I have been thinking about this sermon since last October when my family went to Disney and I became obsessed with name tags and then again since April and I was preaching on the resurrection narrative out of John and noticed that Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus until he called her by name. It was a long time coming and the coolest part was that we had a fundraising event at Hillside Country Club the next day and everyone who showed up to help wore their name tag – without me sending out a reminder!
I wrote some liturgy to go along with this – I will get it posted this week!
Rehoboth Congregational Church
July 28, 2019
Why Are Names So Important?
When we were in Disney last fall, one of the details I noticed (remember from last week – no detail left unturned!) was the fact that not only did all of the “cast members” wear nametags, but that the nametags also include where the person is from, as well – what they consider their home town to be.
And for some reason, this really stuck with me; I think, because, this simple nametag – this seemingly insignificant 1”x 2” oval name tag – not only gave someone an identity with a name, but also a story with where they were from.
In other words, the person driving the magical express was not just a bus driver, they were Matthew from Jacksonville, Florida; or the person walking around with Mickey was not just a character handler, they were Melanie from Sweden; or the person at the gift shop was not just a cashier, they were Jeffrey from Boston, Massachusetts.
And because I knew this information, I could, first of all, greet them by name and then I could strike up a conversation with them based on one simple fact.
Hi Matthew, have you lived in Florida your whole life?
Melanie, how long have you lived in the United States?
You’re from Boston, Jeffrey? We are from Massachusetts, too!
I was not only able to affirm them as a person, but I was able to engage them in a conversation and there but by the grace of God and a really small nametag, two strangers were able to see the humanity in one another and find a sense of unity and commonality.
So I came home on a little bit of a nametag mission. I am honestly not sure if this was before or after the soap mission that I talked about last week (and if you have no idea what I am talking about, I would encourage you to go listen to my sermon, “Why Is It Important To Talk About Hospitality?” and you can hear all about the soap-acolypse). But I will say that there was not a unanimous reaction to this particular mission of mine. While there were some people that were extremely supportive – even excited at the prospect of becoming a “name tag church” – there were others that resisted the movement.
I already know everybody’s name.
Everyone knows my name.
But I already hate wearing my nametag at work.
I will never remember to bring it with me.
Or, my favorite:
Well, let’s tackle that question today. Why?
I wanted to talk about the importance of names at some point during this sermon series on hospitality because, like the soap, I believe this is a hospitality issue. Because I believe that every single person in this world deserves to be called by their name; their name that identifies and affirms them as a child of God worthy of being seen and heard and acknowledged in this world. And so I wanted to look at the ways in which scripture addresses this very subject.
I chose three stories to read this week so we could look at the ways different literature within the bible address this particular topic. We have a reading from Genesis, the first book of the story of the Hebrew people, a reading from the Prophet Isaiah and then, into the New Testament, a reading from the Gospel of John.
Full disclosure – these three readings, in no way, fully encapsulate what the entire bible says about this subject; they are just a small snippet. But their diversity from one another is what I love the most, because it means that there is this reoccurring theme throughout God’s entire creating narrative that boldly proclaims that what we, as human beings, are called matters.
I have always loved the story of Abraham and Sarah – partially because, as a child, I thought it was so cool that my name appears, in a somewhat prominent form, in the bible. But what I love about this story, especially this partof the story, is the fact that God marks this transition in Abraham’s life – this covenant that he will become the ancestor of a multitude of nations – by calling him by a new name.
Abraham’s new name is part of a new covenantal identity. It takes his given name, Abram, and combines it with the Hebrew word for “father” – abba – and “multitude” – hamon.
No long shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
There is so much in a name. Often it not only identifies a person, but it also tells their story and when you call someone by their name you are not only affirming who they are, but you are affirming their story and very often the legacy of those who came before them.
And that is why I love this passage from the Prophet Isaiah.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name
The Book of Isaiah is the first of the major prophets. It is a composite work, meaning it is not actually the writings of one prophet, but of several different prophets who were active at different points throughout Israel’s history. It was written during the time of the Babylonian Exile and this particular scripture likely comes from during the time of the exile, itself – around 545-539 BC.
In this prophecy, God is speaking to Cyrus, who was a Persian King, the only non-Israelite designated as “anointed” in the Old Testament. God names Cyrus as the one who is going to carry out God’s commission. And here’s the thing: Cyrus does not actually know who God is, but God knows who Cyrus is; God chooses Cyrus and calls him by name to be his servant in this world.
By calling Cyrus by name, God is validating who he is and who God is calling him to be in this world.
Back in April, I was writing my Easter sermon and I was looking at this text from the Gospel of John and, knowing that I wanted to spend the summer focusing on hospitality, I could not help but notice the fact that when Jesus appears before Mary Magdalene after she finds that the tomb is empty, she does not recognize him until he calls her by name.
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).
Don’t you find it striking that Mary finally recognized the resurrected Christ in her midst when he called her by name? When he acknowledged who she was and who God was calling her to be? That was the moment when she realized that resurrection was possible; that was the moment when she saw grace in a real and bold and life-changing way.
I think names are important. I think they are important because they allow us to affirm the identity and the humanity of other people. I think they are important because we know from scripture that God thinks we are all worthy of that affirmation. I think they are important because it is in that affirmation that others, like Mary Magdalene, are able to see the presence of Christ and find grace in unexpected ways and places.
So we have, for better or worse, become a nametag church.
Well – we are trying, anyway.
Last December, we very excitedly passed clipboards around to collect names and towns and Kathy and I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s printing, cutting, laminating, punching and attaching name tags to clips in our enthusiastic DIY attempt at making nametags.
And I think three people consistently wore them.
However, refusing to admit defeat, I consulted some of my clergy colleagues and looked to see how other churches are doing the nametag thing. We put a little bit more money towards the project this second time around, purchasing RCC lanyards and perforated nametag sheets that use templates to make printing easier. Sometimes we remind people to wear their nametags, sometimes we encourage them, sometimes we beg them and sometimes we flat-out lecture them.
And we have had a little bit more success.
Deacons wear their nametags when they staff funeral services, I have noticed people wearing them at community events and meals and people really do seem to be tryingto remember them on Sunday mornings. We even added this fancy little “I Give Electronically” sticker for electronic givers so they can flash their nametag at the ushers when the offering plates come around they do not have a physical offering to put in.
It is not perfect – but we are trying. We are trying because we believe that every single person that walks through the doors of this church deserves to be called by their name; to be acknowledged and affirmed as a child of God. We are trying believe we believe that we will bear witness to the resurrected Christ as we acknowledge one another by name; that we will discover grace in the most unexpected ways and places.
So here is my plea:
First of all, wear your nametag. Even if you think everyone knows you or you know everyone – please, wear your nametag. We are trying to create a culture. You never know when someone is going to walk through our doors for the first time or even if someone is newer to the community and has not quite gotten everyone’s names yet. Knowing someone’s name breaks down an invisible barrier that oftentimes prevents someone else from starting a conversation with them. So let us make it easy for people – allpeople – to approach one another and have a conversation.
A second of all, try to learn other people’s names. And then call them bytheir names. Affirm who they are a child of God, who God is calling them to be and what God is calling them to do in this world and how they can be part of this church, this village, this Body of Christ.
So go therefore out into the world and call one another by name. May we affirm the identity of one another and may we discover grace – unexpected – along the way.
Thanks be to God!