Scripture: John 1:29-42;
Epiphany Series #3: Know Your Name
When my brother Tim was in grade school, he had two classmates named Dale Newman—not the likeliest of names to be duplicated. To distinguish them from each other, one was “Dale Newman, Jr.” and the other one was just “Dale Newman Plain”—no junior.
When I was in college, I had a classmate named Louise Mutterperl, and another named Dan Perlmutter—Mutterperl and Perlmutter. I really think they should have gotten married and hyphenated their names: “Mutterperl-Perlmutter.” I also had a classmate named Jeff Knisely and another named Jeff Baddeley. Two Jeffs, one “Knisely” and one “Baddeley”—what’s the likelihood! And in case that’s not enough, we now have a properties team of Jake, Jacob, Larry, Larry, Ken and Kin.
Names. They’re a big part of who we are. Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner writes about his own name, “It is pronounced Beekner. If somebody mispronounces it in some foolish way, I have the feeling that what’s foolish is me. If somebody forgets it, I feel that it’s I who am forgotten. There’s something about it that embarrasses me in just the same way that there’s something about me that embarrasses me. I can’t imagine myself with any other name—Held, say, or Merrill, or Hlavacek. If my name were different, I would be different” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 12).
It’s also true that all of us have more than one name—unless you’re certain rock stars or athletes, like Rihanna or Ronaldo. I’m Hamilton, for example, but I’m also Coe and Throckmorton. Strangely, in my whole life, I’ve still never met a Throckmorton who wasn’t immediate family—other than at Coughton Court, the original family estate in England (an estate, by the way, that I thought we should by now have inherited!). Most of us have nicknames used by various friends and relatives. One of our sons calls me Dadman, and I love it every time I hear it. When I was a child, my family had a dog named Dodie who, over the years, accrued so many other names that my brother strung them all together and came up with “Dode-Jean-Sweed-Queer-Blackie-Puppy-Brownie-Wags.”
Names can elevate and affirm—Sweetheart, Precious, Dear Boy—and they can debase and crush—Dummy, Idiot, Retard, or one of the harshest of all, the N-word. Names have the capacity to lift up and to tear down, to bless and to curse. And they have power. In the Bible, once you’d named something, you had a measure of control over it. As Buechner says, “In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses that [God’s] name is Yahweh, and God hasn’t had a peaceful moment since” (p. 12).
Names do indeed have power. In our first reading this morning, the prophet Isaiah says that God “called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb God named me” (49:1). Then in the first chapter of John’s gospel, we are showered by all sorts of names for Jesus: Lamb of God, Child of God, Rabbi/Teacher, Messiah/Anointed, the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Son of Joseph from Nazareth, King of Israel, Human One. Each name says something different about who Jesus is. All of which means that Jesus touches us in a huge variety of ways, and meets all sorts of needs among the followers of the Christ.
God has special names not just for Jesus, but for us, too. The strange truth of human life, though, tragically, is that we so often don’t believe the names God has given to us, the names that Isaiah tells us God has given us from the womb. We devise other names for ourselves, names we think convey the truth, but names that only belie the names that have come to us from God. Sue Monk Kidd writes about some of the many destructive names we give ourselves, or that we take on from others. She talks, as I said last Sunday, about the constricting name she took on when she was a child, the “Little Girl with a Curl” who smiled sweetly and was always obedient and pleasing. That name—Little Girl with a Curl—straitjacketed her.
There are other false names we unconsciously take on. There’s “Tinsel Star,” who “pours herself into a long line of praiseworthy accomplishments. She’s the overachiever in us, the perfectionist, the performer whose outer radiance often covers an inner insecurity. Whether it’s being mom, career woman, PTA grade-mother, church volunteer, or committee chair, the Tinsel Star’s aim is to do it with dazzle and win accolades.” Tinsel Star: another constricting name.
Then there’s “Rapunzel,” the Grimm Fairy Tale “damsel imprisoned by a witch in a tower without a door.” Kidd says, “I recognized Rapunzel in myself. She was the part of me that wanted Daddy, Mama, husband or somebody else to come fix it, the part that languished in whatever struggle I found myself, singing sad songs and looking outside instead of inside for help. Rapunzel is the helpless damsel waiting for rescue. Locked in a ‘towering’ problem or difficulty, she waits for deliverance rather than taking responsibility for herself.” It’s a disempowered and disempowering name.
Or there’s the Little Red Hen, who keeps asking for help in cutting the wheat, grinding it into flour, and baking a cake—help that no one ever gives her, until she asks who might help her eat the cake. The Little Red Hen, says Kidd, is the martyr who tries to do it all herself. “Long-suffering and driven, she never stops. She’s ruled by a duty-at-all costs mentality and gives unceasingly—to the point of her own spiritual bankruptcy and mental exhaustion. Feeling the need to meet everyone’s demands, she abdicates herself and becomes the victim.” Kidd quotes a woman who once said to her, “We’re raised to be givers, even when it mutilates us. When it comes to giving to myself, my name isn’t on the gift list. If it ever turned up, it would be dead last.” Little Red Hen: such a draining and dispiriting name.
