You know that moment when you’ve just met somebody at a party – and you exchange names and maybe shake hands. And then you talk for a little while and there’s some rapport – possibly even a little flirting. You walk away for some punch and then suddenly at the bowl you realize that you don’t remember their name.
It feels like a little bit of panic mingling with disappointment. You know that for the rest of the party if you want to strike up another chat and ask this person if they like Game of Thrones, or how they know the host, or if they want to share a cab home, or whatever, you’re gonna need to know their name. “Hey you, you... yeah you...” isn’t gonna cut it.
Just six letters on average, an average of two syllables, one little name has slipped away from you and the distance between you and your new friend begins to yawn. A name is a way in. And when you lose it you can get left behind, stuck at the edges of the party all by yourself.
There’s a real power in names. We sense that. In Egyptian mythology, the goddess Isis tricks the sun god Ra into telling her his secret, true name. And when she learns it, she has power and control over him and becomes his equal.
It’s not just Ra. When somebody uses your name, speaks it out loud to you, it can really move something inside of you. If you love the person who speaks your name, it’s thrilling to hear. If you dislike the person or if you’re afraid of them, the sound of your own name can make you nervous.
So, maybe you can imagine what it must have felt like to be Jesus, here in Mark’s gospel, when the unclean spirits and the demons start speaking his name out loud. “Jesus of Nazareth... Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy one of God.” Jesus tells it to shut up and get out. In the next exorcism Jesus performs, Mark gets even more specific about why. It says, “[Jesus] would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”
Can you blame Jesus? If a demon knew you, knew you intimately by name, and started to talk about you, started to mock your calling to your face, tried to dissuade you from your difficult destiny, started telling other people what it knew about you, would you listen?
It wasn’t just the sound of his name that Jesus was trying to take back from the demons, it was his whole story. The demons wanted to expose Jesus and to control his narrative. Jesus silenced them because he wanted to be in control of his own destiny. He wanted to be in control of the future of his name - how it would be used, where and when, and what it would mean.
The demons that possess us should not be the ones we turn to when we need to figure out who we are and what we want to accomplish. Our fears, our failures, our diseases, our crimes, our prejudices, our greed, our hopelessness – they are powerful forces, and they do know our names. They know us. And they’re afraid of us. They know we have the power to take back control in one way or another. They know that we have the ability to turn to other sources to define ourselves, to make a name for ourselves.
An important part of the ritual around the sacrament of baptism is the naming. We ask the baby’s parents, “By what name will the child be called?” We ask adults being baptized, “What name do you claim as your own?” The name is presented before God and all the gathered. The minister repeats the name. And the now the stage is set for the holiness to begin. The baby gets splashed. The adult takes a deep breath and leans back into the river.
When I baptized little Adelaide Grace I blessed her by saying, “Adelaide Grace, you were named after a song from your parents’ favorite band, State Radio. Your father even played onstage with them in front of 5,000 people! Can you imagine yet what an amazing moment that must have been? Adelaide, may your life always be as rockin’ and meaningful as that State Radio concert!”
When I baptized little Thaddeus Eoin, I blessed him by saying, “Thaddeus Eoin, you are named after two important men in American history – Thaddeus Kozeeosko, a Polish officer in the American Revolution, and Thaddeus Stevens, one of the leaders of the radical Republicans and a fierce opponent of slavery before and during the Civil War. A man named Thaddeus is also listed in the Gospel of Matthew as one of the Twelve Disciples of Jesus. Thaddeus, whoever you follow in life, may you always follow your heart towards freedom and justice.”
I love learning the history of where a name comes from – its deep meaning, and discovering in that legacy an opportunity to imagine and to bless the future. When Jacob wrestles with the man, or the angel, or God, or whoever it is, he refuses to let go until he gets a blessing. And the blessing he’s given is a name.
It’s worth noting that names don’t always stay the same forever. Sometimes we get misgendered at birth. And when that happens, all of our parents’ good intentions and family history aside, the name “Mordecai” or whatever just might not cut it forever. So trans folks and gender queer folks find the name that matches them body and soul – and then they fight for that name. They fight in courts, in county offices across the country, with the DMV, with their banks and credit card companies, with the IRS, their employers, their schools. They fight for their name. They wrestle it from the world – from out of red tape, needless paperwork, and prejudice. They fight for the future of their identities.
