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Called by Name

January 14, 2013

“Called by Name” Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-18, 21-22 © 1.13.13 Baptism of the Lord C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been embarrassed in my ministry and in social gatherings by my inability to remember names or details about people, even those I’ve known awhile. There was the young woman who had broken her neck in a swimming pool accident, whom I had been in contact with afterwards, but I asked her after a service one Christmas Eve, referring to her neck brace: “What happened to you?” Or there was the long-time church member, but infrequent worshipper, whom I thought was a new visitor. I overheard him later criticizing me to his dad, one of the elders.

As if those weren’t bad enough, one of the most shameful came during my first call in a large church in Mobile. I was the Associate Pastor, mostly in charge of youth, but my work involved general duties as well, including home visitation of all ages. I had seen one retired couple several times, but on a particular Sunday as I was greeting people, I could recognize neither of them. Maybe it was the distraction of the noise of conversation or perhaps it’s because I’m an off-the-scale introvert, but I was drawing a complete blank. “Please tell me your name,” I said to the wife. Very slowly, hiding her frustration, she replied: “Katherine Geraci.”

Contrast my failure of memory with the extraordinary skill of Dr. John Claypool, an Episcopal priest in Birmingham for some years. He was also a prolific author, and one semester in the 1980s our campus ministry association in Montevallo wanted him for our annual lecture series. I was in charge of working with him and making arrangements. We had lunch, along with a colleague of mine, and everything was settled. At least a couple of years went by, and we saw each other again at an event at Samford University. He greeted me by name without hesitation. I was amazed, delighted, flattered. How could anyone be so good with people, including someone he had met only once?

Sometimes being called or known by name can be intimidating or troubling. The bully intent on striking fear in a target’s heart shouts: “I know your name, and I know where you live!” Having a person’s name is a first step to identity theft. And then there are cases like that of a friend from back in the day, where how and by whom your name is said is the clue to the situation. He told me that when his mama called out the back door “Carter Wayne Beaty!” he knew he was in trouble.

But most of the time, being addressed by name makes us feel honored, recognized, valued, befriended, included. That’s especially true if someone has hundreds of names and details to remember. Or if we have a difficult name to pronounce or spell. Or maybe it’s uncommon or sounds kind of funny. I speak from personal experience, as you might guess with a last name like mine.

Names have power. Some are too evil to speak. Hence, Voldemort in the Harry Potter books and movies is known as “He Who Must Not Be Named,” and one had to have courage to say Tom Riddle’s chosen moniker. Some should be forgotten, so as not to give recognition to someone who has committed a heinous crime. Others are too holy to say, lest they be dishonored. To this day, pious Jews will not say the biblical name of God, which is probably pronounced “Yahweh,” meaning “the One Who Is.” I’ve even seen blogs written by Jews that spell “God” without the middle vowel, inserting a dash instead, to avoid even printing the name.

Or consider how the mention or the reading of a name can lift our spirits, make us pause to reflect or inspire us to action. The memories of a beloved family member or some national hero bring us joy or laughter or courage. We might speak in almost reverent, hushed tones or by contrast, with excitement and pleasure. We are empowered, moved, awed. I read recently how Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Memorial, once explained to a TV interviewer why it has come to have such a strong grip on our national emotions. “‘It’s the names,’ she said, ‘the names are the memorial. No edifice or structure can bring people to mind as powerfully as their names’” (quoted in Peter Storey, “Somebody’s Calling My Name,” More recently, think of the remembrance of the Sandy Hook victims not just as “first graders” or “teachers,” but by name.

The names on or in a memorial or on gravestones, on a plaque listing honorees for outstanding service or sports achievement, on a church roll or a census, all of these are powerful and important and noteworthy because they are shorthand for a complete history. Your name and mine, if we began unpacking it, is all about where we came from, who we are, what our choices have been, where we and our ancestors have lived and whom they and we have known. As one writer put it “Names are the first means by which we are set apart… Names are sacred words by which we are individualized…. [They are] more than convenient tags by which we summon our offspring to dinner. Our names distinguish us from family and friends. They offer us the grace of individualization” (Jack Good, “Naming Names”

In other words, you are who you are, and I am who I am. We each occupy a unique space and place. No one else is you. There is no other me. My name and yours gather all that uniqueness up in bundles of joy, and pain, and giftedness and failure, and sin and holy self-sacrifice.

As he did with Israel, God comes to each and all of us in the midst of our lives, as messy and marvelous as they are, calls us by name, and professes his love. Nothing is more precious to God, the text dares to claim, than his people. We are called by name, and claimed as God’s own. Called by name, and summoned to new life. Called by name, and invited to embrace God’s way. Called by name, and assured that in fire and trial, God is there beside us. Called by name, and so not overwhelmed by calamity. Called by name, and touched and healed. Called by name, and honored for who and what we are. Called by name, and bidden not to fear. Called by name, the name we are given in the bath of baptism, washing us with God’s waters so when we slog through the swamp of sorrow and trouble, we may be sickened, but we will not die. Called by name and sent to remind others of their forgotten name in God’s family. Called by name, and so claimed, comforted, and cherished.

The contemporary hymn writer David Haas puts beautifully God’s gracious invitation to be called and claimed. His lyrics have God say: “‘I will come to you in the silence, I will lift you from all your fear. You will hear my voice, I claim you as my choice. Be still and know that I am here. I am hope for all who are hopeless, I am eyes for all who long to see. In the shadows of the night, I will be your light. Come and rest in me. I am strength for all the despairing, healing for the ones who dwell in shame. All the blind will see, the lame will all run free, and all will know my name. I am the Word that leads to freedom, I am the peace the world cannot give. I will call your name, embracing all your pain. Stand up, now walk and live! Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me, I will bring you home; I love you and you are mine” (“I Will Come to You [You Are Mine]” © 1991 GIA Publications).

Thanks be to God.


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