When I was about 4 years old, I came to my parents with a strange request: I wanted to be called Peter.
Had I been inspired by Sunday School stories of Simon the disciple, whom Jesus named Peter, the rock on whom he would build his church?
Nope. I had dressed up that Halloween as Peter Pan and had grown attached to that character.
What’s more, I had decided that I hated dresses and bows and lace and all things girly. I wanted to be a boy. So I cut my hair as short as my parents would allow, quit ballet in favor of basketball and softball, and adopted a clothing style characterized by baggy t-shirts. The name Peter didn’t stick, but by 5th grade I bore an uncanny resemblance to Simon, the blonde kid on the TV show 7th Heaven.
In middle school, I grew out my hair, got my ears pierced, and even occasionally wore pink. Even so, my tomboyish demeanor never really went away, and at one point in high school it earned me another, less flattering name: dyke.
I played softball and was obsessed with the Indigo Girls. I was an easy target. But the few times someone insulted me by insinuating that I was gay, I was puzzled as to how to react.
Although I found the word offensive, the accusation, as it were, not so much. On the other hand, I knew that for the person who said that to me, it was the meanest thing he could think to say, and that, to me, was upsetting in more ways than one.
Of course, some part of me feared as a teenage girl that if the boys in school thought I was gay, none of them would ever ask me out, and I would die alone.
I now know that I dodged a bullet in not getting asked out by teenage boys. And now I can laugh when friends hear this story and tease me by calling me Peter. But the point is this: there is power in a name.
We have the names that we are given at birth, but we also have names that the world gives us.
How many of you were called names as a kid? How many of you believed what those names told you about yourself? Did you get called fat or ugly or stupid and think—wow, I really am fat. I really am ugly. I really am stupid.
Shane Koyczan, a Canadian poet and writer, wrote an anti-bullying spoken word poem called “To This Day” where he reflects on the lasting impact of being called name as a child. He says this:
I’m not the only kid
who grew up this way
surrounded by people who used to say
that rhyme about sticks and stones
as if broken bones
hurt more than the names we got called
There is power in a name.
There is power in Jacob’s name. In Genesis 25, we hear the story of Jacob’s birth. Isaac and Rebekah have twin sons, Jacob and Esau, and Jacob comes out second, gripping his brother’s heel.
The name Jacob means “he takes by the heel” or “he supplants.” The name becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy a few chapters later when Jacob cheats his older brother out of his birthright. It’s only natural for the supplanter to supplant. Jacob’s not bad, he’s just named that way.
There is power in a name.
I recently learned about a woman from Florida named Vikki. Vikki has written a book, started a magazine, and dreams of becoming a lawyer. There is only one problem: Vikki is a convicted felon.
At age 21, Vikki was imprisoned for possession of crack cocaine. She spent almost 20 years in jail. When she was released in 2008, she was eager to turn a new page and start over, but when it comes to civil rights, she now has only one name: “felon.” Vikki cannot vote, serve in public office, or become a lawyer in Florida.
I was astonished to learn that in Florida, 10% of the voting population is not allowed to vote, either because they are incarcerated or because they are in a situation like Vikki’s. Not all states have that dramatic of a statistic, but in our current system, you never really get out of jail. Once you are imprisoned, your name becomes “criminal” or “felon,” even if you were arrested for a non-violent crime like Vikki was. You are no longer worthy of basic civil rights.
There is power in a name.
The world gives us plenty of names. Whether good or bad, they affect us. At times, they seem to define us.
But any name or label that degrades us or others, that takes away from our God-given goodness and lovability—that name is a false name, and God wants to change it.
If the world calls you ugly, God calls you beautiful. If the world calls you felon, God calls you forgiven. If the names of the world beat you down, God lifts you up and calls you friend, child of God, worthy.
God will change your name. God will even give you God’s own name.
One of my good friends has a tattoo on her upper back. It is four Hebrew letters; yod, he, vav, he. These are the four letters that spell the unspeakable name of God. Some Christians say it “Yahweh,” or in a Greek form, “Jehovah.” Jews do not say it at all.
If knowledge is power, then knowing someone’s name gives you power over him or her in some way—and we don’t get to do that with God. Jacob does not get to continue being the supplanter by knowing God’s name and therefore having power over God.
There is power in a name, and in Genesis 32, the power belongs to God alone.
My friend got the tattoo as a reminder to herself that she is the creation of God the artist, who knows and loves her and claims her as God’s own. For her, it is like the signature an artist puts on a masterpiece. Even though she cannot see it without the help of a mirror, she is marked by God’s name, the name that God gave her when God made her in God’s image.
When God changed Jacob’s name, God called him Israel. The name Israel can mean “one who struggles with God.” But it can also mean “God struggles.”
My favorite visual rendering of Genesis 32 is a painting by Rembrandt. In it, Jacob is wrestling with an angel. But Jacob looks like he is asleep. In fact, he looks more like he is being cradled in the angel’s arms than wrestling with him.
I have always loved this passage because it speaks to my experience of God—embodied, uncertain, and often in darkness. But I loved it more when I learned that second meaning of the name Israel—“God struggles”—and when I put that together with Rembrandt’s work.
Even in the wrestling, Jacob can rest. Jacob will not let go of God, but in changing his name and blessing him, God promises that neither will God let go of him.
God offers a promise—you shall no longer be called Jacob, Supplanter. You shall no longer be called Ugly. You shall no longer be called Felon. You shall no longer be called Unworthy, Stupid, Pathetic, Failure.
Your new name shall be Beloved. Your new name shall be Beautiful. Your new name shall be Confident, Worthy, Forgiven, Whole, Recovering, Friend of God.
The hymn we are about to hear is my favorite. In it, Charles Wesley finds his own answer to the question that Jacob asked—“Thy nature and thy name is love.” God gives us a new name, God’s own name, God whose nature and whose name is Love.
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:1-3a)
There is power in the name of the one whose nature and whose name is Love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown
Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
and I am left alone with thee;
with thee all night I mean to stay,
and wrestle till the break of day.
I need not tell thee who I am,
my misery and sin declare;
thyself hast called me by my name,
look on Thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask thee, who art Thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.
Yield to me now — for I am weak,
but confident in self-despair!
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
be conquered by my instant prayer;
speak, or thou never hence shalt move,
and tell me if thy name is Love.
’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear thy whisper in my heart.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
pure, universal love thou art;
to me, to all, thy mercies move –
thy nature, and thy name is Love.
-- Charles Wesley (1742)
Sarah S. Howell