Sermon July 30, 2017

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost July 30, 2017

“Names & Labels” A Sermon peached by The Rev. Richard Sutcliffe

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

Sunday 1 July 2012, I first donned this strange outfit – dog collar, cassock, stole – and with 14 other men and women, I was ordained deacon  in Winchester Cathedral – a beautiful and ancient cathedral in Hampshire in the heart of the English countryside.  A year later, as is customary in our churches, I was then ordained priest – allowed to officiate in all things sacramental in the Church of England and its sister churches like the Episcopal church here in the US.  Both of these ordinations occurred during the period known as Petertide – around the feast of St. Peter – a traditional time for ordinations.

For me it marked the end of a long personal journey – a long journey trying to decide what it was God was calling me to do - a process the Church usually refers to as “discernment”.

As part of this discernment process, we try to go back to identify when the call to vocation began.  For some, there is a definite moment – a moment of revelation when everything became clear.  For others – like me – the process is much hazier, much less clear, something that has ‘always been there’.

Some of my earliest memories are from my first school (we call primary school) and like many primary schools in England is run by the Church of England.  During morning worship together we would be told stories based on the life of one of the saints.  I can still remember how I would listen with attention to the stories that our teachers or parish priest would tell us – the good deeds that these people had done.  The stories were always exciting and seemed to come from a more colourful time with the fight between good and evil played out as if in a colourful storybook.  

And this has continued to be an interest of mine, although in a somewhat less serious way – I follow and occasionally share comments with another priest, the Rev Richard Coles on Twitter (his journey to ministry is an interesting one as he used to be half of a successful UK pop group “The Communards” and is now a Church of England vicar).

Every day he “tweets” a story of a real saint – however these are the lesser known saints that have increasingly improbable stories.  

Some of my favourites are St. Fillan of Munster, who was able to read by the light of his miraculously glowing arm - or St Dominic of the Causeway who miraculously brought a roast chicken back to life, and for some reason is now the patron saint of Spanish civil engineers.

Or maybe you prefer St Sithney – God appeared to him and asked if he would like to be patron saint to girls.  Sithney said he would rather not so God decided he should be the patron of mad dogs – to this day dogs with mental health issues are taken to his shrine for healing.

And did any of you know that as well as being the husband to the Virgin Mary, St Joseph is also the patron saint of hesitation and fighting communism.

Of course, these lives of the saints were read to us at school to give us examples of what it is to be a Christian.  Indeed we also often had stories of more modern “saints”, like Mother Teresa – all of them showing us through their lives what it is to live out our Christian vocations in our lives.  

The trouble with many of these examples is that their lives were sometimes so good, that it could seem that too high a bar had been set for us.  How could we possibly live up to their example?

As I said earlier, I was ordained on the feast of St. Peter, and he is also the patron saint of the church where I live.  

And I have to admit that I have a soft spot for St. Peter – particularly because of his human frailty.  You will remember what Jesus said to Simon Peter in Matthew’s Gospel: "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18) He gives him Peter a new name, a new label.

Now I’m always a bit suspicious of labels.   The more we give people labels, the more we confine them.  Names can put people in a box, restrict them, and lead us to assume the worst.  

We can so easily make judgements based on that label – we’ve heard a lot of that in the UK recently:

  • that person who voted to “Remain” in the European Union – typical of some woolly liberal who isn’t really patriotic…
  • that person voted “Leave” – typical small minded “Little Englander” who doesn’t know how the real world works…

And I guess you could think of your own examples here in the US when you last voted for your president…

The trouble is that these labels work against looking for all that unites us and it stops us looking for, and seeing, the divine diversity in and around all of us.

Remember we are all part of the Body of Christ.  As St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians we all have different spiritual gifts, and all of these gifts come together as the Body of Christ here on Earth.  The more we label and restrict people, the more we are in danger of not recognising the God-given gifts that we all have.

But labels and names can be a positive thing.  The idea of name-giving is very important in the Bible.  And those names are often given by God.

In the Old Testament we have the example of God’s call to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…”  (Jer 1.5 - NRSV)  And Isaiah: “The Lord called me by name before I was born, While I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”  (Isa 49.1 - NRSV) “I have called you by name, you are mine.”  (Isa 43.1- NRSV)

With this naming comes the idea that God knows us as individuals – that he knows our strengths and weaknesses and what it is he wants from us.  With this idea of name comes a sense of calling – a sense of vocation.

And we see these ideas again in the New Testament.  The angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah to tell him that he and Elisabeth will have a longed for son – and he is to be called John;  and again Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that she will have a son and he is to be named Jesus.

And as we saw earlier in the Gospel passage – Jesus also gave people names.

With that change of name – a name close to the Greek word for rock – Jesus sets out a role for Peter.  He describes the character that Peter will need to fulfil the vocation he has been called to – to grow and lead the church.

Jesus sets out a huge expectation for Peter to live up to – and we know that Peter did go on to live, and die, as a disciple of Jesus.  But we also know Peter had great failings – 

  • Peter could be impulsive and short tempered. 
  • He was prone to opening his mouth before thinking and he was rebuked by Jesus a few times for this. 
  • He could be cowardly and because of this he denied even knowing Jesus three times.  

For me, the fact that such a human person as Peter could go on to be such a great disciple and be the foundation of the church gives me great hope that I can live up to whatever it is God calls me to do.  Despite my human failings, he believes that I can live up to what he expects of me.

So now, when I read the life of a saint, I look first not for their most holy attributes, but for their more human failings.  That is what gives me hope.

So what about us?  God has a name for all of us – and that name tells us what it is he wants from us.  

But the wonderful thing about the names that God gives is that they stretch us, they do not confine us. Where our labels can constrain people – lead us to expect less of people,   God’s labels push us – he expects more of us.

Remember that from before we were born he knew us and knew what it was he wanted us to do.  We need to work out what that calling is for all of us.  

As Christians we are all called – we are called to fulfil our role in the world – our role as the body of Christ.  And the fantastic thing is that different things are intended for all of us.  The secret is to work out what it might be – 

Maybe it’s to be a nurse or a doctor; A great parent; A teacher, a librarian, a member of the church choir; An accountant, a train driver, a lawyer; A banker, a politician, a beautician, maybe even a priest.

Of course, the list is endless.  But I do believe that we are happiest when we are able to fulfil our vocation.  

But how can we work out what that vocation is for us?  We need to find time to stop what we are actually doing and spend some time listening.  You never know when you might just hear that still, small voice of God.  But the more we take some time every day to pray and to listen, the more likely we are to hear him.

Take time when you can to sit quietly and just listen… and in time you might just hear from God what he wants from you.  You might just be able to hear what your name might be…