“Claimed and Named”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
13 January, 2019
Baptism of the Lord
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
This past week, I read a heart-rending column from a mother asking, essentially, whether it would be morally acceptable to cut her daughter out of her life. Her high school-aged daughter, to whom she’d given birth nearly two decades earlier, had some “learning disabilities and mild autism… dwarfed by a severe mood disorder. She’s attractive and physically healthy,” the mother writes, “has an average I.Q. and has a sibling who has suffered greatly.” In her appeal for advice, the mother laments that this child “has battered our marriage and careers. We are approaching retirement age, but we have spent a fortune on therapists, medications and special programs, with little to show for it. I worry she may never have friends or become financially independent because she’s so argumentative, selfish and unpleasant. . . . Having lost the middle chunk of my life to chaos and misery, am I really condemned to live this way until I die? Would I be the most terrible parent in the world if I packed my bags and vanished?”
I think most of us who are parents are quietly grateful just now that this has not been our personal experience. But I know this woman’s anguish is not completely unusual. In my lifetime and ministry, I’ve known more than a couple handfuls of Christian families who have wrestled (are continuing to struggle!) with impossible family situations similar to this one.
When I was in high school, I used to babysit for a family who adopted a lovely little girl when she was about ten years old. But that “sweet” girl with the innocent face and charming smile, the same one who had been neglected and abused from her earliest moments, who had been in and out of the foster care system, gave the entire family and community a schooling in the wiles of manipulation and the artfulness of a pathological liar. It seemed the lesson most firmly imprinted in that girl’s tender psyche was that other people, including family, will always ultimately disappoint and abandon you—so you may as well take as much as you can by whatever means you must, from anyone whose trust you manage to win, while you can get it. From the moment she was claimed by them in her adoption, that little girl broke the hearts of the family who had embraced her as one of them.
Prior to that, I hadn’t known it was possible to rescind an adoption. But I remember conversations with her mother, who wondered aloud what love required of her, and what her limits were, when the girl seemed to be destroying their family’s life in so many ways. They wrestled and prayed about whether relinquishing her was the most faithful thing to do for the health and wellbeing of the entire family, or whether they had an ultimate duty of care to the one who was destabilizing each of them and their collective cohesiveness. They believed God had led them to her, or her to them—but to what end, when year after year things seemed only to deteriorate for them?
What sort of advice do you think Jesus would give to these families? It’s worth pondering, because occasionally in the church, we have to deal with members of our spiritual family who manipulate and deceive. Rarely to the degree these families have experienced, but certainly enough to diminish our ability to fully trust or have confidence in each other. Sometimes, prayerful, reflective and well-intentioned individuals will discover that—in spite of our better angels and commitments to reject such behaviors—we ourselves have acted in self-interested ways that have engaged deception or manipulation. That’s the nature of the sinful human condition; even those who are considered saint-like among us are capable of tremendous vice, whether or not we expect it.
It’s worth pondering how Jesus might respond, because none of usis perfect. Did we not acknowledge together in our Prayer of Confession that, “our love is fickle and inconstant. We follow selfish goals and deny that our way of life harms others and hurts [God’s] world”? Whether deliberately or not, we break covenant promises; we miss the mark of loving purely as God wants us to love; we sin. Yet, God keeps claiming us.
Sometimes, when we disappoint, when we deceive or manipulate or break covenant, we get called on it. Sometimes—especially as children—we have our first and middle names used. At least, I did. When I heard both my names, “Tanya Noelle” uttered in a particular tone of voice, I knew I had messed up and I was being called to account. Sometimes, when it was even more serious, I would hear this: “Young lady, your name is Mud.”
Names are powerful. They potentially convey something about our identity, about the essence of who we are, or are understood to be. Being called “Mud” had the desired effect of humbling and chastening me. Thankfully, that only ever lasted a couple hours and only came from my parents, whose love I didn’t ultimately doubt.
I was probably eight years old when I discovered my parents’ book of baby names and read that “Tanya” was a Russian name meaning “Fairy Princess.” Well, all of a sudden, I felt very important. Though it was short-lived, it opened up a whole new world of purpose in my imagination. Until, as I was convening a council of the fairies in the room we shared, my older sister pointed out that my name and identity as a Fairy Princess didn’t really make any sense—“Because, I mean, fairies aren’t even real.”
Like I said: names are powerful. The names we accept for ourselves say something about how we are, or wish to be, recognized and received; they often convey something about the relationships that are most meaningful to us. They identify who claims us, and whom we claim relationship with.
The names we call others—whether it’s their given name or another—demonstrate our respect for them, or our lack of esteem. And, especially when the names we use for one another are not our given or preferred names, they can affect how we think about ourselves—and how others perceive us.
What names have you been called—the ones that have strengthened you, and the ones that have attempted to diminish you? What name or names do you call yourself? How have you named or identified yourself and others along the way?
