April 7, 2019, 5th Sunday in Lent Year C, Isaiah 43:16-21
Recently I’ve been in conversation with Deacon Susan Lindberg Haley of the Lutheran Church of Framingham as in June at the Synod Assembly we are going to be leading a workshop together about Lutheran-Episcopal congregational partnerships. Like us here at Christ the King-Epiphany, the Lutheran Church of Framingham has been in a Lutheran-Episcopal partnership with St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in that city since October 2016. In looking for a title to our workshop Susan suggested that we use the passage from Isaiah in our first reading today. In particular verse 19 where we hear God say, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
I countered her proposal that while it is true that God is doing a new thing with these cross-denominational partnerships, it is also important to include the next verse where God says, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” I said this because while I think that God is doing a new thing – or one could argue, a new old thing as we Christians come together again after centuries of divisions – God is doing this new thing by making a way for us in times where we often feel as if we as the church today are in a wilderness or desert time. Because in these times in which we live, many in the church feel that we are going through a time where being the church is a challenge with the culture around us changing rapidly and congregations struggling with declining finances and numbers of people worshiping.
Living in such times we see many in the church clinging to as our first reading today says the “former things” and the “things of old” or if we use today’s language we might say, “the way we have always done it.” We find ourselves longing for the good old days – which for many in the church were the 1950s when the pews were full, Sunday School classrooms where over-flowing with children, and we never really had to worry about how to pay the bills because the economy was booming and people were giving out of that abundance. So in these times of struggle we can find ourselves looking back to those days of old and what was and hoping beyond all hope that things will be like those days for us once again if only we find just the right formula.
Yet, whether we want to admit it or not, those days are not likely to return for most of our congregations. The culture and the world we live in are vastly different from that time and we can’t go back to a day and time that no longer exists. Looking ahead instead of back to what was is what the Prophet Isaiah is talking about in our first reading today when he says, “Do not remember the former things or consider the days of old.” He isn’t changing the message the biblical prophets usually emphasized in talking to God’s people which was that it was important to remember their past. The prophets’ goal in that was to remind God’s people who they were by remembering what God had done for God’s people throughout history and thus point to their identity in God so that they wouldn’t lose their way. Indeed, Isaiah points at the start of today’s first reading to how God delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by parting the Red Sea. Instead of telling us to forget that faithfulness of God though, as it might seem he is doing, the prophet is telling God’s people to focus on how God is at work in the present, right now, as he asks about the new thing God is doing, “Do you not perceive it?” Are God’s people focusing so much on the past that they are missing what God is doing in their midst here and now? The past and what has happened there is always important as it is perpetually the message of the biblical prophets, but Isaiah tells the people that when the past shuts us off from what God is up to right in front of us now then we need to shift our focus or we will miss seeing what God is doing in the present.
Many of you know that I spent this past week in St. Louis at the National Workshop on Christian Unity in my role as Ecumenical and Inter-religious Officer for our Episcopal Diocese here in western Massachusetts. It was a week where I learned a lot about how others in our own Episcopal and Lutheran denominations are living out our Christian unity in congregational cross-denominational relationships similar to ours here at Christ the King-Epiphany though the form it takes looks different everywhere. And I also learned more about how Lutherans and Episcopalians go about building relationships with other denominations through formal and informal agreements and how other denominations beyond our own are living out Christian unity in their own ways.
For instance, most of us probably wouldn’t think that Roman Catholics and Pentecostals have a whole lot in common. After all, most Roman Catholics share with our Episcopal and Lutheran denominations a very traditional and ancient set form of liturgy while Pentecostals tend to have a more free-form worship experience that allows for people to respond to the Holy Spirit’s movement in their midst with spontaneous singing, dancing, and even at times speaking in tongues or healing others. However, a Roman Catholic and Pentecostal dialogue has been going on for several years on a topic where they found commonality – the gifts of the Spirit. Through this dialogue they even recently co-wrote a document on what they identity as their commonly held beliefs on the gifts of the Spirit and how they see them at work from the time of the early church in the book of Acts and continuing even today.
The main thing I discovered this past week as I spoke with and learned from those of other denominations is that God IS doing a new thing among us as Christians here and now. As the world is so rapidly changing and dividing around us and it seems in so many ways that the church is struggling for survival just as the world is, God is bringing us together as the church. As our Episcopal Bishop Doug Fisher likes to say, “When so much in the world is coming apart, we are coming together.” We aren’t coming together and abandoning our pasts, traditions, or who we are altogether as people of various denominations though. Instead, as the Rev. Tracy Blackmon, a United Church of Christ pastor and the preacher for our opening worship at the conference this week told us, God is bringing us together for unity NOT uniformity. The new thing God is doing isn’t making us all look and act the same so that we are all carbon copies of each other. On the contrary, the new thing God is doing is helping us to find where we are one in Jesus Christ so that we can find ways to work together to build God’s beloved community where the gift of all our differences contribute and work together to complete the Body of Christ through our unity.
I believe that is what we are up to here at Christ the King-Epiphany Church as well. We have found in coming together that there is a lot of similarity and overlap in our two traditions, but also that each possesses unique gifts that when joined together in one community make us better and stronger together than we are apart. Because in coming together we aren’t abandoning everything that makes us Lutherans or Episcopalians so that we melt into something totally new called Lutherpalians that erases the gifts each of those traditions hold separately on their own. Instead, we call ourselves Lutherpalians recognizing that we bring the gifts of both traditions to the table and join them together in a way that honors and celebrates the best of each.
You’ll see that in our liturgy that each week is comprised of of an approximately 50-50 split between Episcopal and Lutheran worship resources, mostly from The Book of Common Prayer and Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the primary worship books of each denomination. The hymns we sing each week alternate between the hymnals and musical resources of each denomination so we experience the fullness of each’s musical tradition. Beyond liturgy we also embrace other gifts each tradition possesses. The gifts of the middle way of walking together in our differences and the common prayer that unites that Episcopalians offer. And the gift of paradox in living with things that are at the same time both/and, such as how we are at the same time both saint and sinner and dying and rising to new life in baptism. As well as the gift of the focus on grace and emphasis that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love that the Lutherans offer.
Living together in unity with our differences speaks loudly to a world that is too often coming apart at the seams because of the ways we differ from one another. Finding a way to live together shows how God can make a way where there seems to the world to be no way as God brings unity and new life through what others see only as a way of difference, division, and death. Of course, we know that this isn’t easy. We still look back with nostalgia as we remember the former things and consider the days of old from the many years of our lives apart as The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany and Christ the King Lutheran Church. Yet, though we look back on those fond memories of how things used to be in the good old days and give thanks for the histories of both congregations and traditions that brought us here to this place, we hear God’s call to perceive the new thing God is doing here and now in our midst. And we respond knowing that as God has been faithful throughout our history and life apart, so too will God be faithful now and in the future in this new life together that God is calling us to.
In the middle of this wilderness and desert time in the life of the Christian church in the United States, God is making a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. A way not of how we used to do it or who we used to be years ago in a different time and place we long to return to because we have such fond memories of it, but a new way that springs forth if only we are open to perceive it. A new way that honors and celebrates the traditions that made us who we are, but also the new traditions we are forming and creating in life together that reflect who God is calling us to be going forward. And a new way not of uniformity and sameness where our individual uniqueness disappears, but unity and oneness in Christ where all our gifts are embraced and reflected in the new thing God is doing. Amen.