Last week I talked about the coalition of love that came together to get the baby Jesus safely from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth, from birth to adulthood. The magi, the angels, Joseph, Mary: there were many roles to play. And I asked a question: What will our role be in the coalition of love that is needed now? How will we shelter and spread hope in our world?
Answering that question begins with knowing who we are.
The Bible is full of stories of naming and renaming and identity claiming. There are several examples just in our texts for today. In the passage from the Prophet Isaiah, God gives Isaiah a new name: light to the nations. In the gospel, John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God; and then, later, Jesus tells Simon he is to be called Peter. All of these names have special meanings. They help the people in our holy book understand who they are, and who they can become with the help of God.
Names help us understand who we are and what we are called to do. But not all names are true names.
Right before the gospel passage for today begins, John the Baptist has to fend off a crowd who is eager to find a name for him. “I am not the Messiah,” he says. They ask him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” but John says, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” the crowds ask. But John says, “No.” You can hear the irritation rising as the people demand: “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” Then, finally, John tells them: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.”
It’s not the answer that they wanted. It’s not even an answer that they fully understand. But John knows who he is, and he knows who he is not. He is willing to disappoint people around him, in order to carry out the work that is, in fact, his to do.
Sometimes people try to give us false names that are good names, prestigious names that are simply not for us, like they do with John the Baptist. At other times, people try to give us false names to diminish and degrade us.
We remember this weekend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement that he was a part of. Now this man is widely recognized as a hero in our nation and beyond, but that was not always the case. He was given other names. King learned the name “less than” when he was forced to stand on a crowded bus so that white people could sit. He learned the name “better off dead” when his house was bombed during the Montgomery bus boycott. Those in power labelled him “communist” to justify FBI surveillance. Others called him “traitor” because they disagreed with his tactics. “Criminal” was a familiar name in a short life that included 29 arrests.
Still, somehow, amidst all of these false names, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed true to who he was. He never stopped working for the causes he believed in. He was an imperfect and powerful person, in an imperfect and powerful movement that changed the world. He, and John Robert Lewis, and Ella Baker, and so many others.
I wonder: what are the false names that you have been given?
Some of us have been given false names that seem like flattery, like John the Baptist. We’ve been pinned with hopes and expectations that may be good, but they just don’t belong to us. These names can get heavy on our shoulders, year after year, wearing us down, keeping us from living our full free life.
All of us have been given false names that diminish and degrade us. Cat-callers on the street, bullies in the schoolyard, parents or teachers or bosses or leaders have told us something that is not true about us. Society itself may have told us that there is something wrong with us. Sometimes the false names even come from those we love, or from deep within us. These voices can fill us with fear and self-loathing until we’re no longer certain that we have anything of value to offer.
All of us contend with false names. But here’s some of God’s good news: no one who hates us or fears us or does not know us can tell us who we really are. Those who love us can still be mistaken. Even our own thoughts and actions do not ultimately define us.
That is God’s job.
God is our source and the ground of our being. God treasures us and grants us that astonishing unconditional love we call grace. God comes to us, with water and the Holy Spirit, and She declares: you are my beloved child.
Beloved child of God. This is the most important name any of us will ever receive, no matter how great we get. This is a true name for all of us, no matter how far we have fallen or how many stand against us. Beloved child of God.
With this true name as our foundation, we may add any number of other names that will help us find our way. We may choose the name: follower of Jesus. We may discover names that remind us where we came from, or what our gifts are, or what work God is calling us to in the world. Names are good, if they’re true names.
I invite you to take a moment, and consider your names. Write down the false names that you have been given, any wrong expectation or secret fear or terrible slander. Then, release youself from this list: scratch it out, burn it, recycle it. Then, try to record some true names. First, you could write down Beloved child of God. Then, perhaps a name of a gift you offer the world, or a calling that you are following; anything that emerges from your heart. Fold it up, and keep it safe; somewhere where you can pull it out to add to it or remind yourself.
God of the river, God of the font, you make us and you claim us as your own: your beautiful and beloved children. May our false names fall away, and true ones arise as we are transformed through the movement of your Spirit. May we come to know you more deeply, and your desires for us. May we each find our place in the coalition of love you are building, and together show forth your love to the whole world. Amen.