Sunday, January 16, 2011

Today's Sermon: John 1:29-42 “What’s in a Name?”

Cary Grant was born Archie Leach. Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz. Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danilovich. Queen Latifah was born Dana Owens. 50 Cent was born Curtis Jackson. They changed their names, or someone changed their names for them, because they wanted a name that said something about how they wanted to be perceived. For some of them, a more all-American name, a more White Anglo-Saxon Protestant name, would make them more saleable to the American movie market. For others, it was about carving out a persona, an attitude, a shield, almost…protecting who they were by constructing a façade…and the first brick of that facade was a name.

Names are powerful things, aren’t they? In the Jewish tradition, infants are named after a deceased relative, but they do not receive the same name, just a name with the first letter. They are tied to their family history by the thread of that single letter, even as they are given the freedom to forge their own identity by a different name.

Here in the South, names are tied to family as well. We hear of men and women alike whose first names are a family name…if your mother’s family name was Lane, you might well have Lane as your first name, or as a middle name that you use as if it were a first name. You might be Lane Smith.

Family is a powerful determinant of names…when my stepson Matt (Matthias Edwin Lukens III), the 12th generation of Matthias Lukenses in his family line since they came to America with William Penn, decided to name his only son Benjamin, his father was deeply unhappy that the baby wasn’t going to be Matthias Edwin Lukens IV.

Names are powerful in ways that are both good and bad, as promises and as yokes, as helpers in our ambitions and as stumbling blocks. John Quincy Adams felt burdened by the name his father John Adams had given him. His father’s history hung over his son, who felt for so many years unequal to his father’s great accomplishments. It was only in his later life that he came into himself, found his own identity and purpose in spite of that name rather than because of it.

Identity is at the heart of these many naming rituals, and connection with the traditions and the history and the culture. What we are called shapes who we are. What we name ourselves shapes who we choose to be. Names are important to us.

What does it mean, then, in our gospel story today when Jesus looked at Simon, the brother of Andrew, a man to whom he had just been introduced, and renamed him? And when Jesus gave Simon a new name, how did that affect Simon, and those around him?

At the very least, it was a change. Andrew and the rest of Simon’s family had known this man as Simon since he was born. He had been named Simon by his father at his birth. His wife knew him as Simon bar Jonah, Simon the son of Jonah. His identity was carved into him by his relationships to family members, by that name, with a name that means “hear, listen.” When people saw this man, a fisherman in his little community of Bethsaida, with a wife, and presumably children, and a brother, and a mother-in-law, they thought “Simon. Simon bar Jonah.”

But now Jesus gave him a new name. “You shall be called Cephas.” Cephas, an Aramaic word that meant “rock.” A name that we know as Peter, from the Greek “petra”, or the Latin “pietra” also meaning “rock.” Suddenly Jesus unhooked Simon from the family ties inherent in his name, from his identity as that fisherman with the wife and mother-in-law and the boat with the nets in the back on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, and transformed him, with a single word, with the change of his name.

Simon might have thought it odd, such a name. Why not “water” or “net” or big fish?” Why something so very different from the shape of his life as he had lived it thus far? Why “rock?”

But in John’s gospel, Jesus didn’t explain this renaming any further. Unlike the dialogue in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus didn’t go into the “and upon this rock I will build my church.” He just let the name hang there, ripe with meaning and with questions.

Jesus and his new disciples moved on to Galilee, picking up some other new disciples as they went. Jesus attended the wedding feast, his coming out party, if you will, as a miracle worker.

And in the midst of it all, there was Simon Peter, with this new name, with questions about what it meant, just sitting and watching and waiting to see how this name thing would play out.

I wonder: when they got to the wedding feast, did Jesus introduce him as Simon or as Cephas? Or was the transformation into the rock still a work in progress for this fisherman?

The name may have identified who Simon was to become – this Cephas or Peter or Rock. It may have been a predictor of his future role as the foundation of the church that was to follow. But in that first conversation, and in the years that Peter walked with Jesus, he had many more Simon moments that Peter moments, didn’t he?

When he told Jesus that he was the Son of God, that was a Peter moment. It was a rare one. More often, the man was Simon, with Simon moments. Simon was the one who spoke too loudly or too soon, who pledged undying loyalty and then ran and hid, and who denied Jesus to protect himself. Simon, who struck off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Simon who tried to push away those in need whom he judged annoyances to Jesus. The man had been renamed, but the transformation of his soul was slow coming.

The gift was that Jesus knew it would take a while, and was patient enough to let it happen as it was going to evolve. Jesus didn’t just zap Simon into Peter-ness with his renaming, he planted a seed that would take some time to bear fruit.

Several years ago, a colleague of mine had a young intern in her office for the summer. His name was unusual – it was MarcoPolo. He was a remarkable kid – twenty years old, from a poor household in Southeast Washington, raised by his mother and his grandmother. Blind from birth. Going to college on scholarship with his seeing eye dog Baron, taking three buses each day to get from home to school and then another two to get to work, and then three more to get home at night. And he was a proud young man. He wrote technical papers on financial services with great alacrity, but he had another dream – to be a DJ. It’s a common dream among young African-American men, but this guy was working it to make it happen. He had set up a website promoting himself, telling his story, and as part of this bit of self-promotion he had renamed himself, giving himself a new first name: Prince. He wanted that anointing as something very special, as if he wasn’t already quite special, so he changed his name on the website and on his resume and such. I don’t know if it was to bolster his confidence or to make himself sound more impressive to his readers, but that name was important to him.

I’d like to be able to tell you that his dream came true and he got a job as a DJ, but he did not. His gifts were not all that extraordinary in that arena. He continued his internship for a while in my friend’s firm, graduated from college, and prepared to go to graduate school in finance. Along the way, he did some stupid things that caused him to lose his internship, but eventually got another one. He squandered some of the money he had earned in various jobs trying to promote himself as a DJ, which meant grad school was more of a struggle for him financially. His dog Baron got sick and he had to find a way to get the treatment the dog needed – the dog was his most important resource and he could not function without him. He took a year off from his graduate studies to work and raise some more money to cover his bills, because his mother was ill and unable to help him. In short, he muddled through, making mistakes, working on correcting or recovering from his mistakes, shifted his priorities as he became more realistic about his aspirations, and eventually graduated and is living on his own with his dog in his own apartment. He evolved into something more than a Prince, an independent man with a good job and a good life despite his difficult upbringing and his blindness. He learned something in that experience: names matter. You aren’t a Prince because you call yourself one. When someone names you, it may take a while for you to realize what the name really means, and to grow into it. He grew into MarcoPolo, an adventure-seeker on the bus to a place where few from his neighborhood had ever visited, a traveler with a Baron as his companion guide, muddling through sometimes when he didn’t understand the world he was visiting, striving to understand in spite of it all.

MarcoPolo learned the lesson of names, the weight they carry, the possibilities they promise. He learned that you rarely get to name yourself. He also learned that it takes time to grow into one’s name.

Those lessons were the same ones that Simon Peter learned, and that we learn from both these stories. God names us, with all the mystery of our future in that name, but we may not even guess God’s name for us right away. In the same way, we may not understand the implications and expectations of our name until we have lived and made mistakes and learned about life and God and the world and ourselves.

But divine patience is an endless thing. Jesus was patient. He renamed Simon and let Simon find his way into his Peter-hood. He renames us, each of us, as his beloved, and then he lets us find our way into our own beloved-ness. Listen for that name; wait and learn what it really means.


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