What’s In a Name?

Scripture: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 & Romans 4: 13-25

Second Sunday in Lent, 2018

If I close my eyes, I can still see the view. The wide open space that you can see only from the very top of a mountain, framed on both side by mighty pine trees that seemed to reach into the heavens, the blue sky that seemed to reach up into the firmament. These are the sights that sat in front of me, when, as a 12 year old boy, I had signed up to do the ropes course at a family camp in the mountains of North Carolina. My friends had reassured me that it was going to be “awesome” and, though I wanted to do the go-kart racetrack that was on relatively flat ground, peer pressure is tough to overcome at that age and it was up I went. And in my mind I can still feel the way the trees to which I and the course were tied swayed back and forth every time there was a good stiff breeze that came rolling over the mountain and even in my relatively young mind I wondered if now was the time that the laws of physics and the strength of the wind was going to overpower these 100 year old pine trees and send me, the course, and the trees falling to the ground. You see your mind can play tricks on you if you let it and even the most infinitesimally small chance of something becomes surely what is coming next. I can see the platform below me, my parents trying to encourage me in the way that parents do when they don’t really understand the sheer terror that you are being overwhelmed by. To my side I can see the ropes course instructor saying, all you have to do is count to three and slide off and gravity and Jesus will take care of all the rest. I can hear me explaining to this guy that I had plenty of faith in both Jesus and gravity but that my faith in gravity was, at the moment, winning. I can still feel the dryness in my mouth, the sweat building up on my palms and my forehead and the uneasy feeling of having everyone in my church group on the ground looking up at me. It felt as if I had two choices. One, I could be clipped into a belay rope and lowered to the ground, a decision that while ensuring my safety would also ensure a lifetime of teasing at the hands of my 12 year old peers. A certain shame would be visited upon me, my parents, my grandparents and really as far back as could be reached. Like somewhere in the great beyond was some long departed relative shaking his head and saying, “where did I go wrong?” Or two, I could slide my rear end off the platform drop from 20 feet and swing out over the valley (or, I supposed, 3, the whole of the course would spontaneously come apart sending me careening out into the wide open space that sat before me and my decision making). And so it was that I slowly, inched my way forward, every movement taking me that much closer to either getting off this thing or being propelled on across the chilly waters of the Jordan River. So it was that I silently counted off in my head 1, 2, 3-I should mention, as has been well established in this pulpit and this place, I am deathly afraid of heights. I’m not talking about a mild discomfort, nor even something that is bothersome but ultimately livable. No, I am talking about afraid to the point of sweating and shaking, of wanting to back away from whatever edge that I have found myself and get my feet back on solid ground. And so when I sat on the edge of that platform looking down while experiencing what I imagine was the first of countless existential crises in which I would no longer being alive, it felt as if I had reached a point of no return in my life. Now, as you can see, I survived, both body, spirit, and mind, more or less, and healthy fear of heights intact. What was an insurmountable challenge to my twelve year old mind looks (somewhat) different to me at 41 especially considering the fact that I am not up there anymore. When not in the midst of an event of this magnitude, one’s rational mind can kick back in and you realize that pine trees have a root structure that makes it almost impossible to be pulled out of the ground, and the bolts that they use to secure swings and platforms and belay lines will survive my life and likely the lives of my children. But even in my 12 year old mind, it took a leap of faith to convince me to move off that platform, to test the strength of the swing and hope that Jesus would win over gravity.

Now this is of course a completely unserious way to think about our commitment to our faith and yet it evidences a greater truth. It is hard to keep the faith. It is hard to keep the faith because too often the stuff of this world tends to get in the way of our seeing God in the world. It is hard to keep the faith because too often our own brains get in the way of seeing God in the world. It is hard to keep the faith because too often to keep the faith means that we have to slide off the platform and hope to God that God catches us and that can be unsettling, and uncomfortable, and scary. But if we are who we claim to be, if we are followers of Christ, seeking to walk in his footsteps, seeking to love the world as he did, then we are called to exist in that space between the platform and the catch believing all the while that it would be God who ultimately takes care of us, it would be God who provides for our needs, for our well-being, it would be God in whom we live and breath and take our rest and not the stuff of this world. To do otherwise is to put our faith in the stuff of this world and that it wrong, foolhardy, and sin. To do so is to assume that our faith is not sufficient for the living of this day, is not the most powerful force in all of earth, cannot make the crooked straight or the hilly flat or even the blind to see. In the end, all we are left with when all else falls away, is faith. And both of our passages for this morning demonstrate the power of that faith.

