What’s in a name?

Good morning, Friends!

We’ve been spending some time in the book of Genesis this month – Genesis is the book of beginnings, one of the oldest books in the Bible.

Most people, when they think about Genesis, think about the apple and the snake. Or they think about Adam and Eve, running around the garden with no clothes on.

But there’s a part of the story we often skip over, and that’s where I want to focus on today. We’re going to hold off on the fig leaves and Adam’s rib for another time. Today I want to look at this business of naming.

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a human from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the human he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The Lord God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the human, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

- Genesis 2:4-9, 15-19 

In the beginning, God created all the animals and birds. It makes me think of a potter making up a whole bunch of little figures out of clay. As each little clay figure is finished, the potter breathes life into it. And then God the potter shows the bird or the animal to the new human being, and asks the human being to give it a name.

This whole business of naming must have been pretty noisy and chaotic, as all the new creatures came off the assembly line.

“Hmm. Let’s see. This one has funny-looking feet. It doesn’t look like the last bird I named, the one we called a chicken. This one has flat feet, and the mouth is different, too. Ow! No biting! Let’s throw it into the pond and see if it floats. Hmm. OK, it floats. Let’s try throwing it some leftover bread crumbs and see if it eats them. Wow! It sucks those bread crumbs up like a vacuum cleaner!” (Except, of course, vacuum cleaners haven’t been invented yet.)

“What’s that noise it’s making? It’s paddling around, going ‘duck-duck-duck-duck-duck’. OK, let’s call this one a duck. Next!”

That’s the simple version of the story, the kids’ version. We name things because of the way they look, or because of the noise they make.

But if you think about it, there isn’t just one kind of duck. There are lots of different ducks. Everybody knows that! God seems to like variety. But I guess if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, well, then – it’s a duck, right?

So, there are dozens of ducks, and all kinds of cows, and thousands of different birds, and God only knows how many animals and fish and reptiles and amphibians and bugs and so on. There are millions of species of animals in this beautiful world, and we’re still discovering more of them every year. And our job – the first job God gave us – is to name them all.

We wonder a lot of the time what makes human beings different from our animal cousins. Other animals play, and love, and grieve, and manipulate their environment. Maybe not as much as we do, but they’re similar.

But human beings name things. We name animals. We name birds. We name places. We name special events, like, “Remember that time that Dad set fire to the garage by leaving the grill too close to the lawnmower gas can.”

If God makes things, then our job as human beings is to name things. Naming is more than just attaching a label. Naming means noticing, and studying and understanding. When we name something, we say that it matters, that it’s significant. And often, the name we give to something puts us into a relationship with it.

Animal, vegetable, or mineral? How do you know? What makes it a part of the great chain of life, the symphony of creation, created by God?

Part of our responsibility, according to Genesis, is that we are stewards and caretakers of the earth and all that’s in it. So it matters, what we call things. It matters whether we call something an abundant species, or an endangered species. Calling something by the wrong name isn’t trivial. Naming has tremendous consequences.

The names we give to things have a great deal to do with the way we treat them. If something is tagged as “useless”, that may not mean it isn’t important. It may just mean that we don’t understand it yet.

I can remember when a lot of parts of the human body were thought of as useless. The appendix, for example, serves as a reservoir for healthy bacteria which can re-populate our digestive tract after a serious illness. Doctors used to yank people’s appendix out all the time. Now they try to treat appendicitis and save it, because your appendix turns out to be pretty important.

For a very long time, scientists thought that half of the human brain was useless, because they couldn’t figure out what it did. Bad idea! Turns out that the “useless” half of the brain is responsible for creativity, for art and music, for paying attention, for organization, for recognizing faces and a whole lot of other things. We would not be human without that “useless” part of our brain!

Do you see what I’m saying? Names are important. Names matter. Calling somebody useless, or crazy, or worthless, can damage their whole life.

I was out visiting this week with one of our older members.  Jewel is one of the sweetest people in the whole state. I don’t think she’d mind me telling you that.

I had taken the flowers we had last week for Memorial Sunday to give to Jewel, and she really enjoyed them. Jewel asked who had arranged them. I told her it was Sharon, who’s sitting right next to me this morning as our presiding elder. Jewel just clasped her hands together and said, “Oh! She is such a precious child!” Sharon is all grown up, with grown up children of her own, but to Jewel, she’s a precious child.

