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WHAT'S IN A NAME?

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

2024.0505.St. Phil.Come&See.

[Isaiah 30:18-21; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6; John 14:6-14]


“What’s in a name?”  That’s the famous question that Shakespeare’s Juliet rhetorically posed through her heart-sick desire to share her life and love with Romeo.  “What’s in a name?” she sighs.  “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.”1


The problem, of course, is that in spite of her linguistic inquiry, names do in fact matter: a painful reality that Romeo’s Montague surname presents to Juliet’s Capulets.  For as with the Hatfields and McCoys, the Montagues and the Capulets are sworn, mortal enemies; and because of all the history that these blood-feuding family names contain, [spoiler alert!] Romeo and Juliet will never join as one -- at least in this life.  


But the point (as we all know) is that names do matter – for good or for ill.  The most significant example of names comes from the Book of Exodus [3:13], when at Moses’ request God revealed the name of the Maker of heaven and earth.  It is Yahweh (that is, in Hebrew, “I AM”).  Twentieth century theologian, Paul Tillich, extrapolated this moniker to mean: “God is the ground of all being”.  Yes, God/Yahweh is.  Yet, as the late Vermont preacher, teacher, and theologian, Frederick Buechner, has pointed out, the sharing of God’s Name has resulted in the fact that “ God hasn’t had a peaceful moment since”.2


So, “what’s in a name?”  In particular and with reference to our church’s appellation, what significance does the name “St. Philip’s” hold for a church and specifically for us?  For example, why was this name chosen?  Back more than 150 years ago, was there more motivation in this naming than as a way to honor the great, late eighteenth century, Episcopal churchman, Philips Brookes?  In any event (the pandemic notwithstanding), why on May 1st, 2022, did you and I miss marking the 150th anniversary of this parish church’s life, mission, and ministry?  


“What’s in a name?”


As I have written to you in this past edition of the NOW, last Wednesday [May 1st] was the feast day of St. Philip: a day and an occasion that he shares with St. James the Less.  As is often the case, no detailed history is available for most of Jesus’ original followers, which is most likely a telling sign that who they were was understandably overshadowed by what they did: namely, preach, teach, and live the Risen Christ.  “James the Less” is a prime example of this.  Is he “the son of Alpheus” whose mother stood by Christ on the Cross?  Or is he James “the brother of the Lord” who saw the risen Christ and is often called the first bishop of Jerusalem?  Or is he the author of the Epistle of James.  None of these questions have a verifiable answer, which leads to the honest point: "We know practically nothing about James the Less.”3  And we know only a bit more about our Philip, which makes it a bit of a challenge to answer the question: Why is our church named “St. Philip’s”?


However, unlike James the Less, Philip has a modicum of identifiability through some important exposure in John’s gospel.  In fact, as a member of the Twelve, Philip is mentioned four times in the Fourth Gospel, which is more than any other disciple, save for Peter and the Beloved Disciple.  And in these four appearances, a very human pattern emerges to convey not only the kind of character Philip possessed – a character that was clearly attractive to Jesus; but that pattern also presents faithful guidance to folks like you and me in terms of how we might follow Jesus in this place and at this time.  


I mentioned that in John’s gospel Philip has four cameo appearances.  So, for the purposes of shedding light on how a community of faith like ours might be shaped and guided by Philip’s example of following Jesus, I want to zero in on the one  Philip-scene I view as the most significant for us.  


We meet Philip at the beginning of John’s gospel, just after Jesus’ own baptism by John the Baptist.  At the direction of the Baptizer who has identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, Andrew (Simon Peter’s brother) and the Beloved Disciple seek Jesus out and become the first of the Twelve.  Once Andrew drafts Peter to join in this discipleship, Jesus heads to Galilee and (we are told) finds Philip.  With Jesus’ simple but compelling call to follow him, Philip (hailing from Bethsaida, the same city as Peter and Andrew) immediately joins the movement.  And what happens next is key to sensing who Philip was and what his example models for us in this parish church named for him.  


Having received his call to follow from Jesus, the text immediately moves to Philip finding another Galilean local, Nathanael.  I can’t help but get the impression that the first five disciples of Jesus all came from the same neighborhood, went to the same high school, and had spent a good deal of time with one another, fishing, worshiping together at the local synagogue, maybe even playing baseball together.  Because when Philip found Nathanael, he immediately shared with great excitement : “We found the One Moses wrote of in the law, the One preached by the prophets.” – the One we talked about in Hebrew School for all those years.  It is Jesus, Joseph’s son, the one from Nazareth!”4   At this, Nathanael, being the apparent cynic in the Galilean cohort, rolled his eyes and said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”5   And here is, for me, the entire reason for naming a church, this church, our church after Philip.


