A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; and St. John 1:29-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
“The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” (Isa. 49:1b) What a powerful statement that is that the prophet makes in today’s reading. We name this prophet Isaiah; scholars name him Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah. We don’t really know his name . . . but God did! God named him before he was born. Gave him personhood and human identity.
In many ancient and pre-scientific cultures names hold a very special significance; this was so in the near-Eastern cultures from which our Bible comes at the time of Second Isaiah and right down to and after the time of Jesus. Far from merely identifying a person, names in ancient Jewish culture revealed a person’s essential character and, it was believed, their destiny. So it is that this same Second Isaiah prophesies the name of the messiah, Immanuel – “God with us” (Isa 7:14), and the angel of the Annunciation instructs Joseph to name Mary’s child Jesus – “God saves” (Matt 1:21). Jesus does this with Simon in today’s Gospel lesson when he tells him: “You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” (Jn 1:42) This name, Cephas or Peter, means “rock” and Simon Peter did, indeed, become a rock anchoring the fledgling Christian church after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.
Furthermore, it was believed that to know a person’s name was to have a certain power over that person. This is why the name of God is never spoken by devout Jews; indeed, it is never read even when written in Scripture. We Anglicans have continued that tradition even into our Prayer Book and our service bulletins; if you look at today’s Gradual, Psalm 67, in the Book of Common Prayer, and as we have reprinted it in today’s bulletin, you will see that the word “LORD” is printed in all upper-case letters.
The reason for this is that Jews developed the idea that God’s name was so holy that it could not be uttered. When Jews read from the Hebrew Scriptures and get to the name of God, written only with four consonants and no vowels, “YHWH,” they will not try to pronounce it as “Yahweh;” instead, they will say “Adonai,” which means “Lord.” The Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer continues this tradition.
When the Old Testament was translated into English, the translators continued to signify the holiness of God’s name: when they came to “YHWH” in the Hebrew text, they wrote “LORD” instead. If you look through the Authorized Version of the Old Testament you will see this done many times – over 6000 times in fact. In every case, the original Hebrew says “YHWH,” but it is translated “LORD.”
In the Gospel lesson today, John the Baptizer names Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29) If ever there was a naming which revealed a destiny, that was it. Names have power. To know and to use someone’s name, or to refuse to use someone’s name, is always an act of power: sometimes an act of domination; sometimes an act of submission; sometimes an act of collaboration; and sometimes an act of dismissal.
Rabbi Andrew Davids, head of the Beit Rabban Jewish School in New York, commenting on the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, writes:
God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, [the biblical creation story] affirms that humans – created in the image of God – may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming. The power to name can be experienced in our everyday lives; for example, nothing grabs the attention of a misbehaving child more effectively than a parent – the bestower of the child’s names – calling him [or her] by . . . first, middle, and last names.
The rabbis caution us, however, to use the power of our voices and our words wisely. We must make certain that we use the divine gift of naming in a moral, appropriate, and thoughtful manner. (The Power Of A Name: The Power Of Naming)
In a commentary on that event recorded in Genesis when Jacob wrestles with the Angel of God and gets his named changed to Israel (“one who wrestles with God and prevails”), David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, challenged preachers to challenge their congregations about names. He wrote:
The task before us . . . Working Preacher, is to invite our people to confess their names. Whether silently or by writing them down on a paper, ask them first to answer this one question: Who are you? Really. What is your name? What is it that others call you? More importantly, what is it that you call yourself? What is that name you can scarce speak for fear or shame? Scoundrel, cheat, or phony like Jacob? Unworthy, irresponsible, unfaithful? Discouraged or burnt-out? Divorced, deserted, or widowed? Coward or bully? Unloved or unloving? Disappointed or disappointing? Abused or abuser? Ugly or abnormal? (Working Preacher Commentary, October 14, 2013)
And he continues, “Names, as we know, can limit us, hurt us, even kill. But so also can they heal and make alive. And so a part of what [the church does each week], is to invite people to come and be reminded once again of our true name and new identity so that we may go out into the world as new persons, as God’s own beloved child.”
