A Conversation on the End of Life

March 10, 2019
Rev. Dr. Alika Galloway
Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen

Psalm 116:1-9; selections from Romans 8

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What Is His Name?

December 23, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Michah 5:2-5a; Matthew 1:18-25

Samantha. Ronald. Rebecca.

This week the annual Homeless Memorial was held in Minneapolis. A parade of people marched from the Hennepin County Government Center down Nicollet Avenue to Simpson United Methodist Church in south Minneapolis. They filed silently past Westminster, carrying signs.

Brian. Leah. Antwanika.

The names of 196 individuals – the most ever in our state – were held aloft and remembered in the glare of lights on the streets where some of them had lived. It was a solemn Advent procession through the wintry city night. I wondered if any of those named had been among the many we have welcomed through our open doors at Westminster.

Sandy. Rene. Cubby.

The names personalize what is so easily made into “an issue” or a “problem.” They’re real people, with names, names given by a mother, a father, grandparents. Perhaps family names, passed down through generations. Maybe names of a favorite friend or mentor, someone the parents wanted to honor. Names given with high hopes for long, full lives, now cut short by hard realities. Their average age was 46. To say their names was to affirm that their lives mattered.

Names are undeniably particular. We love individual human beings known to us by name; we cannot love the abstract concept of humankind. That’s why incarnation happens, and it comes with a name.

Kyle. Brenda. Nick.

Anyone who has had or adopted a baby knows the challenge of selecting a name. It’s quite a responsibility. The child, this new person, comes into the world and will bear that name all their life long. The parents want so badly to get it right.

In some cultures babies are named for the day of the week they’re born. Our son’s childhood friend, whose father was from Ghana, was named Kwesi because he was born on a Sunday. Kofi Anan was named Kofi, being born on a Friday. Other cultures give a name based on a value the parents hope will flourish in their child’s life: Peace, Grace, Blessing, Purity, Love.

Alex. Kerry. Kelsey.

I remember how we consulted naming books when it was our turn, hoping that among those long lists from around the world we would find just the right one. In the end, we went with biblical names, as did my parents. My name, Timothy, is from the newer testament, timo-theos, and it means, honoring God. It was apparently something of a vocational predictor!

When the shepherds of old left their fields and made their way that night into Bethlehem, to the birthing suite in the garage behind the local motel, among the first things they would have said, after cooing over the infant, would have been, “What is his name?”

And with that question the shepherds would have unwittingly opened a subject that had been under consideration for ages. This was no simple matter. For centuries different names had been proposed. Micah suggests “the one of peace.” That was also a contender in Isaiah’s mind; only he elevated it to the Prince of Peace – and then for good measure he threw in other possibilities, declaring that his name could also be, “Wonderful Counselor,” or “Mighty God,” or “Everlasting Father.”

It’s complex. In the midst of the dazzling story of incarnation 2000 years ago the mundane suddenly inserts itself, and becomes important: what shall we name the child? There seems to be a difference of opinion, as there often is when it comes to naming a baby. In the Christmas story several names surface that could be logical possibilities. David, after his royal ancestor. Or Joseph, after his father.

Austin. Lori. Mark.

The angel Gabriel – there’s another naming possibility – gives clear instructions to Joseph in a dream, but the directions soon get muddled. First Gabriel declares that Joseph is to name the child Jesus, the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua. Both names mean he who saves. It was Joshua, after all, who brought the people Israel into the land of promise after wandering in the wilderness for forty years. And it would be up to his namesake Jesus to save God’s people once again.

But then the voice of Isaiah confuses things. The ancient prophet tells of a young woman who would give birth to a child and name him Emmanuel, which means God with us.

So Mary and Joseph have a problem. If they consult the first-century equivalent of a baby naming book, they would probably go with a family name. But the angel says to call the child Jesus because he will save the people. And then Isaiah says to name him Emmanuel, because he will be God with us.

It’s the first complication in the life of Mary’s boy. I can imagine his mother resolving the matter when Joseph recounts his dream to her. She knows God has something salvific in mind for her child, so she tells Joseph to pass over the old prophet’s proposal and go with the Angel Gabriel.

Jesus, it is – the one who saves. Joseph would have been too predictable. Emmanuel, too passive. Jesus, the one who saves. It’s active. Dynamic. Purposeful. This one born of Mary will be the Savior of the world.

Maybe Emmanuel was his middle name!

Seth. Monty. Khaleed.

One hundred years ago the Church of the Open Door began holding services in downtown Los Angeles. High atop the building they erected a massive sign that could be seen from freeways and hillsides and streets all over LA. Jesus Saves, the sign declared, somewhat redundantly. Five years later, as if to offer an alternative vision of salvation, the massive HOLLYWOOD sign was set up in the hills nearby. The two competing markers became architectural icons of 20th-century Los Angeles.

Can you imagine if the church had chosen instead to put a huge neon Emmanuel on top of their building? Or God with Us?

It had to be Jesus. There is, as the old gospel hymn says, something about that name.

Today the Church of the Open Door has moved out of the city, but the sign’s still there – Jesus Saves, now atop a trendy hotel in downtown Los Angeles, reminding people of Mary’s fateful decision long ago when she named her boy.

Cooper. Amir. Timothy.

As the march honoring those who died on the streets this past year reached Simpson Church everyone entered quietly and filled the pews. A string quartet played. Prayers were offered, and the ritual began.

Each person’s name was reverently pronounced, and a candle was lit, 196 of them. Every individual named had been, at one time, the particular incarnation of love for some Mary and Joseph of another era. Some were remembered with comments about their lives. Laughter mixed with tears. Thanksgiving was offered.

It was a kind of Christmas in reverse, a Nativity at life’s end, reaffirming the sacred in each life at its conclusion, rather than its beginning: Bethlehem connected to Calvary, and back again, in one seamless circle.

Kendra. Cami. Jason.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Mary’s child. He is Emmanuel, God with us, but his name is Jesus because he saves. He does so not by staying aloof, in some faraway heaven, or by occupying a place in some dusty old creed, but by entering fully into our world in the most humble way.

That child will become a man, and he will find himself abandoned in the streets one day. He will suffer indignities and humiliation. His life will end out in the open, a victim of the hard realities of his time.

But with Jesus – and this is the true and lasting joy of Christmas – the story doesn’t end there. God’s love is not so easily stopped. In Jesus a light comes into the world that no darkness can douse. That light is the light of all people everywhere, the God-given spark of life found within every human heart.

Jeremy. Cheree. Luke.

320 And Mary’s boy, the one who saves, was there, as well.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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