A Wilderness of Names

Text of the sermon preached on Proper 19B (September 13, 2015) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

What shall we call him?

It’s been an invitation and a dilemma, down through the ages, what name to use for Jesus. According to Mark it was a dilemma for the disciples. The buzz in the streets varied from group to group, and that worried them, for the names people used were different in their meanings. Some called him a prophet, some said he was Elijah come back to life, some said he was a magical healer, others said he was the Messiah. And we don’t need the gospel to tell us that there were some who called him a public nuisance and a charlatan. Those voices rise everywhere, about every leader, in every age.

Was he a magician?

Was he a magician?

What shall we say? The disciples wanted to know. Who shall we tell them you are? And from Jesus, the answer came as a question: Who do you say that I am? Peter, who loved him dearly, immediately went for the big name, the head hauncho, Messiah. But Jesus hushed them, telling them not to say that.

But why? Because it might be dangerous for him? Because he wants to wait till later to reveal that? Because he’s meek and humble and finds it embarrassing? None of these reasons hold water: Jesus walks ahead of them into danger and confrontation, not just in Jerusalem, but in every sermon, and every town, a number of which he is thrown out of. And at the end of this passage he is urging them to understand that taking risks is part of being his follower. Nothing ever embarrasses him, not hanging around with prostitutes, not dining with rich men, not being crucified, so it does not make sense that he would cringe from the name Messiah as if it were unseemly. Waiting for the right time is a Markan theme for Jesus, yet in the entirety of this passage it does not seem a good fit, as he moves them away from cautious protection and toward cross-bearing.

Perhaps he is pushing aside the name Messiah here, because it stops the conversation. It stops the story-telling. What more is there to say, after Messiah? And Jesus wants people to wrestle with who he is to them, wants them to wrestle with their own lives and the presence of the kingdom in their lives.

And so over the centuries we’ve come up with a number of other “power names” for Jesus, names that are as familiar to us as the name Jesus is — Christ (the anointed one), Lord, Incarnate Word, Savior, Redeemer, King — these are just a few of the names that bring Jesus easily to mind.

Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah promises he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. We rattle off these names every Christmas, about the baby in the barn. King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Handel’s Messiah names him, proclaiming he shall reign for ever and ever.

I bet Jesus was a farmer.

I bet Jesus was a farmer.

But his own question, “Who do you say that I am?” is not answered by any of these titles. It can only be answered by an honest naming of our own experiences with him, and of him. It can only be answered by spending enough time in his company to let our understanding of who he is emerge and grow.

Traditions that practice personal testimony attempt to get people to do this. But often the testimonies become rote, sounding alike, and become more like creeds than a naming of personal narratives.

His name, Jesus, came from an angel, who gave it to his mother, according to Luke, but Matthew says it was his father.

The point is that most names are given to people, we don’t get to name ourselves. And they express things that people see in us, hope for us, or even feel in our presence. Sarah, for instance, called her baby Isaac, meaning laughter. Because of the joy she felt, and the giggles that came over her when she knew she was pregnant with a child. There was power for her in picking the name of her son, as well as power in bearing a son. And Moses, whose name means drawn from the water, was given that name by Pharaoh’s daughter, who pulled him from the Nile, saving his life. And then she raised him as her son, giving him new life, a life in which his origins are remembered every time someone says his name.

Too often the names we give one another are jeering, even mean. Pointing out our bad habits, our worst moments, our sins. In the U.S., and in most western countries, there is a strong tendency to take people down, especially leaders, to expose clay

Wouldn't you hate to be nicknamed "Martini"?

Wouldn’t you hate to be nicknamed “Martini”?

feet. Presidents. Film Stars. Even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is being hammered for her admission that it was a martini that caused her to fall asleep during the State of the Union address earlier this year. Martini is her moniker now.

The moniker Reverend, only given to me 10 months ago, carries with it an assumption that all of the names associated with Jesus are familiar to me, but in truth, many aren’t part of my personal experience. Am I saved yet? Then is Savior the name I give him? Is he my King of Kings — am I his liege? We cannot name Jesus without naming ourselves — there is no escaping this reality, the reality that was Sarah’s, that was Pharaoh’s daughter’s, and that is ours. In it lies the utter truth of Meister Eckhart’s words, “We are all called to be mothers of God…”

In trust, then, that I too, am being named, I offer from my own soul’s journey, these names for Jesus: Rabbi, or Teacher, the name Mary Magdalene called him by on

In naming Jesus we are reflecting upon ourselves as well.

In naming Jesus we are reflecting upon ourselves as well.

Easter; Lover of My Soul, for all of the times I have been comforted in my sorrows by a word of his; Friend, who bears me up and bears with me; Brother, whose spirit is as familiar to me as my own brother’s, perhaps more so; Hope, for in his tales both clarity and hope have been revealed; Laser of Justice, for his way intervenes in my spirit whenever an argument for a different justice appears in my world; Anointed, for his blessing has over and over touched and lifted me; Good Shepherd, the name I have experienced time and again that I when lost, am found; Bread and Wine, for when words fail, he still sustains.

The disciples will walk on with Jesus, learning as they go the many names of the Way, just as he himself is doing. And so we too, continue our walk in life, the walk on in the wilderness of changing expectations, through our fears and joys. Along our journey we get to know Jesus in different ways and our names for him may change. However, I know that he will be our ending, as he was our beginning. And so my final name for him, and for myself, is Amen. Who do you say that he is?

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