Sunday, January 3, 2010

Holy Name: Speaking a Singular Truth in a Plural World

Luke 2:15-21 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Luke 1:30-35 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

Matthew 1:19-21 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

Numbers 6:22-27 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, 24 The LORD bless you and keep you; 25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; 26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. 27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Galatians 4:4-7 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

"Holy Name: Speaking a singular truth in a plural world." Speaking of God is such a difficult matter, speaking of truth is fraught with error. How can we approach the One God, the One Truth, with confidence in a world of many options? And, how can we speak of this experience authentically without coming off as judgmental or irrelevant? Great questions, and don’t expect me to answer them exhaustively this morning, but we’ll take a peek at them from the perspective of the Scriptures of the day.

We’ve got a variety of Christian tradition available here in North America: United Methodist, baptist, presbyterian, reformed, mennonite, brethren, catholic, orthodox. Often enough I get asked the question, "So, what’s the difference between these?" My first answer is a reminder that they are all CHRISTIAN traditions, and while I might prefer Kleenex to Puffs, they both get the job done. Once I reinforce the essential unity of the church, I’ll be happy to talk about distinctives. But this bewildering variety makes the expression of a "singular truth", well, complicated.

John Franke, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth (Abingdon Press): "The expression of biblical and orthodox Christian faith is inherently and irreducibly pluralist" (p. 7).

It’s like the Indian story of the blind men and the elephant. They encounter a different part of the elephant’s body and are convinced that they know what this beast is like: its body - a wall, its tusk - a speak, its tail - a rope, its ear - a fan . . . and, at the end, all six wise men end up in an argument over who was right. All along, of course, they are all right, and all wrong. This classic tale raises the wonderful postmodern question: is what we call truth a matter of perception or reality?

But if Franke is right, then what we call truth is a matter of perception AND reality. We’ll approach it clearest when we practice interpretation (disciplined perception) in community, and keep our community in conversation with the broader Christian tradition.

Jurgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology, has a section titled "Mirror Images of Liberating Theology" that includes chapters such as "feminist theology for men" and "black theology for whites". It is his way of confronting us with diverging, yet historically consistent, ways of doing theology and thinking Christian-ly about this singular truth of God in Christ.

The Scripture is full of pluralities: 4 gospels bear witness to Jesus, the Bible itself is a collection of 66 different books - written over centuries by different persons in three different languages often enough in conversation with one another. It is this conversation, and the tensions that arise within it, that give our tradition such depth and richness.

What about the plural world of other faith traditions? The contributions of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religious traditions cannot be understated. But to reduce all religions to a "lowest common denominator" with a statement such as "we all believe the same basic things" does an injustice to the unique gifts of each one and flat out ignores the ways in which they quite plainly contradict one another. While relativism can be much more generous than judgmentalism, it does not respect the uniqueness of the separate traditions. Yes, Christianity has some things in common with Islam, and other things in common with Buddhism. But the convictions at the heart of each faith are by no means identical.

In the cycle of the Christian Year, we are in Christmas-tide and using the Scriptures for January 1, "Holy Name", the day on which an 8 day old Jesus, in accordance with Jewish custom, would be circumcised and formally named. Aside from the story itself, found in Luke’s gospel, we also have this priestly blessing from Numbers: "The LORD bless and keep you ..." in which Moses declares that "the name" of the LORD is placed upon the people. And, we have a selection from Paul’s letter to the Galatians which describes us naming God "Abba" or "Papa".

In ancient biblical tradition, as in many traditional societies, knowing or speaking a name was a powerful and mysterious gift. In the Revelation, we read the following blessings to those who overcome:
Revelation 3:5 I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels.
3:12 I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.
2:17 To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

Throughout the Biblical story, God gives persons new names. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter. And, there are two occasions when God reveals God’s own secret Name.

First, God appears to Moses, introducing Godself as the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." But in reply to Moses’ direct question, "What is your name?", he hears "I AM WHO I AM" or, simpler, "I AM". I must admit, that name is about as satisfying as "because I said so". But there it is: "I AM" ... self-existing: beginning and ending, alpha and omega, first and last . . . words used to name Jesus in the Revelation.

The second great revelation of God’s name is the naming of Jesus. His name means "Savior", because, as the angel told Joseph in Matthew’s gospel account, "he shall save his people from their sins". With the coming of Jesus we have a new way of speaking God’s name, the Holy Trinity: "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". A singular God in plural form . . . "one God eternally existing in three persons".

"Singular truth"? With one "plural" God? Don’t ask me to explain the Holy Trinity. It is first of all mystery, so anything we say about it cannot explain it fully. It is secondly a community – both one and plural – and social. The greatest mystery of all is that God makes room for us in that holy community, in that holy family, inviting us to name Jesus "Savior", inviting us to name God "Abba", and promising to name us "son", "daughter".

T. S. Eliot, "The Naming of Cats"
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey--
All of them sensible everyday names.
. . .
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

"Singular truth"? If it is tough enough to name a cat, and if a cat has an inscrutable, ineffable name, then how do we speak of God?
As a Mystery we treasure
With humility before God and before our brothers and sisters
In a community of faith and practice that nurtures and challenges

Mystery: "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart"
Humility: "I am the Lord’s servant, let it be done to me according to your word"
Community: the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, the shepherds welcomed, the name of the LORD placed upon the entire people of Israel by the priestly blessing, you and I invited into the family and given the privilege of naming God "Abba"

Mystery, humility, community. Three themes that are essential to effectively speaking a singular truth in a plural world, essential to naming God in our lives. But above these three themes is set one other: When we name God, when we speak of God, when we approach truth, it is about relation before it is about proposition. The naming we do is not the naming of a scientist: Felis catus (domestic housecat). The naming we do is the naming of family, of lover: Abba, Wonderful, Holy One, Savior, First and Last, Son of God, Prince of Peace. When it comes to knowing God, the scientist is as limited as the blind wise men in the old Indian tale. That singular truth only divides the world. But the singular truth of the love of God and the lovers of God – that transforms us and the world with us.

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