A new name

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time in the truck with my dad, driving to and fro as we did errands for the farm. I don’t remember much of what we actually talked about on those long drives, but one of the few things I remember is a question that only an eight year old would ask… one of those questions that those of you who are parents probably think about with dread.

“Dad”, I said, “if I was named something other than Amanda, would I still be me?”

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me?

Now, I have no memory of what my dad said in response. It was probably some attempt to answer what is an actually an impossible question. (sorry, Dad)

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me? If you didn’t have your name, would you still be you?

Names are important. Just think about that moment when you see the person who is dearest to you in the world after a long absence, that moment when they say your name: so full of joy, of love, of warmth. When someone we love says our name like that, it is a feeling, at least in my experience, that I’m fully known by that person. Speaking my name feels like an acknowledgement that they accept and love me for who I am.

And despite that old rhyme about sticks and stones, words hurt. Names can hurt. Anyone who’s ever been called a horrible nickname by a bully on the playground knows what it’s like to have someone mess with *who we are*, a little piece of ourselves, our identity.

Names matter. What we call people, matters. A name can be weaponized through anger, or it can become the most beautiful music when said by someone we love. Names matter in the Bible too—just a few weeks ago in Advent, we spent an entire Gospel lesson hearing names upon names upon names: Jesus’ genealogy.  

Names matter. And so in Isaiah, we find God promising a new name to a sad and broken land.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,

and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,

until her vindication shines out like the dawn,

and her salvation like a burning torch.

The nations shall see your vindication,

and all the kings your glory;

and you shall be called by a new name

that the mouth of the Lord will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,

and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”

Isaiah is a book of the Bible where we find the Israelites struggling with their identity. They’ve been wandering away from God for so long that they don’t know how to be God’s people anymore. The readings from this book alternate between God expressing anger at Israel’s unfaithfulness on the one hand, and the promises God makes that say there will be hope and life at the end of all this war and evil.

And all of this promise, this hope for the future, is symbolized by a new name.

“you shall be called by a new name

that the mouth of the Lord will give”

Isaiah is not the only reading this morning that talks about names. The gospel, that famous passage from the first chapter of John, is also about new names. In it, the Word of God, the son of God, takes on a new name.

“the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The Word became flesh and took on a new name, the name of Jesus Christ.

Christ is, as Paul says, born under the law to redeem those under the law. Jesus Christ, born in a manger, the redeemer of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Calvary.[1] Jesus Christ, who took on a new name so that you and I might know him, love him, and adore him.

So as I conclude, I’d like to return to the question that we started with:

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me? If you didn’t have your name, would you still be you?

After reading today’s lessons, what I would tell my childhood self is this: the new name which you might be called to: a new vocation, a new orientation—a new way of following God in this world, is not changing your identity. I will still be me. You will still be you. The new name to which we are called is more “us” than we could even imagine.

A new name is the fulfillment of promises hoped for. God has already called us by a new name: his people. And perhaps when God calls us by a new name, (a new call, a new way of being in the world), we will recognize it as the fulfillment of everything we’ve ever hoped for—all of God’s promises to remake and redeem us—fulfilled in the Christ who took on a new name for all of us.

As we approach the beginning of the new year, may we remember that regardless of what resolution we take on, God is always calling us by a new name, drawing us ever closer to himself, and the promise of a world renewed. Will you answer?

[1] See this lovely sermon for reference: https://www.ssje.org/2019/12/24/the-poverty-of-bethlehem-nazareth-calvary-br-james-koester/

Sermon preached on 12/29/19 at Little Fork Church, Rixeyville, VA.

The challenge of Advent

At first, it is a drop of water. Out of the middle of nowhere, perhaps on your forehead, or on your dusty hand as you reach out to pull a weed from the dry soil. One drop. And then, in sixty seconds, another, and another, until for the first time, you see the grey soil variegated with brown.

A cool mist descends around you, and for the first time in weeks, months, you can see the world around you begin to take shape out of the settling dust. You… we… are soaked, and as the rains settle in, the whole earth seems to take a breath… in… out. The rain has finally come.

Being caught in unexpected rainfall is like the church’s entry to the season of Advent: we are alternatively exhausted, thirsty, relieved, and drenched by the sheer force of the new church year. And for many of us, it’s an excellent reminder that we maybe need to go inside and get a fresh change of clothes and a shower… perhaps literally, for those of us in the midst of finals… or figuratively, for ourselves and our congregations. Advent is a time of preparation, a time of examination.

And I’m going to make a generalizing statement that, in the church, we love preaching in Advent, because it’s a great opportunity to slip all of our cultural pet peeves into a sermon. Prepare for the coming of Christ! and shrug off your obsession with material objects! secular culture! capitalism! socialism! Black Friday! fast fashion!

