A few years ago I went to a wedding shower at which all the guests walked in the door and someone slapped a nametag on our backs. As an icebreaker we had to talk with folks and try to find out who our “match” was at the party. I was delighted to finally find my match, Brad Pitt, and claim my nametag, which read, of course, “Angelina Jolie.” I promptly peeled my nametage off the back of my shirt and slapped it on the front.
Later that day I was meeting a friend for dinner, and all throughout the dinner I thought I saw the waitress looking at me funny. Finally, as she brought the check to our table she said, “I’m so sorry to bother you, but I keep wondering: is that really your name?”
I still had the nametag on.
No, sadly, Angelina Jolie is not really my name. But, along with every other human being on this planet, I spend a lot of time struggling to remember my name, because to do what you’re meant to do, to be who you’re meant to be on this journey of life, you have to know who you are.
Here at the start of the season after Epiphany, the day wise strangers risked everything to follow a start in the sky, we begin a three-week called “The Work of Worship,” where we’ll try to open up the different elements in the worship service to invite you, the worshipper, into the thought behind the planning of the service. Every Sunday when you arrive here in the nave, you enter a carefully crafted experience designed to move your heart and your mind toward God. Sometimes our planning is spectacularly successful, and sometimes the elements don’t fit as seamlessly as we’d hoped, but you will never enter into an experience that has not been built with the intention of connecting us to God. Today is commonly known in the church calendar as Baptism of Jesus Sunday, so you can guess that it’s no accident that we have celebrated baptisms in worship today. I tend to think it’s a special blessing to celebrate baptism on this Sunday, because baptism—the water, the families, the naming, the promises—is a visible and tangible reminder that Jesus asked the same questions we ask; he had the same doubts that we do about what he was meant to do with his life; and with the blaring messages of the world assaulting him from every corner—like us—he struggled to remember who he was.
For these little ones baptized today, along with their families, they are continuing the human journey to live into their full gift and potential as beloved, created children of God. To do that, they have to know who they are. They have to know their names, the names that they’re given by their parents and most of all, the names they’re assigned by God. They have to know their names, and we have to know ours, too. It’s a good day to remember, because all of us try our whole lives long to hear our true names—to truly know in the deepest part of who we are that we are each beloved children of God—in a world that assigns all kinds of other names to us.
Our gospel accounts of his life and ministry don’t really detail too many periods of internal angst for Jesus the Christ, but we’re here 2000 years after he lived and there’s been a lot of textual redaction in the meantime. That is, the text has been cleaned up to make him more holy than he probably was. I have to believe he did have crises of identity, questions of who he was in the larger picture. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have truly shared our human experience, would he?
One of the things that makes the Christian faith unique in the ranks of world religions is that at Christmas we declare that “God is with us”…that God stepped into human skin and lived a human life. But this idea of God taking on the human experience is not without controversy. Here’s a little church history lesson for you.
When Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire and made Christianity the state religion, he believed unity of the Church was important to the political strength of the empire. So, in 325 he called a meeting, the Council at Nicea, to settle disputes about the nature of Christ. After long meetings, the council finally issued the Nicene Creed, agreeing that Jesus was both fully man and fully God, with the same divine nature as God.
But there was still ongoing controversy, so on October 8, 451, the largest of all church councils was convened at Chalcedon. Five or six hundred bishops of the early church attended, representing many conflicting views. After much wrangling, they adopted a new creed which re-affirmed both the divine and human natures of Christ recognized over 100 years before at Nicea, and also stated that the two natures of Christ were “without confusion, without conversion, without severance, and without division.” So, that pretty much settled everything.
All of that to say that our desperate yet conflicted need to understand Jesus as human and yet divine has been going on for a long, long time. And no matter how we try to hang words around it, we long for a God who knows what it’s like to be us, because human life is hard and we struggle to know who we really are and who we’re really meant to be.
Jesus did, too.
Some of us come to organized religion, not out of obligation, but out of desperation, searching for God in the middle of life’s questions and pain.
Jesus did, too.
Some of us go out into the world and hear conflicting messages, names others assign us, and we find it hard to remember who we really are.
Jesus did, too.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus walked down a dusty Galilean road, right at the beginning of his ministry, wondering about all these things. And when he got to the river he ran smack into all of those people who had been listening to John the Baptist, asking questions of their own. Here are the kind of people they were: unable to find comfort or assurance in traditional religion, convinced that the religious teachings of the day could not address their questions, panicked about the oppressive political regime increasingly clamping down on their lives, desperate enough to trek to the desert to listen to a man many thought was crazy, confused about who they were in a society and religious climate riddled with conflicting messages. They needed, like we do, to know who they were.
And then along came Jesus.
