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Beloved Community

Sermon - 1/14/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 62:1-5

I want to have a little fun this morning, because church ought to be fun, right?  I want to give you a list of names, and you tell me what they hold in common, and we'll see where it goes from there:

  • Muhammad Ali

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  • Ahmad Rashad

  • George Burns

  • John Denver

  • Elton John

  • Fred Astaire

  • Sojourner Truth

  • Madonna

  • Pope Benedict XVI

They are all people who changed their names.  Now, tell me what they changed it from?

  • Cassius Clay

  • Lew Alcindor

  • Bobby Moore

  • Nathan Birnbaum

  • Henry John Detuschendorf

  • Reginald Dwight

  • Frederick Austerlitz

  • Isabella Bombfree

  • Madonna Louse Ciccone Ritchie

  • Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Last week, I mentioned the fact that my mother changed her middle name, late in life, from Joyce to Joy, to reflect a reality that she felt in her spirit.  I changed my name when I was married, as some men do.  I took my wife's maiden name, if you note in the bulletin, whenever I print my name formally, there's an extra initial -- E.H.  The "H" stands for Hershelman, my wife's maiden name.  We decided not to hyphenate it because I didn't want to go through life spelling Hershelman-Bryant, or put that upon my children.  But I wanted to reflect that new reality that we were married, that I felt that represented.

People change their names, often, to reflect some kind of change in their life, some new reality.  And in many religious traditions, it is expected that when you become a convert in that tradition, you will take a name that is part of that tradition.  And hence, Steven Demedre Georgiou changed his name to Yosuf Islam when he converted to Islam.  But the trivia question is:  what did he change it from?  Cat Stevens.  So he changed his name twice.

Names, of course, are very significant in the Bible.  Many of the very prominent Biblical characters we know and love are people who changed their names at that significant moment in their lives that represented their new identity.  And hence, Abram became Abraham.  Sarai became Sarah, Abraham and Sarah called by God to establish a new nation.  After struggling all night with God, Jacob was renamed Israel.  Some say the name Israel means 'one who struggles with God'.  Simon became Peter, representing Petra, rock, 'upon this rock I will build my church'.  Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus in that conversion experience.

Changing ones name, then, reflects a new reality, a new identity.

A little over 500 years before the birth of Jesus, Persia defeated Babylonia, an event that was hugely significant for Biblical history, not to mention modern history, given the fact that those two countries are now, today, Iran and Iraq.  But that's another story, another sermon I won't get into.  In any event, ancient Israel owes its existence to Cyrus of Persia, who freed the Jews living in exile in Babylonia.  And when they returned, however, to their beloved homeland, to the promised land, they discovered that there was enormous hard work to be done to rebuild their homes, to rebuild the cities, to rebuild the nation.  Much harder than any had anticipated in that joyous return.

And so the prophet laments in the 64th chapter of Isaiah:  "Your holy cities have become a wilderness.  Zion has become a wilderness.  Jerusalem a desolation.  Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burnt by fire and all our pleasant places have become ruins".

It is in this context of ruin and desolation, of the despair and depression of the people (at the end of the 6th century, beginning of the 5th century before our common era [BCE]), when this anonymous prophet (whom we now find in the last 11 chapters of Isaiah, with Isaiah being a prophet in the 8th century BCE) speaks of the original audacity of hope, to borrow a title from Senator Obama.  And so we here this then in the 62nd chapter of Isaiah, our text for this morning:

For Zionís sake I will not keep silent,
   and for Jerusalemís sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
   and her salvation like a burning torch.
2The nations shall see your vindication,
   and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
   that the mouth of the Lord will give.
3You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
   and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
4You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
   and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
   and your land shall be married.
5For as a young man marries a young woman,
   so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
   so shall your God rejoice over you.

What is your name?  Have you too been called forsaken, desolate?  Do others call you angry, bitter?  Are you known as 'different', insignificant, cheap?  What name do you carry that you would like God to change?

A great Disciple preacher Fred Craddock tells a wonderful story about a time when he and his wife were vacationing, I think it was in the Ozarks.  They wanted to get away, went to a small community and stopped for a meal at a restaurant for a nice quiet time together.  Sat down, and an elderly gentleman came in and began going around table to table to table, visiting with people he had known, and introducing himself to people he did not know, sort of a one person welcoming committee in the community.  And Fred was thinking, I'm trying to get away from people, and now I'm going to have to visit with some stranger.  And sure enough, he comes over, sits down at their table, introduces himself:  "I'm Ben Hooper".  And Fred thinks, hmmm, Ben Hooper, name is familiar to me, he grew up in the South, for some reason that name rang a bell, but he wasn't sure why.  And Ben, visiting with Fred and his wife, learned that Fred was a preacher.  And so he shared with him this story about preachers.

He said when he was born, just on the other side of these mountains, his mother was not married.  They had a name for illegitimate children in those days.  A name which he frequently heard, of which other children called him.   Sometimes children aren't that nice, but they learn that from their parents.  He learned from those kids to stay by himself, to eat by himself at lunch, to play by himself at recess, because he didn't like hearing that name.  There was a new preacher that came to town when he was about the age of 12.  He heard about this preacher, known for his rhetorical skill, and so he wanted to go check it out.  The problem was, his mother was not welcome in that church.  He was not welcome in that church.  So he decided he would sneak in late, after the service started.  And that he would leave early.  That way, he wouldn't have to face anyone, wouldn't have to hear that name.  