So I would like to clarify that when I make the statement, in this Advent sermon, that we can be too easily distracted by the here and now, I’m not actually talking about these things.

Because calling out obvious and alluring pieces of secularism… that’s the here and now that’s culturally acceptable for us Episcopalians to condemn, isn’t it? Our own version of a culture war in Advent, ironically, to counter the war on Advent, as some of you fastidious advent-lovers occasionally imply.

But what about the here and now which is good? The work of the church? The feeding of the poor? Caring for the orphan and widow? Advocating for policies, and even politicians, who reflect those values? Caring for the environment? And whole host of important values, embedded in our tradition and in our Bible?

Perhaps we can too easily be distracted by the here and now, and even in these good works, here also be dragons:

In Isaiah 7, much earlier than our reading today, we have the famous exchange between Isaiah and King Ahaz. Ahaz is king of a petrified people, terrified of destruction by Aram and Ephraim. And Isaiah says, ask for a sign from God, that this destruction will not take place. Anything! Ask for anything as a sign.

And Ahaz, says no, I won’t test the Lord.

And we sort of smugly laugh at Ahaz now—obviously THAT was the wrong answer, right? Right?

I bet Ahaz had a to-do list. Distribute food to those in Jerusalem, set extra watch on the outlying cities, prepare to do some negotiating with Aram, maybe move the elderly inside the city walls for protection.

But I wonder what would have happened if he had stopped and asked for a sign.

Our to-do lists as a church are all well and good, so were Ahaz’s: necessary, important for the care of others. But if we do not know the holy vision which compels us to these things, then we are nothing more than agnostic, secular humanists.

Advent is not an invitation away from our cultural and political pet peeves, into our world-saving to-do list of good works. Advent… is not… an invitation at all.

Advent is Isaiah at our door, our window, our pulpit saying ASK for a sign from the Lord. Advent is one of those annoying prophets that makes us hold up our sacred idols—our holy to-do lists—against the purifying flame of God’s vision. Advent is John the Baptist, at the street corner with a microphone and posterboard screaming REPENT, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

If we allow Advent to call us out of our complacency, then we will ask for a sign of God. We will give up the here and now—our ministry, vocation, and holiness as well as our sins and cultural ills—and we will TEST our actions and to-do lists against God’s purifying fire of repentance.

And so Advent asks us, to imagine ourselves, with everything that we think so important, so alive, so vibrant—as a desert. In a wilderness. Where the date palms that we thought so lush are just withered sticks against a grey sky.

If King Ahaz had asked for a sign, if we ask for a sign, this is, I think, the sign that he, and we might receive:

In the middle of the desolation of our works made brittle by the overwhelming, holy fire of God’s vision. In the wilderness of Isaiah 35. The sign comes upon us in a drop of rain. One drop, and then another, until the patchwork of sand and rock sputters into dark, fertile soil. Water, breaking through the topsoil, awakening the seeds that lie dormant within, until almost overnight, the once barren-land is filled with tiny shoots of green poking above the ground.  

And standing there, soaked by the promise of this eschatological vision… that’s when we’ll hear it. Just one voice, and then, another. A familiar sound, like the echo of a memory, the voice of someone dearly loved and almost forgotten. And then another voice turns into a multitude, coming into view on the horizon, rising up from the ground like the shoots of green beneath your feet. “And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way… The redeemed shall walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing.” The great cloud of witnesses will overtake us like a torrent, a rush of holy floodwater, and suddenly, we will be caught up in that multitude, rushing toward the highway laid before us, further up and further into God’s Holy Way.

This is our sign. God’s vision of the future. The ultimate good that all of our good is working towards, if only we would open our eyes to see it.

Christ has come once, and with his body and blood, made a way where there was no way. And so in this Advent, may the rain of God’s holy vision for the future wash us and our work afresh, as we pray, come, Lord Jesus.

Audio Recording of senior sermon, preached at Virginia Theological Seminary on December 9, 2019. Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10.

The right question

If you were going to ask God one question, what would you ask?

If you were going to ask God one question, what would you ask?

The Sadducees know, or think they know, at any rate. They think they know an awful lot, actually—Luke tells us that they go to ask Jesus this question about the Resurrection, even though they don’t believe in the Resurrection. It’s just like that one know-it-all kid in school who asks you a question that they already know the answer to… because they want to “test” you.

And it’s a question that is really really technical. It’s not “is the Resurrection real”. No, it’s a question that requires knowing all about the laws of Moses for this ridiculous hypothetical situation which probably never happened. Did they really want to know the answer to the question? Or were they just trying to ask a question just to ask a question?

