2/28/21 Barbara Metcalf
As Paul tells us, Abraham is our model for the “steadfast faith” our collect prays for. But the three other people we encounter in today’s readings model faith for us as well. All four become new people in faith and it’s not subtle. Each one has gotten a new name to make the point.
First Abraham. Deb Jesch and others will remember Carole Richardson acting out Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the Land of Canaan on a big sand board for Godly Play. Captivating us and the children about what it meant to traverse a desert, and to leave a world where people believed in many gods, entering into the promise of God, the one God, God who will be with you wherever you go — and for Abram and Sarai, the promise that God will grant offspring. It’s a wonderful story.
Thanks to hearing Larry DiCostanzo read all of Genesis out loud to several of us recently, I can tell you that there’s a lot to Abram/Abraham’s story that we don’t tell the children, and much of it is tough. In part it’s tough because Abram encounters grim challenges.
In part it is tough because there is a cultural gap that makes his decisions hard to understand. By the time we get to our text today there has been famine. Abram has retreated to Egypt and has given Sarai, his own wife, to Pharoah out of fear that Pharaoh will otherwise kill him in order to take her. Then there are all the complexities of having brought along his nephew Lot and his family. They compete over land. Abram has to rescue him militarily. Lot’s disobedient wife turns into a pillar of salt. Lot’s daughters make Lot drunk so he will sleep with them to sire children. And then there is Hagar, the slave woman whose body is used for procreation when the wife is barren.
Sarai, to focus for a minute on our second renamed model, endures it all. She is the one given to Pharoah. She is the one who is long childless in a society where to be barren is to risk everything — respect, support in old age, a husband’s favor. She is the one who resorts to having her husband father a child on her slave. She is the one who comes to resent the slave and the slave’s child. A tough story.
I think it’s the toughness of their story, the crooked path, the uncertainties that make Abraham and Sarah so foundational to our story. Their covenant — God’s promise of protection through material and moral crises on every side that they face, must face faithfully — that covenant persists.
As our epistle reminds us, God’s faithfulness is not earned by righteous deeds by Abraham or by anyone else but faith alone. Think of the promise of offspring as the symbol of that grace. That the aged Abram and Sarai of themselves could conceive a child is so implausible as to be laughable. They laugh. It is to them to be faithful, and that faith will to be tested again and again in the chapters that follow today’s reading. Abandoning Hagar and Ismael is a test of faith. The near sacrifice of Isaac speaks for itself.
Abraham and Sarah face these tests as new people. In this second covenant Abraham and Sarah are reborn, renewed. We know that because they have new names, names that evoke God’s promise of offspring. Names matter. We see this often so movingly in name choices that define or elide gender. Imagine one young person I know (who uses the pronouns
they, their). They are of Nepali birth, adopted into a New England Anglo family. (Their sister is my godchild.) For them, neither gender or community has felt fixed and they have moved among a Hindi girl’s name; an American female name; and the Buddha’s name – this last a claim on ethnicity, values, and gender at once. Chosen, or given, a new name can help us become who we are. It is with his new name that Abraham faces his hardest tests.
Paul teaches us in words; but his life itself is a model. I think his messages to us are so moving precisely because of his own rebirth and renaming, Saul turned Paul, his own experience of grace, his new life of faithfulness to death. He knows whereof he speaks:
not just Abraham but Paul is our model of someone who doesn’t earn, cannot earn, but faithfully receives God’s gracious gifts and promises. You are protected, you are God’s beloved child, and it is not of your doing.
Here is a final thought about Abraham’s tumultuous life. How does he know what a faithful life requires? Abraham knows because he and God are best friends. They talk all the time. Abraham’s story is filled with dreams, visions, strangers who turn out to be angels, covenants, conversations that are detailed negotiations. Muslims, in fact, call Ibrahīm Khalīlu’llāh, God’s friend (a minor epithet in the Bible too).
How do you talk to God, hear God? There is an anthropologist at Stanford called Tanya Luhrmann who participated in an evangelical church over a two-year period. The members learn to hear God’s voice. They don’t hear it at the beginning, Luhrmann explains, but over time they learn to recognize some of the voices in their head – as we all have in our head – as God speaking. They hear him, they tell her, as clearly as you are hearing me.
There are many ways to hear God’s voice, to read signs, to recognize his voice. The lessons we hear week after week, the liturgies of our worship, they all teach us. Our hymns teach us. I remember Beth Beller saying something like she learned her faith in hymns. I thought of that comment this week because words of hymns kept jumping into my mind as I pondered our lesson for today. From “God is working his purpose out” to “Lord speak to me that I may speak” to the childhood hymn of “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Friendship is a reminder of Abraham and of the way Lurhmann’s evangelicals speak of their conversations with God, sometimes staged by pouring a second cup of coffee or meeting in the park. It may seem alien to imagine hearing God as a human voice, but not, I think, to imagine God always primed for conversation. The conversation of prayer, explicit speech or not, are nurtured by scripture, the liturgy, the hymns – and “the clouds of witnesses” who have gone before, and the saints and angels with us now.
But how do we know that a voice is God’s and not Satan’s? Some of the insurgents at the capitol on January 6 said they were there “because the President told me to be.” Some, chillingly, said they were there because God had told them to be.
It is far easier to see Satan, as he surely is, destroying the lives, and all they touch, of the Proud Boys and their ilk than to recognize our own misguided voice within.
We make mistakes, and perhaps Peter, our fourth reborn and renamed person, is a model for not giving up when we do. The message of Lent: misdirection and return. Turning to our Gospel lesson, Jesus knows his Father’s will; he has recognized the right path, the hard
path. But Peter, Peter, who is the rock, is once again off track. The stories of his failures are one of his great gifts to the rest of us in our failures, another sign of God’s grace.
The mid-Victorian woman who wrote the hymn “Lord speak to me that I may speak in living echoes of your tone” spoke of her conversion to a life of faith in memorable words. “Earth and heaven seemed brighter from that moment.” May we find, as the collect prays, that “steadfast faith” and know that joy. Amen.