The newsfeed headlines this morning read: 6.6 million are unemployed. 216, 768 in the United States are infected. People from coast to coast are locked down – ordered to stay at home. On the one hand, these sound like simple facts – snap shots about the current situation that we’re struggling with and trying to get a sense of how widespread, how extensive the crisis has gone. But there’s a dangerous shift – there’s an incredibly tragic moment when people personalize it and take those things on themselves. I am unemployed… I am infected with the virus… What can I do, I am in lock down… Can you hear the difference? I even saw people “jokingly” referring to themselves as “corona-guy” or “quarantine boy.”
Even outside of this current challenging time that we’re going through throughout the world, this can be an issue that we can struggle with where we take events, difficult experiences, set backs and allow ourselves to be identified by them: a student has a rough semester academically and starts to think, starts to say – I am a failure. A marriage falls apart and the former spouses say I am divorced. An athlete gets hurt and is sidelined I am injured.
This isn’t to say we’re supposed to be in denial and not admit the different problems, challenges or obstacles that we’re facing. But those self-references can be devastating – even worse than the thing it is we’re dealing with… because it’s one thing to have to fight an illness – it’s another thing to call myself “infected.” We have to be mindful and careful about what it is we say about ourselves – what it is we believe about ourselves.
That’s what we learn from that first reading from Genesis [readings can be found here]. We hear this short excerpt where the man Abram is renamed by God as Abraham. On the surface it doesn’t seem the most drastic of name changes – it’s really only adding two letters -an H and an A – if you want to get technical and precise about it. But in that renaming, God was changing the narrative that Abraham and his wife Sarah (who also gets a change of name with a letter change from Sarai to Sarah) had been playing over and over in their heads. They were calling themselves childless – more than that they were calling themselves infertile, old. This had been something that weighed heavily on them. In the chapters that preceded this passage, Abram keeps pointing out to God I’m childless – I have no heir. God kept speaking His blessings to Him over and over saying I see you Abram, I promise you, if you keep my commandments, if you’re faithful to my covenant, if you will believe me and trust me – even in your advanced and your wife’s advanced age, even with the set backs and the obstacles, even when all the information you’ve accepted as unchangeable, unmovable, & the final word – I promise you that’s not the case. That’s not who I am, that’s not who you are. To the point where we heard in that first reading: “…you are to become the father of a host of nations. No longer shall you be called Abram; your name shall be Abraham, for I am making you the father of a host of nations. I will render you exceedingly fertile; I will make nations of you; kings shall stem from you.”
The “natural order” of things… the experts who had spoken into Abram and Sarai’s wounds, brokenness, into the thing that had caused so much pain to them individually and as husband and wife would all be undone if and only if the two of them believed the Lord, listened to Him and what He was saying about them, remained faithful to the covenant. If they stopped allowing those labels to define them, and found their identity, allowed that definition come from the God who created them, loved them into existence.
The same is true for us Abraham’s descendants… That’s what we’re meant to remind ourselves as we responded to that reading with the responsorial psalm The Lord remembers His covenant forever… God’s promises, His care, His love for us hasn’t diminished over these countless generations that have followed. If anything, we have even greater blessings than Abraham – which was unthinkable in Jesus’ time and is what causes some of the tension in today’s Gospel. Some of Jesus’ original listeners are still unnerved by His very presence and are continuing to try and figure out who Jesus is. They’ve wanted to label and define and diminish Him in the past: you are a Nazarene you are the carpenter’s son – Jesus isn’t about to let them have the final word or final say. He’s bold and very clear – who is Jesus: “I AM” – He responds. His identity is completely centered and as intimately connected to God, the great I Am. For the Jews, Jesus just uttering “I AM” was the ultimate of blasphemy’s which we’ll see play out next week in the Passion and Death on the Cross. But for now, Jesus is revealing new aspects of the covenant.
Jesus’ is here to remove other labels that have afflicted and defined and limited the children of Abraham – we are not to label ourselves sinners – yes we sin, yes we fall, more times than we sometimes care to ever even acknowledge – but Jesus is our savior who has come to free us from our sin. We are not to think of ourselves as mortal creatures – who look at “death” as “our end.” In Jesus, the covenant has revealed not a physical promised land that we’re looking towards, we have an eternal Kingdom of God that we as royal citizens belong to… we’re invited into the Father’s House as beloved sons and daughters.
As such, we have to live that identity despite whatever obstacles and challenges we face. I might have failed that class, I might be struggling with this virus, I might have suffered a divorce – but I am a beloved son, I am a beloved daughter. I may be struggling, I might not know what I can afford or how to pay different debts – but fortunately, finances, jobs, abilities aren’t limited by the expectations of the covenant – loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves. God doesn’t want us to live this way – We need to stop letting things, letting events, letting people, define or diminsh us from our eternal, God giving identities and responsibilities. Then we find His Joy and His peace comforting us in the face of whatever obstacle or trial it is we’re facing.