God’s Slogan

Last week I went down a YouTube rabbit hole.  Someone sent me a link for an early 1980s commercial for the Sony Walkman, and my nostalgia got the better of me.  I proceeded from one vintage commercial to another, until (an hour of time wasted) I’d been reminded of virtually every famous commercial slogan from the past forty years.  You’ll remember many of them, because, well, they’re memorable.  That’s the whole point.  Here’s what we’re going to do:  I’ll name a company or brand, and you call out the slogan.  We’ll have to pretend we’re Baptists for just a moment, since we Episcopalians—the Frozen Chosen—don’t usually cry out in church.  Don’t be afraid; give it a try!  Here goes:

         Kentucky Fried Chicken: “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good!”

         Wheaties breakfast cereal: “The Breakfast of Champions”

         Folger’s Coffee: “The best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup.”

Well done!  Here are a few more.  Remember the Wendy’s slogan in the 1980s that, in turn, became a catchphrase in the 1984 presidential campaign?  “Where’s the beef?!?”  Or, recall Volkswagen’s mid-century slogan to launch the original VW Beetle in the United States, during a time when the trend in American cars was to be as big as a boat?  VW instead encouraged people to “Think small.”  I always liked MasterCard’s slogan, “There’s some things money can’t buy.  For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”  In a split second, the viewer believed that a wallet-sized plastic card gave access to every dream.

That’s what good slogans do.  They are short, catchy, and memorable.  They bring to mind the product they represent, and they present to the imagination the vision of a different world and make us want to be part of it.  As a trite but effective example, KFC’s slogan—“Finger lickin’ good”—first makes us hungry and then transports us to a place where we are satiated with delicious comfort food.  Or, Wheaties’ slogan transforms the couch potato into a gold medal Olympian. 

I like to think I’m an intelligent, sophisticated person, immune to the manipulation of Madison Avenue advertisers.  But I’m not.  Last year I was at a clergy conference in Washington, D.C.  By the time my plane landed, I’d waited on my bag, and Ubered to the hotel, I was travel weary and irritable.  My back hurt, and I wanted to take a nap, but instead I dropped my bag in my room and went reluctantly downstairs to meet a few friends who were also attending.  On a bulletin board just outside the hotel bar was an advertising poster showing smiling, carefree, happy people lifting their cocktail glasses in a toast.  The sign’s slogan said, “What if, no matter what happens in your life, you were meant to be here?”

Oh, brother, I was hooked.  Without even realizing it, I thought, “Yeah, that’s right!”  So, I walked into that bar with a new spring in my step, not even noticing that it was a dingy and shabby bar, and proceeded to run up a tab.

This morning’s Gospel reading is the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  We hear these verses often, but we rarely take note of where they fall in Matthew.  Just prior to the sermon, Jesus has called his disciples, that first small band of closest confidantes and friends, and now Jesus’ message has begun to catch steam.  Immediately before today’s reading, Matthew tells us, “Jesus’ fame spread…and great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”[i]  In other words, Jesus’ Galilean start-up has suddenly gone viral.  And it’s at that moment that Jesus messages his famous sermon, which is the very heart of Matthew’s Gospel.

The sermon is long; it goes on for three entire chapters.  That said, the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount can be distilled into its opening verses we read this morning, the Beatitudes.  They serve as an abstract, a thesis paragraph of sorts for the sermon, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy…” And all the rest.

The Beatitudes are certainly briefer than the entire Sermon on the Mount, but even they run on for twelve verses.  Given a full weekend spiritual retreat or a several-session Adult Forum course, one could study all nine Beatitudes and glean a depth of meaningful understanding.  It would take at least that long.  That’s why most preachers will select a single Beatitude on which to preach rather than the entire list.  But such a homily can capture only a sliver of what Jesus is talking about.  It would be a partial understanding, which could even lead to a misunderstanding by accentuating one Beatitude and ignoring the rest. 

What to do?  It would surely help if Jesus had a slogan, something to capture the imagination and call to mind a new vision of life as effectively as, for instance, Disneyland’s slogan “The happiest place on earth.”

Those here at Saint Mark’s who have already taken classes with me are aware that I am generally not a fan of slogan Christianity, because too often whatever slogan Christians choose is really more about what they want Christianity to be than what the Gospel actually says.  That said, in our harried lives and TikTok world of minute attention spans and it would be helpful to have a succinct and memorable way to understand and truly articulate the Gospel, a genuine Gospel slogan of sorts. 

