My sermon from the Second Sunday in Lent (February 25, 2024) on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17.
So in May 2010, I took a little trip to an office of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles which was located in Jamaica, Queens. Since I lived in NYC at the time, I hadn’t owned a car in years but still needed to update my license. I stuffed my bright orange messenger bag with all the documents I needed but also quite a few snacks, my Ipod, and a book since I didn’t know how long I would have to wait. I eventually got to the front of the line and mentally prepared myself for the two part conversation I knew was about to come. The first part happened exactly as I expected since when I handed the person at the window my old license, she immediately asked if I could sing. My parents had, when I was born, chosen the name of my mom’s uncle – Anthony – to be my middle name. For as long as I could remember, I kept being associated with the singer who, at last count, has won eight Latin Grammys and sold over 12 million albums worldwide. The person at the window, after playfully letting everyone around her know she was helping “Marc Anthony” then asked what was wrong since the license I handed to her wasn’t expired. That’s when I started the second part of the conversation I was still getting used to. When Kate and I married, I changed my last name to match hers so we would have one shared family name. And, in New York State, the process for me to do that was incredibly easy. For years, folks getting married could change their name, within certain parameters, on the marriage license itself. It took very little work to legally change my full name but it was a lot harder to change my name everywhere else since not many folks knew what to do with a husband who had a maiden name. It wasn’t too difficult to update all my financial records but I remember a lot of other stuff, including all the forms I had submitted to start the process of becoming a pastor, were impossible to change. I had to restart a bunch of the documents that described my life because too many databases were shaped by designers who didn’t realize how limited their imaginations truly were.
Now the name changes in our Bible aren’t centered around the act of marriage. Instead, we’re often introduced to a character who has an experience that changes who they get to be. For example, Jacob spent a night at the edge of the Jabbok river wrestling with his fear, anxiety, and despair only to meet God and enter the dawn of a new day with the name of Israel. Other name changes, though, are a bit more human such as when the Pharaoh of Egypt changed Joseph’s name to Zaphenath-Paneah after elevating him to a position of authority and power. Today’s name change story from the book of Genesis is, in terms of narrative intensity, somewhere in-between those two examples I just described. Abram’s name change isn’t really all that dramatic since Abraham is actually a slight variant of Abram and both those names mean something like “exalted father.” Sarai to Sarah is even more mild since all it did was take an archaic feminine suffix and make it a bit more contemporary for the world they both lived in. Many of the other names in our Bible were bigger and bolder like when Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter way back in Mark, chapter 3. Yet today’s name change feels so small that it makes us wonder why God changed their names at all. I think, to see that a bit more clearly, we have to remember this wasn’t the first time God let Abram know what God was up to. Just two chapters before, God gave Abram a similar vision of what his future was going to be like. Abram and Sarai, though, were not quite sure how God was going to make that happen so they took it upon themselves to make those promises come true. Their actions, though, were rooted in the choices rooted in violence and harm. We could, I think, attempt to excuse their behavior by saying they were simply people of their world. But God’s actions in response to Abram and Sarai’s imperfect actions show how love, mercy, and hope are the Godly values we should always use to interpret our own. Abram and Sarai, using their own limited imagination, tried to create the future they thought they were meant to have. And so that’s when God intervened, reiterating the covenant while dragging them into the future they couldn’t see. Their new name wasn’t that new but it was an invitation for them to live into a new future that wasn’t limited by their past, their history, their assumptions, their expectations, or their imagination. Instead, they would be the ones through whom the entire world would be blessed because being a blessing is what being human is all about.
The people at the DMV desk listened to my name change story and then took a bit of time figuring out how to get their database to accept who I was now going to be. I did, eventually, walk out of that place with a new license but even with that piece of plastic, my new name didn’t feel very real. What I needed was an opportunity to live into my new future to see what it might mean. And that actually happened since, in just a few months, I started living a life my younger self never imagined was possible. I went off to seminary and found myself in a new community of students, professors, and churchy folk who only knew my new name. That didn’t mean that I forgot where I came from or ignored everything that made me who I was. But there was something about living out my future in that specific faith community that let me grow into who I could authentically be. I know that my experience isn’t your experience and that name changes occur for all kinds of reasons. But I also believe that all of us, whether we realize it or not, have at least had our names added to when we were brought into Jesus’ holy family. When the gift of faith and the waters of baptism were poured over us and three of the names of God were used to claim you as one of the bright lights God had brought into the world, we were all invited into the future God was already bringing about. We were, in that moment, given new names that not only described who we are but also who we get to be. We, like Jesus at his baptism, were named Beloved and had the name Christian etched on our forehead in the shape of the Cross. These names do not mean that our future will be easy nor do they pretend we won’t face trials, struggles, or pain. God knows the Crosses we bear and also the crosses we give to those around us. Yet these new names do change who we get to be since the limit of our imagination will no longer push us away from a future where love doesn’t end.
Now I’ve had my new name for roughly 14 years and I still pause whenever someone says “Mr. Stutzel” since I think they’re talking about my father-in-law rather than talking to me. But I wonder if we all might make a similar kind of pause whenever someone says our name to remember all the names we actually have. Our name and names are big enough to hold our entire story while inviting us into a future where we can become more authentically and faithfully who we’re supposed to be. And while that future will not be easy, it will be one where our crosses and the crosses we make for others will no longer be what defines us. Instead, the love of God that added to and changed our names will also change us into the bearers of mercy, grace, and hope that everyone needs.