Saturday, January 18, 2014

Calling Names


Here is tomorrow's homily.  I'm not talking about MLK Jr. -- I just couldn't find a non-clunky way to work it in -- but certainly the story at the end deals with the themes of freedom and overcoming oppression.  (That story may need to come with a trigger warning.)  The readings are Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42.

Today’s readings are obsessed with names. “The Lord called me before I was born,” Isaiah says; “while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”  In the Gospel, John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God,” “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” and “the Son of God.” The disciples call him “Rabbi” and “the Messiah.” And when the disciple Andrew shows up with his brother, Jesus looks at the man and says, “You are Simon son of John,” and then gives him a new name, “Peter.” I know who you are now, Jesus is saying, but I also know who you will become.

Names are powerful. They describe and define us. Most cultures have naming ceremonies for children, and anthropologists know that important life transitions – marriage, coming of age, college graduation – often include new names or titles.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we hear Jesus’ impressive new string of names right after his baptism. Baptism is in part a naming ritual.  Although Episcopalians usually don’t take new baptismal names, names are still at the heart of the sacrament.  At my own baptism, when I was thirty-nine, I heard the words, “Susan, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”  Hearing my given name, “Susan,” assured me that I was known and loved as I was by God and by the church.  And the new labels I received that day -- “sealed with the Holy Spirit” and “marked as Christ’s own forever” – told me my new identity, who I was becoming.

My baptism represented my formal acceptance of God’s call, but the call had begun long before. Other people recognized my faith, and named it, long before I did.   In college, one of my professors kept calling me a Christian because I wrote about Christian themes in literature, even though I kept telling him that I wasn’t Christian; I just liked the symbolism.  In graduate school, a devoutly Jewish professor marked me down on a seminar paper because it wasn’t academic enough; it was really a homily.  At the time, I was deeply insulted.  Now I know that he was saying, “Hey, maybe you should be a lay preacher.”  And when I was looking for a teaching job of my own, one of my best experiences was at a tiny Christian school called Hope College.

I applied for the job at Hope because I was applying for everything. When I had the initial interview, I told the very nice people on the search committee, who happened to be Episcopalian, that I wasn’t Christian. They didn’t seem to care.  When they invited me for a second interview, on campus, I reminded them that I wasn’t Christian. “That’s all right,” they said. “We’d still like you to come.” During the campus interview, I very carefully explained to the department chair and the dean that although I admired certain aspects of Christianity, I wasn't Christian.   They smiled at me.  The dean told me gently that, based on what I’d said about my own beliefs, my theology sounded strongly incarnational.  I wanted to punch him.

The job went to someone with more teaching experience.  But I had fond memories of the really nice people on the search committee, and when I decided to be baptized – more than five years after those interviews at Hope – I sent two of them e-mail and said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but you may be amused to learn that I’ve become an Episcopalian.”

Both of them wrote back. Both of them said, “Of course we remember you. Of course you’re Episcopalian. We knew that. We’re really glad you’ve figured it out.”

Sometimes, to learn who we’re becoming, we need other people to tell us first.  But that’s the second step, the one that begins our new journey.  The first is simple recognition of where, and who, we already are: “Susan, I baptize you.”  All of us yearn to be known by name.

As a college teacher, I have a problem with this, because I’m terrible at remembering names. I’m so name-challenged that I warn my students about it on the first day of class. “If I don’t remember your name, please don’t take it personally.  It’s not you.” And then I do my best to learn all the names as quickly as I can, because many studies – and my own experience -- have shown that students respond better to, and learn more from, teachers who know and use their names. My most dramatic example of the power of recognition, though, doesn’t come from the university.  It comes from the hospital.

Back when I volunteered as a lay ER chaplain, I met a woman covered with bruises. For privacy reasons, I can’t tell you her real name. I’ll call her Polly. I talked to her for a long time. No one had ever loved her or stuck up for her or treated her well except her grandfather, who had died when she was a little girl. She’d been with her husband for decades, and life with him was both grim and dangerous.  He battered her.  He belittled her. And he isolated her: she wasn’t allowed to see friends, or even go to a movie.

Although she’d fled to the ER in fear for her life, we couldn’t convince her to press charges against her husband, or even to take a pamphlet from CAAW, the Committee to Aid Abused Women, which runs a safehouse for battered women here in Reno. But in my conversation with Polly, I learned that she loved to draw and paint. As an ER chaplain, I always carried crayons and paper for children, so I gave some to her. “Will you draw me a picture?”

“It won’t be very good,” she said, but she drew a face in profile – a woman’s face, maybe her own – and signed it with her name, and gave it to me.

“I’m going to take this home and put it on my bulletin board,” I said. “Every day when I look at it, I’ll pray for you.”

And I did, which meant that I looked at her name every day, which meant that I actually remembered it when she came back to the ER a few months later. “Polly!” I said. I was both upset that she was back in the hospital and relieved that she was still alive. Was she ready to leave her husband for good? Could we convince her to press charges this time, or even to take a pamphlet?

My heart hammering with the urgency of her situation, I was startled when her eyes widened in wonder. “You remembered my name!” She didn’t sound like someone impressed by a social pleasantry. She sounded like someone who’d seen a miracle.

“Of course I did.  Remember the picture you drew for me?  You signed it.”

“You kept my picture?”

“Of course I kept it. It’s beautiful. I’ve been praying for you, like I promised I would.”

She shook her head. “I can’t believe you remembered my name.”

Polly left the ER a few hours later. Again she went back to her husband. But this time  she took the CAAW pamphlet I gave her, with its call to empowerment and safety. While there was more to our conversation than that first exchange, I think the fact that I remembered her name made her keep listening to me.  Hearing her name told her that she was known and cared about, that someone wanted her to be whole and cherished. Taking the pamphlet was the smallest of gestures. I don’t know – I will probably never know – what happened after that. I can only pray that somehow Polly found the strength to leave her husband and forge a new, more joyous identity.

As we journey through the reason of Epiphany, let all of us listen for our names. Who are we now? Who is God calling us to become? But let us remember that we are also called to love and name those around us, and to help call them on their own journeys to new life.


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