Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent - February 25 2018

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
February 25, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Abram and Sarai were given new names – they became Abraham and Sarah.  They weren’t the last to get new names from God: their grandson Jacob was renamed Israel after wrestling with a messenger of God during his exile from home and family.

Jesus told Simon that his name was Peter – after the Latin word for rock – petrus – and said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”

The prophet Hosea’s children were named things like Jezreel – which in Hebrew means “Not Loved” – and Lo-Ruhamah, or “No Compassion” and Lo-Ammi, “Not My People” – all were assigned these names by God to convey a message about how God viewed the sins of the people of Israel. 

Names were important in these stories.  They were more than words that identified a particular person; they were words that said something about who the person was

The name Abram, we think, means “exalted father” – but Abraham means “father of a multitude.”[1]  The change in his name was a sign of God’s promise that he would indeed become the father of many nations, even though he and his wife were quite, quite old, and had been childless for decades.

Sarai and Sarah both mean “princess,” and for her the change is basically symbolic, a parallel to her husband’s, but adds a stress to her special destiny as the mother of many nations.[2]  And their son, Isaac, whose name means “Laughter,” is a recollection of her response to the news that she would have a son at all, after so many years barren.

Their lives changed, their roles changed, and their destiny changed – and their names changed too, and even before the other changes took place.  The names were the sign that God would do what God promised.

Now in our culture it is still common for a one, or even both, of a new-wedded couple to change a name.  Traditionally, the bride takes her husband’s last name.  Now, of course, we might find women keeping their own last name, or appending the husband’s name with a hyphen, to her own, such as our bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, and there are plenty of examples I am sure you can think of besides.

The name change in these situations also reflects a significant change in the life of each person.  In a marriage, the two parties become something new together – a married couple.  It’s only in the last hundred years or so, even less, that women in the U.S. even have had the option of retaining ownership of their own material wealth when they marry.  Or of voting.  Or of married women having their own bank account without their husband being a signatory as well. 

Being married is not like being single.  The law considers “the marital unit” as an entity in itself – which is why marriages are registered with the city, county, or state, and why divorces must be finalized by a court order.  Legal rights attach to the marital unit, and between the parties, which are not severed without official sanction by some unit of government. 

In short, there is a change in quality that takes place in a marriage; a change in the status of the individuals involved – in fact they are not quite individuals anymore, from a legal standpoint.  Or, for that matter, in the eyes of the church: they are joined and separation of what has been joined is un-joined only with difficulty. 

But I started out talking about names – and how naming and name changes in the Bible are used as signs of a change in the nature, or the essence of the persons involved.  Abram, ironically named “exalted father” by, presumably, hopeful parents, is now Abraham, “the father of multitudes.”  That’s a serious, significant, and substantial change in his very essence. 

Peter, the fallible, lovable, and slightly dense disciple, becomes a rock – a firm foundation – a serious, significant, and substantial change in his very essence; and, like Abraham, it takes a while to be made manifest, but the change is as sure as the river will rise when it rains.  And we all remember the apostle Saul, except we call him Paul.

In church speech, we call these changes in essence “ontological” – based on the Greek ontos – and is that “branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being or reality.”[3]  Ontology addresses the question, “Who – even What Am I?”

For me, becoming a priest has been an ontological change – in this case, it’s not signified by a name change, but some people do call me Mother Evelyn, and I do get to write “The Rev.” in front of my name now.  So these are the signs of the change in my essence and being – that now I have authority, by virtue of my ordination, to accomplish certain actions, among them, that the state recognizes any marriages I might perform, and God will recognize any marriages I might perform – or sins I might forgive, and of course, we believe that when I say the Eucharistic prayer, in some way we do not fully understand, the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ, spiritual food that heals our souls.

So there is a lot that could be said if you felt like asking, “What’s in a name?”

It’s not just in the Bible or in weddings that names are changed, along with the nature of someone’s being or essence or reality.  When immigrants come to the United States, they may adopt new names – on of my great-great grandfathers changed his last name from Risseau to Brooks, as one example. 

In 1826, slave-born Isabelle (Bella) Baumfree walked off from the home of her owner in Ulster County, New York, and was taken in by an abolitionist family in other town, who paid off her owner so she could be free.  After becoming a Christian, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and labored for years for the abolition of slavery, and for the right to vote. 

When our identities and sense of self change or mature, a name change may be just the ticket to express the depth of the experience.  A child with a nickname drops it when they get older; another child may adopt a new use name.  Trans people often take new names to express their deeper reality.   

Why am I spending all this time on names?  I mean, aside from the fact that I personally find it rather fascinating and fun?

When Jesus called Peter “Satan,” did he really mean it as a description of Peter’s essence and nature and being?  I don’t think so.  As I said last week, this calling out of Peter was more a reflection of who Jesus was – and who the messiah of God was supposed to be and what role he was to play in the life of God’s people. 

Because in Mark’s gospel, we don’t find out what the temptations in the desert were, so we have to pull them from the rest of the story.  So, I cited Marilyn McCord Adams argument that Jesus rejected the power of Satan by casting out demons, and the vision of Satan by rejecting Peter’s view of what the messiah was supposed to be and do, and in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus refused to abandon the road on which his Father had set him so many months earlier and submitted to the cross, an act of incredible humility and the final step of his human journey.

When God names you, it means God has a relationship with you. When God names you, it means that God has something in mind for you – but you’re probably going to have to figure a lot of that out for yourself.  When God names you, it means God sees you, knows you, cares for you, and walks with you.  When God names you, through the waters of baptism, you are sealed with the Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.  When God names you, you are real.

When God names you, you have a relationship with God, an obligation – not based on threat or fear or force, but on love and with joy – to be in relationship with God.  When God names you, you are God’s. 

It doesn’t mean your life will be easy.  It doesn’t mean you will have whatever you want, or even whatever you ask God for, or even what you need to survive – but it does mean that God has claimed you as beloved.

When God names you, it means you are transformed, changed at the root, and called to be as you truly already are.

The maker of everything, the lover of souls, the majestic and awe-inspiring center of life, calls you Beloved.

And it’s up to you to find out what that name means. And to live out its truth.



[1] Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, ed. Michael Allan Powell, (Harper One, 1989).  Pg 6-7.

[2] Ibid. , p 919-20.

[3] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, Simon and Schuster, 1979.  Page 1250.

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