What’s in a Name?

Baptism is more than “just” a washing away of sin. It’s more than just a means of grace, through which God brings us wholeness, fullness of life, and forgiveness, if “just” is a word that could be used to describe all of those things.

Baptism of Our Lord A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Before I was born, my parents, as most parents do, needed to figure out what my name was to be. If I was a girl, they were going to name me Dana, I think. If I was a boy? Well, they had different ideas.

My father proposed that name would be—and I kid you not—Virgil Wyatt Ranos. Anyone have a guess about where those names came from?

That’s right, these guys.

According to popular legend, when he suggested this to my mother, she laughed in his face.

Instead, I was named Kenneth George. It follows naming conventions that are still popular in our culture. Kenneth is a name I share with my mother’s twin brother, Kenneth Pearson (it also happens to mean “handsome”, so I consider myself to have been very appropriately named). And George is the name of my father and my great-grandfather.

My sister was born without a name while my father thought of the perfect name (since my mother got to name me). And though she is named Sheri, after no one in particular, she bears my mother’s name, Lynn, as her middle name.

Picking a name is hard. We experienced this difficulty in a heart-wrenching way when we decided to choose a name for the baby we lost in August. Because we didn’t know our baby’s biological sex or gender, we decided on a gender-neutral name, Taylor, so that whoever our baby was going to be—male, female, man, woman, transgender, cisgender, intersex, their name would fit.

In some cultures, it’s important that names fit their bearers. In many Native American cultures, a person’s name changes over the years; they adopt new names as they grow, becoming new people, either replacing their old names or adding the new ones. Some cultures are keenly aware of the meanings of the names they give to their children; parents who name their daughter “Joy” after waiting so long to meet her, for example. Old Hawaiians deliberated carefully about a new child’s name, because the meaning of the name had power.

Even Jesus’s name was important, powerful. His name, coming down to us through multiple translations and transliterations, “Yeshua”, is the same name from which we get Joshua, and means “he saves”, or “God delivers”. When Mary was visited by the archangel Gabriel, she was told specifically to name her child “Yeshua” because “he will save his people from their sins.” Even before he was born, Jesus was named to describe who he is, and to remind people of why God came to earth in the first place.

When he is baptized by John in the Jordan River, he is given a new “name”, a new title: “Beloved.” He is called “Messiah” or “Christ”, the same word just in different languages, which means “anointed”, chosen by God for a specific mission. All his life, Jesus lived into his name and titles, even to going to a cross to die, God’s love given form and then sacrificed in the court of public opinion.

We live in an age when, more than ever, we bear a multitude of names and titles. You’ve already heard about how I received my three names. But I could also describe myself with any number of labels and titles. I am an ordained minister, a minister of Word and Sacrament, a pastor, a white, cisgender man, a Chicago-native, Wisconsonite, GNU/Linux user, dog-lover, Blackhawks fan, Trekkie, Browncoat, Potterhead, activist, loyalist, INFJ, husband, son, brother, cousin, uncle, nephew, grandson, and others I can’t even remember.

All of these, in some way, describe who I am. They identify parts of my personality and my life and together, paint a broad picture of my identify.

But there’s one name/title that stands above all others, and that is: baptized.

There was a recent discussion among clergy my age asking the question: how would you respond to the question, “Why is baptism necessary?” The church has spent hundreds of years explaining, in great detail, using a variety of theological sources, why baptism is so important. Martin Luther devoted sections of his Small and Large Catechism to the subject. He asks, “What gifts or benefits does baptism bring?” and answers: “It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.” He quotes Matthew, Mark, and John to make his case, explaining that the power of baptism has nothing to do with the water itself and everything to do with the faith and trust in God that brings even us to the font.

But there’s something missing in all of this talk about baptism, and it’s the climax of our Gospel story this morning. Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened up, and the spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove landing on a branch. And a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

When we were baptized, we were often given a white garment, a mark of our new identity. A candle is given, a light to signify the new light of Christ in our lives that shines out for others. And we were anointed with oil, in the shape of the cross on our foreheads, and told, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Many of us still, to this day, mark ourselves with some sign of the cross or other to remind us of this occasion.

Baptism is more than “just” a washing away of sin. It’s more than just a means of grace, through which God brings us wholeness, fullness of life, and forgiveness, if “just” is a word that could be used to describe all of those things. Baptism is when we are given a new name, a new title, a new identity: child of God, Beloved.

Names are important. They tell people who we are. They mark our identities. We carry them with us our entire lives. Some names even change; but not our name as Beloved. Not our identities as children of God.

You are baptized children of God. You are Beloved. Nothing, no one, can take that away from you. Ever.

Featured Image: “Bautizo” by Hector Melo A. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Christmas in Aleppo

Contrary to what everyone else expects and says should happen, something about this message, this story, this promise of God made manifest in the Christmas story and in the story of Jesus Christ speaks to people who live in places like Aleppo, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Berlin, Yemen.

