Instructions given to the congregation before the sermon:
Find someone you don’t know or don’t know well. Exchange names and tell one another a story about your name – where it came from, who you were named after, what you like or don’t like about it.
We’re going to return to a time of sharing at end of the sermon, so I invite you to remain with your new conversation partner until then.
What’s Your Name?
November 16, 2014
When I was in high school I lived with my family in suburban Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. We were not too far, therefore, from Arlington Military Cemetery, across the Potomoc River, in Virginia. The father of my high school boyfriend was buried at Arlington and one day he took me to visit the gravesite.
I can remember the vast sea of identical white gravestones, precisely arranged in long rows across the rolling hills of green lawn. And I remember the shock of seeing my boyfriend’s name, which was the same as his father’s, inscribed on one of those gravestones.
Perhaps you visited a military cemetery or thought of a loved one who served in the armed forces last Tuesday, Veteran’s Day. Surely the most well-known veteran’s monument is in Washington D.C. itself: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the primary part of which is the long, low, v-shaped Memorial Wall designed by architect Maya Lin. I imagine that many of you have visited it, and perhaps some of you knew and loved someone whose name is listed there.
The Memorial Wall is made up of two walls, sunk into the ground, meeting at the point of the “v.” At their ending points, the walls are only 8” high, but at their meeting point they are 10’ high. Etched into the dark, smooth, reflective surface of the stone are 58,272 names of the servicemen, and 8 servicewomen, killed or missing in action in the Vietnam War. No other identifying information is included, just their names.
Indeed it is the names that make that memorial so memorable and give it such a strong grip on the emotions of the American people. When you visit or see photos of the Memorial Wall, you see visitors reaching to touch the etched names; some of them will take a piece of paper, place it over a name on the wall, and rub a pen or pencil over it, in order to bring a name home with them.
“The names are the memorial,” Maya Lin once said in an interview. No edifice or structure can bring people to mind as powerfully as their names.”
She’s right. Names have an almost magical power.
• Use someone’s name in a conversation with them and they will feel your attention towards them many times more keenly than if you don’t use it.
• Remember it the next time you see them and they will remember you.
• Forget someone’s name, even when you’ve heard it several times before and they will conclude that you probably don’t care much about them.
• Offer your name when you first speak to someone and they will know that you are sharing a part of yourself.
• Wear your nametag on Sunday morning and they will know that you are open to making new connections.
In Scripture, being called by one’s name is a rich gift.
• God gives the first human a name, a-dahm in Hebrew, meaning “creature” or “being”; Adam, in English.
• God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah to mark their new identity as recipients of God’s promise.
• “Moses, Moses!” God calls Moses by name from out of the burning bush.
• Even God is identified – and is self-identified – by names: I am God the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Nowadays, we would say “the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel.”
“Now, thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
In our passage from Isaiah, the fact that God has named Israel makes all the difference. After all, the people had lost everything that they had been promised that they would always have.
• The land given to Abraham was now controlled by the Babylonian enemy.
• The great temple of Jerusalem, built by King Solomon 350 years before as the physical and spiritual center of their lives, was a smoking ruin.
• The Judean king had been blinded and maimed.
All was gone. And with all those monstrous realities staring them in the face, surely many of them had also lost their faith in the God who made those promises.
Into this cauldron of pain comes the unknown poet we call Second Isaiah. We know almost nothing about him, not even his name – ironically enough. Writing 150 years after the prophet Isaiah whose speeches are collected in the first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah, all that we have from this later poet are his words: words of comfort and encouragement.
Next month in Messiah sing-along concerts everywhere, we will hear the most familiar words of Second Isaiah: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” We will hear them in the King James Version, the translation known to composer George Frederick Handel. “Speak ye comfortably (meaning “tenderly”) to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned….”
But this month we hear words that may have meant even more to the first listeners:
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel….”
