2014 06 22: What’s in a Name?

Posted on 24 Jun 2014

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Edgar Albert Guest was once known as the People’s Poet.  He was a prolific, English-born American, who wrote for the Detroit Free Press and penned nearly 11,000 optimistic and sentimental poems.  He is seldom quoted today, but one poem seems especially appropriate for this commemoration of St. John the Baptist.  I recall seeing it first as a plaque on a wall in my nephew’s bedroom. It’s entitled, “Your Name.”

You got it from your father, t’was the best he had to give,

And right gladly he bestowed it.  It’s yours, the while you live.

You may lose the watch he gave you And another you may claim,

But remember, when you you’re tempted, To be careful of his name.

Through the years he proudly wore it, to his father he was true,

And that name was clean and spotless when he passed it on to you.

So make sure you guard it wisely After all is said and done

You’ll be glad the name is spotless When you give it to your son

As the crowds gathered in the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah for their son’s naming service, they must have been puzzled by Elizabeth’s decision to name their infant son, John. For generations, the family had passed down the name Zechariah which means “God remembers.”  And now they were to add a new name to the family tree, Johanan or John which mean “God is gracious.”  It is no wonder that St. Luke writes, and all who heard pondered this said, “What then will this child become?”   And yet, isn’t that really the question that every parent, grandparent, godparent or friend wonders as they hold a new born child in their arms, “What will this child become?” Frankly, I think the more important question is, and what will you become to the child?

Of course, we have the advantage of scripture. We know that Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son would live in the desert where large crowds would come out to hear him preach and be baptized.  He would later be arrested for challenging the moral behavior of King Herod, imprisoned and beheaded.  John’s name would be mentioned in all four of the New Testament gospels, and, surprisingly, even in the Koran.  The ancient Roman historian Josephus would dedicates several paragraphs to John in his chronicles, and Jesus himself would said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

Even though, we have all been given good names at birth, life doesn’t always bring us to the same journey’s end.  For some, life does unfold in beautiful, uncomplicated lines and verses, but for others, the tale takes on unpredicted turns. The spotless name given at birth becomes spotted and tarnished along the way, and people lose heart.  Good and well intentioned sons and daughters become disillusioned and disappointed with life.  But the story of John the Baptist offers another possibility for them and for you. He directs us to a savior who will free us from the chains of regret and allow our spirits to be renewed.

This morning, I would like to challenge you to live your life boldly and with purpose like John the Baptist and to let your name be spoken boldly wherever you live and work.  But beware, you may need to change your habits.

Let us begin by proclaiming your good name.  Years ago, when I was a high school choir director, I received a little embroidered wall plaque from a student. It said, “Mr. Haug- 99.9% pure.”  I liked that plaque, and I considered the sentiment to be a great compliment.  But have you ever thought about that .1%?  What difference would it make if you moved towards perfection? With that in mind, let me share some statistics. If 99.9% is good enough for you then- In America, twelve newborns would be given to the wrong parents every day. Two and one half million books would be shipped with the wrong covers. Two planes landing at Chicago’s O’Hare airport would be unsafe every day. Three hundred fifteen entries in Webster’s Dictionary would be misspelled. Eight hundred eighty thousand credit cards in circulation would turn out to have incorrect cardholder information on their magnetic strips. Two hundred ninety one pacemaker operations would be performed incorrectly.

Although most of us state that we are quite satisfied with the thought of 99.9% perfection and success, the reality is that we do have higher expectations for others. We expect perfection from our doctors, our airline pilots, our credit card companies, and our dictionary publishers. They are to be 100% right in what they do.  So why can’t we expect that same degree from ourselves and from our workplace?  There are times, however, when we settle for less than our best; in the days when you didn’t receive the appropriate promotion; your work went unnoticed; when you let others set the tone for your work environment. Do not be ashamed or compromised by the attitude, “well, no one is perfect.”  Strive for that remaining .1% and state boldly that anything less is not good enough.

But what about 100% in your home and in your personal life?  Now, I know that there are times when perfection just isn’t possible… raising children for instance.  It’s rather an imperfect science. Rather like nailing Jell-o to the wall. As members of the human family, we are often filled with struggles and regrets.  They are what psychologist Judith Orloff refers to as the “in the moment” regrets like yelling at your spouse, or your children, or avoiding a friend’s phone call. They are all potential learning opportunities, if you want to use them for good. They can teach you how to recognize a situation before it gets out of control, to say you’re sorry, and then to embrace that moment and learn how to handle it in the future.   Living towards that 100% isn’t about perfectionism, but it is about living 100% for those who need you.

In her book Full Esteem Ahead, American author Diane Loomans writes:

If I had my child to raise all over again,

I’d finger paint more, and point the finger less.

I’d do less correcting, and more connecting.

I’d take my eyes off my watch, and watch with my eyes.

I would care to know less, and know to care more.

I’d build self-esteem first, and the house later.

I’d teach less about the love of power,

And more about the power of love.

Living to that 100 % seems even more difficult as we grow older, and become more set in our ways.   The American author John Steinbeck wrote, “It is the nature of man as he grows older … to protest against change, particularly change for the better.”  There are those who stubbornly claim that, “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.”  In my previous parish, I regularly visited an elderly homebound member of the church.  She greeted me cordially and was friendly, but when I would read to her from the Bible, she would take her hearing aid out of her ears.  I once asked her why, to which she responded, “Oh Pastor, at my age, I’ve heard enough.”

But John the Baptists offers another possibility, and that is the heart of this morning’s gospel. John invites us all to experience a change and to choose a different life.  That is the purpose of repentance which John invited his followers to experience.  You see, repentance isn’t simply looking inward and lamenting the decisions and actions of the past.  But repentance is truly about looking in a new direction, and returning your life- and your good name to the place where it was pure and spotless.  It is the desire to change and to live towards that 100% perfection.

But it is not easy.  When you look at the prospect of change in your life the question should always be, will the change be good for you in the long run?  Now why is this so important?  Because, true change takes time.  Countless aspects of life can be different, your relationship with your colleagues at work, your neighbors in the community, members of your own family, even your relationship with God.  But there will be work.

My friends, when you recognize that a good name is matter of choice, and not simply a matter of chance, and that it may take work to repair, you begin to allow the miracle of God’s renewal and forgiveness to occur anew.  Then, with courage in your heart and with the confidence that God is by your side you, you can take a stand, you can take a deep breath, and you can begin to design the life you want to live as best you can. That, my friends, is a God given change- based on a life changing choice. There is no easy remedy, no quick fix.  You will go through a period of great discomfort and uncertainty, but in the long run your good name will be restored.  It is your choice.  But God will be with you. And then you will once again one day have a treasure to share with others- your good name. 

It is yours to wear forever, yours to wear the while you live,

Yours, perhaps some distant morn, another child to give.

And you’ll smile as did your father, with a smile that all can share,

If a clean name and a good name you are giving him to wear.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.