Sermon for September 22, 2019
Texts: Hosea 11:1-4/Acts 4:32-5:11
Title: “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”
In the eyes of God no one is anonymous. Whoever you are God knows your name.
We each bear the name our parents gave us. But before our parents had the opportunity to do that, God gave us a name. You and I are God’s “beloved.” What is our name? Our name is “beloved.”
From the very beginning of time God has made it priority number one to demonstrate in full what that name means. He enlisted prophets and saints by the score, and final his only son, to reveal to us the very special and irrevocable status we enjoy in his sight.
Christ in turn founded the church, and appointed the church, to carry the message of belovedness into the world. It was a commission of the highest order, one the church, populated by fallible people like us, has repeatedly struggled to execute.
There are things that you and I do that tarnish our name in the eyes of those with whom we interact. We are not at our best all the time, or am I mistaken? We do or say things that make people lose respect for us, and for the church with which we identify. We do or say things that make us lose respect for ourselves.
A fallen creation that we are, there are things that we do that tarnish our good name. Yet there is nothing we can do to so tarnish our name that we forfeit the name God assigned us when he gave us life. In God’s sight we forever remain the beloved.
The book of Hosea says it as well as it can be said: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. [God intervened using Moses to rescue Israel, this is a story we know well. There is, however, another part of the story that is far less positive.] And so the prophet Hosea continues, The more I [God] called them the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
The language that God placed on Hosea’s lips is a language of yearning, or unrequited love. Hosea, of course, was speaking out of a context very different from our own, but what we hear in his words transcends the time in which Hosea spoke. God’s sadness, even despair, goes unrelieved today as he watches us turn aside, heedless of his will, to do what we feel is most expedient at the moment. Yet despite our failings God continues to open new pathways to reconciliation and renewal.
I’m just guessing here, of course, but I would guess that there are times when your children have disappointed you. In some cases those disappointments may have caused a breech between parent and child that was slow to heal, or never completely closed. While that happens, most parents, and I would venture that includes each one of you who have children, love your children, not because they fully meet your expectations, you love them despite the heartache they might cause.
Loving parents don’t take back a child’s name when that child disappoints them. God doesn’t take back our name when we disappoint God. Our name is ours without condition.
What does God want more than anything else in the world? He wants us to know that our name, “beloved,” is ours without condition.
Certainly words along cannot convey such a message. We can tell someone we love them morning, noon, and night three hundred and sixty five days a year, but we are unpersuasive unless we demonstrate in some way that our words are supported by deeds that express our love.
Words have no meaning unless they impact how we act. This we know full well. In scene after scene in both the New and the Old Testaments the hypocrisy of the high and mighty is exposed. In fact, hypocrisy is perhaps the most common human failing cited in the Bible. It is a failing that is no less common today.
Words have no meaning unless they impact how we act. We revere the Bible not because of the majesty of the language it employs, Shakespeare and other literary giants also demonstrated the power of words. We revere the Bible because for us it is a living word. What do I mean by that? What I mean is that the Bible puts us in touch with an unseen dimension of reality that even the most inspired words of mortals cannot enter. We go so far as to say that God breathed his spirit into the words we read, giving birth to faith in us to trust the author of those words.
A reality beyond the word on the page disclosed itself with a name so holy that the ancient people lived in fear of even pronouncing the name, using the names YHWH, Jehovah and Adonai as stand-ins.
Yet, though robed in awesome holiness, the God before whom our heirs the ancient Israelites prostrated themselves was able to convince a “stiff-necked people,” that is how the Israelites are often referred to in scripture, that love was his principal ambition. Bear in mind that this was quite substantial concession considering the fact that Israel was about as inattentive as the average two year old.
Somehow, however, the stubborn child came round to the reality that God, in fact, would not abandon her despite her failings.
God is the subject behind the reality we know and experience as love. That same God is the God who has given us the name “beloved.” We are the objects of his love, objects in which he delights. We are flesh and blood embodiments of God’s artistry, created, not to be mere objects to be manipulated, for there is a vocational component to our lives. God has called us to be co-creators in shaping the future he has designed.
Linda worked for many years as an architect. Before I got to know more about what she actually did, I thought of an architect exclusively as a person who designs things, a creative artist, and made a lot of money. What I failed to fully appreciate was that while creativity is fundamental to architecture, many architects are tasked with the responsibility of producing the so-called “working drawings” that translate the vision of the principal architect into blueprints. Oh, and I also learned that most architects don’t earn a lot of money.
We might liken God to the chief architect, the designer, and view ourselves as persons tasked to help execute his plan. God has, for reasons of his own, chosen us to be active participants in creating the world he is designing, a world where love is the principal feature.
