Sunday, July 26, 2009

Your New Name - Luke 13:10-17

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus has cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Nicknames in my family have a long and treasured tradition. My father goes by “Rusty.” His name is actually Harold Richmond Thomas, Jr., and he’s not a redhead, so perhaps you think there’s a story behind this name. The story is this: my grandparents were married in 1939, but my father – their only child – was not born until 1950. My dad’s uncle, the official nickname giver in the family, surmised, “Surely, they must be a little rusty.”

Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” True enough, but I wonder if the floral industry would sell so many if it were called “stink blossom.” Whatever label we attach to something has a way of coloring our perception of that thing. Even moreso, whatever label we attach to a person has a way of coloring our perception of them. May we pray.

Most of you have wisely discerned that “A.J.” is not the name my parents chose for me. People have often tried to guess what my initials stand for. In the Italian-Roman Catholic community where I grew up, the most common guess was that it stood for Anthony Joseph. Since I moved south of the Mason-Dixon, the most common guess has been for Andrew Jackson.

I blame my parents for the confusion. At my birth, they agreed that my name would be Andrew Jeremy Thomas, but a disagreement soon ensued as to what I should be called. Mom wanted to call me Andrew, and Dad wanted to call me Andy. After a few days, they agreed to call me Jeremy, and my family still calls me by my middle name. So where did I pick up A.J.?

I began kindergarten at Hyde Park School, and this may surprise you, but I was somewhat shy and retiring as I began my education. The official name on the roster was “Andrew,” and I didn’t speak up and tell them they called me “Jeremy” at home. By first grade, I had learned to speak up for myself and told them I went by Jeremy. When 2nd grade arrived, the school’s gym teacher said, “Well first it was Andrew, then it was Jeremy; what’s it gonna be this year – A.J.?”

When you listen to this story, I want you to realize that I currently have three names I have to answer to. By now, most of the world knows me as A.J. However, if I am sending correspondence to anyone in my family, I have to remember to sign it with my middle name. And of course, for anything official or legal, I have to be Andrew. There is one distinct advantage to this, however. I can easily identify telemarketers when they call because they always ask for Andrew. And I can answer, honestly, that there is no one who goes by that name at this number.

All of these are actual names. But, we also have other aspects of our identity we’re known by. Sometimes we are known by our occupation. Sometimes by where we live, or an affiliation with a sports team. Some of us are known by our relationship with another member of our family, or by some ability or disability we possess.

In our text this morning, with Jesus we meet a woman who was known as the “bent woman.” Some translations may call her “the crooked woman,” “the crippled woman,” “the broken woman.” Notice: she has no name. Even on the sacred page of Scripture, she is only known by her disability.

Imagine, with me, what life must have like for this woman. Years of pain have dragged her downward. Now when she walked, she only saw feet and dirt. How long had it been since she had seen anyone’s face? Better yet, how long had it been since anyone had looked her in the face?

She was bent over – had been bent over – for years, staring at the ground, her back terribly contorted, and dragged downward by all those years of pain. But once she was down, a new sort of pain began to develop. The world became increasingly smaller around her. One by one, friends and family members faded out of the background. Somewhere, her name was lost and she never bothered to stick up for herself and reclaim her identity – because the pain had already defeated her. The pain wasn’t just physical. It cut to every other area of her life, as well. She was dealing with the pain of social isolation. She was dealing with the pain of lost relationships. She was dealing with the pain of having to put up with an identity she never wanted in the first place, an identity the world readily slapped on her aching back.

Can you feel that pain? Do you know that pain, the pain of a name that hurts, traps, confines, cuts to the heart? Do you know the pain of having to live with a label someone else chose to put on you? Do you know the pain of a name, a label, an identity you didn’t choose, but because of it, some in the world have felt justified in treating you poorly? Or, because of the label that got attached to someone else, have you felt justified in treating someone else poorly?

As kids we used to sing, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” So as we grew up, I think we used that as an excuse to call people by all sorts of awful names. Names that won’t be repeated here. We all know these names. Many of us have spent a lifetime trying to run from names and labels like these. Despite what we told ourselves as kids about these names, they really do hurt.

It’s bad enough when the world attaches these hurtful labels to people. It’s even worse when the church does it.

Often, we feel we can say just about anything we want about someone so long as we follow it up with, “Bless their heart,” “Lord love them,” or “Poor thing.” “Did you see what Mary wore to church? Bless her heart.” “Let me tell you about my idiot neighbor, Lord love him.” It’s even worse when gossip is couched as a prayer request. “Please pray for my daughter’s husband, because he did so-and-so.”

Twentieth-century rhetorician and social critic Kenneth Burke described naming as the process of trying to gain control over something. That is, if we can name something and translate it into recognizable symbols, we can understand it. Burke was mostly referring to a situation in which we might find ourselves, but the same concept can be applied to our relationship with other people as well.

For example, when I was growing up, a few streets away lived a woman everyone called “Crazy Cat Lady.” Few people ever saw her. There were cats all over her porch and yard. The house itself stood out because it desperately needed a new coat of paint, and the yard only got mowed about every six weeks, and you could smell dirty litter box from the street. Let me tell you – on Michigan Avenue on those three blocks between the Boulevard and the park – this was not acceptable.

