Sermon: God by Any Other Name


Three women arrived at the Pearly Gates at the same time. St. Peter came but said he had some pressing business and asked them to please wait. He was gone a long time, but finally he came back and called one of the women in and asked her if she had minded waiting.

“No,” she said, “I’ve looked forward to this for so long. I love God and I can’t wait to meet Jesus. I don’t mind at all.”

St. Peter then said, “Well, I have one question. How do you spell `God’?”

She said, “Capital G-o-d.”

St. Peter said, “Go right on in.”

He went out and got one of the other women, told her to come on inside, said, “Did you mind waiting?”

She said, “Oh, no. I have been a Christian for fifty years, and I’ll spend eternity here. I didn’t mind at all.”

So St. Peter said, “Just one more thing. How do you spell `God’?

And she said, “g-o-d…No, I mean capital `G’.”

St. Peter said that was good and sent her on in to Heaven.

He went back out and invited the third woman in and asked her if she had minded waiting.

“Yes, I did,” she said. “I’ve had to stand in line all my life—at the supermarket, when I went to school, when I registered my children for their school, when I went to the movies—everywhere! And I resent having to wait in line for Heaven!”

St. Peter said, “Well, that’s all right for you to feel that way. It won’t be held against you. There is just one more question. How do you spell `Czechoslovakia’?”

 

Now, before we continue I’d like to offer a disclaimer concerning the previous joke. I’m pretty sure neither of those questions will be on the test.

But it does raise a question that has baffled generations from the beginning of time. Who is this mysterious Being that we come to worship on Sunday mornings? Who is this One we proclaim so boldly to others; that we profess to know and to love? How do we really know who God is?

In other words: How do we spell `G-o-d’?

 

For an entire semester of Old Testament Theology, as commanded by our dear professor Joanna Boss, the class referred to God with the tetragrammaton YHWH in respect of the ancient Hebrews, who considered the name of Yahweh too sacred to even speak aloud.

How can we give name to such a God?

Names have great power. And to know – or to call upon – the name of another has profound implications for those in the relationship.

The direct ancestors of my rather large Dutch family of origin apparently did not have a great deal of imagination with regard to naming their male offspring. Whenever we would gather at a family event (which would usually mean about 40 or so people) there would inevitably be at least half-a-dozen or more `Toms’ milling about; which necessitated my family being a bit more creative with their adjectives.

There was Big Tom and Little Tom, Old Tom, Young Tom, Tommy Myron and Tommy Charles, Tom senior and Tom junior – and so on.

And what you were called depended on who it was speaking to you (or about you), and what their relationship was to you and with you.

My Grandmother Della (my dad’s mother) bypassed the problem of `too many Toms’ by calling the apple of her eye (me) – “Stinkpot.”

Whenever  I heard that nomenclature spoken out loud in a room full of family, I knew exactly who was speaking and who they were talking to. And as often as not it meant being fed – or hugged – or both.

But, you see, – the point is – that people’s perception of another’s identity – and the accompanying designation – is largely based on their `relative proximity’ in relationship to that other person.

For example, today I am known as `Tom’, `Tommy’, `Uncle Tommy’, `Uncle Tata’, `Uncle Boogie’, `Yogi’, and yes, occasionally still, `Stinkpot’.

The names we have in life remind us of who we are, where we came from, to whom we are related and to whom we belong. They keep us rooted (to our past), connected (to our support), centered (in this vast universe).

 

Names were considered to have great power to the ancient Hebrews, as well. What one named their child reflected much more than just family identification; it could also tell the story of family history, or special circumstances surrounding the birth, or aspirations for the child’s future. Simply knowing the name of another person in that culture meant having a certain amount of power to exercise control or influence over them. (Christian Word Book, 1968, Graded Press, Eric Lane Titus [ed.]).

The power of life and death – to invoke a blessing or a curse – could originate in the naming of a child.

 

Several years ago my family went to support my niece Emily as she graduated from KU with her Master’s in Speech Pathology. Emily was named for her grandmother, my mother’s middle name, who had passed away just a few years prior to that event.

And in fact, Emily received honors as one of the Outstanding Students of her class. And, of course, as each graduate’s name was called, the graduate would get up and walk across the stage to receive his or her diploma. And with each name called, a corresponding group in the audience would react with hoops and hollars, claps and whistles.

Of course, when Emily’s time came, we did the best we could—as those raised Presbyterian—to usher her across the stage with celebratory noise. Along with a few tears. Because we also knew that, along with the particular name being recognized in that moment of matriculation, was also the knowledge of all the work, all the sacrifice, and all the dedication it took for Emily to finally get that degree.

And, as we celebrated, we also knew that she has a deep, motivating compassion for others so that – as sure as we know our Emily –  we knew that she would strive diligently to serve those in need in her chosen profession.

