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What’s In A Name?

By Sr. Elizabeth Ann, SSJD.

Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

What’s in a name?  We heard this lovely phrase from Isaiah 45:4, “I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.”  Friends call us by name.  Others must ask our name.  God calls us by our name, and then goes further and cements the relationship by giving  us a surname, naming us as God’s own people.  It reminded me of a retreat I had attended some years ago given by Fr. John Govan, SJ at Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario.  He spoke about our True Identity being the sum of both our given name, which John referred to as our First Name of Grace, and our surname which he called our Last Name of Grace . This is, however, somewhat different from being surnamed by God, but ties into our name of grace.  John said that our Last Name of Grace has to do with our relationship with the world as we experience it through our 1) Physical selves (your body, age, sexuality, health); our 2) Psychological selves (feelings, imaginations, and emotions); and our 3) Social selves (family, community, institutions, cities, countries, media, etc.).  Our Last Name of Grace is how we interact with the world around us in our physical being.  Our First Name of Grace has to do with our interior relationship with God, our life of prayer and worship. 

We tend to separate our first and last names as two aspects of ourselves.  When God calls us and surnames us as God’s own beloved ones, this is our True Identity and there is no separation.  We come to know our True Identity when we no longer experience a duality between our first and last names of grace. To bring them together, Fr. John told us to use our feelings, which he called data for prayer.  We were to imagine ourselves with Christ and then simply pay attention to our reactions to both the physical and social aspects and experiences of our lives.  This is how to pray with your Last Name of Grace.  Our reactions to our life experiences shed a light on our feelings.  Next, we were to take the feelings uncovered and go back into prayer and talk them over with Christ, praying our First Name of Grace.  Many of us practice this kind of prayer through a daily awareness reflection.  Holy Spirit helps us to see our experiences from God’s perspective rather than our own points of view.  When we see with God’s perspective, we begin to see our Last Name of Grace and First Name of Grace not as two, but one whole.  Our True Identity is related both to our inner relationship with God and our relationship with the world at the same time, one not two. When we live out of the knowledge that there is no duality, there is peace.

In the Gospel reading we heard that people were sent from both the Pharisee and Herodian factions, coming from the sacred and secular sides of society, working together to entrap Jesus.  Jesus, however, knew his True Identity in God.  Instead of seeking the things of this world, Jesus steered them back to their relationship with God from which right action proceeds.  Jesus had taught his disciples to, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).  Jesus had instructed the disciples to not be worried about what they would eat, or drink, or about their bodies or what they would wear.  Instead, they were to rely entirely on God and God’s providence; loved and known, called and named by God. What’s in a name?

An oft quoted Shaker’s proverb is: “Hands to work, Hearts to God.” It was a way of expressing their True Identity in God.  Their work was to be as perfect and productive as possible as they lived their lives in God.  Mother Hannah said that in a Sisters’ life prayer is our first work; seeking God first, and all the work we do as Sisters proceeds out of our life of prayer.  Both ways of looking at this are trying to help us move towards our realization of our true identity in our relationship with God.

Jesus questioned those who presented the coin to him, asking, “Whose head is this, and whose title” (v.20)?  It seems to be a way of Jesus trying to help them discern where their true focus lay, on the things in this life or their relationship with God.  Jesus points out what truly matters in their lives is who they are before God.  When they reply to Jesus’ question about the coin, “The emperor’s,” Jesus then said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (v.21) Jesus seemingly dismisses the temporal; that we need not be concerned with accumulating wealth and goods, but instead focus on the things eternal.  His answer amazed them. Instead of entrapping him, they left and went away.

I hope as they left, they began thinking about the things that are God’s.  What are the things that are God’s? We could answer that in the response we used from the 1962 Prayer book Eucharist at the time of the offertory, saying, “BLESSED be thou, LORD God of Israel, forever and ever.  All that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine. All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee,” (1 Chronicles 29. 10, 11, 14).  Everything is God’s, so what can we give God?   What came to me was some words from a Christmas carol: In the bleak midwinter (CP 122). It might seem a stretch, but we are living in a bleak time in this world.  It is in the final verse of that carol that I feel speaks to this question of what we give to God.  With apologies to Christina Rossetti for slight alterations: “What can I give God, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise one, I would do my part; yet what I can, I give God—give my heart.”  In answer to what is God’s and what we are to give God is everything, but more personally, more intimately we give “ourselves, our souls and bodies,” a phrase we also used from the 1962 Holy Eucharist (BAS pg 244, Holy Eucharist 1962).  We give to God our true selves, our whole selves, our heart.  What’s in a name?  We are named and chosen by God, named and surnamed as God’s own people.  We are beloved.  That is our true name, love is our true identity. Amen.