Texts: Revelation 7:9-17 ; Psalm 34:1-10,22 ; 1 John 3:1-3 ; Matthew 5:1-12
The blessings of God, who has called us by name, be with you all. Amen.
Some of you who have met my sister may have noticed that she doesn’t call me by my given name, Erik. She calls me “Charles.” She didn’t come up with that name, my parents gave it to me as a middle name to honor my mother’s step-grandfather – Charles Pernikoff, a Russian Jew who used to take my mother to Boston Commons on the weekends – but Tara is the only one who uses that name. You know you’re in with my sister if she gives you a name of her own. She does this as a way of laying claim to a special relationship with people.
My sister had a name before we adopted her from Thailand. She was Luktarn Bunmalert. My parents renamed her, Tara Luktarn Christensen. She got the name Tara because my parents knew she’d have a rough time with Luktarn, and wanted to give her a name people could pronounce – but that still sounded something like her birth name. My mom wanted something Irish for her as well.
So, my sister learned at an early age the power of naming. She spent the first six years of her life being called by one name, and then all of a sudden she was being called something completely different. No wonder she has made a habit of giving people names of her own choosing. She knows firsthand the power that comes with naming. It is the power to claim someone as your own.
To name someone is to claim them. This is ancient, and we understand it in our bones. To name someone is declare a relationship to them. Parents name their children. People getting married may change their names. Friends and lovers give each other names that only they can use.
We focus a lot on names today, All Saints Sunday. We’ve asked for the last two weeks, and you have provided, the names of people who have died over the last year so that we can name them here today, so that we can claim them one more time as members of this living family. We see the scores of tiny candles lit all around the chancel and we are reminded of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us – each one named and known by God. We are surrounded by those who have gone before us, we are awash in names.
It’s not just the act of giving names or reciting names that is powerful. Names have meanings of their own. The bible stories we are raised with are full of hints and foreshadowing if we listen to the names of the characters. In the beginning we are introduced to Adam, whose name means both “man” and “earth” because God formed him from the earth. Abraham’s name means “high father” or “father of many nations” in Aramaic, and he is known as the ancestor for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Ruth and Naomi sustain each other through grief and hardship, frequently held up as a model for love between women. Ruth means “friend” and Naomi means “beautiful.”
Then of course we also have Jesus, whom we also call the Christ. Jesus, taken from the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning “God saves,” and Christ, coming from the Greek for “anointed.” Jesus is the one whom God has anointed to save us.
We tend to think of All Saints Sunday as a day for remembering those who have died because we tend to think of saints as people who have died after leading extraordinary lives. But, as we taught the children this morning, a saint is simply someone God loves. That means all of us. Today is not so much “All of the Saints’ Sunday” but “We’re All Saints Sunday.” We are all saints, and sinners, both. What is extraordinary is not the lives we lead, but the fact that God has claimed all lives as God’s own. We are all made extraordinary by grace.
Moses is an interesting example of this. Moses, a Jewish child who grows up in the household of the Pharaoh and goes on to lead his people to freedom, gets his name from the circumstances surrounding his birth. Fearing that he would be put to death with the other Hebrew children whom Pharaoh had ordered to be killed, Moses’ mother puts him in a basket made of reeds and sends him down the river hoping that he’ll escape that fate. When Pharaoh’s midwives, Puah and Shiphrah, pull the baby from the river he is called “Moses,” which means “drawn out of the water.” His extraordinary future is only possible because he is saved by hands that are not his own.
As Christians we believe that we are made God’s own because we are drawn out of the water as well. In baptism God claims us and names us and makes us God’s own. That naming, however, isn’t simply so people have a label they can apply when they want to refer to us – it is a calling. Or, in other words, in baptism we are called something that becomes a calling. The letter from John we read this morning puts it this way,
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1)
Then, in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew gives us a description of what that name means. In a scene that is written in so many ways to remind us of Moses, who also went up a mountain and returned with words from God to give meaning to the people’s lives, Jesus goes up the mountain to deliver words from God that share with us the meaning of the name we share in common, “children of God.” He says,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
These first four describe something about how we are to live in our relationship to God. They describe an orientation towards life of humility, sensitivity to the world’s suffering, and a passion for justice. But God’s blessings do not end with descriptions of an inner attitude, they describe what happens when those inner characteristics find expression in our actions toward one another. Jesus continues,
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
A spirit of humility culminates in showing mercy towards those whose circumstances are most humbling. Sensitivity to suffering leads us to vocations of peacemaking. A passion for justice results in taking unpopular stands that come with unjust punishments. This is the meaning of the name we are given when we were drawn out of the water at baptism, “children of God.”
We are called by names that have meaning, and we are called to lives of meaning. We are blessed to be a blessing. Along the way we are strengthened by the witness of the saints that have gone before us, who have shown us how ordinary people are used by God for extraordinary things. People like Mona Luoma, who used to work in Elijah’s Pantry. Her name in Irish means “little noble one,” and she blessed us with the noble work of feeding the hungry. People like Kathy Tiedemann, who raised four children as a single parent by keeping multiple jobs as a waitress. Her name in Greek means “pure,” and she showed us something about the purity of loving devotion. People like Donna Pohl, mother to our brother Daniel Pohl, whose name is used in Italian to denote a woman of rank. In her life as a wife and mother, and in her latter days as she approached death, she taught us something about how to claim people and how to love them well. Or people like Kristen Meyer, whose name means “follower of Christ.” In her life, and in her death, she reminds us that the meaning of a life is not where we lived, or who we worked for, or how we died – but that our lives, all of our lives, gain their meaning because we are loved and claimed by God,
we are drawn from the river, we are baptized into the body of Christ and made followers of the one who saves.
This is our calling, we gather at the river – by the font – each time we baptize, each time we receive new members, each time we begin our worship with a thanksgiving for baptism, to give thanks that we are all saints of God, which is just another way of saying that God loves us.