A burglar was ransacking a house in the dark of night in pursuit of any valuables or cash when suddenly he heard a voice in the room: “Jesus is watching you.” Stunned, he moved to another room to see what he could steal. Again, the voice: “Jesus is watching you.” He thought he must be hallucinating but he moved on to the living room to see if he might find some expensive electronic equipment.
Once again, he heard the voice: “Jesus is watching you!” This time it totally freaked him out and he threw caution to the wind and put on the lights to see who was there. It was a parrot. “What’s your name,” the burglar asked. “Moses,” responded the parrot. “Moses,” the thief said, “what kind of an idiot would name a parrot ‘Moses’” The Parrot said, “The same idiot who named the attack dog behind you ‘Jesus’.”
What’s in a name? Well, we learn something about that in today’s Old Testament lesson. God visits Abram and gives him a new name. Abram’s ninety-ninth birthday wasn’t the first time these two met. It was twenty-five years before when God came to Abram and told him to pick up stakes and move to a foreign land—a place lacking the civility, culture, and comforts of his homeland. And Abram did it! He and his wife Sarai had always hoped to have children but it did not seem to be in the cards for them. God, however, kept interrupting their lives with this promise that to their offspring God would give all the land northward and southward and eastward and westward.
But there remained one big fly in the ointment: Abram and his wife still had no children. and they weren’t getting any younger. And at 99 that would have been a miracle.
This dance with God went on for years until this day, Abram’s ninety-ninth year, when God does something really significant. God gives Abram a new name—Abraham—“father of multitudes” and thus designates him to be the ancestor of a huge number of nations. Furthermore, God announces that his wife Sarai—whose name will now be Sarah—is going to bear him a son.
Do you find all this as outrageous as I do? First, that a man and woman would pull up stakes and move halfway across the world to a place where they don’t know a soul, give up a life of comfort, familiarity, and cultural enjoyment, and live in some third world kind of environment—all because God told them to go? And do you not find it even more outrageous—utterly unbelievable—that a ninety-nine-year-old man and his almost-as-old, barren wife would be able to have a child and become ancestors to a multitude of descendents? And add to that mix the fact that Abraham lived in a time when life expectancy was probably about 30.
Here we have a very unusual and striking faith story. And whether or not we can accept the information literally such as the ages that the Genesis passage attributes to these people, the fact is that God asks Abraham and Sarah to do and to believe what no rational, intelligent, sane person would do or believe. Abraham just resigns himself to the fact that he cannot grasp any of this. It is completely beyond his human ability to comprehend God and God’s reasoning, but his response is “why not?”—why not go on this wild adventure, why not entertain the possibility that he could still have a son and be ancestor to a multitude. It is so utterly ridiculous, yet Abraham steps out of the box of reason and into the theater of the absurd.
What we see in this response is the essence of faith—faith as the opening and expanding of the mind to the abundance of possibilities—even those that are outrageous—rather than the hot pursuit of all the answers to all our questions about life. But this is really “Radical Faith”—a faith that draws one to the shocking truth of God’s abundance and how God promises that it will unfold for us even when our sanity and common sense tell us that we must be crazy for doing so.
Peter, on the other hand, in the Gospel account, was not able to do that. He could not accept the outrageous declaration that a Messiah—one who he thought would liberate his people by strength and force—would allow himself to be humiliated, to suffer, to be executed like a criminal on a cross. And Jesus is not just forecasting his own death but is setting the criteria for those who want to follow him: you must deny yourself and take up your cross. He is calling his disciples to radical faith.
Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor preached this about Abraham’s story: “It is hard to believe in a promise—to live by it, day after day, to see it in the night sky and hear it in your name. It’s hard to believe in a promise with no power to make it come true. Everything is in the future tense—the land, the son, the blessing. Everything will happen, by and by, but in the meantime, what is there to live on now?”
That sure rings true for us here in Lent of 2021. How do we muster up the ability to have faith, to hope, to see that there is a new road on which God is leading us? What if this pandemic crisis could usher in the outrageous possibility that we can become the bearers of a new creation promised by God? What if there is promise here of the opportunity for an entirely new future that seems impossible at the beginning?
Is it a test of faith—the opening and expanding of our mind to the possibilities—even those that are outrageous—rather than the hot pursuit of all the answers to all our questions about life; a faith in the shocking truth of God’s abundance and God’s promise that it will unfold around us even when our sanity and common sense tell us that we must be crazy for believing.