“Tell Me Your Name”

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Get ready. This week’s reading from Genesis betrays one of the most popular lies of our culture. We’ve all been told it. Even more painful, we’ve each told it ourselves. Moreover, even though we know it’s false, we still sometimes whisper it to ourselves, hoping it might be true. I suppose our attachment to this particular lie is understandable, as most of us learned it from our parents. It goes like this: sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will never hurt us.

As most of us have learned over the years, of course, names do hurt. Whether they are names we have been called by others or those we have called ourselves, names hurt a lot. You know what I mean: names that exaggerate our inadequacies or herald our failures; names that expose our weaknesses or pay tribute to bad decisions. We wear these names on our backs like a snail does its shell, dragging them with us into each new episode, encounter, or chapter of our lives.

This is what Jacob runs smack into at the bridge at the river Jabbok. His hopes and fears. His dreams and nightmares. His past, present, and future, all tied up in his name. It’s a strange story, make no mistake. If it sounds familiar, it’s because many of its elements probably are. A bridge over troubled water; the dark night of the soul; monsters that assail in the dark of night, only to grow weaker with the rise of the sun. From The Three Billy Goats Gruff to The Knights of the Round Table, we’re used to these kinds of mythic elements depicting turning points in the lives of heroes. Except that, up to now, Jacob hasn’t been much of a hero.

In fact, he’s been pretty much an unrelenting scoundrel — swindling his brother for his birthright and then cheating him of his blessing, Jacob fled his home to the backdrop of his brother’s howls of grief and anger.  Then, for the next fifteen odd years or so, he went head-to-head with his equally devious uncle Laban, squabbling and double-dealing over everything from wives to livestock, until he is once again on the run, this time bringing with him his family, servants, and all the wealth he can carry. Which is where today’s reading picks up, as just verses before those appointed for today, Jacob receives about the worst news he could imagine: Esau his brother is coming to meet him…with an army of 400 men.

Readers who have followed Jacob’s story may quietly rejoice, anticipating what probably seems his overdue and proper comeuppance, but Jacob is terrified. True to his nature, Jacob sends ahead of him gifts to bribe his brother’s favor. After that he sends his wives and children, perhaps hoping that even if his brother can’t be bribed, he will at least take pity on him. With everyone across the river, he paces its muddy bank, contemplating his dicey future. And then it happens: he is set upon by what must seem like a demon. They struggle all night, until as the sun comes up and the creature’s strength ebbs it reaches out and dislocates Jacob’s hip. And then Jacob knows — he is the presence of something supernatural, and so he asks for a blessing.

It’s at this point that the story takes what may seem to modern ears a strange twist, as Jacob’s opponent demands to know Jacob’s name before he will bless him. But names in the ancient world are never simply names; rather, they are descriptors, tell-tales, indicators of one’s very character. And Jacob’s name — literally, “heel” — is no exception. For he was the one who was grasping at his twin brother’s heel as they were born. And he’s been grasping ever since — living from his wits and cunning, trusting no one and proving himself untrustworthy at every step of the game. So when the demon, who turns out to be the Lord, demands that Jacob confess — confess his ill-gotten gains and checkered past, his fears and failures, his shifty arrangements and dubious social interactions — he is asking Jacob to die. For nothing is more terrifying to the cheat and scoundrel than having to come clean, tell the truth, ‘fess up.

Once he does, however, an extraordinary thing happens: the Lord refuses to accept Jacob’s confession as the end of the story, refuses to allow that Jacob’s name is all there is to him. Indeed, the Lord gives Jacob a new name — Israel — the one who wrestled with God and humans and prevailed. It is an act of generosity and grace, as Jacob has wrestled but hardly prevailed. Yet with this new name, Jacob enters into a new future, and passes his name, faith, and future on to his descendants, who bear that name even unto this day.

Yes, it’s a strange story, but I find in it a profound corollary to a part of our own story, when we, too, gathered by water, were given a new name. At baptism, you see, that is just what happens, as we are given through water and the word the name of Christ. It’s where the popular word “christening” comes from. Way before we used this word to name ships or homes, it described Holy Baptism, the place where we were, quite literally, Christ-ened, given the name of Christ and God’s promise to regard us always as Christ.

So back to our names. This week, I think, the challenge and opportunity before us is to ask ourselves and our people to confess — to confess those names we’ve been called and call ourselves, the names that haunt us at night and pursue us during the day. We are called, that is, to share our fears and our failures, our setbacks and disappointments, our resentments and regrets. We are called to confess so that we might hear God’s response, “No. This is not the whole story. You are more than you can believe. In fact, to me you are Christ.”

How many of our people can even imagine, let alone believe, that in Baptism they have God’s promise to regard and treat them always as God’s own beloved children, even as God’s own Beloved Child? But that is what we are. And so after we have died in our confessing we are raised to new life as God names us anew and calls us to life and love and abundance and grace. Names do hurt, sometimes very much, but they can also heal, and help, and raise to new life.

So that’s what I’d like to hear this week, Working Preacher — a sermon that invites me to tell the truth about who and what I am and then announces that there is a second truth, bigger and more expansive and far more gracious than I’d imagined, a second truth that creates an open future and girds me with the hope and courage to embrace it. Remind me, that is, that whatever other names I may have collected over the years, my primary name is Christian. And then send me out to be one.

Thank you so much for your good work, Working Preacher. What you do is so important, and I am grateful for your fidelity and the way your labor encourages me and so many others in the faith. Keep up the great work!

Yours in Christ,