Sermon for June 24, 2012
Church of St. John in the Wilderness, Copake Falls, New York
Feast of St. John the Baptist; SJITW 160th Anniversary
Parents tend to take naming a child rather seriously, after all a name lasts a lifetime.
I understand for example, that my grandfather valued it so much that he took the lead role in naming all eight of my grandparents’ children. My grandmother, of French descent, did manage to persuade my grandfather to change the spelling of one daughter’s name from the Irish spelling for Bridget to the French spelling—Brigette with the double t e ending. So my grandmother was able to pick the spelling of one name anyway!
People tended to take naming and names even more seriously in Bible times. People’s identities were more bound up with their families, their relatives, and their ancestors back then. If you had an honorable father or uncle and were given his name, this was an honor – one you were expected to live up to by also being honorable.
In our gospel today, people assumed that Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son would be named Zechariah after his father. It’s kind of funny how free their relatives and neighbors felt in expressing their opinion on the personal decision of the parents in naming their son. Even after Elizabeth says, no, we’re calling him John, the relatives and friends argue with her saying, “None of your relatives has this name.”
And then they even turn away from her and start motioning to dad! Remember Zechariah is mute as a temporary punishment for not believing the angel’s good news that he and Elizabeth, in their old age, we’re going to have a son. So they’re motioning to Zechariah who can’t talk, he asks for a writing tablet – is this the gospel or a Laurel and Hardy routine? Zechariah writes down, “His name is John.” And immediately, he can speak again!
A name can be important, especially in the Bible. In this case it’s so important that God himself, through an Angel, picks the name John, simply telling Zechariah, “You will name him John.” But there’s nothing coercive here. The name John is derived from the Hebrew for, ‘God has been gracious.’ And indeed the next sentence to Zechariah from the Angel is, “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”
And he was great, the herald and forerunner of Jesus. And John the Baptist is the patron saint of St. John in the Wilderness. Happily his feast day falls on a Sunday this year – today. Hence, the synchronicity of celebrating our 160th anniversary on the feast day of our patron saint. Almost 160 years to the day after St. John in the Wilderness was consecrated a church in June, 1852.
Another thing about a name is that it is personal. It identifies one as a unique person and as a distinct member of a family, and of a community. A community today. But also a community which goes back in time and goes forward into the future.
St. John in the Wilderness and the wider community around Copake Falls can look back in time 160 years and be grateful to the founders of the Copake Ironworks Lemuel Pomeroy and the Pomeroy family and Isaac Chesbrough and the Chesbrough family, for they raised the funds to construct this church and donated the land on which it stands. We’re grateful also to William Miles and his wife Georgiana, later owners of the iron works, who donated land in 1906 increasing the size of the church lot.
And we’re delighted to have as our guests today Dawn Pomeroy Lewis and Deborah Pomeroy, descendents of Lemuel Pomeroy. And Nancy Maliwesky, archivist of the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association. And we’re delighted to have with us Pete Miles, a relative of William Miles and his father Frederick, later owners of the ironworks.
And as the Reverend Jack Moody prayed in the graveyard before this service, we are most grateful for the generosity, service and ministry of all members and friends of the Church of St. John in the Wilderness who have gone before us.
Finally, thank you to each of you here today, members and friends, for coming here to celebrate not only the past, but the present, to celebrate the fact that God is faithful. God inspired our forebears to build this church, and God inspires us to be here today.
As we celebrate the continuity of history and ancestors, of present-day vitality, and of hope for the future, we are not alone. The same thing was going on in today’s Gospel. When Zechariah is able to speak again, he practically sings in celebration of the unexpected blessing of his new son John.
As we today look back in history, Zechariah looked back on God’s faithfulness and favor to Israel. He says, “God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham… that we… might serve him without fear.” And then Zechariah immediately looks to the future saying, “and you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High… by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness… to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
In spite of the difficulties of life – Zechariah speaks of enemies that God must save them from. And of course John the Baptist himself was martyred for speaking the truth. In spite of the difficulties in our own lives, the message in our gospel, and the message here at St. John in the Wilderness is the same. That God is good. And that God is faithful. That God loves us personally, and knows us each by name! That in the end, and even now, as our first reading from Isaiah says, valleys shall be lifted up; hills made low; uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
In other words, God will make all things right in the end. And even now we can celebrate the fact that through history God is in the process of doing this. And he does it; God makes things right, through us! We are God’s hands and feet on earth, called to love each other and build each other up, and celebrate life, as we are doing right now. Amen!