Monday, July 3, 2017


The scriptures referred to are Matthew 10:40-42.

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet the title characters belong to families who were political rivals in Verona. There are frequent outbreaks of violence between the two factions. When in the famous balcony scene, Juliet, a Capulet, ponders the problem of being attracted to Romeo, a Montague, she says, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Besides being naive—her problem lies not in names but in the enmity of the families, which would remain even if names were changed—Juliet's sentiment is very Western and very modern. Today names mean little. Companies change names if the old one becomes too besmirched with scandal. Thus the private military firm Blackwater changed its name to Academi after 4 employees were convicted in US courts of killing 14 Iraqi civilians. Folks no longer name their children after beloved deceased relatives but after popstars or even fictional characters. After Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, a lot of people named their babies Kylo after the villian of the film! So, as Juliet mused, names don't seem to mean much.

Except when they do. There are actually companies that are hired by other companies to name their new products. One such naming firm is Catchword. They have come up with product names for companies like Adobe and Starbucks. And they actually do research before they suggest a name. They were looking at a name for a toy and one of the ones they liked turned out to mean, in Japanese, “a small device that doesn't work.” So they had to find another name. My first car was a Chevy Nova, which famously meant “doesn't go” in Spanish. In retrospect, it was an appropriate name for a car with a troublesome aluminum engine.

One way to avoid that problem is to come up with a name that doesn't mean anything. Hulu, Exxon and Vudu tell you nothing about what the company does. If Amazon wasn't so famous now, you might think it had something to do with South America or Wonder Woman. Companies like names that are memorable but tell you nothing about their products or services, because they don't get limited by a descriptive name. Amazon started as an online bookstore. Now they are a combination of department store and grocery store. In the future they may sell personal robots to clean your home, cook your food, babysit your children and take care of your aged parents. They will never have to change their name.

In the East, especially in the days of the Bible, a name had an important meaning. Children were often named to reflect their character and/or mission. Jacob means literally “heel-grabber” or usurper. And sure enough he displaces his older twin by stealing his birthright and blessing. Later God changes his name to Israel, “he who wrestles with God” because “you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” The fact that the nation that descends from him bears the name of Israel is prophetic of its history of struggle with and triumph through God.

And when the angel announces to Mary and later to Joseph that her son is God's son, he directs them to name him Jesus. In Hebrew it is Yeshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” Jesus' name is his mission. Christ is not his last name; it is his title, the Greek translation of Messiah, the Anointed One. Jesus is anointed by God to save his struggling people.

Names are powerful in the Near East. To know someone's actual name is to have the power to summon him or her. That's why God is a bit cagey when Moses asks his name. God is often called Elohim or El for short, which is just the generic Hebrew word for “god.” But there are a lot of gods in Egypt. Moses wants to know what name he should tell the enslaved Israelites when they ask him what is the name of the god he represents. God says, “I Am Who I Am.” This is what you are to say to the Israelites, 'I Am has sent me to you.'” Basically God's name is the Hebrew verb “to be.” It can even be interpreted “I will be what I will be.” God is eternally existent. He was and is and will be forever.

In your Bibles you will often see the word “LORD” all in caps. That means the actual word in Hebrew is “Yahweh,” God's covenant name, derived from the Hebrew verb “to be.” Pious Jews did not want to accidentally say God's name in vain and so when they saw Yahweh in the text of the Torah during synagogue readings instead they would say “adonai,” which means Lord. They even subtituted the vowels for adonai under God's name to remind them. This led to uninformed Christians combining the vowels for adonai with the consonants for Yahweh and coming up with “Jehovah.” Scholars are only fairly sure that the name of God is pronounced “Yahweh;” what they know for sure is that it is not pronounced “Jehovah.”

This caution comes from the third commandment: “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.” It's not just about cursing. It also means, according to one commentary, not using God's name in a magical incantation, to call him up as you would a spirit or demon to do you bidding. God doesn't work that way. And the rest of that verse gives a warning: “...for the LORD God will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”

But I found something interesting when I looked at the language underlying the third commandment. The Hebrew literally says, “Never bear destructively the name of Yahweh your God.” The word rendered “destructively” can also mean “evilly” or “falsely.” This is significant because another feature of names is that they carry the authority of the person. To do or say something in the name of a king meant to do or say something using his authority. Likewise, to do or say something in the name of God means invoking his authority. God is saying in this commandment never to say or do something evil or destructive using the stamp of his authority. You are misusing and defiling his name. It is a form of blasphemy.

That means we who claim we obey God should be careful when saying or doing something in his name. Sadly there are those who have not gotten the memo, so to speak. People who kill others in the name of Christ are in fact going against Jesus' express command. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus says, “But I tell you, do not resist the evil person. If someone strikes you on the the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In Matthew 26:52, Peter is defending Jesus against arrest, and we read, “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” That means the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition were blasphemies.

