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Sermon: By Name

May 15, 2011

John 10:1-10

Sometimes we think children don’t really pay attention to the things adults do.  Here’s a story that says different.

    When I was a kid, I went to church with my mother, and the minister would speak to my mother, “How’re you, Miz Craddock?” and the five of us kids would go along like little ducks along after our mother.  “How’re you, sonny?  How’re you, honey?  How’re you, sonny?  How’re you, honey?”

    But I remember when another minister came to our church, and about his fifth or sixth Sunday when I went along there, he said, “Fred, how’re you doing?”  He was the best minister that ever was at that church, because there’s a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”  (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, eds.  [St. Louis: Chalice, 2001], 147.)

There is a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”

Everybody needs to be known by name.  It isn’t enough that somebody knows your face or kinda knows that you’re related to whats-his-name.  You need to be known by name.

Cultures all around this planet have known there is power in a name.  In some cultures, people have secret names that will only be revealed to the deepest intimates.  There are fables about the power of names.  Think of Rumpelstiltskin.  It used to be said that one could gain power over a magician if you knew the magician’s true name.  But the greatest power in a name is when someone you love deeply, someone you love, calls you by your name.  “Eric.”

The ancients believed that the gods only really cared about human beings who had famous names, great names—Achilles, Hektor, Odysseus.  Those few human beings were favored by the gods, sometimes almost at whim, and the rest of us were merely nameless rabble who could only secure that uncertain favor by giving sacrifice and offering to those fickle gods, and hoping for the best.

But the gospel according to John tells of a different sort of savior.  John wrote, “The gatekeeper opens up the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  There is a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”

The shepherd is an image used frequently in the Old Testament to refer to the leadership of the people of Israel and sometimes to the lordship of God, their true king.  John is probably using the image of sheep and sheepfold, shepherd and gate, in order to comment upon the type of leadership that is appropriate for the Christian community, but he does so by lifting up the image of our true shepherd Jesus.  Jesus provides the touchstone for leadership and faith.  Jesus’ own actions with the disciple and the people who gathered around him are to be models for Christian leaders and Christian disciples.  We hear—and recognize—his voice.  When you’re around Jesus enough, you learn to recognize the tone, content and style of his speech.  Even though there may be a thousand competing voices, if you have made it a habit to listen to the shepherd’s voice, you will know which one is his voice.

One of the hallmarks of that voice is that the shepherd knows you by name.  If you hear a voice that calls you “sonny,” it ain’t the shepherd’s voice.  If you hear the voice that calls you by name—Joe, Phyllis, Ray, Sharon, Ken, Catarina—then you know the shepherd is near.

It’s tough to be a sheep in this world.  There are wolves all around out there, and they have their own names.  Cancer, Loneliness, Unemployment, Fear.  It can be terrifying to be standing out there in that great big pasture feeling vulnerable and weak.  But the shepherd is near, and the shepherd knows your name.  If you hear your name spoken by the voice of the shepherd, then you know you are not alone, no matter what predators are prowling around.  And you are known by name.

As I said, John was using these images of sheep and shepherd to say something about how we live in community together.  Leaders and other disciples know the names of the other sheep.  They speak together with the authentic voice of the shepherd.  They protect and care for one another.  Yes, they are first images that teach us about the shepherding care of Jesus Christ, but second, they teach us how we live together.

There is a story about a very large congregation; you might even call it a mega church.  One of the knocks against mega churches is that you may not be known by name.  There are just too many sheep.  Some people feel lost among the crowd.  But to the people of this very large congregation—they worship in the thousands each Sunday—the church felt like a small church all because of one shepherd named Al.  Al made it a point each and every Sunday to greet each person who came to worship and to use their name.  “It’s good to see you, Mary.  Good morning, Ed.  Hi there, Stephanie.”  If you were worshiping for the first time at that church, Al would be sure he learned your name so that the second time you came to worship, he could call you by name.  That church had nearly two thousand people in worship each Sunday, but it felt like a small church to the people who called that place home because Al knows their names.

Church mission growth expert Ken Callahan says that it is so vitally important that a new person’s first impression with a church is a good one.  He says that no matter where that first impression takes place, whether the parking lot or the bottom of the stairs or at the door to the Sanctuary, it is critical that two things happen.  First, we learn that new person’s name, and second, that we teach them our name.  Names are powerful.  There is no substitute for hearing your name on the lips of someone who loves you.  There is a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”

God’s love for us is personal and intimate.  Jesus’ love for us is personal and intimate.  There are no nameless sheep among us.  And that is how Christ calls us to live together.  You remember Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples on the night he washed their feet?  He said to them, “Love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It is hard to love someone if you do not know their name.  And I know in our culture, we’re reluctant to share too much about ourselves.  We are a private culture.  We are afraid of being taken advantage of by strangers.  We’re afraid of identity theft.  We’re afraid all the other sheep around us because a few of them are definitely wolves beneath the wool.  It’s hard to open up to one another because we just might get hurt.  No, let me rephrase that.  We will get hurt.  Only the people who know our names can truly hurt us, truly betray us.  That is, with one exception.  Jesus Christ, the shepherd who knows our names and calls us to pasture and back to safety once more, will never betray us, never leave us.  Even if we were all to run away from him so that he had to face the wolves alone and on his own, he would still love us.  He would still gently gather us back together into the flock.  That’s love.  That is the sort of love to which we are called to share with one another.  And it starts by calling one another by name.  There is a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”

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