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Not Forsaken

Text: Isaiah 62:1-5

In my early childhood, my best friend’s mom gave me the nickname, The Rotund One. Unfortunately, it stuck. In fairness, it was not inaccurate for I was quite plump. Nevertheless, I hated that nickname.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of a nickname much worse than mine. The nickname is “Forsaken.” What if your nickname growing up had been – Forsaken? What if from your earliest age you knew with certainty that you were numbered among the Forsaken? What if you were sure that God cared about many people in the world, but not about you, because you are Forsaken?

Over many years in the pulpit, I have preached in some tough times and to some really distraught congregations, but I have never had to preach to Isaiah’s congregation. They were fresh off the boat from Babylon, after living for years in exile. Cyrus the Persian had conquered Babylon and he set the Hebrew hostages free and told them to go home. For decades these hostages had told themselves hope-filled stories about walking home into the splendor of Jerusalem, sitting for Shabbat services in the glorious Temple, and finally, to be a people no longer being counted among God’s Forsaken.

  When Isaiah preached this particular sermon, his congregation had been home long enough to know that all the homecoming talk had been far too cheery. Weeds were growing in the Temple where the Holy of Holies used to be. Homes were boarded up if they had not been burned to the ground. There was not enough food to go around and finding sufficient water was a full day’s work. There was nothing glorious about this longed-for homecoming. With each passing day, the Forsaken felt even more God-Forsaken.

I can honestly not remember a time when I was colder. I was wearing a flannel shirt, two sweaters, a winter coat, and my pulpit robe on top of all that. Still I shivered. I was standing in the incredibly high pulpit of a Reformed Church in Hungary on the Romanian border, still several years before the Berlin Wall would fall. We were the first Christian delegation from the West that this congregation had ever met. Actually, we were the first people from the West that they had ever met. Since all Hungarian churches were owned by the state and the state treated churches as arcane museums, there was no need to heat them. As I preached that morning, puffs of cold air came out of my mouth and I envied those sitting in the pews, snuggling closely together and covered by blankets.

After worship, our visiting delegation stood in a receiving line and we were 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 turned to our translator and asked, “What are they saying?” The translator said, “They are saying: ‘Thanks for coming to the land of the Forsaken’.”

It is a horrible thing to feel Forsaken. It is even worse to think that you are Forsaken by God. Such a feeling comes with a certain hollow look that I would often see in the eyes of guests living in our church’s night shelter in Atlanta. I would also often see it in the eyes of those just out of prison who showed up at our Outreach Center. They had been given the equivalent of $25, a bus ticket to Atlanta, and a prison I.D. that was not valid at the DMV or for any state or federal benefits. These folks, recently released from prison, were sent off with well wishes and told to keep their noses clean. Sometimes, it is hard not to feel Forsaken.

I have seen the hollow look of the Forsaken in too many of my l,g,b,t,q friends, especially in years past, as they navigated a straight world undercover and navigated a straight church undercover. When you are told all your life to be something other than who God created you to be, it is hard not to feel Forsaken.

As a Southern, white boy from a blue-collar family, I knew before I could walk that I was to avoid the path of the Forsaken. I knew the skin color of those who are Forsaken and I soon was taught that it is just fine to keep my distance because, after all, they just wanted to be with their own kind.

 Standing amid the ruins of Jerusalem, Isaiah preaches a word from God that everyone who has ever been Forsaken or has ever felt Forsaken, has yearned to hear: “I will not keep silent . . . you shall no more be named Forsaken.”

The wise Old Testament scholar, Kathleen O’Connor summarizes Isaiah’s sermon this way: “This God is the God of the poor, afflicted, enslaved, and downtrodden. This God tells them [the Forsaken] they are chosen, singled out, selected from all the earth’s people . . . Isaiah . . . tells the poor, the second-class nation, the excluded and cast-off women of the world, that [they are not Forsaken], no, instead, 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 man we honor every January. From racial insults to the bombing of his home to the final gunshot that took his life on that Memphis balcony, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew about being Forsaken but he refused to accept that identity.

In his final sermon, King preaches: “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 [much less one!]. 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.”

Isaiah preached his sermon knowing that there is no future for those who count themselves as Forsaken, especially God-Forsaken. I cannot help but wonder if that is the great challenge of the Church in America today. You and I know all the rhetoric being tossed about to describe the Forsaken church: the growing crowds of folks who are “spiritual but not religious,” declining church memberships, struggling budgets, church fights, disillusionment, and despair.

No matter how long I live, I will never be confused for Isaiah or for Martin Luther King, Jr., but I am determined to learn something from both prophets. I am determined not to live into the identity of the church as God-Forsaken or of our troubled and troubling world as God-Forsaken. I am determined to claim and to live into God’s promise spoken by Isaiah: “I will not keep silent . . . you shall no more be named Forsaken.”

But I cannot do it alone. To claim and to live into that promise from God is a community project. You may well ask: “If we do join you, what difference will it make?” It is a fair question. I cannot answer that question with certainty, but I have a strong sense that it will make all the difference in the world.

The late Fred Craddock tells the story of a nine-pound sparrow he once met. Fred was walking down the street, saw the bird, and asked:

“Aren’t you kind of heavy for a sparrow?”

“Yeah, I’m a little plump, and that’s why I’m out walking some of this weight


So, Fred asked:

“Is that so you can eventually fly?”

“What? I’ve never flown before.”

“Well . . . what is your name?”

“Church,” he said. [Fred Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, Chapter 4, e-book edition.”]


Friends, what happens when you and I no longer accept the nicknames that others give us, especially the nickname of Forsaken, God-Forsaken? The poet John Shea closes his poem “A Prayer to the God Who Will Not Go Away,” by speaking of God with the conviction of the prophet Isaiah. Shea writes: “You are the tightening hope that someone has stretched a net beneath this high wire act of ours.”  

         When you and I truly believe that to be true, not only will we cast off the nickname of Forsaken. We will fly. Yes, with the Spirit of God giving us lift, we will fly!

         You ready?

I am.






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