Known by Name

A sermon preached at St. Luke’s Church, San Francisco, on September 25, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.

Years ago I was Rector of St Alban’s Church, Tokyo, Japan, which is the one parish in the Diocese of Tokyo that provides services in English They do that for the benefit of Anglicans and others who speak English better than Japanese. So it was my job to speak English which I am much better at than Japanese. So I was sitting in the church office one morning when a family of three appeared at the door: a man, a woman, and a child, a boy of 8 or 9. They were Australians and they told me they were hitch-hiking around the world (don’t ask!) and they were being delayed by a visa problem with the Russian embassy that couldn’t quite get the picture. So they were stuck in Tokyo and they wondered, could I maybe help them find a place to stay until the Russian embassy figured out what to do.

Well, we had church school rooms only used on Sunday and they had sleeping bags so we worked it out and they wound up staying several weeks. And after they had been there a while they came to me and asked whether I would be willing to baptize their son. He had never been baptized, they told me, because they thought he should make that decision himself when he was old enough, but then, after leaving Australia, they had trekked through southeast Asia and they had seen a lot of religious stuff going on that kinda turned them off so they thought maybe they would, after all, make a decision for their son while they had the chance. So we had a baptism.

And why not? We’re making a decision for Isabel here this morning and she has no idea! And it’s only one of a great many decisions made for her already. None of us get to choose our parents or place of birth or national origin and a number of other things, some basic and some trivial but parents do the best they can for us And there may come a day when we want to disown some of it – or all of it and baptismsome of it we can disown, we can move to Russia or Texas or go to a different church or none but we can’t change the DNA – not yet anyway – some of it we are stuck with, like it or not, and psychiatrists make a lot of money helping people sort these things out. No one asked Isabel whether she wants to grow up in a foggy city where it never snows nor will she be asked whether she wants to go to the school her parents choose without consulting her or whether she wants to learn the Star-spangled banner whether she can hit the high notes or not.

Nobody asks the Hispanic kids in this country either – documented or undocumented – whether they wanted to grow up here or whether they want to learn American history or be taught about the war with Mexico. If they live in Texas no one asks whether they want to remember the Alamo. We make decisions for our children on the basis of our own beliefs and they can reject them later if they want, but we give them what we believe will be good for them and we may make dreadful mistakes – you don’t get to rehearse being parents – and no one really warns you what may happen – but that’s why you also make this decision: to have her baptized. You come here and you place the child in God’s hands. There will be days when you may not know what to do but God does – and you ask God to share some responsibility.

The previous edition of the Prayer Book when it got to the moment of baptism had a rubric – a direction printed in italics – that said, “Here the minister shall take the child into his arms (and it was always “his” in those long ago days) and shall say to the parents and godparents, ‘Name this child’.” “Here the minister shall take the child into his arms . . .” But if you looked closely, you might have noticed that there was no rubric that said, “Here he shall give the child back.” Now that was very deliberate. The Prayer Book can sometimes be quite subtle, and maybe this was too subtle, but it was making a point: You give the child to God and God keeps her. God keeps her. I always used to point that out to parents and sometimes it worried them, but I think they liked it when they thought about it a bit.

There will be days when you don’t know what to do. Isabel is howling and you don’t know why. Is it a pin in the wrong place? Is she hungry? Is she tired? Who knows? And it only gets more complicated. “Everybody else is doing it.” “But you aren’t everybody.” You can say that, and up to a point you can enforce it. But there will be days . . . But you can always console yourselves with the thought that you put her in God’s hands and it’s God’s problem as well as yours. She is also God’s child, and God may be able to do the things that you can’t do. God can work within us in ways we are seldom aware of. And if things somehow work out in spite of our blunders, you can put it down to chance or coincidence or luck – but it might be grace. It might be grace: “the free gift of God that enables us to serve God and to please God.” It might be grace. And you are acting today to put Isabel in a place where grace happens, in a relationship in which grace happens. Point one.

Point Two. Baptisms are always individual. Oh, there may be several children and even adults baptized at the same time but always one by one and by name. The giving of a name is a symbol of that. You are baptized by name because God knows you by name: first name, given name or names; Isabel Wyler, Donald James, Hillary Diane. I didn’t know that last name until I looked it up, but God does; a personal God knows you as an individual person.

Two weeks ago, the gospel gave us the story of the good shepherd who goes in search of one lost sheep – there may be ninety-nine in the fold but he goes in search of that one. I was preaching elsewhere that morning and I talked about the importance of one, each one, in God’s sight. But it was only afterwards that I realized an important point: the shepherd didn’t count the sheep, One, two, three . . . ninety-eight, ninety-nine – oops, one missing. No, that’s not how it goes. The shepherd doesn’t count to ninety-nine to know one is missing. You can’t be counting sheep all the time; it’ll put you to sleep. sheepWe know that. But the good shepherd doesn’t need to count. No, sheep may look all alike to you but not to the shepherd – he knows each one – he knows the one with one black ear, and the one with a funny white mark on her face, – you don’t need to count because you know your sheep, every one of them – and you know if one is missing. God knows you, knows Isabel Wyler, knows each of us by name, by name, knows us by name. Knows who’s here this morning and knows who’s missing. Probably Dana does too.