And, in fact, we do.  We read it today, too.  It is not directly from the mouth of Jesus, but rather from the Old Testament prophet Micah.  It is proof that the Gospel does not begin with Jesus but much farther back in God’s salvation history; that Jesus came, as he himself says in Matthew, to fulfill the work that God’s prophets had begun.  In today’s Old Testament reading, in his challenge to the people of Israel, Micah presages the Beatitudes.  He takes their truth—already distilled from the entire Sermon on the Mount—and distills it further into a single sentence, provocatively posed as a question.  Micah asks, “What is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

There it is, the entire Gospel in a phrase.  A slogan worthy of Jesus: What is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? 

Succinct.  Memorable.  Drawing our minds immediately to our Creator, and casting before our imaginations a new vision of life.  Micah first calls us to recognize that, despite our pretensions otherwise, we are not God, and we must recognize our fragility, our contingency, and our need for humility before the one who makes us in love.  And the faithful response to that God is both to deal kindly with one another and to labor tirelessly in this world to mirror God’s own act of creation by creating just structures ourselves.

Micah poses his Gospel slogan in the form of a question, and the answer to that question is the Church.  Not MasterCard, not Disneyland, not any other organization in this world, but the Church—the Body of Christ—is called to be the crucible in which the vision Micah presents first become reality. And that finally brings me back to that poster I saw outside the Washington, D.C. bar.  It was a cynical poster, selling alcohol as happiness.  But God can redeem anything!  Recall that that slogan asked, “What if, no matter what happens in your life, you were meant to be here?”  Here, at Saint Mark’s Church in the middle of Little Rock, Arkansas. What if?  What if, right here, God means for you to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?  As Micah says, that is, indeed, good.

[i] Matthew 4:24-25

What do we see?

Pre-COVID, I was a prolific traveler.  I hit the road whenever possible, usually taking parish groups with me.  I hope to do such travel again before too long, and perhaps we can go together.  I have been blessed to visit the Holy Land, Malta, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Cuba.  Each place I’ve been, I’ve been stopped in my tracks by things special, beautiful, and rare.

Over the course of a decade and a half of such trips, however, I have noticed a subtle but important shift in the way I experience these places.  The change was concurrent with the proliferation of the smartphone.  Here’s the change: As our pilgrim group would approach a site either serene or sublime, I would immediately pull out my phone and rush to take photos, scores of them.  As a result, rather than witnessing God’s creation in a glorious place to which I was very likely never to return, I instead encountered a mere facsimile of that creation through a two-by-five screen.  That borders on the absurd.  What’s even more absurd is that, upon returning home and viewing my photo collection again, in many photos I’d find, right in front of me, some important element (what the kids today call an “Easter egg”)—a person, a treasure, a wondrous gift from God—that in person I’d missed it entirely—not seen it at all—because I was so caught up in the much smaller world of that pixelated phone.  There had been a miracle right before my eyes, and I’d missed it.

Today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, and if you were at church last week you may be experiencing déjà vu.  Last week was the feast known as the Baptism of Our Lord, and we read Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan.  But here, today, we find another version (John’s) of that same story.  Why does the lectionary give us this story twice in a row?  Do scholars think we’re so dense as to need a repeated hearing?  Well, perhaps it’s not our ears that miss things the first time; perhaps it’s our eyes

Jesus’ baptism is one of the very few accounts that appears in all four Gospels.  And yet, each evangelist describes the tale a bit differently.  In Matthew’s account, which we read last week, Jesus is baptized, and the people around Jesus witness the miraculous interrupt the mundane, as the heavens open, a dove descends, and the voice of God speaks.  Yet, in John’s account today, it seems that only John the Baptist sees the heavenly scene that occurs at Jesus’ baptism.  And if we were to read Mark’s and Luke’s versions of the story, only Jesus himself sees the dove and hears God’s voice. 

What are we to take from this?  Well, we know that a crowd is gathered around John, listening to his preaching and themselves being baptized by him, as Jesus approaches and is himself then baptized.  That is, in and of itself, a very earthy, human, mundane thing.  It involves a hot a dusty people, a road weary man who has traveled from Galilee, a muddy riverbank, a splash of water.  Everyone sees all that.  But what happens next—the wonder, the miracle, the thing that renders this day unlike any other—many if not most miss.  Not everyone sees the same thing.  Jesus hears the voice of God; John sees the heavenly dove; but most, though looking at what’s right in front of them, somehow miss it all.

