Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

There’s power in a name

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Second Sunday in Lent (February 25, 2018)
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 – “There’s power in a name”

When Abram was 99 years old, the [Sovereign One] appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many, many descendants.” Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, “But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham. I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you. I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you…

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

There’s power in a name.

When I was in college, I met a couple. The husband was a Caucasian from Georgia and the wife was a native of Hawaii. They named their son Piʻilani , which means “rising sky” or “to ascend to heaven” from piʻi which means “climb, ascend, advance, mount, rise” and lani which means “sky, heaven, heavenly, spiritual…” The couple said it wasn’t too long after he learned to walk that their son began to climb any tree he could find, especially the magnolias one finds in Georgia. Once, in a particularly frustrating moment, Piʻilani’s mother complained to his Hawaiian grandmother about it all. “What did you expect?” her mother said.

There’s power in a name.

Take nicknames for example. There are those nicknames that convey love and an appreciation for the uniqueness of one’s personality. Right around the time I started seminary, my brother started calling me “Friar Tuck.” I’m not sure why… Maybe because that character was generally in a jolly mood. Now, after three years of pastoring St. Mark’s, I like to think it was because the Friar was essentially a chaplain to a band of folks who took back what the rich had stolen from the poor!

But some nicknames can be pejorative. Many of you are probably having flashbacks to some unpleasant moments in your childhood at this very moment! Last year a Business Insider article listed the nicknames that George W. Bush doled out to close associates and world leaders when he was president. There are endearing ones like what he called Condoleeza Rice, “Guru,” but also demeaning ones, like what he called New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, “Cobra.”

There’s power in a name.

In our dominant American culture, names tend to say more about our family ties or what our parents found pleasant-sounding around the time of our birth.

But in other cultures, names say something about one’s character and destiny.

This is especially the case in the cultures of the Bible. People got new names in the Bible a lot. Jacob is renamed Israel (“he who struggles with God”). Hoshea, son of Nun, who led the Hebrews into the promised land became Joshua (“he who saves”). Cephas became Peter (which means “Rock,” as in, “on this rock I will build my church,” even though he was anything but solid). Saul started going by Paul when he was called to be apostle to the gentiles. “Saul” was his Hebrew name; “Paul” was a Latin version of that. It was better for business, so to speak.

Take Abram and Sarai here. Abram was already called “exalted ancestor,” but now, “ancestor of a multitude.” According to the story, in a vision God said to him, “Look up at the sky and count the stars–if indeed you can count them…‘So shall your offspring be.” Sarai, whose name meant “princess of a family,” became Sarah, meaning “princess of a nation,” Sarah who is named in this covenant promise along with her husband.

If anyone ever lived into their names, Abraham and Sarah did. “Ancestor of a multitude,” puts it lightly, as millions of people in Judaism and a billion in Islam count Abraham as a patriarch. Add billions of Christians to that number, those of us who are included in Abraham and Sarah’s family by faith. As the apostle Paul wrote in that first passage we read:

“That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us.”

What’s interesting is that this couple doesn’t choose their names. God does. But the relationship is a “two way street” since God gets a new name, too. This is the first time in Scripture that Yahweh (“the Lord” or “Sovereign One”) is referred to as “El Shaddai,” or God Almighty, God of the Mountains, or “Breasted One,” the God who promises protection and care.

I think this is the key to understanding the significance of the renaming of Abraham and Sarah: their names express God’s claim on them and define their identities in relationship to God, and their new names mark them as instruments of God’s purposes in the world.

There’s power in a name.

This is true for communities, as well, not just individuals. Have you ever heard of Greensburg, Kansas? It was named after a man “Green” who manufactured canon balls. In May of 2007 this tiny town was hit by an F5 tornado. Eleven people died. 95 percent of the town was obliterated. But they rebuilt… in an intentionally earth-friendly way. Now the town has the most LEED certified buildings per capita of anywhere in the world (LEED being Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The town’s website boasts, “Take a Green Tour and see how we put the ‘Green’ in Greensburg!”

A new name, a fresh start after tragedy– an entire town marked for creative, life-giving, and redemptive purposes.

It’s true for churches, too. The preacher Fred Craddock tells the story about a small congregation in Tennessee:

It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and it was held at the lake on Easter evening at sundown. After all the candidates had been baptized in the lake, everyone changed into dry clothes and gathered around a fire.

Once we were all around the fire [Craddock said], one parishioner always introduced the new people. He gave their names, where they lived and their work. The newly baptized people stayed close to the warmth of the fire. Then the rest of the church members gathered around them in a circle. The next part of the ritual was that each person around the circle gave her or his name and said:

“My name is… if you ever need somebody to do washing and ironing, call on me.”
“My name is… If you ever need anybody to chop wood, call on me.”
“My name is… If you ever need anybody to babysit, call on me.”
“My name is… If you ever need anybody to repair your house, call on me.”
“My name is… If you ever need anybody to sit with the sick, call on me.”
“My name is… If you ever need a car to go to town, call on me.”

[Craddock said] And around the circle we went. We cooked dinner and at together. We sang. Then we had a square dance. Finally . . . a parishioner named Percy Miller, with thumbs in his bibbed overalls, would stand up and say, ‘It’s time to go.’ And everybody left. He lingered behind, and with his big shoe kicked sand over the dying fire. . . He looked at [Craddock] and said, “folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”

In that community, their name for that kind of togetherness is “church.” [1]

There’s power in a name.

The author Barbara Brown Taylor, in a commentary on this Genesis passage, writes this:

“On the second Sunday of Lent… we are invited to spend days examining the nature of our own covenant with God. Upon what does that relationship depend? What do we trust to give us life?… If we were to ask God for a new name, what might that name be? What new purpose might that name signify?” [2]

That’s a provocative question. What would you be called if God gave you a new name? A name rooted in your belovedness? A name that evoked your purpose or a purpose?

Or you’d keep your old name, why? Are you living into it?

Give it some thought. Consider it a spiritual exercise.

Because there’s power in a name.

Featured image: Provoost, Jan. Abraham, Sarah, and the Angel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

[1] Borrowed with gratitude from a sermon by Amy Richter at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, MD (Nov. 9, 2009). 

[2] Feasting on the Word – Year B, Vol. 2, p. 55.