Papa took a picture of the family sitting together in a row in the auditorium. Right in the middle was an empty chair. “That’s Gramma’s seat,” said Papa.

 

There is great power in a name. But that power is made manifest in relationship.

 

“Yahweh is [just] one of God’s names,” Fred Buechner observes, “and Moses was the first one he told it to. [And] Maybe it means `I am what I am’ or something along those lines, and maybe it doesn’t. At other places in the Bible he is given names like Elohim, El Shaddai, the Lord. Jesus called him mainly Abba, which is Aramaic for father.”

Buechner concluded, “Yahweh doesn’t seem to care too much what people call him as long as the lines of communication are kept open.” (Peculiar Treasures, 1979)

 

Is not God by any other name still God?

 

Diane and I were invited to attend the 2017 Interfaith Works Leadership Awards Dinner a few weeks ago. The theme of the year was Inextricably Bound Together. There were over five hundred people in attendance and the honorees being recognized that night for their outstanding contributions to the mission of interfaith relations included: Catholic Charities  Refugee Resettlement program, Christopher Community Inc., Crouse Health Care, Syracuse City School District, Syracuse Police Department, Tops Friendly Markets and Wegmans Food Markets.

Diane and I happened to be assigned to a table with a group of very diverse looking people. As we introduced ourselves to our tablemates, I discovered that the man sitting next to me – a middle-aged, very thin and weathered looking black man – did not speak a word of English. But we shook hands with a nod and a smile.

The highlight of the evening, by everyone’s estimation was a presentation by two young people who had gone successfully through refugee resettlement: a young lady from Syria, Samar Alany; and a young man from Sudan, Salat Ali. They were introduced by a very powerful video called We Are Human featuring their respective courageous flights out of an endangered existence in their countries of origin to America.

As the video unfolded, retelling the story of Salat Ali’s family in the daily struggle of living in refugee camps and the heroic sacrifices his father made to ensure that his children survived, it soon dawned on me that I was sitting next to Salat’s father.

As Salat’s voiceover in the video paid tribute to his father, I leaned over and put my hand on his shoulder. Unable to understand the words of the video, or to even to bring himself to watch it, Mr. Ali sat turned away from the stage, with his hands folded and his head bowed. At one point I put my hand on his shoulder – just to smile and nod in approval of the video presentation – and he looked up with tears in his eyes.

When the video had finished Mr. Ali quietly got up and left the hall. After their presentation, Samar (whose brother also happened to be sitting at our table) and Salat came to sit and eat with their family members.

When Salat got to the table, he asked me if I’d seen his father. I told him that he had left the room after the video. Salat thought for a moment and then nodded, “Oh, yes. He probably went outside to pray.”

 

The Apostle Paul stood on a place called “Mars Hill” and proclaimed to have an answer for the inscription “To an unknown god.” Remarkably, in his address, never once does Paul speak the name of God, never once mentions the people Israel, never even says the name of Jesus.

He tells them about a God that cannot be contained in the halls of men, cannot be represented by statues or shrines erected; for this is the God who created all that is; the God who, “from one ancestor made all nations to inhabit the earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of places where they would live, so that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”

For “In him we live and move and have our being.”

“And we too are his offspring.”

All of us.

 

Samir Selmanovic (born in Croatia of a Muslim father and Christian mother and growing up in an atheist school system) is a now Christian minister and former pastor of the Church of Advent Hope in New York City.

After 9/11 he worked tirelessly to bright Christians and Muslims together in reconciling dialogue. He now serves on the Interfaith Relations Commission of the United States National Council of Churches.

In his work An Emerging Manifesto of Hope, Selmanovic wrote, “[Certain experiences] leave us wondering whether Christ can be more than Christianity. Or even other than Christianity. Can it be that the teachings of the gospel are embedded and can be found in reality itself rather than being exclusively isolated in sacred texts and our interpretations of these texts? If the answer is yes, can it be that they are embedded in other stories, other peoples’ histories, and even other religions?” (Wikipedia)

 

When God called Moses out of the burning bush, charging Moses to become the deliverer of God’s captive children telling the Pharaoh to “let my people go.” Moses timidly replied, `Why should anyone listen to me?’

“I will be with you,” said God.

“Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, `What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”

 

God by any other name is still – and shall always be – God.

And whether we call this Holy One `Allah,’ `Buddha,’ `Brahman,’ `Krishna,’ or `Yahweh,’ we are all Children of the same Living God who created all that is and has given life and breath to all human beings.

And now that we know our name to be that of `Child of God,’ we too should be reminded of who we are, where we came from, to whom we are related and to whom we belong.  That name should keep us rooted, connected, centered and, yes, humble in our own faith. It should remind us that we are inextricably interwoven with all the children of the earth. All the children of God.