Sermon - Signs and Symbols: Names

Signs and Symbols: Names
This is the second sermon in a Lenten Sermon series titled "Signs and Symbols of Faith" at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. This one focuses on Names. It was preached on Sunday, February 25, 2024. The text of the sermon can also be found below.

Third Lesson: Genesis 17:1-8, 15-20 (p. 13)

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God of the mountains; God of the high places; God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’

God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael (which means: God will hear - the one who had been born of Hagar) might live in your sight!’ God said, ‘No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac (which means: one who laughs). I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

The Word of the Lord . . . 

Thanks be to God.

Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1913 to Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap, he was the second of three sons born in this young family. His older brother was named after his father, and he was given the name Ralph Waldo Ellison. Yes, he was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, famous essayist and poet. His father died when Ralph was only three years old, and he didn’t realize until later in life that his father had hoped that he would one day become a poet just like his namesake. Ralph had an affinity for music, and his ability on the trumpet led him to Tuskegee Institute. While there he fell in love with the written word through the works of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and TS Eliot. Before completing his degree, he moved to New York, and there he met many of the influencers of the Harlem Renaissance including Langston Hughes. Ralph made some money in the subsequent years writing book reviews, essays, and short stories and even penned two songs. In 1952, Ralph Ellison, as he was more commonly known, published his National Book Award winning novel, Invisible Man, which addresses the social struggles faced by the Black community in the early 20th century. 

He admittedly struggled with his own name throughout his life and because of this, he didn’t use his middle name much. In a beautiful essay entitled, “Hidden Name and Complex Fate” found in Shadow and Act, a collection of his essays, Mr. Ellison writes this about names,

it is through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own.

Once while listening to the play of a two-year-old girl who did not know she was under observation, I heard her saying over and over again, at first with questioning and then with sounds of growing satisfaction, “I am Mimi Livisay? … I am Mimi Livisay. I am Mimi Livisay … I am Mimi Li-vi-say! I am Mimi …”

And in deed and in fact she was—or became so soon thereafter, by working playfully to establish the unity between herself and her name.


For many of us this is far from easy. (He goes on) We must learn to wear our names within all the noise and confusion of the environment in which we find ourselves; make them the center of all of our associations with the world, with (humanity) and with nature. We must charge them with all our emotions, our hopes, hates, loves, aspirations. They must become our masks and our shields and the containers of all those values and traditions which we learn and/or imagine as being the meaning of our familial past. 


There may be no more important word in any language, or perhaps I should say in every language, than an individual’s name. And there may be nothing as powerful or distressing as a name. 

Consider all that is contained within that single small string of words. There is past - a rich, troubling, fantastic, mysterious, forgettable, remarkable link to a family history. There is a story about why your name was chosen - whether it was chosen for you long before you ever had awareness or was given to you as a part of your coming of age journey or even was one you chose for yourself to mark some kind of new beginning. There is the struggle, much like the one that Ralph Ellison identifies, to live into what your name means; to “own it,” if you will. 

Then, then there is the way in which your name is handled or mishandled in the mouths of others - maybe even in your own voice. 

My name, likely yours, too, has several meanings depending upon how it is delivered and who is saying it. 

My mom can still let me know exactly what she is thinking by the way in which she says my name . . . 

Growing up, if she said my first name only . . . all was well. 

First and middle name . . . depended on the context. Sometimes it was said with a little wry smile and a shake of the head, “Brian Sean . . . “ That was usually said after I did or said something ridiculous or on the borderline of not appropriate. (Giggle) Both names could also be said more abruptly to grab my attention. 

But if she used all three of my names . . . whew, oh my. It was time to snap to attention, stop what I was doing, and reevaluate my life choices at that moment.

And if by chance she suddenly forgot my name or called me by every name in my house except for my own . . . it may be time to consider moving into another realm all together or at least to another room. 

Indeed, names are powerful symbols; signs of many deeper things. 

In our text this morning we see the power of a name to call, to seal a relationship, to mark a covenant, to symbolize a new beginning. In it, we are told of a man and a woman who were in their nineties. A family who earlier in the story packed up their entire household and moved to an unknown land because of the call of an unknown God. This God visited this family’s tent once again - a tent without sides so all were welcome - God reminded them of an unrealized covenant that had been made with them to make of them a nation, a multitude. And this God who visited their tent came bearing a different name, a name that had yet to be heard - El Shaddai - or God of the mountains, high places; God Almighty. This newly named God gave the man whose given name was Abram (or exalted father) a new name to seal the covenantal relationship. He would now be called Abraham, father of a multitude. Sarai, the matriarch, would now be known as Sarah, or princess for hers too, was the covenantal promise. She would become the mother of royalty; of kings and queens. 

This was all more than a bit absurd for remember they were both in their nineties, so the story goes. And so they laughed. I would laugh, too. I might even cry. But this was God’s doing and not their own. So Sarah indeed gave birth to the one they would call Isaac, or laughter. Every time from that moment on when they spoke one another’s names - “Father of multitudes”, “princess”, “laughter”, “God of the Mountains” - they had to have been reminded of the faithfulness of God and the absolute absurdity and beauty of their story. And I am sure, they looked back and laughed, and likely cried. How could they not? Their names were their testimony.

Your name is a testimony, too. 

Sure, your story is different than theirs. 

But you, too, have had encounters that have shaped you. 

You have had more than your share of hardships, uncertainties, celebrations, disappointments, victories, tears, and laughter. 

There are moments of inexplicable clarity and undeniable uncertainty that are all a part of your journey; that are now attached to your name. 

Your story may never be written in a text that anyone else would call sacred, but your story is holy all the same. 

And your name is one that others speak with reverence. You may not know it, but it’s true. For your name carries with it all of your commitments, the beauty of your struggle, the story of your life so far, the influence you have had on others, the promise of what might yet be. 

Your name, 

your name deserves to be held softly, tenderly by all who utter it - even you. And that might be the biggest struggle, yet. 

Take out your name - the name given to you or the one you have chosen - write it down. Consider all that makes it yours and what might lead others hold it with special reverence. Honor the story that lives behind it and the promise of what might yet be; maybe even a new beginning. Allow yourself to imagine the ways the God of the high places has met you, guided you, sheltered you, buoyed you along the way, even when you didn’t know it. 

Speak your name. 

Say it aloud with compassion. 

Hold it softly, tenderly. Allow it to tell the story that is entirely uniquely yours. 

Oh, and one more thing . . . there is another name that is given to you. One that has been yours since the beginning. It is one we remind everyone of when they come to the font. You are the Beloved. And nothing, not one thing, can ever change that. 

Your name is sacred. Holy. Keep it safe. Live into all that it means. Make it your own. 

To the God be the glory. Amen.


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