I remember when we got our first dog when I was growing up. I don’t remember how old I was, but I know it was before first grade. I remember getting in the car and driving down to Dayton where my father knew someone who had dachshund puppies. Dad went inside to get the puppy while my mom, my sister and I waited in the car. Finally – it seemed like forever – finally he came back to the car with something wiggling around under his coat, and he got into the car and we took turns petting the puppy and holding the puppy and letting the puppy lick us. It was wonderful.
One other thing I remember about getting the puppy was choosing a name for her. We had chosen the name before we brought her home. Mom and Dad had brought home dog books, and showed us pictures of dachshunds and read to us about their temperament and everything. After we’d looked at pictures of dachshunds and learned about dachshunds we tried to pick a name that would go with a dachshund.
The puppy was a girl, and we had learned that dachshunds were German dogs, so we needed a German girl’s name. After a while someone suggested Fritzie. Fritzie. It sounded right. Fritzie.
Actually, the dog’s name was Fritzie Lou. I’m not sure where the “Lou” came from, but it doesn’t matter. Fritzie Lou Davidson.
As I was growing up we had more dachshunds. The next one was named Scooker. She came named, but she made a sound that kind of sounded like she was scooking, whatever that is. Then after Scooker was Max – a good German boy’s name. And then that was the last of the dachshunds while I was in Ohio.
Names are important. Names matter. There have been numerous studies where they show pictures of women to a large group of men. They’ll split the men into two groups, and show each group the same picture. They’ll tell one group that it’s a picture of a woman named Gertrude, or Hildegard, or something like that. They’ll tell the other group that it’s a picture of a woman named Roxanne, or Desiree, or something. Then they will ask each group to rate the attractiveness of the woman in the picture.
Even though it is the exact same picture of the exact same woman, Roxanne and Desiree always are rated as more attractive than Gertrude and Hildegard. When you take men’s pictures and two groups of women, the same thing happens.
I had a friend growing up whose name was Kim – K-I-M. He hated his name. He thought it was a name for a girl. I know it’s a unisex name, but it does seem to be more common as a girl’s name than as a boy’s name. And although we were good friends I never knew Kim’s middle name, because he disliked it so much he would never tell anyone what it was. At 8:00 AM on the morning of his 18th birthday, Kim was at the Courthouse to change his first name to Ken and his middle name to Roy, after his father.
Names matter to us. Names matter in terms of how people view us, how people think of us, how people evaluate us. Names matter in terms of how we think of ourselves. Names are important. Even in the Bible, names are important.
Names are important not just for what the name might mean, but naming things is important functionally. Naming something or someone is one of the key ways that you demonstrate control or dominion or power over it or them.
There is a controversy going on here in DC right now that illustrates this principle exactly. The name of the local football team is the Washington Redskins. Some people find that name racist and offensive. Other people think that in context it is not offensive. I’m in the former group, although I admit that it’s such a habit that I don’t always remember to omit the name.
You know who disagrees with me? Dan Snyder – the owner of the team. It’s his team, and that’s what he wants to call them. And there is nothing that you or I or anyone else can do about it. Even the federal government – they can cancel the trademark, but they can’t make him change the name. It’s his team, and he controls the name.
Fritzie Lou didn’t pick her name. She was our dog, so we picked it for her. And if Lori and I had come up with something that Mom and Dad didn’t like, they would have vetoed it since they were the ones paying for the dog.
I didn’t pick my name. When I was born, my name was Darrell Gebhard. I was adopted. My parents had thought hard about what they wanted my name to be. My dad never really like his name, first because it rhymes (Emerson Davidson) and second because with those six syllables it can have a sing-song feel to it. They made sure to pick a name that would avoid both of those pitfalls – Jeffrey Davidson.
That choice, that decision, was an expression of my parents’ legal control over me. Naming, whether it is at birth or after adoption, is an expression of control.
You saw that with my friend Kim. As soon as he was legally allowed to do so, he changed his name to Ken. He couldn’t do that while he was still under his parents’ control. He had to wait until he was no longer under their legal control and had the legal right to make his own choice about his name and to take control over his legal life.
You see that in the Bible. There’s a cartoon I’ve seen several times on Facebook recently. The first panel shows two guys in Biblical robes. The first guy hands the second guy a box and says, “Here you go! One thousand business cards that say ‘Simon the Fisherman.” The second panel shows the second guy standing in front of Jesus rolling his eyes, while Jesus says, “No longer shall you be called Simon; now your name is Peter.”
