A sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
Lyonsville Congregational UCC 4 October 2015
Scripture Lesson: Genesis 2:18-24
In this, the second version of the creation story, God has created a male human and then decided this person needs a helper. Eventually the Lord God will make a female human. This passage helps the people of God understand the importance of relationships.
18 Then the LORD God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.” 19 So the LORD God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky and brought them to the human to see what he would name them. The human gave each living being its name. 20 The human named all the livestock, all the birds in the sky, and all the wild animals. But a helper perfect for him was nowhere to be found.
21 So the LORD God put the human into a deep and heavy sleep, and took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh over it. 22 With the rib taken from the human, the LORD God fashioned a woman and brought her to the human being. 23 The human said,
“This one finally is bone from my bones
and flesh from my flesh.
She will be called a woman
because from a man she was taken.”
24 This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh. (Common English Bible)
This story of creation tells us that the first human named all the livestock, birds, wild animals. Names are important. They help establish and maintain relationships.
My name is thom. You should feel free to call me thom. It is the name I have known for most of my life. When I was a child I wanted to be called Thomas. When I was in elementary school very few people were willing to call me Thomas. When I was in 10th grade I finally gave up. I said to my friend Chris “I’d really rather people call me Thomas, but they always call me tom. Well, if they going call me tom then they have to spell it my way: I’m putting the H in thom.” My friend said “I’d rather be Christopher, but everyone calls me Chris. So I’m taking the H out of my name.” That means there is a free H floating around somewhere around the universe.
My wife’s name is Ronda – with no H. A lot of people think I took the H from her name, but that’s not the case. Her father said “You do not pronounce the H so why put it in.”
Anyway, feel free to call me thom. I know some people are uncomfortable calling their minister by their first name, so if you wish you may call me pastor. Actually, pastor means shepherd. It is appropriate to call a leader in Christianity, Judiasm, or Islam “pastor because you are recognizing their role as a religious leader. So if you wish, you may call me pastor. You can also call me pastor thom or pastor bower. Youth from previous congregations call me “PThom” – which you may use if you wish.
If you wish to be more formal, you may use the title Reverend. That is used with ordained clergy in the Christian tradition. You can just use the title “reverend” or you can combine it with my name – Reverend bower or Reverend thom. There are some clergy who insist that reverend should always be preceded by “the” – thus “the reverend bower” is the most grammatical way to use my title.
In addition to being ordained I hold an academic degree – a doctor of education. So if you prefer, you may use my title of Doctor – or Doctor Bower or Doctor Thom. If you want to use my titles appropriately, then it is Reverend Dr Thom Bower – or if you are being grammatically correct, the Reverend Dr Thom Bower.
Because I teach in a seminary, you can also call me professor: Professor bower, professor thom. But I have to tell you: my students have always called me thom, and I am fine with that. And I hope you will feel free to call me thom.
But honestly, you can call me whatever you want. Both my mother’s and father’s families use nicknames more than given names. My father had cancer and needed treatment in a hyperbaric chamber. Those treatments were done with a group of people who became used to seeing one another. On the day of my father’s last treatment the nurses hung a sign “Congratulations Doug!” As the group prepared to leave, they asked the nurses who Doug was. The nurses pointed to my dad. “He’s not Doug; his name is Dirk” said one man. “No, his name is Fred” said a woman. “Wait: I know him as Scott.” My father admitted he could be any of those people because he was willing to answer to whatever name they called him.
I remember as a young child – about 5 or 6, when I was getting used to the fact that my parents had names other than mom and dad – we went to my father’s family reunion. Everyone kept calling him Larry. I asked him “Dad, I thought your name is Doug.” He said it was. “Don’t they know you? They keep calling you Larry.” Well, yes, his name was Doug and Larry (his middle name was Lawrence, so as a youth they called him Larry).
My mother’s family also used nicknames. I have relatives whose names I do not know. I can identify them in a photograph, but I do not know their legal names. Instead, I know their nicknames: Doodler, Town Clock, Boo, Schlitz, Abba Dabba, Dot, Frankfurter, Uzo, Shotgun, Dudley Do Right, Cheese stick. Back in the 1950’s when the first telephones arrived in their valley, the telephone company produced a book with everyone’s name and phone number. In my grandfather’s town no one could use it because it listed their legal names – and all anyone knew were one another’s nicknames. They actually had to print a second phone book that listed everyone’s nickname and phone number.
(I want to let you know: this is not the way I normally preach. Usually I talk a lot more about the scripture of the day, but today I wanted to take some time to introduce myself – and it just seemed natural while reflecting on these words from Genesis that I should take the time to share my name with you.)
