What’s in a name?

Rev Sue preached this sermon on Sunday 1 January 2023. Here it is for you again:

What’s in a name? Some people like the names they have been given, some don’t. Sometimes names are given to babies to remind us of people that we love, or because we like the meaning. Grace, for example, can evoke either graceful movement, or the grace of God in all its generosity. Faith speaks for itself.

In a recent piece of research 3200 fictitious people applied for jobs all using the same skills, qualifications and experience. All the applicants claimed to have been born in Britain, or at least to have arrived here by the age of 6, so all would have had good English. But people with names from an ethnic minority got considerably fewer call backs. For instance, Nigerians with a degree and relevant work experience applying to be software engineers had to send twice as many applications to keep up with people with names we might think of as traditionally English.

In spite of this many people with African or African Caribbean heritage are changing their names to ones that are rooted in Africa. Ian Roberts was born in Grenada. When he was 12 he watched the television mini-series “Roots”, and for the first time realised that he was descended from people who had been brutally treated and enslaved. He told his mother that he would trace his family tree and give them African names. She told him to get on with his homework.

As a teenager he used to pinch his nose several times a day in the hope of making it look less African. But by the time he was 19 he no longer wanted a name that had belonged to a slave owner, and he traced his family tree back to his great-great-great grandfather and he took the ancestral name of Kwame Kwei-Armah and was determined to be proud of his black ancestry. He is now a playwright and an actor, probably best known for the part of the paramedic Finlay Newton in Casualty.

We like people to remember our names, and I really wish my memory was better! Names say something about our relationships (who our father was or who we are married to), our identity and our belonging. Kwame was proud to belong to an African heritage but rejected the connection to the slave traders. Names are tied up with what we like, or don’t like about ourselves. In the Bible names are often meaningful. Adam was named after the earth that formed him, and he was given the authority to name the animals according to their nature. The name Eve means the source of life, the mother of the human race.

Yesterday Brian May, the guitarist with Queen, was interviewed about receiving a knighthood. He said, “It’s not very often in your life that you get a change of name, people actually call you by something different. To suddenly have people calling me Sir Brian is going to be quite an experience”.

Name changes are significant. Biblical characters often changed their names at pivotal points of their lives. Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah at the point at which God promised to make a new nation out of their as yet unborn son, and their grandson Jacob was renamed Israel after he wrestled with an angel. The most famous name change was Simon, called Peter by Jesus. Peter means rock, and he would be the rock on which the church was built.

To be called by our name is always significant. Sometimes it signifies a lack of relationship – when I am called Susan in a doctor’s waiting room, I know that the receptionist doesn’t actually know me, or she would call me Sue. Sometimes it is used to get through to someone who is in some way losing it, overcome by panic or anger. Saying the name helps. Our names were used by our mothers in a tone of voice that stops us in our tracks and we know we are in trouble. And it is used in love by those we are the closest to. God called the boy Samuel by name when he had an important message, his first prophecy, to give him. And on that first Easter morning it was only when Jesus spoke Mary’s name that she recognised him.  In the book of Isaiah we read

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

    I have called you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,

    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

    and the flame shall not consume you.

When God calls us as individuals, by our own names, it is often to tell us that he has a task for us to do. But it is always to reassure us that we are special to him, and that he will be with us and protect us. We belong to God and neither fire nor water nor fear nor despair can destroy us

The first time a child’s name is spoken aloud is a big moment. Some parents have already decided on names, others wait until the baby is born. For Mary, giving birth at a time when it was a very risky business for both mothers and babies it must have been a moment of triumph and relief. The name Yeshua, Jesus in Greek, was a common enough name, meaning “The Lord saves” – the same name as Joshua today. It both spoke of the ordinariness of the baby, born in a stable not a palace, and yet the meaning pointed to his unique identity as saviour of the world.

The name “Jesus” says that God cares about us; God knows what is happening to and with us; God is not indifferent; God is present, acting in the world and in our lives; and that God loves us.

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks Romeo.

“That which we call a rose,

by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Up to a point. But when you hear the word “rose” you straightaway have images in your mind of roses you have seen, or of a particular colour. Maybe you can conjure up the scent of a rose, or feel the softness of its petals, the sharpness of its thorns.

The name Jesus invokes different feelings in different people. Our brother who is beside us every day. Our saviour who ultimately will let nothing harm us, however dreadfully life is treating us. Our guide who shows us the way, or our friend who always forgives us however awful we have been.

Many of us find it helpful to repeat the name of Jesus when we pray, letting it penetrate to the roots of our lives, entering into our plans, our relationships and our deepest thoughts and feelings. Every time we say “Jesus” we acknowledge our need of God’s salvation, and we open ourselves up to his mercy, healing and forgiveness. We remember that God is with us, and we renew our relationship with him. And every time Jesus replies, “Here I am”.

Just as our children are named at baptism, Jesus was named at a ceremony which marked both the dedication of his life to God and God’s promise of God’ presence in return. We celebrate it on New Year’s Day, a time when we look back on the past year and forward to the year to come. 2022 was a year most of us are truly relieved is behind us. The Methodists make the connection at their New Year covenant services when they express anew their willingness to hear God calling them and to dedicate themselves to his service. I invite you to pray with me now the Covenant Prayer

I am no longer my own but yours.

Put me to what you will,

rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing,

put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you,

or laid aside for you,

exalted for you,

or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.’


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