Monday, August 3, 2015

Sermon -- "Jesus' Name"

This is a sermon I preached on Aug 2, 2015, at Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, DC. It was part of a sermon series called "Who Do You Say Jesus Is?" Each sermon in the series focused on a different name or title that Christians have given Jesus. My sermon focused on the subversive nature of Jesus' own name. The texts were Joshua 6:1,15-21 and Matthew 1:18-21.

           Over the past few weeks, Dumbarton has been doing sermon series called “Who Do You Say Jesus Is?” which has looked at different ways that Christians refer to Jesus. You’ve heard sermons about Jesus as the Word of God, as Lord, as Lamb of God, as Emmanuel, and as Messiah. When Mary Kay invited me to preach this morning, she told me I could continue this series by talking about a name or title for Jesus that has particular meaning for me.
            So I decided that this morning, I will talk about the name that I most often use to refer to Jesus.
            Which is: Jesus.
            You might already have a sense that in the Hebrew and Greek in which the Jewish and Christian scriptures were written, names have importance and meaning. You might remember that Isaac means “God laughs,” because Sarah thought the idea of having a child at her age was so funny that she had to chuckle at the thought. Or that the Exodus story relates Moses name to the Hebrew for “draw out,” since he was pulled out of the water. You might remember that Abram’s name changes to Abraham, that Simon gets dubbed “Peter,” meaning “Rock,” or that Saul’s name changes to Paul. Of course, you also might not have heard any of those things before, in which case you can check out some of these stories and – to quote LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow – “You don’t have to take my word for it!”
            Names have meaning, and Jesus’ name is no exception, although the way our texts are translated tends to obscure this fact. The name “Jesus,” you see, is an Anglicized version of the Latinized form of the Greek rendition of the Hebrew name “Yeshua.” (Did you get all of that?) While the gospels were written in Greek, Jesus and his disciples – like other 1st century Palestinian Jews – would likely have been most at home in the Aramaic language, a Semitic tongue closely related to Hebrew. So while we’re used to calling Jesus “Jesus,” his friends would have called him something like “Yeshua.”
            Yeshua, as it turns out, can also be anglicized into the common name “Joshua.” The Jesus of the gospels and the Joshua of the Hebrew Bible share a name. And that name has a meaning.  It comes from a Hebrew root meaning, “rescue” or “deliver,” combined with the first syllable of the name of God. So Jesus and Joshua’s name means, “Yahweh delivers,” or “Yahweh is salvation.”
            The translation of Matthew’s gospel that we heard this morning does a good job of representing this meaning when it says: “you are to name him Jesus – Salvation! – because he will save the people from their sins.” We’re getting an English translation of a Greek translation of a Hebrew play on words. Isn’t that fun?
            The author of Matthew’s gospel wants to make sure the reader knows, explicitly, that the name “Yeshua” isn’t just a name. It’s connected to what this Jesus will do. The name this newborn messiah is *called by* is directly related to the mission he is *called to.*
            Now, us North American Protestant Christians are so used to a certain narrative of how Jesus saves people from their sins that we tend to just zip right over that line from Matthew. Whatever you might personally think about the way the church has traditionally taught, a certain understanding of sin and atonement has tended to dominate the conversation so that we miss the implications of this little sentence in Matthew’s gospel.
            Matthew’s gospel, however, takes great pains to place Jesus in line with Jewish tradition. In Matthew, the first thing we hear about Jesus the Messiah is that he is “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” In Matthew, Jesus goes up on a mountain to teach, recalling Mount Sinai where the Law was given to Moses. There are more citations of Hebrew Bible passages in Matthew than in any other gospel, many of them accompanied by the formula: “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet.” So when Matthew’s gospel says the Messiah is named Yeshua, “Yahweh saves,” because he will save the people from their sins, its original readers – most of whom, remember, would have been faithful Jews, not Gentile converts – would have had an instant moment of association with another figure named Yeshua.
            The guy we heard from earlier, commanding the people: “Now shout! Yahweh has given you the city!  The city—and everything in it—is devoted to Yahweh for destruction.” Joshua, the guy leading the charge when the Israelites raze Jericho to the ground, killing all the men, women, children, and, for good measure, the cattle, sheep, donkeys, and pet parakeets.
            Joshua’s name – Yeshua – means “God will save,” and throughout the book dedicated to his exploits we get a pretty good sense of the type of saving that God is expected to do. It involves a whole lot of putting things to the sword and to the torch. A whole lot of saving the people from their sins of disobedience by making sure they know that, without total obedience to God, they will not succeed in their military conquest of the people who stand between them and the land they want.
            Now, I could say a lot about the book of Joshua. Many theologians, such as American Indian scholar George Tinker and Palestinian priest Naim Ateek, have critiqued the conquest narratives of Joshua, arguing that for             indigenous peoples, such theologizing of conquest has justified subjugation and ethnic cleansing. Other theologians have taken pains to point out that Joshua is not historical record, but rather some combination of mythic account and theological argument for the power of Israel’s God.
