Monday, January 2, 2012

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus 2012

Assist us to proclaim
Holy Name of Jesus
The Reverend Patricia M. Grace
January 1, 2012                                        St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

From Hymn #493:
 Jesus! the name that charms our fears and bids our sorrows cease;
'tis music in the sinner's ears, 'tis life, and health, and peace.

Today is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus –
the day we stop and celebrate the power of Jesus’ name.

It’s no coincidence that we do this on the very first day of the year –
a signal of how primary this celebration is in our liturgical lives.

But how important, really, is the name of Jesus
            in our regular, everyday lives?  
Several years ago,
            I was sitting in my car at a red light,
listening to a program on National Public Radio. 
The announcer was reviewing a movie that wasn’t familiar to me –
a movie about football called “North Dallas Forty.” 

the film represented something important
in the history of sports culture
and it was celebrating an anniversary –
the quarter century mark, if memory serves correctly. 

As part of the segment,  
the reviewer played portions of the movie’s dialogue. 
That dialogue, to my unacquainted ear,
seemed to consist entirely of three words. 
One of those words was the common four letter word for excrement.
The other two words were always used in combination –
the words, Jesus Christ. 

Now that movie and its anniversary
are not the important parts of this story –
at least not for our purposes today. 
What’s important is how those three words were rendered
and what that says about the time and the culture in which we live. 

You see, whenever that common four letter word was used,
it was “bleeped out” –
presumably, so that the tender ears of the radio audience
would not be offended. 
But whenever the characters issued the expletive,  “Jesus Christ”
– and you can be assured, it was an expletive –
they were not praying at the time –
well, those  words were left intact
to assault the ears of all in listening range.

My initial reaction was to be flabbergasted –
which quickly turned to being outraged. 
I was so shocked,
I sat dumbstruck through the changing of the light –
and then,  I began to pound on the steering wheel
and shout back at the radio in anger. 

I continued to hold forth in like manner
until the folks behind me began honking their horns
and started to communicate with their own four letter words
and in a few instances, with sign language. 

So, I pushed on,
flushed with the heat of my reaction
and pondering in my heart what the world was coming to.

As I continued on my way,
I firmly resolved to call or write to that radio station
and, in fact, to the entire firmament of NPR,
 and tell them in no uncertain terms of my extreme reaction
 to the profane use of my savior’s name…
AND to comment on the editorial policies of a station
that believed that the use of that four letter word
was more objectionable
than to use the words “Jesus Christ” as a curse.

But I was in seminary at the time – my last semester, in fact. 
And when I got back to campus,
the due date of my honors thesis loomed large,
I had a sermon to write,
and my soon-to-be new rector and his wife
were coming that next afternoon to interview me,
so my dorm room needed immediate attention of epic proportions

So, I never did anything. 
I lost my resolve and never registered my complaint.

That incident has come back to me several times, though
 …reminding me of how significantly our culture has changed
in the 50-something years of my life. 
In my childhood,
the words Jesus Christ would never have been used
            in public or in private
to punctuate a sentence,
and certainly were never to be uttered as an expletive.

Instead, as my grandmother patiently trained us,
we were to bow our heads each time we heard or said that name. 

This was a way to show our love for Jesus,  she said –
a kind of little prayer we could offer,
at any time or place,
to remind us that Jesus is the Lord of all, 
that he is the one to whom every head should bow
and every knee should bend,
with affection, of course – but also, with respect and gratitude. 

I still continue that habit today –
you all thought I was just nodding off, up here, didn’t you? 
Not so – I still dip my head just ever so slightly in a reverent way,
every time I say or hear that sacred name.
But the world does not react that way –
in fact, it acts just the opposite. 

Our world has grown increasingly vulgar, secular and obscene. 

The issue of civil discourse –
how we speak to and about each other,
has been the subject of countless radio and television programs,
as well as commentary by a variety of national and world leaders
in the print and internet media, as well. 
We live in a time and place
where we receive little encouragement to practice
what our forebears called careful and courteous conversation.
We live in a time and place in which we get offended by the wrong things –
and fail to register our outrage
when something sacred is violated or worse,
when something sacred is used as a cheap punch line
or is completely ignored. 

To think that the name of the One,
to whom we owe our very lives – our eternal lives –
is so routinely and publicly abused –
that fact generates a feeling of deep despair in me. 

From the beginning of time,
the people of God understood the power of words –
and the significance of a name. 
God spoke all of creation into being. 
The ancients believed that if you knew someone’s name,
you had power over them
and responsibility to them. 
The name of God was considered so powerful, so sacred,
that human beings were not permitted to utter it out loud–
they were only to represent that name with four letters,
the Tetragrammaton –
and taught to substitute the word Adonai or Lord, for Yahweh.  

Note, how often in Scripture,
God changes the name of the ones
God calls into some special mission –
Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai, Sarah; 
Jacob, Israel;
Simon, becomes Peter, the rock. 

The very name of Jesus, is given to Mary by an angel –
call him Yeshua, the angel says –
the one who saves in the name of God. 
The Messiah, that one who would save all people,
was known as the logos, the word, in Greek –
the very word of God
which would take on flesh and dwell among us.
Jesus, himself,
taught his followers to ask for what they needed in his name. 
And the faithful of the early church did just that –
driving out demons, providing protection,
changing the course of the whole world
through the calling out of that name.   

Not only those early faithful have felt the power of that name.
Throughout the past two thousand years,
through all manner of things,
people have called upon that name.
Only recently, during that terrible tsunami
that overtook southeast Asia a few years ago,
the story was told of a miracle. 
A man, trapped in a small boat with his children,
invoked the name of Jesus,
and the raucous waves around him
were stilled –
they abated just long enough to enable them
to make it to a safe harbor. 
The name of Jesus has the power
to bring comfort to the most tortured of souls
and the most troubled of hearts  -
many a deathbed prayer has ended with that name. 

Today on this special feast day,
I’d like to make a new year’s resolution
and invite you to do the same.  

For sure, it would be good for each of us as individuals
to resolve to be  more careful about what we say and how we say it – especially about how we use sacred words
and how we use words in regard to other people,
especially those we don’t like or agree with.

And I know for myself,
I need a discipline to help me remember to call on the name of Jesus
when times are hard,
or when I find myself or our congregation
in times of trouble.
But we might want to go a little farther
than that personal approach.
I wonder what might happen,
how might our immediate world be changed,
if we gently, firmly and with respect,
took exception when someone abuses the name of Jesus,
or God, in our presence. 
How might our own sensibilities grow more Christ-like
            and how might the world be changed,
if we paid more attention to the way
that our common use of language today
abuses or demeans others?
How might the overall civility and Christ-like aspects
of our world be changed
if we took the time to respectfully explain,
why forms of speech that denigrate God or others
offend us
and destroy the sacred fabric of community –
the sacred nature of our common humanity?

What might change in our world
if we took episodes of expletives or
instances of derogatory language
                        as opportunities to witness?  

What if we took those opportunities
as a chance to tell others
what we know about this Jesus Christ character 
and how he lived and died to create a world
in which all people were to be called
brother, sister, friend –
in which all people were to be spoken to with respect,
and spoken of with love,
no matter who or what they are?

What if we took my grandmother’s advice,
and stopped to say a little prayer –
when we hear the name of Jesus -
what if we decided right there in that time and place –
our time and place –
to invite others to join us in asking for what we need in that name? 

What a life-changing contributor
to our time and culture we might become.
What an amazing new year
a new year of our Lord,
that might bring …

Let us pray:   Oh, gracious Master and our God, assist us to proclaim, and spread through all the earth abroad the honors of your name.

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