FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY, JANUARY 10, 2021
“Named, Claimed, Accompanied” (Isaiah 43:1-5a)
Picture this. You are on a retreat. Your facilitator invites you to find a partner for a guided meditation. She begins to read this morning’s passage from Isaiah, my favourite book in the Bible with its evocative imagery, its powerful words of comfort and challenge. You listen as this prophet insists: while in the eyes of the world, the Hebrew exiles in Babylon are nothings, nobodies, they are anything but in the eyes of God.
Your facilitator then has you read the verses to one another, inserting the name of your companion after each “you”. “But now, thus says the Lord, the One who created you - [insert couple of names]. The One who formed you - [insert couple of names].” “I have called you by name. You are mine - [insert couple of names].” You and I may have heard these verses many times. But somehow, with our own name in them, they speak more clearly, more compellingly.
Names are important. Our Hebrew forebears appreciated this. They gave careful consideration to the naming of a baby. Sometimes, the name would reflect who this child would become. For instance, Isaiah means “God is salvation” - what a perfect fit for a prophet! In Hebrew tradition, if a person’s life was turned around, if something significant happened, they might be given a new name. Thus Jacob - meaning “supplanter”, referring to his taking his elder brother’s birthright - becomes, after his night wrestling match, Israel, the one who contends with God. Simon, the fisher, is renamed Peter, the Rock. Saul, the persecutor of the church, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Our own names may not be as layered with meaning. We may have been named after someone - a relative, an actor, a singer, a figure in the Bible or on the world stage. Our name may have been chosen because of the way it rolls off the tongue when coupled with the surname. Our name may be invented by parents to reflect our uniqueness. However our name was chosen, it becomes a part of us. When we are asked: “who are you?”, our first response is normally: “I am [name].”
To have our name taken away is a terrible dehumanizing act. In the musical, “Les Miserables”, Jean Val Jean is transformed into number 24601 after he steals bread to feed his family. In The Book of Negroes, the child Aminata Diallo who is kidnapped from her home in Africa is renamed Meena Dee by her slave master in America. In Margaret Attwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, June Osborne loses here individuality and independence when those in authority in Gilead turn her into Offred, the handmaid of a Commander named Fred. Leaving the world of fiction, in World War II, Jews arriving in concentration camps were stripped of their clothes and belongings, and tattooed with a number. In the eyes of their captors, they were no longer human beings with names but just numbers to be assigned arbitrarily to a work party or sent to the gas chambers.
“I have called you by name.” God knows us not as a number, not as a member of a certain ethnic group or class, but as an individual with a name. “You are mine.” God claims us as God’s own, not as a buyer takes ownership of a slave or a warden asserts authority over an inmate. That kind of claiming fills us with dread, and makes us feel small and powerless. God’s claiming is more like when we go to see a littler of puppies or kittens. We may have said to ourselves: “we are not coming home with one.” But then a pup gambols over; its tongue licks our fingers; its soulful eyes look into ours. The kitten reaches out a paw; purrs as we stroke its fur. And our hearts melt. We are claimed: we are their person.
God claims us as God’s own. We live in a world where many voices would tell us who and whose we are: a tax payer whose hard earned money needs to be protected / a consumer who must acquire the latest in goods and gadgets; a vulnerable senior who must be kept safe from the corona virus / a young person with their whole life ahead of them; a refugee fortunate to be granted a place in a makeshift camp / a citizen with all the rights and privileges; a homeless person bouncing from shelter to shelter / a resident in an upscale gated community. In a world where we may be led to believe we are nobodies, we do not matter, God declares: “you are mine….You are precious in my sight and honoured and I love you.” As Jesus at his baptism hears a voice from heaven declare: “You are my Beloved Child” so God claims each and every one of us as beloved daughters and sons. Being beloved makes a difference. Listen to this excerpt from a prayer by Jan Richardson:
Comes like a mercy
to the ear that has never
Comes like a river
to the body that has never
seen such grace.
to the heart
aching to be new.
to the soul
wanting to begin
Keep saying it
and though it may
sound strange at first,
watch how it becomes
part of you,
how it becomes you,
as if you never
could have known yourself
as if you could ever
have been other
Named and claimed, we can face each day with confidence. All the more so because God promises to be with us. I am old enough to remember when the United Church’s New creed was first introduced. For someone who had only known “The Apostles’ Creed”, the opening line was striking: in place of “I believe in God”, it was “we are not alone, we live in God’s world.” Instead of an individual declaring their faith, we were a community, standing together, affirming our trust in God - “in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.” Nothing, but nothing, can separate us from the love of God.
There will probably be times in our lives when it may seem as if we are passing through waters, as if we have been caught in a river in full flood. The familiar landmarks vanish. The fast moving currents propel us along to we know not where. We fear we will be dragged under; we will be overwhelmed. That’s the way the Hebrew exiles feel. That’s the way you and I may feel when we lose someone we love or a cherished dream is shattered; when a sudden, unexpected health issue sends us from medical test to test, appointment to appointment or our employer decides to downsize and our position is cut. That is the way all of us may be feeling during this lockdown. Even physically distanced and masked, we cannot gather together in our familiar sacred space. This on top of a Christmas without carols by candlelight and feasts at tables crowded with family and friends. This as we face the reality of a long, cold winter without the possibility of an escape to the sunny South. With the arrival of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, but at times that tunnel can seem endless with many a twist and turn along the way.
We could all do with some good news. And we are given that this morning. God promises never to abandon us. Come what may, God will accompany us. We know from experience that being accompanied can make all the difference in the world. An adult hand holding ours on the first day of kindergarten. A family together, hearing the diagnosis and treatment plan for one of their members. The fathers of flight 752 who lost their wives and children when the Ukrainian passenger plane was shot down one year ago by Iran, coming together to remember and honour their loved ones. Accompanied, we can find new strength and determination, courage and hope.
Thanks be to God who calls us by name, claims us as God’s own - beloved and precious - and accompanies us all the way.
Linda M. Butler