Nativity of Our Lord I
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

On July 19, 2012, the Battle of Aleppo began. A part of the Syrian Civil War that has raged since 2011, it was a four year long battle between government and rebel forces.

While punctuated by long periods of stalemate, the four year battle is one of the longest sieges in the history of modern warfare. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the fighting and the battle as one of the most devastating conflicts in modern times. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria estimates that over the course of the four year seige, 31,114 people died, accounting for almost a tenth of the total deaths in the Syrian Civil War. Of those 31,114 people, 23,604 of them were civilians—76%–caught in the crossfire, the indiscriminate bombings and shellings, and chemical warfare.

Aleppo has been in the news more often as of late, though not nearly enough. Though the battle has been fought for four years, even a few months ago, presidential candidates could barely talk about what was going on with any sense of certainty or knowledge. The fighting intensified over the last few months, and just a few weeks ago, the government forces began their final deadly push to retake the city, or what remained of it. That final offense was enough to make the news and remind the international community that Aleppo still existed.

One voice out of Aleppo that gained a following was the voice of 7-year old Bana Alabed. Bana’s mother, Fatemah, opened a Twitter account for her and her daughter. Fatemah posts the tweets, but many are videos of Bana herself talking about what’s happening around her. Some of her tweets include:

“Please save us now.”

“My dad is injured now. I am crying.”

“I escaped from east Aleppo.”

Fatemah’s tweets include more information, such as:

“Share this message to whole world. Aleppo ceasefire broke, civilians are in danger. I beg world u do something now to get us out.”

“Under attack. Nowhere to go, every minute feels like death.”

“Our new house is hit with a rocket. This is the worst bombing I have ever seen. We are already convinced we will die.”

“Constantly checking if all those who wanted to leave left East Aleppo. Heard last convoy is about to leave, let’s welcome them.”

Bana and her family did escape the city, and have tried to make sure that the message of refugees fleeing for their lives gets heard.

There are many more voices coming out of Aleppo, voices like Bana’s, giving expression to the pain and terror the people of Aleppo have lived under for four years; but there are other voices, too.

A Jesuit priest, Father Ziad Hilal, representing Aid to the Church in Need in Syria, spoke of the upcoming celebration of Christmas in the city.

Of the 120,000 Christians who lived in the city before the war, only about 30,000 now remain. The rest were either killed or fled with the Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters to escape the war—bombs and air strikes don’t care what religion one is, they hit everybody. Many of the churches in the city have long since been destroyed.

But, Father Hilal says, “Christmas brings the hope for peace that we have missed for the last five years… Christians are preparing themselves for Christmas in their churches and associations, along with our compatriots in Syria, so that the sound of violence [is overcome by] the deep sound of faith that each believer enjoys—God is with us. EMANUELE.”

It may seem strange that Christians in Aleppo will be celebrating Christmas. I can’t imagine trying to celebrate anything, even the coming of Christ into the world, when my home has been bombed to rubble, a city crumbling to dust around me, bombs falling day and night, friends and neighbors dying every day. Here in America, Christmas on the whole will be celebrated as a happy, joyous time, full of laughter, big meals, get-togethers, presents, the works. How can such a celebration be translated into the context of Aleppo, where for four years, there’s been nothing but pain and death?

It’s a funny thing, this Christmas, though. It’s a funny thing, this faith we have, actually. Contrary to what everyone else expects and says should happen, something about this message, this story, this promise of God made manifest in the Christmas story and in the story of Jesus Christ speaks to people who live in places like Aleppo, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Berlin, Yemen.

There’s something about the promises of God that spoke to Isaiah’s audience, the exiles of the kingdom of Judah now living in Babylon, displaced refugees wondering if they’d ever be able to return to their war-torn homes and rebuild. There’s something about it that has spoken to 2000 years of Christians, our ancestors in the faith, and has kept them going.

Indeed, whatever this thing is, it must be remarkable, for it’s survived violent persecution by the Romans in the early centuries of the church, the massacre of Christians by the Persian empire, by the people of Yemen, the 7th century Islamic conquests, the French Revolution, banning by the Chinese and India, the Nazis, the Soviet Union.

It’s spoken some sort of truth to those living in fear of retaliation for their heritage, nationality, race and ethnicity. It’s provided hope for those cast out of their homes and forced to live on the streets because of their gender or sexuality. It’s filled the lungs of those living well below the poverty line with songs of praise. It’s prompted people huddled in their houses as bombs rained down around them to proclaim, “I know that my redeemer lives.” And yes, it’s given enough hope to the people of Aleppo that they can dare defy the horrific circumstances of their lives to celebrate Christmas.

