Called, Created, and Re-Created
“Called, Created, and Re-Created”
January 9, 2022 | FPC Auburn
Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Several years ago Nick and I began a tradition of writing a letter at the end of the year to all the outgoing elders. It’s a chance to thank them for their time on the session but it’s also an opportunity to look back at their three years of service and specifically name some of the things they saw this congregation through.
There are always good things:
- projects we’ve undertaken and completed
- new programs and mission ministries
- new members and confirmation classes and baptisms
And, without fail, every time there are the challenges we faced:
- staffing transitions
- building issues, parking issues
- financial strains
Much like these letters, I keep a running list of major events in the life of this church and every once in awhile I revisit it and am always surprised by the things I forget: Times of incredible stress that I’m glad to have somewhat blocked out but also times of deep joy that I ought to think of more often.
Of course, in the last two years the letters to our outgoing elders has included a great big nod to the reality COVID-19 has been for this congregation. It’s a challenge unlike anything any of us has experienced. And throughout it, more than once it has felt like the church has been knocked off its feet, turned upside down, and forced to reinvent ourselves several times over.
It would be easy for us to feel like we are the only people of faith who have ever had to navigate such an experience.
But scripture reminds us otherwise.
When we are in the midst of our own distress it’s possible to forget that long ago the people of Israel found their community of faith scattered and scared. Tragedy had displaced them and carried them so far from home they feared they would never find their way back. Living as exiles in Babylon they were forced to witness generations of children and grandchildren being raised in a foreign land without the rhythms and rituals of their traditional worship life. Everything looked completely different and this broke the hearts of the elder generations.
Without stability and a clear sense of place, they feared their future as a people was in doubt. Whether they admitted it out loud or not, they feared God had abandoned them in Babylon — and wondered if this was a punishment for their sins. In the moment where we find them today the people of Israel are scattered, scared, weary, and weak.
And in their distress, God calls out to them through the voice of a prophet: Isaiah.
For many of us, the last two years is the closest thing we have ever experienced to exile. Our rhythms and rituals have been disrupted. Things we had come to depend on and look forward to were taken from us. Places that we once entered and shared with others: our churches, our schools, each other’s homes - became a threat to our health and safety.
While statistics we hear will often stress to us the magnitude of the physical effects of COVID, no set of numbers or percentages can convey the grief we have felt and the losses we have experienced. And although we are far better off than we were at the outset of this pandemic, we don’t have to stretch our imaginations too far to understand why the Israelites might have wondered if God was testing them in the wilderness.
When God speaks through Isaiah in the prophesy, it is interesting to note what IS said, and what is NOT said.
Here is what God does not say:
“Get it together Israel, it’s fine. You’re fine. Everything’s fine. Keep moving.”
God does not say:
“Yep, this is what you get for not listening to me. This is what you deserve.”
And God does not say:
“If you’ll just do X, Y, Z - all of this will go away and we can go back to the way things were.”
Instead, God says this:
“Do not fear.”
“When you pass through the waters, (not IF but WHEN) and the rivers threaten to overwhelm and the fires threaten to burn it all down… I will be with you - and I will not let these things consume you.”
“I created you. You are precious to me… and I love you.”
It’s not that nothing bad is going to happen to those God loves… it’s that God promises they will never have to go through these things alone.
The voice of God is emotional and personal - familial.
I’m no Hebrew scholar but the way the verb structures are in this passage God is speaking in singular terms - to each member of the tribe of Israel, and at the same time God speaks to them all. God loves the body, and at the same time, each member of it is cherished.
And just as fear among the members of the body can be contagious, so can a sense of hope and comfort spread like wildfire when we turn to the words of Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit, which will always point us to the head of our body: Jesus Christ.
I can’t tell you how often over the last seven plus years the pastoral staff of this church has relied on the collective wisdom of our session elders. (Pastors get a lot of credit, but anyone who has ever served on session can tell you it’s the elders that make things happen around here.) And the truth is that it’s not just the elders actively on session that guide the discernment of this church.
Throughout this congregation are men and women who remember moments of challenge and distress from earlier generations that would be all but forgotten if the stories did not continue to be told. We when talk with those of you who served in leadership (either at this church or in another congregation) in the 1960s, we are reminded of the way this church navigated race relations in Auburn during the Civil Rights Era — the backlash this body faced for integrating this very worship space and how it fractured relationships and invited acts of slander and hatred upon the members of this body.
Every generation of elders has some sort of challenge that arises in their tenure: we’d love to believe the church is free of politics and biases but the fact is we are a human institution - called together by God in the name of Christ. But we are not perfect. And sometimes in our discernment we make mistakes and feelings are hurt and poor decisions are made. And sometimes we come up against situations for which there is no blueprint — literally building the plane as we fly it, praying for a safe landing.
But through it all, in all generations, God calls together the scattered, fractured, frazzled, scared pieces and creates a way forward. God brings together individuals with different perspectives and professional backgrounds. People of different ages and talents and political persuasions and knits them together as a body, united in our baptism in Christ. God calls together the church and the assurance we each receive can be contagious as we sit in meetings and learn how to listen and discern even when we feel like the Israelites: uncertain and weak.
In Isaiah’s prophecy, God doesn’t proclaim love for God’s children only to say “And don’t worry I will take you back to the way things were and everything will be the same and familiar again.”
Instead, God talks about passing through rivers and fires and bringing sons and daughters together from different places to do “a new thing”. The entire prophesy is a vision of how through hardship, a new creation will come. And surrounded and supported by such a deep abiding love, the people begin to believe that maybe they can live into this new way of being a community — grieving what has been lost, but also hopeful about what may come out of this experience.
Generations later that new creation came into the world as Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And Jesus began his ministry with a baptism that echoed these words from Isaiah: “You are beloved.”, “You are mine.”, “You are cherished.”
I love that it has become the tradition in this church that this is the Sunday, Baptism of the Lord Sunday, that we ordain and install our newest elders - because these are exactly the words we need them to hear as they begin their service to the church in a new way:
“Do not fear”
“You are mine”
“I will be with you”
“You are precious”
It’s easy to get caught up in fear. When will this pandemic ever end? Will the church be able to maintain throughout this uncertain time? What about money? What about membership? What about programs? What about mission? What about Thursday night dinners? (These are literally the things that keep me up at night.)
But the only words any of us need know when we are feeling uncertain about how to move forward are these words uttered from the mouth of God to each of us and all of us:
Do not fear.
You are mine.
I will be with you.
You are precious.
and I love you.
Through this prophecy and through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ we receive the good news that we are called and created by a God who delights in walking alongside us and watching the church unfold in new ways in new ages. It’s scary and hard and wonderful all at the same time. And we too can grieve what has been lost and still find hope for what new things might come.
When we feel alone in this journey, we are privileged to be able to look back at the names and stories of those whose shoulders we stand on - the ones who have gone before us in this church and in generations of ancestors of faith: each of us loved and precious redeemed through Christ by God and for God’s service in an ever-changing world.