Second Isaiah reminds the exiles that their God is not some detached, dispassionate deity. This is the one who created them, who formed and shaped them with skill and artistry, as Genesis describes.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Professor John Holbert translates the phrase differently: “Do not be afraid, because I have vindicated you!” That translation is a controversial one, he says. The traditional translation is “redeemed” and early Christians applied the word to the one they called their redeemer, Jesus of Nazareth. But surely what Second Isaiah has in mind for his fellow exiles, Holbert says, is the certainty that God has not forgotten them in Babylon. God has vindicated them, justified them, supported them, upheld them. Earlier he declared “Comfort!” now he declares “Vindicated!” They are not to be blamed, they are cleared of guilt, they are upheld not alone, they are.
"When you pass through the waters, I am with you; the rivers will never overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you will not be burned; no flame will devour you.” As he first reminded the exiles of the story of their creation in Genesis, now the poet moves to the stories of Exodus.
• They all remember that their ancestors passed through the waters,
o escaping from slavery through the Red Sea,
o and entering the Promised Land through the Jordan River.
• They all remember the stories of fire in their history:
o Moses’ burning bush,
o the pillar of fire leading them through nighttime wilderness wanderings,
o the blaze atop Mt. Sinai when God spoke directly to Moses.
In all these past experiences, God has been present, has never deserted them. So God is still present with them in exile.
“I will say to the north, ‘Give them up.’ And to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
God is in the business of gathering people together. Clearly, Second Isaiah is offering specific hope to the exiles of the 6th century BC in Babylon who feel excluded from this portrait of a great gathering of God’s people back into the land of promise.
But we 21st century people also hope for such a gathering, a vast sea of people upheld and unified by the God who made and loves us all. Men, women, children; black, brown, white; gay, transgendered, straight; conservative, liberal, apolitical; religious, spiritual, secular; old and young – all of us, living as one human family dedicated to justice and righteousness for all. Everyone whom God has formed and made: everyone, period.
“I have called you by your name, you are mine. You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.”
In our time, so many of the former ways we constructed our identity – the thing that taught us who we were -- have diminished in number or significance:
• we change jobs and careers frequently;
• very few of us live in the same community in which we grew up;
• more families experience divorce and other forms of brokenness.
We are exiles, too: exiles from the spiritual centers of our own beings. We want to know who we are; we need to know who we are.
Second Isaiah reminds us that we discover who we are only in relation to whose we are. We belong to God’s family. We are God’s beloved children.
We are God’s children not because of anything we do or say, but because God has formed and made, and chooses us. That relationship - and thus our identity – is in God’s hands. No matter how often we fall short or fail, nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys as a gift. Our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely ever to let us go.
This truth is one of the reasons we baptize infants in the United Methodist Church. Baptism has endured as a richly meaningful ritual over thousands of years because it has many meanings: a naming ceremony, an initiation rite. When we baptize teenagers or adults it can be a mark of cleansing and transformation. But baptizing infants teaches and reminds us all that God chooses us.
A tiny child cannot understand that any more than he can make it happen. A baby cannot misunderstand and think that she has to earn her way into being loved. An infant cannot take, but only receive, cannot claim but only be claimed. So we remember that God claims us, and therefore there is nothing we – or anyone else – can do that will break that bond.
Do you remember the name of your conversation partner?
I invite you to share this sentence with one another:
(Name), God calls you by name. You are God’s.
Peter Storey. Somebody’s Calling My Name (Is. 43:1-7; Lk. 3:15-22). The Christian Century, December 20-27 p. 1332. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2040
Jack Good. Naming Names (Is. 43:1-7; Lk. 3:15-17, 21-22). The Christian Century, December 27, 2003, p. 19. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2923
David Lose. Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism. Posted on WorkingPreacher.org, January 06, 2013. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1624
John C. Holbert,You Are Mine: Reflections on Isaiah 43:1-7. Posted on Patheos.com, January 07, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/You-Are-Mine-John-Holbert-01-08-2013