“A New Name: Beauty”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 10, 2016
University Baptist Church
On this Sunday after Epiphany, we are given scriptures by the lectionary that speak of light. They speak of inspiration. They speak of renaming and reclaiming who we are and who we would like to become. Today’s scripture from Isaiah 62 tells of the Hebrew people being reclaimed and renamed. It’s a wonderful testament. Who of us would not like to be recognized as a new creation; a new identity; a new moniker? Plenty of us have been called names that are not flattering: names like idiot, or fat, or stupid or ignorant, or annoying, or naïve, or mean. Words that were benign descriptors like Liberal and Conservative have become epithets. Sometimes Jew, Muslim, and dare we even say Christian can feel like insults. How about if we looked at the world like God looks at us. How about we reclaim the first word God used for us: Good. Today’s scripture gives us this counterpart. A new name: Beauty.
Two weeks ago, I conducted my older sister’s wedding. It was her second wedding. And always at the end of the service there is the declarative statement by the preacher, about the new names. I now present to you for the first time. Doug and Kim Donley. Imagine if we would say, “I now present to you Mr. and Mrs. Kim Spitz.” It’s a conundrum of what to do with names. Hyphenating names gets complicated as the generations pass. Do you hyphenate four names? My sister took the name of her first husband some thirty years ago. It has been her name for her entire professional life. She has chosen to keep that name even though she is married to another man. Another friend uncovered memories of abuse from her father. As part of her recovery, she changed her last name to that of her mother’s. She didn’t want her father’s name to be a part of her identity going forward. Still others have created new names that are creative and still confusing. So, naming is an important and loaded topic.
Hold that thought. Let’s get back to the scripture. Remember that Isaiah is writing to people that have been in exile for the past 60 years. Their captors have called them names. Names like: refugee, foreigner, opportunists who want our jobs, terrorists, unwanted, unwashed, heathen, stranger, enemy, threat. We need only listen to the campaign rhetoric about strangers to hear how contemporary this scripture is.
The good news of today’s scripture was to declare that the people have returned to the Promised Land. That means, they will not be on the receiving end of the insults. The people formerly in exile will no longer be called refugees, aliens, foreigners, heathen, opportunists, threats. They will be given a new name based on their beauty. “You will be a crown of beauty in the hand of YHWH, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” (v.3). It’s like what the Memphis protestors in 1968 claimed when they said, “I am a Man”, or the 2015 protestors on Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago and Minneapolis saying “black lives matter.” And they need to resist the temptation to call their former overlords by racial epithets, repeating the same old cycle. It’s time to embrace a new name.
The people have been in exile and are now ready to start their lives back in the land of their ancestors. They have been called desolate and forsaken. And Isaiah says that they are to take on a new name. “Beauty.” “My Delight is in Her”, and “Married.”
Imagine if you were insulted your entire life and were invited to call yourself beautiful. I imagine it would be a good feeling, but take some time to sink into your bones. Maybe a couple of generations even.
When I served my first church in Hartford, my congregation was largely Jamaican and West Indian, mostly first generation immigrants. They set up shops and bakeries in Hartford. But they often got into conflicts with their African-American neighbors. In church, they liked different kinds of music. The Jamaicans liked choral music and hymns that were popular in the English Church. They didn’t so much like the Spirituals that were popular amongst the African-Americans. Having not experienced the generations of institutional racism in the US, the Jamaicans tended to be more upwardly mobile than other dark-skinned people. Naturally, this caused a rift in the community with the two groups fighting with each other. And this didn’t bother the white establishment much at all, because if they could fight against each other, they would not have the energy to ask the tougher questions about inequality and segregation and lack of opportunity for all of the people.
We need more than a new name, we need a new identity. That’s what today’s scripture is trying to get at. And it uses the language of marriage to uncover it.
The scripture starts out as Isaiah laments that God has not vindicated Zion yet. Isaiah will protest until he is heard; until he gets satisfaction. God has turned away from God’s people and Isaiah will not let that stand. It needs to be called out-protested.
Audre Lorde said that silence will not save us. The prophet calls out God and refuses to silently submit to oppression. I will call out, lament and even make a fuss. It will be messy, because I am a mess. But I will not be a graciously submissive dismissed spouse. I will claim my place at the table. And I will not rest until Jerusalem’s vindication shines like the dawn. Generations have kept their vocal witness so that God will not forget us.
