210228 – Covenant Love – Identity

Yr B ~ Lent 2 ~ Genesis 17:1-8, 15-17 (MSG)

“Go forth, knowing who you are and whose you are.”
No, worship is not over – even though you hear me say that every week at the end of worship. I say it every week because it’s so fundamental. Knowing who you are and whose you are – that’s kinda the spiritual journey in a nutshell.
Who you are – and whose you are!

Well? Who are you?
Whose are you?

Those are deep and complicated questions!
And they take a lifetime to ponder and give shape to.

Today we’ll be exploring one of the stories about Abram and Sarai – or perhaps you might know them better as Abraham and Sarah.
Why are there names different here? Well, God changed their names!
Why? Well, because something deep in their identity and relationship with God changed.
Something about ‘who they are’, and ‘whose they are’, was transformed.

Identity is a deep and powerful thing. Our names are a big part of it.

Most of us don’t choose our own name – but some people do! Think about times in someone’s life when their name might be changed for some reason. We’ll talk about it in a few minutes, but I want to get you pondering that right away.
Has your name ever changed? Who changed it? Why? What was different after?
Hold onto that thought!

Let’s look at our scripture for today. It’s from Genesis 17.

God appears to Abram (he’ll become Abraham in a couple of minutes) and restates the promises that God had made 25 years before – that Abram will have plenty of land, and he’ll be the ancestor of multitudes.
Umm, a couple of problems here.
They’re nomads, camping out on contested land. And the big one…Abram has no kids. (Well, that’s not exactly true – he’s got one with his wife’s slave girl, Hagar, but none with his wife, Sarai). So, no kids, but a promise to be the father of multitudes? Now, I should probably add this quirky little gem – Abram is supposedly 99 years old at this point and his wife is 90. Riiiight!

Obviously there are some difficulties with taking the scripture straight up.
But why even tell this story? Why’s it in the Bible? What can it say to us today?
Let’s backtrack a bit. Scholars believe this text was written down during the Babylonian Exile. That’s important, because the story is about reflecting on a promise of everlasting blessing – land and legacy – but exiled from their land and facing the potential end of their people they certainly weren’t feeling very blessed – and neither were Abram and Sarai.

25 years earlier (the story goes) Abram and Sarai left their homeland, followed God’s call, and journeyed to a land of promise. But the promises weren’t being fulfilled as they expected. (Sound familiar?!) In other words, they said Yes to God all the way along – not perfectly, not without major goof-ups, but they consistently held firm to God’s call. And God had promised children to them – but none came.

So Abraham can be forgiven for reacting the way he did to God’s announcement that they were about to trade the retirement home for the maternity ward. Do you know what he did upon hearing that he’d be a new dad at his advanced age? He fell on the floor and laughed. No kidding! And later in the story when Sarah learns the news she also busts a gut laughing at the sheer absurdity of it. And God, not to be shown up, tells them to name this forthcoming bundle of joy Isaac – which means… Laughter.

Ok, that’s the story – so what does it say to us?
On the surface the story seems to say, ‘Believe in God and you’ll get your deepest wish fulfilled.’
But I don’t think it means that. In fact, I think that’s a dangerous message to take from this.
I think it actually means, ‘Recognize and respond to God deeply, fully, and faithfully and your deepest need will be fulfilled – and that need is to know God and be known by God.’

I think this story is all about a deep, spiritual, covenant relationship. The bible is filled with stories of people wrestling with their relationship with God. And when someone does come to an awakening of just how inconceivably (pardon the pun) profound the all-encompassing, utterly immersing, completely overwhelming presence and love of God is – well, it’s like they become a new person.
Spiritual transformation changes you at the deepest levels.
So how does a person embody such a change, and live it out? One way is through their name.

Abram becomes Abraham. It’s not all that different really. Abram means ‘great father (ancestor)’ and Abraham means ‘father (ancestor) of a multitude’.
But that’s kind of the point. In spiritual transformation you don’t become an entirely new person, unrecognizable to those who knew you before.
You become a deeper, truer, more authentic version of yourself.
And sometimes the best way to mark that is by changing the name you’re known by.

In some cases a transformation is complicated. We’re learning about people who come to a realization that their assigned gender doesn’t match with who they know themselves to be. They may choose a very different name for themselves in order to separate from their previous identity as they come to understand who they are.

Other name changes are less dramatic. Culturally, many of us are in relationships where upon marriage one of the partners undergoes a name change. I think that’s about family identity, anticipating children probably, and identifying as a cohesive unit. Some of us may have had a youthful version of their name that they chose to adapt to a more adult sounding (to them) version. Like, maybe Johnny becomes John, or Christie becomes Christine. I was named Lawrence, but always got called Larry. For a time I considered going by Lawrence, but decided against it. For me, it didn’t feel like ‘who I am’.  Curiously though, I did end up with sort of a name change when I was ordained. Now lots of people call me Rev. Larry. That’s a new identity I took on. It’s now a big part of ‘who I am’.

