Our Names are Written
Pentecost IV (O. T. 14); July 7, 2019
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
When I'm putting together our worship for the Lord's Day, I look for psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that go well with the Scripture for the day. Our hymnal has an index that gives guidance in doing that, so it's often easy to find things we can sing that echo the message that I'm preaching on. I had a problem this week, though. There were quite a few suggested songs for us to sing today, and all of them focused on Jesus sending us out to do stuff.
That's not a bad thing. The story I just read to you is about Jesus sending out seventy (or, in some versions of the New Testament, seventy-two) disciples to do things. He sent them to cure the sick, to announce the kingdom of God, and so forth. And that is part of what it means to you and me to be followers of Jesus: we have a job to do, to care for the sick, announce the kingdom of God, and so forth. We don't just sit around enjoy being saved; we're called to do stuff in the name of the One who saves us.
But sometimes the most important line of a story is the last line, and all our hymns ignore the last line of today's Scripture. Such a line can be especially important when Jesus starts out, "Nevertheless." Then you know he's about to say something important: I know this is what's on your mind, but (nevertheless) pay attention to this. "Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
As much as those seventy-some disciples enjoyed listening to Jesus teach, I'll bet they really got their teeth into the possibility of going out and doing something. It would be both scary and exciting to go out without hotel reservations or a credit card, trusting in the hospitality of strangers, and to announce the kingdom of God. Imagine if we just went out in pairs to the houses and apartments in our neighborhood, just visiting folks for a few hours. Scary and exciting, right? But how cool to have something concrete to do!
I can't claim to speak for anybody else, but I know us Americans fairly well, and we sure like to have a job to do. We like to be productive, to feel as though we're contributing something. I listened to a commentator compare the American notion of vacation with the European notion of vacation. He noted that studies show that taking a vacation makes you more productive. So we Americans point to the good of taking vacations… so we can be more productive! To Europeans: it's good to take a vacation because it's good to take a vacation. But we like to find our value in productivity. My worth as a human being is in what I produce: that's the American spirit.
So those disciples were thrilled not only that they had something to do, but that it went so well. "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" That's something else we love: the sense of power, that we not only had a job to do but we got it done and we overcame opposition to do it. As someone who cheers whenever a person reaches a goal and who has accomplished several goals myself, I'm not going to tell you not to celebrate accomplishments. If you have lost weight or stopped smoking or gone to family therapy or won an award or completed a degree: congratulations! You have overcome opposition. And if you have done so because you felt called by God to do so, then in the name of Jesus the demons have submitted to you.
"Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
Last Sunday, a man many respect, admire, and like passed away at home. His official obituary does not say it, but it's an open secret that he died by suicide. He was an elder in his church, a member of the pastor nominating committee that called me to them. He was a leader of Kiwanis, a bank president, very active in his community and in his church. I can't begin to list all the ways he contributed to his community, including the hospital board, economic development, and many not-for-profit organizations. He leaves behind two brothers, a sister, several nieces and nephews, and a host of people who are stunned by what happened. I wish I could have attended his funeral, mostly to support the pastor in handling an extremely difficult situation.
I don't know if anyone will ever figure out what pain led him to take his own life. I still find it difficult to comprehend. The cover story of the most recent issue of Presbyterians Today is called "The Suicide Epidemic" and I had hoped to find it helpful. It's a good story, and it focuses on the need for us to be more open to talking about issues of mental health and willing to listen to one another. It doesn't help me understand my friend.
He was one of the most accomplished people in our small town. He did so much for so many, achieved so much good, and is deeply, widely admired. The only thing I can think of to say is, "Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
I think what Jesus means by saying "your names are written in heaven" is "your name is listed in God's book." I have my "contacts list," as does any good tech-using American consumer. Folks I know, folks and companies I do business with, church members, other pastors: their names and phone numbers and email addresses are shared across my phone, iPad, and the computers I use. And then I have my book. In it are written – in ink! On paper! Imagine that! – names and physical addresses of my brothers and their wives, nephews and nieces and their children, and many friends. These are people to whom I send birthday cards, to whom I write physical letters, who are not merely contacts but are in some way written in my heart. Their name is listed in my book.
Rejoice not in this, that you accomplish stuff and that you have power, but that your name is listed in God's book.
I do not know what was in his heart and mind, what led this remarkable man to take his own life, so what I am about to say does not apply to him so much as it is a general observation about us all. It is good to be accomplished; it is good to be admired; but it is not enough. We want to be loved.
Although I am a Christian pastor and I rely on the love of God, I think that we want not only to know that God loves us but we want to know that someone loves us who can touch us on the shoulder, someone loves us who might give a hug or a pat on the back or a punch in the arm. We want an ear to listen to us when the darkness draws close and someone to laugh when we take ourselves too seriously.
The Church can be that for each other. We can listen to each other, encourage each other, give a hug or a pat on the back or a gentle touch on the shoulder, and laugh when we take ourselves too seriously. Two things are required, both of them difficult, both of them more difficult than accomplishing a list of tasks.
The first thing is to care more about who we are than about what we do. That's hard, because we live in a culture that values people by our productivity. It requires each of us to take stock of ourselves, what defines us, the books that have our names written in them and the names written in our books. It requires us as a church to stop and ask ourselves whether we value what we do and the power we have or whether we value that our names are written in heaven.
And the second thing is to be honest. We have a real hard time at that in church, because we've been led to believe that we always have to pretend. We have to pretend everything is alright. We have to pretend we're good people. We have to pretend we love everybody. We have had a lot of death recently as a congregation; although I can say something good about every one of those who has died, I want to mention one of the gifts two of them in particular gave us. Sue and Jan both faced their own death honestly and with humor. They acknowledged their diagnoses and decided what to do, much to the annoyance of other people. And they didn't pretend. Here's a story I like. My friend Linde Grace went to see the funeral director as her father was dying. The funeral director kept saying, "Now, if something should happen to your father…" and she would reply, "Something is happening; he's dying." The funeral director couldn't bring himself to say, "When your father dies…" But Linde Grace did.
Death isn't the only thing to be honest about, of course. There is sadness and loss, joy and hopefulness. There are dreams and disappointments, likes and dislikes. There are windfalls of money and suddenly losing money, there is wealth and poverty. We church people have a terrible time being honest about these important things in life, but are always putting on a face for each other.
In the name of Christ, stop it. Stop pretending. Practically everything Church people set ourselves to do someone else can do better, except for this: to care. We can listen, we can speak, we can touch, we can write each other's names in our books because our names are written in God's book.
I haven't seen into my friend's heart to know what led him to take his life, but I have seen into God's book, and I've seen his name written there. People of God, our names are written in God's book; rejoice in that.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master