Trust is a bit of an odd theme to have on a Sunday in Lent. This holy season usually conjures up thoughts of repentance or sin or disciplines that help us keep our eyes and hearts on the Almighty. But trust? Where did that come from?
In our reading from Genesis, Abram & Sarai, who have already been through alot with God, are promised that they are going to go through some more, but that they will be greatly rewarded. Their experience in trusting God is a bit short, and God’s experience of trusting them is shorter, but yet, somehow, they all move forward, together. I’ll say more about that in just a minute.
The Gospel passage we just heard shows how much trust was between Jesus and his Disciples. This little interaction, and what comes before it, offers some evidence that they have grown together not just in a rabbi-student relationship, but that they have grown as friends, too. Today’s passage follows on the heels of Simon Peter confessing Jesus as the Messiah. For Jesus to have asked this rag-tag band of fellas “Who do people say that I am” required a lot of trust on his part, because WHO KNOWS what might have come out of their mouths. And then for Jesus to tell them that he must undergo great suffering and for Peter to pull Jesus aside and say, “Do you really want to be saying this???” means that there was trust all the way around.
We talk often of faith. Faith in God, Faithfulness. Acting on Faith. We say that someone is a Faith-filled person. But really, without Trust, there can be no faith. Faith is an action verb. It requires as much “doing” and “being” as it does “having.” Trust leads to faith, and faith leads to a covenant relationship with God.
All of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures during Lent this year focus on Covenants God made with people way back when. Last week, we heard about Noah and that famous rainbow. This week, it’s about Abram & Sarai becoming Abraham & Sarah. Next week-- the 10 Commandments! (And NOT the movie with Charlton Heston.)
For 13 chapters in the book of Genesis, we follow the story of Abram who, in today’s lesson becomes Abraham. There are numerous points along the way where the trust between Abram and God is feeble at best, but there are even more occasions where Abram puts his trust fully in God. When Abram & Sarai go to Egypt in Genesis 12, Abram tells his wife to lie to Pharaoh about who she is because he is afraid the king will kill Abram and take Sarai as his own wife, even though God has said, “You’ll be just fine.” Despite their lack of trust in God, God continues to trust them, right up to the very moment in which we find ourselves today where God initiates a covenant with Abram & Sarai. It is a binding promise, recognition that all three of them are in this epic journey together, for the long haul.
A covenant, especially as it was understood in the ancient near east when this story was being written, was a formal relationship between superior and inferior parties, almost always instituted by the superior party, who usually stood to gain more from the relationship. What makes this covenant so different is that Abram & Sarai stand to gain almost as much from this relationship as God does. Covenants are never one-way deals, and they always require a great deal of trust by both parties.
Since this is a different kind of covenant, it is significant that new names are revealed for everyone. Abram becomes Abraham. The meaning of his name shifts from “Exalted Ancestor” to “Ancestor of a Multitude.” Sarai becomes Sarah, and while both names mean “Princess,” her name change signifies that she is an equal partner with Abraham in this covenant. Maybe the most significant piece is that we learn a name for God for the first time. Up to this point (which remember, is only 16 chapters in…) God has been called “Elohim,” which means God, but not as a proper noun, and God has been called “Adonai,” meaning Lord, or Adonai Elohim -- Lord God. But those are all titles, not names. Here, God says, “I am El Shaddai.” It is translated in most English Bibles as “God Almighty,” but it literally means, God of the Mountains. It can also mean “All-Sufficient.” No wonder Abraham threw himself on the ground.
God starts out this covenant by listing off all the things God would do for Abraham in his lifetime and in the generations to follow. God is going to make Abraham exceedingly fruitful, and the All-Sufficient God will be their one and only God for generations yet to come. As if that wasn’t enough, God promises Abraham that the land in which he is currently living as an alien, the land of Canaan, will be a “perpetual holding.” (Want to know why there is so much fighting in the Middle East over who the land belongs to? Genesis 17 will give you some insight…) And even though Abraham scoffs at the notion, God promises that Sarah will give birth. “She shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her,” God says.
For some odd reason, Abraham’s responsibility to the covenant is, er, um, cut out of the reading in our lectionary. Maybe because the requirement was solely for Jewish people and not for Christians, or maybe because the editors of the lectionary wanted to focus on what God promises for us, regardless of our faithfulness or trustworthiness. Or maybe it’s just too, um, sensitive a topic to ask someone to read about in public worship. (If you go home and look in your Bible, or look on a Bible app on your smartphone, to the missing verses from today’s Genesis reading, you’ll see what I’m so delicately getting at.) But here’s a gentle way to put it: God says to Abraham, “If I’m going to do all this, there will be a physical sign from and on every male of your lineage and household, down to the servant’s servant’s servant.” And while God is certainly asking a good bit here, God could have asked for a lot more. It should be noted that Abraham doesn’t really put up much of an argument, and actually, pretty much changes the subject.
In the end, the Covenant is made because God says it is made. And the Covenant will be re-made time and time again right up to the point we get to Jesus, himself born into the Law of Moses and the Covenant with Abraham, and made by God to be the New Covenant.
Covenants are not just an Old Testament thing. Jesus is the sign of the New Covenant we have with God, a new covenant referred to when he’s with the Disciples at the last Supper (Luke 22). We re-affirm our own Baptismal Covenant whenever someone is brought into the Christian faith and life. The marriage liturgy in the Episcopal church is filled with covenant language. (And if you are beginning to ponder who are the “superior” and “inferior” parties in a marriage, remember that the covenant is with God, and God is always the superior party in a covenant.) In the New Covenant we have in Jesus, we’re invited into a relationship with God through belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the chosen one of God. In exchange, we are asked to keep the Great Commandments to love the God with all our hearts, minds, and soul and to love one another as Christ loves us.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and well-respected author, points out, “We do not go straight to Easter from the spa or the shopping mall. Instead, we are invited to spend forty days examining the nature of our own covenant with God. Upon what does that relationship depend? What do we trust to give us life?” How are we not only spiritually but bodily connected to God? Where is our “skin-in-the-game” as it were?
I invite and challenge you during this next few weeks of Lent to prayerfully consider the trust between you and God, the places and times when it’s been weak and when it’s been strong, and where your trust has strengthened your faith, and where your faith has developed and solidified your covenant with God.