This is a very long and personal post. The week before Christmas, 2001 I was part of a United Methodist Mission Team that went to New York City to continue the response to the September 11 tragedy, just three months prior. What follows is a sermon that I preached the day after we returned home. I post it today because I don't want to forget.
Your name is a pretty personal thing.
In Biblical times a name wasn’t simply a word which identified a person or a place. A name expressed something of the very essence of that which was being named. So, to know the name of a person revealed something of the true nature or destiny of the individual. In the Old Testament we have Adam, which means “man.” The name Moses means “drawn out” because he was rescued from the river in a boat made of reeds.
The first story of naming that comes in the New Testament is the one we read today. It comes from Matthew, the first Gospel, right in chapter one. It is the story of Joseph who has a dream. Joseph is in some trouble. His fiancee is pregnant and he’s not the father. Joseph is worried. I’m sure he’s gotten all kinds of advice from his friends and family. He just doesn’t know what to do. No doubt he goes to bed worried one night. In this dream there are angels talking to him. They tell him to let it be. Go ahead and marry the girl and take care of the child. In this dream the angels even tell Joseph what to name the child – call him Jesus.
The Bible tells us that Joseph woke up and knew what to do. I imagine that he felt at peace. He married Mary and he named the child Jesus.
This passage in Matthew goes on to tell us that in naming this child Jesus, Joseph is giving us a vision of the character and essence of what this child would become. We also understand that Jesus is being claimed, even before he is born to be God made real in the world.
This name Jesus is a fulfillment of a prophecy in the Old Testament. Hundreds of years earlier the prophet Isaiah predicted that a virgin would be pregnant with a son and that the child's name would be Emmanuel, which means God is with us.
Emmanuel. God is with us. This is my name for Jesus. This is the vision of Jesus that I cling to and claim when things are stormy and I have more questions than I have answers. What name do you claim for Jesus?
The prophet Isaiah has many names for this son of Mary. He is called Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Emmanuel. Which of these speaks to you?
As many of you know, we just got home from New York City last night. We spent all of last week there as volunteers with the United Methodist Church’s Disaster Response in the wake of the September 11th tragedy. There were nine people on our team and we spread out over the city to do whatever was needed. Some worked in a food pantry. Some of us staffed Listening Centers in churches where people were free to come in and pray and talk about whatever they needed to talk about. Some of us passed out literature at Ground Zero and talked to firefighters, police officers and family members about how they are coping with the aftermath of the event.
I spent most of the week at a Reconciling Congregation on 13th Street in Manhattan called Metropolitan Duane United Methodist Church. In the moments following September 11 all the streets from 14th on down were closed. This church was part of the disaster zone. It was covered and choked by the thick clouds of dust and debris.
When you exited the subway near the church, even 3 months later, you could still smell the scent of destruction here.
As I was at Met-Duane this week, people wandered in with a variety of concerns. I spoke to a woman who’s husband had seen the second plane hit the tower from his desk in his office two blocks away. Her husband didn’t want to talk about it. For weeks he had physical manifestations of the stress in the form of a continuous case of the hiccups. His wife told me that she simply walks around the city every week or two and looks for a church in which she can pray. The stress builds up in her to the point she realizes that she has to let it out some way. She recognizes that prayer works. Then she is better for another week or two. On some level she claims Emmanuel – that God is with her.
A woman, who’s name I don’t know, came in early one day to pray alone. I sat in the back pew and prayed for her. As she knelt at the altar rail at the front of the sanctuary she quietly began to sing. She sang old hyms and then a few Christmas carols. After a period of silence she softly sang, “America the Beautiful.” A few moments later she rose from her knees and returned to a pew in the front, but rather than sitting she stood tall for a long time. Silence filled the church sanctuary and I watched her, wondering what she was going to do. Then, in full voice, she filled the place with “Amazing Grace” as though she were claiming it not only for herself, but for the whole city of New York.
For that one moment, I felt the electricity of Jesus presence alive in that place. Emmanuel – God is with us. We both wept.
Noel came into the church one cold afternoon and asked to talk. He had moved to New York City 24 years earlier with his partner Tom. They came from Dublin, Ireland. Noel came in to talk and pray with me after learning that afternoon that Tom has just three weeks to live. He came in with tears and questions and fears. He left feeling some peace after we prayed. Noel may have named Jesus in much the same way as the prophet Isaiah did, Prince of Peace.
Three of us on the team spoke to a young man who was a struggling actor. It was very cold on Thursday afternoon and the wind was pretty bitter. He had only a vest on and ducked into the doors of the church to warm up. He wanted to talk, to reach out to people who would listen, but he was afraid. He longed for community and support in the city but didn’t know how to go about finding what he needed. He expressed a desire to find some kind of meaningful faith. I would say that if John were able to express it, Jesus to him would have been named Friend and Companion.
We spoke with a chaplain who serves two or three shifts of morgue duty at Ground Zero every week. He will be serving the midnight shift of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning this week. He plans to take communion to the construction workers and recovery workers at the site at midnight on Christmas Eve. When it was said that it must be a great sacrifice on his part to volunteer for this duty he had an interesting and thought provoking response. He said, “I can’t think of a better way to bring the presence of God in the flesh into the world this Christmas, can you?”
No, I don’t think I can. I also can’t go without telling you that this particular chaplains name is Justice.
What name would you claim for Jesus this year?
As you already know, each person we talked to this past week had a name and a story. All over the city there are still make-shift memorials to honor those that are still missing in the terrorist attacks. All around Ground Zero there are walls of pictures, flowers, candles and other memories that grieving family members have placed to honor their loved ones.
Saint Vincent’s Hospital on 14th Street was the hospital which we all saw on television on September 11. It was the hospital closest to Ground Zero where they were expected to bring survivors. Later they waited for bodies that never arrived. Along about a 50 foot stretch of the hospital sidewalk there are hundreds of posters and pictures of people. They were put up immediately following the disaster. Each poster has the picture of the missing person, the person’s name, and who to call if the person is found.
I found this site to be almost overwhelming. Many of the photos are from weddings, with either the bride or groom missing. Most are candid vacation shots taken at a time of joyful relaxation. One is a picture of a baby and a father. The caption reads, “Have you seen my Daddy?” and then lists the fathers name.
Every where you go, there are lists of names. Names that lead to stories. Names that lead to lives. Names that once took families to thoughts of joy, but now take them to thoughts of pain.
My prayer is that it will not be long before these names are spoken with joy once again.
On Monday we went to Ground Zero and walked around the whole perimeter of the site. Recovery workers, construction workers and police officers regard the place as holy ground. Besides the noise of the cranes and machinery, the place is remarkably quiet. I heard someone describe the site as a monstrous hole where pain and anger and terror rise up from the ground. That seemed quite real to me.
The week went by. I absorbed more of the atmosphere and attitude of the people of the city. Christmas began to loom larger and larger on the horizon. Yes, there is pain. There is certainly anger and there are more questions than there are answers. But these things will not win.
This is the fourth week of Advent, the season of hope. Jesus is about to burst onto the scene, bringing many names with him. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Holy One.
Emmanuel, God is with us.
I learned this week that pain, anger and terror may rise up from the ground. They may rise from Ground Zero and they may haunt us in a variety of circumstances in Toledo, Ohio. But, as I listened to a womans voice rise above the din of the city noise and fill the cathedral ceiling of the church with the sounds of “Amazing Grace,” I remembered Emmaunel again. God truly is with us – two thousand years ago in a manger in Bethlehem and at this moment in each of our hearts who seek him.
For this is a season of hope.