You know, there are lots of people missing in the churches these days – falling membership in all the churches, main line, Roman, evangelical – makes no difference – we all feel it, see it, worry about it. And I wonder sometimes whether we know too much. I mean, how long have we known about black holes and spiral nebulae and the billions of light years that measure this universe and how small the earth is in all this limitless space. We didn’t used to know that. It’s only in the last hundred years or less that scientists got to talking about black holes and spiral nebulae and all that and less than that that such ideas have come into common use and begun to raise fundamental questions and reshape our understanding of our environs and don’t you sometimes wonder yourself, “How can we possibly imagine that there could be a Creator who cares about this speck of star dust and the short-lived, bi-pedal species that inhabits it?”

One sheep in a hundred is one thing – one planet in a small solar system matters – but a tiny planet in a galaxy that is a hundred thousand light years across and may contain billions of inhabitable planets – that’s something else. They tell us there may be billions of inhabitable planets in our galaxy – and there are approximately 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe – and who knows what’s beyond that and whether there are other universes – if that’s not a contradiction in terms! The numbers blow the mind. Can you still conceive a Creator who knows and cares about you? I will only say that a God not capable of that would not be a God worth worshiping. But it is hard to conceive a God who could create all that and still care about each speck of dust.

Micro-managing has a bad name these days; none of us wants to micro-manage. But God does. Would you create something this beautiful – the fog over the Golden Gate, the sea lions pulling themselves up on a lonely beach, the giant red woods, children in the school playground at lunch time – would you create all that and not care? But it’s hard. It’s very hard to imagine a God of this immeasurable skyuniverse whose eye is also on the sparrow. Human beings have lived most of their existence in a very small universe with gods on Mt Olympus or a nearby cloud: not that far away. And suddenly we are in this vast space and feeling very lonely, perhaps, and needing to reconceptualize a God who may seem unimaginably distant, but it would be a very small God who was unable to bridge the gaps – and it would not be the God we worship, who is here this morning, who fills the heavens – yes, all those billions of light years and, yes, this tiny, blue earth – and is here, here for each of us, and cares more for each small child than the child’s own parents.

Belief may be hard these days, but Dag Hammarskjold once said, “God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” That’s point two.

Point three brings me around at last to the gospel for today: the story of Dives and Lazarus. And notice first of all that Lazarus gets named in the story, but not the rich man. Names matter. I was just saying that. And the poor man got no recognition from the rich man – but Jesus only names Lazarus. The rich man is just another rich man: met one, you’ve met them all. Somewhere later on they began calling the rich man “Dives” – rich. God, I believe, knows the rich man also by name but Jesus doesn’t give him a name. He’s just “a certain rich man who fared sumptuously every day.” As I do; as most of us do; although there are homeless men and women lying not far from our doors. But Lazarus is given a name to make the point: the Good Shepherd knows his sheep whether the world does or not.

It’s good that we have this story this morning because baptism is the beginning of a journey that has an end, a destiny, and it’s good to be reminded also of that this morning. We’re all on a journey here that gets longer all the time – the odds are good that Isabel will live to be ninety maybe more, the journey gets longer. We celebrated a 95th birthday here last Sunday because 95 is still uncommon, but it’s getting less so all the time. But whether it’s three score years and ten or ninety-five, or one hundred and ten, it still has an ending and this morning’s parable puts that ending in graphic terms: Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and Dives in flames. The translation we used this morning, btw, says Lazarus is “by his side” – by Abraham’s side. That’s what happens when you put a committee in charge of translations and somebody is squeamish. No: in his bosom, “in his close embrace.” Side by side, you might picture them up there looking down at Dives, but no; they’re not interested in Dives. They’re getting acquainted, getting close. But the point is that there is a destiny, we’re going somewhere. We’re here for a purpose. And there is a loving God who gives us that purpose and into whose hands we have placed Isabel.

I don’t know that there are flames down below but I do know that I don’t want to face my creator with blood on my hands. Notice that nothing is said about who went to church or synagogue or mosque – only one thing: Dives had the good things all his life and never shared so much as the crumbs with the poor man at his gate. And that settles it. That’s all that matters. How do you and I measure up? Did I – did you do something about the needs around you while we had time or did we not? What charities do you support? How will you vote in this election? Will you ask what’s in it for me or are you asking, “How can we as a country do most for those with the most needs whoever and wherever they may be?” Are we asking which candidate will lower my taxes most or which candidate shares my values most fully in terms of human need? This country perhaps is Dives and perhaps Syria is Lazarus. How should we respond? “Stay away from my door?”

I don’t expect the scene painted in the gospel to play out in real time – or at the end of time – I think pearly gates and raging fire – or, perhaps, as Dante saw it, a place of terrible cold – are useful images, perhaps, but I know perfectly well that whatever comes next is beyond picturing, beyond imagining, because my imagination is so narrowly limited by the familiar things. The Bible pictures heaven as Jerusalem – only better. You might think of it as an infinite golf course or an endless Mozart concert. You might see it as a choice between Tahoe and Arizona. Our imaginations are too small. But the picture the gospel gives us, I think, is a useful reminder all the same that how we live matters. It matters.

We come here, and we baptize children and adults here, to form a community and to support each other in this brief pilgrimage and do what we can to reach out to Lazarus while we have time. To reach out as members of this church have done just recently in Central America and last year in the Philippines and regularly through the ministry of River Sims to people in need right here in this city. That’s what the gospel today tells us. That’s why a bunch of busy people take time over a tiny baby. In this vast universe, Isabel matters. You matter. We need to be in a place where grace happens, where the individual matters, where life has a meaning and purpose. We need to be here.

1 Comment

Lisa Lansing SimontOctober 1st, 2016 at 10:28 pm

Thank you, Chris. Lovely — Lisa

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