How might this be?  I suspect most of the gathered people are caught up in their own little worlds, with whatever they bring with them in heart and mind to the riverbank.  And I don’t mean to disregard those worlds.  Each person gathered at the River Jordan brings concerns of the day, large and small.  Someone is sick; someone else is hungry; someone else is preoccupied with conflict at home; and many, undoubtedly, are merely daydreaming either grand dreams or mundane thoughts.  Even though they’ve each traveled through the wilderness for the express purpose of being in this most special place, they fail to be fully present, and so they miss it when God does a unique and remarkable thing.  No doubt, many leave the River Jordan disappointed, thinking that they’ve been boondoggled once again by some religious charlatan or else castigating themselves for expecting anything out of the ordinary to have happened.  When, in fact, it did happen.  God did show up; they just didn’t have eyes to see.

I shake my head at the though of myself, privileged as I have been to visit sacred places across God’s good world, yet obsessed in those places with my smartphone’s screen instead of scanning the horizon for the appearance of God’s holy dove.  Then I realize that those lost opportunities don’t just happen on pilgrimage.  They happen every day.  And not just to me.  We, each and every one of us, miss epiphanies of God. 

A great challenge of our modern world is preoccupation, large and small.  One of the biggest preoccupations is, of course, our electronic devices, but beyond these we are preoccupied generally and with all things.  We obsess about the past we cannot affect, and we are distractedly anxious about the future that has not yet arrived.  In ways large and small, our preoccupation prevents us from being present what is right in front of us, and as a result, we, like the crowd gathered at the River Jordan, risk missing the epiphany of God.

Of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, John’s (which we read today) is my favorite, because in John’s version of the story, Jesus departs his baptism along with the other people gathered around the Jordan.  Rather than leaving them to meander away, not ever realizing what they’ve missed and wandering blind through God’s miraculous creation, Jesus goes with them and moves through them.  When this time the one who will become Andrew the Apostles does finally, vaguely notice something different about Jesus and inquires of him, Jesus says to Andrew, “Come and see!” 

Catch that: Jesus does not leave us blind by the riverbank.  If we miss the grand epiphanies—if in our daydreaming and distraction, if in our preoccupation with the unimportant, we miss the disclosure of God in our midst—Jesus will nevertheless stay with us and walk alongside us, coaxing us to open our eyes and follow him step-by-step, until we do see. Eucharistic Prayer C, which we will be praying at 10:30 a.m. for the remainder of this Epiphany season, includes the plea, “Lord God of our Fathers: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.”  That is what this Epiphany season is all about.  In our lives, there will be sublime moments, when God parts the heavens and miraculously appears.  There will be subtle moments, when Jesus brushes lightly past as we go about our daily business.  Will we lose our preoccupations, look up from our smartphones, open our eyes to God at work in the world about us?  Will we come and see?  If we do, we will gasp in wonder that we are surrounded with grace and blessing, as we discover that God reveals Godself to us all the time. 

What’s in a name?

When Jill’s family gathered for Christmas last week, Jill’s brother Johnny Benson gave Jill the best Christmas gift of this or many years.  It is a family bible dating back to the early 1800s and inscribed in it are the names of early Bensons.  The first Benson listed is Didymus Benson, born in 1818.  After Didymus come Amy and Silas.  Then, in 1842, a Benson is born and given the name Thomas Jefferson.  Three years later, Thomas Jefferson Benson’s little brother enters the world, and he is named—wait for it—Marquis de Lafayette Benson. That may be the most interesting name I’ve ever seen.  I wonder how little Marquis de Lafayette was treated on the elementary school playground…

Have you ever thought about your own name, how it was chosen, why it was given to you?  For parents, did you put much thought into the selection of your children’s names? 

There are many motivations behind the choice of name.  Some recycle and recombine family names, as my own family tends to do.  My name is Barkley Stuart Thompson.  Barkley is my mother’s maiden name, and Stuart is my grandmother’s maiden name.  My paternal grandfather, father, brother, and nephew are all Robert Thompson.  My uncle is Robert Barkley, as confusing as that is!  As I am fond of saying, my family tree has many branches but only a very few names.  We do this to hearken to our family origins and keep the stories of our family alive.  “Where did my name come from?” a Thompson child might ask.  “Well, your great-grandmother—for whom you’re named—was a remarkable woman, and during the Great Depression she kept her family fed by…” and so the stories live on. 

Benson Family Bible

Others choose names from history, like Jill’s forbears so clearly did, in order perhaps to reenforce deep family commitments to a cause or a principle.  It’s difficult to imagine a single day in the life of Marquis de Lafayette Benson in which he was not reminded of the great French general’s commitment to freedom and liberty.  Each time Marquis Benson spoke or wrote his name, he would be forced internally to ask and answer, “Do I, too, stand for these things?  Am I a worthy inheritor of my name?”

Yet others choose biblical names, because they hearken to the great cosmic story in which we participate, but that is infinitely bigger than any one of us.  I know a wonderful family in Paragould whose children are Rebecca, John Jacob, Luke, and Rachel.  Each name resonates with a rich chapter of salvation history.