Without wavering or hesitating, Philip simply replied to this disparaging word with a gentle and joyful: “Come and see!”6


In this marking of our Patronal festival, I am proposing that Philip’s reply to the skeptical, disbelieving Nathanael (a figure who would fit in quite naturally in the Northampton area) – I am proposing that his “Come and see” be a part of this parish church’s explicit identity and purpose.  In terms of truth in advertising, we have already publicly stated: “Be careful: If you come here, you will grow!”  But added to this fair-play alert, let us also include St. Philip’s invitation: “Come and see”; and let’s use these three words as the guidelines for our life, mission, and ministry as a church, named for such an example.  


In terms of the guideline to “Come”, as with Philip our call is to invite others to join us in the transforming work of following Jesus.  Historically, we have not been very good at offering such an invitation.  As a Lutheran colleague said recently, generally speaking, Lutherans and Episcopalians invite someone to church about once every thirty years!  Beyond any innate shyness we may have about sharing the faith or any reactivity to bad personal experiences of being buttonholed to go to church by someone, I think that our poor record at inviting people to “come” too often reflects our own inarticulateness at the reason we ourselves do “show up”.  Being willing and able to identify how our involvement at St. Philip’s has changed us and caused us to grow is simply a basic matter both of self-differentiation and of honoring our baptismal vows.  “Come.”  Why is this four-letter word so difficult for us to say?


To this end, our Vestry has prioritized a parish ministry of invitation with the establishment of a formal “Newcomers Ministry”.  Vestry member Joy McGaugh (a newcomer to St. Philip’s herself) will be the point person in establishing and promoting our public work of invitation.  This ministry contains three, simple elements.  The first is “Welcome”.  The second element is “Orientation”.  The third component is “Incorporation”.


In terms of the first part of being invitational, “welcoming” is something we do quite well and is already a hallmark of who we are as a community of faith.  While we appropriately give a guest the respectful space needed, there is something wonderful about us that makes it clear that this place is safe, reliable, and offers a person the respectful time to explore a spiritual home.  Our ushers are great examples of being the welcoming faces and voices of St. Philip’s.  Julie Flahive, as the organizer of our ushers, steadily and unpretentiously minds this welcoming group.  Yet, it is a ministry all of us can embody – at the door, in the parking lot, at coffee hour, at the “Peace”.  “Welcome!”


“Welcoming” is followed by “Orientation”: that is, how we show our guests, our searchers, our seekers around so that they can experience for themselves the safety and integrity of our faith life.  In this second aspect of a Newcomers Ministry, the Vestry and I propose that this community develop and present members who will “shepherd” our newcomers, acting like personal sponsors so that new people can sink their own roots into this place – if that is what they want to do.  


To this end, I see this shepherding as a short-term enterprise.  This shepherding, this sponsoring can run along the lines of introducing a newcomer to the people and to the offerings of St. Philip’s for two months.  If by that time and with that type of caring attention our newcomers do not begin to take root among us, then we move on, wishing them “Godspeed”.  


The third aspect of a Newcomers Ministry is “Incorporation”.  After we have genuinely welcomed them, after we have shown them the parish “ropes”, the next step is to integrate our new folks into the life, mission, and ministry of this place.  One of the things that I deeply appreciate about this church is that belonging, “tenure” is not waved about like some sort of inherited right.  How long a person has been a part of St. Philip’s is not an entitlement.  Integrating new people into the fabric of our common life is an important quality of extending the prospect of not just being “included” but of truly “belonging”.  The deep truth is that baptism brings us our tenure, not how long we have attended or whose family we come from.  Integrating new folks into our life means expressing them in honoring their baptismal promises.  


With regard to integrating newcomers into the reality of our common life, my proposal is this: That on every fifth Sunday of a given month (something that occurs about three times a year), after the “Peace”, we hold a short liturgical blessing that publicly and formally acknowledges the incorporation of new member into St. Philip’s.  If we are doing the work of welcoming, orienting, and incorporating – work that is labeled as a priority within this place, each of those fifth Sundays will have people to bless and celebrate – with no open dates!


“Come and See”. I have mentioned the invitational aspects of being the people of St. Philip’s.  Yet, what good is an invitation to “come” if there is nothing to “see”?  But here, among us, thanks be to God, there is a lot to see.  Yes, we do quite a bit around here, and that action – our ministries of worship, study, and service – need to be seen; but more than seeing what we do is a revealing of who we are as this faith community.  We are here to be seen as God’s faithful people.  We are called as living examples of resurrection life.  And ironically it is in this being visible that we receive a great gift: To see ourselves as God sees us.  Such a vision is nothing short of life-changing and joyful.  And it deserves to be shared.


So, we are here!  We are St. Philip’s.  “Come and See!”.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


 

1.   William Shakespeare.  Romero & Juliet: Act 2; Scene 1; Lines 85-86

2.   Frederick Buechner. Wishful Thinking, p. 12

3.   Br. James Koester, SSJE. "Lord, “Give us a Word:” Show Us the Father”, May 2, 2023

4.  John 1:45-46 – The Message

5.  John 1:46b – RSV

6.  John 1:46c


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