Sermon preached Sunday, July 31, 2011.
What is your name?
A being--man or angel or other—asks Jacob this question after wrestling with him all night, and it is not a casual question. Naming is important in the Bible; a person’s name usually reflected some aspect of character, parents’ emotions or incidents surrounding the birth, or significant life experiences. We see this in many stories: Abram and Sarai being re-named Abraham and Sarah; Simon being called Peter (the Rock) by Jesus; in the story of Ruth and Naomi, when Naomi returns to her people she tells them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.” Naomi means “pleasant”—Mara means “bitter.”
Jacob, born moments after his twin Esau, holding onto his older brother’s heel, is named accordingly: Jacob means “He takes by the heel” or “supplant”—meaning to overthrow or displace. And Jacob lives up to his name. He cons Esau out of his birthright, asking him to sell it to Jacob in order to get some stew after a long day working hard in the field. Jacob, with his mother Rebekah’s help, prepares a savory goat dish and wears goat skins and his brother’s clothes to trick his father Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Esau. He seems to meet his match in his uncle Laban, who tricks Jacob into marrying both of Laban’s daughters, but in the end, with the use of some cunning breeding practices he succeeds in taking most of Laban’s flock with him as he heads back to his home country.
We don’t see that kind of thing much today, at least in our society. A person’s name may reflect something of the parents’ personalities (traditional, radical, likes to follow trends), or family history if named after an ancestor. Sometimes, you might get an idea of the time of their birth—Rain, Summer, and Dandelion or Bertha, Edna, and Mildred—their ethnic background, or their parents’ interests, such as the kids named “ESPN” (spelled E-S-P-N after the cable sports network). But generally the names by which we are called don’t define us as much as they seemed to in the ancient world.
At least, our official names don’t.
But we have other names for ourselves. And society often gives us names as well. At times we refer to them as “labels.” In some instances they were names bestowed upon us by someone else; in others, we named ourselves.
What is your name?
“Lazy,” we respond inside. “The Chubby One.” “Bad Singer.” “Terrible With Numbers.” “Best at Everything.” “Klutz.” “Daydreamer.” “Not Good Enough.” “Not Pretty Enough.”
What is your name?
“Criminal,” “Outsider,” “Deviant,” “Troublemaker,” “Goody-Two-Shoes,” “Successful,” society names us, based on our appearance, history, background, circumstances.
And sometimes—probably more often than we’d want to admit—we live into these names as Jacob lived into his. Called “lazy” once by one teacher, we make choices which enforce that, because, well, that’s who we are, right? Having named ourselves “not good enough,” we don’t take risks that might persuade us otherwise. Labeled “Outsider” by society because of our country of origin, we do everything we can to blend in. While some names we become, others are admissions, confessions of who we are and where we’ve been in life. But either way, we carry these names with us, heavy weights of bad decisions, weaknesses, unrealistic expectations, inadequacies, or even shame. These names follow us into relationships and experiences, continuing to influence who we are, our way of being in the world.
Let’s go back to the story for a moment.
We meet Jacob on the edge of home. He earlier sent messengers ahead to alert Esau to his return; the messengers say that Esau will come out to meet him—with 400 men. Jacob is terrified that his past actions are about to catch up to him at last. He divides everything and everyone with him into two groups, hoping that if Esau captures or destroys one, the other will survive. He sends gifts of herds of goats, cattle, camels, and donkeys, hoping to win back Esau’s favor. And finally, he sends his wives, maids, and children ahead of him as well, perhaps hoping to further soothe Esau’s anger or at least provoke his pity. He is now alone, save for the being with whom he wrestles until just before dawn. The being cannot overtake Jacob, so he dislocates Jacob’s hip and tells Jacob to release him because it is almost day break. But Jacob, still not subdued, demands a blessing before he’ll let go. So the being says, “What is your name?” And in the answer is all the name implies. Jacob: usurper, trickster, thief.
On the one hand, it might have come out as a confession: yes, these are the things I’ve done, this is who I have been. On the other, one could also imagine resignation in his voice. Here he has wrestled all night, on the eve of meeting his brother after fifteen years or so, of finally facing the music, and he had prevailed over this stranger…and he’s reminded of his name. Of his history. Of all the events leading up to that moment. He is his name.
But then. Then the being says, no, that is no longer your name. You are no longer someone who displaces another, but someone who has wrestled with God and with humans and prevailed. You are bigger than that name. Jacob realizes that the Wrestler is God. God responds to Jacob by saying, “No, that is not the end of the story. You are more than that.”
Can we listen closely, and hear God saying that to us too? It is not easy, to be sure, to let go of those names. It may require wrestling and struggle, maybe even some pain. We might end up with scars.
Let us take a few moments, silently or out loud as we feel moved, to confess and acknowledge these names that we call ourselves, the names we’ve been called, the names that haunt and pursue us.
And now listen. Hear God’s response. Hear Him telling you that these names are not the whole story. Names can cause and carry hurt and anguish, but they can also provide healing and mercy. God has names for us, too: Beloved. Child of God. Vessel of Spirit. Worthy. Created in God’s Image. Bearer of Light. Christ’s Own. Beautiful. Welcome at the Table. Seeker of Truth. Cherished. Known and Forgiven. Keeper of Faith. Deserving of Grace. Blessed and a Blessing.
Again, it probably won’t be easy to let go of our old names and claim who God names us to be. Especially if God starts calling us by a name we don’t think we’re ready for. Take it from one who heard God name her “Pastor” and thought God had lost Her sweet divine mind. Talk about a wrestling match. And hey, even Jacob didn’t get it the first time—God appears to Jacob again in chapter 35 to repeat the re-naming process. Just remember, if God’s names for us seem hard to accept or believe, and if those other names still find us and seem more true, remember that God knows us inside and out, knows our strengths and weaknesses, our disappointments and successes, better than we know ourselves. So listen closely to what God has to say when you’re asked, “What is your name?”