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Called By Name

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

Isaiah 43:1-7

The text for our reflection is from the prophet Isaiah, the 43rd chapter, verses one through seven:

But 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.
2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.
3For I am the Lord your God,
   the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
   Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4Because you are precious in my sight,
   and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
   nations in exchange for your life.
5Do not fear, for I am with you;
   I will bring your offspring from the east,
   and from the west I will gather you;
6I 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—
7everyone who is called by my name,
   whom I created for my glory,
   whom I formed and made.’

Yesterday was epiphany, that season when we observe and remember the story of the Magi coming from the east to bring their treasures to the Christ child.  Whereas I didn't see any Magi from the east here in Eugene yesterday, we did have Kings of basketball from the south, of whom the virgin Mary, I am convinced, said:  'He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly'.  And so the mighty [UCLA] Bruins have fallen, and the lowly Ducks have been raised up J.  Amen.

You might say that was an epiphany experience for those fortunate fans at McArthur Court, the light of God shone on them.

 

And now we come to the Sunday after epiphany.  The time on the church calendar when we are invited to recall the baptism of Jesus, when the voice from the heavens proclaimed "You are my beloved Son, with you I am pleased".  And we here a very similar proclamation from the prophet here, known as second Isaiah, who says not just to one special son but to an entire chosen nation "You are precious in my sight and honored and I love you".

The reason the baptism of Jesus is on the calendar every year on this Sunday is not to remind us of Jesus' baptism, but to remind us of our own.  That we are baptized with Christ, and therefore, are also beloved of God.

Baptism is that ritual of the community of faith which acknowledges that we have been called forth by name, by the one who created us, who formed us, and who says to us 'You are precious in my sight, and I love you'.

We need to be reminded of that, because sometimes it's difficult to hear.  Sometimes it's hard to believe.  Sometimes we are so rotten we don't believe we deserve that love.  And sometimes life is so rotten we don't believe that God cares.  And it is precisely in such a time that 2nd Isaiah brings this message of hope to God's people when the people were in exile.  Metaphorically if not literally scattered to the four corners of the earth.  And he says 'Now the time has come that God will gather you up'.  And they had given up hope of ever returning home.  And the prophet is very blunt -- he says, listen, you have no one else to blame.  You did this to yourself.  In the immediate preceding passage, we read:

Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler and Israel to the robbers?  Was it not the Lord against whom we have sinned?  In who's ways they would not walk, in who's law they would not obey.  So he poured upon him [referring to Jacob or Israel the nation] the heat of his anger and the fury of war.

And then, the prophet says, 'but now, says the Lord, who created you, who formed you, do not fear for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine, you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you'.

God's love for Israel is not because of how good they were, it's in spite of how good they weren't.  The reason that we can all have hope, and why this text that is spoken in a very specific context to a specific people at a specific time also applies to us, is that it is a message of God's all-encompassing, unconditional love that applies to all.

And if God can love an entire nation, then God can love the world.  And if God can love the world, then God can love us.  This is God's confession, spoken to us.  'You are precious in my sight, and I love you.'

What does it mean to know that kind of love?  I want to illustrate this with a story that I have kept in my files for over 20 years, have never quite found the right time to share it.  And maybe also because I was a little embarrassed to share it, it seems like a children's story.  Though, a little heavy for children.  I think you will find in it, something with which or whom you can identify.  A pain that you carry, or an emotion that you have known.

And I'm also reminded that stories are the way that Jesus conveyed the gospel.  So I hope this is a story in which you can also hear the gospel.  

It is entitled "The Porcupine Who's Name Didn't Matter", the author is Martin Bell, and this comes from the book "The Way of the Wolf":

Once upon a time there was a cautious Porcupine name Joggi.  Joggi lived with the mystery of his own life, much as any other porcupine, but he was exceedingly cautious.  Joggi lived and loved, laughed and cried tentatively.  One might say that anger, frustration, and tenderness had been so delicately woven into the fabric of his person as to make it difficult for us to perceive.

Joggi was cautious in the face of the mystery of life.  So cautious, in fact, that almost nobody knew his name.  Most of the animals in the forest who had seen the near-sighted porcupine moving slowly about, poking his pointed black nose into the vegetation, bristling and puffing, squinting and stumbling.  Few had spoken to him.

Now and then, someone would say hello and attempt to strike up a conversation.  It never really led to anything.  When asked what his name was, he would answer:  "It doesn't matter.  It doesn't matter what my name is, can't you see, what difference does it make?  It doesn't matter".  More often than not, that would be the end of the conversation.

Joggi could not embrace another, he would not tell anyone his name.  And the result was almost always the same -- the other animals avoided him.  With one exception, this was Gamiel, the raccoon.  It did not bother him when the prickly little porcupine was silent for hours at a time.  And he never even thought to ask about Joggi's name.  Gamiel could remember very little before the accident, and much of what had happened since was blurred somewhere in the recesses of his brain, all but lost to memory.

Raccoons are generally alert and resourceful creatures with keen perceptions and excellent memories.  But all of this had changed.  There had been a flash of light and then something hard ripped into the side of his head.  His whole body convulsed with pain, white-hot, thrashing, 'God-when-will-it-stop' pain, that pitched him bleeding from the tree into the under-bush.  Screaming pain that shrieked behind his eyes the one and only word of hope he knew, and then as suddenly as it had come, it was gone.  