Jewel actually thinks about all of you all like that, by the way. I said something to Jewel about Donald Brower Sr. getting recognized last week for 55 years of service with the cemetery, and she said, “Oh! He is such a handsome young man!”

I guess that when you’re one of the oldest members of the meeting, everybody else is young, but it sure made Donald feel special when I passed it on. Didn’t it?

My point is, what we call a person, or what we call a thing, makes a difference. Our job, one of the jobs God gave us, is to name things, and to see how special they are. God wants us to look at everyone and everything, and discover the wonderful qualities that God made them with. That’s our job.

Everybody complains about how nasty people today seem to have become. You can call it lack of civility. You can call it hatefulness, or social division. It’s in the news, it’s in politics, it’s in business. People don’t seem to value each other any more.

It comes out in the names people call each other today. Hateful names. Destructive names.

I wonder if a lot of this goes back to our forgetting the earliest part of the Bible, the story we read this morning?

What if we stopped calling people stupid, and worthless? What if we stopped using hateful language to talk about each other, in public and in private? What if we started respecting other people – not just the people we like, but even people we don’t particularly like, because we recognize them as God’s precious children?

If you name someone as foolish, or as an enemy, you’re going to treat them one way. But if you name them as your sister or your brother, if you name them as your neighbor, you’ll treat them a different way.

You might not get along with them too easily. I know plenty of brothers and sisters who don’t get along. But you won’t cut them off. You won’t say that they’re worthless. You won’t say that God doesn’t love them. Because they’re your family.

It’s interesting, in the Bible, that God knows everyone’s name. I meet a lot of people who tell me they feel lost in today’s world. They don’t feel connected, they don’t feel they belong. They feel like they don’t matter to anyone. They feel lost in the crowd.

But God knows everyone’s name. God knows you. God knew you, long before you were born. Whatever you may think of yourself, in God’s eyes, you are a precious child.

Even if you’ve made lots of mistakes, God doesn’t think badly about you. You are loved. You are one of a kind. You have God’s own breath in you, that gave you life. You mean everything to God.

Don’t ever put yourself down. God loves you! God would do anything to help you. You have never been worthless. You are God’s beloved.

In the Bible, many times when a person turns over a new leaf, or re-discovers their real identity, God gives them a new name.

Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel, after he struggles all night with the angel. Simon becomes Peter. Saul becomes Paul. It happens over and over again.

It’s almost as if we spend part of our lives not knowing who we are. And then God meets us, and God gives us a new name, a name that reflects our true identity.

In one of the most exciting and mysterious books in the Bible, the book of Revelation, it says that we will be given new names in Heaven. It says that “whoever overcomes, I will give them the hidden bread, and a white stone, and a new name written on the stone, which no one knows but the one who receives it.” (Revelation 2:17)

What does that mean? It means that if you’ve been called worthless, or if that’s what you call yourself, then overcome that. You’re not worthless. You’re precious. You are made in the image of God. God loves you! God has a new name for you. Those old names, the ones that hurt so much, or that you hurt yourself with, don’t matter to God. God’s name for you is friend. God’s name for you is beloved.

When you go home today, and all through this coming week, I want to ask you to think about this story from the beginning of the Bible. Think about the job that God gives us, to look at everything, to see the goodness in all the things and creatures and people God created.

That’s our job – to see the goodness and to name it, to praise God and to thank God for all the good in the world that God has made.

Our job is to name the good in people who everyone else calls worthless. Our job is to call people precious, who everyone else puts down. Our job is to shake off those feelings of worthlessness inside of us.

Because God thinks you’re wonderful! God created you special! God loves you. So don’t put yourself down, and don’t let anyone else do it, either.

God knows you. God knows your name. You are a special person. You are a friend of God. God has a new name for you, written in the book of life. God wants you to overcome all the obstacles in front of you. God wants you to feel his love and blessing.

You are a precious child, no matter how old or young you are. So is everyone you meet. Your job is to name that goodness, and overcome the hatred in the world.
I want you to please take that message home with you, and live it every day.

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