People who insult others in the name of Christ are likewise disobeying him. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says, “You have heard it said that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Raca was an Aramaic word that means “empty” so the insult might mean “empty-headed” or “empty of value,” a waste of space. That means insulting people in the name of Christ is blasphemy.

As is lying or practicing any deceit in the name of Christ. As is stealing or exploiting others in the name of Christ. As is neglecting the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, or the foreigner in the name of Christ. They are all blasphemies, misuses of Jesus' name and title to do evil and cause the destruction of lives and relationships.

Yet they are not unforgivable. Jesus says that blasphemies against him will be forgiven. (Matthew 12:32) We just need to ask him. But in order to ask we must realize we were wrong and repent. I worry about those who think being a Christian is like partisan politics: anything goes as long as your side wins. That is not Jesus' way. How you do things matters as much why you do them. Your goal, the end, does not justify the means. Nothing we do should violate the commandments to love God and to love others. If you do something in Jesus' name, you should do it in his Spirit as well.

Which brings us to today's gospel. Jesus says to the twelve, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me...” Why is that? Because Jesus empowered and authorized the disciples to speak and act in his name. None of the twelve were well known then. None were superstar preachers. There were no divisions or labels. They were simply disciples of Jesus. They were going out into the world in his name. They were the only ones to do so.

We live in a different time. In the last 2 millennia the church has undergone a lot of changes, usually in response to changes in the world. Today more than 2 billion people claim to be Christians, 32% of the world's population. Half of that number are Roman Catholics, 800 million are Protestants, and 260 million are Orthodox. To get more granular there are somewhere between 33,000 and 41,000 denominations, depending on your definition. (Does each individual church without a denominational affiliation count as its own denomination?) But if you narrow it to 349 major denominations, you can account for almost 80% of the world's Christians. All claim to follow Jesus. The vast majority derive their doctrine from the Bible and affirm the beliefs found in the Apostles Creed. All claim to be speaking and acting in the name of Christ. And to be sure, the majority of differences are about emphasis, interpretation, organization and authority. But you can see why people get confused as to which church to join or whether they should join one at all.

Most churches know that their witness has been dissipated by all these divisions. They know that in the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed that his disciples be one as he and the Father were one. They know they should welcome each other in the name of their incarnate, crucified and risen Lord. And so there has been a movement in many churches towards ecumenism or cooperation among Christian bodies. The Roman Catholic Church has worked to repair schisms with the Eastern Syriac churches, the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Archbishop Nathan Soderblum, once head of the Lutheran church in Sweden, is considered the architect of the modern ecumenical movement. His work resulted in a conference in Stockholm in 1925 that included Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox Christians. The World Council of Churches arose in response to the aftermath of World War Two.

The Anglican Communion and the Eastern Orthodox Church have been fairly cordial, with the Patriarch of Constantinople recognizing Anglican orders as valid in 1922. The Eastern Orthodox bishop of Brooklyn briefly let Episcopal priests administer marriage, baptism and communion in places where there was no resident Orthodox priest. Besides engaging in ecumenical dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church and others, the Episcopal Church has achieved full communion with the Old Catholic Churches of Europe, Phillipine Independent Church, Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, the Moravian Church in America, and, of course, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA has full communion with not only the Episcopal church but also the Presbyterian Church USA, Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church, and United Methodist Church.

I think a big part of the ecumenical movement is a recognition of what Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominis wrote in 1617: “In necessary things unity, in uncertain things freedom, in all things love.” Jesus didn't say that the world would recognize us as his disciples by our total agreement on everything but by our love for each other. (John 13:35) That means love is part of our Christian witness. Few people become Christians because they love our doctrines; more join us because of the love they see Christians display in their lives.

And it's not like our differences are insurmountable. At St. Francis we had a couple, the Oelers, who were married for over 50 years despite Joanne being a lifelong Democrat and John being a staunch Republican. What kept them together until death parted them was love. If they can bridge that gap, we can manage the much less dire differences we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ through the love God pours into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

After 30 years of talks, the ELCA and the Episcopal Church recognized each other's sacraments and clergy at the beginning of this century. In 2001 Pastor Carl Kaltreider approached me about Lord of the Seas and St. Francis doing Lenten services and an Easter sunrise service together. We've been doing this for 16 years. In 2012 Pat Perry approached me about serving as Interim Pastor at Lord of the Seas. A few years ago 2 Lord of the Seas parishioners suggested that during the summer the two churches hold joint services. This year the worship committees of the two churches worked out the details and now we are doing that. Each week one church will be welcoming the other to share their space, their worship, and their hospitality in the name of Christ. And each week Jesus will welcome us to come together around his table and share his body and blood as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It reminds me of a song I learned in Hebrew class: Hine ma tov uma nayim shevet achim gam yachad.

It's from Psalm 133:1. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”  

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