“What’s in a Name?”
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For July 24, 2016, the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Based on Gen 17:1-6, 8b, 15-16, 19
When I returned from vacation in June I had 800 emails in my cache that needed responses, to be sorted and filed or deleted. Earlier this week I finally got that to below 10. The one thing I dread about going away for a week without internet access is how many emails I’ll have when I return.
I am very much looking forward to going away this week. Attending clown camp is something I have wanted to do for myself for about 20 years. At that time I had been on staff for a church clown camp for several years, and I thought it would be fun to go be a participant rather than staff. I had led a clown troupe in high school and another while in college. I had led hundreds of workshops on various aspects of clown ministry. I had also been part of the faculty for the Christ Clown College Convention for about 10 years. So I have a sense of what it is to lead these sort of events, but very little sense of what it is to just attend. And now I get to find out.
One of the things I know about clown gatherings is that names are hard to figure out. Almost everyone has a clown name and a real name – and sometimes they might have more than one clown name. So figuring out what to call someone takes a while – and sometimes when you know them by one name, someone else is going to know them by another name. Eventually you have this moment when you are talking about NokNok when someone mentions that Jim has been a teacher for a long time and you realize NokNok and Jim are the same …
Well, you cannot really say “the same person.” Yes, it is the same set of atoms arranged into a physical body, but the characters are different: how they talk, how they dress and move, how they behave, how they respond, how they interact with others – all that changes as the person becomes the clown and then reverts to the person.
It is sort of like acting in a play – except actors play a part, while one becomes a clown. For many, they become the clown when they put on the makeup. For others when they don the costume, or perhaps a particular clothing item like their shoes or their hat. For others still it happens when they move from their private space into public space, like moving from backstage to onstage or in circus terms from the backlot to the showtop. For many clowns, this change is represented by being called and known by a different name. Jim is going to interact with you differently when he is NokNok, because NokNok is different than Jim.
And that is the essence of these name changes in today’s scripture. Abram who is now 99 is being told he will soon be a father. In reply, Abram falls on his face – we’ll talk about that in a couple of weeks. God continues: “you will no longer be known as Abram (that is Exalted Father) but Abraham (“father of a multitude”). Because you are going to be a parent, you will interact with the world differently, you will behave differently, you will talk differently, you will work differently – you will be who you are and yet you will be a different person.
“And your wife: She will no longer be called Sarai (that is “quarrelsome”) but instead shall be known as Sarah (which means something like “princess”, “queen” or “noble woman”). After 89 years, she will be a parent, she will interact with the world differently, she will be blessed. She will be who she is and yet she will be a different person.”
The child of Abraham and Sarah is also named – Isaac – but that’s also part of the story we’ll get to in a couple of weeks.
It is interesting whose names do not change in this story. Obviously Isaac’s name does not change: he’s not even born yet. Hagar’s name does not change. It means “flight” or “fleeing one.” Throughout this hot week every time I stepped outside I have thought of Hagar fleeing into the desert wilderness. We’ll see that she has another episode of fleeing. Ishmael keeps his name, which means “God listens.” When Hagar was first pregnant, she fled into the desert, and God heard her and said she should return for the sake of her son. We will be hearing a story when she flees again with her son, and how God listens to Hagar’s prayer that her son be saved from dehydration.
And God’s name does not change. “I am El Shaddai, walk with me and be trustworthy.” El Shaddai means “God of the mountains” or “God of the wild places” but is mostly translated into English as “God Almighty.” This is the first of 48 times that divine name will be used in the bible. It is one of several divine names used in the Hebrew scriptures – not that there are several divine beings, but rather that God is known by several titles, sort of the way NokNok the clown is known out of makeup to his friends as Jim and to his students as Mr. Noks, and to his children as dad, and his grandchildren as Pops.
What’s in a name? It shapes how we interact with others and how others interact with us. So if you could be like a clown and choose a name for yourself, what would you choose? Would it be something symbolic: Joy or Hope or Grace or Smiley or Gigglepus? Would it be something silly but enjoyable: Bubbles or Rainbow or Sparkles or Twinkle or Thimbletoes? Would it be something you like to do: Doodle or Checkers or Cookie? Or would you go for something grand: Noble Queen or Father of a Multitude or God Listens? How would a new name shape the way you interact with others?
What if someone else assigned you a name? How would you like be called “Faith’s Example”? “Peace maker”? “God’s ambassador”? “Christ bearer”? Would having a name like that change your everyday behavior? How might having your name changed to that affect how others interact with you? Those are all names scripture uses to describe followers of Christ. At your baptism your name was changed. As a follower of Christ you already have those names.