If the political movements of the second half of the 20th century taught us anything, it was that names matter. It matters that a mature African-American male be addressed as “Mr.” or “Sir” and not as “Boy.” It matters that a married woman be free to choose the surname by which she will be known. It matters, because names are more than labels.
“I am haunted by waters.” These are the last words of Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It. Waters haunt all of us who profess the Christian faith. The human imagination is consumed with images of water, and rightly so. Our bodies are made up of water. If we fail to drink, or if we are prevented from drinking, we will expire.
Several years ago I was invited to preach on this gospel passage from Matthew at the National Cathedral on the Sunday designated to honor the state of Hawaii. I struggled with the subject of Jesus’ baptism, partly because baptism is not an easy concept to explain, and this story seemed strange indeed.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? asks Isaiah. Those with ears to hear, let them hear, says Jesus. Day to day pours forth speech, says the psalmist, but God’s speech is pitched in such a register that many cannot distinguish it from silence.
In Psalm 29, the writer proclaims with majestic confidence that God is greater and stronger than every form of chaos, and by implication, than every idol through which we imagine we can control the manifestations of chaos. God is victorious over the wildness of water, storms and wind. Even mountains and trees appear unstable in the presence of God’s strength.
Inevitably, in the course of a pastoral career, one encounters that person—the spouse of an active member, or an avid golfer—who claims not to need to attend weekly services because “I can worship God in nature.” Possible comebacks range from mild to sarcastic, but they rarely make any impression. A better question is whether the assertion is correct.
Names are sacred words by which we are individualized. Jesus, in baptism, received a new name. So do his followers. Baptism also sets each of us apart as a particular kind of person—one owned by God. Those who have been baptized are called to live out the meaning of this remarkable reality.
I have a friend who creatively blends his ethnic and religious heritage. He is a black man with an Afrocentric consciousness and also a committed Christian. His Afrocentric commitment does not nullify his belief in Jesus, while his Christian commitment does not abolish his ethnic awareness and pride.
After the hectic and holy Christmas season, after the unusual turning of a new century and, wonderfully, a new millennium, the church and the culture will settle back into familiar rhythms. For the church and its calendar, this means the season of Epiphany with its festivals of Magi, miracles, baptism and transfiguration.
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