There’s the Tin Woodman, from The Wizard of Oz, who, without a heart, is totally cut off from his own feelings. Or Chicken Little, the one who always claims the sky is falling, the one who assumes the worst and withdraws from risk and refuses to take any chances in life (Kidd, When the Heart Waits, pp. 58-72). And Sue Monk Kidd says all of these—Little Girl with a Curl, Tinsel Star, Rapunzel, Little Red Hen, Tin Woodman, Chicken Little—all of these are false names for ourselves. They distort human life. They take us away from who we were meant to be. They’re not God’s names for us.
In the story we heard earlier from John’s gospel, when Jesus meets Simon, who’s to become his follower, Jesus renames him. No longer is he Simon. He’s now Peter, which means “Rock.” He’s now to be the foundation, the cornerstone. But the key is that he finds his true identity in the name Jesus gives him. False names vanish. ‘This is who you really are,’ says Jesus.
And the same is true for us. God has given us the names that tell us who and whose we really are. Names like “Good” and “Blessed.” Names like “Generous” and “Compassionate.” Names like “Courageous” and “Free.” Names like “Justice-Seeker” and “Peace-Maker.” These are the names that tell us who we really are. These are the names of grace.
We can take in these names in a variety of spheres. In the more internal, personal realm, Sue Monk Kidd quotes some memorable lines from the playwright Arthur Miller. In After the Fall, one of the characters speaks to this dilemma of our false selves: “I had the same dream each night—that I had a child, and even in the dream I saw that the child was my life; and it was an idiot, and I ran away. Until I thought, if I could kiss it . . . perhaps I could rest. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible . . . but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one’s life in one’s arms” (quoted in Kidd, p. 73). One of God’s names for us is “Adored”—because God loves every little part of us. “Precious,” “Sweetheart,” “Love of my life”: in dulcet tones, this is how God speaks to us. “Delight of my life,” says God to us in baptism (Matthew 3:17).
There’s this whole societal realm in which God names us, as well. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, we can’t help but be aware of the ways in which people with darker skin have so often been labeled in vile and demeaning ways. The declaration this week by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle that they will cease being working royals has exposed the seamy underbelly of the racism that is never far from the surface. Frederick Gooding, a professor at Texas Christian University, “said it would be ‘disingenuous’ to claim race had not been a factor in Meghan’s treatment. ‘She was always going to be an outsider,’ he said, . . . ‘because of her race.’ From the start, some in the media wrote about Meghan using racially loaded terms. One tabloid columnist referred to her ‘exotic’ DNA. A Daily Mail headline described her Los Angeles roots as ‘(almost) straight outta Compton’ and claimed she came from a ‘gang-scarred’ neighborhood. A TV host described Meghan as ‘uppity.’ Meghan was criticized for everything from eating avocados . . . to wearing dark nail polish, apparently an etiquette faux pas.” A journalist noted “that because Meghan was ‘an outsider, culturally, racially, and socioeconomically, she has been the royal family’s scapegoat’” (http://plaindealer.oh.newsmemory.com/?publink=26d6a0b66).
The flap about Meghan Markle is representative of the ongoing and prolonged disparity between the way people of color are treated and the way people of Caucasian descent are treated. Rates of imprisonment and employment and longevity and poverty are all significantly worse among people of color. There’s a persistent structural inequity that is remarkably resistant to redress. So we remain mired in it in so many ways.
Because of that, as people of faith, we are prodded to ask ourselves what names God has dubbed all of us. I reread Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail this week. It’s a radiant tour de force insistently nudging us to confront our own failings regarding race. King writes eloquently there about the names his sisters and brothers have been called. He talks about “white” and “colored” signs on all sorts of business establishments. About his own experience he writes, “when your first name becomes [and I’m going to use the word because he uses it] ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs’ [and we might add ‘Ms.]; . . . when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait [for clear and unmistakable steps of progress before we demonstrate].”
King goes on to note other names he and his followers have been called, “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators” among them. He had also been labeled an “extremist.” And while that name was given to him as an epithet, King came to see it as a badge of honor. He came to see that Jesus and the prophet Amos and the apostle Paul and Martin Luther and John Bunyan and Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson were all extremists, and he was happy, he says, to be counted in their number, as “extremists for love.”
Part of what King does is come up with new and luminous names for those who are doing the work of God. He labels early Christians as a “colony of heaven.” (I love that name—what if were to think of Federated Church as a “colony of heaven”!) And he writes movingly and persuasively about those he calls the “heroes” of his life and times: James Meredith “courageously and with a majestic sense of purpose facing jeering and hostile mobs”; Rosa Parks “who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride the segregated buses, and responded to one who inquired about her tiredness with ungrammatical profundity, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested’”; and countless others King mentions, people “nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’s sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage” (https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf).
Names. We all know the epithets that demean and tear down. But God has given to you and to me and to all people everywhere the names that are above all names, the names that build up and enhance and connect and make for justice. May we go forth from here to call each other those names: Beauty, Beloved, Grace. And let the people say “Amen.”