Testament Reading: Proverbs 22:1
Testament Reading: Mark 8:27-33
"What's in a name?", asks
Juliet. Paul might answer, "Much in every way!" Juliet herself answered,
"Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou 'Romeo'? A rose by any other name would
smell as sweet!"
The book of Proverbs
preserves a saying, which you have just heard, that speaks of making
a name good or great. You start out with a name that bears no particular
associations. It is value-neutral. It is up to you to impart some meaning
to it by a virtuous life. And that is what the sage is suggesting you do.
Get to work, so that people will see your good deeds, give glory to your
Father in heaven, and remember your name as one of the just.
Conversely, you may have
inherited a name that is already redolent of associations, good or bad. I
recently saw an ad for a horror film convention. Present will be everyone
from the old days of the genre they can get. But most of the great ones
have passed on. We do not read that Bela Lugosi will be present, or the
chortling Dwight Frye. But Bela Lugosi Junior and Dwight Frye,
Junior will be present in all their derivative glory. Why? They have
inherited a name.
The Epistle to the
Hebrews says that Jesus Christ has inherited a name: "being made so much
better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more
excellent name than they" (1:4). And it is an excellent name. Yet at the
same time, it was a burden. To inherit an excellent name is a great
burden, since it is a great responsibility to carry on the reputation
associated with it. My good friend Russell Allen Farrington the Third and
his wife Catherine McCall just visited from Scotland and introduced us to
their baby son Russell Allen Farrington the Fourth. Russ # 3 is about the
most brilliant person I have ever met. I would say that his son will have
a tough act to follow one day. And he must at least try. He has inherited
the name, so his very signature invites scrutiny. People will be
A good name, may,
however, go bad. It may come to bear disgrace, indeed to be synonymous
with disgrace. Even if a person individually merits none of the curses his
name produces by word association, the name he or she has inherited is a
burden from which one must seek to emerge. "Can anything good come from
Jesus, I say, as
Messiah-designate, had inherited a great name. But in the Markan text we
heard just a few minutes ago, it seems that name is something of a burden
as well. Notice the strange contrast. Jesus asks the disciples, who are
closer to the public than he (indeed one feels that their primary function
is to serve as a buffer between him and the crowd): "who do the crowd say
that I am?"
This would seem to imply
that he wants to make sure he has not been teaching in vain. That at least
something of his teaching has penetrated the minds of his listeners,
something no teacher even takes for granted.
And the response? Some
have one impression, some another. But they are all so only partially
right as to be wrong. They are believers in mere half-truths. No one in
the crowd has perceived that this Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah of
Israel, the Branch Davidian.
As it happens, Peter has
made the connection. And Jesus congratulates him for it. But the
congratulation does not last long. Soon Peter is recoiling from the verbal
blow of being called Satan--and all because he wanted to spare his
Messianic friend a gruesome death.
Having learned, then,
that at least one person understands, or almost understands, his messianic
identity, you might think Jesus would try to determine how Peter "got"
what everybody else missed. Then he could make the rest of the 12 sit
through dull faculty conferences to learn this pedagogical secret.
But he doesn't. He tells
the disciples, now that they know it, to keep his identity under their
turbans. We must infer that Mark did not think Jesus had been trying to
teach his messiahship. He had not been giving himself out as the Christ.
And he didn't intend to start now. And all this even though he was in fact
the Christ! Why?
Look again at Peter's
reaction. He is affronted at the news that God's messiah must be
crucified. Death at the hands of the Gentiles is simply not one of the
things one may predicate of the Messiah. The name Jesus has inherited,
since it was first mentioned in ancient prophecy, seems to have taken on
certain triumphalistic, nationalistic overtones which make him reluctant
to claim the name lest people read their own preconceptions into it.
Better to function incognito, without the name. So he is the Messiah, but
will not say so, because then, as once happens in John's gospel, the crowd
will try to install him as king by force.
And Peter is the proof of
this. Peter: "You are the Messiah." Jesus: "Good. Now that you know that,
you should know I'm going to die." Peter: "No way, Lord." Jesus: "Forget I
In fact, you can see what
I'm getting at if you will remember what went through your mind a moment
ago when I used another Old Testament Messianic title of Jesus: the Branch
of David. You may have thought of the Antichrist David Koresh. Now that
title is freighted with the weight of fanaticism.
What was true of Christ
is true of Christians. As a Christian, you literally bear the name of
Christ. I for one am not sure how I feel about it anymore. To bear the
name of Christ himself I am not worthy. But to bear the name Christian is
increasingly a matter of shame. In our society, the media shapes opinion.
Indeed that is the whole point of the mass media. It is commercial
Christianity has become a
laughingstock in the media, and it is not the fault of the media. It can
be laid at the door of those Christians who have lusted most for media
exposure. They have painted themselves and the Christian religion as the
incarnation of greed, venality, neurosis, and narrow-mindedness. It has
become synonymous with ultra-rightist politics and obscurantism. I was
telling my students the other night at New York Seminary, "If that's
Christianity, then I've got one thing to say: Allaho Akbar!"
of a certain type have long since begun to try claiming exclusive
copyright on the brand name "Christian." Jerry Falwell will tell you that
in his opinion Bishop Spong is violating his copyright on the name. That
anyone who is not Pro-Life, anti-Gay, Medieval in theology, is not a
It is a matter of special
anguish to me that many of the most vocal of such zealots are Baptists.
Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Charles Stanley, even the relatively benign
These Baptists, as I view
it, have inherited a great name, and now I am thinking more specifically
of the name "Baptist," and have made it an object of opprobrium. Thanks to
them, and the militant forces that have taken over the Southern Baptist
Convention, the largest Protestant body in the United States, the name
Baptist is coming to stand for the very things that Baptists once opposed.
The original Baptists had
to flee England because they were radical Nonconformists, rejecting the
union of church and state. But today's Southern Baptists are issuing
encyclicals and lobbying to have abortion outlawed and prayer made
mandatory in schools.
The original Baptists
rejected any prescriptive creed. Today's Baptists have drafted various
Confessions and Statements to play the role of shibboleth to smoke out the
The first Baptists paid a
heavy price for the right of every individual to interpret scripture for
himself or herself. But now things are different. The Southern Baptist
Sanhedrin has decreed that the "priesthood of all believers" does not rule
out Pastoral privilege in telling people what to believe and do.
The Southern Baptists
have decreed that any interpretation of the biblical text that posits a
historical error in the text is off limits, just as the Pope once handed
down official interpretations.
A woman might read the
scriptures and feel herself called to the ministry. But the hierarchs of
the Southern Baptist Convention says she must be wrong. They have decreed
that women must not be ordained, though thank God, they cannot yet do
anything about it.
They have not yet found a
way to infringe on congregational autonomy--or have they? They very bid to
purge seminaries of dissenters is a way of making sure that only the
strictest fundamentalists will fill Southern Baptist pulpits in the next
generation, dutiful flunkies who espouse the party line. And don't think
it doesn't make a difference.
A friend of mine runs a
theological bookstore near Wake Forest, where the Southern Baptist junta
stacked the Trustees with their own creatures--and wrecked the school. The
only students who attend now are the caliber that once would have attended
independent Bible institutes, for whom scholarship is utterly irrelevant.
Well, there's four out of
five of the historic Baptist distinctives down, with one to go: believer's
baptism. I ask you, does the name "Baptist," which we have inherited, mean
what it used to mean? Unquestionably, it does not.
It would be a heavy
enough burden if it were simply a question of popular misunderstanding, if
people just misunderstood what Baptists were about. Public relations might
be able to do something about that.
But it is much worse:
it's not just outsiders but insiders, it is the legal leadership of the
largest Baptist, the largest Protestant, denomination, who are redefining
the word "Baptist."
And its not just the
Southern Baptists! Most Baptist groups are even more conservative than
them! It may be that they do not need a creed to keep them
rock-ribbed orthodox. Everyone just prefers to be a biblicist, a
pietist. And that's their privilege.
But I do not perceive us
as being that sort of a church. Some of us are more biblicistic and
pietistic, and that viewpoint is welcomed. But we can't all be painted
with the same swath. We have not been that sort of church since the
pastorate of Harry Emerson Fosdick began. It wasn't a typical Baptist
church in Charles Cohoe's day, certainly not in Don Morris' time. And it
is no more now.
A couple of weeks ago,
after one of the Holy Week services, I was talking with a friend, a local
therapist, a former seminarian, and now a devout atheist. He was the only
one who had attended all of the Holy Week services. After one of them we
were talking about the surprising disparity between the Unitarian Church
across the street, and ours. They are growing faster than they can keep
track of. We are struggling to keep the lights on. We are both
open-minded, progressive congregations.
I told my friend, "I
haven't figured out yet what we're doing wrong." He said, "It's obvious!
It's your name!" I can't tell you how often I have had people tell me they
never would have guessed what kind of church we are from the shingle we
hang out. Some have been reluctant to join or even to attend even once
they knew because they just could not bear the stigma of having to tell
their friends they were Baptists. They liked what was in the bottle, but
not what was on the label.
You know what's coming.
I'm suggesting we follow the shrewd tactic of Jesus Christ in the Gospel
of Mark. We have inherited a name that was once, and still should be, a
noble one. But it now is buried beneath such baggage that it conveys the
wrong thing, the very opposite of the religious breadth, the spiritual
freedom we are all about here.
I am suggesting that we
lay that superfluous burden down. Let us bear the reproach of the
Christian Gospel, but let us not shoulder the cross of an ill-repute we do
not deserve. I am proposing, as many of you already know, that we change
our congregation's name to Trinity Ecumenical Church, and our address to
Trinity Place, to reflect the fact that this room is our church, no longer
the whole building. The new name would reflect what we are and where we
are. It is a noble name that implies broad acceptance of all the Christian
traditions. Our communion service is from the Anglican prayerbook. My
theology is Modernist, yet I preach from the Bible. You are Conservative
and Liberal, Catholics and Baptists, an occasional sprinkling of Jews,
even a Zoroastrian. More than one atheist and agnostic.
The name is redolent of
the historic Christian tradition, yet without excluding anyone. It has no
sectarian ring. It is a name that is perfectly descriptive and would make
no one feel ashamed.
Please note I am not
suggesting that we sever our links with the Baptist denomination. That is
an altogether different issue. You do not have to have the word "Baptist"
in the title to be a member church. Many do not.
Some may have a nostalgic
fondness for the name First Baptist, but recall that even that was once a
new name. Originally the congregation was called Montclair Baptist Church.
And besides, we are in
every way a new church. You rightly cherish the name First Baptist Church
as the name of the church you remember. It will remain the name of the
church you remember. But that is where, in my judgment, it belongs--in the
Give your church a new
lease on life. Let it proclaim itself what it really is: an ecumenical
church. Paul warns that unless the clarion call is clear, no one will
prepare for battle. In the same spirit, let us hold aloft the standard of
Trinity Ecumenical Church and see who volunteers to enlist.
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