Scripture Passage: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 (Lent 2B)
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I 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…15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
What does the notion of “covenant” mean to you? I guess the broadest definition is promise (or if you want to get more legalistic, a “contract”). When I was little, I remember talking about what a covenant was in Sunday School. It was actually pretty scary to me. It was presented as a bilateral contract. So, I wondered, if I mess up, if I don’t keep up with my end of the deal, does God just cut me off? (Why do we do that to kids? For that matter, why do we do that to anyone?)
So, I think we probably read this passage wrong sometimes, perhaps too legalistically. It is the story that establishes Abram’s identity and, with it, his relationship with God. 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. It’s not just a flat bilateral contract; it’s a mutual relationship. It’s a becoming. Don’t think of it as two parties signing a deal; think of it as two (or in this case, three) parties holding hands and jumping together into the unknown pool of grace. With this jump, Abram and Sarai changed. But you know what? God did too!
Now before you go all never-changing God thing on me, think about it. God came to Abram. (God waited until Abram was 99 years old. I don’t really get that one but maybe I can add it to my “questions” list for later!) God moved, offering a piece of the Godself to Abram, a piece of newness, a new identity. God didn’t just sit on some throne in the sky waiting for Abram to show up and bow in reverence. Rather, God appeared to Abram, came to him, and offered grace and re-creation. God is all about re-creation. God is all about change.
So, yes, 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 be 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!) It IS 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, which, when you think about it, make it holy. Funny…
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 or tweet or still use proper English, 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 something 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. Because somewhere beneath that façade you have so carefully built is the real “you”, the “you” that God envisions you can be. And someday you and God are going to have a really good laugh about this whole remarkable journey into this covenant creation that is you.
Humor is the beginning of faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer. (Reinhold Niebuhr)
Grace and Peace,