When you meet someone for the first time, what do you say to them? More often than not you likely say something along the lines of, “Hello, my name is Kathleen. What’s your name?” Names are often the very first thing we tell one another about ourselves, and the very first thing we ask to know about someone else. We want our names known and we want to know the names of others.
Many of you are probably familiar with the TV show, “Cheers,” that was on in eighties and early nineties. Even if you aren’t too familiar with the characters you could probably sing the chorus to the theme song with me, “Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
As a brand new resident of Jesup, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of naming in this town. When you hear the name of someone who has lived here for most of their lives, you can likely tell me a bit of history about that person, who their relatives are, perhaps where they worked and who else they worked with.
Naming is an important part of how we relate to one another. We want to be known, to be recognized, and have people remember our names. Our names are important to us, for to be named is to be known, and in this knowing there is story and relationship.
This is not a modern idea, but rather stems from the very beginning of human history. In Genesis we read of God creating a creature in God’s own image. This creature is called “Adam,” also the word for “humankind.” Adam calls his wife, “Eve,” which is the word for “living,” stating that she is so named because she will be the mother of all the living.
God separates sky from land and land from water and creates living things to populate each place. Once everything has been created God turns it over to Adam for him to name. Genesis 2:19 tells us, “Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. “
In our Old Testament passage today we read another important story of naming. Exodus 3 tells us that Moses was out beyond the wilderness taking care of his father in law’s sheep. If you’re familiar with the Exodus narrative, or have seen the cartoon film, “Prince of Egypt” a couple of times, you’ll know that this story comes to us shortly after Moses had killed an Egyptian. The Egyptian was beating a Hebrew man, and Moses could not stand idly by, so he killed the Egyptian. The man that Moses killed had been working on behalf of the Pharaoh, so when Moses killed him, the Pharaoh was quite upset. Now in our story we read of Moses out alone, out beyond the wilderness, trying to escape the place where everybody knew his name. He didn’t want to own up to the responsibilities that came with being found out.
How strange it was then, out here, out beyond even the wilderness, that he should hear his name shouted, “Moses.” And his name didn’t come from a fellow wanderer or fugitive, it came from a bush that was on fire but somehow, was not burning up. I can imagine him staring at this bush, head to the side, wondering if he were imagining things. But he hears his name a second time, “Moses!”
This strange bush-on-fire was calling out his name. The voice tells him not to come any closer, but to take his shoes off for he is on holy ground. The voice identifies itself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God does not identify God’s self by a name, but rather by a relationship.
God continues, saying that God has seen the misery of God’s people and has come to deliver them. And God has plans to do these things through, of all people, Moses, the fugitive.
It is not quite enough for Moses that this voice knows Moses’ name, or that the voice has identified the relationships of being God to all of these great men, Moses wants to know God’s name.
In Exodus 3:14-15 we read: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM…Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”
God cannot be contained to a simple one-word name, even in naming God is a God of relationship. God is “I am.” God is eternal. God is forever the God of people. God has no desire to exist outside of relationship.
Jewish practice encompasses some of the weight of the significance of this in the way that they treat God’s name.
The Hebrew alphabet is made up of consonants, but give it’s pronunciation by vowel markers. Some texts are written without the vowel markers, and people are usually able to infer the pronunciation based on context.
But one word that is never given vowel markers is the word for God. God’s name is purposefully unpronounceable. When reading scripture, Jewish readers will instead say Lord, or Adonai, instead of trying to pronounce the unpronounceable. However, in Christian reading of Jewish scripture we have taken the Hebrew letters Yud Hey Vav Hey and translated them to Yahweh.
Also in the Jewish tradition, the name of God written out becomes holy. This stems from the commandment not to take God’s name in vain. If God’s name is written on even a scrap of paper, it is not to be erased, defaced, put on the ground, ripped up, or destroyed in any way. Anything containing God’s name is to be respected, and if need be, ceremoniously buried by a rabbi.
However, it’s good to note that this slide up here would not be in violation. Orthodox rabbis have ruled that since writing on a computer is not a permanent form, typing God’s Name into a computer and then backspace over it or cut and paste it, or copy and delete files with God’s Name in them does not violate the name of God.
All of this is the way that Jewish tradition recognizes God as one who cannot be contained by human conventions, but who is inextricably a part of human experience. God is a God of the people. God is a God of relationship.
Though we most often introduce ourselves by our given names, there are other names we answer to as well. These names are not given at birth, but acquired along the way. Some of you are called mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife, daughter, or son. These names do not exist in isolation, but tie us together, framing our relationships.
These names indicate a way we are supposed to treat each other. In some cases they indicate a vow, as between spouses, or household rules established by our parents. Relationship carries expectation. Being known requires a response.
I received a new name this week, the name of “pastor.” I am excited by this name and motivated by what such a name means, but upon reading some definitions perhaps also a bit daunted. Around 400 AD, Saint Augustine, a prominent Roman bishop, described a pastor’s job: “Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low-spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with, and all are to be loved.”
Wow. What a list of expectations that is! I will try, as much as any one person can, to do those things, but it will help us all to recognize, that none of those things can or should be done in isolation. A pastor exists only in relationship. That is why I am not quite yet ordained, one can only be ordained when there are people that will be served by that title. At my ordination and installation services next month we will both make promises to one another about what that relationship is to look like, and how we will serve God together.
God desires to name us as well. Though we do have the names our parents have given us, God also gives us the name of child. In our New Testament passage today, we read of the relationship granted to us by God coming to earth and living among us as Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 2:19-20, we read, “[we] are no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone”
To be called stranger or alien is to be unknown, to be isolated, to be disconnected. Through Jesus Christ we are all joined together and claimed as Christ’s family members. We are members of the household of God.
We too have responsibilities in this household of God. First and foremost we are commanded in the last couple of verses in the Gospel of Matthew to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” We are tasked by Jesus over and over again to build up the Kingdom of God, by putting God first and foremost in our lives, showing special care to those who feel disconnected. We are responsible to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
So, let us know each other by name, but let us also know each other as family. And as I am learning my way in time of new beginnings and new relationships, you may need to remind me several times over of your given names, but I promise to always strive to know you first and foremost as brothers and sisters in the household of God. Amen.