Sunday, December 5, 2021

Sermon: “Let Us Build a House: Laying the Foundation”, Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16/Luke 1:57-66 (December 5, 2021)

(This is the second sermon in our Advent and Christmas series, "Let Us Build a House", based on the Advent theme from A Sanctified Art. The first can be found here.)


More than 400 years ago, Shakespeare put pen to paper and asked, “What’s in a name?” His character, Juliet Capulet, was trying to convince herself that names really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things…but unfortunately, she didn’t actually have much support for her hypothesis. Not only did her family hold a dramatically different opinion on the matter, but pretty much everyone else in the world would disagree with her, too. Across time and cultures, names have always been central to human identity, and we’ve always put great care into choosing them. Even surnames, which had been passed along according to the same archaic customs for centuries, have recently been subject to more careful discernment than ever before. Because, contrary to what Juliet would have us believe, the fact is that our names DO matter.

A name is far more than just a personal label. It’s the very first gift you’re ever given, often before you’re even born, and—for better or worse—it impacts every part of your life going forward. It’s almost always the first information we offer to a new acquaintance, and it’s the first question we ask when getting to know someone: “What’s your name?” If you’re called by the *wrong* name, it’s a uniquely strange, jarring, and sometimes even painful experience. All of this is because our name shapes how others see us, and how we see ourselves. It’s the most basic answer to the question, “Who are you?” Our name serves as the foundation of our identity.

In construction terms, a foundation is the load-bearing part of a building. Whenever you build something—like, for example, a house, in keeping with our Advent theme—a good foundation is critical, because it provides stability for the structure erected on top of it. Without one (or with a poorly constructed one), your design options become extremely limited—you can only build up so high before the architecture begins to wobble or tip (see: the Leaning Tower of Pisa). Without a strong foundation, there’s simply nowhere that the construction can go.

The foundation of our identity is just as critical to building who we are and who we’re going to be, and so we put a great deal of effort into selecting a name that will offer the best chance for personal success. Some choose names that translate to desirable qualities in other languages, like “strong” or “courageous”, hoping that the name’s recipient will embody that quality: a foundation of aspiration. I know that MY first name, Kathryn, was chosen for its versatility—my mom told me that she pictured me going by “Kathryn” if I were a high-powered CEO, but she could also see me going by “Kate” as a teacher: a foundation of opportunity. I even read an article recently about a website intended to help Chinese parents select a fitting English name for their children, the idea being that having an English name will help the child move more easily in the world’s English-speaking contexts: a foundation of access.

Now, none of us can blame someone for trying to build a foundation with personal success in mind—but the thing is, that’s a uniquely human concern. God, as you might expect, has rather different priorities when it comes to the foundation of our identity, and scripture reminds us of this constantly. Genesis’ account of God giving Abram and Sarai new names is a familiar part of our faith story, but we rarely take the time to consider WHY God might have done this. We usually assume that these updated names are just symbolic of their new identities as a covenant people, but the change actually has a much deeper meaning.

Abram and Sarai mean “Exalted Father” and “My Princess”, respectively. These names are exactly the sort of foundation that you might expect humans to prioritize—hopes that little Abram would grow up to be revered by his descendants and affirmation that little Sarai was extraordinarily special to whoever named her. But when God chose them to be the foundation of God’s covenant people, both of their names were changed to better reflect divine priorities. “Exalted Father” became “Father of Multitudes”, and “My Princess” lost its possessive pronoun to become simply “Princess” or “Noblewoman”.

Whereas Abram and Sarai had originally been named with personal interests in mind (a relatively narrow foundation for an identity), God’s gift of new names broadened their foundation far beyond themselves to become global in nature. As “Noblewoman”, Sarah’s foundation became untethered from whoever might claim to possess her and transformed her from a passive object to an active matriarch. As “Father of Nations”, Abraham’s foundation became inextricably tied to those who would come after him, changing the focus from his own exaltation to the legacy of his descendants. In making these ostensibly small changes to their names, God gave them brand new, much stronger foundations, ones that would allow them (with God’s help) to build something much grander than they had imagined previously. In that act of renaming them, God changed the intention and trajectory of their lives.

