What’s In A Name?
What’s in a name? Is the name you use for a COVID test or — if you’re lucky, a vaccination — different from the one you use with friends? What does your family call you? What about your friends from high school?
My father called me Charlie when I was a little girl. No one else ever did, and I’ve never known where my dad got that name. But I think I finally came to understand what the name Charlie meant to Dad, and to me, in the last years of his life. Especially when he was sleepy, or not trying his hardest to show that he was his old, in-control, professional self. Then he’d call me Charlie, resetting our relationship as Daddy and his little girl even as I cared for him. The name Charlie took us both back to his strength and youth, when he could make everything all right with a bandaid or an ice cream cone. The name Charlie connected us, tracing my life back to his, and his back to his own parents and beyond. His name for me as his little girl connected him to where he came from.
Names Are Important
In scripture, names are always important. The American Bible Society points out that scriptural names can refer to circumstances of a person’s birth, show family ties or communicate God’s message. Names can also signal an affiliation with God or indicate a new beginning or new direction in a person’s life.
We read today from Genesis the wonderful story of Abram and Sarai and the new names God gives them in the covenant that brings us all into God’s family. Abram is 99 years old and Sarai is 90 when God gives them new names. Is that 99 whole years made up of 365 days each? I don’t know, and I don’t think we need to get bogged down in that level of detail. Genesis is not a legal document or a news story. What we’re supposed to notice from the extreme age claim is that Sarai and Abram are mature. They’re not young and inexperienced, but have been around the block. They’ve been married for a long time, but they never had children. And that’s the big point of the story.
God tells them that they will be the parents of nations, as improbable as it seems at their advanced age. They will be the parents of all of us. This is our origin story as God’s people. God tells Abram and Sarai that God is changing their names, because they will need new names to express their new roles. From here on out, God says, Abram — which means exalted father — will be known as Abraham — a father of many nations. And Sarai’s new name will be Sarah, which means queen — the source of rulers and nations.
Presbyterian minister and author Mihee Kim-Kort writes that naming is a gift, a privilege. When we use it as a means to relate to and understand one another, it becomes a special responsibility for all. The work of naming, when enacted genuinely, is sanctifying. It’s calling out and lifting up—it’s resurrecting, like Jesus calling Lazarus to new life.
After a seemingly interminable COVIDtide, we have now come to the anniversary of our early awareness of the pandemic, just as we’ve headed into Lent. Remember last year at this time we had just held a lovely Shrove Tuesday pancake supper and a meaningful Ash Wednesday service when we suddenly found ourselves in lockdown and learning to stream our worship from home.
2020 was a long, Lentlike year, with many devastating losses, from loved ones to our communal worship and our way of life. And now, at this significant anniversary of the pandemic’s growing control over our lives, we have some encouraging news. Friday marked the end of the third week of 2.5% or lower COVID positivity rates in Rhode Island. As of yesterday, we have three vaccines available, and I have rejoiced as many of you have called and emailed to tell me that you have received your first or second doses. I want to say here and now: please get the vaccine as soon as you are able. Any one of them is good to protect you from the most serious effects of the virus. Please don’t miss a chance to get the vaccine that you’re offered because you think another is better. The one you can get in your arm is the one that will allow us to come back together in person.
Lent is a season of preparation, when we look for God’s presence in our lives. We remember Jesus’ preparation in the wilderness after his baptism, when God named Jesus his beloved, in whom he was well pleased. Let’s remember our own name in this COVIDtide superLent: Emmanuel — God is with us. Let’s remember our own name — Emmanuel — as we equip ourselves for our ministry as Easter people. This has been a long, long Lent, and we yearn for the resurrection way more than a typical 40 days and 40 nights’ worth. Not to be overly dramatic, but our longing is more the size of the year that Noah and Naamah spent on the Ark with their family and all those animals. If your family has been challenged by home schooling or making do with scarce supplies, just think of Noah and Naamah on the Ark as a quarantine pod!
And that’s how much we long for Easter. Who we will be after Jesus’ resurrection at Easter? What will our name tell us — and our neighbors — about who we are, where we’ve come from, and what we do? This is a new Easter, a new age, and a new resurrection, and it’s filled with possibilities.
What’s in a name? Shakespeare’s Juliet asks Romeo.
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
It might seem that Juliet is saying names don’t matter — a kind of Renaissance version of it is what it is. Or — as Gertrude Stein famously and relatedly wrote — a rose is a rose is a rose. But Romeo’s response is very interesting, taking us back to scripture and reminding us that names connect us to our great lineage and give us courage for our future. Call me but love, Romeo replies to Juliet, and I’ll be new baptized.
Let us be new baptized at Easter, back together in person, with God among us. Let us be new baptized as Emmanuel at Easter, connecting us to our great lineage as God’s people with strengthened faith for God’s work with what’s next. Amen