In the book The Two Towers, the second book of The Lord of the Rings, there is a curious passage. In it, two of the main characters, Merry and Pippin, encounter a strange being – an Ent. The Ents are ancient beings, the tree-herders. They look like trees, even looking like different varieties and species of trees. But they can move around and they can talk. Many of them are so old that they remember when the oldest trees in the oldest forests were acorns and nuts. And because they are so old, they do not have to do much of anything quickly. Throughout their time with this Ent, whom they call Treebeard, Merry and Pippin are told over and over again how “hasty” they are. Treebeard explains this to them when they first meet, and are exchanging names. Treebeard is shocked by how quickly Merry and Pippin share their own names:
“Hm, but you are hasty folk, I see,” said Treebeard. “I am honoured by your confidence; but you should not be too free all at once…I’ll call you Merry and Pippin, if you please – nice names. For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate…For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.”
Now, J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings, was a devout Christian, and a close friend of C.S. Lewis. Together, they both sought to convey the truths of their faith through their fantasy novels. So I wonder, had Tolkien been to many Easter Vigils in his life? Had he sat in the darkness and listened, as we have tonight, as the Body of Christ gathered, as we slowly, deliberately spoke our name, our real name. The name that tells the story of us. It is a lovely name, but it takes a very long time to say it, because it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.
And that is why we gather. Each week we gather to speak a little bit of our name, as a reminder of who we are, as a reminder that we are the Body of Christ.
But on this night, the night when the meaning of that name came into a new and sharper focus, we take the time to speak our name more fully. There are in fact twelve Old Testament readings designated for the Easter Vigil, plus a variety of psalms and other scriptural passages to be sung.
As we planned tonight’s service, we thought it might be best to dip our toes in gently, since this is a first Easter Vigil for many of us. We decided to tell a slightly shorter version of our name. But it is our name, nonetheless.
It is our name, and it begins with creation. With God calling light out of darkness, with God drawing order out of chaos, with God creating each and every thing in the world, with God creating each and every one of us, and seeing it all, naming it as “good, very good.”
That is the beginning of our name.
Our name includes the story of God bringing the people of Israel out of slavery, and teaching them how to live together with God and with one another, in freedom. Exodus, release, and freedom. That is a part of our name.
Our name is told in the story of Isaiah, in which salvation is proclaimed for all:
Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters!
You who have no money, come and eat your fill!
This is our name, the promise of abundance and plenty. It is who we are.
Our name is wisdom, the wisdom of God who calls us all to the paths of righteousness, who gives insight to even the most simple, to know God’s love and goodness.
Our name is the story of dry bones. Maybe you recognize this part of your name more than others. The feeling that these bones could never bring forth life again, the feeling that everything that was fruitful and alive in you has long since withered up, and life feels like a journey through a desert place. And into that God speaks our name, your name, the name:
“I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
Maybe you recognize this as your name, or maybe this is the part of your name that sounds most foreign to you. Yet either way, this is your name. Dry bones being breathed back into life.
Our name is the story of three men in a fiery furnace. Yes, I’m afraid that your name includes the words Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, even if you can’t pronounce them. But their story is your story, the story of salvation from the fiery furnace. Maybe not literally, but in one way or another, is there something in your life that would devour you like a fire? Maybe it is the lure of consumerism; the fixation of addiction; the threat of pain and death; the need for reconciliation; the drive to fix yourself and guilt or shame because you cannot seem to fix yourself, no matter how many self-help books you read. The furnace awaits, and it is as much a part of our name as all the rest.
Because the culmination of our name, the focal point, the central syllable of our name, is to be found on that first Easter night, nearly 2000 years ago.
On that night, this night, God overcame death and the grave, so that when Mary Magdalene came looking for the body of Jesus early the next morning, all she found was an empty tomb. This is the story that is your name. The story of the God who loves the world by becoming a part of the world, by becoming human and living and loving and dying just as you live and love and will die.
This is the story that is your name. The story of the God who loves the world so much that God will carry all of the brokenness, all of the dry bones and the fiery furnaces of our lives, up onto the cross, so that all of those things die with God.
This is the story that is your name.
The story of the God who refuses to let death
have the last word, who redeems everything, even death and the grave, to produce new life, to draw forth reconciliation, to show us the meaning of resurrection.
Your name can be summed up in that one word, if you must sum it up. Resurrection. New life coming forth out of death. Resurrection. And that is what we celebrate and name each week when we gather, remembering our baptisms, receiving our Lord in the bread and the wine. That is the abbreviated version of our name: resurrection.
But this night we gather to speak that name more fully. Even still, we cannot tell the fullness of it.
Indeed, to tell the fullness of our name would take longer than any of us has in a lifetime. Because the fullness of our name begins with God’s creation, and continues to unfold each day. As Treebeard says, his name is growing all the time, and so is ours. Our name continues to grow each day, as people around the world live out their lives of faith in large and small ways.
As people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu stand up for justice in the name of God, our name grows.
As mothers and fathers continue to love and provide for their children in the face of war and poverty and threat of violence, our name grows.
As friends and lovers put their faith in God, and move forward together in reconciliation, even when forgiveness feels like a distant dream, our name grows.
Our name, your name, the name that is yours by virtue of your baptism, is the name that fills all of creation, from the first breath of God over the waters, to the new thing that God has done in Christ Jesus, from the cross to the grave to the empty tomb, from the moment that you were born to the moment that you die, and beyond that into all of eternity, our name, your name,
is the story of God.