their lives. The name revealed a person’s place in the world – what they were all about. It’s sounds strange, but in a very real sense to know a person’s name meant really knowing that person.

And if a person’s name was so important and revealing you can imagine the great significance of God’s name.

In the Jewish and Christian tradition there is a tension in our understanding of God. On the one hand God is transcendent – God is wholly Other – God can’t be put in any category and is infinitely beyond our understanding.

But, on the other hand God is also immanent – the transcendent God is right here. God wants to be known by us here in the physical and material world.

So, since God wants to be known by us, in a sense God wears a name tag.

In the famous moment in the Book of Exodus when Moses encounters the presence of God in the burning bush, God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

But, Moses wants more information and bravely asks for God’s name.

God says, “I am who I am.”

Now, to us “I am who I am” sounds like a pretty weird name but for Israel God’s name revealed a whole lot about God. God’s name revealed that the God of their ancestors is also the transcendent God who is beyond time and space, perfectly free, the creator and ruler of the universe.

God wears a name tag.

But, God didn’t stop there. Wanting to be known by us, God continued to speak through the prophets and then finally in the boldest move imaginable God chose to share our human life in and through Jesus of Nazareth.

In and through Jesus, God says this is who I am.

In and through Jesus, God wears the ultimate name tag - revealing more about God than we could have ever imagined.

In and through Jesus, we discover a God who loves us enough to take the worst we have to offer and then transform death into life.

In and through Jesus, we discover a God who offers unlimited forgiveness and insists that we do the same.

In and through Jesus, we discover a God who calls us to live lives of love – love for God, love for one another, and especially love for the weakest and poorest among us.

In and through Jesus, we know God. In and through Jesus God wears the ultimate name tag. So the name Jesus itself becomes holy.

As St. Paul writes to the Philippians: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven, and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

So, today we turn the page from 2011 to 2012. We begin a new year – a year that like every year will no doubt be filled with some mix of sadness and joy. We don’t know what 2012 will bring but we do know that the transcendent God will be really here with us through it all.

We know that God is with us because God has revealed God’s self to us, most especially in the holy name and the holy life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

We know that God is with us, no matter what, because, in and through Jesus, God wears the ultimate name tag.