Pentecost 7: the gift of a name

7th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green
Genesis 18:20-32, Colossians 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13

‘when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God.’

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

While I was a student I worked for a few months as a postman in Cambridge. My induction was at 3am, by a man who had trouble reading.  He ran through some things about the postal service and then gave me a tour of the sorting office introducing me to people as we went ‘round. Unfortunately, he’d misread my name as Benny. The first time he introduced me I thought I’d misheard, the second time I just totally froze, struck with the most uncanny feeling of mistaken identity. Instead of correcting this simple mistake, half asleep and a bit anxious about the new job, the opportunity passed by. Within 5 minutes I’d been introduced to 30 people as Benny and it was just too late. For the next couple of months, guiltily, uncomfortably, I was Benny. One day, no doubt, some Cambridge postman will holler out to our mutual confusion, “Hi Benny.”

There’s something intrinsic about our name to who we are – we become our names; our names become us. My parents were particularly optimistic in choosing Brutus as a name – it means stupid or clumsy one, from the same root as Brute. Perhaps this is what the Gospel meant when it advised against giving children snakes and scorpions. Fortunately, Amanda and Nick have been kinder with their choice of Olivia. Olive trees are one of the first plants mentioned in the Bible, and it’s an olive branch that the Dove brings back to show the flood is over. So the olive is a symbol of salvation through water – very appropriate today, as well as being a symbol of peace – thus ‘extending an olive branch’.

Whether our name has an appropriate meaning or not, though, it becomes an important part of who we are. I am not Benny.

On the subject of the flood, which is a central image for baptism, by coincidence we have the other great story of judgement in today’s first reading. And just as Noah’s family are saved from the waters, we’re told that even for ten righteous people, the destruction will be averted.

It recalls us to the words in Isaiah:

But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine. 
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you. 

I have called you by name, you are mine. In baptism we’re named among the righteous, and have that promise of safety from judgement, even, perhaps especially, when the rest of the world is descending to nonsense.

And this is baptism – the gift of a name, our Christian name. It shows the specific love that God has for each of us in creating and redeeming us. At the most important times of life our name is the focus – confirmation, weddings, funerals, in court – anywhere you make a vow or promise.

Incidentally, at my confirmation the bishop asked my parents to change my name on the grounds that Brutus is not a Christian name. With great humility, he recommended his own name “David”. 

But we also use our names when we’re giving references, paying for things, applying for jobs – it’s through our name that we’re a citizen, a social person. Baptism is a celebration of the gift of that name, of our social being.

The promises shortly to be made are promises on behalf of a child, by parents, godparents and then everybody here. It’s not an individual’s choice, but the commitment of us all to God and one another, and it highlights the role we as parents, as a community, play in helping to shape each other.

It’s also a celebration of who we are and what we believe. We don’t choose whether we’re British – or, indeed European, No man is an island. But we try to pass on the best of our habits and culture. Baptism brings an individual into a community that believes that its faith and way of life are worth sharing.  As St Paul advocates: ‘continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught.’

And if our names are theologically important so is the name of God. In the Old Testament the name of God cannot be spoken. It cannot even be translated which is why all Bibles write “THE LORD” in capital letters. Today’s Gospel gives us the Lord’s Prayer with the classic opening, “Our Father”, which seems now common to us. But God is referred to as Father only 11 times in the Old Testament. And never in prayer. Jesus, on the other hand refers to God as Father 170 timesand when he’s praying he always prays to the Father. 

Not only this but Jesus also goes so far as to call God “Abba!”, not referring to the 70s super-group, but the Aramaic word for “Daddy!” - a word never before used of God. The God of the Hebrews is the Lord of Hosts, a warrior, a judge, ‘no man shall look upon thy face and live’. He is the 1980s Arnold Schwartzenegger of the ancient near East. And Jesus calls him Daddy. In one fell swoop Jesus swings the Jewish people into the 90s by replacing the Terminator with Kindergarden Cop. 

It’s not just our name that matters, then, but also God’s. And while we may think of God as remote, indifferent, far off, the Gospel teaches us to approach God as a Father, not a judge or king.

So baptism is about the gift of a name, and promises that hold us together. It’s about valuing who we are and a commitment that these values are worth protecting. It is about a relationship between our Father who wants to be known and all of us as children of God. Finally, it is about who we are at the most fundamental level. 

There’s a famous story told by the great rabbi, Yehuda Loew of Prague:

One night the rabbi had a dream. He dreamt that he died and rose to heaven where an angel standing beneath the throne of God asked him who he was. 

“I am Rabbi Yehuda of Prague,” he replied, “tell me, if my name is written in the book of life.” 
“Wait” said the angel “I shall read the names of all those who have died today and are written in that book.” And as he read the names, many entirely foreign to the ears of Rabbi Yehuda, he saw the spirits as their names were called rising into the glorious heavens above the throne. At last the angel finished reading and Rabbi Yehuda wept bitterly because his name had not been called out. 

But the angel said “I have called your name.” 
The Rabbi said, “I did not hear it”; to which the angel replied: “In the book are written the names of everyone who has ever lived, for every soul is an inheritor of the kingdom. But many arrive here who have never heard their true name, from angels or people. They have lived believing that they know their own names; and so when they are called to their share in the kingdom, they do not hear their names as their own. They don’t recognise that the kingdom of heaven is for them. So they must wait here until they hear their names and know them. Perhaps once in their lifetime one man or woman has called them by their true name; and they must stay until they remember. Perhaps no one ever called them by their true name and they must stay here until they are quiet enough that they hear their Father calling them.” At this Rabbi Yehuda awoke and rising from his bed in tears he covered his head and lay prostrate on the ground praying “Master of the Universe! Grant me once before I die to hear my own true name on the lips of my sisters and brothers.”

This is the gift of baptism, the gift of names. In baptism we see that each of us has been created by a God who loves us, and are redeemed by the power of that love, a grace we affirm today is at work in each of us. So let us give thanks for Olivia, for the particular love that God has for her, and take up the responsibility for helping this child to inhabit this love, to grow and to flourish; and to hear her name.  Amen.