And all I can think is this: the story of Christmas, the story of God’s interaction with the world God created, the message of hope that speaks to people living in circumstances most of us can only imagine, is this:

God has not abandoned you. And even more! Even when everything else is taken away—home, possessions, family, friends, health, even life itself—even when it’s all gone, reduced to rubble, God has not abandoned you.

On the contrary, not only has God not abandoned you, but quite the opposite: God is fully and authentically present with you. Nowhere was this more true than in the birth and life of Jesus Christ. For in the celebration of the Incarnation, God-with-us, we recognize and proclaim that God was physically with us in Jesus Christ. We could touch him. We could hear his voice with our ears. We could see his body with our own eyes. His coming into the world wasn’t just a message to the people of his own time and place. It was a message to all of us who, throughout our lives, are faced with a world that at times feels like it’s throwing us aside and abandoning us, a message that says, “But I, the LORD your God, have not abandoned you.”

It was a message I needed to hear on Tuesday, as I sat at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church’s Blue Christmas prayer service with others who have experienced loss and for whom Christmas might be painful; and a message I needed to hear later that night, when Debbie and I gathered with Pastor Andrea and Father Geoff to formally name the baby we had lost, and to remember Taylor Ranos.

It’s a message that speaks as much to us today as it did to two scared, unwed parents 2000 years ago looking for shelter for the night in Bethlehem, and to the community of Judeans in exile wondering if they would ever go home.

The true miracle of Christmas was really no miracle at all, as we’d usually  use the term, but rather, was the culmination of God’s message that we still matter, and always have. It could be no other way! It was the ultimate sign of God’s promise that this world, with all of its deep, deep flaws, has not been abandoned; that not only is God interested in what happens here, but God is actively engaged with it, especially with those who need God’s hope the most, those who have a tough time imagining that God could ever notice their pain.

And you know what? That’s okay. It is in these moments, on this night most of all, that we remember that God is with us in solidarity with and on behalf of those who can’t feel God’s presence with them. We loudly proclaim that God doesn’t abandon any of us. That hard times are not signs of God’s disfavor or displeasure—rather, they are the perfect times for God to be present more than ever.

The child in the manger, which we celebrate tonight, grows up. Lives through oppression. Is subjected to a broken justice system, torture, and execution.

And in doing so, breaks the hold of darkness through the resurrection. Christmas inevitably leads to the cross, and to the empty tomb. It is a dark night, but a night from which springs hope—even in places like Aleppo.

Tonight, we will light candles, tiny lights in the darkness, as symbols of that eternal Christian hope. In the quiet, silent night, we affirm our faith in God, who does not abandon, who does not lose, us. Tonight is the night before Christ’s birth. Even as we mourn, even as we worry; let us, through God, be glad in it.

Featured Image: “Christmas Eve, Greek Orthodox Church, Al Jdeideh, Aleppo, Syria” by manastir2014 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

God Doesn’t Belong Here

It doesn’t make any sense. People in such dire circumstances shouldn’t have any hope.

Third Sunday in Advent A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

In 2006, with the publication of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress presented a rich new liturgical resource for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It has its faults, but it also brought many gifts to the church.

One of these gifts is the intentional inclusion of more hymns in the main hymnal that aren’t, well, white European in origin. There are hymns from Asia, Africa, and South America. 14 of these hymns are African American spirituals, most dating from the time before the American Civil War, when they were sung by slaves.

Some of our best loved hymns are African American spirituals: “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”, “Were You There?”, “Wade in the Water”, “This Little Light of Mine”. It’s hard to imagine worshiping our God without the help of these songs which so often speak of the longing for justice and God’s presence among us in times of trial.

And really, that was the point of the songs to begin with. When Africans were captured and brought to America as slaves, they were often forbidden from retaining anything of their life and culture found in their homeland. As was proper in the eyes of the slave owners, they were converted to Christianity, a more “civilized” religion (even though it was used to support the slave trade, so take that with more than a grain of salt–more like a truckload).

Sometimes, slaves were allowed to hold their own prayer meetings, as their owners believed it helped them “cope” with a life of slavery and forced labor. It was in these prayer meetings that slaves were finally able to express themselves and the torment they endured during their lives. Mixing in elements of their homeland cultures, dancing and shouting and playing their own homemade instruments, slaves turned their voices to God to both cry out in anguish and to express hope for a better tomorrow.

“I want Jesus to walk with me,” they sang, “all along my pilgrim journey.”

“There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”

“My Lord, what a morning!”

“Give me Jesus!”

In the midst of unspeakable turmoil, a hell on earth that despite its horrors people fought a war to keep putting on others; in the midst of this pain, they cried out to God.

It is a turmoil that Isaiah’s audience knew well. To understand the prophet’s words this morning, it’s important to know who he’s speaking to, and why.

