"A good name"-Sermon for Proper 18, Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-8, 22-23
So, as many of you know, I began my ministry right out of college at 22 years of age, as the director of Youth Ministries at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. Now, St. Martin’s is a huge church, at least by Episcopal standards…some 7 plus thousand members with as many as 1500 plus people in worship on any given Sunday. I have heard it said that it is the largest Episcopal Church in these United States. And, one of my roles at the church, beyond my work with the students, was to assist with funerals. Typically, I would acolyte, often read a lesson, and, when there was Holy Communion, I would serve the altar and bear a chalice. I was there in a support role…assisting the clergy and, often, grieving families in any way that was helpful
And, what that meant in a church that large was that I went to many, many funerals. Though this is just a guestimate…but not an exaggeration…I would say that I was likely present at of upwards of 90 funerals in the 3 years I served at St. Martin’s. 90 funerals between the age of 22 and 25. That’s probably more funerals than I have actually officiated since being ordained over 19 years ago. And, though, at times, that came with a real emotional burden…especially when memorializing lives that were cut entirely too short…or where the loss was profoundly tragic and unexpected…or in situations where I had a relationship with the parishioner that had passed…still…still I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that experience as a young…still very much in formation…Minister of the Gospel…and really human being.
For in facing death, and doing so quite often, and in a time in life when most people think they are Superman and don’t really think much about the brevity and fragility of life, it actually got this young person, meaning me, thinking a whole lot about, not death, but life…about what it means to live with purpose and meaning…thinking about what a gift life really is…how it’s precious and should be reveled in…celebrated…not taken for granted…that the length of our days matters…can make a significant, even, tremendous difference in the lives of others and the communities in which we live. Though we all have faults and foibles and we are all always a work in progress, we are at the very same time always created in the very image of love alone, the image of the God of life and love, and thus are breathtakingly beautiful and capable, whatever stage in life we find ourselves in. As I have said many times before, you matter…your life matters to me…your life matters to those who have been entrusted to your care. I need you…you need me…and we all need each other. Therefore, it follows, that the life we actually live…the decisions we make, the advice we offer, the paths we walk down, the relationships we create, and the habits we form…also matter.
And I will say, further, that attending all of those funerals only deepened my Easter faith…that death is more gate than grave. Perhaps you know our funeral service in our Book of Common Prayer Book is an Easter Liturgy, so that every time we bury someone dearly departed, we do so recalling Jesus’ glorious resurrection…the first born from the dead…not the last. And, as I prayed the burial office over and over again, this eternal truth became written on my bones. Further, as we celebrated a life wonderfully lived and all the life and love that emanated from that life and into others, it became entirely clear to me that life is unconquerable. Science sees circles…faith sees resurrection…but both point us to the immutable truth that all that God has made is directed toward living…that life is, indeed, eternal and everlasting.
Now, sometimes our Sunday scripture readings get us thinking about particulars…about a particular area in our lives where we can learn and grow…or how to deal with a particular challenge to overcome or a particular opportunity to lean into…or how to better understand and take advantage of a particular spiritual practice. But, on occasion, the scriptures invite us to step back a bit and take a broader look at our lives in sum total…to take a wide perspective of who we really are and who we hope to be. They ask us to consider more existential questions of life and death of meaning and purpose…about the sort of life we really want to live. And, this morning’s Old Testament lesson from Proverbs is just this sort of bible passage. For, the author writes, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”
So, according to the wise author or authors of the Book of Proverbs, a name is to be sought over riches. And, when the author says name, I believe the writer means not just a name…but a person behind the name who is known, cared for, appreciated, and, even cherished…one whose life has had consequence…a generous and grace filled life that has made a difference in the lives of others for love’s sake alone…one whose life is characterized by joy and compassion and hard work and generosity and gratitude and self-sacrifice…as opposed to…making a name for oneself in the sense of fame or celebrity. And, when the author says riches, I believe the writer means one who seeks first personal wealth to the benefit of their own well-being over that of others…a sort of desire for power that finds it root in control, even, manipulation of others…one whose life is oriented inwardly…one who lives in terms of scarcity rather than generosity.