Using one another’s names is a sign of welcoming. You are not nameless, you are known. When I use your name, you are familiar, we have a relationship, we fit together somehow. Using one another’s names is part of being community, and learning names is important part of becoming a community.
Nametags are one way to help people integrate into a community – but only if you take the next step and learn one another’s names without looking at each other’s nametags. I had a professor in seminary who required us to begin the semester with a name tag on the table in front of us so others could learn our names. Once we could name everyone in the class we were permitted to put away our nametag – the assumption being that if we had learned other’s names then they had learned ours. So if you do not like wearing a nametag here at church I’ll issue the same challenge: when you can name everyone who is here, you do not need to wear a nametag. I also want you to know that I and many others are praying for a large number of new people to visit and eventually remain with this congregation, so even if you know everyone’s name this month, you may not know all of them next month.
My grandfather said the world would be a better place if everyone was named Pete. Whenever someone entered his business, he would wave and say “Hello Pete!” If you knew my grandfather, then you know he called everyone Pete: you were in on the joke, and it brought a smile to your face. If you did not know my grandfather, you began to wonder who is this Pete fellow that you resemble – and you were glad the association with Pete was friendly and so, by extension, you had a better chance of my grandfather being friendly towards you. And since your name was not Pete, you would probably correct my grandfather – “I’m not Pete, my name is Larry.” Without asking, he had learned your name.
I’m not going to be like my grandfather and call all of you Pete – unless your name IS Pete. I hope to learn your names. You have one name to learn – Thom or Pastor Thom or The Rev. Dr. Thomas Bower, pastor and teacher. In contrast I have a lot of names to learn. So I ask you to help me. Introduce yourself by name – not just today, but for several weeks even if you are wearing a nametag.
Give me some way to remember your name: tell my how you got your name, make up a rhyme, tell me about a historical character who shares your name. Tell me a nickname you have had – even if it is one you would rather never be called again. Use other people’s names when you are speaking with me. If they are not part of the conversation, then point them out to me so I can match a face with the name. And tell me about them so I can remember their name: how they are connected to you, how they serve through the church. Use me as practice for how you will receive visitors – practice how to help others become connected as part of this congregation of God’s people. Practice how you share yourself in the name of Christ.
But having said all that, I recognize the paradox that our names our simultaneously important and not important. At the conclusion of each academic year my college produced a yearbook. When I received my copy of that yearbook at the end of my freshman year I did just what almost every other student did: I flipped to the index to see how many times my name was referenced, and then went to each of those pages to see how good I looked.
Later that day friends told me how much they liked the picture of Alexis and me. I told them I did not see that picture. Yearbooks were brought out, pages turned, and I was shown the picture of my best friend Alexis and me doing something goofy. The reason I did not see this picture is that it was not listed in the index with my name. The caption read “Alexis Talbott and friend …” My name simply was not included.
Years later, as a senior I was asked to reflect in a chapel service on the most important lesson I learned in college. I referred back to that picture. “More important than having our individual names recognized,” I said then, “it is more important that we be known as friends in the name of Christ.”
We come today to celebrate the name we all share: followers of Christ. We come today to recognize Christians around the world who also share this name are gathering to celebrate that identity in the sacrament of communion. The idea for World Communion Sunday began in the 1930’s. The world experienced an international economic depression. The US struggled with issues around immigration – should immigrants assimilate and become “Americanized” or is the preservation of one’s cultural identity important enough that cultural communities should coalesce to preserve a distinctive ethnic identity?
It was within economic depression and immigration issues, within the rhythmic movement of US churches working together on common Christian identity and working as denominations to preserve distinctive Christian heritages, in these ambiguities of identity that this idea of a World Communion Sunday was birthed within the Presbyterian churches of the world.
The idea was similar to the International Sunday School movements of the late 19th Century: the world might be transformed if we had a common experience wherever we lived in the world. Among Sunday School leaders the idea was that if all Christians around the world studied the same scripture on the same day – often with the same lesson – then we might discern God’s call in the same way leading us to a common action. What if all Christians around the world were united on one day by taking communion at the same time?
Now, 80 some years later, there is no way to know how many congregations worldwide celebrate communion today, no idea to know how many different faith heritages are united through this practice. The importance is not that we all celebrate communion the same way or even that we understand communion the same way but that we are united across national boundaries, across cultural boundaries, across racial and ethnic boundaries even across ideological boundaries to say the grace of God that is encountered in this sacramental act unites us as Christians because in this diversity God’s realm is revealed. The importance is in our many different expressions of Christian identity, Christ welcomes us all to the table of grace.
And once again, thank you for receiving me so well, by whatever name you decide to call me.