Name Calling

Lent 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

He was pumping gas when inspiration hit. He wanted to do something nice for his old car so, instead of regular unleaded, he filled the tank with super high-octane gasoline. The old car couldn’t handle it. It stalled at intersections and backfired going downhill. Back at the gas station, he suddenly understood. He recognized the same pattern in himself. “I keep sputtering out at intersections where life choices must be made and I either know too much or not enough,” he wrote.

The author Robert Fulghum came to a realization, “All I really needed to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten.” First published in 1986, his book has gone through three printings. Here are some of the life-lessons Mr. Fulghum learned in kindergarten: share everything; play fair; don’t hit people; say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody; wash your hands before you eat; and flush.” (Robert L. Fulghum. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Ballantine Books, 2003 (1986, 1988)”

It is obvious by today’s political news cycle that hurting people, name calling, and childlike behavior has taken precedence over the rules in his book. We have forgotten what we learned in kindergarten and in Sunday school.

My first line of defense when kids used to call me names was something my teacher taught me to say, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. Trouble is that old saying is more memorable than it is true. Words and names do hurt us. Poisonous words of a parent can be crippling to a child. Lies and labels start to stick. They cover over the truth about people. They obscure the fact that people with different religions, identities, and political parties are people too. Name calling is a step in the road to making another person into our enemy.

It turns out, God likes to call people names too, but the intent is something very different. We heard in our first reading God gave new names to Abram and Sarai. Abram, which means “father,” was changed to Abraham, which means “The Father of Many Nations.” Sarai, which means “princess,” became Sarah meaning “my princess,” a more exalted title to denote her upcoming stature among the Promised People. Their new names bound them to a bigger story. Their life and success are connected to the flourishing of an entire nation. We cannot be who we are without each other and that includes, everyone.

Note the covenant God made is with Sarah as well as Abraham. They both received a covenant and a new name. This is a familiar pattern in our scriptures. God changed the name of Jacob –which meant one who ‘cheats,’ to “Israel,” which means ‘one who wrestles with God.’ After its ruin and defeat, God gave a new name to Jerusalem. “No more shall you [O Zion] be called, ‘Forsaken’… but you shall be called ‘My Delight Is in Her’ (Isaiah 62:2). Despite his many shortcomings and mistakes, Jesus gave Simon Peter the name “Cephas,” or ‘rock.’ God’s name-calling was a reminder that their story was part of a shared story—and now, part of our story.

Ancient people recognized the power to name as something almost magical. It conferred something essential and indelible both to objects and subjects. “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to [Adam, the earth man] to see what he would call them; and whatever the earth man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19). To bestow a name upon God’s creatures was to play a role in co-creating them. You and I are co-creators with God through the power of language, words, and names.

Ancient thinking about names seems almost quaint to us today. But I must say, every teacher, school administrator, or pastor teaching confirmation knows there is something almost magical about knowing a child’s name. Knowing their name has power to stop a running child in their tracks and make them start listening. It’s the most amazing thing. Addressing people by name has power to open a conversation. It is the key that unlocks the ability to say, “I care.” There is a reason we say their names: George, Breonna, Ahmaud, Philando, Laquan, and so many others. Proper names confer respect.

So, what shall your name be? Does it reflect your mistakes? –your limitations? –your many inadequacies? Shall it be one that reflects someone’s hatred, or bigotry, or ignorance? No. I have given you a new name, says the Lord God. In faith, by water and the word, you are more wonderful than you know. You are My Beloved. You are Pilgrims in this Land. You are My Children forever, says the Lord God.

You might remember, when God called to Moses from the burning bush and told him to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses’ first question was, ‘Who do you think I am that I should be able to do such a thing?’ His second question was—and ‘Who are you to be able to tell me? What’s your name? (Exodus 3:13). After all, wasn’t Moses a murderer, an escaped criminal? He was lucky to be a simple shepherd. Could Moses become a prophet, a leader, and deliverer? Was the un-burning fire in the bush just a desert illusion? Could this truly be the voice of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? The correct answer revolved around knowing the correct name. God answered Moses. God told him his name. “I AM WHO I AM”, or “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”.

‘Who do people say that I am,” Jesus asked (Mark 8:27b). In the passage immediately before our gospel today, Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,” yet he did not yet fully understand what this meant. Yet it was the beginning. It was the beginning of Peter’s discovery about the true identity of Jesus. It was that first light which brought into awareness the dim outlines of all that lay ahead.

Today, Jesus reminds us that we too, can discover who we really are. Lay down hurtful words and pick up on God’s love. Lay down worldly striving and pick up the story of God. Lay down the world, with its name-calling, enemy-making, and hurting. Lay it all down at the feet of Jesus. Pick up your cross and walk in newness and strength. My burden is easy Jesus says and my burden is light. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” Jesus said (Mark 8:35).

Robert Fulghum says it another way. He writes, “…remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.…Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living…. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”