I became the paperboy that served these blocks, which meant I became Crazy Cat Lady’s paperboy. I found out she had once had a good job, but lost it when she developed severe psychological problems. She was now living on permanent disability, which bought groceries and paid the light bill, but did little else. She hadn’t heard from her daughters in years. And everytime she came outside to attempt to engage the outside world, her neighbors turned their backs and went back inside their own houses. After you get rejected so many times, eventually you just stop trying.

I wish I could say I made extra efforts to be nice to her, but I didn’t.

For the woman in our passage today, I doubt anyone really made extra efforts to be nice to her, either. As she hobbled down the streets each day, no one saw her. As she came into the synagogue a few minutes late, no one noticed her. No one was saving a seat for her. No one looked up and said, “Here comes Elizabeth, or Mary, or Rachel, or Ruth,” or whatever her long-forgotten name actually was.

Yet, Jesus saw her. Invited to teach as a guest rabbi in the town’s synagogue, Jesus was somewhere between points two and three in his sermon when she made her humble entrance and tried to blend into the woodwork in the back of the room. But Jesus saw her. The sermon stopped, Jesus stood up from where he taught, and he motioned to the woman to come forward from the back of the room. He sees her, he places his hand on her, and he heals her.

Notice how Jesus treats her. He does not call her disabled, or hindered, or a victim of life’s unfairness. Jesus has no interest in making her a professional victim, or in highlighting the thing about her that makes her different from the majority of the population. Jesus has no interest in making her disability the thing that defines her whole life.

The healing is the obvious miracle. Yet, there is another miracle happening here, one that often gets missed, but one that has just as much significance as her back being straightened.

Jesus calls her “Daughter of Abraham.” One who for 18 years has been known as the crooked woman is now given a new name: “Daughter of Abraham.” “Child of God.” “Beloved.” She is an heir to the abundant blessings of God. Moreover, she is called to be a blessing to the whole world. She is meant for more than a cruel, debilitating label. She – bent and crooked and crippled – is part of God’s great salvation of the whole world. Even if everyone else in the room missed it, even if it was missed by generations of theologians and preachers, one person understood the significance of that new name.

She stands up straight. Even if her back had not been healed by Jesus, I am convinced she would have stood up straight. Her life takes its right and proper place in God’s promises to the world. Her life has been renamed as part of the great drama of God’s redemption. We remember her not as a sad and unfortunate victim, not as the woman with the bad back, but as a daughter of Abraham.

Jesus healed her. He straightened her back, and she received physical healing. He gave her a new name, and she received spiritual and emotional and social healing.

Friends, Jesus has a new name for you as well. You have been called to something greater and higher than the labels the world wants to place on you. You are daughters and sons of Abraham. You are children of God. You are a royal priesthood, holy and beloved. Your life is meant to count for something, because you have been given a part in God’s great redemptive story.

Therefore, when a child is baptized, we ask what name has been given to the child. The parents have already named the child, but in baptism, we celebrate a new name for us all. We celebrate a name given through the power of the Holy Spirit and sealed with water. In baptism, we lay on a more determinative, more revealing name – “Christian.” God promises to enable us to live a Christian life, and we promise to live one. In the case of a child, we predict that the child’s life will be a long story of growing into that name and claiming the benefits of their new family. In the case of adults, we celebrate a new identity rooted in Christ in which one’s previous labels no longer control and define. As Austin Miles’ old gospel hymn put it: “there’s a new name written down in glory, and it’s mine.”

Other names may come and go, but the name Jesus gives us endures. Other names may shake our foundations, but the name Jesus gives us is a rock to which we can anchor. Other names may hurt us, but the name Jesus gives us provides wholeness. Other names may be intended to harm, but the name Jesus gives us offers hope and healing for the world.

Friends, I don’t know what names you have had to suffer under. I do know how painful those names may have been to you. But those names do not define you, because Jesus has a new name for you. Those names are not your identity, because Jesus gives you a new name. He calls you “Child of God.” He calls you “Beloved.” Your name, whatever else we may call you, is “child of God.” I hope you feel the hands of Jesus reaching out toward you. I hope you feel his healing touch, as he calls you by your true and proper name.

This morning, as we’ve looked at this passage of healing, as we’ve seen how God desires wholeness for each of us, it seemed proper to not only hear the word, but to do the Word. Today, our time of worship is going to conclude with a healing service.

James 5:14-16 reads, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

This may be a new thing for some of you. What I realize is that we all stand in need of healing. At different times in our lives, we may need healing in our body, in our mind, in our spirit, or in our relationships. At times, we feel broken and incomplete. We all need healing.

God’s desire for all of us is wholeness. God’s desire is that whatever feels broken in our lives would be restored. All healing is of God, and the Church’s healing ministry is simply one more among our total resources for healing and wholeness.

In a few moments, everyone who wishes to come forward for healing prayer is invited to do so. Here’s what will happen. I will be down front, along with Hamp Hinkle. If you come forward, I will anoint your forehead with olive oil in the sign of the cross. Hamp and I will lay our hands on your head and pray for the Holy Spirit to work within you to bring healing and wholeness to all areas of your life. Friends and family are welcome to join anyone who comes forward for healing. You may linger at the altar for prayer as long as you wish. We’re in no rush this morning. We’re on God’s time, and this is God’s ministry of healing.

I have no expectation of what will happen. No one may come forward or everyone may come, and that’s fine. But if you desire wholeness in your entire being, after our brief prayer, I invite you to come forward. I extend that invitation on behalf of Christ, who reaches out to touch each of us with his healing hands, and in whose name all healing takes place.

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