LENT 2B: Identity

Octavia Spencer accepting the Oscar for Best
Supporting Actress, February 26, 2012.

Lectionary Passage:  Genesis 17: (1-3) 4-7, (15-16):
As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.   I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

This passage is the story that establishes Abram’s identity.  He would become Abraham, the “father of many people”.  And Sarai, his (sort of) doting and laughing wife, would become Sarah, the “princess of many.”  Abraham and Sarah now have a new identity, an identity that comes from this established relationship with God.  This is what it means to be a covenant people.  In the Jewish tradition, this is the establishment of the identity of a people, the establishment of a covenant people.  God has done a new thing.  Nothing would ever be the same again.

Identity is a funny thing.  With whom do you identify?  With whom do you align yourself?  What are the relationships in your life?  How do you see yourself?  The idea of a covenant connotes an agreement.  But, more than that, it implies a relationship.  This was not some sort of holy “to do” list that was given to Abraham.  God never told him what he had to do to be accepted, to be part of the covenant, to  part of the people, to be “godly” (oh, I hate that word!…”like God”…are any of us really “like God”?)   God never gave him a list of beliefs to which he had to adhere to be part of the covenant community.  (Hmmm!)  Once again, the covenant was not about right living; it was about relationship.  God claimed Abram and Sarai as children of God and their life was never the same.  And then God renames them.  Their names mean something–father and princess.  The new names are symbolic of the new relationship into which they enter.

I looked up the meaning of my name.  “Shelli” (not spelled that way–it is NEVER spelled that way!) is actually a derivative of the Hebrew, Rachel–“ewe, female sheep, little rock, rest, sloped meadow.”  (So, Sarai becomes a princess and I am a sheep that rolls down a small hill and goes to sleep!)  Like I said, identity is a funny thing.  We hold tightly to the way we envision ourselves, to the image that we’ve created.  And then God comes up with the most ludicrous thing, like being the father or the princess of many (or maybe a sheep that follows down a gently sloping meadow! Hmmm!).  It’s just laughable.

We actually didn’t read the part where Abraham laughed.  He laughed because it was far-fetched and downright ludicrous.  But then, when you think about it, most of God’s promises are.  And then when he told Sarai the whole preposterous scenario, she also laughed.  So, do you think it was disbelief or nervousness or something else that brought laughter?  We in our 21st century boxes probably think it a little irreverent. After all, would you dare laugh at God? Well, good grief, don’t you think God is laughing at us sometimes? Perhaps laughter is what brings perspective. It brings humility; it brings a different way of looking at oneself. Laughter is about relationship.  Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Humor is the beginning of faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”

Abraham laughed. Sarah laughed. And I’m betting God laughed. (You can just imagine the inside joke between the three: “This is going to be good. No one will ever believe this could happen.” You?  Sarai?  LOL!!!–for those who don’t text, it means “laugh out loud”!) Maybe laughter is our grace-filled way of getting out of our self and realizing that, as ludicrous and unbelievable as it may be, God’s promise holds and, more than that, holds something for us–a new identity. Maybe it’s our way of admitting once and for all that we don’t have it all figured out, that, in all honesty, we don’t even have ourselves figured out, that there’s a whole new identity just waiting for us to claim. In this Season of Lent, we are called to get out of our self, to open ourselves to possibilities and ways of being that we cannot even fathom. Go ahead and laugh. It’s probably incredibly ludicrous…and it’s only the beginning.

Now I know that many of you are amazed that I can write this through my sleepy-eyed disposition at 4:00 in the morning.  Well, the truth is, I POST these at 4:00 in the morning while I’m beginning my last hour of shut-eye.  So, as I write this, I’m sort of half-heartedly watching the Academy Awards.  And Octavia Spencer has just won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of a maid in the segregated South.  I have to convess that I never got my packed-in life around to see the movie but on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I sat and read the whole book on my Kindle.  It was about identity. It was about the identity that we have and the identity that the world projects upon us. I mean, think about it, how do those who are oppressed, either through out and out slavery or just socially acceptable oppression (even today!) envision themselves.  What is their identity–the one they have or the one that is projected upon them?  They both matter because they both form us.  But the key is that we are called to be transformed by the identity that God has for us.  So whatever identity that you or others project upon yourself, it is the covenant, the identity that calls us and recreates us that matters.

When Octavia Spencer accepted the Oscar tonight, her speech was not eloquent and it was not rehearsed (Thanks be to God!).  If anything, she was so shocked that she was almost laughing!  She voiced the perfunctory thank-you’s and then she closed:  “I share this with everybody.  Thank you world.”

As laughable as it may be, I pray that my identity will be true, worthy of sharing, and will project not a projected image of what I should be, but a “thank you” to the world.  In this Season of Lent, we, as a covenant people, are called to take a good hard look at our identity, at the way our relationship with God is lived out in our lives.  We are called to be real. 

So, continuing with our act of giving up so that we can take on, on this fifth day of Lent, think about your own identity.  What is real?  What is projected?  What part of yourself can you share with everybody?  Let go of those things that only benefit yourself.  And take on those things that say “thank you world!”

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli

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