Sunday, June 12, 2022

Making a Name for Yourself

Sermon preached the Day of Pentecost, June 5, 2022 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath New York:  Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-27.

You can listen to the sermon here.

          One of the things that came out of the recent book study in which several of us participated was the very basic question of “So what?”

          The author was trying to get across the need for we Christians to get clearer about what difference it makes to be a follower of Jesus, to be a baptized believer.  So what?

          Of course, there are many ways to answer that question, and the answer will vary from individual to individual. We Christians respect the God-given difference each one of us manifests.

          But there are some basics.  One comes out today in these readings, and it centers around a word that appears in all but the psalm:  the word “name.”

          We begin in pre-history Genesis.  The story is of a city called Babel, where humankind is beginning to get the hang of being, well, humankind.  They determine to build a great tower, reaching far into the sky.  The problem with this tower is not so much its height as the motivation behind making it.

          “Come let us build ourselves a city,” the residents say, “and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”

          I think the key words there are “let us make a name for ourselves.” Let’s do some thinking about that phrase: “Let us make a name for ourselves.”

          It’s a phrase we might use to say something nice—even impressive—about someone.  “She really made a name for herself.”  I would be proud if one or more of our nieces and nephews “made a name for him or herself.”  So that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

          Sure.  But there are also problems.  The name we make for ourselves is fleeting.  We’d like it to be our legacy, something that keeps people remembering us far after we are gone.  But that’s hardly ever the case, is it?  The “name we make for ourselves” is fleeting.

          Example.  Not long ago I visited the website of the parish of which I was Vicar and then Rector in Glenn Dale, Maryland, in the Diocese of Washington, DC.  I clicked on “history,” and was disappointed to find I received a single mention:  “The Rev. Michael Hopkins became the first rector of Glenn Dale Parish after having served as Vicar for a number of years.”

          Wait a minute, responded my ego.  I took that place from a handful of people stuck in the rural past of that area to embracing the incredibly diverse suburbs that had grown up around it, and we built the first entirely new church facility in that Diocese in over fifty years.  I started with a congregation of 40 and left with a congregation of 275.

          So, my ego got bruised and, frankly, I was depressed for a few days.  Why? Because I thought I had made a name for myself there, and it seemed to have faded fast.

          I tell that somewhat embarrassing story about myself in the hopes that you will say, “Oh yeah.  I’ve felt something like that before.”

          It isn’t always easy to be content with who we are, to even embrace our own obscurity.

          Now on to the reading rom Acts.  Peter speaks after the wind and fire and the miracle of each understanding the language of each by recalling the prophet Joel.

          “Hey,” he says, “what’s been going on here may seem extraordinarily odd to you, but the prophet Joel talked about a day like this.  And after he described the day we just had he gives the “so what” of it:  “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

          The sentence can whiz right over our heads, at the end of a long reading that is finally over.  But it’s a show-stopper.  It is a piece of good news. It is a piece of radically good news.

          Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  Didn’t matter what language they soke and therefore where they came from, what nationality about which they boasted.  It didn’t matter what their record was in the morality department.  It didn’t matter if they had or had not made a name for themselves.

           It mattered only that they called on God’s name, said “yes” to the divine invitation that was exploding all around them.

          Jesus also speaks of this divine name and its power.  “I will do whatever you ask in my name,” he says, “so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

          Now that is a somewhat difficult saying because it can lead to an over-simplified understanding of prayer.  It sounds like a simple instruction to open the divine cookie jar.  Ask me—use my name!—and I will do it.

          It’s important not to lose the context—what we ask needs to be for God’s glory, not our own.  And, there is the little addition of love. “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”

          When Jesus says to “pray in my name” he’s not establishing a sort of magic incantation, that as long as you say “in the name of Jesus we pray” at the end of any prayer, poof, request granted.

          No. “in my name” means something far more, far deeper.  In Jewish thinking, one’s “name” is a symbol, a container, for one’s very essence.  God’s Name is God’s essence, and God’s presence. It was the Name of God that was said to dwell in the Temple.

          So if we are praying in Jesus’ name we are praying in his essence, trying to be as best as we can a total part of what he is about in the world.  We’re trying to bring our own name and his name together, our own essence, our own being, one with his essence, his being.

          So—and here’s the good news—we don’t have to make a name for ourselves.  We just need to get in alignment with Jesus’ name. We need to get in tune with God’s way of being in the world

          So—sure—it would be nice to be remembered—to be credited with a great thing now and then—to make a name for myself.  But all that is really, blessedly, meaningless.

          It is enough to participate in divine glory-making, divine love-making. It is enough to take on the name—the only name that saves, and it isn’t mine or yours. It is Jesus.

          And the Holy Spirit?  Well, it is the Holy Spirit that is Jesus’ own gift to you and to me and to us to lead us into any “so what?” that really matters. 

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