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What’s in a Name?

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Feb 12 2017


I was named after my mother, Nancy. Although, curiously, I am not the first, but the second daughter in my family. My father—of blessed memory called my mother “Big Nance” and called me “Little Nance.” My husband, Peter—also of blessed memory—sporting his elegant English accent, called me Nancy.

My middle name, Sedgwick, is my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. Sedgwick is a “habitational name” which means it was derived from a kind of location. In the case of Sedgwick perhaps an outlying settlement or dairy farm in Cumbria, North West England.

And Taylor appears to indicate that somewhere back in Scotland or England my family was in the clothing business. Tailor comes from Latin, tailare, from Old French, meaning “to cut”.

And you, what’s in your name? Where do your names come from? How do your names mark you, shape you, locate you?

The followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch: the capital of the great province of Syria. Antioch was a teeming, cosmopolitan city. Open air parks and grand temples. A city teeming with culture and commerce. Visitors and artists, traders and pilgrims, of various nationalities and tongues jostling each other in streets, shops, hostels, and cafes. 

The followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch. And, guess what: the name wasn’t meant as a compliment. It was more like: Oh, those Christ-people. 

The thing is, the Syrians, or the Antiochians, felt the need to name these people because they were different. They were some new-fangled sort of people. A sort of people they couldn’t quite make out. They stood out, these Christians. They stood apart. They weren’t quite Jews. They didn’t identify as either Roman or Greek. Their contemporaries had to invent a new name for them because they represented a new phenomenon. 

I am one of those. I am a Christian. A follower of Jesus. Christian is a name that marks and shapes me. 

Every day I wrestle with what it means to claim that name: how to live, what to say, where to go, how to think. I wonder about whether I—whether we—stand out enough. Whether others can tell by knowing us that we belong to Jesus. That our lives, our values, our moral compasses are aligned with his.

And, in a time like this present time, and in a country like this country, that I wrestle with the tension between being a Christian (er, trying to be a humble one) and being a citizen of these United States (a pretty proud one at that). The very fact that citizenship and patriotism are so easily and happily associated with pride while Christianity places so high a premium on humility, hints at the brawl breaking out inside of me. 

Being a Christian and being a U.S. citizen are two distinct and potent identities, each demanding of me their own allegiance. These two identities can, and often do, coexist inside of me with relative ease. But just as often they can be in conflict, in contention, each vying for my loyalty. 

The Christian in me tries to take in a God’s-eye-view of all the doings down here on earth. I wonder: What is God thinking about this or that? I imagine God weeping uncontrollably, or alternately enraged, at the plight of so many millions of refugees, at their misery and sufferings. 

I sometimes imagine God doubled over with laughter, or shaking a God-sized shaggy head as we argue over the “right” way to worship when most of the world’s religions actually say it pretty plain: love one another. 

As a Christian my first allegiance is to Jesus and to the Christian story as I understand it. And, to be clear, it’s a jarring, counterintuitive, countercultural story. A story of prodigal grace, radical (even reckless) mercy. It is a story of endless forgiveness (there is more forgiveness in God than sin in you). 

I read it as a story that champions compassion toward and protection of the defenseless. It is a story about a village rabbi who, steeped in the ancient ethic of the God of Abraham and Sarah, lavished free healthcare upon the lame, the blind and the ill, healing them without charging them. It tells of outdoor picnics with free food for all.

The truth is that capitalism isn’t highly valued in this story. Nor is nationalism. Jesus cares more about the state of people’s souls and their physical health than about their national origin, race, or religion. 

As to boundaries and borders—held to so tightly by nations and citizens—Jesus was more likely to cross them (and engage respectfully with those on the other side) than to honor them.

I am a Christian, a follower of the village rabbi who preached the beatitudes, told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and healed blind Bartimaeus. 

I am a Christian, a follower of the One sent from God who asks of us that we turn the other check, love our enemies, reject revenge, offer hospitality to strangers and foreigners, practice generosity, defend and protect the most vulnerable, and not put a lot of energy into piling up riches.

These are hard things, difficult, costly undertakings. They are counterintuitive and countercultural. 

Which is why I need you. I need church. I need to be held accountable by you. I need to be steeped in the scriptures and in the stories of Jesus. I come here to be surrounded by holy things: pulpit and font, table and scriptures. 

I come here to sit with you at the feet of Jesus and sort out what is eternal and what is fleeting; what matters (deeply matters) and what is inconsequential; what is high and holy and what is foolishness; what is of-God and what is decidedly not.

I was named after my mother and my paternal grandmother. I come from a line of people in the clothing business. But I claim the name Christian. I am a follower of Jesus.