What's in a name?

Proper 21C

In the name of the God knows us by name, and loves us, still.  Amen.

Earlier this week, while watching the chipmunks scurrying about in the Rectory driveway, I told Michael about a time I took my oldest nephew, Brooks, to a movie.  He was four years old at the time and had newborn twin brothers, so I thought it was important to do something – just the two of us – so he wouldn’t feel so completely upstaged by having the babies around.  So I decided to take him to a showing of a kids’ movie that had just come out, Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Brooks was so excited.  I didn’t get to make the trip down to Mississippi to visit very often, so he was excited that we were taking some one-on-one time together.  But also, his twin brothers were born prematurely, so a lot of everyone’s attention around him tended to be directed to them.  This time, he was the focus.

We’d been building up this movie outing for a couple of days, and on the morning it was happening I asked him if he knew what we were going to do that day.  He answered, “Yes!  You’re taking me to see Albert and the Chick Monks!”

I tried to correct him, “No, it’s Alvin and the CHIPmonks, not Albert and the Chick Monks,” but he would have none of it.  The more I tried to assure him I was right, the more he dug his heels in.  He thought I was trying to pull one over on him, and he just knew he was right.

And even though he was mistaken, and it’s a sweet little story that continues to amuse me, even now that he’s a teenager, the thing he did get right in his defense of his position is that naming is incredibly important.  He wouldn’t stand for someone trying to tease him to mess with these characters’ names.  He came to their defense.

So often, in our lives as people of faith, one of the greatest traps of sin that we fall into is being blind to the suffering around us – letting that suffering go unnamed and unnoticed – staying so focused on ourselves and our own needs that we simply can’t see the need around us.  But in the Gospel lesson we read this week, the sin isn’t that the rich man in the story failed to see the suffering around him.  The problem was that he did see it, and he didn’t seem to care – at least not until he had suffering of his own.

What is so powerful to me as I read this parable is that the rich man (who goes unnamed in the parable, by the way) – the rich man calls out Lazarus by name.  He says, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.”

He didn’t say, “Send that fellow next to you.”  He didn’t even say, “Hey, I recognize him – he used to lie in the gutter by my gate – perhaps he’ll be good enough to help.”  No – he said, “send Lazarus…”  He knew his name.  He knew it all along.  The rich man knew exactly who Lazarus was and all that he’d been through.

Names have great power, and in this story, the name of the suffering one had damning power for the one who’d spent his life ignoring the suffering of another.  And the rich man spent his life not respecting that power.  Instead, he spent his life enslaved to another power, altogether – the power that comes from having accumulated wealth.

But the message of God in Christ is that earthly powers are turned on their heads.  The message of our faith is that true power doesn’t look like we tend to expect it to look.

The collect today has this beautiful opening line wherein it describes God as one whose “almighty power” is declared “chiefly in showing mercy and pity…”.  Isn’t that a fascinating way of considering what “power” really means?  Power isn’t about accumulated riches or physical possessions for oneself.  Power isn’t even about accumulating control over others for oneself.  Power isn’t about cozying up to the leaders.  Power, instead, is about having the strength and self-confidence and grace and compassion to define your life by showing mercy and pity.  Power, in the way that God is trying to lure us, is more about kindness than control.

As the Apostle Paul said in his letter to Timothy, “be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for [yourselves] the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that [you] may take hold of the life that really is life.”

Naming is important.  What qualities do we assign to names like “power”, “riches” or “wealth”, “treasure”?  And what actions do we associate with names like “grace”, “kindness”, or “mercy”?

It’s easy to look past suffering and never see it.  We need to work to stop that.  But it’s also easy to look suffering directly in the eye, to recognize it and to know it – to know its very name – and to still do nothing.

May we all work harder at cultivating that Godly power that is our inheritance – power that is known chiefly by its nature of showing mercy and pity.  Amen.