A Divine Inscription
Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
November 13, 2022
Scripture: Isaiah 49:8–16a
Thus says God:
In a time of favor I have answered you;
on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I will keep you, and appoint you to be a covenant people,
I will restore the land,
and assign you the properties that have lain waste.
I will say to the prisoners, “Come out,”
to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
Congested roadways will become places where they can safely graze,
And barren heights will become lush pastureland for them.
they will never hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for the One who has compassion on them will lead and guide them to springs of water.
I will make roads through all the mountains,
and my highways shall be raised up.
Look, some shall come from far away,
some from the north and from the west,
and some from the land of Syene.
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For God has comforted his people
and will have compassion on those who suffer.
But Zion said, “God has abandoned me;
God has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child
or fail to cherish the child of her womb?
Even these might forget,
yet I will never forget you.
Look and see, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
Let us pray:
Holy One, open our hearts to hear a word of grace, a message of comfort. May your love fall afresh on us and awaken us to possibilities of joy and hope. Amen.
With the midterm elections now behind us and feelings about results being processed, with hopefully some resolutions about the necessity of personal engagement being made, I thought, “Why not take this opportunity to broach a different kind of controversial topic?”
Yes, you heard me correctly. I really did say tattoos. Given what I know about this topic, I have piqued interest from some of you and probably already lost the attention of some others. But stay with me now. I will make a point or two about tattoos . . . really.
I have two; two tattoos. I made sure they were in plain sight today even though it’s a little chilly on my legs. And yes, I purposefully chose my shin/calf area with the hope that this part of my body will experience the least amount of sagging and wrinkles as I age. Time will tell how that theory actually works out for me. I never imagined I would ever get a tattoo. Yet when significant events happened in my life, I perseverated for years on a way to give them symbolic visual permanence. Not that I will ever forget those happenings, but rather I felt adamant about the need to extend a witness to the world commemorating the prominence these events had on shaping who I am. While celebrating my 40th birthday at a lovely restaurant in Colorado, I saw a woman with the most beautiful tattoo on her wrist. I was with my sister, and by the end of the meal we had both determined we needed to get a tattoo. It took me almost three years to build up the courage. My “family vine” as I call it, is a tribute to the most important people in my life, including the child who died before I could fully experience being her mother. My body, already permanently disfigured as a result of her traumatic birth and death, needed a declaration of love and transformation that required bright colors, her symbol, and . . . a whole lot of needles. People who see the tattoo may not know the meaning behind it, but that does not stop the noticing of it. It does not prevent my witness.
It is interesting that my 40th birthday prompted my initial tattoo, because my 40s were a most painful decade in my life. When I turned 50 in 2018, I embraced a new beginning with the milestone, and I yearned for opportunities that would invite me to rise into my authentic self, so I knew I needed to make amends with my past and the people in it. And I wanted to symbolize this is a permanent way—hence my second tattoo. Again, it took me three years to gather my wits and finally do it, and I needed my oldest daughter to hold my hand for the entire 2.5 hours it took to ink a whimsical, strong phoenix on my right shin, resurrecting from the Roman numeral for 50. I am rising in my 50s, and whenever I forget that, I have some outrageous color on my body to remind me . . . and not just to remind me but to also remind others. Like a phoneix I am strong, and when necessary I am fierce. And I do not give up. Sometimes we literally need to wear the messages we need to hear as a tactic for survival.
I am not unique in my understanding of tattoos or my approach to them, and there are also a plethora of other reasons people choose to be indelibly marked. “A major facet of tattoo cultures is the unveiling of stories through one’s tattoos. For some cultures, like the Maori in New Zealand, tattoos serve to signify one’s place within society. For the Tofi people of New Guinea, a swirl on a woman’s face indicates her family lineage. In indigenous cultures, tattoos mark one’s role in a larger societal narrative.” (Jacob D. Myers, “Holy Ink: The Spirituality of Tattoos”, Huffington Post, May 30, 2012.)
