Get Behind Me, Witch! On God & Name-calling

Lent 2 / March 1, 2015 / Year B

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 / Psalm 22:22-30 / Romans 4:13-25 / Mark 8:31-38

Preached: March 1, 2015, All Saints’ Church, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

This morning, we’ve just heard two stories about name-calling. In the Old Testament, God appears to an old married couple–Abram is 99 years old–God appears with words of encouragement and promises new life. God says, “Walk before me”–as if pushing them into the future with comforting hands. God makes a covenant, a promise, to them, that they will have many powerful children, even though they haven’t been able to have any children yet and they’re very old. It is an outrageous promise to make to these 90 year-olds! But God does it.

And that isn’t all God does. God also gives them new names. God says to the man, you will no longer be Abram, but Abraham. Sarai will no longer be Sarai, but Sarah. They want children desperately and deeply. It is outrageous and unexpected that God is promising them children now, and that it comes along with these new names–kinda weird names. You can imagine Abram & Sarai saying “Ok??? Like, I just got a lot of stationery with Abram printed on it??? But ok, God, I’ll try out Abraham.”

Aren’t nicknames often like that? Kinda weird, kinda unexpected, but passed on in a special and loving way? In college, my roommates started calling me Ghoul. Sort of short for when they’d call me Julia Ghoulia, but also because I could get a bit ghoul-ish, staying out very late at night working on the newspaper–they never knew when I’d return, like a ghost in the apartment. Honestly, I’m not sure I would choose Ghoul as a nickname for myself, but I love when they call me that, even 10 years later. “Hi Ghoul,” my friend Emily will say when she answers the phone. I know she loves me, when she says it. I know she knows me.

Names, at their best, are just that–a reflection of deep love, a sign of the covenant a parent makes for their child. Julia, my parents said when they held me. We will take care of you and call you Julia. My grandmother’s name. The family lore is that she never liked her name, until my mother suggested she might name me Julia after her. Then she was very enthusiastic about it.

My grandmother had many names, herself. We grandkids called her Tutu. Our parents called her Mom. Her friends called her Judy.

We all have many names, sometimes our new names are chosen for us by friends or grandchildren. Sometimes we choose the names ourselves, after a marriage, or a new vocation, or to align with the truest parts of ourselves–our gender, or our heritage. Malcolm X after prison, Mother Teresa after her religious vows, transgender rights advocate and writer Janet Mock to match her gender, Hillary Clinton after she married Bill.

Names come with stories, and these stories can be painful. Names can be barriers, because of racism, because of estrangement, because of ancient grudges.

 Shakespeare’s Juliet famously opines of her star-crossed Romeo:

Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

Juliet knows what God knows about us, too–the dear perfections we all have within us are not tethered to our names. God knows what is in each of us, Abram or Abraham, Sarai or Sarah, God knows us completely.

But don’t forget, we have heard a second story of name-calling this morning, this one in the Gospel of Mark. In this story, we call God Jesus, of course–see God’s name changes, too. When God comes to be with us as fully human, we call God Jesus. The Gospel of Mark is the story of God as Jesus, of course, God as human.

In the text just before we begin the portion this morning, we’ve heard Jesus ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they tell him, “Elijah, John the Baptist!, one of the prophets” All these wrong names that people have been confusing with Jesus.

But Peter says to him, “You are the messiah.” Peter knows who Jesus is, Peter names him.

So Jesus tells Peter and his disciples what’s going to happen, how he is going to suffer and die, and also rise from the dead — a fantastic story, an outrageous story, a promise which seems on the order of magnitude of a 90 year-old woman having many children — and of course, Peter gets upset. Peter tries to stop Jesus from this crazy talk.

Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus calls Peter Satan!

When I first lived away from home, my mother and I would talk on the phone a lot, probably every day. I will never forget one time, very early in my college career when I was chatting with my roommates, the same ones who called me Ghoul. My mother called and I answered it right there in front of my friends, just a quick call. Well, we must have been talking about something a bit contentious, because (though I can’t remember what it was) I do remember that I ended up saying something like, “Hey, stop being such a witch.” Only, you know a little worse than that. My friend Kate was so shocked. She said, “I can’t BELIEVE you talk to your MOTHER that way.”

Now, I’m not saying this was a nice thing to say to my mother. It was very, very rude to call her this name. But it came from within the context of a very loving relationship, one with deep knowing and understanding.

This is how I imagine Jesus talks to Peter in this morning’s Gospel, from within a loving relationship. Because Jesus needs to get his attention, Jesus wants us all to pay attention and stop worrying about human things. Jesus needs to get our attention because he is about to tell us something really radical, something kind of crazy, something outrageous.

“Take up your cross. Follow me. Lose your life to save it.”

How can we know today, without God appearing before us like Abraham and Sarah, without Jesus to shake us up, pull our head out of human things–How can we know today that God sees us? How can we feel the familiarity of God’s name-calling?

What is God calling us now? How can we know what we are supposed to do to take up our crosses? What do our crosses look like?

Before Jesus’ death on the cross, before it became the central Christian symbol, the cross was merely a Roman tool for humiliation and execution–a tool of empire and domination, no resurrection in it, nothing life-giving. Those sentenced to death on the cross would have to drag the thing through the streets, and then get up on it, suffer a painful, public death.

The threat of this kind of cross looms over all of us–whether personal or political. In her book The New Jim Crow, scholar Michelle Alexander tells us that there are more black men in prison in America now than there were black men in slavery in 1859. One in 11 black men are in prison, even more in jail or the criminal justice system. The fastest growing prison population in the U.S. is black women.

The prison industrial complex in America is a racist tool of domination and humiliation. This is certainly one of our crosses today.

A common understanding or reading of this passage–a personal reading rather than a political one–is that we must suffer, that taking up our cross means to suffer the way Jesus did. But I think, rather, that taking up our cross, today in 2015–is to enter into knowing. It is to know deeply what our true self is. To name it. To know the suffering around us. To name it.

To take up your cross is to face down humiliation. To revel in your own dear perfection, what it is that makes you who you are.

But this is God’s covenant to us: God knows your name. God knows when you are worrying yourself with earthly things, God knows when you’re being a real satan. And God knows when you are full of life, God knows the outrageous potential in you–in each of us–as crazy as a 90 year-old giving birth, the potential to follow God’s whispering call to us.

This Lent, as we wait for the outrageous, unexpected good news of the cross to come at Easter, we take up our different kind of crosses and listen. We listen for God’s new name for us. We listen for God’s new name for who we have always been. AMEN.

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