            But Matthew’s audience would not have read up on the latest in historical critical scholarship of the book of Joshua. They would have known the stories, and they would have heard, “you will call the child Yeshua, because he will save the people from their sins,” and they would have known exactly what kind of saving this Jesus-character was going to get up to. They would have looked around at their own context – in which the Roman Empire had just destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, burned it to the ground, crucified anyone involved in recent anti-imperial activity, and sent others into exile – and they would have made some assumptions about the type of good news that would be announced by this Jesus, this Yeshua, this first-century-Joshua.
            And they would have been quite surprised by the story that unfolds throughout the rest of the gospel.
            Because it turns out that what Jesus is *called to* is a complete subversion of the name he is *called by.*
            It turns out that the type of salvation and deliverance announced by this Jesus is nonviolent rather than violent. That it’s found in solidarity rather than dominance. In seeming weakness rather than coercive strength. In taking up the cross rather than avenging those who have been put to the cross. In identifying with and loving the Other rather than purifying ourselves by expunging the Other from our midst.
            Jesus takes all the religious and political assumptions of his followers and turns them upside down, dumps them right on their heads.
            And that, I would argue, is what Jesus is up to no matter what name or label we try to apply. Word, Lord, Lamb, Messiah – you name it, Jesus subverts it. Jesus takes all of the things that we try to call him and turns them inside-out, into the question of what we are called to.
                        Now, if you’re a Dumbarton regular, this isn’t exactly news to you. You’ve heard plenty of sermons about how Jesus’ nonviolent ethic of compassion and justice challenges and subverts the assumptions of good religious folks.
            But I want to  go a step farther and suggest that one of the things God is still up to in our midst is subverting our religious language, turning inside-out what names we are called by and breaking open new understandings of what we are called to. And I want to suggest that this is true even when the religious language being employed is language that we like to use – us progressive Christian folks, us Methodists of the Reconciling persuasion at places like Dumbarton and American University. I want to suggest that God is still up to the type of language-subverting work that we see in Jesus’ name – even when the language that we like to use is good language like “welcome” and “inclusion.”
            Recently, one of the AU students that I work with sent me a quote from a Facebook discussion they were having regarding the inclusion of transgendered folks. I’ll read you part of the quote:
“When we talk about making a word or a space more inclusive, I think many of us imagine that this means those of us already included are, like, at a party in our house, and there are other people outside, and making it more inclusive means we open the door and let them in, where they will presumably take up some space and eat some of our food and the like. This model is problematic, because it implies a residual right of possession (the house, inviting people in) and a slight imposition on our part….Instead, we need to think of inclusivity like this: we are ALL already at a party and its not owned by anyone but there are far more people than chairs, and some people have been standing up for centuries. We need to get some more in and, if we can't get enough right now, we need to take turns. If that still doesn't do it, maybe we should move the whole party someplace else.”
           Now, I like the word inclusion. And I like the mission statement of the AU Methodists, which includes the words “Welcome All.” But I suspect that what God is up to inside of words like inclusion and welcome is bigger than what we’re often up to when we use them, just as what God was up to in words like salvation and deliverance turned out to be something deeper, something more surprising, than what those words meant to their first century hearers. I suspect that, as that quote indicates, God might not so much want us to invite those folks over their to our party as much as up and move the party somewhere else – or, even more so, to recognize that this party wasn’t ever ours to begin with, that it was always God’s party, and oooohhhhh the types of people that God has invited to that party.
         See God’s party, God’s church, God’s realm, isn’t a white party that maybe we could squeeze some folks of color into.
         God’s party isn’t a straight party that maybe we could squeeze some gay folks into, nor a cisgendered party but maybe we could find a few more chairs for some trans folks.
         God’s party isn’t an upper middle class party but, hey, maybe, if you ask nicely enough, we’ll let a few poor folks in.
         God’s welcome, God’s inclusion, is deeper and wider and way more radical than all that. And, I suspect, it isn’t about us welcoming those people to our church. It’s about uprooting ourselves from our comfort zones and our sense of ownership and displacing ourselves to the kinds of parties that Jesus attends – places that might be just as surprising to our religious assumptions as Jesus would have been to those who thought they knew what his name meant.

What do we call Jesus? What assumptions are embedded in those names? And what is God up to in that -- subverting, shaking up, and redefining what we are being called to?


The quote is from a personal correspondence with one of the students I work with at American University. Their name has been withheld in order to protect their superhero identity. But if you want to support their ministry, you can donate to the AU United Methodist-Protestant Community 

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