In my last parish I had a beloved parishioner, a retired schoolteacher, regular of the early service, there every Sunday. He would greet me every week with a cheery good morning, and then ask, every time, So, what’s the topic sentence of your sermon for today? Every week, I quailed inside. I knew that if I didn’t have an answer, my sermon for the day was likely a dud. Uhhh – God loves you? I would feebly answer. And think, I have got to do better next week.
Well, this week it’s hard to find a topic sentence. Maybe we’ll just embark, and see where we end up. It’s something about a name. But it’s complicated.
This last week we had the joy of baptizing Emily Rutherford, who has been a member here for some time. Emily was preparing to be baptized here at the Easter Vigil this year – and then we had to cancel that, because, well, you know why. We kept waiting and hoping, but now Emily is about to relocate from New York, and we decided we had to make this happen. So in a few moments you’ll get to witness Emily’s baptism, and renew your own baptismal covenant – with the glories of online worship, we’re changing the rules of linear time. God’s time includes all time together!
For Emily’s service we used the readings and prayers for the feast of Mary Magdalene, whose feast day was this week. Mary, of course, gets a star turn on Easter Sunday most years. She is known as the first apostle of the resurrection, because in John’s gospel, Mary is the first one to encounter the risen Christ, in that wonderful story in the garden. She goes to the tomb to weep over Jesus, and instead she meets the gardener – but when the gardener calls her by name, she sees that it is Jesus, and she runs to tell all the others. She’s the first to bear witness, to share the good news of the living Christ. If Jesus hadn’t called her name, she might never have noticed him there. And it was a wonderful story to hear in a baptism, because of course in old times, the baptism of infants was their naming ceremony, their christening. The priest would ask the parents to ‘name this child,’ and it would be the first public statement of the child’s name, for all to hear. Emily has had her name for some time now, so we didn’t name her again in her baptism. But God knows her name – not just Emily, but her deep, true name. And now she’s marked as Christ’s own forever, a beloved of God’s family. Those are all part of her name too.
Name this child. It’s been one of the recurring chants of the Black Lives Matter protests too. Say her name. Say his name. Those who have been murdered because of their skin are named aloud in the protests. The chant reminds us to remember the individual human person who suffered and died – not just the statistic, but the life. One of God’s beloved children, killed by others of God’s beloved children. Each of them with stories and ancestors and experiences only they know, and God knows. People, all of us people. Each with our own name, and story.
The Sacred Ground conversations we began this week build upon that idea, that in telling and hearing our stories we know ourselves and one another. In the very first session we were asked for our name, where we grew up, and also for the name and story of an ancestor we wanted to include in the conversation. We come from people, and those people shaped who we are today, in all our mixed baggage. So some of us named dear loved ones who taught us how to love other people well. Some of us named difficult relatives whose bigotry clouded our own minds. Some of us named ancestors who had been damaged and hurt by racism. God knows their names too.
What’s in a name? Our unique character. Our essence. What someone else makes of us. Where we come from. Maybe also the seed of what we will become. The good, the bad, the destructive, the holy, all of that is part of each one of us. God knows us each by our full name.
We are all of us so complex, such a mix of all and everything. And we so often try to simplify it down, whittle others down to a single descriptive sentence, a category, a type. We’re uncomfortable with all that it takes to really know one another, the way God knows us.
But that’s what relationship calls us into. We sit there before our Zoom screens, our little names on our little boxes, and we find ourselves talking not just about the weather and what we had for dinner, but our loneliness, our confusion, our uncertainty about the world. We look into each others’ eyes on screen and say things we never got around to saying when we were standing in coffee hour together. I’m amazed, truly amazed, at what we have said to one another over these last few months, and how we have listened. Something about this Zoom thing, messy hair and unmade beds and all, has changed us in our community. We say one another’s names differently now. None of us would have wished for this time that we’re in. Yet God is doing something in it that we would never have imagined. It’s complicated.
But to hear Jesus’ stories about it, the kingdom of heaven is a little complicated. Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed someone sowed in his field. A little seed of an invasive weed, sown by a farmer in their neatly cultivated field. And the tiny seed grew into a plant that took over and now the field is full of wild birds. Something small and insignificant, maybe unwelcome, strangely sown, totally transforming the world into something else.
But the kingdom of heaven is also like a woman hiding yeast in sixty pounds of flour – that’s going to make a lot of bread. The kingdom of heaven is tricky, unexpected, expanding, nourishing and feeding more people than can possibly eat of it.
And the kingdom of heaven is also like someone hiding treasure in a field and then buying the field, tricking the seller into a price that doesn’t reflect the true value of the treasure. The kingdom of heaven is so great you’ll do anything to get it, you’ll trade in everything to get something much richer and more wonderful.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant selling everything to buy the one pearl of great price. The kingdom of heaven is better than anything you have found before.
The kingdom of heaven is like nets full of fish that aren’t sorted yet. Anything and everything is dragged to shore. The kingdom of heaven is a mixed bag and it’s not up to us to figure out what’s in and out of it.
You tell me what these all mean, taken together. No one thing, no clear topic sentence. And yet somehow each little sentence tells a story, which tells us some part of the whole. The kingdom of heaven is unexpected and nourishing and frustratingly inclusive and more than anything else we could ask – and somehow, this virus, these Zoom screens, are all a part of it. And so are we, messy, unfinished creatures that we are. And we know one another by name, a little differently. And God keeps calling to us, by name, to speak of resurrection. Even in a time like this.
So what this all shakes out to? What’s the topic sentence? It’s complicated. It’s something about a name. And something about the unexpected. And something about how God loves us.