Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16. Mark 8:31-end
A new name for everyone
It’s the second Sunday in Lent. Not exactly Christmas day, is it? The ‘fun’ of Ash Wednesday is behind us, Palm Sunday is weeks away when the pace picks up again, and Easter – it’s like, years away. My Lenten resolve is just about holding up but the temptation to replace the water in this wine glass with something that comes out of a bottle with a cork in it is quite strong now.
I’m inspired to use our OT reading from Genesis 17 today. It’s about an elderly couple – very elderly, in their nineties! – Abram and his wife Sarai. Old people usually move quite slowly, which seems to fit the pace of Lent. It’s all about covenant – that is, the promise God made to Abram and Sarai, that he would bless them, cause them to have a child despite their great age, and through them, to bless all nations of the world (Genesis 12:3). It’s a promise they had been waiting to be fulfilled for 20 odd years. We too are even included, embraced by that promise of blessing through one of his offspring, born a couple of thousand years down the road from Abram and Sarai, by the name of Jesus. And did you notice, because I didn’t at first, that everyone in this story gets a new name? Abram – exalted father – becomes Abraham – the father of many; Sarai – Princess – becomes Sarah – My Princess; and God, the Lord, is named for the first time in the Bible in verse 1 as El Shaddai – which is often translated as ‘God most high’ but might also mean ‘God of the mountains’. That’s why we sang that beautiful song, El Shaddai, after the passage was read. So, God gains a new name along with his covenant partners. It feels a bit like this… “I, El Shaddai, take you, Abraham and Sarah….”
Let’s stick with names for a moment. Often, names in the Bible really mean something like they did here. Abram’s new name, Abraham, father of many, contained the promise that a whole nation was going to come from him. We tend not to think so much about that nowadays, but I wonder if there is anything to discover here? Think about it: our parents gave us the names they did for a reason – however trivial it may seem! And they gave us our names in love. Did they subtly intuit what name would fit us? When we who are parents name our children, do we do that? What moved us? God’s grace is always at work. I was thinking about my own name, the other day. Richard. Never been terribly struck by the name, to be honest, and it’s not in the Bible! It means ‘strong ruler’ and of course people think of Richard the Lionheart. Not much there, I think, for me. Then I remembered while I was just daydreaming a song that my parents sometimes sang around the house, really as a bit of a joke: ‘Open the door, Richard! Open the door, Richard, and let me in!’ It’s practically a quote from that verse in Revelation 3:20, with my name in it, where Jesus says, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in’. Was that an invitation, waiting for me, hidden inside a popular song of the time? Then I remembered the famous prayer of St Richard of Chichester, immortalized in the musical Godspell: “Day by day, Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray: To see thee more clearly, Love thee more dearly, Follow thee more nearly, Day by Day.” An invitation and a prayer hidden in my name: whether this is just random or a subtle God-given gift I don’t know; but it touched me and spoke to me, so what’s not to like? Perhaps you might like to reflect on your name, however much you love it or hate it. What does it say? Is it in the Bible and if so, does the person who shares your name relate to you at all? If it’s not in the Bible, like my name, then do some daydreaming and association. Maybe there’s something there. If you really hate your name, think about that: why? Does it reflect something that you don’t like about you, or you wish you were more like that? Let whatever it is speak to you. It’s just a thought. There might not be much there, but then, there might be!
But Abram got a new name. Not quite the name he started with. Sometimes people don’t like their names and take a new one; or choose their middle name, if they have one. If you did that, why did you choose your new name? What did it say about you? There are people who are given or receive new names when they adopt a new role. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name of Francis when he became Pope. Why? Because he wanted to signal his commitment to the poor of the world. I suspect he prayed much over this and felt that this choice was actually God’s leading. His name embodied his mission. It’s not always the case, of course. But consider this, what would you choose to change your name to, if you wanted to? Thinking about that might be a way of getting in touch with your deepest desires about yourself: who would you like to be; or more profoundly, who God wants you to be.
