What's in a Name?

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Have thine own way, Lord

Have thine own way
Thou art the Potter
I am the clay. Amen.

The year is 1750, the place a village in West Africa. Excitement fills the village as an infant son has been born to a young couple, Omoro and Binta. It is a special time for it is a time of naming. You see, the Mandikas, the tribe to which Omoro and Binta belong, believe the name given carries great significance.

Thus, a couple takes time-seven days to be exact-for contemplating, pausing, reflecting, before deciding upon a name. During the seven days, there is festivity, feasting, and dancing as the people wait in great anticipation to hear the name.

Omoro knows the importance of what he must do. You see, it was believed a child will bear seven characteristics of the thing or person for which it is named.

There is power in the name! Meaning in the name.

The day of naming has arrived. The center of the village is filled. Where there was once merriment and laughter, now there is silence and anticipation. Omoro and Binta enter with their newborn son, as does the village elder or priest. Omoro holds his son and first whispers into the ear of his son. The Mandikas believe every person should be the first to hear its name. After the baby boy has heard its name, then and only then, will others hear it. And so the name is now revealed to all those who have waited seven days to hear the name: Kunta Kinte. Kunta Kinte.

Following the ceremony, Omoro takes the little boy to the edge of the village. Alone in the dark of night, lit only by the moon and the stars, he lifts his newborn son and says:

"Fend Kiling Dorong Leh warrata, kat iteh Tee." Behold the only thing greater than yourself.

Thus opens the book "Roots," which 30 years ago made television history and forever changed how Americans would think of their origins.

Later, when Kunta Kinte was to be captured by slave traders and brought to America and sold as one buys and sells animals, the name again appears as significant. Once purchased, the slaves were given new names. But Kunta Kinte resisted--he would not take on a new name given by his "master." Some of the most riveting drama occurs as the young, frightened teenager tries to hold onto that which has utter meaning to him--power if you will--his name, his name.

In both Hebrew and Babylonian thought, it was believed that existence was wrapped inescapably with a name. It was believed that you did not exist without a name. A name reflected character and personality, one's essence. A name was given with great care and held significance for both the individual and the community in which the named lived.

In today's text, we are met with the significance of another name, the name of Jesus.

What's in a name?

Paul speaks to those at the church at Philippi, the church which had been so generous to him in his ministry. These early Christians, like those of the first communities to which Paul preached, lived among an array of philosophies and beliefs. Paul addressed them as saints for they had chosen to live apart as this special community. Paul reminds them of the place of Christ in the life of those who determined to follow him-the life change it required.

But it was necessary to continue to focus on the One, Jesus, to whom new allegiance was given. He was the One, the Christ, and how that messiahship manifested itself in the world and in the lives of those who followed him. They were to be different, because they were different in Christ.

It almost seems in those final verses that Paul himself was carried away as he told the story. Every preacher, every layperson knows the exhilaration of telling it, reliving it; remember, one can be more moved than the listener when telling the story.

The words from the hymn "I Love to Tell the Story" captures such exhilaration:

I love to tell the story;
'tis pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it,
more wonderfully sweet.

Paul then reminds the Church at Philippi--however meaningful they have found the relationship with Christ, however much their life was to change, so that they could be like him--Christ was no Philippian thing. No little tribal or geographical deity. Exclusive to no race or nation. So in his excitement, he exclaims of this Christ:

Therefore, God has highly exalted him and gave him the name, that is the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 3:9-11)

Power in the name!

The late Howard Thurman was a beloved professor when I attended Boston University School of Theology. He was a nationally recognized preacher, author, lecturer, and for me, a spiritual giant. He served for many years as dean of the chapel at Boston University, bringing it international acclaim.

He penned his autobiography titled "With Head and Heart." Howard Thurman records a compelling experience on his first trip to India in 1935. He was invited to preach at an Anglican cathedral in South India. Following the evening service, as he stood greeting the worshippers, there came a young man still moved from his sermon, but Dr. Thurman was surprised when the man spoke in a soft but broken voice these words: "You did my Master wrong tonight. It was a terrible thing: You preached your entire sermon and not one time did you call my Savior by name-not one time."

Howard Thurman, stunned by this observation and the reaction of the worshipper, went on to explain that his message was really the essence of the teaching of Jesus-his values, his witness. What he would describe as the kingdom on earth and the kingdom to come. "This was all Jesus, " he said. The young man agreed. Howard Thurman's sermon was all of that, he allowed, and then said, "Yes, but this is not the point. You did not call him by name, and it is important that his name be lifted up, that he might draw all men unto him."

There is power in a name.

Can you recall a circumstance when hearing a name or calling one brought calm, peace, or fear? Henri Nouwen, the late Dutch priest, who has impacted so many lives, wrote a little book "In the Name of Jesus." In it, he suggests the depth of the relationship one has that gives meaning to the name.

Power in the name. Because there is power in the one named.

A colleague, a United Methodist pastor, was invited to offer a prayer at a public gathering. He was later severely criticized, he said, by some fellow pastors for concluding his prayer with the words, "In the name of Jesus."

What's in a name?

More than 30 years ago, I found myself in a situation never imagined. A man put a revolver to my head. It was a time in the life of the nation when people who looked like me, black people, especially in some communities, were considered expendable. Our lives did not count for much. Life could be taken with no expectation of penalty.

I found myself in such a place at such a time. The revolver put to my head indicated I could die in that moment, and it would have been unlikely that the man who could take my life would be held accountable by his community. Simply put, he was one of them. I was not. In that moment I was gripped by fear, not knowing if the threat on my life would be carried out. And then without even thinking, I uttered the words aloud, not in panic but slowly, distinctly, "Jesus, Jesus, have mercy." And in an instant, panic left me. There was no longer fear, only a calm and peace. I looked into the eyes of the man holding the revolver and then saw fear and panic in his.

Power in the name.

Oh, we would that the world would know such power, such peace, such purpose, such hope, because they know the One Named.

The Name has power because one knows the One Named.

So Christians sing with special meaning:

Jesus, Jesus, (Jesus)
There's something about that name!
Master, Savior, Jesus;
like the fragrance after the rain
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!
Let all heaven and earth proclaim
Kings and Kingdoms will all pass away,
But there's something about that name.

There is power in the Name.

Let us pray:

Take the name of Jesus with you, child of sorrow and of woe
It will joy and comfort give you
Take it then where'er you go
Precious name, O how sweet
Hope of earth and joy of heaven
Precious name, O how sweet
Hope of earth and joy of heaven. Amen.

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