Earlier I asked you to think about whether your name, or identity had changed at some point. Or maybe it will yet again!
I wonder if any of us experienced a name change when we opened ourselves more to God? I guess, in a way, that’s kinda me with my Rev name addition – but I certainly didn’t see the skies part and hear God thunder out that my name was now different.
I doubt many of us get one like Abram did – but it makes for a great story!

And of course we know other biblical name changes – like how Saul the oppressor of Christians became Paul the leader of Christians after his spiritual awakening. And Simon became Peter after he realized how important Jesus was. And Jacob became known as Israel after his wrestling with God.

But I think all of us – all of us who let down our guards and open ourselves to God’s love, feel that God knows us in a deeper way than before (because we know God in a deeper way than we did before), and feel that God ‘calls us by name’ in a profoundly intimate way.
God knows us, knows our hearts, knows our true selves, knows who we are – and as we embrace that Love that God is pouring into us we come to know, more and more, who we are – who we really are.
God’s light and love shapes our being, and helps us find ourselves, and define ourselves.
Who are you? God knows!

Let’s go back to Abram – now newly named Abraham!
What’s the real blessing here? Is it in knowing that he’d be the ultimate patriarch and his blood line would continue forever?
Or is it that he now knows that whatever happens that he and those who come after him have the life-giving blessing of knowing, and being known by God – intimately and fully because they are in a profoundly deep, mutual relationship rooted in covenant love?
Abram’s great wish was for a son with Sarai – but Abraham’s great gift that he received wasn’t progeny, it was knowing God, and being known by God, and sharing that relationship with Sarah and whomever would follow after them. (When one person is transformed and renewed by God’s light it often has an effect on those around them.)

Now we’re not talking about ‘who we are’ anymore – we’re talking about ‘whose we are’!
Whose are you?
There are as many answers as you have relationships.
I am spouse, parent, brother, friend, minister – on and on – these are all parts of ‘whose’ I am. I am theirs – yours – each in their own unique way.

And under and through all of those relationships there’s another relationship that enlivens and animates and grounds them all.
Whose am I?
I am God’s.
You are God’s! (apostrophe ‘s’).
To be God’s is to accept God’s offer of covenant love.
To be God’s is to have your identity shaped by allowing God’s Spirit to move within and through you.
To be God’s is to be known by God, and to know God.

It’s not knowing ‘about’ God; it’s ‘knowing’ God.
Knowing God means that you experience such a profound revelation, and new understanding, and insight about what’s really real, that it’s like your life is renewed and you “die” to your old self and become someone new.
You’re still you – but you’re a new you – a more generous, more loving, more forgiving, more thankful, more compassionate, more caring, more alive you.

This new you needs an ethic to live – a Way to follow – for us it’s the Way of Jesus. We aren’t expected to do it perfectly, or blamelessly, or to live up to an impossible holy standard – but we are expected to do it faithfully.
That’s what God asked Abraham to do in Genesis 17:1. God says, “Live entirely before me, live to the hilt!”

Sounds fantastic, right?
Once you feel that way you couldn’t ever find yourself adrift, or falling away, or stumbling, right?
I wish! But we’re human.
God may be able to constantly remember God’s covenant love, but we foolish humans tend to get distracted and forget.
A lot!
So how do we remember? Here’s where half the congregation starts to squirm!

The Lectionary leaves a bunch of verses out of this reading from Genesis 17. The missing verses are all about circumcision. I mean, if you’re looking for a tangible reminder of your covenant that you won’t ever forget – well, circumcision should do the trick. It’s drastic, but quite the reminder. Except it didn’t work – not permanently anyway. But the desire to ‘make a mark’ to represent this profoundly deep awakening to this covenanted relationship with God that rocks and transforms your world is certainly understandable.

Less drastic, but in the same vein, are things like wearing a cross, or carrying a prayer stone, or getting a tattoo – or how about attending church every week!
Many married people wear a ring. I don’t need it to remember that I’m married – but it’s a strong symbol, and if I take it off you can still see the mark on my finger!
Ultimately, it’s not the physical marking that matters. In a few weeks we’ll be looking at a reading from Jeremiah that talks about God’s love being “written on your heart.”
Whose are you?
You are God’s.
How do you remind yourself of that?
In numerous ways, I hope.

Go forth, knowing who you are, and whose you are.

You are God’s beloved. Yes, you. Even you. Especially you!

Your deepest you is known, and treasured, and loved.

And God’s covenant love invites you to become your best self, and to live life abundantly – in God’s light, in God’s love, in God’s presence.

God says, “Live entirely before me, live to the hilt!”

And overwhelmed, we fall flat on our faces, and laugh.
Not at the absurdity of it – but at the joy of it!