Well, he got caught up in the service, and he forgot to leave.  And before he knew it, the service ended and everyone stood up, and there he was, trapped.  And so he didn't look at anyone, he just tried to shuffle out quietly, and a big hand grabbed him by the shoulder, and spun him around, and there he was face to face with the preacher.  Who said to him:  "Who's boy are you?  Who are you, son?  I know who you are, I know who's son you are".  And his heart sank, and he thought, here it goes, I'm going to be shamed in the presence of all these people, I'm going to be kicked out of church.  And the preacher said: "I know you because of the family resemblance.  You are a child of God!  That's quite an inheritance, son".  He put his arm around him and ushered him out the door and said:  "Now, go and claim it".

The boy became a man.  He told Fred and his wife, and said, "That statement literally changed my life".  And then Fred remembered.  Ben Hooper, illegitimate son of Tennessee, twice elected Governor of the state.  Made good.

Do you know your name?  No longer shall you be called forsaken, says the prophet, but you shall be called My Delight.  Why?  Because you are a child of God.  You are called as a disciple of Christ.  In Jesus, we have been given a new identity, a new life.  But note the prophet is not speaking to individuals, he reminds them not just who they are as persons, but of who they are as a nation, as a people.

Tomorrow, we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday, a big community celebration at Northwest Christian College hosting that for the community, with a speaker, a well-known associate of Dr. King's.  I remember 9 or 10 years ago, when we had another associate of Dr. King's, Reverend James Lawson, who is a Methodist Pastor.  He was the one who organized many of the marches and other actions during the civil rights movement.  Reverend Lawson reminded us at that occasion 9 or 10 years ago that our nation is unique because it is not founded on the basis of ethnic, racial, or religious identity, as is the case with so many other nations.  But rather, it is founded on the basis of an idea.  That idea that we are all created equal, that all have been given certain inalienable rights that cannot be taken away.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And therein lies our greatness.  Not our wealth.  Not our might.  But our commitment to that concept.  So it doesn't matter if you're African-American, or European-American, or Asian-American, or Native American, or Irish-American, we are all created equal.  

And the struggle for that idea, to establish liberty and justice for all in this land did not end in 1776.  It had only just begun, and continues on to this day.  Reverend Lawson told us there's a growing spiritual crises that is a cancer in the soul of our nation.  The result of worshiping wealth without work.  Of honoring science without humanity.  Of practicing politics without principle.  And to restore our nation's health and identity, he called us to go back to those ideals of our founding fathers.  And the religious principles of our faiths, for the social order that we seek, and the Biblical vision of the kingdom of God that calls us to live our lives in harmony with the divine will of the universe.

When the prophet announced that new name for Jerusalem, in the midst of that desolation and ruin, it was more than just wishful thinking.  In that name, given by God, was the creative word of God that brings order out of chaos.  That brings life out of death.  The new name, given by God, marked a new beginning for the nation, new life, new hope for the people.

Your name, the prophet said, shall no longer be Desolate.  Your name shall be Married. 

Now I know modern images of 'Married' are not the same as they used to be.  You watch the sitcoms, they're making fun of it all the time.  So it may not have the same impact that it did back then.  But I would hope, that it is still a positive thing, a good thing.  Witnessed by the 3,000 same-sex couples in our state that sought that name when it became, briefly, legal for them to do so.  I have an editorial that will appear in tomorrow's paper on that topic, so I won't go more into that.

In ancient societies, especially in Hebrew society, to be single was a curse.  And if you had the misfortune of being female, it meant a life of destitution.  Hence, to be transformed from such desolation to a new life was like being married.  For us, we might think of it as winning the lottery.  Like being named the next American Idol.  Or whatever that might be for you.

So what is our name?  What name describes us as God intends us to be?  Martin Luther King's vision, which I think we can say is really God's vision given to Dr. King, his vision for our nation, was what he called "the beloved community".

The beloved community is a place and a people who honor human life as the organizing principle of our society, rather than wealth and property.  Beloved community is a people who place being above owning.  Who put right before might.  Who choose service above sales.  Who value jobs over jails.  Who seek a hand-up, rather than a hand-out.

That's the beloved community we seek to create as a people.  But how are we going to do that?  I would suggest to you it has to begin right here.  Jesus said to his followers:  "You are a light to the world".  Here in the heart of Eugene, the beloved community starts with us.  The beloved community is more than a possibility of a future dream, it is a reality of Christian community when we reach out to embrace those different from us as siblings in the family of God.  The beloved community becomes a reality when we see Christ in the 'least of these' in our midst.  

It was 23 degrees this morning when, according to a temperature gauge in my car, it was still dark outside, and there was Papi, standing at the corner of 7th and Jefferson, across from a Starbucks, with his sign wishing people a happy day.  And I couldn't drive by.  So I bought Papi a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and I learned that Papi is bi-polar, living without his medication, I suspect not by choice.  He shared with me that since he gave up the bottle, the caffeine has become his drug of choice, so he really appreciated having that morning cup of coffee (I suspect there are a few others here who would say 'Amen').  He said he doesn't mind getting up early, because being bi-polar, he's manic most of the time anyway, and he has to get there, to that corner, early, because of the stiff competition for that corner.  So he's the first one there to claim it so early in the morning.  He said he works until noon, and he has been blessed, because three out of the last five nights, he has earned enough to get a hotel room.  And I thought of two of the five, when I drove by, and how cold it was, and I felt ashamed.

The beloved community becomes a reality when we listen for God's word on our hearts and we share God's compassion for those in need.  The beloved community becomes a reality when equality is not an ideal an admire, but it is a value we practice.  And we see people, as Martin Luther King said, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  One of the reasons we are pleased to host the interfaith service is that this house might be a house of prayer for all peoples.  The beloved community becomes a reality when we refuse to remain silent in the face of injustice, and we are not afraid to speak truth to power and to meet hate with love.  

The beloved community is when we claim the name that Christ has given to us.  You are a child of God.  That is quite an inheritance.  Go, and claim it. 

 


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