Everything changed.  He did not even look like a raccoon.  The whole left side of his head was missing, he could barely pull himself along with his right front leg.  Gamiel had only to look at himself in the forest pond to realize why everyone hurried past when he called out to them.  Except, ever since the accident, Gamiel had been totally blind.

Joggi found Gamiel about 2 days after the pain had stopped, and approximately 3 hours after the raccoon had given up all hope.  "Is someone there?", Gamiel whispered.  At first, Joggi didn't say anything, the near-sighted porcupine moved closer.  "You are a raccoon", he said out loud.  "Oh yes, indeed I am", Gamiel stuttered.  "Only I think something awful has happened to me.  I cannot see anything at all, and I can barely move.   Please tell me what has happened to me.  Am I going to die?  Why won't anyone stop when I cry out?  Why can't I see?  Please, I'm afraid".

And in Gamiel's searching, empty, sightless eyes, tears began to form.  Joggi sniffed and said to himself:  answer him.  Don't just stand there with your spines bristling and your heart pounding, answer him.  Joggi spoke with a steady and quiet voice:  "I believe you have been shocked.  I cannot be certain, of course, but that is my opinion.  Are you in a great deal of pain?"  "No, at first there was pain, but I can't feel anything now.  In fact, my whole left side is numb.  No, no more pain.  Just, well, nothing".

Joggi was silent.  His tiny body shivering, breathing labored, short, difficult breaths.  Gamiel spoke in a hoarse voice:  "Are you still there?".  Joggi's heart beat faster.  "Yes, I'm here.  I was just wondering what to do now?".  "Oh, you don't have to do anything.  Honestly, I mean that, you don't have to do anything at all.  Just stay with me for a little while.  Just stay there.  Just don't go away.  Please.  I'm afraid.  You won't go away, will you?"  Joggi swallowed hard.  "No, no I won't go away".  "Thank you", Gamiel said quietly.  And then the wounded raccoon fell asleep.

Joggi stood beside Gamiel all that day.  Then when evening came, a cool breeze made his spines whistle slightly, the sound woke the raccoon.  "Are you there?".  "Yes, I told you I wouldn't go away".  "I'm hungry".  "I thought you might be", Joggi replied.  "Can you move at all?".  Gamiel stretched his right leg forward and pulled himself along the ground.  "Good for you", said Joggi, "that will do nicely.  I can bring you food, but you will need to maneuver for yourself in order to get water.  I believe you have enough strength to reach the pond, it isn't very far, and I can guide you directly to it.  Come on, let's see how it goes". 

That was how it began.  An unusual partnership perhaps, certainly the rest of the animals in the forest were surprised to see the pair of them moving slowly about, managing to live from one day to the next without really doing much of anything.  Occasionally Joggi would describe something for Gamiel, or answer a question, or direct the crippled raccoon toward a tasty morsel of food.  Gamiel, for his part, chattered happily, basked in the sun, and generally enjoyed his friend's company.

They made a home for one another, Joggi and Gamiel.  Not a regular home, exactly, not a place.  More like a shelter from the excessive pain that each of them had known.  A coming together of two lonely and frightened creatures.  A bond of trust that asked no questions, expected nothing at all except the merciful being together that made waking up tomorrow possible.

Joggi was with Gamiel for one full year before the injured raccoon finally died.  It was a quiet event, almost a surprise, but that Joggi had been expecting for so long.  Gamiel's strength just finally gave out.  "You know, I've been expecting this for quite some time now", Joggi said to the raccoon, who lay their on the ground no longer able to hear.  "I'm surprised that you managed to stay alive as long as you did.  I knew the day that I found you that it couldn't last, and yet, well, I hoped it might have been a little longer.  Do you know what I mean?  You see, I never knew anybody very well before.  Not that we ever talked much, or anything like that, but I felt like I knew you anyway, even without talking.  I have a really hard time talking to anybody, or getting to know anybody.  And nobody ever wants to get very close to me because of all these spines that I have sticking out of me.  I don't suppose that you ever knew that I had spines sticking out all over me, did you?  They're sort of like needles, and they're sharp.  I guess they scare everybody a bit.  I hope you don't mind my talking so much."  

"I really don't know why I'm talking to you now.  I really suppose it's just that I had a little more to tell you before you died.  I have been wanting to say this for almost a year and never quite found the right time to do it.  It's too late now, I realize, but I've been wanting to tell you that it has been an honor to meet you, and that you indeed are a very handsome raccoon.  And that I would like to consider you my friend.".

The porcupine cleared his throat.  Tears dropped onto his nose.  'Tell him', he said to himself, don't just stand there with your spines bristling and your heart pounding, tell him.  "Oh, and by the way, I'd like to tell you what my name is.  It's a funny name, I suppose, but I'd like you to know what it is.  It's Joggi."

Without another word, the tiny porcupine turned away from Gamiel's lifeless body, and began to cry.

 

But now says the Lord, who created you, who formed you, "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.  I have called you by name.  You are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.  When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned.  And the flames will not consume.  For I am the Lord your God.  You are precious in my sight, and honored.  And I love you".

 


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