Covenant: From Generation to Generation
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Covenant: From Generation to Generation
God of Sarah and Abraham, long ago you embraced your people in covenant and promised them your blessing. Strengthen us in faith, that, with your disciples of every age, we may proclaim your deliverance in Jesus Christ to generations yet unborn. Amen.
Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
All readings for this Sunday:
Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16
Mark 8:31–38 or Mark 9:2–9
1. What is your name? What does it mean to you?
2. How does your family history (or lack thereof) impact you?
3. What legacy are you creating?
4. What name would you give yourself? (Think as creatively as you can!)
5. How does the covenant with Sarah and Abraham manifest today?
By Cheryl Lindsay
Call her Sarah.
Names have meaning. They serve as identifiers of individuals. They also reflect relationships and familial connections. Names are given to us reflecting cultural norms and parental preferences. We associate our names with who we are, but they are often given in hope of who we might become. Many cultures conduct naming ceremonies that reflect the significance of the name for not only the person but for the community. Names have meaning.
It has been a tradition, in western culture, for a bride to assume the name of her groom at their marriage. The taking of the name indicated a new relationship in which the responsibility, allegiance, and possessions have shifted from one family into a different one in much the same way as a dowry was transferred. It signified the contractual nature of the relationship, an echo of an era when most marriages were arranged by families rather than engaged by individuals in love. Under shifting norms, and especially the expansion of marriage equality, many couples infused this transactional act with fresh wind as they assigned deeper meaning in adopting and reframing this name-altering act. Some couples keep the tradition but view it as a sign of love and commitment. Others choose to have both parties–or neither–change their names. What had been viewed as a contract takes on the dimension of covenant–a mutual agreement rooted in the promises of God’s abiding presence among them.
The first wedding I officiated was a same-gender loving couple. As we were finalizing plans for the ceremony, I asked them if they had plans to change their names. They had not decided, but I was ready to complete my script. I decided that at the declaration I would simply say, “I declare you married!” I did, and it felt right. It felt like that was all the authority to do. It wasn’t my place to name them, even if they had decided to change their names. At every wedding since then, I’ve done the same declaration, no matter what the decision on names. Names have meaning.
This week’s passage focuses on names, specifically the renaming of Sarai and Abram. Their renaming does not occur at their wedding. They have been married for some time. No, their new monikers signify a different type of covenant. At the same time, these new names carry implications for kin relationships for generations to come.
This was not the first time that God declared a covenant with Abram, but this one is distinct. After the attempt to circumvent God’s plan by using Hagar as a surrogate, God names Sarai as part of the covenant. She isn’t to be incidental as a vessel for the fulfillment, she receives the promises of God in the same way that Abram does. Ellen M. Umansky asks an interesting question to consider:
Thus, in approaching these particular texts, my question needed to be: If God, as the biblical narrative so clearly implies, entered into a covenantal relationship with Abraham and Sarah and their offspring (not simply Abraham’s, since were that the case, Ishmael would have gained membership into the covenant as well), what was the nature of God’s command to Sarah?
If the covenant is an agreement based on relationship, then a further question becomes, what was the nature of God’s relationship to Sarai/Sarah? Like most of the women in the Bible, Sarah has gained an undeserved reputation that changes the lens through which we view her actions. Sarai marries Abram, presumably under unremarkable circumstances because that story is not told, yet Sarai is mentioned by name multiple times in the listing of the descendants of Shem found in Genesis 11. This genealogy was the first introduction of Abram, but it also serves as an introduction to Sarai. The biblical account is also her story.
Sunday morning sermons rarely mention the times that Abram/Abraham tries to protect himself by denying his marital relationship to Sarai/Sarah. He does it in Egypt with Pharaoh and in Gerar with its king by pretending that she is his sister rather than his wife. He feared that the leaders would become jealous and cause him harm as a result. He sets aside that relationship for his own preservation. On the other hand, Sarai looks outside their marriage to manipulate and maneuver in service of the fulfillment of God’s promise, which she believes is for her husband. Both act out of alignment with the will of God, but we overlook Abram while amplifying Sarai’s poor decision even though both reflect a lack of faith.
