A Sermon for the New Year on the Feast of the Name of Jesus

Standard

First Lutheran Church of Avoca
1 January 2017 + Name of Jesus
Luke 2.15-21



Well, it’s finally over. 2016. It’s been quite a year. An understatement if ever there was one. I’m sure I was not alone last night in watching the ball drop in Times Square as we said “good riddance!” to the past year, in eager anticipation of turning the page and looking ahead to the future.

New Year’s Eve has the tendency to make us reflect on the past year, which gives us pause—especially this year, it seems. Of course, there are the happy, joy-filled moments: engagements and marriages, new births and milestone birthdays, memorable vacations. But it can also be outright depressing, combing through headlines of tragedy after tragedy,  or even just calling to mind those somber moments closer to home: a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, an unsettling diagnosis, the loss of a job.

These things and more are the reason that many churches during the holiday season hold Blue Christmas services for those who experience some degree of “disconnect from the joy and cheer” of these weeks that seems to come so easily to others. So much so that it can even make us feel isolated. [1]

15665884_10157854083000063_41740803157630133_n

Blue Christmas at Table Grace Café, December 20, 2016

At my internship congregation in Omaha, we hosted one such Blue Christmas service at a local nonprofit cafe, sensing the need for some kind of ritual space to name the complex emotions that come from difficult experiences. It was an opportunity to provide safe, sacred space for those who needed it, and in that space, as I heard in feedback after the service by so many, comes a reminder of our belovedness by God and our inherent sacred worth as individuals.

Like Blue Christmas, the turning of the year brings up a lot of feelings—some of anguish and despair and sadness that seem like they will never end over what and who we may have lost in the past twelve months, and some of an anxious and timid hope over what the future holds.

In this liminal space between endings and beginnings, our readings for this feast day of the Name of Jesus could not be more appropriate. They speak of blessing and being named and chosen as God’s own.

The account of Jesus’s circumcision in the gospel of Luke is only one verse long, but this ritual for observant Jews in the ancient world was one of tremendous importance that signified God’s everlasting covenant with God’s people. And yet the even greater emphasis in this very short account is on the naming of Jesus, hence the title assigned to this feast day — Name of Jesus. Jesus’s name, which means “God saves,” signified both an act of blessing and a bold declaration of who this child was.

This twin act of blessing and naming is not a foreign concept to us who are Christian, either. In baptism, we are named and claimed as God’s own beloved children, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sealed by that Spirit and marked with cross of Christ forever. Baptism gives us our identity as beloved children of God, and it also gives us a sense of holy purpose: being so named and claimed as God’s own, we are sent — or we might say blessed — to love and serve all people and proclaim God’s extravagant love for them and for all creation.

blessings-blessing

The church indeed does a lot of blessing. In baptism, we bless water, and at the table, we bless bread and wine. At other times, we bless homes, and pets, and backpacks, and bicycles. We bless these things not necessarily to make them “holy” or to transform them into something else. But we bless these ordinary things to remind ourselves of the source of all that is — that source that is so very good at blessing ordinary things, as our offering prayer for Christmas reminds us, coming to us a baby in a manger, sleeping on straw, and being greeted by shepherds. The holy blessing the ordinary.

Blessing comes to us most often at significant passages of time, and it reminds of who we are and what we are called to do. The act of blessing and receiving blessing gives us an opportunity to pause, to be renewed, and to begin again.

1000509261001_2014080315001_bio-biography-sojourner-truth-sf

Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree, c. 1797), abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, died  November 26, 1883

 

Isabella Baumfree, who was born into slavery but later escaped, went on to become an outspoken abolitionist and one of the earliest proponents of women’s rights. Of course, you might know her better as Sojourner Truth, the name she gave herself when she converted to Methodism, telling her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” Her name literally became the theme of her life’s work, a blessing as she traveled and preached justice and equality until the day she died.

As for looking back on a year that seems scarce in blessings, maybe it’s not all that bad. In the midst of a wave of tragedies and celebrity deaths, many have blamed the calendar year for these things. But a recent Washington Post article points out that it only seems like 2016 has been the “worst year ever.” This is because violence and natural disasters are sudden events that are reported instantaneously. But the more positive, albeit quieter, trends get lost in the cracks: improving global health, falling poverty, and environmental progress all take years, decades, even centuries to really notice. [2]

This is not meant to sugarcoat the terrible things that happen in our world on a seemingly daily basis, or to excuse our failure to do the work of justice where it is most needed. But it is meant to suggest that we take a broader view.

Poet John O’Donohue speaks of the ups and downs of the year is his blessing for the end of a year:

We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination. [3]

Indeed, there are always going to be ups and downs, but a broader view takes seriously the acts of blessing and naming. Let this new year be for us a time of blessing, remembering the ultimate blessing of being named as God’s own dearly beloved people, an identity which no one can ever take away.


[1] https://www.elm.org/2016/12/22/blue-christmas/

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/29/stop-saying-that-2016-was-the-worst-year/?utm_term=.9873bfcad3d6

[3] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 160.

A Blessing for the End of the Year

Standard

The poetry of John O’Donohue has long held the serendipitous capacity to speak to me with the right 51wdthjonnlwords at the right time. His collection of poems in To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008) has accompanied me most recently through the summer I spent as a hospital chaplain intern and now as a pastoral intern (vicar) during my penultimate year of seminary. O’Donohue’s poems are at once full of a clarity and a vagueness that lend themselves to devotional and contemplative practices.

While he does have two poems most appropriate for this turning of the year (“At the End of the Year” and “A Blessing for the New Year”), I want to share another that I think equally, if not surpassingly, offers me, and I hope you, wisdom in this interim between ending and beginning.

Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

May the forms of your belonging–in love, creativity, and friendship–
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

May the one you long for long for you.

May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

May your mind inhabit your life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the world.

May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.

May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.

May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

– John O’Donohue, “For Longing” (35-36)

With blessings for graceful endings and hopeful beginnings this new year that fulfill your deepest longings, and as always,

Peace be yours,

Josh