Kathleen O’Connor in her Feasting on the Word commentary sees the first verses of Isaiah 62 as a thread of prophecy that weaves its way into scripture. It’s Israel as the long-suffering wife of God. At times cast off, at times finding her eyes wandering off to the lustier worldly visions, like having kings like everyone else, of sleeping with the enemy and getting rich while not caring enough for the widow and the orphan. But although scorned always reminds God of the Divine Covenant. The prophet, she says, appears in Hosea 1-3 as the northern kingdom cast her off as an idolatrous harlot.
“Jeremiah picks up her story and expands it (Jer. 2:1-4:2). The nation’s fall to Babylon is like a family breakup, again because of the wife’s infidelity. Although God casts her off reluctantly, the divorce stands for rupture between God and Judah during the Babylonian period. Lamentations, in turn, draws on this tradition to present the forlorn, cast off wife weeping and bewailing her fate. She first accepts the interpretation that the collapse of the relationship is her fault. (Lam 2). It is her story that names and interprets Judah’s fall as the disintegration of a once loving family. In the process, the tradition defends God, whose own reliability has been sorely challenged by historical events. Not only is survival of the nation up for grabs at this time, but God’s own being faces radical doubt among survivors of this catastrophe.
When the book of Isaiah picks up the poetic figure of God’s wife, Second Isaiah revives her as a symbol of the broken nation. In three poems (49:13-50:3, 51:17-52:12, 54:1-17), God promises to bring her back, restore her disappeared children to her, and resume their relationship, even confessing to have abandoned her. “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”(54:7)”(Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 1 2009 Westminster John Knox Press pp.244, 245)
Isaiah 62 picks up the theme and vows to vindicate the scorned woman. But the restitution this time has nothing to do with the desolate Israel. God will do the changing, admit to abandoning her, admit to forsaking her. And give her a new name that echoes the restored family. It takes the confession of both to make it work. God will grant satisfaction and vindication to the people. Even though the people have been called “forsaken” and their land “desolate”, God will rename the people. And God uses the marriage covenant language once again. Instead of “Forsaken,” God will call Israel by a redemptive name: “My Delight is in her”. Instead of “Desolate,” God will rename the land “Married.” In Hebrew, the name is Beulah. When you hear of Beulah land, it’s the beautiful land of the restored Israel. It’s the land of longing. It’s the land of forgiveness and redemption. It’s the land that holds hope and forgiveness and longs for that family long forsaken and desolate to be together again.
And God will give the land and the people a new name, beauty. “You shall be a royal crown of beauty in the hand of God, a royal diadem.” They can choose to claim it or they can choose to ignore it. It’s a whole lot simpler to remain in the familiar roles rather than take on a new identity. But remember that God sees not only the restored land, but you as beautiful.
How about if we really tried to take on the name of beauty? I’m not talking about beauty as the fashion industry would define it. I mean how many of us are size 2 or less? How many of us are athletic dynamos? How many of us are perpetually in our 20’s? There is a meme out there that while Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford have both aged, only one of them is said to have aged well. Men are allowed to age more than women are. If beauty is only skin deep, then what makes for a beautiful person? Is it their compassion, their tenderness, their honesty, their humility, their courage, their intelligence, their life experience? How about we judge our candidates based on that. Which candidate evokes thoughts of beauty? Actions of beauty. Which candidate inspires beauty?
This land has been called forsaken. It has become a desert. How might we call it beauty? How might we embrace its beauty?
As the hymn sings:
For the Beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies
for the love which from our birth over and around us lies
lord of all to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.
For the beauty of each hour, Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flow'r, Sun and moon, and stars of light…
For the joy of human love, Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above, For all gentle thoughts and mild…
Text: Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917 Music: Conrad Kocher, 1786-1872
But it’s more than the land that will be called Beauty. The people will be called Beauty. And here’s the real radical thing: The former captors are not called “Forsaken” or “Desolate” or any other epithet. The prophet ignores them. Focus on the beauty, not on the ugliness of your enemy, the not-you. Focus on your new name: Beauty.
As Lord Byron wrote almost 200 years ago:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.
And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
So what name will you take on this year?
Will it be cynic?
Will it be pessimist?
Will it be despair?
Will it be ugly, fat, cold, curmudgeon?
Or will it be beauty?
How about curious?
How about resilient?
How about wise?
How about courageous?
How about whimsical?
How about loving?
How about realistic?
How about hopeful?
How about inspiring?
I encourage you to be like the people that Isaiah addressed. Not satisfied with our people’s shunning even by God. Not satisfied with business as usual, but claiming the new name beauty.
As we close, let us proclaim that we walk in beauty. (Singing: Now we walk in beauty. Beauty is before me. Beauty is behind me above and below me)