He waded into the muddy water and asked John the Baptist to dunk him under, to bless him and name him. And that’s all so strange and beautiful. What kind of God starts a message to the world by getting dunked under the water like everybody else, coming up dripping, sputtering, rubbing the silt out of his eyes? A God who knows what it’s like to be us, who wonders like we do: “Who am I and what am I meant to do with my life?”
Just as Jesus came up out of the water, as you heard, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove. The Gospel of Matthew says the Spirit “alighted” on him. And Jesus heard the voice from heaven answering his question. “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Beloved. That was his name. That was the name God gave him. And that is what God has named you, too—you and you and you and me and you. Beloved.
Like Jesus, it’s our most holy and sacred work to remember our names, and to live like we believe them.
Fred Craddock is known as one of the most gifted preachers in our lifetimes. He died almost two years ago after a distinguished career of preaching, writing, and teaching. He was a very slight man, but he could spin a story in the pulpit that was hard to forget. A few years ago I heard him tell this story:
Fred and his wife Nettie were just starting out—he was a new and young preacher. They didn’t have a lot of money and couldn’t take vacations frequently, so it was quite a treat when they had an opportunity to slip away to the mountains of Tennessee for a few quiet days in a remote cabin.
One day they went into the little town nearby to have lunch and they saw in the local diner an elderly man going from table to table greeting diners. Eventually the man made his way to their table and, learning that Fred was a pastor, he insisted on telling him a story.
If you happen to be a pastor you will know that public knowledge of your vocation often leads to the very strangest conversations. Craddock, truth be told, didn’t really want to hear this man’s story—he was on vacation! But he sighed and made room for the man to sit down and tell his story.
The man said he had been born a few miles from that very spot, right on the other side of the mountain. There was great shame in his childhood, he said, because his mother had not been married when he was born. His family struggled with backbreaking poverty. He learned young to stay to himself at school and to work hard at drowning the insults that were sure to come his way. A big part of his childhood was hearing, over and over, the word, “Bastard!” whispered under folks’ breath whenever he and his mother walked by on the sidewalk or on the playground at school.
Because of this pain, this little boy stayed as far out of the limelight as he could muster. He went to school and came home and that was about it.
When he was about twelve, word began to spread that there was a revival in town. A big tent was set up right on the edge of town and everyone was talking about what was going on there. Apparently there was a preacher visiting, the most entertaining preacher anyone had ever heard.
As word of this new preacher trickled gradually his way, the boy began to get curious about the new entertainment in town. Finally the boy decided he had to hear the preacher, so he snuck into the revival one night, almost undercover, and he found that the stories were true. The preacher left all of them sitting on the edge of their seats, just waiting for what he had to say next.
The boy came back again the next night. And the next. But he was always careful to slip in late, sit in the back, duck down in the pew to remain unnoticed, and always leave early, before anyone could question his right to be in church or throw any insult in his direction.
On the last night of the revival the boy was so caught up in the service that he forgot to slip out early. When the service was over he turned to leave and suddenly he felt a big hand on his shoulder. As he whipped around, he saw the face of the preacher.
The preacher said, “Who are you, son? You look familiar! Who is your father?”
The boy’s heart sank at the dreaded question, but then—perhaps seeing the boy’s panic—the preacher went on:
“Wait a minute. I know who you are. The family resemblance is unmistakable. You are a beloved child of God!
With that he patted the boy on the back and added, “That’s quite an inheritance, son. You go now…and claim it!”
“You know,” that man told Fred and Nettie at the end of his story, “that moment when I heard what God thought of me…that changed my life.” Then he thanked them for listening and moved on to visit at another table.
As they finished up their lunch, laughing again at the strange experiences preachers have everywhere—even at lunch at a diner in the mountains of Tennessee—their waitress stopped by the table. “Do you know who that man is?” she asked. No, they didn’t. She explained that he was Ben Hooper, a local legend. He had been raised right there in their little town, risen out of poverty to become a lawyer, and then elected to two consecutive terms as governor of the state of Tennessee.
Out in this cold, hard world we hear messages every single day, messages telling us who we are. Not good enough, a failure, disappointing, unhappy, incapable of loving or being loved.
But those voices are not calling us by our real names.
And once we know who we really are, we’re bound to do audacious things, like follow a star…or start to believe a little, tiny bit…or whisper a prayer…or love someone we couldn’t love before…or forgive, even ourselves. Knowing who we are, who we really are, and who God has created us to be is where we begin this year.
Here at the start of 2017, I think we all know there will be much required of us in the days ahead: courage, conviction, selfless work to build communities that reflect justice and radical love, the determination to speak truth to power. We cannot do any of these things unless we know our names, unless we know who we are. So today, answer the question again: “Who are you? What’s your name,” and listen: Beloved. Beloved. Beloved. Be. Loved.