Wednesday, March 16, 2011

East End Lenten Series, Week One

For the past decade a cluster of "East End Pittsburgh" congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh have shared a very meaningingful and enjoyable program of dinners and services on the five Tuesday evenings between Ash Wednesday and Holy Week. Last night, March 15, we began the 2011 series at Calvary Episcopal Church, in the East Liberty neighborhood.

The theme of the series this year is "Raised up . . . Made new" (from the phrase in the wonderful collect from the 8th century Gelasian Sacramentary found in several places in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, including the bottom of page 280, in the Good Friday service, "Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new . . .").

Our Guest Preacher was the Rev. Dr. David Gleason, Senior Pastor of the First Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh, which is located on Grant Street downtown. It was a wonderful sermon, and David was kind enough to share the text--and I am glad to publish it here.

On Tuesday, March 22, 2011, we'll be at the Church of the Redeemer, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, with dinner at 6 p.m. and the service at 7 p.m. Our preacher that evening will be the Rev. Dr. Harold T. Lewis, Rector of Calvary Church, Pittsburgh.

Theme: “Raised up … made new”
Calvary Episcopal Church
Pittsburgh, PA

15 March 2011
Text: Isaiah 43:16-21
The Rev.Dr. David Paul Gleason, D.Min.

Some of you, like me, probably grew up in Pittsburgh during the heyday of steel production. Back then, our city was an industrial giant. Its mill workers produced, in enormous quantity, the stuff of automobiles and airplanes and the skeletons of skyscrapers. The city occupied itself with making the makings of modern America. It was a prosperous place.

The average industrial worker felt secure and enjoyed benefits that earlier generations of workers never dared dream of. The city was thriving. It had double the number of residents it has now. Small business districts and family owned shops and stores were viable and profitable. Churches and schools were bursting at the seams. Neighborhoods had active community centers, open public swimming pools, and volunteer service groups. Streets were safe and we all lived a relatively secure existence.

I left Pittsburgh right after graduating from Peabody High School and was away for twenty-five years. By the time I came back, things were different. The American economy was globalized. Steel production and heavy industry were being moved off shore to take advantage of lower cost labor markets or were swallowed up in foreign competition. Much of American industry was gone.

Returning to Pittsburgh 22 years ago was like arriving in a new city, certainly not the one in which I grew up. It was no longer a steel town. High tech companies, medical research, a massive healthcare industry, educational enterprises, and financial institutions had clearly replaced steel production and heavy manufacturing. To be sure, the city was cleaner. It was also smaller. Neighborhood businesses were boarded up. Many parish churches were closed or consolidated with others. There were empty school buildings. And city government was headed into grave financial difficulty. Even my downtown neighborhood was facing hard times.

Twenty-two years ago, there was lots of talk about the need to create a new vision for Pittsburgh’s future. There was an equally great amount of frustration with the fact that no one seemed capable of offering such a vision. The prevailing sentiment among community leaders at the time indicated that if there ever was a vision for the city it belonged to Mayor Richard Caligueri and that when he died, the vision died with him. No one seemed able to provide his visionary leadership. No one emerged as capable of building a coalition of government and the private sector to work at stabilizing and invigorating our city and its economy.

Seeing all this from the perspective of a new pastor in the heart of the city, it struck me that Pittsburgh was caught in the grip of a mid-life crisis. Mid-life crises rear their ugly heads whenever we examine our lives and find ourselves harboring the suspicion that the best is behind us. Such crises afflict us whenever we think ourselves heading into a downhill slide, whenever we begin to wonder if what we have already achieved is all that we can, or whenever we see our health on the wane, moving us slowly but surely to the inevitable end. Mid-life crises strike whenever the future offers little excitement and hope for anything new. Whenever we see our lives as more of the same old stuff day after day, we know that we are in trouble. Mid-life crises also strike whenever we come to believe that nothing can ever be as good as it once was, or that our lives are filled with such miserable failures of the past that we shall never be able to overcome them and move on to something better.

A form of mid-life crises can and does strike even young people. Anytime they begin to believe that the best life has to offer has already been given them, they are in crisis and see little hope for the future. Whenever they see themselves joyously looking back to the carefree days of childhood and looking ahead with dread to the responsibilities that attend maturity, they are in serious crisis.

Perhaps it was something akin to a mid-life crisis that the people of Israel were feeling during their Babylonian exile. They could easily remember how good God had once been. They could recall the stories of their ancestors telling of how God had treated them in glory days gone by. In our text for tonight, the prophet Isaiah reminds them of such glorious times.

