I preached the sermon below on the Second Sunday of Epiphany 2023, that being January 15th this year. It was all about names, and I begin by speaking about exercises I used to give my writing students. After ideas from some French writers—in particular Roland Barthes—I asked them to imagine that their names were not just names but had influenced the shape and course of their lives, that, in fact, in many ways we all somehow write our names into many of the things we do. I give some examples, first using my own name, then the name of a student whose paper on this writing challenge I most remember. Her name was Kathleen Speck. Another dimension of this challenge is to imagine that your first and last names somehow identify opposites that are the source of creative tensions that further defined you. Kathleen, with the sense of cleanliness; Speck, a spot of dirt. All this led to a tension I found in the namings contained in the main Scripture of the day: John 1: 29-42.
In the reading, John the Baptist first names Jesus the Lamb of God, and at the end Jesus names Simon, saying he will be called “Cephas,” meaning a stone or rock. Imagine that as Christians our first name was “Lamb of God” and our last was “Cephas,” a rock. What tensions are here, both within each name and between each of the names? I was thinking about the Scripture in a totally different way until Saturday morning when this direction impressed itself upon me, and the video below shows how I tried as best I could in the moment to flesh out the idea. I don’t do so as I would have liked—especially in linking my daughter-in-law Desiree to her dad—so below I sketch out more of what I wanted to say. Thinking about what they have gone through lately finally led to the impression that I had to try to talk about names and ultimately their relationship to suffering.
It takes a while for me to get going, partly because I had to make announcements about workshops I’ll be presenting: one about race (called Becoming the Beloved Community), another on story telling. Then I talk about me and my family.
It was a very stressful ending to 2022 and beginning of 2023. Towards the end of a glorious Thanksgiving family reunion in Arizona, my son Aaron caught some of his daughter Grace’s lingering flu and became so sick I cancelled my flight back to Illinois, left Linda to lug back most of our baggage herself, and drove them the 400+ miles to their Riverside home. The family is suffering in other ways as well, but in Riverside I was surrounded by so much sickness I got sick myself: not flu or Covid but one of those intense colds that just hangs on and on. Then on December 28th when I was just getting over it, I did something stupid that sent me crashing to the ground and giving me two fractures in my back—small ones, I was told, but fractures nonetheless. More than any of these, however, our family has been haunted by the passing of my daughter-in-law Desiree’s father, Steve Tolbert, who was such a radiant, central part of who we are as a family. Funny—he never lacked a comeback!—and willing to help in every situation.
In late October we got news that Steve had contracted pancreatic cancer, though, we were told, a rare, slow-growing form, the kind Steve Jobs had. It was a shock, but we were at least looking forward to five or more years with him, and by then hoping for newer therapies. On December 12, however, we received word that he was unable to tolerate his pill-based therapy and that the cancer was beginning to spread rapidly. He died less than a month later, on January 12th. It was a torturous end before they put him into “comfort care” just a day before. The drugs they gave calmed him, and this allowed Desiree and her mom Cindy some sacred time with him just hours before he passed in peace. How thankful we were for this. But he was gone. The Lamb of God and the two women closest to him, being with him in his suffering and helping him move beyond.