Covenant relationships test our faith in the other party. Breaking the terms of the agreement does not end the relationship, it calls for repair, restoration, and renewal. Abram does not divorce Sarai. Even when he asks her to pretend they aren’t married, they stay married. Sarai does not leave Abram, she endorses a temporary arrangement with Hagar. Neither actions are beneficial, desirable, or commendable in any way. They cause real harm, especially to the outside parties who are manipulated to suit the ends pursued by Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah. While they disrupt the relationship, they do not destroy it.
Don’t we take action that disrupts our relationships with one another and with God? Sometimes, what we think has been destroyed has merely been broken in need of repair.
This passage occurs after and before covenant testing actions. This is not a reward for faithfulness or a promise made before egregious behavior. It does happen after Ishmael is born to Hagar. God speaks to Abram to clarify the covenant already made to him, and God speaks to Sarai through Abram to make a covenant specifically with her. Her story continues.
In this covenant declaration, names change…but not completely. These are more shifts than revolutions. Abram shifts from being “a high father” to Abraham, “father of a multitude of many nations.” Sarai shifts from being “my princess” to Sarah, “princess.” Her identity moves from her association with someone else to her own. She is her own story and God treats her independently, if interdependently, from Abram. The interdependent promise, “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her,” is followed by the independent promise, “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” God makes a covenant with Sarai and marks it with a new name that reflects her identity shifting from belonging to someone else to having a stature that is all hers. She is a princess. She will raise nations and kings. She is blessed by God for herself, for God’s purposes, and for the generations that will come from her.
Years ago, I watched the movie Daughters of the Dust. It told the story of a group of women of African descent living on the Gullah Islands, off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. The descendants of formerly enslaved persons adopt a distinctly West African lifestyle. In the film, there is one climactic scene as one of the characters prepares to leave the community to migrate north. As a mother cries out the name of her child, Iona, over and over again, the sound of her name transforms into “I own her.” I saw that film thirty years ago, and I still remember that cry more than anything else. For a community that lived in the shadow of centuries when black motherhood was transformed from relationship to commerce, the naming that reflects the mother’s relational claim upon the child is particularly poignant. It doesn’t stop Iona, however, from the path laid before her even as it serves as a reminder that we are linked from generation to generation.
“Sarah should be her name,” God tells Abraham. It is not a derivative of his or one that allows him to make claims upon her. Rather, it reflects the path has for her and her progeny. She has an inheritance to leave. She has nations to build. She has royalty to raise. She has a covenant to keep.
In the creation narratives, the first human was given the opportunity to identify the second. Within the narrative of the fall, Adam provides her a proper name, “Eve.” In some ways, all the narratives to follow are re-creation narratives, stories about God repairing what was broken. We have reviewed, in part, the brokenness in the Sarah and Abraham relationship. The covenant declaration in this week’s focus scripture is part of the repair. After all, covenants are binding, but unlike contracts, they are not easy to dismiss. Covenants make room for grace.
• Sarai thought that the covenant was only for Abraham so she sought out Hagar. She and her husband used Hagar despicably.
• Sarah has been named in the promise and given a reason for joy.
• Sarai could not have children and that was the dominant fact of her life.
• Sarah would give rise to nations and leave a legacy.
• Sarai was identified as “my princess,” someone in a relationship with another.
• Sarah would be declared “princess” with an identity of her own…and a covenantal relationship with God for herself.
Sarah reminds us that we are whole persons who exist in the community and in relation to others. Interdependence does not omit independence; in fact, it may strengthen it…and vice versa.
That’s what covenant does, from generation to generation. It allows us to identify with those before us and future generations. We can consider how our actions responding to a pandemic, climate, immigration, social inequities, and economic disparities among other conditions we face communally will impact “a people yet unborn.” Sarah reminds us that although covenants may be made with individuals, they are essentially made for communities. God’s covenant with Abram could not work without God’s covenant with Sarai. God’s covenant with Sarah and Abraham could not be fulfilled without the covenant extending from generation to generation. Again, to make it explicit, God clarifies, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (v. 7)
Let us be reminded that the everlasting covenant is of connection. We are bound together, as a human community, in relationship with one another with the promise of God at the center. That promise offers repair, re-creation, and replenishing. What was broken becomes whole. What was disturbed is made right. What was lacking multiplies. This is the covenant God makes with God’s people…from generation to generation.
Thanks be to God.
For further reflection:
“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” –Shannon Alder
“Even though our time in this life is temporary, if we live well enough, our legacy will last forever.” — idowu koyenikan
“We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” — David Brower
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.