You even see it in the Old Testament. God gave Adam dominion over the animals, right? What’s the first thing that Adam did in his relationship with the animals? He gave them their names. In the Bible, in our own lives, in our relationships with people, in our business relationships, the ability to name something is a symbol of dominion or control over it.
Sometimes names are a sign of submission. Let’s go back to the Washington football team for a moment. I’m sure that there are football players who object to that name. You know what? Too bad. It’s not their football team. They don’t get to pick the name. What they do get to pick is whether or not they will play for that team. It hasn’t happened that I know of, but it is entirely possible that a free agent could say, “You know what? I think that name is offensive. I think that name is racist. I’m not going to play for Washington. I’m going to sign with the Arizona Cardinals.” If they want Washington’s money, then they have to submit to having that name on their helmet and their jersey and their football card or whatever. They can choose what they are going to do if they don’t like the name – either submit and accept it or walk away.
We can choose all kinds of different names. There are a lot of different names for Jesus in the Bible. We can choose what name we want to use for Jesus in a given situation. This isn’t us taking control over Jesus – we didn’t make these names up. They’re all in the Bible. This is us taking control over our situation by naming what it is we hope or need Jesus to be in the moment.
Maybe you’ve got some emotional problems or heartaches to work through. Then you might think of and pray to Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor. Perhaps your faith is being tested. In that case you might recall Jesus, the rock of our salvation, and that rocks make a solid foundation for your life. We often have to deal with things we don’t understand. Jesus was often called “teacher” – maybe a teacher is exactly what we need.
The name “Jesus” itself has a meaning – it means “Deliverer.” When we are feeling overwhelmed, when we think that we just can’t go on, when we are in fear for our lives, it may be some comfort to remember not just that Jesus is the deliverer, but that it’s his very name.
We choose not just names for Jesus, though. We choose names for ourselves. I have chosen the name “Christian.” I have chosen a name that shows my belief in Jesus as my savior, and my submission to Jesus as my master. That means that I have to live the way Jesus calls me to live, and that I have to put Jesus above everything else in my life. It’s hard to do, and I don’t always live up to it, but that’s the standard to which I have publicly chosen to be held.
I’ve chosen the name “Brethren.” If you believe the denominational tagline, it means that I want to continue the work of Jesus, peacefully, simply, and together with others. That’s how we define ourselves as a denomination, or at least that’s the shorthand for it. That’s what I am saying about myself.
I could choose some other names for myself if I wanted. I could choose the name “faithful,” or the name “loving” to describe myself if I wanted to. Those names wouldn’t mean much, though, if I didn’t live up to them. Think back to all of Jesus’s names. Jesus didn’t just say one day, “Call me teacher” or “Hey, call me counselor.” Those were names that described who Jesus was and what he did. Jesus was a counselor for folks, a teacher, a rock.
So if I, or if we, wish to be known as faithful, or loving, or generous, or praying, or merciful – whether it is as a congregation or as individuals, we have to do those things. We have to be those things. Those are names that we must earn.
Even my friend Kim had to act to get his name. He didn’t just say, Hey, call me Ken.” He took action to make that his name. He became Ken. Likewise, we need to become the name that we want for ourselves.
How well do we do that? It depends on what part of our lives you look at I suppose. Tomorrow is a day that is set aside to remember and reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. King claimed the name of Christian. He didn’t always live up to that name, and I think he would be the first to tell you that. You could focus on the parts of King’s life that fall short of the name of Christian.
But King also tried to live out of that name as best he could. King led his crusade the same way Jesus led his. Without violence. In the streets with the people. Willing to accept punishment, willing to suffer, willing to die. King did not live up to the name of Christian all the time – no one does. He did the best he could, though, and succeeded to a much greater degree than most of us do.
It is our job to choose and then try to live up to the name of Christian. It is our job to be followers of Christ – as individuals and as a congregation. There will be times we fail. There will be times we fall short. But we will keep trying to follow Jesus.
When we do, when we walk where Jesus wants us to walk and say what Jesus wants us to say and do what Jesus wants us to do, all of the other names we might want will fall into line. When we follow Jesus we will be generous, and peaceful, and loving, and merciful, and faithful. When we follow Jesus, we will be sharing Jesus’s way and faith and love and life with everyone we know. When we follow Jesus people will see us doing those things, and we will earn those names in their eyes as well. Amen.