In both of our Bible passages this morning, we hear God speaking to people of faith. In each text, those being addressed are firstclaimedas God’s own. Then they are named.
In Isaiah Chapter 43, the prophet gives voice to God’s words: ‘…[T]hus says the LORD. . . Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Claimed, and named. As Isaiah conveyed the words of God to the Jewish people who were feeling battered, broken, and defeated, they heard the same divine promise that their forebears many generations earlier had heard: “I will be with you . . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you . . . Do not fear, for I am with you . . . I will gather you . . . everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” The thing about scripture is the words that applied to an earlier audience—even thousands of years ago—can still be understood as reaching out to us today.
Isaiah invokes the names of Jacob and Israel, knowing that his early audience would hear those names as if they were their own, when he reminds them who the LORD is: “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel. . .” Jacob and Israel were two names for the same person: Jacob was one of Isaac’s twin sons, grandson of Abraham. His name gestures toward his story. Jacobliterally means “supplanter”—one who comes after, and takes over (referring to the fact that, although he was the second-born, he manipulated his way to acquiring Esau’s birthright blessing). Jacob was a man who’d made some self-centered choices, who had operated out of self-interest, and had hurt others and had suffered for it.
But he’d also experienced immense blessing from God, despite his flawed decisions; regardless of the ways he’d been deceitful and manipulative; notwithstanding the ways he’d broken covenants with God and with his own family members. His name was changed from Jacob to Israel after he wrestled valiantly with God and didn’t die from the struggle. Jacob/Israel’s story was one of a desire and willingness to continue contending with his Maker, to reconcile with those whom he’d hurt, to keep trying to do better, to live more fully into his moral and faith-filled commitments. Jacob/Israel’s story became symbolic and archetypal for the entire nation that took his name. Because, who has never done the sorts of things that Jacob did—using a bit of deception to get what we want, taking control of a situation where we found an opportunity and turned events to favor our own desired outcome (in other words, manipulated a situation for our personal advantage)? But here’s the awesome truth: God’s claiming and naming happened has persisted over thousands of years; God’s desire to remain connected with humankind across generations has been unwavering.
In our Gospel lesson, God is once again heard speaking. All of the people who were out there in the wilderness with John the Baptizer were there because they’d recognized their need for grace. Like Jacob/Israel, they knew they’d broken covenant commitments. They’d hurt relationships that mattered to them. And they were trying to repent and reconnect with God’s ways that led to real life and freedom, with faith.
Then, Luke tells us, “When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized . . .” It’s worth pausing to note that Jesus is singled out here: “…all the people. . . Jesus also. . .” It’s fair to wonder: why would Jesusneed to be baptized? From what did he need to repent, or for what reason did he need a fresh start? But there he was—God’s own Son, joining broken human beings in an activity that helped to reunite them with God, affirming their longings, embracing the sacrament of new birth. And as he did so, Luke says, “. . . the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And then a voice came from heaven [claiming him], “You are my son, [then naming him] the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Friends, here’s a mystery of faith, and the Gospel truth: in our baptism, you and I receive the name and identity of Jesus Christ. We are not perfect, for sure. But as surely as the people of Israel recognized their identity bound up in Jacob’s, your identity and mine are tied to the Anointed One, the Christ who bequeathed his Spirit and his very name to us; we take his name as our own when we are baptized—named and claimed—as Christians.
As people of the Biblical faith narrative, the names of Jacob, Israel, and Christ—these are names we, too, are invited to claim; they represent the truth of our humanity, and our beloved-ness and redemption as children of the God who first created us, then came to us as one of us, and whose love simply will never give up on us.
In the end, the family I babysat for did not rescind the adoption, though in her late teens, the girl disappeared and didn’t communicate with them for several years. So they absorbed the further trauma and heartbreak of not knowing whether she was alive or dead, and just remained committed to praying for her and trying to understand what it meant to love her. I know many deeply faithful individuals and families for whom this simply wouldn’t have been possible. Who could have faulted them if they had decided that the only way to move forward was to liberate themselves from the toxic element in their family? Human love bumps up against limits, especially in situations of persistent abuse. And that’s where the reminder that God’s love is—hallelujah—much greater, stronger, more creative and resilient than human love, which is marred and broken by sin.
The good news and holy mystery is that, even though human beings can’t always find a way to reconcile, or we come to the limits of our ability to tolerate habitually destructive behaviors, God doesnot, and will notgive up on us. When we’ve come as far as wecan in loving and trying to accept the pain others cause us, or when others have come as far as they can with us, the One who has created and fashioned each one of us for a divine purpose is still not finished. With them, or with us. In the words of the singer Michael Card, “[God] cannot love us more, and will not love us less.” It doesn’t matter where we’ve come from, what we’ve done, or where we find ourselves on life’s often challenging journey: we are claimed—we belong to God. And we are named—our name is Beloved. Every last one of us. Thanks be to God! Amen.