Sermon for 4/25/21. A Name: A Necessity of Life!

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4 Easter
Psalm 23 Acts 4:5 – 12 I John 3:16 – 24 John 10:11 – 18

But there are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold; I must lead them as well, and they too will listen to my voice. John 10:16On the corner of Brimmer St. and Beacon St. in Boston, just across from Boston Public Garden, is the Bull and Finch Pub, founded 1969. Under restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it stands still. The average person is not familiar with the Bull and Finch Pub by name, although it is now a historical landmark, a major tourist attraction in the city.

However, should I mention “Cheers,” a memory bulb lights up, and that is because the facade of the Bull and Finch Pub is home to the TV sit-com series “Cheers,” whose 30-minutes long episodes from 1982 to 1993 captivated the imagination of its viewers. “Cheers,” not the actual Bull and Finch Pub, was able to do so because its theme song rang out what everyone longs for subliminally: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”

As a youngster, I knew of the possibility of being identified by fingerprints. After all, that is how criminals could be identified and convicted. However, had someone said to me then, that eventually my DNA could prove my identity and relationship to others, I would have been in a state of utter disbelief. “DNA” had not yet been “invented,” although scientific investigation into this wonder of modern science and technology was already underway. And science today has so much further advanced, as to make voice recognition, facial recognition via reading the pupil of one’s eye, that governments and other industries rely on these identifiers to provide security and affirmation of an individual’s identity.

I stand in awe of these scientific developments, and as a humanist, I admit without shame that I do not understand the scientific methods which allowed this advancement. The women and men who have led this advancement deserve our respect, for they have confirmed our common humanity, and for that I am most glad. Yet—and here I disclose the concluding thesis of my reflections on the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter—nothing shall ever replace THE NAME.

Aside from the obligatory distribution requirements in undergraduate college, psychology (and especially developmental psychology) did not enter heavily into my pre-med curriculum. Nevertheless, I have always been intrigued by how infants learn their names, how they come to distinguish between verbs and nouns and other elements of grammatical syntax. Still, what fascinates me even more is how it comes about that babies learn to distinguish between the name of a sibling and themselves. How do they come to know that that one word is for them and for them only, even if used by others? That that one word, that NAME belongs to them? In my leisure, perhaps I shall teach myself more about child development, but will it teach me how a fellow human being, not yet capable of word articulation, is aware of the importance of a name?

Names do matter, for our individual names do not only assure us of our own uniqueness, but its usage aids us in recognizing the uniqueness of others. Names aid us in establishing our place in our social environment. Names speak to belonging and, thus, security. Names—long before we have knowledge of or access to fingerprints and information regarding our DNA—speak to recognition and, thus, trust. As amazed as we moderns may be by this new technology, we knew and experienced in our own childhood pupil and facial and voice recognition. And we learn to associate those unique attributes to a name. A name is a synonym for who we are, so that even when an individual is not present, we need only think or say a person’s name and the speaker/hearer forms an image of the particular individual.

A name is often synonymous with reputation. In fact, history is replete with sayings, maxims, and proverbs on the subject of names and reputations. Publilius Syrus, ca. 42 B.C., remarked: “A good reputation is more valuable than money.” The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes (7:1) repeats that observation: “A good name is better than precious ointment.” Frances Bacon (1561-1626), many centuries later and cultures removed, instructs us (“of Marriage and Single Life”): “A good name is like a precious ointment; it filleth all around about, and will not easily away.” And our Book of Records, Holy Writ, which plays a central role in our liturgy, is filled with examples that address the question ‘what’s in a name?”

Several years ago, during Eastertide, I was back in Hanover, New Hampshire, to visit with former colleagues and old friends, one of whom I had not seen for over 25 years, but with whom during those intervening years I had maintained a lively correspondence. He, also now retired from academic life, pursued with greater fervor his gentleman’s farm of yore. We recalled my going with him out to the farm where he kept a few sheep and goats, and how when he approached, the sheep came toward him and, as if by some biblical magic or application, they recognized him. He actually had names for each.