He reminds them of how the Lord powerfully delivered them out of bondage in Egypt, of how he made a way for them through the sea, of how he stacked up the waters on either side of them so they could pass through the sea on dry ground, and of how Pharaoh’s chariots, horses, and soldiers were lost when the perilous waters returned to their place. Isaiah reminds of how, in his deep love for his people, God smashed the power of Egypt and gave Israel her freedom. There could be no question of how good God had been to them, of how deeply he loved them, or of how mightily he acted on their behalf.

Now in exile, they see the best behind them and they are losing hope. They have no ability to formulate a vision for their future. So, Isaiah steps to the fore to declare a word of pure Gospel, a powerful word of Good News. He tells them that as good as it once was, as powerful as God’s acts on their behalf once were, they should simply forget them. Forget the past entirely. Forget it because God is now about to do a new thing.

He will release them from their exile and return them to their home. This time, he will cut a straight path across the more than 600 miles that separate Babylon from Jerusalem. This time there will be no wandering about in the wilderness for forty years. This time he will, straight away, carry them home. They will have no concern for food or water as they travel. God will provide whatever they need. He will give them rivers in the desert. Even wild animals will stand in awe of what God does and will offer their own unique sort of praise. God will care for his people. Everything will be made new and better than ever. Isaiah invites his people boldly to take hold of the freedom God still has in store for them.

A people in exile needed to hear such words of Gospel, such words of hope and vision. But we need to hear them, too. And so does our city and its people and our respective churches. Such words of Gospel, of Good News, are what our life in Christ and as his people are about. Our lives are about possibility; about the possibility God opens through his deep and abiding love for us in Christ. He does not want either the glory of the past or its failures to have the last word on our lives

So, while you may fondly remember the great beauty and joy of your wedding day, God can lead you and your spouse into deeper and more intimate lives of commitment and love. You may recall the ecstasy that attended the birth of your first child and yet God can work in the life of that child in ways that will surprise even the proudest of parents. You may remember the satisfaction and pride you felt when you landed your job. Nevertheless God has the capacity to overshadow your satisfaction and pride with the possibility of genuine contentment in your work. You might recollect that you were once baptized into Christ but God will yet open for you the fullness of his baptismal promise and graciously grant you the eternal joy that only his children can know. You and I both may remember with longing the glorious unity in mission and ministry our respective ecclesial communities once enjoyed before extraordinarily sad divisions shattered our denominational lives. As good as it all has been, it is not as good as it gets.

Forget the glories of yesterday, and forget the failures, too. There have been lots of them; certainly enough to discourage us, perhaps even enough to lead us into despair at times. We have tried a great variety of things, even lots of new things, and we have discovered that not all new things are good and neither are all the old things. We have made many starts that never came to a successful finish. It would be easy to comfortably settle into what we know or just give in to it. It would be enticing to just try to maintain the status quo and not risk any future failure. But forget that, too. God is always doing a new thing and demanding that we seize the vision he holds out to us, and to cities in crisis, and to sadly broken denominations. Visions for the future always carry with them certain risks, but risks worth taking because of the possibility that attends them.

Isaiah calls upon the people of Israel to forget the glories and failures of the past and to envision what God still has in store. God calls us to do the same. His Gospel is always a Word of possibility, of new possibilities for the future. We are not destined to live in the past, no matter how glorious it may have seemed. God opens new worlds for us through his love in Christ. We are not destined to forever live with the pain of our failures, either; not even the failures of our sin. God graciously forgives and grants all of us a blessed new beginning. He invites us into an ever deeper relationship with his Christ, in whom the certainty of new life and even eternal life rests. He invites us to draw closer to him in faithful obedience and asks us to open a vision of new possibilities to all of his children.

We people of Christ have a message to communicate, a word to speak, a Word of possibility, of pure Gospel. It is understandable and all right occasionally to reminisce, to look back on the glories of the past. It is neither healthy nor productive to live there, however. God is always inviting his children to move forward, forward into the world of love, peace, and blessed contentment that he opens to them through the suffering and death of his Christ. So, remember God’s mighty acts of old. Remember them with awe and gratitude. Remember them, then, forget. Open yourself to a vision of yet more mighty acts to come. Look ahead in awe and gratitude. The fulfillment of God’s promises for your life in Christ and the life of his Church is yet to come. The best is yet to be. AMEN

No comments: