Brett Davis, Washington, D.C.

Warm-up Question

Is there a story behind your given name?  What is it?

Power of Names

Do our names determine our destiny?  Researcher Steve Levitt has dedicated decades to this question.  Different cultures have different naming patterns and trends.  Our names sometimes suggest something about us.  Every student has had this experience when a teacher calls the roll in a classroom for the first time and and looks up with an expectation.

Levitt and his research partners have studied  whether there is a measurable bias in economic outcomes for people with either unusual or culturally African-American names.  Using public data of every baby born in California over forty years, they analyzed what influences our names and what influence names have on us.  They were surprised to find that  your given name did not impact your economic life as an adult.  (Meaning it was not statistically proven to show that an unusual or culturally specific name made you less likely to have an equal income level to people with common or culturally “white” names.) 

Levitt found that “it’s not the name your parents give you; it’s the kind of parents you have in the first place.”  Our names tell us about our parents, not about us, and the kind of parents one has was the largest factor in influencing opportunities later in life.  

However, their research and further work continued to suggest that web searches for names are highly biased.  For instance, typically African-American names are programmed into search tool analytics to produce results about finding arrest records for an individual, even if there are none.  This could certainly influence someone hiring for a job who searches their candidates’ names, although widespread impact was not shown by the data described above. 

“One thing that most of us can probably agree on: Just about every parent thinks that his or her kid is special. Part of what makes each of our kids special is the names we give them. But from what we can tell, your name is not your destiny — even if your name is Destiny. Or Esmé. Or Archimedes, or Track.”

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever struggled with liking your name,  Have others struggled with it in some way?
  • Have you ever assumed something about someone based on their name?  How were you proven wrong?
  • Do you think that people are judged or stereotyped based on their name?
  • If you or someone you know has been named after someone, do you think you try to live up to that name or be like them?

Baptism of our Lord /First Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 42:1-9

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

This time of year, right after Christmas, we celebrate some other stories from the beginning of Jesus’ life.  Sometimes we celebrate the lesser festival of Name of Jesus and read the story in the gospel of Luke when Jesus is dedicated in the temple and given his name.  Mary and Joseph didn’t agonize over what to call their baby – an angel told Joseph to name him Jesus.

In today’s gospel reading, we get a naming story of a different kind.  This is the story of Jesus’ baptism, and we have two main characters in the story who are considering their identity and role.  First, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, doesn’t think himself worthy to baptize Jesus.  But Jesus convinces John that this is his role to play in fulfilling the prophecy.  John baptizes Jesus, the sky opens, and a dove comes down (do you have a dive-bombing dove symbolic of the Holy Spirit depicted in your church?).  

Jesus is baptized by John as an adult, and he’s had his name for a long time already.  But in his baptism, “a voice from heaven” gives Jesus another name.  The voice of God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  In a way, this is God’s name for Jesus – and for each of us in our baptisms.  

Considering Levitt’s research, what God the parent calls Jesus tells us not only about Jesus, but about the parent.  This reminds me that God’s identity is loving parent, pleased with us children, proud of us, and claiming us in our baptisms.  Jesus’ name, in Hebrew Yeshua or Joshua, means “he will save.”  This name, and the name that came from heaven at his baptism, “[God’s] son, the beloved,” would certainly make people biased – in a good way – about what Jesus would be and become.  

For both Jesus and John, that day at the river gave them an identity, a name and a calling, that they would live into.  John is named/called worthy to baptize, and Jesus is called the beloved son.  At your baptism, you are called this too, beloved child of God.  I believe these names shape who we become.

Discussion Questions

  • Besides your given name, what have you been called that has shaped who you have become?
  • Do you know anyone who has a name which is an adjective, attribute, or title?  It’s more common in some cultures or places – names like: Grace, Prince, or even, like in the Scripture – Beloved.  Do you think naming someone this makes them more likely to embody their name?
  • How would your view of people change if you called them (even in your mind), “_(name)_” beloved child of God?

Activity Suggestions

On a sheet of paper, make a big “Hello, my name is _____” nametag.  Write all the things you’ve called yourself or been called by others.  Then pair up with someone or in a small group exchange your sheets and add things – what would you call each other?  Consider how those nice things that others add shape your view of yourself.  If you can get some stick-on nametags, make everyone a “name”tag that says “Beloved child of God,” and one to take with you to give someone else or share with them as a surprise. 

Closing Praye

God our loving parent, you called Jesus your beloved son at his baptism, and you call us the same at each of ours.  Help us to reserve judgment based on people’s names, and instead call and see every person as a beloved child of God.  Amen.