Sermon February 25: Embracing Our Name

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Faith United Methodist Church

February 25, 2018

Second Sunday of Lent

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Response to the Word (Unison)

God of Abraham our father, God of Sarah our mother, we remember with gratitude your covenant that undergirds our lives with certainty and gives us peace. In our moments of doubt, give us faith. In our moments of weakness, give us strength. In our moments of uncertainty, give us grace. Amen.

Sermon:                              Embracing Our Name     

Names. We’ve all got them. George. Faith. Melissa. Tim. Whether we are named after someone or not, hopefully our parents gave thoughtful consideration to the names they gave us. Some of us like our names, while others of us might wish our parents had chosen differently.

Nicknames are a different thing. They can come up out of nowhere. We might have nicknames particular to certain friends. My childhood friend Julie still calls me Watson because of a detective club we formed in the third grade.  Our loved ones may have one nickname for us, while our work buddies have another. I always get at least one Christmas package from my mother addressed to “Kris Mouse.” Our nicknames may be a shortened version of our full names, like KB or Joe.   And then there are the cruel nicknames we, at times, have to endure. Bucky, Four-Eyes, Bean-Pole and Fatty are among the tamer ones.

In our Scripture lesson we heard the story of how Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah. Abram’s name change to Abraham could have been seen as bully’s nickname, a cruel joke. The name Abraham means “Father of Many” or “Father of Nations” but Abraham and Sarah had no children together. This name change just pointed out what Abram lacked. It was a reminder of what Abram wasn’t. It was like calling someone with no athletic ability ‘Sport.’

But God’s new name for Abraham was not a cruel joke. It was, instead a term of endearment. It was a promise. It wasn’t a reminder of how Abraham had failed. It was a reminder of what Abraham ~ even at ninety-nine years old ~ would become. Abram would become the “Father of Nations.” Sarai, whose new name means “Princess”, would become the mother of kings. As Tim Good wrote, “Abraham was first named ‘father’ and then became a father because he dared to trust God to do what only God could do…” These new names were not meant to chide or belittle, but to strengthen Abraham and Sarah in grace as they awaited the fulfillment of the unbelievable promise.

Abraham and Sarah were not the only ones that received new names in the Bible. Jacob became Israel. Simon was renamed Peter, meaning Rock. Paul became Saul. And we, too, receive new names. We are baptized with the names that our parents gave us, but in our baptism we receive a new name. Christian. Like Abraham, we may not think our new name is very fitting. We know that we often don’t live up to our name very well. During this season of Lent we are ask to consider those ways that we fail as Christians and repent those failing. Often it feels like the list is very long.

But just as Abraham’s new name was a promise, our new name is a promise, too. We are not called Christian because we deserve to be called Christian. We are called Christian because, even in our weakness, God loves us enough to welcome us into Christ’s family. The name Christian is a promise that we will never be alone, that we are given grace everyday to strengthen us for the journey, and that we will join in the joy that is ever-lasting life. Embracing the name Christian means that we believe in the promise because it identifies us as people who believe in a God who can bring life out of death.

 If we read on in the story of Abraham and Sarah we learn that they embraced their new names, but not before a few stumbles. In Genesis 18 we witness Sarah laugh at God’s promise. In Genesis 20 we hear of how Abraham lied to King Abimelech, telling him Sarah was his sister, not his wife.

Yet, when we are weak, God is strong. In time, God fulfilled the promise to Abraham and Sarah and they became parents to Isaac. Isaac became father to Esau and Jacob. Jacob (later called Israel) became father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Those tribes brought forth kings and prophets including King David and, after many generations, Jesus. Because of this, we too are children of Abraham because we are brothers and sisters of Christ. God had it right. Abraham would become the father of nations and Sarah the mother of kings.

Another interesting aspect of this story is that in it God, too, takes on a new name. Our Bible translates it, “I am God Almighty….” The Hebrew is El Shaddai, which means literally, God of the Mountains or, more poetically, Strong God. This is the first time God is identified with this title. Even as Abraham and Sarah received new names, God presents God’s self to them in a new and different way. As Geoff McElroy put it in his reflection on this passage, “The same El Shaddai that spoke to Abram still speaks to the world today calling us into a new identity as a people.”

Think, for a moment, about your name. How do you feel about your it? And what does it mean to have the name Christian? What does that identity mean to you? Do you find that being called ‘Christian’ changes you in some way?

Whether we love our names or hate our names, we are all named ‘Beloved’ by God. This is the Good News that can give us strength as we journey through Lent and beyond. Abraham and Sarah found strength in their new names as they waited for the promise to be fulfilled, even if they stumbled a bit along the way.

And, just like Abraham and Sarah, we are weak, we stumble, too. Yet it is by grace alone that we are named as brothers and sisters in Christ, partakers in the promise. Just like Abraham and Sarah, we will find that the promise awaits us. Let us hold on to our name ~ our identity as ‘Christian’ ~ to strengthen us through this journey of Lent. El Shaddai continues to act, initiating wonderful, surprising, seemingly impossible things even today. Amen.