Sermon
March 16, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

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Sermon: Answering to a New Name


When I was young I learned one of those bits of proverbial wisdom that has stood me in good stead to this day - “Call me anything you like, just don’t call me late for dinner.” I always took that as the Irishman’s answer to the Englishman’s question:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

What is in a name? In the Bible the answer would be quite a bit, for the name you claim is the destiny you must bear, and to know a person’s rightful name is to see into their soul.

The sacred name cannot be known - when God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and sends him to Pharaoh to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, God first gives the name “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’ ” (Exodus 3:13-14)

God’s name cannot be known, yet God gives others new names as they are drawn into the divine drama for significant roles that will cause their names to echo through the centuries. So Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah - a change that marks them as the great-grandparents of a multitude of nations.

In the gospel lesson today we also hear a key player be called by a new name, although thankfully it was a temporary change of nomenclature. Jesus calls Simon Satan - as in “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

I say thankfully this was a temporary change, because Jesus had actually just given Simon another name a moment before in the story - at least as Matthew told it - and it was that name that would stick and more aptly describe his destiny and historic role in the faith:

The discussion is about names: Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:13-18)

So throughout the bible we read of people who have to answer to a new name, a name that fits more fully their role in God’s plan for redemption and salvation.

Now I’m not sure that every time we answer to a new name we are speaking about a new role in the big plan of salvation, but for certain the different names we answer to have profound meaning in our own lives and in the lives of those closest to us.

Take, as an example, the occasion of the celebration of baptism this morning. Now in some traditions, you know, there is a special name given in baptism - a Baptismal name - and there are rules about these names which range from rather lose in the Catholic Church to rather strict in the Orthodox Church. For example, on the web you can read the rules of the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, which state in Rule 1 - Although it is a long-standing custom, a saint's name is not a requirement.

However, Rule 2 states: A baptismal name that is offensive to Christians is not permitted; Offensive names include Lucifer, Beelzebul, Hitler, Kareem, etc.

Kareem? How did that get in there? Do you think they added Kareem because in 1971 America’s great basketball star Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. converted from Catholicism to Islam and took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means "noble, powerful servant."?

Was this taken as an affront to the faith or do you think some Bishop simply saw Abdul-Jabbar as the evil nemesis of his beloved Knicks?

In the Orthodox church Baptismal names can be names from scripture, names of saints, names derived from feasts of the church - like Noel for Christmas - or names derived from Christian virtues, like Patience, Charity, Chastity, or Faith.

Well, here in the Congregational Church, we don’t add another name at Baptism. What we do is remember the name that God speaks at the baptism of his own child - that is, beloved; what we add is the name of the family of faith - Christian - a name which brings with it many others - but more about this at the end of the sermon.

Beside the name of the child, what is also important in a celebration of baptism is the new names that some in the family and friends now have to answer to - names that signify new responsibilities, new challenges, new joys - names like Mommy and Daddy - Grandma and Grandpa - Aunt or Uncle - even Godfather or Godmother.

I remember what a change it was the first time I answered to the name Dad - it was quite a thrill - I came home for lunch and my baby was in her high chair and when I walked in she pointed her sippy cup at me and said “Da!” I was ecstatic! I called my wife in and said, “Listen to this, she knows my name - she’s saying her first word and it’s Dad!” It was a remarkable moment in my life.

And it was only slightly diminished when a minute later the dog walked in the room and she pointed her sippy cup at the mongrel cur and repeated “Da” with even greater glee.

A recent book entitled “A Potent Spell, Mother Love and the Power of Fear” talks about the alarm system that seems to come alive in women when they answer to the name Mommy - the author writes; “Whether you talk to the mother of a newborn, or the mother of a 25 year old, she will tell you how her stomach knots and worry descends whenever she senses that a child’s well-being is at risk. Mothers’ endlessly triggered alarm systems beep and buzz insistently.”

We go through an entire litany of names in our lives, each representing new relationships, new roles, new ages and stages, each evoking new emotions and the opportunity of new spiritual revelations.

Do you remember the first time someone made you feel slightly older by asking you to answer to “Sir” or “Ma’am?” “You talkin’ to me? I’m not sir - my father is sir - but not me!”

What about the first time somebody called you “Saint?”

Have you never been called Saint? Well, if you were baptized you were called “Saint” and not just by your priest or pastor, but by the very word of God: and more than Saint, you were called, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.

Today you answered to the name Saint when you responded to the Deacon’s question: “I ask you who are baptized Christians: Do you pledge yourselves to a life together in God's forgiving and healing love, accepting the responsibility to help each other grow in the Christian life? Are you prepared to freely and gladly welcome those receiving the sacrament of baptism into the fellowship of the church of Jesus Christ, and offer them your support, care and nurture in the love of God and in faithfulness to our Lord?”

You who are baptized Christians - God has given you a new name in Christ. That name is what? It is Beloved; it is Friend; it is Chosen and Saint and Priest and Holy and God’s own child; it is the Body of Christ, the family of Faith, the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

It is the name that brings us to a higher calling - a name we have to grow into, even struggle into - a name which requires something of us, which calls out of us something we’re not quite sure is in there. It is the name which leads us on the path of life and opens us in love to our God and to one another. It is the name which carries this with it this promise from God, the promise that is both our courage and our hope: I am with you always.

Today we gave the name of Christian to three children in the water of baptism; today we answered to our new name in Christ, the name that calls us out of darkness and into the light of God’s glorious love.
Amen.
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