There are, of course, less weighty reasons to choose a name.  My great-grandmother supposedly read a dime store romance novel in which the dashing protagonist was named Beresford, so my grandfather became Carl Beresford Barkley.  Others choose names for aesthetic reasons, because they like the way a name sounds, the cadence of the syllables as they roll off the tongue. 

Regardless of the rationale for choosing a name, names matter.  If I may get wonky for a moment, names are symbols rather than merely signs or signifiers.[i]  A signifier is simply a word that designates and identifies something: Chair, table, tree, lamppost.  A symbol, on the other hand, is pregnant with meaning.  It evokes not only the thing it signifies, but it also a wealth of associations.  As we’ve been discussing, the mention of a person’s name doesn’t merely draw to mind the person’s image, but also a history and a future, particular values, sorrows, joys, and hopes.  Consider the name Desmond Tutu for a moment.  Let all of its symbolic associations wash over you. Does it give you hope, make you smile?  Now consider the name Hitler.  Do its symbolic associations make you recoil?  Names are symbols.  Thus, they matter, and they ought not be chosen, or invoked, lightly.

Today on our liturgical calendar is the Feast of the Holy Name. It falls eight days after the Feast of the Nativity—eight days after Jesus’ birth—when, in accordance with Jewish tradition, the baby was circumcised and named.  Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary faithfully named her child Jesus, as the angel Gabriel had instructed her to do.  Luke also tells us that Mary “pondered all these things in her heart,” and among the things she pondered—as we do even to this day—must have been that choice of name.  On this day, we should ask—as we’ve been asking of other name selections—why did Gabriel convey to Mary this particular name?  Why did Mary name her child Jesus?

Jesus is Latin for the Greek Ἰησοῦς, which is itself a translation of the Hebrew Yeshua.  And that is not a new name in Scripture.  Yeshua is the name shared by the great hero of the Old Testament, whose name in that context we translate into English as Joshua.  Catch that: Jesus and Joshua are two translations of the same Hebrew name.  Mary’s son Jesus, in other words, is named for the biblical Joshua.  And just as everyone who ever met the Marquis de Lafayette Benson would have connected his name with the French paragon of liberty, everyone (including Jesus himself) would have connected Jesus’ name with the Hebrew hero Joshua.

So we need to ask, who was Joshua?  Who is this figure for whom Jesus is named?  Joshua is the one who fulfills God’s promise by leading God’s people into the promised land, and who casts down those who would separate the faithful from God.  God’s angel wants all those who meet Jesus to know, immediately and intuitively, that this is also who Jesus is, that Jesus is the new Joshua, who will spiritually and existentially draw us into God’s promise, who proclaims and enacts that, no matter what anyone else may say, nothing in all creation stands or can stand between us and the loving grace of God.  This is why the choice of Jesus’ name matters.  Every single time we hear Jesus’ name, this truth washes over us. 

By itself, that would be immense.  But the association goes further.  In his Letter to the Galatians today, Paul tells us that the promise into which Jesus—this new Joshua—draws us is himself, that we become a part of him, and in him we, too, are adopted as God’s own children.  To put a fine point on it: Today, on this Feast of the Holy Name, we, too, gain a new name.  In the earliest days of Christianity, the newly baptized would take on the additional name “Christian,” as a new symbol of their identity, as a constant and blessed reminder to themselves that at every moment they lived and moved through love. 

Among the year-end articles I read this week was a newspaper story from England in which a woman named Stacey Dennis lamented that, in all of 2022, not a single child born in Great Britain was named Stacey.[ii]  Stacey was once a popular name, but it is now, in Britain at least, in risk of extinction.  A mostly frivolous article, but it got me to thinking about the extinction of names.  Jill’s ancestors were Silas and Didymus.[iii] Those names have gone the way of the dodo.  May we never let the name of Jesus, or the name Christian, face that fate.  May we never allow Jesus to become nothing but an expletive when we stub our toe.  May we never allow those to hijack his name who would use it for any purpose other than that of the angel: to draw people into the unbounded, gracious love of God.    We are Christians, the people of Jesus, the very Body of Christ.  That is who we are.  That is our name.  Like Mary, more often we should pause and ponder that in our hearts, so that we know it, own it, say it.  And when we do, the love of God will wash over us and draw us into God’s promise. 

[i] The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich writes much about the distinction between signs and symbols.

[ii] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/mum-extinct-name-sad-see-28780827

[iii] Didymus is actually Greek for “twin.”  In the Gospels, the Apostle Thomas is known as Thomas Didymus, or Thomas the Twin.