What’s in a Name?

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

Dear Working Preacher,

I suspect that when I mention how powerful names are, many of us flee back to junior high in our imaginations. You remember — 6th or 7th grade, the time when kids become unnervingly skilled at inflicting emotional damage on each other with the exchange of just a few words. Stupid. Fat. Ugly. Skinny. Egg-head. Klutz. These are just a few of the many words with which we learned to hurt each other and from which learned the lie of our mother’s well-intentioned but utterly false pronouncement, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”

Nor, truth be told, did it end in adolescence. We’ve learned subtly in the years since junior high, but not always compassion. Names hurt because, true or not, they have the power not just to describe but to define. The names others call us, and the ones we sometimes call ourselves, serve as the boundary markers of our imagination of who we are and what we can do. They become limiting factors all too often reinforced by those around us. (You know the results of countless social science experiments as well as I do. Put a kid in a class for “gifted” students and she’ll score better than if she believes she’s in with the “dummies.”) The names we bear create a self-fulfilling future that can feel nearly impossible to transcend.

Which is what breaks my heart about the answer the demon-possessed man gives Jesus when he asks him his name. “Legion,” he replies, acknowledging that he no longer has a name of his own but is now only known by his infirmity, by the magnitude of his oppression.

I think that’s why I imagine Jesus’ healing of him as something akin to giving him a new name. You know, like when Abram and Sarai are given new names and an open future with the promise of a child. Like when Jacob is defeated by the angel at  the River Jabok and must confess his checkered past and shoddy character, only to receive the name, Israel. Like Simon who becomes Peter and Saul who becomes Paul. Names — good names as well as bad ones — are powerful. So Jesus doesn’t just cast out his demons, doesn’t just alleviate his condition, but gives him a new name and with it a new and open future.

Which, naturally, is terrifying, if not for him then certainly for everyone around him. The thing is, you see, we get used to our calamities, to our pecking orders and systems of definition and discrimination. The people were used to Legion. They were used to his shackles, to his raving, to keeping guard on him. He’d become part of the moral and social order of their world. And so when the demons leave and he’s now just plain old Bill, or Frank, or Ludwig or Ricardo, or whatever his name was, they don’t know what to do. In fact, Luke tells us, they’re down right upset. (And don’t be confused by the pigs at this point; first century Jews aren’t going to get fussed because someone lost a herd of swine.) No, it’s Jesus’ ability to rock their world and create unforeseen and unexpected futures that terrifies them. If he can do this to good old Legion, they might be thinking, what will he do to us?

And so they ask Jesus to leave, and he does. But not before first conferring with the one who received a new name and future at his command. He wants, understandably, to follow Jesus. (Not only is it understandable that he would want to give his allegiance to the One who healed him but, goodness, who wants to stay with the folks that can only imagine you as foaming at the mouth and who seem grieved to see you whole.) But Jesus tells him to stay home, to proclaim to those around him just how much God has done for him.

No easy task, that: to eschew the exotic for the familiar, the extraordinary for the mundane, the excitement of a new adventure for the ho-hum relentlessness of the every day. But perhaps this is the only way Jesus’ mercy and grace can penetrate the region of the Gerasenes. If they’re too afraid to tolerate Jesus, perhaps they’ll learn to live with the witness this man, now healed and whole, represents.

So here’s my question, Working Preacher: how can we become communities where we not only confer upon each other new and life-giving names, but also strengthen and encourage each other to live into the open futures they represent? It’s a huge task, I know, and probably a slow one — systemic change (which as today’s passage testifies is always what we’re about) takes time. But I think the worship services we’re privileged to lead are a good place to start. Think about it. Each week you have the opportunity to ask those gathered to confess honestly, if at times silently, what names keep them up at night and chase them through the day. And then you get to proclaim to them — not for the first time, I know, but this stuff is hard to believe, so repetition is key! — that God has called them by a new name and opened to them a new future.

We are, in fact, given the name of “Christ” at Baptism, and with it the promise that no matter what happens — no matter where we may go or what we may do or what may be done to us — yet God will always regard us as Christ, as God’s own beloved child. And armed with that new name and the promise of not only an open future but also a good one, we are sent out into the world — sometimes far away, sometimes close to home — to bear witness to all that God has done for us.

This may, I know, seems like small stuff in the face of the hardship and oppression that too often seem to govern our world, but keep this in mind. Names really are powerful, they not only have the power to hurt and harm, but also to help and to heal. Indeed, names — and in particular the Name God gives each of us — has the power to end oppression, to alleviate calamity, to disrupt discrimination, to nurture community, to effect reconciliation, to create a new and better future. In all these ways and more, God’s new name for us has the power to lead us through death into new life.

Thank you, Working Preacher, for your fidelity in proclaiming this name, this future, this hope. Even more, thank God for you. Keep up the good work!

In Christ,