Whether the sheep actually had responded to names, or just to the sound and timbre of his voice, was open to debate. But clear to see was that the sheep did not come to me when I called out a name. He chided me for my lack of faith. With a smile, he reprimanded me, that I, being a man of the cloth, should understand that phenomenon better than others. Frankly, for a long time—and he was correct—this story of the Good Shepherd and the naming sheep, was just that, a good story, illustrative of something, but not really applicable to my everyday life, for I had no sheep and I desired to own no sheep. That call to serve nature passed me by. Moreover, I had and have no difficulty in falling asleep, so I do not count the proverbial sheep, in order to fall asleep. Yet, this name-business did and does interest me.

There is much to be learned from this simple illustration. Sheep, my friend reminded me, tend to flock together and follow one another around; that there is a kind of strength in the group and a blind confidence which sheep can hold onto under certain circumstances. At the same time, sheep are rather vulnerable animals and they need protection and a leader.

We all know of the image of Jesus as the good shepherd. Less known, according to my learned retired friend, is that in other cultures, the shepherd would lie literally across the entryway to the sheepfold, guarding the coming in and going out of those sheep with his own life. When I think of gates and doors, I cannot help but think of the doors in my house that squeak, of the door that I must check doubly, because humidity causes the lock to stick or the door to swell and not want to close at all. For the same reason that I oil the mechanism or call in a repair, so do the sheep in the gospel story need a protector.

This parable, read always in Eastertide, is more far-reaching than first reading in a liturgical setting would have us understand. Because we are not shepherds in the traditional sense of the word, i.e. we do not own sheep or cultivate a gentleman’s farm, we see this story as interesting, exotic perhaps, but not applicable to us. But does this gospel tale not caution us against behaving as an uninvited visitor. A thief violates the personal, private space, the uniqueness of The Other. The good news is that with the proper access, with a proper introduction and good intent, it is possible to obtain something that a thief never would. It is called acceptance, and in religious terms it is called grace, an intangible gift. We do not have to work at obtaining it as would a thief. Living in God’s grace comes as a gift. The door is there with the good shepherd standing there, watching out for us. God, in Christ, puts himself in our lives as we walk through the right door, protecting us from others, and from ourselves.

As a seminarian of the late 1960’s, the era of Pope John XXIII, the era of openness, of enthusiasm for the quirkiness of biblical teachings, I think it odd that such a simple parable, which ensures us a recipients of God’s grace, still should make us apprehensive. Taken at face value, the parable of the Good Shepherd is both theologically comforting, as well as socially unnerving, for it allows us, who are within the fold, to believe that our position is one of privilege, and enable us to become complacent in our roles as ministers of the Good News. If we presume that someone else is responsible for us, we may just fail to recognize that at any given moment, in an unanticipated situation, we may ourselves become that Good Shepherd whose responsibility it is to know the names of those, for whom we are to care.

I have driven and walked by “Cheers,” the scene of that fictional TV comedy series, en route to or returning from mass at the Church of the Advent, situated only minutes away, also on Brimmer Street and, when I do, I invariably smile, because the theme song of “Cheers” rings still true: “Sometime you want to go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”

That is where, as Christians, throughout Eastertide and beyond, we find ourselves. Easter calls us back to the Family of God, where your name and my name are known, our stories heard, and where we share in the task of making the family whole, and where we can rely on unconditional love. God never calls people generically, but by name. God called Mary, in her garden of tears, to be witness to the resurrected Lord. And, as riddled with flaws as they were, God called the disciples, by name, to take up the cause of a new covenant. And when we call ourselves Christians, we have taken on that special name and, with it, the weighty responsibility of making real what Jesus of Nazareth said then and now: “But there are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold; I must lead them as well, and they too will listen to my voice.” Amen.