January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, Isaiah 43:1-7
“What’s Your Name?”
In the reading from Isaiah, God tells the people that they are precious and loved. God promises to be with them when they go through fire and when the water threatens to overwhelm them. One of the lines that held great power for our text study conversation this week is “I have called you by name, you are mine.” There is something so beautiful and deeply personal about being called by our name. I’m not talking about the full name that a parent or someone in authority yelled when we were in trouble. I am talking about hearing our name spoken with a love so deep that we discover all that is good and beautiful about us.
I went with my friend Emerson to court when he changed his name, and our family gave him a bracelet with his name engraved in it. It was our way of saying, “We see you. We know you and we want to know more of you. We love you.” We created a naming ceremony to celebrate this name and all that it meant.
Some powerful moments we have experienced as a congregation are the blessing ceremonies we have done for our beloveds who have claimed a new name. Let me say their beautiful names out loud this morning: Spencer, Cecil, Ian. As these stood among us and we gathered around them, we prayed giving thanks for their name and prayed that they would feel God’s goodness as they embraced their name. Then we gave them a new nametag. The nametag wasn’t an afterthought or a smalltoken. It was our way of seeing and knowing and loving them.
After the death of her husband, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria said, "There is no one left to call me Victoria.”How many of us experience the grief of losing someone who lovingly said our name or gave us a special name?
In text study, we remembered Allen Gilmore who told us that the Lakota had given him a spirit name. We talked about cultures that give a special name as a rite of passage. Often this name tells us something about the person or their mission or their purpose in the world.
What do you know about your name?
The story of Jesus’ baptism appears in all four gospels with slight variations. Did you notice that Jesus is not actually baptized in the reading today? That’s right. It goes from John telling people that one is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The next part of the reading says, “Now when all the people were baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…” What?? It just sort of skips over the moment of baptism. Instead, it picks up afterward when Jesus is praying and tells us “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.’”
Unless you were following along in your Bible, you may have missed that Jesus is given a new name - “Beloved”. It is capitalized and it is clear in a powerful way that God sees and loves Jesus beyond measure. God could have said, “Hey, Jesus, I am proud of you!” But instead, God gives him a new name – Beloved.
Our conversation in text study this week was wonderful. It was very animated. We talked for a very long time about names and the power of names. I never lose sight of the fact that when I walk away from that group, I am responsible for a sermon, so I gave it my best shot and said, “I am loving this conversation, but I am curious that no one is talking about baptism.” I will admit that was pure selfishness on my part. I was hoping to get some insight for the sermon I needed to write.
It wasn’t until I sat down to write that I realized they were talking about baptism all along, but they were talking about it in the way Luke did – “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…” Perhaps they were just more deeply tuned in than I was or maybe it was just one of those magical God moments where we are talking about more than we even realize.
Baptism is powerful. In the moment of our baptism, we are called by name and reminded of God’s deep love for us and we say a profound yes to God (or someone says it on our behalf). Baptism isn’t over when the water dries. It is a lifetime of living into our yes to God’s claim. If you were baptized as an infant, do not use this as an excuse to say you are off the hook. God’s loving claim on you is equally powerful. God calls you by name. To each one of us, God says, “you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you.”
If you doubt what I am saying, let me tell you about Fayette. Fayette’s story was told by Janet Wolf, who used to serve as the pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Hobson UMC is a wildly diverse congregation that includes, as Janet has described it, “…people with power and PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’”
Years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to Hobson. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus and without a home. She joined the new member class. The conversation about baptism—“this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone,” as Janet puts it—especially grabbed Fayette’s imagination. Janet tells of how, during the class, Fayette would ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” “The class,” Janet writes, “learned to respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she’d say, and then we could go back to our discussion.”
The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Janet describes it:
Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.
Two months later, Janet received a phone call.
Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. So, she went. Janet could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When she got to the door, she heard, ‘I am beloved….’ She turned, saw Janet, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’ (Janet Wolf’s story is from The Upper Room Disciplines 1999)
This morning, you invited to claim God’s name for you – Beloved. You may come to the baptismal font and touch the water. You may choose to make the sign of the cross. You may sprinkle some water on yourself. You may take a stone from the water. We will be singing and in the singing, I hope you will hear God say to you, “You are my beloved.” I hope you will see yourself through God’s eyes as beautiful and oh so human, and know that God is still working on you. May you trust the power of God who calls you by name and is making you breathtakingly beautiful.