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Terms of Endearment: What’s in a Name?

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 17:1-7;15-16

©2021 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Intro to Scripture

This morning’s sermon is brought to you,
courtesy of a persistent question
asked by those in your CPU Midrash group,
who help me figure out how these ancient
texts may “land” with you all.
The question:
“What’s with all these name changes?”
Or put another way,
“What’s in a name?”

So let me begin with a question for you
who are watching or listening: (actually a series of them)
Your name: do you like it?
Did you choose it, or was it given to you?
Are you named after an ancestor, a movie star?
Does it fit you? Does it sum you up?

What happens inside when someone says your name?
In love, or indifference or in anger?
Do you have a term of endearment, that a loved one uses for only you?
Are there nicknames that recall pleasure – or pain?

Have you ever changed your name?
Taken a new surname, at marriage, or divorce,
or a new “given” name to signify ownership of your unique identity?

If you could, would you change your name?
To what? Why?
And if you want to but haven’t, what is stopping you?

Names matter, don’t they?
There can be so much riding on the names we give and are given.

It’s been decades now since I read the book,
Roots, by Alex Haley, and watched the subsequent miniseries,
but I have never forgotten the long scene near the beginning
where a free Omoro takes his newborn,
but still unnamed son out into the night,
and there, as all the vast solemnity of the starlit darkness
surrounds them, he breathes over the child,
and whispers his name to him for the first time, Kunta Kinte,
a name to live into and up to.
The scene repeats itself decades later as the enslaved
Kunta takes his newborn, unnamed daughter
out into the dangers of a night-dark plantation
to whisper her name to her for the first time, Kizzy.

The power and responsibility to endow a term of endearment,
to name a child, or a creature,
is one that seems so vested with spiritual potency
that all the world’s religions have created rituals,
for naming and renaming ceremonies.
In Christian traditions, naming is always associated
with vows of relationship, terms of endearment,
to our faith: at baptism, and in some traditions,
at confirmation, when taking monastic vows,
or becoming pope,
a new name is given (or taken by choice)
to signal this new relationship to God and the world.
People whose gender assignment at birth fits like an
outgrown shoe will often, and with great care and solemnity
choose a new name to recognize their new relationship to self,
the world, and their families, and those who love them.

Names matter.
As we can see in this story, too.
In this the third promise-giving encounter between
God and Abram, names matter.
God identifies Godself with a name,
El Shaddai… God of the Mountains, or God Almighty.
I wonder why? Why this name among the
many names ascribed to God in Scripture?
Not El Roi, the God who sees
(a name given to God by Hagar the African slave of Sarai,
in recognition of God seeing her when no one else did)
El Olam – Everlasting God.
El Elyon – Most High.
El Shaddai.

Perhaps, when God says to Abram
“I am El Shaddai, come walk with me”,
God is inviting Abram to notice
that God is the One with sufficient
strength, might, power,
to shape not only Abram’s life, but his legacy.

Given that Abram and Sarai have
repeatedly acted out of a functional atheism,
taking it upon themselves to try
to work the long-time-coming promise out for themselves,
sometimes with oppressive and disastrous consequences,
God’s self-revelation as the Almighty One matters.

To Abram and to many of us type A overachievers,
and to many of us ‘not-so-sure about the God thing’ people,
who try to work God’s promises for justice, equity,
for personal piety, or success, by ourselves,
as if it’s up to us alone,
this reminder of God’s Name matters.
A reminder that God is good, up to the promises God makes,
to create, sustain, redeem, rescue, heal, recreate,
to make a way out of no way.

El Shaddai, God Almighty, it’s not a name for God
that sits easily on my tongue,
but in a pandemic a long-time in going,
perhaps it could.. perhaps it should…

But it’s not just God whose name matters.
It seems that the names of the
two humans in this story matter, too.
While we may at first have a bit of an issue with God
suddenly re-naming 99 and 90 year olds
without negotiation,
perhaps we could see this as a gift to them,
and to us, to be given a name befitting their legacy to the world;
Father and Mother of nations.

The names – with a simple insertion
of nothing more than a breath
-nothing less though than the creative breath of God;
Abram to Abraham,
Sarai to Sarah,
these names have power, they have future,
they are worth living into!

As inheritors of this covenant between
God and Abraham and Sarah,
to walk with God,
and to live in the world as blessing to the nations
is amazing, but it’s also daunting.
What happens when we,
like Abe and Sarai,
feel distanced from the promise
and the purpose by the intruding circumstances of our lives?
I know that’s something I’ve struggled with personally this year,
feeling like I’m not quite living up to this awesome call,
worrying that we as a community of faith are being hobbled
in our attempts to live as blessing beyond ourselves…

So I think again about that
moment when God seals
this covenant with nothing more
than a breath, a ha inserted into two names.

Our names, the ones that choose us,
and the ones we choose,
on God’s breath,
become in an instant
that affirmation of our unique self,
a term of God’s endearment,
enough to seal us into the same covenant,
to be and to become a people,
God’s people,
with a common purpose.
God’s purpose.
We are God’s people, and God is our God.
We are called to be blessing in the world.
That is enough. For now.

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