This summer I was deeply honored when Caitlyn Jenner asked me to help her mark a sacred moment: the assumption of her new name. This is the order of our service of celebration along with the text of the brief homily I shared on Genesis 32, in which God gives the patriarch Jacob a new name: Israel. The ceremony was broadcast on the season 1 finale of E!’s hit show I Am Cait on September 13, 2015. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Caitlyn and minister to her and those who gathered to celebrate with her. I’m even more grateful for the chance to share with an international audience the truth that God does not love transgender people in spite of who we are, but because of who we are.
Words of Welcome
Good afternoon, and welcome to the celebration! We gather here, among beloved friends and family, to mark a moment…a transition, if you will. Transitional moments — when we step or crawl or dance across the boundary separating then from now, before from after — can be some of the most challenging and most exhilarating moments of our lives. Look back at your own life…the passage from adolescence to adulthood, from single to couple, from couple to parents, and all the other transitions you’ve made…and know it to be true.
They can also be some of the most sacred moments.
And the truly sacred moments of life are worth marking…they’re worth celebrating! For moments like these are the moments when we most deeply know ourselves, and others, and God. They are the moments when what truly matters stands out, in stark relief, against all the bland background of life. And so we gather together with our dear friend. We’ve known her, most of her life, by another name. But today, at this moment, she chooses to set that name aside.
The boundary separating that past from a new future is right here. It’s right at our feet. And the hour has arrived, so let’s begin by welcoming one another to this moment, this sacred moment…
And let’s welcome God to join us today with a word of prayer.
God, you reveal yourself to us by many names. You know each of us by name and call us by name. Today this, your child, comes before you seeking a new name by which to be known and called… In your name, which above all other names is “Love,” amen.
A Story from Scripture: Genesis 32
What’s in a name? Names are symbols — symbols of hopes and dreams, symbols that can honor the past or point toward the future. We grow into our names. They take on the coloring of the paths we walk and so come to stand for our individuality, our uniqueness. They follow us, and they go before us.
We’re accustomed to thinking of names as immutable, unchanging — but, of course, they’re not. It turns out there are very few truly immutable things in life.
There is a story in the ancient Hebrew Bible, the collection of books we know today as the Old Testament, of a man whose given name was Jacob. He was the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, the founders of the tribe and the nation whose history is recorded in the Old Testament.
Jacob was his parents’ second son, and as such wasn’t likely to amount to anything special. Eldest sons were the ones destined for leadership and for great purpose in that culture, and though Jacob’s brother Esau was only a few seconds older — the two were twins — that didn’t really matter. Due to circumstances beyond his control, an accident of birth, Jacob’s destiny was clear from the moment he entered this world — or so it seemed.
As the boys grew it became apparent to those around them they were very different people. Esau was a man’s man — he loved to hunt and to fight and the Bible says he was practically covered with hair. Jacob preferred to stay close to the camp, and he felt most comfortable, most at home, in the company of women — his mother and the family’s servant girls.
As you might imagine, the two brothers didn’t get along all that well. In fact, their adolescent discord grew with them to become a full blown family feud. Esau threatened to murder Jacob, forcing Jacob to flee from their family lands. The tabloids, had they existed in ancient Mesopotamia, would have eaten this stuff up.
But Jacob was clever. We might even call him entrepreneurial. And he made a pretty comfortable life for himself in that foreign land. He met a resourceful and beautiful woman, took over her father’s business (they were herdsmen), and had children — twelve of them! It seemed he would live out his days in comfort enjoying the fruits of his labors and the best life had to offer.
But God had other plans.
In the night, God spoke to Jacob and said, “It’s time to go home.”
Jacob was terrified. Going back to his family’s lands meant facing his old enemy Esau, who had also grown strong and prosperous. And it seemed certain that doing so would cost Jacob everything he loved, and everything he worked so hard to achieve: his wife and children, his flocks and herds, his good name. Everything.
And yet Jacob couldn’t ignore the voice of God. “Trust me, Jacob,” God seemed to say. “This is who you are. This is where you belong. I have a purpose for you.”
And so, filled with fear, Jacob and his family took everything they owned and set out.
And like you, Dear One, Jacob’s path led him to a boundary. At the River Jabbok, the border of his family’s ancestral lands, Jacob stood. One more step, he thought, and there’s no turning back. He sent his family across, and he sent his flocks and herds, until finally he was alone. And night fell.
And in one of the strangest, most mysterious stories the Bible has to offer, we’re told a man appeared and wrestled with Jacob. Some legends said it was an angel. Others said it was a spirit. Jacob, for the rest of his days, said it was God, God’s self. Jacob fought for his life, wrestling with his adversary through the night — until with a mere touch of his finger, the mysterious stranger rendered Jacob lame.
And still, Jacob wouldn’t let go. He had a life to live and destiny to fulfill. And as the eastern sky began to grow light with the coming of the dawn, the stranger spoke to Jacob:
Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
And the same can be said for so many transgender people, can’t it? Our whole lives can be marked by struggle — the struggle to survive, the struggle to fit in, the struggle to carve out a place for ourselves in a culture that can seem like a foreign land. We stand at the boundary between man and woman, a boundary we’re often told simply cannot be crossed, and we struggle to live out a destiny written on our hearts as surely as a calling from God Almighty.
We struggle, and we don’t let go, and we boldly demand of God a blessing.
Today, dear one, God says to you, “Yes. I will bless you. I have blessed you. I have blessed you with a new path, a new vision, and new purpose. And with it, I offer to you a new name. Bear it well. And whenever you hear it, remember this struggle, and remember your purpose. Remember who you are and who I am. And remember those who struggle still.”
Receiving and Affirming the Name
And so, child of God, by what name shall you be known?
[Caitlyn: My name shall be Caitlyn Marie Jenner.]
[Congregation: Her name shall be Caitlyn Marie Jenner.]
We, your friends and family — your community — do indeed affirm that you are Caitlyn Marie Jenner, from this day forward. Bear this name in the Name of Christ. Share it in the name of Mercy. Offer it in the name of Justice and in the name of Love.
Together we give thanks for you, Caitlyn. We give thanks for this beautiful and meaningful new name, and we give thanks for everything it symbolizes, everything it stands for. We give thanks for the journey, the struggle, that has brought you to this moment. We give thanks that you have overcome. And we give thanks for all that lies ahead.
O God, in renaming your servant Jacob, and so many others — Abraham, Sarah, Peter, and Paul — you gave them new lives and new tasks, new love and new hope. We now hold before you our companion Caitlyn Marie Jenner. Bless her with a newness of life and a newness of calling as she takes this name — and a new measure of grace to go with them. Write her again in your heart and on your palm. And empower her to remember who she is, in the face of every attempt to deflect or deter. Empower us all — for the sake of your Christ whose name is Love, and in whom we pray.