I was having a conversation with a friend earlier this week about the future of religion and I said that I thought of the major religious traditions, Christianity was the best equipped for moving into the future because, unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, we were not as moored to the past as were they. By this I mean that while Islam to a great extent and Judaism to a greater extent were founded upon a long history of stories of struggle and redemption, tales never to be forgotten about Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, of Moses wandering in the desert for 40 years and the seemingly minuscule amount of oil never running for the Maccabees that forms the basis for Hanukkah, even more contemporary tales of pogroms in Eastern Europe and of the Shoah in Germany form stories of reassurance and the mentality that these periods both of grace and persecution must never be forgotten. On the other hand, Christians, and especially Reformed Christians like ourselves, seek future opportunities to see God’s grace and calling all around us and to share that message with all that we see. Rather than “Never forget” ours is a faith in which our founder told us to go out baptizing the nations, teaching them about Jesus, and always looking to the end of the age when Christ will come back. Our faith becomes evidenced not by where we have been but, rather, where we are going. And while each week we look to the stories of the past in the form of Biblical readings from the Hebrew and Greek traditions, we always are sent back out into the world to continue the work that God is about eventually bringing all the children home. In this we look to this story from the book of Genesis of the calling of Abram and Sarai not because it is foundational for our own history, though it is, but rather, because we see the marking of change from one era to the next through the blessing of both Abram and Sarai with new names, names not of birth, but of faith. Not because a mighty nation was created from the offspring of these two exemplars of the faith but because they provide something of a roadmap for us as we continue the work of building a mighty nation again.

We all know the story of Abraham and Sarah. We know how God appeared to a relatively well off man on the plains of Harran and told him that from he and his wife would arise a nation more numerous than the stars in the sky. How upon hearing that his now fairly elderly wife would bear him a son, he thought it impossible and she thought it downright silly, how after that seemingly impossible child was born, the faith of Abraham was once again tested with the sacrificing of his son only to gain a reprieve after it seemed like he was prepared to go through with it, and how in the end, God did bring about a new nation of the faithful emerging from the ancestry of Abraham and Sarah. But today’s reading is before all of that. Today’s reading is Abram and Sarai looking out at the unknown before them and being told all you have to do is count to three, ease yourself off the platform, and let God do the rest. And to signify this new commitment to the future, this new act of faith, God blesses both of them with new names. See the past has fallen away, all that is before you is the future, a future of God’s blessing and multiplying and hope, all because they moved out in faith just a inch.

This is echoed in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, another group of people on the precipice of doing something huge if they only have the faith to do so. And you can imagine that they are feeling a great deal of confusion, a great deal of challenge in forming this new worshipping community, all around are signs that they cannot accomplish that that they wish to accomplish. They are, after all, meeting underground in the catacombs under the city unable to freely express their faith in Christ over Caesar. And surely each time a wave of persecution of covered the city and one of their number disappeared only to reappear in prison or the Colosseum, the fear that spread through them must have been debilitating. And yet. And yet, here is Paul reminding them of the power of faith to make a way out of no way, to look back to their past not simply for the sake of remembrance but for the reassurance that they can step out in faith knowing that God will catch them, that God will take care of them, that though some might lose their lives they could never lose their souls. That it was through faith that they were justified and through faith that they would one day be reunited with Christ.

Paul, like Abraham and Sarah had his life forever changed in a moment’s notice. In a split second on a road leaving one persecution of the followers of Jesus and on his way to the next persecution of the followers of Jesus, seemingly out of nowhere, his life was irrevocably changed, his trajectory altered, his faith in the things of the past forever washed away in the in the unstoppable flow of grace that began at the beginning of time and cascading across all of creation before returning to God. And with that, too, came a new name. Saul the persecutor because Paul, the greatest Apostle of God. See the old has gone away, see the new is appearing before you.

In our own time, we are facing some degree of confusion about the future. And with the confusion comes an even great amount of foundational uncertainly that will force us to ask ourselves, “who are we?” But more importantly, “who do we want to be?” “Who is God calling us to be?” And “how do we see ourselves getting there?” There is no path that is completely certain except the one on the trail traversed by the savior. There is no way that is completely known except the one that leads back to God in heaven. There is no pathway on which we are called to trod but the one that is led by the Holy Spirit, a chaotic and beautiful way that is never staid, never boring, never presumed. It is that path that we least expect but that ultimately gives us the most joy and peace, hope and security, grace and love. It is the path that all of God’s children are on that leads to Jerusalem, that leads to the cross, that leads to the tomb, but that also ultimately leads to life after death, light emerging from darkness and the dreams and visions of the people of God never, ever dying. This is our time. This is our moment. The future unknown but with God’s guidance and wisdom, we will know the way, the truth, and the life. And the truth will set us free. And so let us give thanks and glory to God in the highest with the hopes of peace amongst all God’s people. Now and always, amen.

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