The history of the Jewish people is one fraught with war against and conquest of them. One of the most devastating conquests was by the Babylonian Empire, who after a long siege knocked down the walls to Jerusalem, sacked the city, burned it, and worst of all, destroyed the Temple: the first time the temple had ever been destroyed since it was built 400 years earlier.

After the city’s destruction, the Babylonians enacted their policy that dictated what to do with people they conquered. They took most of the population and deported them out of their homeland, resettling them in the Babylonian Empire as a community in exile, a diaspora.

This was the definition of a tragic event. The Jewish people had lost their city, their temple, and their homeland. They were forcibly removed from their homes, refugees, and sent to live somewhere else. And while some of the people led relatively good, decent lives, it still wasn’t home. It still wasn’t right. The people were in turmoil.

That turmoil is reflected in this part of Isaiah’s prophesying. There’s a lot of angry imagery of death and destruction immediately prior to our reading this morning, lashing out against others and creation itself for the suffering the people are experiencing.

That human beings suffer and are in turmoil is not confined to any particular time period or group. At every point in history, it happened. People suffered anguish when they were put in concentration camps in this country because they happened to be of Japanese descent. It happened in Europe when the Jewish people were hunted down, put in camps, and exterminated. It happened when our country made an industry out of capturing Africans and forcing them into permanent slavery; and when their descendants 100 years after the end of slavery were still fighting for basic human rights.

And it doesn’t just happen to other people. Turmoil and anguish are present here in our own communities, isn’t it? For years, people have been worried about the evaporation of well-paying, stable jobs from the area, and what that means for the economy, the future of our town, and for our families if we lose our jobs.

Food insecurity in our town is on the rise. Dozens of people are served by the Three Lakes Christian Food Pantry every month, people we know, who don’t have enough food to feed their families. Up in Eagle River, enough kids don’t have enough food to eat that the entire school qualifies for free or reduced lunches.

Homelessness has always been an issue up here, but it’s gotten so prominent that serious discussions have begun about building a second homeless shelter, since Frederick House in Rhinelander can’t always hold or accept them all.

We may not know it, but there are people in our own town and community who face the constant fear of retaliation against them based on racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia.

We are frightened, and we have every right to be.

And then we hear these strange words from the prophet Isaiah. These strange, and wondrous words.

You see, as one commentator puts it, “This reading doesn’t belong here.” Remember what I said about where these words are in Isaiah. They come right in the middle of these long passages about hardship, destruction, death, anguish, turmoil. It’s not pretty. It’s not nice. And right in the middle of it all, we hear:

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…
“Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a dear, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy…
“And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing;”

It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit at all. Right in the the middle of this turmoil and anguish, there’s this strange beacon of hope, this light at the end of a very long tunnel, this sure and certain promise of God. There’s this declaration of God, saying, “I’m on my way. I’m coming to get you out. I’m coming.”

It doesn’t make any sense. People in such dire circumstances shouldn’t have any hope. They have no reason to. The Jewish people should have had no hope at all for ever returning to their homeland. Slaves, born into slavery and who would die in slavery, should not have been singing songs about coming freedom or the goodness of God, the same God that their captors worshiped and claimed supported their abhorrent practice of slavery.

And yet, hope did find its way into the Judean community in exile in Babylon, through prophets like Isaiah. Slaves did raise their voices loud, singing praise to the God who rescued the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt through mighty deeds and could do the same for them.

Because this is the God we worship, too: a God who in the midst of the most unlikely circumstances imaginable suddenly shows up, making the Divine Presence known. Places God should never be, by any right, all of a sudden become the point at which God and humankind meet.

Frankly, God doesn’t belong there. Which makes God’s presence there all the more extraordinary:

That God is not just found in times of plenty, but in times of hunger.

That God is not just found in times of security, but in times of insecurity.

That God is not just found in times of peace, but in the midst of hate and violence, right alongside those who suffer them.

And not only is God present in those unexpected times and unexpected places, but God is especially and intentionally present with those gripped by their fear and worry. Into those, into our worst fears and times of anguish and turmoil, God shows up, saying, “I’m on my way. I’m coming to get you out. I’m coming.”

In this season of Advent, we wait for God’s arrival into our worst places, not the same kind of waiting as when people are told to just wait it out, give things a chance; a passive waiting that accomplishes nothing. Instead, we wait with anticipation for the promises of God to be fulfilled. For the exiles to come home. For the slaves to be free. For the hungry to be fed, the victims of hate to be safe. We wait with every fiber of our being, and we wait as people in action, getting ready for the arrival of God to happen at any moment, when we can’t predict.

And as we wait, together, we strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. We encourage those who are of a fearful heart, especially when those hearts are ours, to Be Strong, and do not fear. For here is our God.

God is coming.

Featured Image: “St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Gospel Choir @ Juneteenth in Lexington Park MD on 16 June 2007” by Elvert Barnes is licensed under CC BY 2.0.