My final sermon at Saint Paul’s is available on the website, or you can read it here.
Some of you may not know this about me, while some of you have experienced it firsthand. I am terrible with names. So bad, in fact, that there is a voice inside my head that actively encourages me to steer clear of them whenever possible. As I’m shaking your hand, giving a hug, or just making eye contact, I can hear it start. “You think her name is Sue, but you aren’t sure. You should know her name, but you’ll mess it up and hurt her feelings. Just don’t do it; just say, ‘Hello dear,’ or something equally pathetically innocuous.” Being bad at names is really a poor quality in a priest. Names are powerful. We feel known when someone calls us by name. We feel equally unknown when we are called “buddy,” “darling,” or “dude.” More than that, our names carry meaning in them. Some carry generations of family history. For example, after my grandmother died, we found in her genealogy records that my dad, John Pankey, carries the same Americanized name that our ancestor Jean Pantier took when he emigrated from France in the early 18th century. How cool is that!?! Other names carry the weight of even more history, names that are imbued with meaning from deep in the past.
In fact, names have carried meaning for thousands of years. The Old Testament is rife with names with deep meaning. Even in the very beginning, we get the name Adam for the first man from the Hebrew word which means both “man” and the “dust” from which humankind was created. His wife, Eve, is named the Hebrew word for “life” because she is the mother of all humanity. Place names were important as well. After wrestling all night with God near the Jabbok, which means “emptying,” Jacob (trickster) gets a new name, Israel (God prevails) and he named the place Peniel, which means “the face of God.” All throughout the Old Testament names do more than simply name people and places, but they fill them with meaning. Nowhere is this more true than in our lesson from Isaiah this morning. Here we find ourselves in the middle of the story of King Ahaz who is fearful as he is about to come under attack from the Assyrians. Isaiah, God’s prophet and mouthpiece, promises that if Ahaz remains faithful to God, he will prevail. The sign of the promise will be the birth of a baby to a young woman who will be called Immanuel, or God with us. Ahaz is ultimately unsuccessful; he just can’t keep the faith, and the promised birth of Emmanuel doesn’t happen.
More than seven hundred years later, Matthew interprets the circumstances of the birth of Jesus to his young mother, a virgin named Mary, as the fulfillment of that ancient promise. The child’s given name is Jesus, which means “God saves;” a name given to both of his parents by an angel of the Lord, but there is no doubt in Matthew’s mind that Jesus is the child promised to Ahaz as the assurance of the final victory of Israel, when God moved into the neighborhood for good. Emmanuel, God with us, was born to Mary, whose name means both “bitter” and “beloved;” she will experience both in her life, and her betrothed Joseph, whose name means “may God increase.” What is amazing about this story, seven hundred years after it was supposed to take place, is that once Emmanuel came to be God with us, God never left. God was with us, God is with us, and God will forever be with us, thanks to the life-giving sacrifice of sending God’s only Son to be born of a virgin and to live and die as one of us.
For roughly two thousand years now, Jesus hasn’t been on earth, and yet, God continues to be with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit keeps Emmanuel in the present, always here to show us the way to the Father, the how-tos of the Kingdom of God. The Spirit, a lifetime of God with us, is a gift given to every one of us in our baptism. With deference to the power of names in the Old Testament, the Church has long tied baptism and the gift of Emmanuel with naming. For hundreds of years, a child was formally named at their baptismal ceremony. Those who were baptized later in life often changed their name at baptism, giving up the pagan names of their youth for Christian names of discipleship. Some of you may have a second middle name from a long ago Roman Catholic baptism for the very same reason. This morning [at 10 o’clock], we welcome Hadley Caroline Wing into the Body of Christ. I’ve not had a chance to talk with her parents as to why they chose Hadley Caroline, but even if they just thought it was pretty, it still comes with great meaning. Hadley is an Old English word for a field covered in heather, a gorgeous purple flower. Caroline is a feminine form of the name Charles which means strong. May she be a perfect balance of splendor and strength. She is born to her parents Andrew and Kacey. Andrew means manly and Kacey is the Gaelic word for watchful or vigilant. Hadley Caroline, under the care of strong and careful parents, today receives a new name, one that all of us who are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ share: saint.
Though names are also important in the New Testament, what with Simon (listener) becoming Peter (rock) and Saul (inquired of God) becomes Paul (humble), what seems to be even more important is our common relationship in Jesus Christ. Throughout the New Testament, all the disciples of Jesus are referred to again and again as saints. In Greek, saint is hagios which means “set apart by God, holy one, or consecrated.” To be saints, then, is first and foremost to acknowledge our total dependence upon God. Every good work, every possession, even our very breath comes from God. We are invited into sainthood, it is not earned. The very act of becoming a saint is the grace-filled gift of God, which is why in the Episcopal Church we baptize infants. This is the sign for us that none of us are able to work our way into God’s love, but rather it is the gift of a God whose very nature is love and relationship.
In response to the gift of God’s love, and with the help of the Holy Spirit who is always with us, we engage in the work of holiness, which is summed up in the Baptismal Covenant that we will all reaffirm in just a few minutes. By the power of the Spirit, God with us at work in our lives calls us to live lives worthy of the Gospel; lives of faithful service to God and to each other; lives committed to the restoration of right relationship with God, with one another, and with all of Creation. Today, on a day that the Scripture lessons are all about names, we welcome Hadley Caroline into the family of saints, and make our vow to labor alongside her in building up the Kingdom of God.
I would be remiss to not mention that today also happens to be my last sermon here at Saint Paul’s. On a day that is also about sainthood, I give thanks for the saints of this congregation. You have loved me and allowed me to love you in return. You have raised me from a baby priest. You have cared for my family, loved on my children, and supported us in good times and in bad. I will be forever grateful for our time together as we have sought to learn what it means to be disciples of Jesus and saints of God. May God bless Hadley Caroline. May God bless her family. And may God bless the Saint Paul’s family as you continue working with the Spirit to discern the power of Emmanuel, God in your midst, from this day forth and forever more. Amen.