a sermon, based on Isaiah 43.16-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2016
“Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
It is the 6th century BCE. Israel is in exile in Babylon. In the despair of captivity, Isaiah reminds the Israelites of the flight to freedom of their forebears led by Moses when God “(made) a way in the (Red) sea, a path in the mighty waters (so the people could walk on dry land), when God “(brought) out chariot and horse, army and warrior (drowning) extinguishing, quenching like a wick (pharaoh’s pursing legions, securing the people’s escape).” Then, seemingly oddly, the prophet counsels the Israelites not to look back, indeed, “do not remember…or consider” that old exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land. Rather look toward this new thing. Release from Babylonian bondage to return to the Promised Land.
And this new thing will be more than liberation, as wonderful as that is, but also transformation. In the old exodus, the people passed through the wilderness and although God provided water and food, the wilderness remained arid and barren. In this new exodus, as of old, the people will pass through the wilderness, as of old, God will meet their needs, “I will make a way in the wilderness”, but this time the wilderness will be changed, for God will make “rivers in the desert.”
I don’t interpret this literally. Isaiah’s language is mythological; a subtle synthesis of prophecy and poetry reflecting a truth, a belief about the way things are, beyond the grasp of the physical, factual, historical terms of mere prose.
“I am about to do a new thing,” saith the Lord, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Did rivers run in the desert? Probably not. But that’s not the point. This prophecy isn’t about the wilderness, but rather the people. They are the parched wilderness transformed by the running water of freedom; a freedom that restores their relationship, their covenant community with God and one another so to be who God created them to be: “I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
So it is for us. Relationships and community grant us freedom to be who we are created to be and become. I have learned and continue to learn this truth. I have a greater sense of who I am through my relationships and communities; among them, primarily Pontheolla, our family and friends, and now you, the Epiphany community. (Indeed, because of you, I unretired, for my every-Sunday-soul-deep-desire-and-need is for me to look at you, saying, “You belong to me,” and for you to look at me, saying, “You belong to us.”)
In relationships, in community, I am challenged to be truthful about myself in my striving to be authentic in my living, often falling short, and trying again. In relationships, in community, I am challenged by criticism earnestly given and praise honestly bestowed. In relationships, in community, I am called outside of myself – that small container, sometimes prison, in which I seek to hold life at arm’s length, to hide, continuing the chameleonic charade, dancing across life’s stage, trying to make a good impression, taking few risks of being known – to be the self God created, Jesus calls, and the Spirit consecrates me to be. Less afraid and less guarded. More honest, more present, more responsible, more response-able.
Am I completely done with the small container? No. There’s always a chance, particularly when I’m unsure or afraid, that I will retreat to the safety of my Babylonian captivity, exiled from my Promised Land of authentic living. But it’s always relationships and community that help me to be and become me.
I believe this to be true for all of us. As human experience, Israel’s and ours, testifies, it takes a village, a people to make a person. It takes a “we” to make a “me.” An important thing to remember and consider in these times.
As I mentioned in my sermon two Sundays ago, we live at hyper-connected, information-cluttered warp speed. We have more ways to be in touch without being in touch. Save for Facetime and Skype, we see no one’s face, hear no one’s voice, and even then touch no one’s hand. Nor are we touched. We live increasingly atomistically in minute moments, in increasingly tightly spiraling circles, no longer concentric with a common axis or middle point, but separated; disengaged from others and from ourselves, except in those seemingly random moments of collision that often pass for human encounter. (“Collision” is a good word, which this past week’s calamitous clashes at some presidential campaign events make sorrowfully clear.)
Last week, during an evening’s dinner out, I was fascinated, captivated watching a family, father, mother, two teenaged children, each self-absorbed, an iPhone in hand. Neither communicating with one another (unless they were text-messaging!) nor eating; their food before them growing cold. In that moment, that family was a living incarnation of what a recent sociological study declares is one less than positive outcome of the communication revolution: the damage to human relationships. We, wedded to our smartphones, in avoiding human contact, are becoming more insensitive and indifferent, less caring and compassionate.
Therefore, it is a counter-cultural act whenever we, today, here, and at any time, any place, with any people gather in community. Even more, it’s radical (from the Latin, radix, root, meaning returning to the origin of things, the way God intended at the dawn of creation) whenever we together discover afresh the paradox to which I alluded a moment ago: We become fully who we are when pushed and pulled, sometimes uncomfortably, painfully beyond the safe boundaries of our self-containment. We can be who we are meant to be only through others.
This process of continual liberation and transformation is the “new thing” God always is doing. Will we take the journey from Babylon to the Promised Land? If we answer “yes”, then, saith the Lord, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
Photo: PRA, March 13, 2016
 A reference to the contentious interplay between supporters and protesters of a presidential candidate at a number of campaign stops during the past week.
 These trends are cited in Century Marks, The Christian Century magazine, March 2, 2016 issue, page 9