What’s In a Name? – Br. James Koester

Homily preached at St. Matthew’s Church, Ottawa.

Br. James KoesterFeast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

Proverbs 3:1-6
Psalm 119:33-40
2 Timothy 3:14-17
Matthew 9: 9-13

For most of my life I have been fascinated by names. Never having been a parent before, I am curious why parents choose the names that they do for their children. I wonder why my Mum and Dad picked the two names that they did for me. My baptismal name is Colin James, but there is neither a Colin nor a James in my family tree for generations, so I often wonder what made them choose these particular names for me? What I do know, is that I wasn’t supposed to be named Colin. I was supposed to be named Cullen, after my paternal grandmother’s brother, who was given the maiden name of his paternal grandmother. But my aunt and uncle beat my parents to it by five weeks. My cousin, who was born on 1 July, was named Cullen, so sometime between then, and my birthday five weeks later, my name went from Cullen to Colin.

Names are powerful, because they have the power to identify. They tell us who we are. But names are powerful because they also have the power to describe. A number of years ago when my nephew Peter was born, my sister and her husband had chosen another name, but the moment they saw him they knew that he was a Peter and not a George. When I asked my sister about the change of names her response was that he didn’t look like a George, he looked like a Peter. Names are powerful, because they not only have the power to describe, they also have the power to draw. Names have the power to draw because there is something about a name that often draws us to that person. That’s one reason, I think, why some people occasionally change their names. It’s a tradition at the monastery, although not used all that often, for a brother to change his name to indicate a change in his life, but also because in his prayer and reading he has been drawn to another name, and the example of another person, especially one of the saints.

I have been thinking a lot about names recently, because I have been thinking about your name, this name: Matthew. What is it about the name Matthew that both identifies and describes this parish, but also has the power to draw people to it? Is the fact that this parish is dedicated to St Matthew simply an accident? Was the bishop simply lying in the bathtub one morning, and like a light bulb going on, thought I’ll name it St Matthew’s! Or was there more going on in the naming of this parish than that?

So what is it about the name Matthew or more especially the Gospel of Matthew that identifies, describes and draws people to this parish? Why not call yourself First and Bank Anglican Church? That would identify and describe you too. It would at least tell people where you are located.

So what is it about the name Matthew or at least the Gospel of Matthew that identifies, describes and might draw people to this parish?

Biblical scholars can tell us all kinds of different things about Matthew’s Gospel but the first thing we note, is that Matthew’s Gospel is rooted in a place and a people. Matthew opens his gospel with that great list of people, which frankly, I love to read, and I especially love to read it in church as the gospel of the day!

An account of the genealogy* of Jesus the Messiah,* the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.[1]

And on and on and on. Matthew roots his Gospel, and more especially the person of Jesus in a particular place, at a particular time, and among a particular people. So perhaps the first question you can ask yourself is how rooted is your proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Is this parish simply located at the corner of First and Bank, almost by accident, or are you rooted here in this neighbourhood, at a particular time, among a particular people? Are you simply occupying space or do you have Good News to proclaim in this particular neighbourhood?

But if Matthew’s Gospel is rooted in a particular place and among a particular people, it is also universal. Matthew’s Gospel as you may recall, is the gospel of the Great Commission. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’[2] This is a huge issue for the Church today, and one which Anglicans often find embarrassing, but is making disciples of all nations part of the way you see yourself as a parish? Do you have a worldwide vision of mission, or do you exist simply for yourself, and perhaps a few other people like you? The second of the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion is to teach, baptize, and nurture [the faith] of new believers.[3] The Gospel of Matthew is the gospel of the Great Commission, but is the Great Commission a part of your self-understanding as a parish dedicated to St Matthew? Do you take seriously the command to make disciples? And what about that all nations business? Where does the ministry of this parish take you? Or does it confine you?*

One of my favourite passages from Matthew’s Gospel comes early on. It’s the story of the angels’ annunciation to Joseph. We read:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.[4]

I love this story for all sorts of reasons, but one of the reasons is because it’s about taking risks. Joseph takes a huge risk for God. Joseph’s upcoming marriage to Mary would expose him to public ridicule, embarrassment and shame. Yet he goes through with it on the say so of an angel. What risks are you willing to take in order that Emmanuel, God with us, may be made manifest in the person of Jesus, not just to this parish and neighbourhood, but to our world which so desperately needs to know the salvation of God?

Finally I love this Gospel, because of who Matthew is himself. We heard about it this morning. Matthew wasn’t the most agreeable of characters. He was a tax collector, a collaborator with the occupying forces of imperial Rome. Matthew was despised by his fellow Israelites, and yet it is precisely to him that the invitation from Jesus to follow comes. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, or what you have done, where you are from, what your past holds or any number of disqualifying reasons, Jesus wants to have dinner with you. That’s as true for you as it was for Matthew. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, or what you have done, where you are from, what your past holds or any number of disqualifying reasons Jesus wants you to follow him. Jesus wants to dine with you. Yes, you. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that everyone is invited. All we have to do is to accept the invitation. So who do you invite to follow Jesus? Do you invite only those who look like you, dress like you, think like you? Or do you take the risk of inviting the despised, the rejected and the outcast to become followers of the One who ate with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners? How wide is your invitation?