My daughter Ellie has seven tattoos, with plans for more, but she and I approach the art differently. While I prefer bright, bold, vibrant, and plentiful color, Ellie’s tattoos are all done in black ink, and this is her intentional choice. I asked her why her tattoos are important to her, what message she is trying to send, and how their permanence adds to their meaning. This is her response:
I have tattooed on me a lot of symbols for important things and people in my life and the beliefs I have. I have purposefully chosen each of my tattoos because they mean something to me. But I have friends who have chosen tattoos with absolutely no personal meaning but rather for the sole purpose of having cool art on their bodies. That, I think, is the main reason people tattoo: to get permanent art on their body. And the thing about art is that the possibilities are endless, and so are the meanings behind each tattoo. I tattoo for that reason, and because I want to be able to show my symbols, beliefs, and life stories on my body. The fact that they are permanent makes it even better. I get to carry Grandpa’s signature with me for my whole life. I will be showing off my “make love not war” tattoo until my arms sag from old age and you can’t read it, because I believe in that saying with my full being. My family is in each of the stars behind my ear—a tattoo that will stay beautiful forever because that skin stays strong. That’s truly beyond worth the pain and the money to get the ink. Plus they look so cool, and I get endless compliments on every single one of my tattoos because people love to admire art in all shapes and forms.
The biblical book of Isaiah is a large volume of scripture, and scholars like to refer to it in three distinct segments: I Isaiah, II Isaiah, III Isaiah. While we often refer to Isaiah as if he were one prophet; there were at least three different voices in this biblical book writing to the same people—the Israelites—who experienced displacement and dispersion when conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE. The Israelites were exiled to Babylonia, where they lived in captivity for decades. First Isaiah (chapters 1–39) spoke to pre-exile days around 740–700 BCE. Second Isaiah is the author of our morning’s pericope along with chapters 40–55, who wrote at the end of exile after Persian Emperor Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 BCE and passed a decree that allowed exiles to return to their homeland. Third Isaiah (chapters 56–66) wrote during post-exile days around 515–480 BCE.
The Israelites we meet in this text are preparing to journey home. They are a desolate people who long for a place to belong, while at the same time they have grown accustomed to their displaced life. Many of us have rooted ourselves in what is familiar even when change could mean something so much better. For people who felt abandoned by a God who professed preferential love and care, taking a risk to return to their homeland was laden with doubt. Isaiah tells the Israelite exiles, who have now been in Babylon for two full generations, that God has indeed paved a way for them. The return home will be completely unlike the desperate, long sojourn to exile some decades earlier. This journey will be marked by abundant food and water and safety for all. Indeed, the “heavens and the mountains” themselves will burst into song. This is a time of returning, not only to a land that will welcome them but also back into the embrace of a God who never stopped loving them, who never forgot them even when the people felt woefully forgotten. “I will never forget you”, says the Divine voice. “Look and see, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”
Brokenness and alienation are not going to have the last word, because here God commands that distance is to be overcome by intimacy. God has inked our existence into God’s own spirit. In a time when we are longing to be known, when we are longing to have purpose, when we are longing to feel comfort, when we are longing to embrace an unconditional love . . . what could happen for us if we let down our guards, set aside our demoralizing doubts about status quo, surrendered our sensibilities about the existence of a Divine being, and simply trusted that we are an essential part of God’s story? We are loved beyond rational understanding, we are a piece of God’s heart, we are a divine inscription. If we could embrace the wild truth that we are included in God’s tattoo, couldn’t that break us open to a love that transforms our understanding of self and our possibility of loving others in a convoluted world? We are the Israelites, coming out of our own exile. What if we shifted the narrative from feeling forgotten to knowing inclusion, from feeling abandoned to realizing community, from feeling irrelevant to being essential . . . and instead of being asked to tell the story, we embrace our part within God’s story?
Nadia Bolz Weber, a bold and bright light of a Lutheran pastor, is known for her many tattoos. In her own words she describes her right arm as “sort of a stained-glass window telling the story of Jesus: a nativity for Christmas; Jesus in the desert for Lent; the Marys at either side of Jesus’ crucifixion for Good Friday; the angel and the women at the empty tomb for Easter; and Mary and the apostles with flames on their heads for Pentecost at the wrist. That’s what tattoos are: a way to wear stories—our mistakes, celebrations, relationships, insights and losses—on the skin. My tattoos create a colorful confession of my journey to the cranky, beautiful faith I hold today.”(Nadia Bolz Weber, CNN Belief Blog, October 12, 2013)
While it may sound like it, I am not advocating you all go out and get a tattoo. I am part of the legion who enjoys and appreciates body art, and I also know it is not for everyone and some have very strong feelings about why we should not permanently ink our skin. And as a further disclaimer I am only interested in non violent, non demeaning, and non threatening tattoos. We all must find a way to tell our sacred stories and for some, like me, a tattoo is one way to offer a witness to that which has shaped and formed my being. Regardless of whether you are thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs neutral on body art, my hope is that you might take personally the notion that each of us is so beloved by the Divine that we are named and claimed within God’s great tattoo, a body of art so beautiful it can make the heavens and mountains literally sing. Amen.