Sermon: What's in a name?
What’s in a name?
Sometimes a lot.
We have read these words of the prophet Jeremiah: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” And what a wonderful promise – and what a hopeful word this was for the people of Israel to hear at that dark time in their life.
But I wonder how many people today, when they hear “a righteous Branch for David,” think immediately of Branch Davidians and that horrible debacle down in Waco – or as some say, Wacko, Texas? Didn’t they see themselves as the righteous branch for David, and take that name for themselves, and “execute justice and righteousness” under it? Can we ever hear that name again, without thinking “Wacko”?
It’s the same with the public name of Christian in the North American media for at least the past generation. For at least that long the mainstream church has suffered the Moral Majority and the Religious Right and the particular crusades they identify to save the world, becoming so associated in the public mind with what is “Christian” that it sometimes leaves the rest of us a little embarrassed and defensive about using the name ourselves.
The same with ISIS or ISIL, and the way Muslims around the world now find the name of Islam dragged into support for a world-terrifying movement that none of them support. To counter this, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande and other world leaders are beginning to refer to ISIL as “Daesh” instead, which is the Arabic acronym for the English name ISIL – to separate the group from Islam in the public’s mind. But will it catch on?
The same with ultra-Zionism and Jews. Not all Jews are Zionists, but how often are they all tarred with that brush?
It’s no wonder many today think that the variety of religious traditions – at least those within the family of Abrahamic faith and those that feel especially called to save the world in some terrifying way, to rid the world of evil and bring in the kingdom, and whose name ends up in all the headlines because of it – written on the clouds in glory, are part of the problem rather than part of the solution to the world’s woes, and that if we really want to move ahead to a better world we need to do it without our inherited religious connections and commitments and communities.
It reminds me of a cartoon I saw years ago of the Holy One and a little angel leaning over the edge of a cloud to look down on Earth.
The little angel, troubled look on his face, says, “Protestants and Catholics in Ireland are killing each other in your name, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East are killing each other in your name, Christians and Muslims in Europe and America are at each other’s throats in your name, and even different Muslims are counting each other as enemies in your name. What are you going to do?”
To which the Holy One says, with a deep sigh, “I think I need to change my name.”
What’s in a name?
Sometimes a lot, depending on who uses it, and to what end.
But I wonder – does one bad apple spoil the barrel? Or, to follow the image Jesus uses in the Gospel reading this morning about the coming of God’s redemption into a troubled world, does one bad branch of figs mean we cut down the whole tree?
Or do we who see God in more open, compassionate and healing ways just keep doing what we are doing in the name we are given in the way we are given to understand it, and let our actions, our lives, and the fruit of our faith be known in the world for what it is?
Because what can we do about those who act in God’s name in ways not in keeping with how we have been given to know God?
The prophet Jeremiah is clear that the name of the messiah and of God’s salvation is “the Lord is my righteousness” – an awkward name, but one meaning it’s God and not God’s servant who ultimately is responsible for the redeeming and healing that are done – that the work is not something any servant of God or even the messiah can properly take into his or her own hands and make just their own as they wish.
In the way Jesus talks about the coming of healing into a troubled world, it’s something that comes in God’s own time and God’s own way – not his, because he is just the servant. And what’s required of his followers is simply to be ready for its coming, alert to the ways it begins to appear in our time, and free enough of the constant temptations to comfort and self-centredness that we be able to take our part in whatever good thing God is doing in our time and not embarrass the One in whose name we live.
So what else can we do but take seriously the name of “Christian” we are given, take seriously how we are given to understand it, and live it out as best we can in works of charity and peace, works of forgiveness and healing, works of care for Earth and its creatures, works of compassion and God’s way of justice?
And as we do this alongside brothers and sisters with slightly different names given to them, but with the same understanding of who God really is, we encourage and inspire them and they encourage and inspire us, and maybe – just maybe, as we work together in the name of God as we understand God, we help the world see there really is hope, not all the news is bad, and God and God’s people really are part of the solution for the world in its sorrow.
This week I saw on the CBC website, this headline: “This happens in Canada: Peterborough synagogue welcomes Muslims displaced by mosque arson” and underneath the headline was this quote from the president of the mosque when asked about his people offering their weekly prayers to Allah in a synagogue: “At the end of the day,” he said, “it's a house of God.”
It made me proud to be Canadian – that this kind of leadership toward a better world is practiced here and makes the news. It also made me proud to be Christian – that I can be brother to people who act this way in the name of the same God that I worship.
Because what’s in a name?
As we try to find God’s way towards a better world beyond and in the midst of the troubles of our day, maybe everything – depending on who uses it, and in what spirit.