What is your name? I imagine, as I start here with you good people, I will be asking
that a lot. It is such a simple question, but it can reveal so much.
My name is Jeanne. I am named after my mother. And my grandmother before her.
And her grandmother before her. My name, Jeanne, is a name given to some 8 or 9
women in my family…all but two of them I never met.
Although my name is not quite the same. You see, my mom and grandmother were
Jean spelled in the traditional English way J-E-A-N. But my father was a French
major who spoke the language fluently and beautifully and when I was born he agreed
to carry on this tradition of naming the first born girl Jean but insisted on the proper
French spelling, J-E-A-N-N-E.
When I was a kid I was called Jeannie, as in I Dream Of. I hated my name, most of
the Jeans I met were decades older and my name had the awful distinction of being a
perfect rhyme with the word ‘machine’ which resulted in an endless string of
nicknames of Jeanne, Jeanne the fill-in-the-blank machine.
Our names tell stories, our names might be the only single word that can come close
to capturing who we are…where we came from…who loved us. Were you named after
a favorite uncle, a grandmother or a character in a parent’s beloved novel? Did you
abandon a childhood nickname (Joey, Cathy….um, Marty) once you were old enough
to make your will known? Our names are markers of our identity.
In today’s Gospel the very first thing Jesus does, when this man possessed by
demons, shackled and imprisoned in the tombs by his community, breaks free and
runs naked up to Jesus and shouts “What have you to do with me Jesus, Son of the
Most High?”, the very first thing Jesus does is ask his name.
I wonder how long it had been since someone had asked this man his name. Long
enough, it seems, that having been isolated and alone with only the voices in his head,
he does not remember his own name. Instead the demons which occupy him have
become who he is. “Legion” he replies.
It is no accident that the man responds with a term which invokes the Roman
occupation. This is a man not only tormented by the demons of his own mind, but
shunned and oppressed by the powers and principalities of the world around him: the
Roman empire, the community that keeps him shackled and alone.
Perhaps the name Legion is an amalgamation of all the names the powers in the world
gave him, the names the world still gives to people like him, to identify who and what
But Jesus asks his name even though the man has been in the depths for so long that
he can no longer remember it, Jesus asks his name and tries to connect with the
human being, with the child of God beneath all those demonic categories.
And Jesus heals him. Jesus sends all those demons away. He frees the man’s body and
he frees his soul and he is restored to who is truly is.
And what is fascinating about the Gospel story is that the people of the community in
which this man has suffered and been imprisoned, these people whom you think
would be delighted to be free of this frightened and frightening man in their midst,
react to the man’s healing with fear as the Gospel writer tells us:
“Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to
Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of
Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had
seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been
healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked
Jesus to leave them;”
They see this man clean and clothed, sitting at the feet of Jesus and rather than rejoice
they are afraid. They do not invite Jesus to stay so that they also might be healed, they
ask him to leave.
Why? Well maybe because the world profits from keeping the systems and the social
and economic hierarchies as they are. Maybe because the devil you know is better
than the devil you don’t. Maybe because change, any change, even one that heals and
makes whole means uncertainty and loss and that is frightening.
Being known, truly known by God, can be frightening. It means giving up the ways
we name ourselves and the ways the world names us and instead claiming an identity
as a disciple of an itinerant rabbi who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, who
preached a Gospel of love and acceptance so threatening to the powers that be that
he was crucified for it. As St. Paul describes it, in this familiar and beloved passage
from Galatians, we are clothed in Christ, in Christ we are ‘no longer Jew or Greek,
slave or free, male and female’. I think, like the man possessed in today’s Gospel, Paul
is pointing us to the powerful truth that in Christ all the ways the world tries to name
us and limit us, all the ways we try to name and limit ourselves, are not the truth of
who and whose we are.
I once heard Jesus whispering my name here. In this place. In this very sanctuary,
through this very text.
I heard it on a day I was not meant to be in church. It was 9 years ago. I was supposed
to be on a plane with my family going on the trip of a lifetime to Iceland which we
had planned for the better part of a year. But instead I was here.
And I was not happy about it. My husband had gotten sick, really sick, and we had
canceled the trip. And as sometimes happens with me, my worry morphed into anger.
But instead of stewing at home I came here, to this place.
I sat in that pew, the one three from the back, with two of my squirmy kids and I was
trying to figure out what to do next. I had finished catechumenate with Mother Esme
and some of the folks in this very room and I felt stirred up and unsettled and was
hoping that the vistas and hot springs and fish I would find in Iceland would clear it
all up for me…I would have some vision on a fjord of what God was going to want
me to do next with my life.
But instead I found myself here. Resentful and frustrated that my plans had changed,
but here. And the Gospel was this very one, this very one, and the homilist was a
guest, a former Greek Orthodox priest named Paul. And I sat and he preached about
Jesus asking the name of the possessed man and connected it to the work he did with
those experiencing homelessness I felt Jesus calling my name. I emailed Paul the next
week and started showing up at the non-profit he worked for and if it were not for
that Sunday in this place and not for this Gospel I would not be standing here, gifted
with the opportunity to serve and worship with you good people. (Isn’t that weird and
wonderful and amazing?)
When we are baptized, when we come together around this table, God calls to us each
by name. We have an opportunity, each week, like the man in the Gospel story, to
have those demons that would rob us of our identity as beloved children of God cast
out by Christ. At the table, at the font, in this place we can be restored to wholeness
and new life. And, like the man in today’s Gospel, we are then commissioned by
Christ to go into the world and share the Very Best News Ever and offer the same
healing to a world that yearns desperately to be reborn.
And so, my friends, the next time someone asks your name, remember your name is