And Jesus sees through this trap—this bad faith question asked by people who are only interested in discrediting his ministry.

The woman with seven husbands—that is not the problem. They “neither marry nor are given in marriage”. Technicalities like marriage aren’t actually going to matter in the Resurrection.

But the real problem here, is that they’re asking a question about something that they don’t even believe in themselves!

This morning’s readings are a tale of two cities.

On the one hand, we have the Sadducees asking pointless questions to the God of the living. But they aren’t the only people asking questions this week. Our psalmist also approaches God with a question…

We might call it a question, or a demand. It’s really a petition, a desperate question to God: please save me. I’ve done all the right things, and I’m still hurting.

Won’t you save me?

Won’t you show me your marvelous loving kindness?

Won’t you keep me as the apple of your eye? Hide me under the shadow of your wings?

Won’t you save me?!

Two different readings. Two different kinds of questions.

It seems pretty obvious that the Sadducees are a good example of what not to do when it comes to asking pointless questions.

So what sorts of questions are we supposed to ask?

What are we supposed to do to be faithful followers of Christ?

It can be completely exhausting to walk around in the world sometimes. There’s so many things competing for our time. Our energy. Our money. Our compassion. There’s so many competing definitions of what it means to “be faithful”

“ be perfect”

“pray 5x a day”

“read the Bible once a year”

“give this much money to these organizations”

“pay attention to this crisis”

This is exhausting. But I don’t think any of this, in the end, is THE key to being faithful—even if it might be a helpful tool.

The God of the living doesn’t need your perfection, doesn’t need my piety, doesn’t need these tools. Our call to faithfulness, really, is about our attention.

We don’t have to have the answers.

But I’m convinced that we need to ask the right questions.

What is the right question?

Do you know that phrase that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”? I do—I hear it all the time in classes—it’s a very common thing for a professor to say first day of an intro class… “there’s no such thing as a stupid question, so ask it, because someone else probably has that question too”. Or, if you’re a teacher or a parent, maybe you’ve said the same thing: “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”.

But we all know the feeling when someone inevitably pipes up and asks… well, you know, a stupid question. So some people think this adage is wrong, that there can be stupid questions… and one author names, among others, the wrong kind of question as a question “that can be answered on one’s own with complete certainty”.

I think the Sadducees’ question fits into this camp, after all, they didn’t even believe that the question THEY ASKED was relevant to their worldview. They had an answer.

It was the wrong question. Jesus doesn’t spend time with it because it’s not really the question that needs to be asked.

It was the wrong question.

Questions are not bad things. Even stupid ones. The religious authorities’ test of Jesus was only a wrong question because it wasn’t a real question.

What is the right question to ask Jesus?

A right question… is a real question.

It is a real question. It is the question, or questions, or pleas or demands that you want to offer before God.

It’s not the question you ask because you think you’re smarter than God. It’s not the question to ask just for the sake of asking a question.

It’s the question that is bubbling inside your soul right now. The one that you hear on really sad or happy days, or on quiet evenings alone when the wind whistles outside your door.

It’s the question that you ask God in the midst of grief and despair and joy and wondering.

Perhaps your question is from the Psalms, perhaps like the Psalmist you are asking “won’t you save me?” The Psalms, Ecclesiasties, the Prophets, Lamentations—there’s so many right questions in the Bible.

If you were going to ask God one question, what would you ask?

The question or questions that you’re thinking of, that’s the question that God is waiting to hear. That’s the question that Jesus is waiting outside the door of your heart to answer

There is a famous painting by pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt that hangs in the chapel of Keble College, Oxford. It’s called “The Light of the World”—perhaps you’ve seen a picture of it. In in, Christ stands, with the faint glimmer of sunrise peeking through the trees behind him. He takes up most of the frame—benevolent, reflective, in rich clothing with a crown of thorns. He holds a lantern in one hand—the other is raised—knocking on a wooden door. This is a door which is covered with ivy. There is no knob or keyhole.

The door represent the human soul, which according to the description, cannot be opened from the outside. No lock. No key. Christ does not have the key. But Christ stands and knocks—asking to be let in.

How shall we let him in?

If we wait until all the dishes are clean, and the floor is mopped, and we go to church every Sunday and pray perfectly and read the Bible every day… for some of us, Christ will be waiting a long time.

But Christ stands and knocks—asking to be let in.

Instead of the waiting until we have all the answers, perhaps what will open the door of your soul in this season, is the question that you and I have been afraid to ask.

The real question, that perhaps seems stupid. Or like something I should know already.

The God of the living stands and knocks—asking to be let in.

What question will open the door of your heart?

Audio Recording: Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Waldorf.
Audio often differs from written text.

