Sermon for January 1, 2017, The Feast of the Holy Name, “What’s in a name”? (Preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin)

Listen to sermon here:

I am the second of two children.  I grew up living in a two-family house.  My aunt and uncle – my father’s sister and brother- lived upstairs and I lived downstairs with my parents and older sister. When I was nine years-old, my uncle died. Five months later, my father died. A week later my aunt died.

I had never known my paternal grandparents, as they had both died before I was born.  So from being surrounded by my father’s family, I went to having one remaining paternal aunt who lived across town.  At the age of nine, I was one of three remaining heirs to my father’s name, but I had a limited idea as to what that legacy meant.

And I didn’t have a very reliable way of finding out, because as I grew older, I started to realize that I had very few- far too few – memories of my father.  My sister would bring up things she remembered from our childhood- trips to Santa’s Village, visits to our extended family, simple, everyday occurrences in our household – and I wouldn’t remember any of them.

Eventually, after becoming a psychologist, I recognized that my memory deficit was traumatic- an effect of suffering from so much loss at a young age- but that realization did nothing as far as getting my memories back.  No amount of therapy allowed me to break through the protective block I had put around my missing memories of my father, so I continued to have very little identification with what it meant to be “a White.”

But I knew it was important.  I knew because my sister and my aunt told me so.  The Whites, I was informed, were a very proper, sophisticated, old New England family and I should wear my name with pride.  Of course, the flipside of that message was that my mother’s family -the Schleinkofers – were not as good.  My mother was only a “third generation” American, saddled with a German name and German heritage during a period of American history in which both conditions were treated with great suspicion.

And, according to my family system, I was a “Schleinkofer.” Why? My sister told me the story this way:

“When you were first born and Mama was paying so much attention to you that I felt ignored, I went upstairs to Aunt Cath and Uncle John to get some attention from them.  Aunt Cath sat me down at their kitchen table and said, ‘It’s alright.  You don’t need her attention.  You are a White.  You belong to our family. That baby can belong to your mom’s family.”


And that was how we thought of ourselves for many years. My sister carried all of the privilege – and responsibility – of the “White” name, while I was the favorite of my maternal grandfather, who taught me his values – hard work, a desire to get along with everyone he met, and a strong aversion to “standing on ceremony.”  Those who know me know that those ideals are still very much a part of who I am. Thus, while on paper I am “the Reverend Dr. Deborah White,” in person I am just “Deb.”

That may be a good thing- but the division produced by my aunt’s statement also had lasting negative effects for my relationship with my sister – and hers with my mother- for many years. It was not until we were well into our 30s – not until we learned that part of the White family legacy was the depression that my father had – and that both of us suffer from – not until she was a priest and I was a psychologist – not until we actually talked to each other about it -that we could understand and address how our individual identifications with different sides of our family had hurt our relationship with one another – and limited our spiritual development.

People do this kind of damage to each other every day – by how we interpret the news, in the ways we act in our encounters during post-Christmas shopping and gift returns, and when we dine out or in with visiting family members.  We do it when we make casual judgments of others – by wondering what kind of person would name their child “North West,” by denigrating others’ “strange” holiday traditions – and in our impulsive perceptions about who or what is really “American.”  The way we name ourselves and others is a very powerful thing.

That’s why we celebrate the feast of the Holy Name today.  Because just as how many of us define ourselves stems from our understanding of our names, so too did the people who surrounded the infant born to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth develop their first opinions about him based on his name.

As a first-century Palestinian Jew, Jesus received his name just like any other baby boy; on the eighth day of his life as part of his circumcision ceremony.  His name, according to Luke’s account, was pre-ordained because the angel that had appeared to Joseph and told him to go ahead and marry his pregnant, seemingly unfaithful fiancé, also told him that they were to name the child, “Jesus.”

It was not a particularly unusual name, but it was a famous one.  “Jesus” (or “Yeshua”) is a version of the ancient prophet’s name “Joshua,” which means, “The Lord is salvation.”  (Clearly there was no pressure on Jesus to live up to any significant parental expectations)!  But Jesus’s name wasn’t about expectations or even evangelism.  It was about reconciliation.

Some of you may know that in Jewish tradition, the full name of God is neither written nor spoken. This is a sign of respect based on the idea that simply by saying the name of God aloud we can profane it.  Our understanding of the name that God takes for Godself originates in the book of Exodus when Moses asks God his name.  In many English translations of the Bible, God says, “I am the Lord,” but in Hebrew the word God uses is “Yahweh,” and is better translated as a phrase, “I am.”  Thus, when asked her name, God says merely, “I am,” meaning that God was not created.  God is – and has always been.  God is constant.  God answers to no one.  God is, according to the psalmist, exalted, majestic, our Governor – one who is so great that human beings do not even deserve her notice – one who is master over all creation.  God is awesome.

And God is very far away.  For who but the most pathological narcissist really thinks that they are worthy of God’s individual attention, God’s time, or God’s love?  Certainly not the ancient Israelites, who saw God as a distant, demanding master, to whom they were as slaves, whose very name was so sacred that they could profane it just by speaking it.  They were not, to put it plainly, on a first-name basis with God.

But we as Christians are – not based on our own merit, but through the revelation of God in earthly form that is Jesus. Through Jesus’s sacrificial love, we have been invited into a closer and more intimate relationship with God.  By taking a human name – an ancient and respected Jewish name – God signaled to humanity that we not only could, but should believe that God does indeed want to be near to us – to be part of us.  Through the holy name of Jesus we have become, in the words of St. Paul, “no longer [slaves but children and heirs] of our God.”

And, for us, this inheritance is free – because the cost has already been paid by Jesus, our brother and savior.  It has been paid in blood – in the blood he shed when he was beaten by soldiers – in the blood he shed when he was nailed to a cross – in the blood which flowed out of his side when he was wounded for our transgressions.  By accepting his human name, Jesus showed humanity that he was willing to bleed so that we could be reconciled to a God who had become remote from his human children. And the first of that blood was shed at his circumcision when he accepted the Holy Name that is our salvation.

That is what it means to accept the name of Jesus as our own, to be a “Christian” – a follower of Jesus the Christ. It means that each time we do something “in the name of Jesus” we have the opportunity to remember and honor God’s tremendous love for us.  It means knowing that all of us – whatever our earthly name may be – share an inheritance of grace and peace- not because of anything we have done, but because God has shared with us the glory and majesty of his name – and for that reason – and for that reason alone – we are blessed. AMEN.

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