One of the things that happens when human beings are angry with one another is that we stop using names; by doing so, we deprive the other of personhood. One of the greatest offenses you can give a person is to not use their name. It’s dehumanizing. It takes away that precious gift that God gave to Second Isaiah even before he was born! So, in my pastoral counseling with persons dealing with anger issues, one of the first things I suggest to them is to pray for the person with whom they are angry by name. Nothing elaborate, just a simple prayer; something as simple as, “Lord, I pray for [fill in the blank].” Doing so does not endorse the person’s behavior or validate what it is about them that has angered you, but it does create an intimacy which can defuse the anger. Praying for the person by name, naming the person, brings them into your sphere of being.
One of the saints of our church, Dr. James DeKoven, a priest who taught Church history at Nashotah House seminary in Wisconsin in the 19th Century, wrote that prayer brings the one for whom we pray present to us “in the deep, hidden bonds” that link persons together. (From a letter written just before his death, March 1879.) Although he was writing of prayer for deceased loved ones, I believe his observation is true of prayers for the living, as well.
I bring this up because an event is about to happen which has caused some consternation and debate in our denomination and in others. It is something that we have already addressed in this congregation and which we will not change so long as I am the rector and the one charged by tradition and canon with making liturgical decisions.
When I came to St. Paul’s Parish in the summer of 2003, although the President of the United States was being prayed for in the generic manner set out in the standard forms of the Prayer Book, George W. Bush (who was then the president) was not being named. I began to name him and to instruct prayer leaders to do so. Some people not of Mr. Bush’s political persuasion objected. When he left office and Barack Obama was elected, we began praying for him by name. Some people not of Mr. Obama’s political persuasion objected. When we started distributing the sheets with the additional petitions to be read by members of the congregation, some people refused to read the petition including Mr. Obama’s name. Now that Donald Trump has been elected and we have added his name as president-elect, some people have refused to read that petition.
On Friday, Mr. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Some of us are pleased as punch about that. Some of us are appalled. Most of us are somewhere in between. And many are debating about whether or not to pray for him by name. What an incredibly silly thing to argue about! And what a terrible thing to do, to refuse to pray for someone by name.
In St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, he writes:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus . . . . (1 Tim. 2:1-5)
In this parish on Sunday morning, as a congregation, will pray for the president and “all who are in high positions” by name. To do otherwise is to deprive them personhood, to dehumanize them, and in doing that we dehumanize ourselves.
In our Gospel lesson today, when the Baptizer named Jesus the Lamb of God, two of John’s disciples took off following Jesus. They asked him what to us sounds like an impertinent, but really quite inessential, question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” (Jn 1:38)
[T]he English obscures the significance of the phrase. The Greek verb is meno: abide, remain, endure, continue, dwell, in the sense of permanence or stability. John the Baptist recognizes Jesus when the Holy Spirit remains (meno) upon him (John 1:32). After Jesus provides bread enough to satisfy a crowd, with plenty left over, he cautions the people to work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures (meno) for eternal life (John 6:27). He promises that he will abide (meno) in those who abide (meno) in him (John 15:4-10). Wherever Jesus stays (meno), people have the opportunity to believe (John 4:40; 10:40). (Audrey West, Working Preacher Commentary, January 15, 2017)
The Lord abides; the Lord endures: earthly rulers do not. The Psalms remind us:
It is better to rely on the LORD *
than to put any trust in flesh.
It is better to rely on the LORD *
than to put any trust in rulers. (Ps 118:8-9)
Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them. (Ps 146:2)
Presidents come and presidents go; Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” endures. (The dude abides!) “He will . . . strengthen [us] to the end.” (1 Cor 1:8) So we rely on the Lord . . . and we pray for presidents.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.