When we meet someone, and develop a relationship with them, learning their name might be the first thing we learn, but from there our relationship builds. So it was with Abraham. He had a relationship with God. In fact, God started it and called him by name. This idea of relationship with God: the ability to speak with him, hear him, walk with him, be loved by him and love him in return is central to biblical faith. Of course, it reaches its clearest expression in the gospels where real live ordinary women, men and children met with, talked with, ate with, touched, embraced, loved the human Jesus. A relationship with Jesus – as simple and straightforward as that. We are all invited into that relationship. This period of Lent can be a time to examine that relationship – how’s it doing? Holding up? In need of a reboot? There are tons of resources available to help, and some of those resources are some of us! You might like to speak to Claire if you would like to explore the possibility of meeting with someone to talk about your relationship with God. If you’re looking for something to literally plug in, the Pray as you go app is an absolute winner. You’ll find it in Google Play or the Apple App store for your phone, or on your computer. 12 minutes a day.
Interestingly, there’s a couple of bits in Genesis 17 that the compilers of the lectionary left out. Verses 9-14 give a graphic account of the practice of male circumcision, which was Abraham’s part of the bargain. When I was 12, in my first year at secondary school, during an RE class, a boy named Fox asked our very scary headmaster, Mr Eagling, or ‘Crip’ as he was known, “Please sir, what is circumcision?” Mr Eagling drew himself up to his full height and boomed in a voice that brooked no dissent, “It is a cut around the middle!” Which, if anything, implied something much scarier than the reality (or maybe not!). Anyway, the point I’d like to draw out here is that it was a mark on his body. The covenant was literally inscribed on Abraham’s body. There was no imposition of this on Sarah, but she is included in the covenant, signalled by the change of name. Allow me to spool out the thought of inscription of God’s promise on the body to all of us irrespective of gender. The ‘Christian equivalent’ of circumcision is baptism – it is the sign of entry into the Kingdom, and in the case of children, a name is given – back to the original theme! And baptism is something done to the body.
There are many ways that our physical selves can kind of take part in and literally embody this relationship (PS – another word, a synonym for embody is incarnate – think about that!). Raising your hands in worship and dancing are often part of charismatic prayer and worship – they are great examples of bringing the body to God. So is kneeling to pray: my own experience here is that it actually makes it easier to pray – I like to use a prayer stool. Putting your body in that position, which is one of humility, can help bring the heart and mind into the same place. The practice of crossing yourself can be quite powerful – it’s a prayer acted out by the body as we place the sign of the cross over our hearts. Perhaps sometimes it’s the only prayer we can manage. Pilgrimage is another way that our bodies can engage with God: the act of walking or moving from one place to another with holy intent. Putting ourselves into a physical journey as a way of engaging with the interior, spiritual journey. Abraham and Sarah had plenty of that, journeying around the Middle East from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan.
The other bit that the lectionary missed out was this: ‘I will give you a son by Sarah…then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old?? (verses 15-22). Any of us might well laugh! This is about doubt. If the circumcision reading was left out to spare our blushes, was Abraham falling over with laughter left out because we’re not meant to doubt? All of us have doubts about our faith. It’s not wrong. Abraham had them! The lovely thing here is that God still blessed him. God is bigger, much bigger than our doubts.
Well, all of that seems quite a long way from an elderly couple who lived four or five thousand years ago but hey, join the dots, we’re connected with them. We thought about names – what our own names might mean or say to us; and then we considered what name we would choose for ourselves today, and how that might reflect our aspirations. Then we moved from names to relationship, specifically with God, and wondered about taking a rain check on how that’s going at the moment. Finally, moving swiftly on from male circumcision we thought about ways that we could honour God with our bodies, to quote St Paul (1 Corinthians 6:20). And finally we saw how Abraham really doubted what God said would happen. And still got blessed! Here’s a wild thought – we might like to chat about some of this in our breakout groups? Crazy, I know.