Which all leads me to this question…what then does our name mean? When it flows from the lips or wanders through the minds of others…what there is conjured up…what are the thoughts and feelings that bubble up in them at the mention of our name…whether speaking of today or at the end of our life. Now I want to cation you by saying…we should not simply discern our value, make judgments about the impact for good and for God that our own lives are making, determine our own sense of living a meaningful life…solely and simply on the estimation of others. Like Jesus himself, many of the people who have had the most lasting impact on our world, again, for good and for God, had or have their fair share of critics…even those who despise them. And so, I speak of those who have earned the right to hear our story…who have earned our trust over much time and with great intention…those whose values and ideas we respect and listen to…those are the ones I speak of when I say…what might our name mean to them. Further, I say this as just one tool, but perhaps an important one, to reflect on the fully alive, meaning-making, Christ-like life we are seeking to incarnate in the body and soul that make up who we are…that make up our name.
Now, I began this sermon sharing about all those funerals I attended and assisted with in my first three years of ministry to say that I learned so much through them about what makes up a name and what that name means to those who were connected to the one who had passed into the nearer presence of our Lord. And I did this by listening to the eulogies, the heart-felt remembrances shared by those closest to them…by listening to the causal comments and stories that were being shared about that person by family and friends in the room at the church where they gathered before the service and, again, afterwards at the many receptions that followed. Some of the funerals were huge…a 1000 people gathered to celebrate one life. Some of those funerals were very small only close family and friends present. Some of these funerals where for CEO types who had acquired tremendous wealth over their lifetime, and some were for middle-class folk who in unassuming ways kept the wheels of some business or organization moving forward. Some were for politician…for homemakers…for teachers…for social workers…for clergy…for the very young and the very old…every sort and condition of person you can imagine. But whatever these folks did with their time both personally and professionally…whatever the size of their funeral…the span of their life…whatever pomp and circumstance or the lack thereof surrounded their memorial…whether rich or poor, or like most of us, somewhere in between…there were differences that I could both feel in the air and in my body and hear with my ears about how one’s name was remembered, which is the same as saying how they lived their life.
Now, I believe there really is no good in speaking ill of the dead and, to that end, I have no single person in mind as I share these reflections. But, there was a strong spiritual resonance that could be discerned and felt as the names of all those dearly departed were shared out loud and the stories of their lives told. Sometimes that resonance was slightly out of tune…discordant…a sense of loss present…but not the loss of a life…rather a loss of a life based on what could and should have been in their living…choices made or not made…something approaching regret or woundedness. But most of the time…that resonance was like the heavens had opened…like a choir of angles was singing in perfect harmony…those loved ones gathered joining voice with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven…singing out the name of their beloved…whether young and their life was cut too short or one who had lived for many years. And, that glorious name being heralded was accompanied by many other words…echoing words I have already shared…generous, joyful, empathetic, wise, devoted, a provider, a lover, a healer, a friend, hard-working, balanced, sacrificial, other-oriented, and a word that has come to mean so much more to me in these difficult days we are now living through, kind. And, I surely have not exhausted the list of adjectives used to memorialize the one whose name was most clearly on the minds of those gathered to give thanks to God for their lives.
Today, these proverbs, these wise sayings, invite us to just take a moment to step away from all that demands our time and attention…even all the good stuff…to take stock…to get perspective on what our own name means…not just to other people but to ourselves. And, more so, to consider what are the choices, decisions, and habits that shape a name…for a name is simply a way we identify the person who dwells behind it…so what shapes me…who I am and who I believe God is calling me to be. Some of that work, and I consider it spiritual work, is internal…it looks like prayer, contemplation, journaling, an honest conversation with ourselves and with God. And, some of that work is external…a willingness to approach those who have earned our trust, the right to hear our stories, those whose opinions and choices we value…to ask them to remind us how beautiful and capable we really are and to support us and provide accountability on those things we would like to work on and change. And as friends and followers of Jesus, we have a life to consider and emulate as we continue to shape our own, which is, of course, the life Jesus lived.
I used to have my youth group on rare occasion write their own obituaries. Though admittedly a bit morbid, I was always impressed how seriously the students took the exercise. And the purpose, or course, was not to consider death…but life…how the life we live now shapes that which we hope to become…the story that will ultimately be told at the end of our days on this side of glory, as our names are remembered and live on. Perhaps that’s an easier exercise for those to whom death feels almost impossible if not an eternity away, but I think considering what our name means and what we hope it does and will mean, in both our quiet times and with those we trust, is good soul work. For as I said at the beginning, you matter…your life matters to me…your life matters to those who have been entrusted to your care. I need you…you need me…and we all need each other. Therefore, it follows, that the name we cultivate…which is defined by life we actually live…the decisions we make, the advice we offer, the paths we walk down, the relationships we create, and the habits we form…also matters. Amen.