Psalm 148; I John 2:7-10
Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Clark
June 11, 2017
About a year ago, we began a new tradition here at Edwards Church. On the the Sundays with a baptism, I incorporate the meaning of the baby’s name into my sermon. So early this week, I sat down at my computer and typed my question into the google search bar: “What is the meaning of the name Avery?”
There’s a website for everything these days, and in the case of baby names, there is a multitude of websites. I clicked on the first one listed. Avery, it said, means “elf wisdom.”
Not what I expected. Maybe, I thought, this website is an outlier, so I tried the next one–”elf counsel,” it said. The next one yielded “wise ruler of the elves.” My final effort was a slight variation– “magical wisdom.” Avery, I learned, is related to the old French name Alfred and the Ancient German Alberich. In Old English, the word comes from Aelf, meaning elf, and raed, meaning counsel.
My next google search was for more information on elves. It turns out the word refers to slightly different creatures, depending on the culture and time period in which it was used. The word elf probably originated in Germany and then migrated throughout Europe, with each culture developing their own vision for these mythological creatures.
Elves tend to be associated with nature, living in the woods, peeking out from behind the rocks, animating the natural world. Think of the Keebler elves, baking cookies in the trees, or the tiny winged creatures in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, flitting among the flowers.
In modern-day fantasy, we have vivid images of industrious and well-ordered elves: those Keebler bakers, and of course the elves that help Santa at his North Pole workshop. More often, in their long history in the human imagination, elves were not considered particularly hard-working and certainly not prime candidates for well-organized factory labor. They were more likely to be the ones causing the assembly line to break down.
Elves were often seen as mischievous, doing things like sneaking into your cottage and rearranging your stuff so you can’t find what you are looking for. Sometimes elves were believed to be working in league with the devil, wreaking havoc on human life. Other times, they were simply understood to be disruptors of the status quo, for better or for worse.
Many cultures envisioned elves as small, light, nimble creatures. J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagining of elves made them an interesting combination of solid and airy: “Elves are like trees,” actor Orlando Bloom reflects, “grounded and focused from the trunk down but graceful and agile on top.” In Norse mythology, elves are luminous beings who preside over nature.
Fascinating, and kind of fun. But does this have anything to do with why we are gathered here today? Does the meaning of Avery’s name offer us any insight into the promises we have made today–promises to nurture Avery in the Christian faith? Is there any intersection between elf wisdom and the wisdom of Christianity?
I think there is. With my apologies to any scholars of the history of elf mythology who might be here today, I will lift up three pieces of wisdom I take from my cursory internet exploration of elves.
The history of elves in the human imagination is a history that calls us back to our connection with the natural world. Elves that dance around the flowers and peer out of tree trunks remind us that nature is alive. We already know that, of course. From a scientific perspective we know all about the web of life. From a spiritual perspective, we proclaim that God created this world, infusing every rock and tree and flower and squirrel with sacred energy. Our Psalm envisions mountain and apple trees and creeping creatures and even sea monsters celebrating their sacred source, praising their creator.
And yet it is deeply rooted in our culture to view our planet as an object to be used for our own purposes. Rocks are for building walls. Plants and animals are for our food. Rivers are to be diverted for our drinking water. The depths of the earth are meant to be fracked for gas to heat our homes.
The wisdom of the elves challenges that deep-rooted cultural assumption. The elves call us to live in accordance with what we know and believe. They inspire us to listen for the voices of the cedar trees and the flying birds. They awaken us to look for holy miracles in the unfolding of a leaf and in the shape of a rock. They challenge us to care for this living, breathing, vulnerable planet.
I pray that we will care for this planet so Avery can revel in its beauty her whole life. I pray that Avery will live the wisdom of her name as she discovers the wonder of God’s good creation.
Elves, with the possible exception of Keebler bakers and Santa’s helpers, are unpredictable. When humans decide we want things to be a certain way, when we try to get all the people in our lives into neat orderly rows we can control, the elves come and mess things up. As the stories go, they are often practicing a sort of light-hearted mischief. I wonder, though, if their antics might have a deeper purpose.
The more I study the gospels, the more I understand Jesus as a holy disrupter. He turned things upside down. He messed with everyone’s assumptions about who mattered and who did not. He ate with the wrong people. He taught using parables that left people scratching their heads. He talked about God’s power but refused to use weapons. Jesus didn’t disrupt out of a sense of mischief–he disrupted to open up space for us to discover the power of God’s love to heal us and transform our world.
Jesus was not an elf. He was a human being like you and me. Still, perhaps, the stories of elves who sneak into homes to mess things up can point us to an aspect of Jesus we tend to ignore. They can remind us that we need our lives to be disrupted–for like the people in Jesus’ time, we get stuck in our fear and our desire for control, in the assumptions we make about other people, in the ways we envision power. The elves point beyond themselves to the One who disrupts our lives in order to call us into the kin-dom of God’s love.
I pray that we may be open to the ways Jesus disrupts our lives and courageous enough to ourselves be disrupters of prejudice and abuse of power. I pray Avery may live the wisdom of her name, daring to shake things up in the service of God’s love.
“Luminous beings.” That’s how one website describes Norse elves. I envision these almost-human creatures so filled with light that we can practically see through them–creatures made transparent by some magical or supernatural process.
The author of the first John has a different understanding of what makes a being luminous. It’s not magical or supernatural, but it is sacred. God is love, and God is light. We absorb and reflect God light when we live out God’s love. We become luminous through our actions–acts of love and compassion toward our sisters and brothers, our kin. It’s that simple–there is nothing magical about it. It’s that difficult–for we know that every human being is a child of God and so every human being is our kin. To be in the light, we are called to love the stranger we do not know, the neighbor we do not like, even the person we perceive to be our enemy. Not even magic can make that happen; only by the grace of God and with one another’s help can we become luminous.
I pray that our love for our neighbors will make us reflections of God’s light, luminous enough to light the way for our children. I pray Avery will live the wisdom of her name and be a child of light.
The wisdom of the elves points us to the wisdom of our own Christian faith, and challenges us to live that wisdom. May we honor the earth as sacred. May we dare to disrupt the status quo and instead lift up the promise of God’s love. May we love our neighbors, living in the light. Amen.