What’s in a Name?

(A sermon for Lent 2B March 8, 2009 Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38)

Juliet: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

At one of my first jobs after college, I worked in the U.S. Senate Library with a librarian named Thea. In a small set of rooms tucked up in the Capitol Building, a team of ten provided legislative reference support to the Senators and their staffers. In a very conservative work environment, Thea was an anomaly. She had dark hair that hung to her waist and held liberal views and spent her vacations working on an organic herb farm where she slept in a tent, to the great amusement of her co-workers. Thea rocked. I loved saying her name: Thea. It seemed so perfect, like the name of a character in a book. One day I told her, "Thea, I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone with a name that suited her so well.” She looked amused. “Your parents did a wonderful job naming you,” I said, and then she laughed.

You see, Thea had been christened “Ethel.” Thea, who grew up in the 1950s, changed her name legally as a young adult, after years of being called “Ethel Mertz” by her schoolmates.

I congratulated her on choosing so well, and then she explained that the name change had created a family controversy and very much upset her mother. Her mother’s name?


What’s in a name?

As a not very liberated young woman of 22, I got married for the first time and took my husband’s name with thinking about it much. I knew of women in my age bracket who kept their maiden names professionally, but it seemed like you ought to HAVE a profession to be in that category, and I worked in the children’s department of a bookstore. Martha Spong became Martha Bauer, and had children and a dozen years went by, until the day a lawyer asked me if I wanted to keep my married name or go back to my maiden name when my divorce became final.
At that time about a quarter of the way through seminary, and still not using any name professionally, I decided that someday when I was ordained, I would like it to be with my maiden name. And so Martha Spong who had become Martha Bauer became Martha Spong once more.

But I soon learned that being a Spong in seminary attracted more attention than I wanted. You see, the person quoted on our bulletin cover, my cousin Jack Spong, while not famous in a general way, is well known in certain religious circles for his progressive theology and his many, many books, and although he is a Bishop in the Episcopal church and my seminary relates primarily to the UCC and the American Baptists, people knew his name, and they asked me all the time, “Are you related to Bishop Spong?”

I love my cousin, and I like the way he pushes the boundaries of what we believe about God, but I became tired of defining myself in relationship to him.

If you have one of those names that people recognize, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I went to college where my father was dean of the law school, and I answered the question there many times, too.

What’s in a name? My daughter is the sixth Bauer child to attend Renowned Middle School. Two brothers and three cousins have been there, too, and it’s impossible not to explain her relationships there. How do we become who we are meant to be while wearing the mantle, for good or for ill, of someone else’s name? How do we express fully the gifts God gave us when others hear only our “label?”

What’s in a name? Abram and Sarai received new names from God in the context of a promise made to them. They would become not only Abraham and Sarah but also Dad and Mom! Hilarious! They were 99 and 90 years old, such an unlikely notion!! Their new names began a new life, a life that would be the source of ever-expanding generations of descendants, “a multitude of nations.”

Sometimes we’re called by the wrong name. There are still people who call me “Mrs. Bauer,” people who relate to me as the mother of my children: their friends, their teachers, the nurse or the doctor or the dental hygienist. I don’t correct them. I’d rather be spoken to politely, even with the wrong name, than make the other person feel bad.

Still, it takes a person aback to be called by the wrong name. I wonder how the apostle Peter felt when Jesus snapped at him, “Get behind me, Satan!” His dear friend reacted so strongly when all he did was ask Jesus to stop making predictions of doom and gloom! Secretly Peter may have held the hope that all would be well. Don’t we all hold that hope? And really, wasn’t he right in the end? But to get to that point, to the joy of Easter, Jesus needed to walk the road that led to arrest and trial and execution. And he did not want to be tempted to think otherwise, especially not by his trusted friend.

What’s in a name?

In this name, Satan, was the sharpest reproof Jesus could give to the one he had named the Rock, Peter. He needed Peter to be clear on the way things would happen. And he needed to keep himself on the path, too, knowing that the people closest to us are the ones who can most lovingly and well-meaningly lead us astray sometimes.

In Mark’s gospel, as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, there is no appearance by Jesus in a resurrected state. The women go and find the empty tomb, and they leave the place frightened. Mark’s gospel asks for a lot of faith on very little “proof.” This famous moment, the “Get thee behind me, Satan” moment comes just before the Transfiguration, so we are taking the stories out of order, but it sets the tone of the contrast between what is divine and what is human, and lays the groundwork for the idea that Jesus is both.

