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"I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams and, at last, I feel completely free." So said this retired schoolteacher from California, who had just revealed the family secret. According to subsequent reports, the Senator's "secret" was generally well known, and through the years he maintained an open relationship with his daughter, albeit more than somewhat distanced. How special it would have been to her to have him publicly acknowledge the family tie.
Can you imagine that? Cut off from family, for whatever reason? Denied recognition of your rightful identity? Ms. Washington-Williams told the press, "There's a great sense of peace that has come over me in the past year. Once I decided that I would no longer harbor such a great secret that many others knew, I feel as though a tremendous weight has been lifted."(1) Even in the absence of a parental acknowledgment, she found the experience of publicly claiming her identity to be liberating.
What brings all that to mind this morning is this story of Jesus' baptism. As he stands in the Jordan, having just been baptized by John, there is no doubt about God's acknowledgment of him: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." The family tie. For you and me, baptism is the same. Either we as adults or as infants in our parents' arms come to the water and are named as God's own.
Name, of course, is more than a means of identification. When we name our children, we often select names which are the same as those people we love and respect. We choose those names, not simply to honor someone (although there is an element of that in our choice). We choose names of people we admire in the hope that our youngsters will grow up with the same virtues, the same good qualities, as are known in that individual whose name we have chosen. On the other side of the coin, we AVOID names for our kids which would conjure up traits which we would NOT want them to develop. We do not name our sons BENEDICT ARNOLD nor our daughters JEZEBEL. We would not even name a dog JUDAS.
This week you may have seen the story out of Saudi Arabia of the man seeking to get his son's name changed from Saddam Hussein.(2) It seems the man named his boy 14 years ago back in the days when the Iraqi leader was a hero in the Arab world for adopting policies against the United States and Israel. But now the man says the name "symbolizes pessimism, evil, mockery and disappointment all at once." And you thought Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" had it bad! Ha! Names are chosen to reflect something...they are chosen to reflect CHARACTER.
My name is David Eugene Leininger. My folks told me they chose the name David after Israel's greatest king. Their hope for me was that, like the David of old, I would be "a man after God's own heart." I always liked the name David. I was less thrilled with Eugene. I foolishly mentioned that one day in high school not thinking that I was expressing my displeasure to a large classmate who played Tackle on our football team. His name was Eugene - when I saw the steam begin to come from his ears, I quickly noted that I thought it was a FINE first name, but for a middle name, it left something to be desired. WHEW! I found out that Eugene was chosen for me in part to honor one of my father's seminary roommates, Eugene Osterhaven, who became a renowned author and professor of theology in the Reformed Church in America - I have liked it better ever since finding that out. Names are not chosen willy-nilly but often reflect our hopes and dreams for the potential character and abilities of our children.
Has anyone ever damaged your name? How could they? Erase a few letters from it? Scratch through it on paper? Not much damage. But you know it can be done. This week we have been hearing, probably more than we want, the name Pete Rose. As you know, Pete was one of the greatest players professional baseball has ever known, and that would have been his enduring legacy... except for the fact that he broke one of baseball's most cherished rules - he bet on the games, even some of his own. That transgression earned him a lifetime ban from the sport. Pete Rose had a great name, one of the greatest names of all time, but he ruined that name, and he has been living with the consequences ever since.
The reverse is also true. Have you ever MADE A NAME FOR YOURSELF in something? Did that mean you fashioned some new set of letters by which to be identified? Of course not. When you "make a name for yourself," you acquire a certain prestige. Your NAME, good or bad, means something; it is your REPUTATION.
As you can see, a name, even in our society, MEANS a great deal more than a way of distinguishing one person from another. In a very real sense, we look to the name to tell us WHO a person is: character, ability, reputation. What's in a name? A lot!
In baptism, you are named - in some traditions, for the very first time. Baptism also sets each of us apart as a particular kind of person - one owned by God, one called to live out the meaning of this remarkable reality. Certainly, the unbaptized also belong to God, but since they have had no public opportunity to announce or celebrate that fact, they might feel no particular motivation to act on it.
It is all too true that multiple forces constantly try to redefine us as belonging to some other "family." Commercial messages will attempt to convince us that we are owned by a great economic machine whose purpose is to make us a voracious consumer. Government will attempt in who-knows-how-many ways to establish its ultimate claim on us. Other voices will tell us that we belong to no one but ourselves, that individualism is the supreme god.(3) That is why a day like today is good for us - reinforcing the message of our baptism, reminding us that we have been named as God's own, with everything that means. That is vital to our walk of discipleship.
Yes, that means there is work to do, and some would rather not hear that in the midst of a life that is too busy already. I understand. Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
I will never forget the woman who listened to my speech on the ministry of the laity as God's best hope for the world and said, "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be that important." Like many of those who sit beside her at church, she hears the invitation to ministry as an invitation to do more - to lead the every member canvass, or cook supper for the homeless, or teach vacation church school. Or she hears the invitation to ministry as an invitation to be more - to be more generous, more loving, more religious. No one has ever introduced her to the idea that her ministry might involve being just who she already is and doing just what she already does, with one difference: namely, that she understand herself to be God's [child] in and for the world.(4)Indeed, indeed. If you came to worship today hoping that the preacher would whip up on you and verbally beat you into being better and doing better, I am sorry to disappoint you - I will be no help. My words this morning are for you who need a reminder of your heritage and your family ties, the ties that were announced for all the world in your baptism, just as they were at Jesus' baptism. God says, "You are mine, you have been named mine as the water washed over your forehead, and I love you."
Martin Luther had a lifelong habit. Each morning, as he arose, he would make the sign of the cross on his forehead and say to himself, "Remember, Martin, you are baptized."
I have told you before of Fred Craddock's meeting with a former Governor of Tennessee, Ben Hooper. Fred and his wife were vacationing in the Smokey Mountains.(5) They had found a lovely restaurant at a place called the Black Bear Inn. Craddock writes:
We were seated there looking out at the mountains when this old man, with shocking white hair, a Carl Sandburg-looking person came over and spoke to us. He said, "You're on vacation?"What's in a name? For Ben Hooper, for Essie Mae Washington-Williams, for everyone of us, there is so much!!! Then we come into church on a chilly Sunday and hear, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased," and remember that in baptism we are also named a child of God. That is where we find strength for the struggle, courage for the crises, and hope for the future. You are part of God's family, God's own child, never alone, and nothing can separate you from that love of God in Christ Jesus...ever.
2. "Harassed 'Saddam' Seeks New Name," Reuters, 1/5/04, via internet
3. Jack Good, "Naming Names," The Christian Century, 12/27/03, p. 19
4. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, (Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 1993), pp. 25-34, Quoted in Pulpit Resource, Volume 32, No. 1, Year C, pp. 10-11
5. Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard Ward, eds., (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), pp. 156-157