Speaking God's Names
A sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday of Easter at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, 5/7/17; John 10:1-10, Year A.
“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
I speak to you in the name of the one, holy, and living God. Amen.
So I want to begin this morning by saying a word about this word “God.” Certainly for many folks, both in and out of the pews, it’s become an unhelpful word—a word loaded with baggage. Just what do we mean when we say “God”?—probably most of us grew up with the image of an old white man with a beard, seated on a throne. And all of us have grown up in a culture that is patriarchal and white supremacist at its core, whether we’ve realized that or not. And the white, male god is a reflection of that patriarchal, white supremacist culture.
It’s an idol that deserves being smashed. But once we’ve smashed the idol, sometimes it feels like we’ve smashed God, and we aren’t sure what to believe in any longer. So I want to give you a different image or understanding of this God-word; but before I do, I invite you to hold the image lightly, because all images, even our best ones, when held too tightly become idols.
And so I want to imagine with you two dimensions within the life of God. First, let’s imagine God as the Ground of Being; imagine God not as a being, a Big Person, but as Being itself, as the infinite Ground of all potential and possibility. Everything that has ever existed and everything that has never existed, all of it held as potential and possibility within the Ground of Being, within the Heart of God.
And now imagine love, beauty, relationship, joy, color… imagine these as only unmanifest potentials, possibilities. And ask yourself, What good is beauty that is unmanifest, unseen? Can there even be such a thing? What good is love that is unexpressed? Could it even be called love?
And so now imagine the world as the place where these qualities, these names of God—love, beauty, justice, joy—are being spoken into being. It’s here, through you and me and the rocks and the trees and the creatures that God is speaking all of the divine possibilities and potentials into existence.
And so this world, this whole creation, is integral to the Divine Life. It’s actually a dimension of God’s own being, not just a separate creation that a separate, old-white-man god spun into existence as entertainment like a TV show. No, all of this is the life of God itself, working itself out, expressing itself, speaking its names.
And each of us bears a name of God, a possibility that exists in the Ground of Being, that only we can fulfil, that God can speak only through us. And the same for every rock and tree and creature. And so in this picture of God, in some sense the whole thing is God. God is the unmanifest ground of all Being, and God is the manifest dance of life unfolding. Both being and becoming.
And so we are not separate from God, but held within the life of God. And each of us is integral to that life, each of us is given a name of God to speak forth through our lives. In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that the shepherd, the Good Shepherd, “calls [the] sheep by name and leads them out…” and he goes on to say, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
He calls us by name, by that unique possibility we are given to express, that name that we alone are given to bear—he calls us by name and leads us out, out from the ground of possibility and into expression. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Far too often we are afraid to speak our true name, to live the abundant life God has planted deep within us, to be our authentic selves. Our culture, our society, perhaps our religion, has suppressed, oppressed, something of the name we have been given. What parts of yourself, what parts of God, are unexpressed, unfulfilled, in your life, hidden, still only potential? Jesus comes, calls us by those hidden names, and leads us out, so that we may have abundant life.
There are obvious names of God in our culture that have been repressed—of course I quickly think of gay folk and trans folk who are only now coming into a time when those names can be spoken. But there are parts of each and every one of us that we are afraid to live. I used to be utterly terrified of public speaking, and I repeatedly considered dropping out of the discernment process for priesthood because of it. I could have let this name go unspoken.
When you come to the end of your time here, in this dimension of the life of God—the end of your speaking forth—what will you regret not having lived, not having spoken? Think on this in the days ahead and feel into the places in your life where Jesus is calling for expression, calling you into abundant life.
And at the same time, it’s important to remember that none of us will live every possibility. We are finite and limited beings, and we choose one path and therefore not another. And we have to embrace those limitations and find the abundance that exists within them. The sacrifice involved in giving up one path and remaining faithful to another—that itself can be a beautiful speaking forth of a name of God. And part of the beauty in these limitations is that it takes all of us together to speak the fullness of God into being. Yes, I may choose one path and therefore not another; but maybe you have chosen the other path—and so rather than being jealous, we can instead thank each other for living what the other cannot.
This understanding of God and of our lives gives us a high vision of human purpose. We’re not simply here to entertain a bored and lonely deity. We’re not simply here in a school for the training of our souls, to be judged and given a final report card in the end. No, we’re here to speak God’s names into being, to live God’s life into abundant expression—and in that sense God needs us. Through us, God’s own potential is given life.
And so yes, in some sense, the whole thing is God—God dancing through every facet of existence. A God who can’t be nailed down to any one image or concept. And I think we see something of that in the way Jesus plays with metaphors in this morning’s Gospel, the way the images move and shift like light dancing on water. “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” So Jesus is the shepherd, right?—Good Shepherd Sunday. “The gatekeeper opens the gate.” Oh, okay then, so he’s the gatekeeper. “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.”
The shepherd, the gatekeeper, the gate itself. And as we go deeper into the mystery, of course we find that he is even the sheep, “Behold, the lamb of God.” The mystery of Christ, of God, of our own humanity, dances in this way, like light that at the same time is both wave and particle. The minute you think you’ve got it pinned down, Jesus shifts the metaphor. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t want us to get locked into any one image or concept.
Ah, you think I’m the shepherd—well then I’m the sheep. You think I’m the gatekeeper?—I’m the gate. Don’t think you’ve got it hammered down. It takes all of us and everything, after all, to speak God’s names into being. And so if you want, need, an image of God, it’s not the white man on the throne, but every act of creative expression, of abundant living, of self-giving love. It’s the whole creation in its vast and beautiful act of becoming. If you absolutely must have an image, then take that. But remember, even that can become an idol.
“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” May each one of us fearlessly speak God’s names into being, that God may have life, and have it abundantly.