There are times when people are given names that are funny. I knew someone who was called Imma Pigg. I saw the name of a lawyer who called herself Sue Yoo. There is a man who was named Dyl Pickle. I have seen wedding announcements where the combined names are cute. How about the announcement of the impending wedding between Looney and Ward? Or the couple whose names before the wedding were Hardy and Harr. The credits on a movie listed a gentleman named Chris P. Bacon. I am sure you could share many other examples of funny names.
More often names are serious. Children are frequently named after someone in the family who was truly admired by the parents. The name connects a child to that other person in a special way. Perhaps the child feels as if they carry on the family name and legacy.
Names are important. Some of us are thankful for the name we were given and others wish it were different. Some even choose to change their name. William Shakespeare once suggested that the person was more important than the name and that is true. Romeo and Juliet struggled with the divides created by their families and at one point Juliet spoke about the meaning of names in this famous passage, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. It wouldn’t matter if you called a rose a thorn, it would still be beautiful. But the family names Montague and Capulet made a dramatic difference in the lives of Romeo and Juliet.
God changed the name of several people in Scripture. Their new names were a better indication of the characteristics or calling of that individual. The name Abram means “High Father” and God decided that a more appropriate name was Abraham which means “father of a multitude”. God also changed the name of Abraham’s wife Sarai which means princess to Sarah which means “mother of the nations”. The name Jacob means “heel catcher” or “the one who grasps the heel” because Jacob held on to the heel of his twin brother Esau when they were born. The name Jacob also described his desire to receive the blessing of his father which he later accomplished to the chagrin of Esau. Much later God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. Israel means “May God prevail”. It was the name given after Jacob fought with the angel, for the name can also mean “struggles with God”.
In the New Testament, Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter which means “rock”. Jesus said he would be the rock of the church. After his conversion, Saul’s name was changed to Paul which means, “small or humble.” Paul may have been small but I’m certain that he was humble.
I would say that in each case in which a bible character’s name was changed, it signified that his or her life had taken a new direction, their life had a new meaning. Their new names signified their new role in life.
Our baptism is a time when we think of names as well and the meaning of the name. The parents are asked in the baptismal ceremony to name the child and later we hear that the child is marked as Christ’s own forever. Names matter.
Today, we focus on the importance of our own names. While our names may have been given to us by another human, the important message for today is that our names are known by God. The collect summarizes the lessons for today with these words, “Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads”. God calls each of us by name. God knows each of us individually and is there to protect and guide us. This personal relationship we have with God is something we can hold on to when we are troubled and when we are comforted. For God knows each of us by name.
The Message that God knows each of us by name and cares for us is clear in the gospel lesson. Jesus told us that he is the good shepherd, watching out for us and accompanying us as we seek nurture and solace. But Jesus did not stop with the notion that he cares for us. Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” The relationship between ourselves and Jesus is one on one. And Jesus is ready to do whatever it takes to make our life whole. He said, I will lay down my life for my sheep. There is nothing more that we can ask for than this.
Jesus’ words are similar to those found in Psalm 23. That is when we say the Lord is my shepherd. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is constantly guiding us, helping us to find our way. And God’s wish for us is that we are well fed, comfortable and safe from our enemies.
There was a song written by Carole King called “You’ve Got a friend.” Carole recorded the song as did James Taylor in 1971. The refrain goes like this.
You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I'll be there
You've got a friend
I know that the song is about relationships between humans. But I think the words apply to our relationship with God as well. God is there for us and all we have to do is reach out and call God’s name and God will be there for us. Because God knows our name, God will respond.
As I said earlier, names are important. And we sometimes mistreat the names of other people. There is an expression that says, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” It is often used to deflect the name calling that happens between children. I cannot tell you how many times my last name was used as a negative term when I was young. I have heard every possible interpretation of the last name Saik that you could imagine and I’m sure many of you could share stories about how your name was made fun of. Name calling may not hurt us physically but I would say name calling can be damaging to our emotional state.
There could be no greater knowledge of this than what we find in politics today. It seems that name calling has become even more significant than it ever was. People in politics who do not agree call each other by names that we should not even repeat.
But today, I ask you to think about names that you may call yourself. I believe that we are hardest on ourselves. We know full well what we have done that is wrong and we often speak about ourselves in negative terms. We may refer to ourselves as a sinner or as a mean person or as someone who has not done good things for others. We might know ourselves as someone who has messed up a relationship with others. The names we give ourselves may be accurate but they may also be keeping us from being what God has called us to be.
In contrast, I ask you to focus on what God calls you. Please remember that God calls you by your own beloved name. God will treat your name with respect. In fact, God may give you another name that describes that to which you have been called. If you have not heard of any other name that God has given you then please accept the declaration that God has called you as God’s child. It is another indication that God knows you as an individual and that God will protect you and prepare you for only the best in this world.
Desmond Tutu once said, “most churches when they have images of the good shepherd, they show Jesus carrying a nice fluffy lamb. Now fluffy little lambs don't stray from their mommy's. The sheep that will stray is the most obstreperous, troublesome one.” It doesn’t matter what we think of ourselves. We may be the worst of the worst. We may be the one who sins the most. But we still belong to Jesus and Jesus cares for us because we are his own.
We turn one more time to the gospel. Jesus didn’t just say that he would lay down his life for us. He took it one step further. He said, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” I hear that as a reference to the resurrection. Jesus died so that he could rise from the dead and show us the way to eternal life. Jesus gives that gift to each of us, by name. What greater gift could we have than that? Let us be thankful for God knows each of us by name, not as a number in a crowd but as a person of importance to God. Amen.