Names, we all have one. Some are longer than others, some change over time. Often name and title changes mark transformations and rite of passages. Some of us are named after others.  Some of our names tell stories.

Hello, my name is Lara Crutsinger-Perry.

Lara- from Dr Zhivago.  As the story goes, my mother gave a copy of Dr Zhivago to my father when he deployed from JBLM (or Ft Lewis as it called back then) to Vietnam. My name is from the book; Lara was the beautiful, smart, lover of Dr Zhivago J. My father, an avid reader, read this book, kept it with him during his deployment and amazingly, a few years ago he gave it to me.

I have no middle name. My parents were particular about that. My last name growing up was Crutsinger: evidence of my German heritage while showing no homage of my Irish and Native ancestors. And before my oldest daughter was born – (in the time before marriage equality and when same-sex adoption was illegal in Texas), Beth and I could not even name our unborn child what we wanted. So we legally joined our names and I became a Crutsinger-Perry in a Ft Worth courthouse.  We established ourselves as a legal family in one of the few ways in which we could –by our name.

Names. They are important. The bible begins with creation and the naming of all things.  Names have meaning, for example, we know Isaac means laughter. Names often describe personalities and during Advent we saw angels proclaiming the names of babies.

And on many occasions in scripture, God gives people new names – Sari becomes Sarah, Abram becomes Abraham.  Jacob becomes Israel. Saul becomes Paul. These new names meant something about what God was doing in their lives. Each of them was embarking on a new life; a new mission given to them by God and the new name brought new energy.

In our Luke reading, Mary and Joseph bring their baby named Jesus to the temple. In a brief and somewhat awkward encounter, Simeon and Anna see within this vulnerable and needy child the salvation and redemption of their people. Scripture says the Spirit was upon them, they faithful practiced their faith and they sought every day for hope for the world as promised by the prophets. They bestow blessing (and warning) upon Jesus and as quick as Mary and Joseph fulfilled their requirements its over.  Jesus grows up and we never hear of Simeon and Anna again. But their names are recorded for us as people of great faith who took upon themselves the mission of finding and proclaiming hope and comfort for their people – unlikely prophets, indeed.

Our Isaiah reading puts forth a challenge to us in this litany of praise. It starts in verses 1-2 with the prophet explaining their mission- “God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; and to comfort all who mourn”. This is what God calls us to do.

Then there are 2 simple yet intriguing metaphors in this passage. The first is the adorning of people getting married. Not withstanding the sexist and cultural issues with ancient marriage, who doesn’t like to get dressed up for a party. The image is of getting dressed up and putting on our best clothes and jewelry in celebration of life – of love. The second metaphor is also about life- and of the care and love it takes for life to sprout up from the earth.These metaphors imply something about how we should exist in community and with each other. We should celebrate life, and love and care for how things grow  -working together to see justice and peace bloom.

This part of Isaiah is written at a time when prophecies were unfulfilled and when people needed hope. This is where I find myself as a modern reader. We too are living in challenging and uncertain times.  The writer declares that they will not be silenced, they will not lose hope or give up until the people of God shine as the jewel in the hand of God, the royal diadem as sung in All Hail the Power of Jesus Name – the crown placed on Jesus’ head. And in this moment, it says God will give you a new name!  I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a new name!

In Acts 11, the disciples were first labeled Christians. This is not what they called themselves. This designation was given to them by those outside the church and was meant be derogatory. The Church was just being formed by a small band of “little Christ’s” because they were following the teachings of Jesus. I imagine townsfolk pointing their finger and saying look what “those” Christians are doing.

This one name given to a small band of disciples in first century Antioch has grown into a global brand, an institutionalized and corporate reflection of a radical and subversive movement started by Jesus. There are now more than 2.3 billion Christians in the world and 75% of Americans self-identify as Christian. With so many different representations of Christianity we have reached a point where it sometimes feels like there is more division than unity among us. What does this word even mean anymore? I feel certain it means something different to me than to some of the voices I hear in the media and from pulpits across America.

Today is seems more and more that the word Christian has been co-opted by a loud and powerful political machine.  It feels less and less about Jesus.  Earlier this month, 80% of white evangelical Christians in Alabama voted for Roy Moore. Social media and new outlets immediately erupted with baffled and disillusioned people saying, “look what ‘those’ Christians have done now”. If you read the news and progressive commentary, you see that white evangelical Christianity in American is losing trust, traction and relevance. And we will go down with them if we don’t stand out. We must clearly deliver a counter-narrative rooted in God’s promises of love and justice.

And so I find myself struggling. If the name I call myself or the name we give this place causes other to recoil from the Good News or not want to come into this place because of the harm and hatred caused by others in the name of Jesus then maybe, just maybe it’s time to talk about ourselves in a new way.  But how? I believe we are called to do something great and exciting in 2018 so I find myself praying that God could give us a new name.

What will people call us in 2018? Truth is, we will still be known as Christian because we are. But maybe we could called old school Christians, original Christians, Jesus freaks or Hope dealers (as Tammy called herself last week). I don’t know. I just know we need a new way to talk about our Jesus that recaptures the radical, life giving, inclusive, earth shattering message of God’s love and silences the bigotry and hatred and self-harm caused by the prevailing theology that divides instead of unites us. I don’t want people to look at me and call me one of “those” Christians.

Like many people, I went and saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi this week.  Don’t worry I won’t spoil it for you that haven’t seen it. But I do want to share one line. In one of the intense battles scenes, one member of the Resistance says to another (do you like how vague I’m being), “We must stop fighting what we hate and start saving what we love”. Well, I love the church and I love the radical, sandal wearing, traveling hippy Jesus that taught was very clearly to love one another and extend hospitality to those in need. It’s time that we save what we love before we lose it.

In 2018 I want to be like Jesus. I want the church to be as faithful as Simeon and Anna  -finding God in everyone who comes through these doors and proclaiming hope and comfort. I want people to know there is #morethanonewaytobeaChristian. We live in a time of fading hope. We live in a time when people need care and love and community. We must not be silenced. We must stand in the gaps of society to make sure all hear and witness and experience God’s promises for them. My prayer is that we will have a prophetic voice in this community. That we will lift our praises to God and shine in the hands of God. That we will try new stuff.  That we will open ourselves up to new ways of being in community that welcomes those for whom this doesn’t work or it too closely reminds them of why they left the church in the first place.

Today is the end of one year. It’s had its ups and downs of it.  Tomorrow we embark on New Year. May we be bold, may we take risks, may we constantly seek the Spirit’s guidance as we walk into the unknown and may we be willing to be the Church the world needs us to be.

And as we go let us remember that we are children of God, followers of Jesus, and unlikely prophets all of us!    Amen.