Changing Names

I’d like to begin this sermon with a poem by one of the great theological poets of the 20th century, T.S. Eliot.

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey—
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter—
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name
— T.S. Eliot

I am fascinated by the power of names. Adam gave names to all the animals, and whatever he called a thing, that was its name. Naming is about understanding things, classifying them into groups that have some kind of meaning in our world view, a mystical, almost magical ability that we human beings all have. We would be unable to understand anything at all if not for this power. What a marvelous ability!

But it has a dark side. As fascinated as I am by our astonishing ability to divide the world up and name it, I am disturbed by how often naming has the effect of hiding the truth, shaming heroic efforts, justifying evil, demeaning the beautiful. I once heard it said that the subject of Da Vinci’s famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was a prostitute, a name that carried shame with it like dirty car grease and fouled the speaker’s perception of the painting’s beauty. If you’ve ever been at the receiving end of this kind of naming, the kind that makes you feel worthless and hopeless, you won’t soon forget it. I confess to you now that I am guilty of that kind of naming more times than I can count. Maybe you are, too. Sticks and stones do break bones, but names can injure people’s deeper selves in places untouched by mere physical injury.

But names don’t just have the power to degrade and demean. Their mystic potency is able to summon, as if from nothing, nobility and glory previously unobserved. Before Adam ever named anything, God called every good thing into being by naming it. And God renames people in Scripture often enough that it becomes almost cliché: Hosea’s children get renamed twice, the first time for judgment and the second for reconciliation; Jesus’ disciple Simon becomes Kephas (or its Greek form, Peter). Sometimes it doesn’t matter much, but most often we would be making a serious mistake in reading if we failed to think of those renamings as anything less than world-changing for the characters. Imagine Jacob’s paradigm shift when the angel he’s been wrestling with names him Israel because he’s really been wrestling with God. Think how jarring it must have been for Peter when Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan” — sternly correcting Peter’s mistaken belief in a Messiah who triumphs without suffering.

We heard another one of those stories this morning in the Old Testament reading, when God renames Abram and his wife Sarai, giving them the names Abraham and Sarah. They are old and childless, and reconciled to their fate. I mean, as St. Paul says, who ever heard of people having children who are so old as to be practically dead themselves?! But God renames the both of them, makes a new covenant with them, and promises that they would become the ancestors of a multitude of nations. Into what seemed like their dying gasps, God spoke a new word that set them on a new path that made what had seemed like the end of their story into their story’s middle. All that with a name.

A name is never exactly the same as the thing to which it points; sometimes it’s lesser, and sometimes it’s greater. This is why, like the cats in Eliot’s poem, there remains a deep ineffability to God’s true Name that we cannot ever know, let alone utter. God lets us use various names of our own making or even ones that God tells us to pray and theologize. But when we use names like “God” and “Jehovah” and “Jesus,” and even “Trinity,” we make a mistake if we think that such words articulate the fullness of God’s Self. They allow us to address God as “Thou,” in Martin Buber’s terminology, but they do not define or limit God’s Being. God’s character is strong enough and transcendent enough that God is unfazed by and resistant to all our attempts to pin it down.

But we do not have the strength of character that God has: we are susceptible to the ways we are named by others. True, humanity, made in the image of that God’s Being and after God’s likeness, is also much more than the names we give and receive. But with the names we give to one another — the labels we use to designate people’s character, the things we highlight and downplay about one another, the aspects of our fellow human beings that we deplore and that we cherish — we shape our experience of them and we contribute to their experience of themselves. For my part, rather than criticizing where there is deficiency, I want to encourage and strengthen where there is goodness. I want to expect and summon the best in myself and others by the names I use. My Lenten meditation, and my earnest desire and prayer, is to work on naming my neighbors and myself in ways that summon beauty and goodness and strength, and that can set us all moving with hope and faith into the new story to which we are called in Christ. That story takes us through Lent and Good Friday, but it brings us into Easter and gives to all of us the shining name “Saints.” That’s the name God gives us, calling us into a new kind of life. When you leave this place, go out and give the name “saints” to those you meet, trusting God to make it true. Amen.