A sermon for Easter Day, April 24, 2011. The lectionary readings are Acts 10:34-43 ,Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 , Colossians 3:1-4 , and John 20:1-18 .
Sometimes when I’m with my in-laws, it gets confusing. It’s confusing not only because there’s usually a lot of food, and conversation is had among mouths full of good things. It’s not only confusing because everyone is talking at once. And not just because the languages spoken often become a hodgepodge of Tagalog, Ilonggo, English, or “Taglish.”
But there’s a particular word that comes up a lot, and every time I hear it, it makes me turn my head. The word is diyan (from nan diyan) and it means something like, “over there,” or “that one” and to me, it sounds just like my name. And so in that corner of the room there is a rapid-fire conversation, clickety-click, “John.” I turn my head, but they’re not talking to me. Then behind me, I hear another conversation, “John.” Again, it’s not me they mean. It’s finally gotten to the point that I just tune out anything that sounds like my name, so that several times someone has actually called me and I miss it, I’m hard of hearing!
In today’s Gospel, it’s only when Mary Magdalene hears her own name that she wakes up from the nightmare she’s been living. It’s only then that she realizes what has happened, that she realizes Jesus is speaking to her, and that she realizes that God has made a miracle.
Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb expecting to encounter death. She goes to pay her respects, perhaps to say a prayer for her friend. But instead, she hears her name, and nothing is ever the same again.
Names are important. For religious Jews, the true name of God is so holy that it’s never spoken, and it’s only written in four-letter symbol. Muslims use the 99 names of God to focus their prayer and to model their hearts more closely on the attributes of God. As Christians, we have inherited the Third Commandment, not to take the Lord’s name in vain. But we also gained a new name in Holy Baptism.
When I say that we gain a new name at baptism, I don’t mean the saint’s name that some old priests insist on a child having. But I meant that at some deep level, when we are baptized, we take on the name of Christ. And the new name we get from God is stronger than any other name anyone could ever call us.
This about Mary Magdalene for a minute. Who knows what names she was known by: daughter, sister, neighbor. Scripture refers to Mary Magdalene as having been cured from “seven demons” but it was only the creative interpretation of subsequent theologians who connected Mary’s demons with sexual sin. Even though scripture says nothing to suggest Mary had been a prostitute, later preaching and art history gave her that name, and it has stuck.
Perhaps we know what it is to be given a name that doesn’t fit. We can change a name legally, but sometimes it’s harder to change the name others have given us. But no matter what we may be called by others, no matter what name may arise when we look in the mirror, God has a new name for us.
In the Bible, there are times when people encountered God and God changed their name right then. It happened to Abram, and Sarai, and it happened to Simon. It happens still. Sometimes God calls us into a new name and we struggle or resist. But other times we pick up its sound, even though we may not hear it entirely, but we turn toward God and we follow. God whispers our true name at the moment of our birth. Our true name is sung like a lullaby at our baptism. And whenever times are rough, or especially good, God speaks our name and we can sometimes hear it. And then, when our eyes close to this world, when we die, God speaks our name loud, clear, and strong. The Good Shepherd knows each by his or her own true name. We can follow because we know his voice.
Most of you know that our parish has had an especially complicated Holy Week as we have struggled to come to terms with the death last weekend of our organist and choir director, Jeff Workman. Jeff and I could never decide how his name should appear in print—he went back and forth, whether Jeff or Jeffrey. One day I asked him if, since he was such a “fancy church musician and all,” perhaps we should call him Geoffrey, with a “G.” We both laughed and he suggested that if we did, we would need to refer to him also as “Master of the Quire,” with a “Q.” I don’t know what name Jeff goes by in heaven, but I assume he and God have agreed on something, and whatever that name is, it must sound like music the beauty of which is beyond even Jeff’s own imagining.
We are called by name in this life and into the next.
How our name might sound came to me in a new way through a novel I read a couple of years ago. Andre Aciman’s, Call Me by Your Name is about a love affair, but even to describe it as such is to degrade and over-simplify. It is a book about life. It is about growing older. It is about the people who move in and out of our lives, who touch us and change us, even if they end up far, far away.
As two characters in the novel discover their love for one another, the story builds to a place where one character says to the other, “Call me by your name.”
Think about that for a moment. What might it feel like to know someone so well, to love someone so deeply, to trust someone so thoroughly that you might call them not by their name, but by your own? Such a place would be an almost unbelievably intimate place, a place of excruciating vulnerability, a place of complete surrender, a place of absolute faith.
In today’s Gospel Jesus calls Mary by her own name, and her eyes are opened and she is able to see the resurrected Christ. She proclaims her faith, she names her love and gives her heart as she calls to him, “Rabboni!.” Master. Rabbi. Teacher.
In this exchange of names there is recognition and love and acceptance. Mary understands. She is given new strength to go and proclaim what she has seen. She goes with the joy of having been the first to recognize Jesus. Though Jesus calls Mary by her name, the level of trust and intimacy and love is similar to her having been called by his name.
Friends, this Easter, the good news is that we are called by his name. We are called to live into his name and to be his body in the world. It is a name that has power over death. It is a name that means love and joy and peace. It is a name that brings everlasting life.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!