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Bearing the Name, Bearing the Cross: Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 24-25, 2024



--The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire


Readings:


 

What’s in a name?

 

Shakespeare first asked that question in his tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, a tale of two star-crossed lovers whose families were at war with one another in the streets of Verona. The Montagues and the Capulets were openly at each other’s throats—and Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague fall in love at first sight, despite their families and their hangers on being at each other’s throats.

 

In Act II, scene II, the subject of names is the main topic. Juliet sits at her window and muses these famous lines, with Romeo lurking out of sight in the orchard beneath, listening in:

 

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name, which is no part of thee,

Take all myself.

 

Of course, it is not Romeo’s given name that is the problem. The problem is his family name—and hers, for their families are at war under the banner of those names. Their names, and the communities each represents, threatens to forbid their love.

 

Names are important banners we wrap around ourselves, but they are NOT individual. They tie us to other people, to nationalities, to ideologies, to kin and kindred spirits scattered far and wide. Most importantly, most names are shared, and thus they establish boundaries and expectations for entire communities.

 

In our readings today, the idea of names and their symbols lies under all our readings. Abraham, although a wealthy and faithful man, risks having his name die out, for he has no legitimate children. Yet even though he is 99 years old—about which St. Paul made an incredibly ageist crack in our epistle—we see a second covenant in two weeks, as God promises Abraham descendants so numerous that his name will never die, and he will be the father of many nations. To emphasize this, God reveals a new name for everyone involved in this covenant. The name used here for God, meaning “God Almighty” or “God of the Mountain,” is “El Shaddai” in the original text. Abram, meaning “Father is Exalted,” become Abraham, which means “Father of a Multitude.” Sarai, which means “Princess,” becomes Sarah, meaning “Mother of Nations.”

 

In our section from Romans, Paul is writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome, although he has never met them. They are struggling with the requirements to form a community of Christ- followers, with those of Abrahamic heritage arguing about whether gentile converts should have to follow Jewish law before admittance to the community—including becoming circumcised, which was also mentioned in the verses omitted in our reading from Genesis. Paul makes a case that, as Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law, and underlying this is the idea that Abraham was the father of nations, plural, that anyone who shares the faith Abraham had in God is therefore a child of Abraham’s promise, through faith alone. In other words, one follows God by faith, not by bloodline --or painful surgical procedures on tender bits of one’s anatomy. Ouch.

 

And in our gospel, Jesus is talking about what it means to be a true disciple and follower of Jesus as the son of God. And it is here that we must remember that each gospel was written for a specific community at a particular time and place. The Markan community was undergoing great persecution and suffering—so these verse that we might draw back from were written to comfort the listeners, to remind them that their suffering was in allegiance with someone who died out of love for them and for the entire world on the cross. The cross, which had been a symbol of shame, is now a symbol of the victory and power of love in action—self-giving love, that seeks to draw all creation into community, bound by self-giving love.

 

And here we are, two thousand years later. The name we choose to bear as followers of Jesus, is “Christians.” And it is a name that lays a lot of obligations on us—the first of which is to be guided by love, always. Love that is willing to seek another’s good even at our own expense, just as Jesus exemplified in every moment of his ministry.

 

Sure, we live in a time when, in our context, following Jesus generally is not going to expose us to a torturous death—although that IS certainly true in other parts of the world, even today, and we should never, ever minimize or forget that.

 

But following Jesus—not just using his name to hammer other people, but instead living open-heartedly according to his precious gospel—certainly will set us at odds with the culture in which we live. And the way Jesus’s name is used by too many people today is 100% in opposition to Jesus’s message. Tragically, some people use the name of Christian as a weapon against others and to make themselves feel superior, in a rarified club. And they use the name of Jesus as a club against anyone they consider “less-than.” They use the name of Jesus as an excuse to contemptuously deny the humanity of those they believe don’t measure up—the very poor, outcast, and oppressed with whom Jesus spent most of his time standing in solidarity. And so, they risk tarnishing the holy name and true gospel of Jesus in the public sphere. They forget that taking on the name “Christian” is about serving others, especially those the world around us despises-- rather than serving yourself.

 

The core of discipleship, of bearing the name of Jesus with integrity, is self-giving compassion and generosity, Jesus reminds us continually, especially in this season of Lent.  Tragically, that certainly is not something in line with our own culture, where self-indulgence is raised up as a virtue. It is at this point especially that Jesus makes it quite clear that the gospel is certainly counter-cultural throughout the ages. And it is still counter-cultural now, surrounded by the myth of “rugged individualism,” in which any need for someone else is portrayed in the public American ethos as a failure.

 

But that is exactly the kind of life we are challenged to lose and lay down if we want to bear the name of Jesus faithfully and call ourselves “Christians.”

 

It is that life of selfishness and disdain for others that Jesus encourages us to lay down and lose. Losing that life is the only way to open yourself to living in harmony with Jesus and following him as God’s beloved children. Peter is rebuked for thinking in a worldly way, wanting a warrior Messiah. But that is NOT God’s way.

 

So, we too are asked to look at the life the world encourages us to lead critically. We are currently in a crisis of loneliness and isolation that has NOTHING to do with COVID but everything to do with the myth that our families and communities can survive when greed and contempt for others are worshiped are embraced to rule over us as gods. Suicide rates, addiction, and violence plague our every step in every community, regardless of wealth or zip code. Antisocial behaviors have been normalized and even applauded and laughed about. Cruelty is sport.

 

It is THIS life Jesus urges us to lay down and lose in order to have life in him and bear his name as Christians faithfully. We gain so much more than we lose!

 

The cross in Jesus’s time was something shameful, yet for us now it is a sign of faith and hope it has been so transformed by the power of the self-giving love it represents that we now wear it around our necks, hand it over or behind our altars, and regularly make the sign of the cross over ourselves as we are blessed or absolved.

 

When I became an Episcopalian, I embraced the habit of genuflection, because it reminded me every time I did it that Christ has asked us, as Christians, to take up our cross—a cross of love, service to others, and community—and follow him, as our gospel recounts today. It is a reminder to me that the Holy Trinity is ever near. And it is a sign, as much as the name of Christian, that binds us all together in one family, one community, one faith—all centered on self-giving love in action for others. The cross and what it stands for is NEVER to be used to divide us.

 

During every Eucharistic prayer, as part of our Catholic, meaning universal, identity, we are all encouraged to make the sign of the cross over ourselves as the Holy Spirit is called down to consecrate US as well as the bread and the wine—to remember that the cross is a sign of the victory of love and the generosity of God to us in feeding us around this altar a meal which makes us one body sharing one name and one ministry, one obligation to each other—the name of Jesus, the sweetest name in the world.

 

So today, I challenge you and myself, to take up your cross of love and bear it with joy, right now. Realize the gift of renouncing the suffering wrought by the world’s values. Lay down that life with joy, and take up the life of love, faith, and hope in the name of God. Let us commit ourselves, starting this Lent, to follow Jesus in truth, bearing his glorious name in word, but more importantly in deed, as we all seek to be a blessing to the world around us.

 

Amen.

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