What’s in a Name? -- Reclaiming a Founding Vision Sermon #7
Genesis 17:1-8, 15
How did you get your name? I’m named after my father, Robert David Cornwall, Sr, who was concerned about the family legacy. As for Brett, he’s named after the center-fielder from the 1989 National League Champion San Francisco Giants. This was a compromise choice, after Cheryl rejected my first choice -- Will Clark, who was the Giants’s first baseman that year. Our names reflect the eras in which we were born, our family heritage, and even our cultural climate. Some names endure and others don’t.
While we don’t usually think about the meaning of a name, names often have meanings in the biblical story. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Angel tells Joseph to name the couple’s child Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins. Jacob’s name gets changed to Israel, because “he has striven with God, and has prevailed” (Gen. 32:28). Then there are names that Hosea gave to his children: “Not Pittied” and “Not My People” (Hosea 1:2-9). Those names will never make it to the top of the “favorite baby names” list.
In the reading from Genesis 17, we have a different version of the story of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah. In this version, God changes their names to reflect their change in circumstances. In Genesis 12, God tells the couple to leave their home for a new land. In Genesis 17, they have arrived at the new home. So, their status changes from nomad to permanent residents. In this version, God promises that they will be the ancestors of many nations, instead of being a blessing to the nations. This change reflects the changing circumstances they found themselves in, but perhaps we can hear a word of wisdom about our situation in these stories. Perhaps that word is this – God is present with us when we’re on the road and when we’re at home. In both situations, we are called to be a blessing.
For past the seven weeks the sermons have been reflecting on the theme – Reclaiming a Founding Vision. Another way of putting this could be “Rediscovering our Spiritual DNA.” DNA is related to our family heritage. So, my question is – how does our heritage influence who we are spiritually? With that in mind, how does the name of this congregation reflect our congregational spiritual DNA?
If we break down this name, can we find some clues to our identity as a congregation?
Take the word “church.” Does it speak of a building, or does it speak of a community? The Greek word for church is ekklesia or “assembly.” Paul describes the church in terms of a body – that is a living, growing organism. It may have a building, or it may not! As for the word Christian – it speaks of our connection to Christ.
Then there are the words “Central” and “Woodward.” When we take these words together, what do they say about our Spiritual DNA?
I think it’s important to remember that our name is the product of the merger – in 1925 – of Central Christian Church and Woodward Avenue Christian Church. Both churches contributed equally to the identity of the church that would emerge. Central contributed its pastor, financial gifts, and distinguished leadership. Woodward Avenue contributed its property and a very active group of young families. What emerged was a congregation that was well situated to represent the Disciples in one of America’s fastest growing cities. Under Dr. Jones’ leadership, this new community grew and expanded its numbers and its influence – locally, regionally, and nationally. But, it had its ups and downs, and by the 1970s it became clear that it could no longer sustain its building, and so it migrated north to our current location in Troy.
Although the church no longer lived on Woodward Avenue, it kept the name. There have been discussions about changing the name, but the name has stuck with us. And with the name comes, this spiritual DNA that helps define who we are as a congregation.
The easiest name change for us would be to drop the “Woodward” from our name. But, since it doesn’t appear that we’re going to drop this part of our name any time soon, what does this word signify to us since we don’t live on Woodward Avenue anymore? What spiritual DNA does “Woodward” contribute to our identity? There’s a heritage attached to the name. But, I think there’s more to this word than simply heritage. Over the past five plus years that I’ve been here, I’ve been thinking about what this word symbolizes. I see in it a call to ministry with the people of Detroit. This connection is seen in our work with Motown Mission, Gospel in Action Detroit, Head Start of Detroit, and the Metro Coalition of Congregations. But Woodward Avenue doesn’t end at 8 Mile Road. Since, it continues on northward to Pontiac, Woodward Avenue is the spine that links the region. Our broader ministries link us to this spine.
As for the word “Central.” Here are my thoughts. First of all, I think it speaks of our center – Jesus the Christ. Whatever we are as congregation, we find our center in Jesus. It also speaks of a location – a home base. In Genesis 17, a nomadic people finds a place to settle down and make a home. Or as it’s translated in the Common English Bible, God promised Abraham and his descendants “the land in which you are immigrants” (Gen. 17:8 CEB). Having moved from our Detroit home on Woodward Avenue, we now live on the corner of Big Beaver and Adams in the city of Troy. We came to this place as immigrants, and we found a home here. Some of us have come from farther away than others.
If this place is our home, it is also the starting place for our ministries. If Genesis 12 gives us our purpose – we’re to be a blessing to the nations – Acts 1:8 gives us our game plan. Jesus told the disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and after receiving this empowerment, they were to take the good news to the ends of the earth, starting in Jerusalem. I believe that God wants us to have a thriving congregation here in Troy, that ministers to the community of Troy and has a significant part of its membership being people who live within a five-mile radius of this building. From this place, our ministries move outward to the rest of Metro Detroit, Michigan, and beyond.
There’s a vision statement that appears on a bulletin cover from Central Christian Church dated 1921. I’m not sure we’d put it exactly the same way today, but I think it has meaning for us: “Central Church has a vision and a purpose of usefulness in Detroit far beyond its present location and equipment.” Now, at the time they were expecting to build a new home, so that’s part of the meaning of this statement, but I like the idea that they envisioned themselves as being useful to the community “far beyond its present location and equipment.” Isn’t that our calling – to be useful – or to be a blessing to our community far beyond our current location.
In February 1922 Edgar DeWitt Jones faced a dilemma. The vision that had drawn him to Detroit seemed to be fading away. He wondered if he’d made a mistake coming here. In a letter to a friend, he spoke of his fondness for Central Christian Church, but he believed that the congregation faced a choice. It could go forward or it could go backwards. So he writes: I think it has an extraordinary opportunity, but it simply cannot rest upon its oars. It must go forward or it will go back. If it chose to go backwards, then he knew he would have to move on. In the end, the congregation chose to go forward, and as time wore on, in part due to the merger with Woodward Avenue Christian Church, the vision that drew him to Detroit bore fruit. What was that vision? It centered on offering a progressive Christian voice that emphasized the Disciple value of Christian unity.
What is the spiritual DNA of Central Woodward Christian Church? Well, each of us contributes our own spiritual DNA to the life of this church. Then there’s the DNA contributed by our spiritual ancestors in this congregation, including the vision of Edgar DeWitt Jones. That vision included openness to differing theological and political views, a commitment to the welfare of the community, the pursuit of Christian unity, and a commitment to world peace. More about that at a later date!
Of course there are other elements of our heritage that simply can’t be reclaimed. They represent a different time and place. As we consider our heritage as a congregation we should keep in mind this word of wisdom provided to us by Dr. Jones himself:
If the church has become institutionalized, bereft of spiritual charm, and in bondage to outworn and discredited methods, the average man will pass it by and find his inspirations and comradeships elsewhere.
But, as Dr. Jones noted, since the first century, when times have changed, the church has “adopted methods suitable to the time and the need.” The key is spiritual vitality, because when the Spirit is moving everything else falls into place [Edgar Dewitt Jones, Blundering into Paradise, (Harper & Brothers, 1932), pp. 85-86].