William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World, 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 122 x 60.5 cm. Keble College, Oxford. Scanned from Judith Bronkhurst, ‘William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné’ (Yale University Press, 2006).

Dangerous Love (sermon)

About a decade ago, the movie Evan Almighty came out. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a modern retelling of the Noah story, where a brand new congressman named Evan is asked to co-sponsor a bill that would allow development in national parks. 

Before Evan has decided what to do, God—played by the one and only Morgan Freeman–steps in, and says, “oh hey. Evan. I’d like you to build an ark”.

And, at first it’s just a statement. Hey, this is the job I have for you. But Evan is a bit surprised, and like, I think, most of us would, thinks it might be a hoax and tries to carry on with his new suburban life.

But God doesn’t go away, and neither does this annoying commission to build an ark. Wood and tools arrive in his front yard, animals—two by two—begin to just show up. His hair and beard grow overnight, and he suddenly can’t wear anything other than what we might call prophet’s garb. And the more Evan tries to avoid God, the worse it gets. 

When I read today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah, I hear something similar going on.

God tells Jeremiah that:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

What an intimidating job description! A “prophet to the nations”! It’s no wonder that Jeremiah says “you know what God? I’m too young for this whole prophet to the nations thing. I’m just a priest, I’m not ready for a promotion yet.”

But just like in Evan Almighty, God isn’t willing to accept this answer from Jeremiah.

“You must go

I am with you to deliver you

I have put my words in your mouth”

And we hear this refrain in scripture a lot—do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. I, God, am going to give you all the tools you need. We hear this again and again in the stories of Noah, and Abraham, and Jacob, and Moses, and Elijah, and Isaiah, and Peter, and Paul, and centuries of saints and martyrs. Don’t be afraid. I’m going to equip you for what I’m calling you to do.

In the case of Jeremiah, that’s really comforting… until you get to the very next lines, when God tells Jeremiah what his job actually entails.

Plucking up. Pulling down.

Destroying. Overthrowing.

Building up. Planting.

And despite what some Biblical commentators might argue, I don’t think this is figurative language. Plucking up and pulling down means literally pulling an entire nation and people out of its self-serving, idolatrous ways. Destroying and overthrowing means that these people will literally go to captivity in Babylon for disobeying God. We know this from the first few verses of the chapter, which are not included in our lection today, where the editors tell us that in the fifth month, the people went into exile.

This isn’t a nice, cozy call to be a prophet to the nations. It’s not a relatively cushy job, like Jonah’s, where the people all repent, and all the difficulties he has to deal with are from his own personal issues. There’s no promised exodus for these individuals—a lot of them are going to die in captivity. Most will never see their homeland again. The building up and planting won’t actually apply to most of them. Jeremiah himself will never see the people of Israel restored to the land.

Reading Jeremiah’s call story should be inspiring. After all, God, despite all of Jeremiah’s objections about being too young and not good enough, says that he was still called, and still had a role to play in God’s work.

But I think we’re also being duly warned about what a call from God might require from us.

Scholar and pastor Robert Laha writes of the book of Jeremiah that “Re-creation and renewal requires the tearing down and dismantling of old and useless structures. This, of course, is a difficult and often unwelcome work because it means letting go of old hopes and dreams and trying to imagine something new that, as of yet, does not exist.”

God’s call could mean letting go of old hopes and dreams and to imagine something new that does not yet exist.

God’s words in our mouths are risky and life-altering.

For me, that has meant leaving behind other plans, ideas of what my future might hold, to go to seminary. And maybe your call—your vocation has required you to give up something that’s perceived as “successful” or lucrative… in order to do something else. Maybe your call has required you to take your successful career in a new direction, or spend your limited free time in the care of others, or give more time and money than you normally would to support God’s mission in the world.

God’s words in our mouths are dangerous and death-dealing.

They spell death for the things that distract us from God, the pursuit of idols, our focus on money over the lives of innocent human beings, our focus on short-term profit over the ecosystems that sustain life on this planet, our focus on the people who tout their own authority while crushing the poor under their feet.

God’s words in our mouths refocus our priorities on the kingdom of God, instead of our earthly kingdoms.

Suddenly, our gifts and talents that seem irrelevant become a part of our vocation. We move from being the authorities, critiquing Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, to seeking out the work of the kingdom, knowing that the care of others’ souls is more urgent than any ideology.

We move from destruction to building and planting, from exile to freedom, from idolatry to love.

For Jeremiah, and for each of us, we are being called to speak a dangerous truth about God’s love and compassion that must deal death to the evil of this world, so that there may be life anew.

It is for this life that Christ died and was raised.

And it is for this life that you, too, are being called.

What words is God putting in your mouth?

Where are you being called to dangerous, life-giving love?

Audio recording