Homily for 3/1/2015, St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center.
Abram and Sarai get new names from God: Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah.
And even not knowing the Hebrew - what’s behind the new names - it feels like the old names are now standing up straight. Like their backs are upright. A hidden muscle spasm of the soul has been released. Abram and Sarai are compact, hunched over. Not crippled, maybe, but crumpled. “Abraham and Sarah” feels expansive and full.
Sure enough, the language bears this image out: in the Hebrew, Abram is “an exalted father”; Abraham is a “father of many.” Sarai is a “princess”; Sarah is a “princess of many.” The emphasis, says God, is - yes - on the lineage Abraham and Sarah now stand to receive but also - and maybe more so - on the blessing God will arrange for others through them. Abraham and Sarah will be blessed to bless. The blessing they are given is in the context of a world in which their blessing, generously extended, will bring life to unexpected and barren places.
But that’s to skip ahead. The immediate import of God’s change of their monikers means that Abraham and Sarah will never again be able to hear their names called in a crowded bar without first thinking of the One who calls them up to make the promise: the Lord. It is the Lord who insists on the promise that makes Sarah laugh: Abraham and Sarah will have children of God; not one or two; not three or four or five. The descendants of Abraham and Sarah will be more than the sands that get stuck in your swim trunks and more than the stars that fill a clear North woods’ sky.
I was informed in sixth grade - in a junior high locker room before gym class (by a twelve year old who smelled like a predictably combination of deodorant, dirty socks, and sweat - and who could be counted, he assured me, as an authority in these matters) that one doesn’t give oneself a nickname. Only someone else can give you a nickname. Which is why most people are hesitant to tell you theirs: many times, nicknames represent embarrassing stories. Or strange encounters. Or secrets told in the confidence of a sheet fort at a slumber party. Or peculiar things about ourselves we wouldn’t have noticed or thought to say about ourselves. Nicknames - when you play by the rules of this twelve year old expert - are a bit like hearing your voice played back to you on a cassette or mp4 recording. You get a glimpse of how others see and hear you, and at best it’s surprising, and at worst it’s not flattering, and so we wonder if the names we are given in gym rooms by the people with whom we share such things really fit us very well at all.
And it’s both good and bad, right? We are as likely to doubt the sincerity of a complimentary nickname as we are to fear the truth of those less flattering.
I am not surprised when we’re told, later on, that Sarah has a hard time accepting a name as beautiful as the one God gives her: the one attached to the promise she cannot believe. The new name - and the promise - must have felt a bit like wearing someone else’s clothes.
Sarah does not surprise me, because I sometimes have a hard time imagining what it looks like to let God’s word about me be the most true word about me. I wonder if you can relate. The word that says that I am not my success or my status; that I am not my career or my country of origin; that I am not, even, first of all Texan.
That, above all, I am loved. That, having put on the garment of Christ, I am attached to a promise I cannot believe. That we, in a true sense, have been given new names. That the Lord has extended the promise of Sarah and Abraham to you, and has likewise give you a new identity in Christ - this is the foundation and beating heart of your baptism, to which Lent calls each of us to reconnect.
Indeed, in prayer book formularies prior to our most recent prayer book, the BCP 1979, the relationship between naming and the moment of baptism was explicit. While ritual baptismal customs understandably and rightly change with time, the underlying truth remains: the name you received in your baptism is Christ’s own, and so you are a child of God’s promise.
Peter is one of the first followers of Jesus to receive a new name. His first name was Simon. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, Peter gets his new name just seconds before the episode we hear Mark tell today and just after confessing Jesus as the Messiah of God. In Mark’s gospel, following Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus foretells his coming death and resurrection. The disciples get queasy at the mention of blood. Peter speaks up. Jesus and Peter throw down.
Unlike Matthew’s gospel, which ends the story on a high note, Mark’s gospel shows Peter, like Sarah, finding it hard to trust his new name, finding it difficult to trust through a plan that looks like the cross. “God forbid,” he says, to which Christ responds with his famous, “Get behind me, Satan” line, which I’m sure Pete appreciates in front of his friends. Like Sarah, Peter is in the process of being blessed to bless, to bring life to new and unexpected places. But Peter is no dummy, and the cross seems like a stupid place to look for new and unending life.
Later, we are given a vivid picture of Peter’s mistrust when a motley crew of soldiers, servants, and religious officials approaches Jesus at Gethsemane, to arrest him, and a disciple - John’s gospel says it’s Peter - draws his sword and cuts off a servant’s ear.
If I am like Peter - like Sarah - like Abraham - like the others - if I am like Peter, I wonder what parts of my life still betray my mistrust in the promise that comes with the new name God has given me. Beloved. Child of God. Clothed with Christ. Blessed to bless.
Maybe you, like me, are aware of true things about your life that make your body hunch over, like Peter’s, like Sarah's, crumpled in on itself, one hand clenched tight to the sword, you know, just in case? Maybe not violently. But certainly fearfully. After all, the sword here is more than a weapon of war; it is a symbol for everything we do to protect ourselves from our fear that God might fail God’s promise, or that God’s way won’t deliver - that God’s way won’t “work.”
But what life would be possible - what life would be open to you - if those hesitations in your body and those spasms of your soul could release? If belief in the Messiah could translate even a little more fully into the trust of your body toward the promise of God? What is it, exactly, you are afraid still of losing? Where do you imagine your greatest need for protection from trusting?
Today, let the sacraments, the Scriptures, and this community of faith conspire to remind you that, above all, you are loved. That, having put on the garment of Christ, you are attached to a promise that maybe you cannot believe. That you, in a true sense, have received a new name.
The emphasis, says God, is - yes - on the blessing you now stand to receive but also - and maybe more so - on the blessing God will arrange for others through you. Like Abraham and Sarah, you also have been blessed to bless. The blessing you have been given is in the context of a world in which that blessing, generously extended, will bring life to unexpected and barren places.
So, take heart. Take heart, and come. You who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and have received a new name - “child of God!” - tonight, one more time, come to the table, and stretch out your hands and reach with your life toward the promise of God. Together, with me, let us put down our swords.