Sermon 03-17-2013

The Free Way
Lent 5 – March 17, 2013
Isaiah 43: 16-19
Reverend Jan Wiley  

Sermon – Part One – Stumbling Blocks

When we listen or sing a song, we know that one of the ways that a composer signals a dramatic moment is by effecting a key change.  That transition from one key to another is often a marker of a change in tone or exuberance.    

The Old Testament book that we call Isaiah is a long book – 66 chapters in all.  In the first two-thirds we hear Isaiah’s messages of warning to the southern kingdom in Israel called Judah during prosperous days of the kingdom.  Isaiah warns the Jewish people to stay faithful and to follow God.  He outlines all kinds of devastation that may happen if the strong neighboring  Assyrian empire were to invade.  

But at chapter 40, there is a key change.  A radical shift in tone from warning to comfort and hope.  In fact, Chapter 40 starts with the words “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God.”   There are some 200 years that separate what is described in the first part of Isaiah from this latter part.  In fact, biblical scholars often called this section, 2nd Isaiah, and later there is another section some call 3rd Isaiah, believing these later prophecies were given by other prophets but included under the name Isaiah.   But you can definitely feel the key change as it moves from descriptions of desolation to words of comfort and hope. 

For indeed, 200 years later, 2nd Isaiah is now speaking to those who have been in captivity – taken by the Babylonians into exile.   And 2nd Isaiah has a new mission from God – to comfort the people, to assure them of God’s continuing love and to re-establish their relationship with God.  So the prophet’s words are powerful as he asks them to “forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See I am doing a new thing.”   Now it is all well and good for the prophet to call us forget the former things but it is much harder to do it.  The former things – our habits, our comfort zones, our past have a power over us that is hard to let go of.    

It is hard to forget because we carry around our disappointments, our failures, our fears like an invisible necklace that weighs us down.   We sometimes hold on to our anger, our resentment like a second skin which we use to protect ourselves from getting hurt again.   Our grief becomes a shell and sometimes like a turtle we hurry back beneath it because it seems easier.   

In the beginning of the movie The Way, which we have used this season as an inspiration for Lent,  you might remember that as Tom learns of the death of his son Daniel in northern Spain he has to meet with the police captain who explains the details of his son’s death on the first day Daniel walked the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.  Filled with grief, Tom decides to walk the pilgrimage route himself.  As Tom begins his journey, the police captain comes to send him off early in the morning and hands him a rock.  Tom asks if it is a good luck charm. The captain says “something like that.” And then adds, “You will know what to do with it when you get there.  It’s a place of much significance.”   The rock becomes a part of Tom’s journey. 

And so today we have given each of you a rock.  A symbol of our Lenten journey.   I invite you to take your rock and hold it in your hand.  Feel its weight.  Feel the texture and the shape.  These are beach stones that have traveled their own journey  – being broken up and battered and made smooth by the action of waves and sand.  But each stone carries a history.  And you are now part of that stone’s history as you hold it.   Hold it as we watch a short clip today where we see Tom and his three new found traveling companions share in a ritual on the route to Santiago.  This ritual doesn’t come at the beginning of the pilgrimage but after the pilgrims have walked a long ways carrying all their burdens, both in their backpacks and in their souls.   

Please show clip now  (shows them leaving their stone on the large pile centered around a pole (or cross?)

Did you notice that cold as it was, Tom removed his hat.  Deep in his soul, he knew this was a holy moment.  A sacred moment.   And just before he adds his stone, the symbol of his efforts on the pilgrimage, he kisses it.   Can you hear the key change?  Can you hear the voice of 2nd Isaiah who whispers the words of comfort and hope of God:  

Forget the former things;

Do not dwell on the past.

See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I am making a way in the desert

And streams in the wasteland.

As I have preached before, God doesn’t tell us forget the past but invites us not to dwell on it.  But before we can move forward on the path, we need rituals to help us name the burdens that we carry.  In the movie we see the site where pilgrims have left rocks and other items as part of their pilgrimage.  These travelers lay down their burdens, their stumbling blocks, the elements of the past that have weighed them down and that they have come to understand better as they have journeyed.    Even though their journey has not yet come to an end, they use these rocks to symbolize their letting go so that they can be open to whatever insight and new paths await them.   To be open to hear the words of comfort and hope.   

So hold your rock in your hand.   On this last Sunday before Palm Sunday, you are invited to lay down your burdens, to let go of whatever you have discovered on this Lenten journey, what you have discovered even this morning that you need to let go of in order to make room for new life.  Into this rock, press your burdens, press your intentions.   By setting down our burdens, we don’t forget them, but as Isaiah said, we learn not to dwell on them and we create a free space, a free way, for God to lead us once again on our continuing journey.  We are not done yet.  But in this moment, let us set our burdens down.

In a few moments you will be invited to come forward and to place your rock, your burdens on the altar area that we have created around the candle and the light of Christ.  You can come up as you feel led to do so following the singing of the Cares Chorus.  We will not be inviting you as rows but come forward as you are ready.  Yes, you may need to step around someone else in the pew.  But setting down our burdens takes some small effort.  After singing the Cares Chorus, we come forward one by one and place our stones upon the altar and leave our burden with God.  Later in the service we read Philippians 3: 10-14 and then a brief second part of the sermon.   

Sermon – Part Two – Stepping Stones  

Having set our burdens down, we can more clearly hear Isaiah’s words of comfort and hope.  But Hear now another word of scripture from the apostle Paul who reminds us that we continue on our pilgrimage of faith.   Read Philippians 3: 10-14  

So the stones that earlier in the service symbolized our burdens, we have placed before the Lord.   We have created an openness, a free way, where God can continue to work in our life.  We have made room for something new as Isaiah invited us to do.   And now Paul reminds us of our yearning to know Christ even deeper and to allow the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of servanthood to fuel our lives.    Paul knows that he, and we, have not obtained, not understood all the ways of faith.  We have not yet been made perfect.  But Paul says, Push on.  Press on to the goal, now using the rocks as symbols of stepping stones that move us toward the direction that God has for us.    

God wants for you to be people of hope and promise.  God wants us to take off our hats on a regular basis and recognize and live in sacred, holy moments.  But those moments are not all in church.  Some are, I hope.  But holy moments are when you feel the brush of God’s spirit as you kiss a sleeping child, as you buy as a symbol of love the large -scale Legos called “duplos” for your 91 year old father-in-law as a way to keep his hands busy, as we watch the sunset and thank God for the incredible color palette God uses to paint our world.   God loves us.  Christ loves us and gave his life for us and invites us on a continuing pilgrimage of faith.   The stepping stones are before us.  And Paul offers us an incredible call as he writes:

One thing I know:  Forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what is ahead,

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.