Lent 5C – April 3, 2022
St. Paul’s, Bellingham – Lent 5C – April 3, 2022
Isaiah 43:16-21 (referencing 43:1)
The Rev. Rachel Endicott
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Each day that I sit in my office here at St. Paul’s, well unless the pile of papers on my desk gets too tall and starts blocking my view, I look at this banner which hangs to the left of where my computer usually sits. It was made by a member of the congregation where I served immediately after seminary and given to me when I was ordained to the priesthood. But, in some ways I wasn’t alone. The banner was almost the same as those that the congregation presented to each person who was baptized within that congregation with the exception of having – for me – added specific calls as a priest: love, serve, preach, baptize, bless, declare forgiveness, and celebrate (and I would hope this means in both liturgical and other ways!) On each banner, as those of you in the back no doubt can’t read, there was the individual’s name, so in my case Rachel Faith, and below it, “I call you by name and claim you as my own”. This quote on the banner is a paraphrase of the first verse of Isaiah Chapter 43 which is “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
And this is the beginning of the verse that sets us on our course for our Old Testament reading for today. It is the cornerstone of our understanding that God created us, formed us, and calls us to God. But, as with most things in life, life isn’t always easy. So God continues to talk to God’s people. And here, in the portion of the Book of Isaiah often termed as “2nd Isaiah”, we find God’s people in the time of the Babylonian exile. They are ruled over by another people, some of their people have been taken away to Babylon (a commonly used strategy for subduing people), and things are not going well. But it is here that we find words of rebuilding, words that help God’s people remember that they are God’s and to underline that knowledge that they are God’s.
In the portion of Chapter 43 we heard this morning, we find a sort of pull/push. We are urged to look at the past. The text refers to the Lord “who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior”. This is obviously a look back at the exodus from Egypt, the ultimate formation event in the journey with God for God’s people. It is a very visual reminder of deliverance of a people who are loved, and we are the ancestors of those beloved people.
But then the text chides, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” Whoa! Whiplash. Besides perhaps being used as a rhetorical device, this sentence reminds us that even as we remember things of old, we should not simply be sucked into a sort of rosy, unchanging nostalgia of what used to be.
As a slight digression, perhaps being overly nostalgic is a hazard of all communities and perhaps doubly so of faith communities. We remember, rightly or wrongly, things that happened in past years and yearn to go back. BUT we often forget that the years in our memories often weren’t the golden years that we remember. Digression over.
And from here, the text goes on to make a promise. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” And this is the high point of this pericope, this reading for today. God has been and continues to be active in the world and in our lives. It is often more that we don’t perceive what is happening that is the case.
And then, after we find out about this new thing, the text moves us back to deliverance. “I will make a way in the wilderness...[and] give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself.” And this passage, written millennia ago, is not something to dismiss. As well as those to whom the Prophet Isaiah preached, we are God’s people, we are those formed and called by God.
So, does this mean that we just bask in this knowledge that we are God’s people? By no means. (And, yes, I’m channeling Paul here.) Almost everywhere in the Scriptures, the “new thing” is freeing the people to learn, to move forward, to proclaim the gospel, to work for justice, to reach out to the community, so basically to do those things we’re called to do at our baptism.
So, what might be the new thing that God is doing here at St. Paul’s, here in Bellingham? I recently did a webinar where discussion was about listening to God about new things. As a way to find out where God is speaking, the webinar leader suggested that we might want to ask our neighbors about what keeps them up at night. One of the churches that did that was an Episcopal Church in Chattanooga. They put out prayer strips on a table. The neighbors were invited to take them, write their prayers on them, then tie them on a fence. The prayers were both prayed for by the congregation and the prayers strips were woven into an altar cloth to be used in the worship space. I don’t know whether the prayers elicited some decisions or movement forward by the church, but they took notice of the needs of their neighbors.
When I first came here to St. Paul’s last year, the church had done a smaller version of that. There were fabric strips tied on the gate going down to the children’s play area. But, in hindsight, I wonder what was on those prayer requests. I wonder if the prayers had any commonality.
Coming back to the present, I’m wondering if the new thing that God is calling St. Paul’s to is out there waiting for a response. On this day I’m wondering what our neighbors would say keeps them up at night. Is it creating a climate of peace in the world, not just in the Holy Land or Ukraine or other places where peace is torn asunder, but within our community here, especially where racism and classism cause conflict? Is it wondering how much worse climate change can be before it’s irreparable, if it even is? Do our neighbors find themselves awake at night because they don’t have homes in which to sleep? Or perhaps they have houses in which to sleep, but worry that their children won’t have places to sleep because of the lack of affordable housing? Did you know that that both when I served in Seattle near the University of Washington and here in Bellingham, there were and are university students who are sleeping in shelters, on friends’ couches, or in their cars because they can’t afford tuition AND a place to live? And I’m sure there are other things keeping our neighbors awake at night.
So, if we listen to what keeps our neighbors awake at night, how might we respond? For instance, if housing for low-income folks is a huge issue, are we called to do more than our limited work with Habitat for Humanity? What if the Alms group leveraged some of the funds they have in the bank, pulled in other partners, and/or perhaps worked with a housing group to create new low-income housing stock? What if the church was able to step out to address the problem, not only providing one person in a hotel room for a night, but at a deeper level?
So the question remains. We need to listen. We need to pay attention. We need to ponder what is the new thing that we are called to do on behalf of God? What is the new thing that you are called to do on behalf of God? And apart from these queries, what is the new thing that God is doing?