When human beings make the decision to build their lives on God’s foundations instead of their own, amazing things happen. The story of Zechariah naming his son isn’t quite as well known as Abraham and Sarah’s renaming, but it’s just as important. Earlier in Luke 1, Gabriel appears to Zechariah to reveal God’s plan for his son, and the angel indicates that the child should be named John. This means “Graced by God” and is certainly fitting for the child who would grow up to prepare the way for the Messiah.

When the baby is born, everyone assumes that he’ll be named after his father—they anticipate the human priority of self-aggrandizement. But Zechariah surprises everyone by insisting that the child be named according to God’s priorities instead: God had already claimed him for God’s purposes and named him John. This leaves the people puzzling over what this unexpected foundation would mean for the infant, asking “What, then, will this child be?” We can only wonder what a Zechariah Jr.’s life might have turned out to be with the human foundation offered by the neighbors, but the world knows the legacy of prophesy and preparation that John built upon the divine foundation provided by God.

Most of us are given our names without having any input in the matter. Some names fit us perfectly, and some seem to miss the mark. But scripture assures us that the human names given to us by others don’t have to be our foundation forever. No matter what names the world has bestowed upon us, GOD names us with foundations worthy of building a divine kindom upon. So we have a choice: we can choose to build our lives upon the assumptions of humanity, or we can build upon the intentions of God.

What name has the world has given you? Or even that you’ve given yourself? Do you self-identify as “bothersome” or “unimportant”? Have you been called “irresponsible” or “naïve”? Or, on the other hand, maybe you’ve been told that you’re “industrious” or “popular”, or you consider yourself “meticulous” or “self-assured”. These human names may be positive or negative, technically accurate or completely erroneous…but none of them matter to God in the least. Not a single one of them can support the kindom that God intends to build. If you choose to base your life on the foundation of these names, you won’t be able to get very far.

God’s names for us, on the other hand, are an entirely different story. When we’re baptized, our legal name is “officially” added to the church’s rolls, but this sacrament is far less about that name than it is about the sacred names that God calls us by—whether we recognize them yet or not. It’s a reminder of the very first name that we were ever called, the most fitting name of all: “Beloved”. It’s a promise that, whatever you build in your life going forward, you will do your best to build it upon holy foundations. It marks the moment that, no matter what names the world may give you, you choose to listen to the names that GOD gives you above all. THIS is the foundation that makes God’s kindom possible.

Even now, if you listen carefully over the world’s commotion, you’ll be able to hear all the other names that God is calling you, the divine foundation that’s just waiting for you to begin building upon it. Has God named you “Merciful”? Or maybe “Prophetic”? Perhaps when God calls to you, it’s by the name “Just” or “Compassionate”. Might you have been created by God as “Bold” or “Brave” or “Determined”? What is the name that God has set aside especially for you? What is it that God needs you to claim as foundational to your identity so that you can begin to build holy things upon it for the sake of all creation?

The names that God gives us vary from person to person, but they all have one thing in common: they never benefit the few at the expense of the many. God has much bigger plans for us than the weak foundations of our selfish aspirations can support. We shouldn’t settle for building shanties on flimsy foundations as we try to outdo one another; we should be seeking out the foundations that will make holy skyscrapers possible. We should be working to build entire cities of love and justice and mercy for everyone. And the only way to do that, the very first step, is to recognize and claim the names that God has set aside for us: our solid, sacred foundation.

So, the next time you hear Juliet ask, “What’s in a name,” try not to roll your eyes. WE know that our name is the foundation of our lives, so we should be careful in deciding which ones we embrace and which we reject. It can mean the difference between understanding ourselves as the center of a very small universe or as an integral part of a vast new creation’s foundation. God insists that our identity not be rooted in our own priorities or desires for ourselves, but in God’s purpose, in service to God’s kindom—which means for the good of all. So, choose today what name the rest of your life will be built upon. What name will guide you into the future that God calls us to build together? When the long-awaited Christ finally arrives, how will you answer when he asks, “What is your name?” And will your answer be the one that he is hoping to hear? Amen.

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