Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me. It is a parent’s mantra to a child who is hurting and a child’s shield to the bullies at school. Perhaps, you’ve shared it with someone you love; maybe you have even whispered it to yourself. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.
The problem with this classic saying, of course, is that most of us grow up to learn that this simply isn’t true. It isn’t true because names do hurt. Anyone who has ever had to walk the gauntlet-like halls of junior high or high school knows this. And let’s be honest, adults haven’t exactly kicked the habit of name-calling either. Just look at the state of our politics.
Names can hurt. Because names mean something. Brand names mean something to those who wear them. Celebrity names mean something to the brands they endorse. Even our family names mean something to us. Just last week, at Larry Bjoraker’s funeral, there was a woman who came up to me and said, “You know, I grew up in this church.” I said, “Oh yeah?” And with a particular amount of emphasis, she replied, “Oh yes, I’m a Moe!” Being a Moe means something here, doesn’t it? Names means something.
Today, Abram, a biblical celebrity and central character of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, gets a new name. In fact, his wife Sarai gets a new name too. And while these new names represented their hopes and dreams, I imagine these new names were somewhat painful for them as well.
We are first introduced to Abram five chapters earlier in the book of Genesis. Abram comes onto the Biblical scene a little older than when most celebrities hit their prime – he was 75. God had called him and his beloved Sarai out of their home to live in a new land. Abram and Sarai were childless, which back then (and still today, I think) was a source of great embarrassment and shame. At the ages of 75 and 66, the likelihood of Abram and Sarai getting pregnant was next to zero. But God thought otherwise. Not only did God promise Abram and Sarai new land, but God audaciously promised them offspring. “I will make you a great nation,” the Lord said to Abram.
If you think about it, this must have been greatly exciting for Abram and Sarai, but also quite terrifying too. Have you ever been asked to try something again that has already lead to so much disappointment? Maybe it has been getting back to looking for jobs after a series of rejection letters or having your dance coach tell you to try that move again, though you’ve missed it every time. That’s scary stuff. What if it just leads to more disappointment? So it is quite the request to ask Sarai and Abram to get their hopes up once again, when month after month and year after year during most of their life, they had to live through the grief and pain of never conceiving a child. How frightening it must have been to then try again.
But try again, they did. And what they feared most… happened. Once again, month after month, year after year, no child for Abram and Sarai. Years, later, when God had the guts to approach Abram once again, Abram had a bone to pick with God. “God, what’s the deal? We are still childless and all this land that you said my offspring would inherit is going to go to someone else.” A pretty bold statement to make to God. But God can handle it. Taking Abram by the hand, God leads Abram outside under the evening sky and says, “Look up. Count the stars. That’s how many your descendants will be.” God reassures Abram of the promise. That it is still in effect.
But soon enough, childless and heart-broken yet again, Sarai begins to think that she is the problem. Maybe the only important ingredient in God’s covenant with them is Abram. So she takes matters into her own hands. Sarai tells Abram to pay a visit to her maid-servant Hagar and to get to know her a little better. And low and behold, 9 months later, at the age of eighty-six, Abram became a dad for the first time to little Ishmael and Sarai – a step-mom.
But as it turns out, Sarai wasn’t the problem at all. And God wasn’t through with them yet, despite the fact that they had taken God out of the equation and tried to solve the problem themselves. About twelve years later, God comes to Abram yet again. This time Abram is ninty-nine years old. Sarai, ninety. And Ishmael, a teenager, tortured by growth spurts and pimples.
As one could expect, in this visit, God, yet again, reminds Abram of the promise that God had made – “I will make you exceedingly numerous in number.” And at this point, I imagine Abram had had it. The text says that he fell on his face. I don’t know if this is worship or just plain grief over that which has not come true. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, God. I’ve heard this before.”
But then God does something that God hasn’t done before. “Abram,” the Lord said, “you will no longer be Abram. From now on, you are Abraham.” Abram, which means exalted father, suddenly becomes Abraham, which means father of many nations. God gives Abram a new name. And God does the same with Sarai too. Sarai becomes Sarah, which means Princess, one who births royalty.
These new names took a little getting used to, I bet. If you have ever changed your name, then you know how annoying it can be to have to correct everyone all the time. But for Abraham and Sarah it was more than annoying. It was painful. Because every time they had to correct someone and say, “Oh no, sorry, it’s Abraham now,” or “Actually, you can call me Sarah,” they could hear the ridiculousness in it. A couple with no children named “Father of many nations” and “Princess?” I don’t think so. The names simply reminded Abraham and Sarah of unfulfilled promises of God and their empty womb.
But then God does one more new thing. It comes in the verses that are missing from our text. Verses 8-14 that we mysteriously skipped over. If we ever skip over verses in a reading, you can be sure that it’s because it is either more boring than usual, it is violent, or it has something to do with sex. This one isn’t boring per se, but it is violent and does have something to do with sex. As a sign of the promise that God has made with Abraham, to make him the father of many nations, God asks that every male in Abraham’s house be circumcised. Ouch! Why would God do that?
Maybe God thought that words were not enough anymore. That there needed to be a visible and tangible sign to this promise that God had made. Which is true. Sometimes we need a visible sign for an invisible promise. Maybe God knew that sometimes you just have to get your body involved. Whether you are family or friends, people who love each other can’t just simply speak that love. They have to show it, with a kiss or an embrace. It makes sense that God would want there to be a physical sign of this promise. And it makes sense that the sign of God’s promise to Abraham would be connected to the very part of Abraham that would help bring about the fulfillment of the promise.
In this new articulation of God’s promise to Abraham, God not only gives them a new name, but a physical sign of the promise to go with it. Abraham and Sarah are quite the pillars of our faith. Not because their faith was always so strong and their trust in God rock solid. I mean, Sarah did send Abraham to Hagar after all. That doesn’t show a lot of trust in God, and rightly so. No they are pillars of this faith because they have lived through the pain of promises unfulfilled, of doubting and questioning God without severing the relationship.
Which makes Abraham and Sarah good models for us to follow on this faith journey. Because we too have been given a new name by God – child of God. Also, like Abraham and Sarah, we have a physical sign of God’s promises. Simple bread and wine, or a simple blessing on the forehead, in which we will partake in just a few minutes. It, too, gets our body involved.
But it isn’t always easy to hear this new name – child of God – or to take communion and blessing. I have seen people’s eyes well up with tears when called a child of God. Hearing it sometimes stirs up in us our inability to live up to such a name. And sometimes up it stirs up in us the feeling that if we are a child of God, we have been orphaned. I’ve seen hands shake as they reach out to receive simple bread and simple wine to take into their bodies. Such things can be painful for us too, when we just don’t know if we can believe in the promises anymore.
Like Sarah and Abraham, these are visible signs of an invisible promise. Abraham and Sarah cling to them in hopes that someday they would bear a child. And we cling to them in hopes that no matter what happens in this life, God will be our God. And we? God’s people.
Oh yeah, and by the way, on Abraham’s 100th birthday, Sarah gave him a beautifully wrapped box. Inside was a t-shirt that said, “World’s Greatest Dad.” About 9 months later, Isaac was born. AMEN