I love the Gospel of Matthew because it holds so many challenges for us.

It challenges us to root our proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ in a particular time and place and neighbourhood and not simply to occupy room on the block. It challenges us to pay attention to our neighbours and our neighbourhood and not simply behave as if they don’t matter, at least not to us. But at the same time Matthew calls us to look beyond our immediate vicinity. We have a gospel of love and a witness of mercy to proclaim, not just in this vicinity but to the whole world. Matthew’s gospel challenges us to look beyond ourselves and to make disciples of all nations. How wide is your vision of mission and ministry? I love the Gospel of Matthew because of the story of good St Joseph. The last thing he probably wanted to do was take such a risk with his reputation, his good name and his standing in the community on the say so of an angel. But he did. And because of that God Emmanuel came and dwelt among us. The Gospel of Matthew invites us to take a risk for God, by taking a risk on God, and when we take that risk we find God, God Emmanuel, God with us. I love the Gospel of Matthew because of Matthew himself. If we ran into him on the street, we’d probably steer clear of him. Yet it was to Matthew that Jesus extended his invitation to follow, and if Jesus can see something good in Matthew, then surely he can see something good in me. Matthew gives me the courage to know that I am loved by God, and if God loves me, then surely God loves those who, for whatever reason, I find objectionable. Matthew invites us to look beyond ourselves and see the humanity in others, even the despised, the rejected and the outcast, for they too are worthy of God’s invitation to follow.

It’s no accident that this parish is dedicated to St. Matthew because in that dedication we see a vision of what it means for the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ to be rooted in a neighbourhood and especially this neighbourhood. At the same time the name Matthew holds before us an understanding that while our mission is to a certain place and time, it is also for every place and every time. But to be named Matthew also reminds us that God will sometimes ask of us more than we think we can give and yet God counts on us to take the risk to say yes, in order that the gospel of love, pardon and mercy, as we know it in the person of Jesus Christ can be proclaimed to the despised, the rejected and the outcast.

So what’s in a name? Well, if you are called Matthew, or at least St Matthew’s Church, an awful lot!

[1] Matthew 1: 1 – 6

[2] Matthew 28: 19 – 20

[3] Five Marks of Mission: https://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/marks-of-mission.aspx

[4] Matthew 1: 18 -25

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  1. Pam Nugent on September 17, 2023 at 17:37

    I remember reading a book by Eugene Peterson, “Leap Over a Wall,” in which he talks about the importance and power of naming. (It’s also a great book for other reasons.)

  2. Shawn on September 13, 2023 at 07:44

    When I feel overwhelmed by the challenges and needs of the world and fear that I can do little to help, I remind myself to focus first on the people and places right before me. I loved this reminder to keep in mind our immediate neighbors without forgetting the broader world. God has work for us to do and will strengthen us to do it! Thank you.

  3. Laurel on September 13, 2023 at 07:29

    I love the different layers of Mathew that you point out. For me the two most compelling aspects are 1) Jesus taking a risk in calling all of us no matter what our past and wanting to dine with us, not just once, but invite us in the commune together, and 2) Joseph taking huge risks because of his trust in God. Thank you!

  4. rev. carol carlson on September 21, 2022 at 14:33

    I grew up in a Lutheran parish called by St. Matthew’s name, and there received my call to ordination. I studied the first Gospel in seminary and realised that this was the blueprint for any ministry I ever did. I tell my parish today that if you’re really into that first rush of falling in love with Jesus, cuddled like a little lamb in the shepherd’s bosom, Luke (whoever he or she was) is your man; but if you need to figure out how to run a church full of formerly-lost lambs, now totally normal, ordinary, often-ornery sheep, Matthew is the place to turn. Wise, compassionate, hard-nosed, comprehensive, careful, honest – you can’t beat him for dragging the story of Jesus /Emmanuel into the nitty-gritty of community life, mission and hassles. No illusions, no compromises, every detail (even the genealogy and the small turns of phrase) full of meaning; but if there were nothing in this book but the Beatitudes alone, it would still be enough to make it infinitely worthwhile. Thank you for this appreciation, Br. James!

  5. Elizabeth Hardy on September 10, 2020 at 11:09

    Nicely preached. And very true about that parish and it’s work in the community. It reminds me that our parish, every parish needs to take account of its neighbourhood and ask hard questions about what, if anything, our neighbours would miss about our ministry if we weren’t there. Elizabeth Hardy+

  6. ginger Hansen on September 10, 2020 at 05:46

    Thank you. My church is St. Matthew’s By-the-Bridge and is facing huge challenges, just to exist as small as we are. The remarks are timely for us “St. Matt’ers” in 2020.

  7. Ellen Nelson on September 21, 2019 at 09:06

    Really loved this and certainly making me think

  8. Jane on September 21, 2019 at 02:30

    Great sermon.

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