Laughter and Promise – Covenant and Cross

IMG_2377What’s in a name? Names are how we identify one another and ourselves. They are deeply connected to our sense of who we are, our identity. Some people love their name and some people don’t actually like it and some even change it. What couples decide to do on marriage says important things about how they see themselves, who changes, who stays the same, whether there is a hybrid of the two by making the new name double barreled, or even more. The Church of England has an ongoing debate about how to mark the changing of a name when someone changes their gender and how that relates to who we are as a beloved child of God and an heir of grace. There is a call for a special service, but the bishops have said that the reaffirmation of baptism has the material needed in it. Others have called for something more tailor-made.

Our first reading gave us two people whose names are changed. Sarai becomes Sarah and Abram becomes Abraham (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16). In themselves these names don’t signify much. Sarai may well be an older form of Sarah, some even argue that the first was a name like any other and the second carried the significance drawn from later generations as meaning ‘queen’, or ‘princess’, or ‘lady’ to denote her significance. So this later allusion reflects the stories being written in retrospect; they are not contemporary accounts. Likewise with Abram. This doesn’t carry much significance; whereas Abraham means ‘Father of a Multitude’ and that is the promise he received. So the name changes mark out what became; they are a way of saying this covenant changes who you are. They change the relationship with God and new identities are formed. So the gap between the old names and the new names is not so much the issue as the status the new names accord. From now on this is who you are and here’s a bit of bling on your names as a badge of the status.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is one of a covenant being established between God and the generations that follow. The sign of this covenant is the gift of Isaac, the son born to both Abraham and Sarah. Abraham already has a son, Ishmael, through his wife’s slave girl, Hagar. So Sarah is also important in this covenant relationship and so often she is airbrushed out by only concentrating on the paternal line through Abraham. But she matters because of Hagar and the importance of the maternal line. The test of Jewish ancestry is who someone’s mother is, not so much who their father is. It is the matriarchal line that transmits the identity, not so much the paternity. There is no reason given for why Abraham and Sarah are picked for this covenant, they are just presented as being the parents of the many nations. They are archetypal figures, together an ancestral heritage that everyone can claim to be connected through. They stand for and root the common family tree.

The story of Abraham and Sarah follows on from the story of Noah, which we heard last week. After the flood we have the rainbow and the promise of God’s enduring love and his holding in his grace of creation. This now takes form in the covenant with Abraham and brought to effect through the childbearing of Sarah. God affirms and cements his confidence in his creation, in humanity. It is a love that will not let it go, whatever. It is a covenant that brings obligations on both side, to be God’s people and for God to show blessing. That blessing comes through the gift of life and in new life, as successive generations flow. Even when there are attempts to stamp out the people – through genocides and exile – a remnant remains and continues.

This promise does not strike Abraham as being that obvious at first. Sarah is not very convinced either given their ages. In fact Abraham thinks it is laughable. And laugh he does. But when Sarah bears a son she laughs with joy at this gift and blessing. And the child is named ‘Isaac’, which means ‘he laughs’. When covenant is fulfilled with blessing, then there is much cause for laughter and joyful celebration. So the two laughs are contrasted: the hollow laugh of derision and the joy-filled laugh of promise fulfilled.

Into this party atmosphere crashes Jesus in our Gospel reading with the call of the cross. If we want to be one of his followers we have to take up our own cross and follow (Mark 8:31-38). And while that is sinking in, Luke adds ‘daily’; we have to do this every day. Mark seems a bit kinder, though he might be being more final. Daily implies you can repeat it, which makes it more figurative. Once and for all means you won’t be able to repeat it, because crucifixion is a particularly horrific form of execution. It’s more of a ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ call, riding into the valley of certain death. So on reflection I think I might prefer Luke’s version. ‘Take up your cross’ can be the call to embrace the way of self-giving, self-forgetting sacrificial love. It can mean paying the ultimate price to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ and there are plenty in the world who face this. It can mean taking risks which may not come off. It will mean realizing that the love of God is the source and goal of our life and so ultimately it stands above it. However much we might want to, we can’t actually hang on to life. In fact, we have no real grasp on our life and so the true embracing is the embracing of the cross which will come to all of us one day or another, but come it will.

This comes in so many ways. It can come sitting by the side of one we love as they die. The cost is everything but there is no place we could possibly be other than there holding the hand. I won’t give any spoilers away, in case you are a catch up listener, but catch Friday’s edition of ‘The Archers’ if you want an example. It was heart-rending drama, depicting the power of love to be with someone through the darkness and hope of new life. It might mean making a stand for a cause of justice or another’s liberation, in the face of opposition, even violent opposition. And that is not easy by any means. It might mean working in a particularly difficult situation where there will be a personal and emotional cost and then knowing that we need to recover afterwards, or perhaps not. It does mean living as a servant of Jesus Christ whatever the situation we find ourselves in actually demands, even if that is different to what we thought we had signed up for. The cost can mean not getting the recognition for it, even paying a heavy price. There are situations where we absorb the anger and the pain, and so ‘take one for the team’.

In our readings today being the father, and mother – though that gets hidden – of many nations, being the one to whom they all look for their ancestry and provenance, is much more rewarding and satisfying than being one who is crucified as the cost of discipleship. And yet, it is not the memorial plaque on the wall that counts, but the covenant of grace in which we stand. And the significance of Abraham and Sarah is not in themselves but in the covenant that flowed into them and through them, beyond them. That covenant is one of faithful service that places the love and promise of God above all else. It does this because that covenant of grace stands above and holds everything else. It is the purpose and therefore the hope. Without it we have nothing. With it and in it we join with all that matters. We can therefore take up our cross knowing that this is the way of life and peace. As with Sarah, we can laugh with joy at the fulfillment of promise, of covenant honoured in Jesus Christ.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 2 – Sunday 25th February 2018

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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