January 16, 2022: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund

Year C; FB, 2 Epiphany, MLK, 1.16.2022

Isaiah 62:1-5

Just over two weeks ago we celebrated the New Year. You may know that also January 1 is a feast day of the Christian Church, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Eight days after his birth, Jesus was presented to God in the Temple, named and circumcised. The angel tells us what his name means, “He shall be called Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

I love knowing how people are named. I love learning the meaning of names.

How did you come by your name? Do you go by a nickname? Is your name a family name or a popular name in culture or is it from another culture?

There was a time for me in second grade when I renamed myself. I started writing the name “Caroline” on all my school work. I think it worried Mrs. Gilbert because she contacted my mother about it. For me, it was because there was a very important little girl in the White House named Caroline. Caroline Kennedy. I wanted to be just like her. My name wasn’t so far off, I thought! But my Republican parents didn’t agree with me.

There is honor in how a name is addressed. In the South, I was called Mrs. Eklund. I was never called Carolyn. Even if I insisted on being called Carolyn, parent and youth group member alike called me Mrs. Eklund. Sometimes, it was “Mrs. Eklund, ma’am.”

I recently watched the movie “In the Heat of the Night.” The death of Sidney Portier reminded me of this excellent movie set in Sparta, Mississippi in the 60’s. Sidney Portier finds himself waiting for a train in the middle of the night in this deep South town. He is heading back to his home in Philadelphia after a visit with his mother in the South. He is mistakenly arrested as a murderer. But soon, it’s revealed that he is the top homicide inspector in the City of Philadelphia. He was a cop! This intelligent, educated, experienced, poised, well-dressed Black man eventually was asked to help with the murder. But his initial encounter with the chief of Police was quite ugly.

The scene many of us may be familiar with happens just after the widow of the slain man was informed that her husband was murdered. Deputies, the woman and the chief of police who is played by Rod Steiger, are all in the police station with Sidney Portier, whose name is Virgil Tibbs. Virgil Tibbs has a box of evidence in his hands that he’s collected and is refusing to give over to the racist, incompetent police chief.

The chief says derisively, mockingly, “You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t ya?…     ’Virgil’…that’s a funny name for a [N-word], that comes from Philadelphia.” The chief’s face is turning red now as he says, “What do they call you up there?”

There is a pause as Sidney Portier steels himself, gathers himself with quite a bit of fire in his eyes and slowly says, “THEY CALL ME MISTER TIBBS.”

In one brief scene this fine Black police officer from Philadelphia goes from being given the worst name African Americans in this country can be called, the N-word to the most honorable way a person can be addressed in the South, Mister Tibbs.

Being called by name in a dignified and honorable way, no matter the station in life can truly be transformative. Being called a name of affection can do the same. Names are so important. That’s what moves me so much about the words of the prophet in the passage of Isaiah we heard today. The prophet stands up for the exiled people and reminds God that God has been absent during the desolation and loss of the people of Israel, the deportation of most of the people, and the poor and destitute left in Jerusalem to fend for themselves.

The reading begins with the lament of the prophet during this time when he calls the people FORSAKEN and their land DESOLATE. Names mean something. And the prophet means to let God know that God’s people have lost their dignity and their land.

Listen to the words of the prophet as he shouts out, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” He is using a voice very much like the I-mean-business voice of “They call me Mister. Tibbs.”

The prophet dares to tell God of the hope of being renamed. The prophet knows the transformative power of naming. So, he renames the people from “Forsaken” and “Desolate” to “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married.”

Imagine that there is a re-naming ceremony in this passage that comes to the people in exile. The exile has ended and the people are being brought together with their God. “…and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give…You 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…”

Some scholars call the marriage metaphors strong reminders of God’s covenant love and God’s covenant householding. God is making good on God’s promise to re-establish the household of love, joy and unity. God’s people will return from exile and dwell in peace with each other. In ancient Israel the exile even had a name. It was called “divorce.” And the return is called “marriage.” But not just Marriage…It’s called Delight, Abundance, Joy, Peace…like the wedding feast in Cana, God provides in abundance and there is delight, joy and dancing as the parties are joined together.

In our time, there are modern-day prophets who point out forsakenness and desolation of oppressed people. It is fitting that the Episcopal Church calls us to “…follow the example of the prophet Martin Luther King, Jr. to resist oppression…” We give him the name “Prophet.” I visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis a few years ago. It was built around the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot. He had come to Memphis at the end of the 2-month and four-day sanitation workers’ strike. He had been persuaded to come to Memphis and march with them. He preached that evening and was shot to death the next morning.

I’ll never forget the slogan for that strike. It was more than a slogan. It was a re-naming of the Black men who called out the claim of the Declaration of Independence that, “…all men are created equal.” The slogan was, “I AM A MAN!” These Black sanitation workers held up signs that read, “I AM A MAN” to remind us all that they had honor and dignity as “men who are created by God and are equal.”

My bishop in the diocese of New Jersey, the late George Councell, bishop of mounted a large framed photograph over his desk in the bishop’s office of the marching men carrying the signs, “I AM A MAN.” Tears would come to his eyes when he talked about grown Black men having to carry a sign like that. He would shake his head crying because as a white man, he had never encountered such “Forsakenness.” Bishop Councell died before the slogan Black Lives Matter became widespread, another slogan that reminds us of the dignity of Black lives.

I have no trouble imagining our commitment to renaming all those suffering under abuse and oppression, “God’s Delight is in Them,” because when we call someone a name of respect, we all live in God’s dignity together.