"A Family Name"

1 Epiphany.A.20 Baptism of Jesus
Matthew 3:13-17
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

Names are important. They convey identity, history, purpose, authority and more. Some of us are the bearers of family names; others have biblical names, still more—nicknames.

A name can open a door. I grew up with the rather ubiquitous surname of Smith. A “heads up”: proclaiming you’re from the family of Smith is not going to cause people to sit up and take notice. So, when I moved to West Virginia, and I wanted to make a connection—I learned to reference other relatives to whom I was related who hailed from the area: Simmons, Cogar and Harper. Suddenly, I went from being a “foreigner” (pronounced “ferriner”) to family. I was “at home” even though I had never lived in the state before.

One of the most touching honors I received involved a family name, and occurred when I was in Virginia, serving a small parish in the village of Rapidan. Names were important there as well. When I left, I was given a pin of the Peyton family crest and told I could wear it; a reminder that I was now considered family. The pin itself—probably not worth much—but the sentiment—invaluable and memorable to this day.

To be fair, names can have the oppostite effect as well. Some names don’t so much open a door as slam it shut. Being the protégé of one professor in University can be a good thing—but mentioning you are affiliated with another can land you in the scholastic equivalent of Siberia. Names matter.
They are powerful. Today, in the Gospel of Matthew, we find ourselves present at the baptism of Jesus. Here, we learn that our Savior was also given a name that mattered “beloved.”

Now, I’ll grant you, the reading can be problematic. There’s been a good deal of debate about its significance since its incorporation into the New Testament. Some feel that because Jesus was sinless, he didn’t need to be baptized, as they understood Baptism primarily as the washing away of original sin, and so have found this story to be somewhat confusing. Other’s are troubled by Jesus “submitting” to his cousin John to be baptized.
Without resolving either issue, here is the wisdom of the Church. Yes, Baptism washes away sin. Moreover, Holy Baptism promises the ongoing foregiveness of sin and an enduring relationship with God. This is both important and central to our understanding of this sacrament. But Baptism, it does something else as well—it provides us with a name—Beloved—and with that name, comes an identity—child of God, member of the Family of Christ…Christian.

Consider, for a moment, the many ways in which society attempts to identify, define and pigeonhole us. Democrat, Republican or Independent, considervative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight, rich or poor, black or white—and the list goes on. What’s more, we are increasingly named and defined by the products we use and the stores at which we shop: Nike, Apple, BMW, Tiffany,and Whole Foods—these are not just company names. They lend, to those who use them, a sense of self and personal identity. As an article on branding by Duke University puts it: “For people who aren’t deeply religious, visible markers of commercial brands are a form of self-expression and a token of self-worth, just like symbolic expressions of one’s faith…” They are that important.

Which is why it’s essential to remember who you are from the perspective of the Almighty. You are a child of God, and in baptism, you are beloved of the Lord.

Now, none of this is to say that family names, schools, brands and other affiliations aren’t important—because, in truth, some of them may be quite important to us. What it means is that while all these other names, affiliations and identifications may describe us, they do not define us. Only the name we receive in Holy Baptism has the ability to grant us the life we enjoy in Christ. It is this name, born of God’s love for us, that endows us with the promise of God’s neverfailing love. Baptism matters because it tells us who we are by reminding us whose we are: God’s beloved children.

This morning, Charlie and Louisa Hewitt will be baptized at our 10:00 a.m. service. Now, Charlie and Louisa are each blessed with family names. Charlie is the fifth generation of his family to bear his particular name, and Louisa’s name is a derivative of Louise, a name shared by both of her paternal grandmothers, and her middle name, Drake, is her mother’s grandmother’s maiden name and her uncle’s name. These names are important. They connect Charlie and Louisa with well-loved people of past generations, reminding them of their history and family connections. This morning, the two of them are blessed to add yet another name to this illustrious list—“beloved child of God.” For this morning, by receiving the sacrament of Holy Baptism, they are being ushered into the family of God which encompasses not only Christians the world over, but all those of past generations to whom we are connected through God’s love.

It’s worth mentioning that immediately following the baptism of our Lord, Matthew tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. That time in the wilderness presented our Savior with many challenges—not the least of which was the hard work of defining the type of Messiah he was to become. Notice how this happens only after Jesus has been baptized and named. If I had to guess, I would say that knowing who we are in the eyes of God conveys upon us a strength to flourish among the swirl of names, identities and values that compete daily for our attention and allegiance. Knowing who we are in the eyes of God gives us strength in the midst of a world determined to employ different measuring sticks to gauge our worth. If we are to remember who we are: beloved of God in Christ, then we are given a different means by which to see our worth; what’s more, we are given a calling into which we are to live—an understanding of our identity which renews us in faith, hope and courage and sends us into the world to proclaim the Good News, news our world so desperately needs to hear. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Much of this sermon based on an article by David Lose “Baptism: A Family Name”
“Brand Loyalty and Expression of Self-Worth, Just Like Religion,” in Duke Today.https://today.duke.edu/2010/09/brandreligion.html