What’s in a name?

How did Jesus become Christ? Oh, we know the story of the crucifixion and the events of Easter morning. But how did he become *perceived* as Christ? Using only Mark’s gospel to tell the story, we have no encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden, no appearance in the upper room, no fish breakfast cooked by the lakeside. We have only these moments that refer to the Son of Man in glory and the shiny Jesus Peter and James and John will soon see on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah.

A lot of faith and little proof, yet this gospel became the source for two of the others, the telling of the story of Jesus that brings him to us at his most human and gives us only a sliver of his glory. He is sharp with Peter, and he is sharp with us, demanding that we get clear about who we are and who we are going to be.

What’s in a name?

Martha Spong became Martha Bauer and then Martha Spong again, and then along came Don Hoverson, and I had to think about who I wanted to be, one more time. And I saw, for the first time in my life, a chance to define myself not by someone else’s accomplishments but by my own calling and my own effort and by my own faithfulness, I hope, to God.

My cousin Jack still addresses my Christmas cards to Martha Spong.

We talked recently about the way some people recoil when they hear we are Christians. What’s in that name? What does it mean to us? Sometimes I think it means both too much and not enough. It feels respectable, in an old-fashioned way, when it really is a radical thing to be. After all, Jesus lost his human life for the crime of upsetting the authorities, not for cooperating with them or advising them or giving into them.

Jesus speaks in this passage of carrying the cross, and we might well think of that image as one of torture and blood and death, which the cross certainly caused. But that was Jesus’ own cross, his own destiny and burden to carry. The cross Jesus asks us to carry is different. It looks different for each of us, in emotional shape or sp
iritual weight or practical demands. Underneath all those individual aspects, every cross is love. We take a walk toward a different kind of Jerusalem. We are not going to be nailed to the cross; it’s not so literal as copying what Jesus did, because we are most assuredly not Jesus!! No, the carrying of the cross is a reminder to focus on the thing that matters—not worldly success, but the gracious gift of God's love we can share with the world.

What’s in a name? Ethel became Thea; Abram, Abraham; Sarai, Sarah; Jesus became known to us as the Christ. Who are we, and who will we become, as we walk this journey of Lent? God calls us into unlikely situations and into unexpected tasks of the heart. God calls us into authenticity, into fruitfulness, into relationship and into love, whatever our names may be. Amen.

(I used our real names here on purpose, because I felt our blog nicknames would detract in this case, so please don't worry that I did it by accident. I'm pretty clear that I'm no longer anonymous!)

5 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Names can be so loaded with meaning. I remember when I returned from our honeymoon and went to move the last things out of my apartment and into the one I would share with my husband. I crossed my name off the mailbox and burst into tears because I felt I was obliterating my identity. Poor Michael was very disconcerted. I’d taken Michael’s name because i couldn’t imagine having a different last name from my children. And then we weren’t able to have children. But I’m used to my name now and wouldn’t go back to plain Ruth Hull.

  2. SB, you have some amazing family connections! They are lucky to have you–together you all must be (have been) an amazing company.
    Thanks for sharing this sermon–I love it. 🙂

  3. This is great.
    (And I have to admit I had wondered if you were related to Bishop Spong too, because I have a few of his books.)

  4. I did seriously consider either keeping my own maiden name or hyphenating it with my husband’s, but thirty years ago the former wasn’t done very much and the latter seemed a little affected. But I’ve done far more than I’m proud of with my current name, and wouldn’t go back, especially as my maiden name is one of those recognisable ones.
    But I am not sure whether or not to be slightly concerned that my daughter has taken her husband’s name, as have those of her friends who are married! You would have thought they wouldn’t bother… and in the UK, we don’t have your tradition of using the maiden name as a middle name after marriage.

  5. What a great sermon! Names are so very powerful, as I learned as a teacher. And Kathy and I have had our own difficulty with this. When she moves out here in a little over a month (not that anyone’s counting), we’ll be able to get legally married (yay Massachusetts!). Someone we admire a lot has a hypenated last name with her partner so we began thinking about having the same last name. Kathy’s very clear that she wants to keep the name she currently has, which is her ex-husband’s. I had a hard time with this until I realized that it’s no longer his name, it’s hers. It’s her identity, and in choosing to hyphenate our names, I need to respect that identity.
    And um, hi. I’ve missed reading and commenting on blogs of late.

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