Their Names

Mark 3:13-19; Romans 16

How are you at remembering names?  Some of you might have a mind like a steel trap, able to retain names and faces for years after you have met someone.  Others of us are more mediocre and it may take a couple of greetings before the name gets engraved in our memories.  The worst I have ever seen, however, were Troy and Trevor, two boys I met one summer at Camp Vick, the American Baptist Church camp near Arcade where, when I was younger and of a more noble temperament than I am now, I spent three consecutive summers directing a week of Frontier camp.  Frontier Camp was a camp for the more intrepid campers: unlike the campers in the posh Village Camp, we slept in tents, had pit latrines, hauled our own water, and cooked over fires.  Somehow I managed to convince some of our youth that it would be a grand way to spend a week of their summer and I am amazed that they continued in the church after that because, as I freely admit today, it was anything but a grand time.  Summer camp is hard enough for a lot of kids but living cheek by jowl to the earth with 20 strangers can be excruciating for eleven year olds; nevertheless, the rigorous experience did create a lot of opportunity for bonding.  By the end of the week, the kids were usually bosom buddies because nothing brings people together more than sharing a half raw supper at 9 pm because it took so long to get the fire going in the rain.

And Troy and Trevor were no exception.  The two brothers were easy-going quiet boys with smiles that lit up their faces and made them enjoyable companions.  They had a little more experience in the woods than some of the others and were always generous in sharing their knowledge, ready to lend a hand to their fellow campers.  Consequently, all of the other campers liked them, and Troy and one of the girls even became “a couple” which at Frontier Camp meant that they sat next to each other on the log during campfires.  On the last night as everyone was exchanging addresses and tearfully promising that they would write one another during the waning days of summer, someone asked Troy to sign her journal and he said, “OK,” and then putting his pen on the page, he looked at her and said, “What’s your name?”

We all stared at him in amazement.  

“You’ve been together for a week and you don’t know her name?” I asked.

He shook his head and looked at his brother who also shrugged blankly.  I asked Troy and Trevor who among the other campers they could name, and to our astonishment, they couldn’t name a single other camper sitting at that fire with them, including Troy’s “girlfriend.”  I thought it was funny; the kids did not, especially Troy’s girlfriend.  To them, the boys’ inability to put names to their faces suggested that all of the time they had spent together had had little impression on the boys; that they were no more than objects in the periphery of their sight.

Troy and Trevor, as 6th grade boys, may have been able to shrug off their inability to name their fellow campers but as adults, most of us come to recognize the social importance of names.  Those who remain bad at remembering names learn strategies for covering up their disability because we know that it is socially unacceptable to gaze blankly at someone we are supposed to recognize and say, “Hey, it’s what’s your name!”  We take names seriously, because knowing a person’s name brings them out of the cloud of general humanity into the particular of our experience.  That person is no longer just a face in the crowd but a particular face — an individual that we know and that we have a connection to — and we acknowledge that connection by saying their name.  Those who have watched a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia gradually lose their memory know that the most heartbreaking loss comes when that loved one loses their ability to put names to faces.  It’s hard enough when they can’t remember the special day twenty years ago that you spent at the beach together but it cannot match the grief that comes the day their daughter walks into the room and they don’t know her name.  

During the last months of her life, Norma Higgins was at Wellsville Manor, unable to remember anything about her past work as a librarian or the travels she had shared with her husband Wally in his work in ceramics.  She would beam happily at anyone who greeted her but it was clear that she no longer recognized her old friends from Alfred; everyone was simply a nameless face in the crowd around her.  As her memory seeped away, Wally worried that one day Norma would forget even him, a loss he was not sure he could endure.  In fact, close to the end, she did lose her ability to recall Wally’s name but when she could no longer call to mind the name ‘Wally,’ she simply began calling him “the Boss.” 

“There’s the Boss,” she would say when Wally walked into the room, and for Wally that was enough because Norma still called him by name; it was not the name on his birth certificate but it was a unique name that she used only for him indicating that he was not just another face in the crowd to her but that he was recognized, loved, and held a special place in her heart.  The memories that they shared together might be gone from her head but the love that bound them together remained.

Names give us individuality in the cloud of humanity and knowing another person’s name creates a connection with that person.  Knowing and being known by name says, “This person has made a mark on my life and my world is different because of them.”  The mark may be a small one — the mark made by a staff member where you work — or it may be a significant one if the name is that of a dear friend, spouse, or child — but when we know people’s names, we give voice to the connections that are the substance of our lives, for what is the meaning of our life in the end if it is not those connections?  Though our families may fill our obituaries with our accomplishments, the only obituary that will really mean anything is the one that says, “He was loved.  She was loved.  I am a different person because of them.”

In the scripture reading for today, the gospel says that Jesus called twelve men to him to be his apostles, and then it lists their names.  Some of the names are of men that we know something about — Peter, who went on to become one of the founders of the early church; Philip, who became a Deacon in that church and preached the gospel throughout Samaria — but others we know nothing about except their name.  The Bible never mentions Thaddaeus or Simon the Cananaean again.  The Catholic church later developed traditions about their supposed ministries but the Bible is silent about their subsequent lives.  Or what about all of the people listed in Paul’s greetings at the end of his letter to the Romans?  What do we know about Rufus, Tryphaena, Julia, or Hermas?  What did they do?  What did they accomplish?  We know nothing about them except their names.  

And yet that is enough because the fact that Paul took the time to name them tells us that they loved and were loved; that they made an impact on Paul’s life and stepped out of the faceless crowd of humanity into his heart.  And it is ultimately the love that binds us one to another that is the only thing that lasts; as Paul himself said, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and love never ends.”

“Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted,” the gospel says, “and they came to him.”  Jesus invited twelve men to become part of his work and his life, to stand by his side, to walk the road with him, to share in the living of his days, and to hold dear with him the faith for which he would give his life.  

“And they came to him,” the gospel says.  “And here are their names.”  Those twelve stepped out of the faceless crowd of humanity into the heart of Jesus, and that commitment that they shared with one another bound them together and lasted not just for a few years, or a few centuries, but into eternity.  

Love never ends.  When we bind our hearts to one another, whether in the sharing of a family or in the service of our faith, we become part of the universal and eternal love of the one who is the creator of us all, and though all else may pass away, the bonds we share one with another last forever.  

Jesus calls you to become part of his work and his life, to stand by his side, to walk the road with him, to share in his ministry, and to hold dear with him the faith for which he gave his life.  And when you answer that call, you step out of the faceless crowd of humanity into the heart of Jesus, and the life you give him, the bonds you share with him, will last not just for a few years, or a few centuries, but into eternity.  

“For thus says the Lord, who created you; do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, and you are mine.”