What is your name? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course.) You know what your name is, right? … if not, then raise your hand, and we’ll ask the people around you to help you out. Yes, names are the glue of our relationships with each other. They help us identify and distinguish each other, especially when we are not standing face to face with those we are addressing. They help us get a person’s attention. SAY SOMEONE’S NAME – see? Say someone’s name, and most of the time you will gain their full attention, at least for a moment. PLEASE NOTE – this rule is suspended for the periods of life when you are a toddler or a teenager. Sometimes, names also suggest something about our character.
A couple of weeks ago at a church meeting, each of our parish staff members reflected a bit on the meaning of their names. On our church staff we have a SPEAR and a GIFT FROM GOD … we have a PRINCESS and a DEFENDER … we have someone whose name means YAHWEH IS GRACIOUS, one whose name means ONE WHO LISTENS TO GOD and another whose name means MADE FAMOUS IN BATTLE … we have a CHAMPION and one whose name means PURITY. The meaning behind names is often beautiful and illustrative of a spirit or purpose that is gifted to a child when she or he is born. My name means CRAG or ROCKY OUTCROPPING. It doesn’t quite have the panache (panash) of some of our other staff names, but it fits me right? I’m a little rough around the edges. It works. It is supposed to work that way, I believe … names are meant to shape us. They help define us for the world in which we live … the help to define us, so that we know ourselves. What is your name? … and what does it say about you?
Of course, we have other names besides our birth names. We have names that only our family’s use for us – in my wife’s family, I’ve always been called Rossi. You might have a nickname at work … or in your spin club … or around the Friday night poker table. Those names may or may not capture the heart of who you are. If you are driving down the pike a little too slowly for me, I might have a few special names for you – don’t think badly of me … I have an excuse … I’m rough around the edges, remember? A person across the political aisle from you might have a few choice names that he or she thinks describes you. And to internet hackers, your name becomes a string of computer code that reveals far more about your personal life than you probably care to divulge. Yes … our name too is Legion … in some sense at least … just like the man we read about today … we have so many names, that sometimes they possess us, and bury who we might really be down deep.
In our exorcism story from Luke — a story that feels more like a Saturday evening horror movie at Penn Cinema than a Sunday preaching text — Jesus compels the demons that bind this poor soul, to identify themselves. Listen again to Luke’s narrative …. Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name? “ He said, “Legion”, for many demons had entered him. Luke tells us that the demons had come from the abyss … sometimes translated the deep … the abyss was a desolate place … a place absent of God’s presence … the Book of Revelation may refer to it in its 9th chapter as the bottomless pit. A desolate place where God is absent. Maybe you have had moments when you have found yourself in an abyss. A time or place where the names you bore, and the expectations people had of you, were so numerous and overwhelming, that you lost track of who you truly were in the eyes of God. A time or place where the cacophony in your head was so chronic and noisy, that you could not remember the words or teachings of Jesus that identified you as a beloved child of God … words you might easily recall at any other time in your life. Yes … sometimes in the world … our name is Legion … because we allow far too many diversions and distractions into our heads, and because we pursue far too many rabbit holes and whims and temptations.
What is your name? … is the simple yet powerful question Jesus uses to heal this man and exorcize his demons. What is your name? The question accomplishes two things for Jesus. First, it confronts the legion of demons inside this man, with the truth that they do not belong inside this child of God. They do not in fact have any power over this man, nor do they fit within the nature of how this man was created by God. And thus they are alien to him … out of place … and banished back to the realm in which they belonged. The second thing the question accomplished, was to call out from deep within him, the soul and spirit of this man – the name with which God called him into life. Jesus already knows this man as God’s child, so he doesn’t ask out of ignorance. He asks so that the man will be forced to find once again his heart and soul … his name … the child of God … the disciple … who had been created in God’s image.
God does the exact same thing for you and for me. When we find ourselves possessed by objects … or activities … or beliefs … that are alien to us … spirits that wish to drive us out into the wild places of life, cut off from and out of touch with the God who made us … then … especially then … Jesus calls you by name, and invites YOU to remember who you are as a child of God. Legion has many faces within our lives …. It is the rat race of materialism that enslaves you … It is the smothering cloud of workaholism that buries you … It is the distracting siren of digital toys that disconnect you from your real life … It is the black rage of anger than poisons you …
What is your name? Jesus asks you … not because he doesn’t know … but because sometimes you don’t know. And whether your name is Charlie or Helen or Bob … or Sinead or Magnussen or Tatiana … God has blessed you with one name that stands above all other names. You are a daughter or son of Christ … and thus God wants you to bear just one name upon your brow. And so he is regularly at work in the world and in your life to help exorcize the demons haunt you.
“Exorcism” as a term, feels outdated in our modern culture … it brings to mind an image of Fr. Damien getting pea soup spit all over his face by Regan MacNeil. But Jesus is as much an exorcist today, as he has even been. Every time you stand side by side with your sisters and brothers in faith, speaking words of confession and hearing promises of absolution from God … Legion has been banished from your life, by Jesus. Every time you have the courage to reconcile with a friend or a family member, because you know that it is what God invites you to do, and expects you to do … Legion has been sent back to the abyss by Jesus, who is Lord of heaven and earth. And every time you kneel or stand at this rail or another … and receive a little bread and a little wine, accompanied by the promise that they are so much more than just bread and wine … Legion has left your body, soul and spirit, and made room for the spirit of Christ to flourish within you. Yes, every time you remember that you bear the name of Christ, the one who has saved and redeemed you, you celebrate a God who wants to banish anything that stands in the way of your health and hope.
At yesterday’s wedding ceremony for our former vicar Matthew Beers and his beloved Merry, one of the lessons read was the Genesis 1 story of the creation of the world in six days. Of course, part of both creation stories in our Bible, is the identification of the first humans and their roles and responsibilities on earth. As I was working on both my wedding homily and today’s sermon, these two different preaching opportunities came together around this theme of “naming.” And I found this quote by Anne Hamilton, in her book, God’s Poetry: The Identity and Destiny Encoded In Your Name. She writes about the definition of “name” and looks back to this ancient biblical story of creation, to help us understand our names in a modern world. Hear Hamilton’s words.
“For the Hebrews, names provided a direct link with the Creator. They understood words as being the creative fire of God, the ‘black fire on white fire’ of His Law. Every utterance and every act of creation through which God revealed Himself was not only word made flesh but fire made flesh. The word for ‘being’, yesh, ‘to exist’ or ‘to have substance’ was flame–breathed. The word for ‘fire’, esh, was embedded in the word for ‘being’ and in the very notion of ‘being human’. The rabbis were said to have asked: Why is the word for ‘woman’, ishah? Because she is fire, esh. Why is the word for ‘man’, ish? Because he too is fire, esh. They noted that when the Hebrew letters for ‘man’ and ‘woman’ came together they produced a new word as part of the union: yah, a reference to Yahweh, the Name of God.”
What is your name? You know that, as well as I do. Live into that name your parents gave you … live into that name that God has given you, too. Amen.