A Change of Name
Text: Isaiah 62:1-5
Lots of us grow up with nicknames, given to us for a host of reasons. Did you have a nickname growing up? I certainly did, but that’s for another sermon. What if you had grown up with the nickname – Forsaken? What if from your earliest age you were reminded day after day that you were numbered among the Forsaken? What if you were sure since childhood that God cares about many, many people, but as for you, you are God-Forsaken?
Over many years standing in many pulpits, I have preached in some tough times and to congregations in great distress, but I have never had to preach to Isaiah’s audience, a gathering who counted themselves among the Forsaken.
Isaiah’s congregation was fresh off the boat, back from a fifty-year exile in Babylon. Cyrus the Persian had set them free and told them to go home. For decades they had told themselves and their children stories about going home, about the splendor of Jerusalem and sitting for Shabbat services in the glorious Temple, a time when they would no longer be counted among the Forsaken.
When Isaiah preached this sermon, his congregation had been home long enough to know that all the homecoming stories had been far too glossy. Back home, they found weeds growing where the Holy of Holies used to be in the Temple. Houses were boarded up that is the few houses that had not been torched and totally burned to the ground. There was not enough food and finding water was a day’s work. While living in exile in Babylon, their preachers had promised them a glorious homecoming, but there was nothing glorious about their return home. With each passing day, they felt ever more God-Forsaken.
I can honestly not remember a time when I was colder. I was wearing two sweaters, a winter coat, and my pulpit robe on top of all that. Still I shivered. I was standing in an incredibly high pulpit of a Reformed Church in Hungary, several years before the Berlin Wall would fall. We were the first Christians from the West that this congregation of the faithful had ever met. Since all Hungarian churches were owned by the state and the state treated churches as arcane artifacts, there was no need to heat them. As I preached that morning, puffs of cold air came out of my mouth with each word and I envied those in the pews who were snuggled closely together under blankets.
After worship, our delegation passed through a long line to be welcomed by every member of the congregation. I have never been kissed on the check as often and I kept hearing the same phrase spoken to me in Hungarian. About midway down the receiving line, I asked, “What are they saying to me?” and I was told: “They are saying: ‘Thanks for coming to the land of the Forsaken’.”
It is a terrible thing to feel Forsaken and to think you are God-Forsaken. It comes with a certain hollow look that I often saw in the eyes of guests to the homeless shelter I visited regularly when I lived in Atlanta. I have seen the same look in those just out of prison with no resources and no shelter and yet who society expect them to manage life successfully and to keep their noses clean. For most of my life, I have seen that look in the eyes of too many of my l,g,b,t,q friends, as they have tried to navigate a straight world and a straight church undercover. In such times and situations, how can you not feel Forsaken?
As a Southern, white boy from a blue-collar family, I knew from the days before I could walk not to associate with the Forsaken. I knew exactly the color of their skin and I was told that they wanted to be with and worship with their own kind anyway.
Standing amid the ruins of Jerusalem, Isaiah preaches what everyone who has ever been Forsaken, has ever felt God-Forsaken and has yearned to hear from God: “I will not keep silent . . . you shall no more be named Forsaken.”
The wonderful Old Testament scholar, Kathleen O’Connor summarizes Isaiah’s sermon this way: “This God is the God of the poor, afflicted, enslaved, and downtrodden. Isaiah . . . tells the poor, the second-class nation, the excluded and cast-off women of the world, that God takes immense delight in them” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 247).
If anyone knew the national narrative of the Forsaken, it was the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From racial insults to the bombing of his home to the final gunshot that took his life on that Memphis balcony, King knew more than most about being Forsaken but he refused to live into that identity, to embrace that name.
In his final sermon, King pleaded for his Forsaken community not to accept and not to live into that identity, not to be passive and act as if they could do no other. He said it this way: “It's alright to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder’, in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's alright to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey’, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and God’s children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”
Standing in his prophet’s pulpit, Isaiah knew that people who can see no future will always count themselves as God-Forsaken. You and I know all the rhetoric of a church Forsaken: declining membership, aging membership, struggling budgets, church fights, disillusionment, despair. Maybe our work today is to invite Isaiah to speak to the Church, to urge us not to live into the mistaken identity of “Forsaken,” to hear his words of promise: “I will not keep silent . . . you shall no more be named Forsaken.”
Whether you are listening to this sermon from inside the Cove sanctuary in Covesville, Virginia or on your computer screen. Whether you are watching or reading this sermon, I invite you to join me in a community project inspired by Isaiah, because it is a project that cannot be accomplished alone. I invite us to live into the promise that the Church is not “God-Forsaken” and that you and I are not “God-Forsaken,” no matter how deep the darkness around us and within us, and even those who have or would cause us harm are not “God-Forsaken.”
This community project is not a new one. It began long ago with words Isaiah spoke to a group of distraught people who certainly felt “God-Forsaken” but the prophet would remind them otherwise. This community project continued in an Upper Room when the world was about to collapse upon Jesus as his friends and a betrayer sat next to him at a Seder meal. This community project continued in a crowded house in Jerusalem when the Spirit of God shook a scared group of disciples into action.
Too many people I know, people who work hard never to show it on the outside, on the inside feel “God-Forsaken.” They feel pushed to the streets because they are now “too old” or are denied the interview because they are “not the right color or gender” or are pushed to despair because being faithful to Jesus today is often looked at as taking part in a “silly bygone superstition.”
It is a terrible thing to feel “Forsaken,” and far worse, to feel “God-Forsaken.” So, join me in the community project that Isaiah started. Look around with me at those who need to hear that they are not “God-Forsaken,” but are “God-So-Loved” and tell them, show them. Go up to those who have been told all their lives in a thousand different ways that they are “God-Forsaken” and tell them, show them “That is simply not true.” Go into a world that is determined to act as if it is “God-Forsaken” and tell them, show them that “God So Loves the World.”
Years ago, Isaiah stood up and told his people, “You are many things but you are not God-Forsaken.” For those who listened then and for those who listen now, what’s the difference?
All the difference.
All the difference in the world.