My wife, Bonnie Mohan, was born Bonnie Fewel. Mohan was her mother’s last name and she decided that the Mohan name fit her better than the Fewel name, so she legally changed it while she was in college. Obviously, she kept her chosen last name after marrying me. And if we were to ever have a daughter, that child’s last name would also be Mohan. And maybe our daughter would have a Mohan daughter too. And our daughter could tell her daughter about how her grandmother and great-grandmother fought for their name and for her name.
When Jacob wrestles with the man, or the angel, or God, or whoever it is, he refuses to let go until he gets a blessing. And the blessing he’s given is a new name. And that name, Israel, became the name of a whole people, a nation, a whole future. Names change and yet somehow they also carry on.
The Bible is full of references to God’s name – the Psalms repeatedly praise God’s name and ask us to proclaim God’s name. Many devout Jews will not speak or write God’s name, instead replacing it, with the word “Hashem” which literally means, “The Name.” One interpretation of this tradition is that it avoids breaking the commandment “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.” But another interpretation is that naming something gives you power and dominion over that which is named – and no one can have that power over God.
There’s a tradition in Islam of there being a list of the 99 most beautiful names for God. But some – like the mystical Sufis – say there’s a 100th name for God. It’s the hidden name, the secret name, the name of true power. It is the capital-M Mystery name, the name that is transcendence itself.
In 1913, 118 Russian marines stormed Pantaleimon Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. The marines set up machine guns and water cannons to subdue the monks, killing four and wounding nearly forty. Once the monks were soaked and beaten into submission an archbishop stepped off an Imperial Russian Navy ship from the armada that had been trying to blockade the peninsula and starve the monks out. The archbishop was there to charge them with heresy.
The monks were calling themselves “Name Worshippers” and had dedicated themselves to a form of prayer that involved chanting Jesus’ name over and over continuously and constantly. It brought many of the monks into ecstatic communion with God, and some believed that it gave them powers of enlightenment and understanding, and the practice was spreading quickly.
A number of Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos were confronted and the armada sailed back home with about 1,000 unrepentant Name Worshippers in the belly of a prison ship. They prayed Jesus’ name all the way back to Russia.
When Jacob wrestles with the man, or the angel, or God, or whoever it is, he refuses to let go until he gets a blessing. To give him a blessing, the man first asks for Jacob’s name. But when Jacob asks the man for a name in return, the man can only respond with another question – “Why are you asking me my name?” Maybe that’s because his name is a capital-M Mystery. It can’t be fully told or fully known. We know it exists, but we can’t quite pin it down. Still we yearn to speak it and to know it, to be drawn in to a face-to-face wrestling match with God’s great unknown – and to come out on the other side, limping, but with a blessing: an identity, a new name. For that, some would face down marines, and prison, heresy, wrestling angels, and convulsing demons.
In Genesis God says, “Let there be light.” Light first had to be given a name before it could be brought into existence.
When Elizabeth Gilbert finished writing the novel that would make her a world-famous author she ran into a serious problem – she didn’t have a title for it. She’d had dozens of working titles, but none of them worked. So, she sent an email off to some writer friends saying, “My BLEEPING book won’t tell me its name! Can you all help me?” A friend responded, “Well, if you talk to it like that, it’s not going to tell you anything!”
So, that night Gilbert took a different approach – she loved on her book. She began talking nicely to it – speaking to the muse, or genius, or God of the book really. She explained to it, “Sweetheart, listen. I respect you. I love you. I honor you. I have defended you these last few years. I want to bring you into the world, but you have to tell me your name.”
The next day “Eat, Pray, Love” whispered its name into her ear, and the book was finally born. Gilbert had worked so hard for so long, it must have been so frustrating not to be able to work out the title of her book – the book that would make her name and be her biggest legacy. And, in the end, I think she was relieved she didn’t have to figure it out all by herself. In the end, the vision she had created in her book began to talk back to her.
What about our name? Who holds authority over who we are, what our name means, and how its legacy will unfold? Are we willing to silence the demon voices that try to make us despair that our name has no power? Are we willing to seek out the ancestry of our name, so that everything our name means might bless our future? Are we willing to discern how our name might have to change? Are we willing to speak a name into the world and create a new legacy for ourselves? Are we willing to lean into God’s mysterious ways and let our future introduce itself to us?
Let us pray.
O God of this church and this people, Sweetheart, listen. We respect you. We love you. We honor you. We have defended you these last few years. We want to bring you fully into the world, so that you might bless it. But you have to tell us your name. We’re listening. Amen.