Call us what we carry. As we’ve explored Christian identity during this Lenten sermon series, we’ve come face-to-face with the shadowed sides of ourselves, individually and as a people. We cannot turn our backs on the reality that all is not as God intended. Our story contains heartbreaking loss, unthinkable violence, profound suffering, in both personal and community spheres. We cannot shrug off responsibility for our self-centered lives, sinful choices, and the systems and structures and institutions we’ve built to maintain our privilege and hold off the truth of our mortality for as long as we possibly can.
Part of what it means to be Christian is to change; described in the Bible as “turning” (that’s what the word “repentance” actually means). Turning away from evil and turning towards God. As Ron Larocque described so eloquently in his sermon last week, it is a turning toward home and the experience of welcome and embrace.But friends, here is what it is not: a repudiation of our humanity. When we shrug off bad behavior with the rationale “Give me a break—I’m only human,” we have missed all together who we are at our core. The goal of Christian life is not to be more than human; it’s to be fully human.
And that requires some change. But it’s a particular kind of change. God’s remedy that dominates our story is not destruction but restoration. Not a change in our human identity, but a recovery of it, from all the ways it has been distorted, twisted, and wrung out. It’s unfortunate that the term often used for this change is “conversion”–as if we must switch out one identity for another. We are not required to be other than who we are; the person God created in the Divine image. Even the powerful image Jesus gave to weary old Nicodemus, of rebirth, is an awakening to the Spirit within each of us, the recognition of the God gene woven spiritually into the strands of our human DNA.
Our morning text was first written to the covenant community as they languished in exile, disheartened. It’s significant to note, I think, that the required changes refer very specifically to the dangerous, desert road leading from their Babylonian captivity back to Jerusalem. It will be marvelously rebuilt to provide a way to bring them safely home. The whole text is delivered in the voice of God, and the new thing She promises doesn’t start from scratch, but uses the very stuff of creation–arid desert, flash flooding, wild animals, even memories of trauma going back all the way in their collective history to slavery in Egypt and the miraculous parting of the Red Sea that allowed them to cross over into freedom, and then came rushing back to stop their oppressors’ chariots and warriors. What God did then, God will do now. And more.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, in the 43rd chapter, reading verses 15 through 21. Listen for God’s Word to us, living with the consequences of a pandemic still lurking among us; witnessing the horrors of yet another war; seeing daily evidence of a growing wealth gap that exacerbates the divisions and hostility and despair among us; wrestling in our own hearts, perhaps, with fear: fear of change and fear that things will never change. [Isaiah 43:15-21]
It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who has done a home remodeling project that it can be way more complicated than a new build. Our church’s capital renovation project has taught me many things, and among them is how challenging it is to reimagine, re-design, and restore a 65 year old building for vibrant ministry today. I brace myself at our weekly construction meetings for the latest “surprise,” be it more asbestos to be abated, corroded copper pipes to be replaced, new and improved fire and safety features to be installed, and oh, yes, laying a new sewer line three feet underground between church and the main in the middle of Sherman Street.
But friends all those headaches, delays, and added costs cannot cancel out the excitement I feel for what lies ahead, on the other side of construction. New Genesis Transitional Housing downstairs has already benefited from the new heating and cooling system providing more comfort, consistency, and savings. Central Visitation on the third floor cannot wait to get back into their space, remodeled to their specification for expanded needs in their pursuit of reuniting and reconciling estranged families. The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra and a host of other musical groups will find a home here, with welcoming reception and restroom space. And a coffee shop in the former Sturgeon Room–a social enterprise business hiring, training, and supervising at-risk young adults?!!! By God’s grace–and the resilient commitment of this congregation–Central is poised for exponential growth in our downtown presence and witness to the transforming love of God we know in the life and teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus.
“No matter where you and I personally locate ourselves on a spiritual journey, we are always in need of turning, of making changes that nourish our core identity.”
We are participating with God in the work of restoration. Restoration. Not creation. Not re-creation. Not something from nothing. We have offered the very best of what our forebears built and repurposed it for responding to God’s call in this time. It is changing our 1957 building considerably, dramatically. But the bones are still there. The dedication it took to step out in faith to envision (and pay for!) an effective tool to accomplish God’s work in downtown Denver was what animated them and it’s what animates us. We are engaged in the change that leads to restoration.
In a similar way, so is the work of restoration in our lives individually. We turn towards God as a light to reveal who we are, as well as to illuminate the barriers that keep the light from showing our true selves. Then we can make the necessary changes to remove those barriers, clear out their destructive consequences, and grow into the persons we were created to be. It’s not easy, and can be an excruciating process. But make no mistake: it’s not about a fundamental change in who you are. It’s about making changes that strengthen your humanity. As I worked on this sermon, I was struck by the way this process sounds not unlike the journey of our transgender siblings as some of them have described it to me. Despite what some critics have claimed, transgender folk are primarily seeking to restore their identity (not change it), to live and move and have their being according to their understanding of who they are. The community of faith should offer our respect, support, and love for those on this journey…
…and even more, to see it as a model for the work of restoration in each of our lives. No matter where you and I personally locate ourselves on a spiritual journey, we are always in need of turning, of making changes that nourish our core identity. The prayer of confession that is part of our worship is not intended as a gloomy reminder of our failure. It’s a call to restore our essential humanity, by noticing places where it has become marred and by assessing our practices. Where have we been distracted by bright shiny idols of class and culture? What lesser gods have claimed our primary loyalty and devotion? How is the image of God reflected in our relationships and lifestyle? Or not?!
Do not remember the former things … for God is about to do a new thing. It’s always the right time to set down the things we carry unnecessarily and hurtfully: resentment, guilt, hatred, despair, and turn to where we can see God’s restorative actions. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Possibilities of a way through difficulties and suffering we never imagined. Friends, our brokenness is not what defines us; God’s gift of our humanity is.
Think of this Table as provision for restoration. Not the judgment seat for recrimination and punishment, but a meal where we are welcomed–as the hymn puts it–”no more a stranger, or a guest, but like a child at home.”