The church is a place where the knowledge that we are the beloved of God is shared in community. It is also a mentoring place that equips folks like you and me for the work God wishes to get done.
The book of Acts reports that some pretty incredible things were happening in the church in those first months after Jesus rose from the dead. Acts reports that the believers pooled their possessions. Everyone could count of having their basic necessities provided. In short, those first converts were creating a community where a special kinship developed, a community that when you showed up, everybody knew your name.
The series of verses I read is a lead up to one of the most extraordinary episodes reported in the New Testament. Enter Ananias and his wife Sapphira. In possession of some land they owned, they dutifully sold it. And did they follow the community norm by surrendering the proceeds of the sale to the common fund? Well, sort of. They surrendered a portion, but held another portion off the table.
It wasn’t so much that they held a portion back for themselves, they were free to do that without recrimination. Where they got into trouble, and paid for their mistake with their lives, was that they severed their connection to community by placing personal desires and privilege ahead of community solidarity. Peter and the others who founded that first Christian community knew that the community they envisioned could not grow and thrive absent a willingness of participants in the community to be open and transparent to the other members of the community.
The socialist model that the first Christians embraced was not long lived. I am not aware of any Christian congregation that has adopted that first century model, at least for very long. While generosity is a common Christian trait, I’m unaware of any congregations where members pool their individual resources in a common fund. For the most part, we harbor no expectation of the members of our faith communities other than that they share a pew on Sunday morning, and do their bit to help balance the budget.
Where there are low expectations, of course, we call always expect low performance. You former teachers certainly know that to be true. Over time the church has done poorly in building a membership, or even holding the membership is has, mainly because the people we hope to attract, or hold, can’t connect what we do locally here in worship and our common life with some higher purpose.
The higher purpose of which I speak is to make plain to everyone willing to listen that they are the beloved of God. The church, that would be us, serves that higher purpose by demonstrating that belovedness is our identity. And what is the best way of expressing that identity? The best way to express that identity is by doing what we are doing, and that is by creating and maintaining a welcoming presence in this community that is grounded in the Word and committed to displaying its power.
Most of you recognize the origins of my sermon title in a certain television show that won a large popular audience from 1982-1993. The name of the show and its setting was “Cheers”, the Boston hangout where a group of regulars developed community, becoming over time a place “where everybody knows your name.” That little Boston bar was depicted as a meeting place where strangers opened their lives to each other, a place where strangers over the course of times become friends, even more than friends, confidants willing to share intimacies and hold each other accountable.
The creators of Cheers tapped into a broad-based yearning in our culture to connect with others, a yearning that those working in the social media today address by means of “Facebook, “Twitter,” “Linked In,” “You Tube,” etc. In a matter of five minutes digitally a person can enter and exit a half dozen or more different online communities.
The church, of course, has been in the business of helping people connect for hundreds of years using all the tools at its disposal, in more recent times ever turning to the social media to further its outreach. The goal, again, is to create community, to create a place where friendships are created and intimacies shared around the common bond we share as the beloved of God.
We in the church are a special kind of community, while the social dimension of our common life is very similar to what you might be found in that Boston gathering place, Christ has been appointed to demonstrate to the world what belovedness looks like, and to express that belovedness in words, but more importantly, deeds. AMEN
Heavenly Father it is you who named us. We are your beloved, the crown of your creation. Overwhelmed with awe at his status in your sight, the psalmist asked, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
What mortal can fathom a love as profound as that which you bestowed on us? Though such knowledge is withheld from us, you have disclosed enough of yourself and your ways that you have become the focus of our faith and our adoration.
Lord, uphold us as we endeavor to live our faith in the world. Many are the challenges we face. This you know full well. Strengthen us to withstand the temptation to model our conduct on any values other than your own. You know where we are weak and vulnerable, O God, yet you do not condemn us for our weakness and vulnerability instead you call us to trust in you for strength.
We pray for those who follow the counsel of this world, ignorant of the love you so freely bestow. As our loving parent you grieve as you watch your children appropriate false identities. We pray that light may dawn for those who struggle without direction.
Abide, O Lord, with your church that we may be the strong fortress Christ called it to be. Grant us wisdom to so order and live our common life that we may be the beacon of hope Christ intended us to be. Increase, O God, our passion to serve, even as you disarm the doubts and misgivings we may have about vocation you have given us to fulfill. As your beloved may the church be indeed what, in fact, it was called to be, a cradle of belovedness.
O Spirit, may your presence sustain us in the week ahead. May all that we say and do be consistent with your holy will, always and everywhere remembering that we bear that special name, beloved.