About a week and a half ago, when we were still without power on this section of the island, we were thankful that the church had a generator for the parsonage. We were prepared as we could have been and though there were bumps in getting everything up and running, we managed quite well - until we ran out of gas and discovered, after refilling one of our gas cans, that the cap on one of our cans had a terrific crack in it, which meant that any time you tipped the can to fill the generator, gasoline splashed everywhere - on the ground, on the generator -- there was no way that I could use the spout on that container to fill the fuel tank. So I tried taking the cap and spout off to pour directly into the fuel tank...and with a full 5 gallon canister of gas, that went about as well as you might imagine - again, splashing gas everywhere.
I was stuck. I didn’t know when the power was going to come back. I figured I had a few hours where we could do without the generator, but at some point I had to get it back up and running again.
By chance, one of our empty water buckets had blown off the porch near where the generator was - and it gave me an idea for how to solve this problem. I could put the gas into a container that was easier to pour and use a funnel to pour that into the tank. I couldn’t use the bucket because there was all sorts of dirt and grime in it, but I could use a mason jar and a small funnel we had in our kitchen to get the gasoline into the generator without contaminating the yard. I probably had to repeat this process 8 times - filling the jar and then funneling it into the tank - to fill up the generator.
And then I went to soup at the hall and came back to discover that the power was back so I really didn’t need to do all that - but now I know for next time, if we haven’t replaced our fuel canister by then.
I share this story as a small example of our core value for today -- innovation, which at its core is about doing something new to meet a need, about creative problem-solving, about figuring out the best way to get from point A to point B with the resources you have on hand. I bet you all have much better stories, because I’ve heard about island ingenuity, and making do with what you’ve got.
There’s that famous phrase - necessity is the mother of invention. It’s an old, old proverb - been around for centuries. We see it in the writings of the Greek Philosopher Plato, and many languages have their own version of this phrase. It’s the idea that inventiveness, creativity, ingenuity are often born out of difficult situations -- that when there is a problem, or a need, or when you are stuck, creative efforts must be applied to make progress forward. Perhaps my experience trying to fuel my generator in the big picture scheme of things isn’t an innovative break-through that is going to change the way everyone fills their gas tanks, but in that moment, for that situation, in that context -- it was a stroke of ingenuity (if I do say so myself).
We also see this principle applied all throughout Scripture. In fact, the whole Bible is about God doing something new in the world - from forming a new kind of relationship with humanity, to forming God’s people into a new kind of community, from learning how to to look back on our lives in a new light, to this new reality of God’s kingdom breaking forth in our very midst. There’s a whole bunch of new things - new stories, new ideas, new visions - in the Bible, some of which at first glance don’t seem very new to us, but for the people and the context and the world in which they lived, they contained radical ideas of what this God was up to in the world.
Our passage for today is one such story, about the Israelites who have been living in exile in Babylon - taken away from their homeland, the one that God had promised them generations ago. They’d been living as a conquered people, in a strange land with strange customs for almost sixty years. It was into this context that Isaiah shared these words with those living in exile:
Scripture - Isaiah 43:14-21
Isaiah 43:14-21 (The Message)
14-15 God, your Redeemer,
The Holy of Israel, says:
“Just for you, I will march on Babylon.
I’ll turn the tables on the Babylonians.
Instead of whooping it up,
they’ll be wailing.
I am God, your Holy One,
Creator of Israel, your King.”
16-21 This is what God says,
the God who builds a road right through the ocean,
who carves a path through pounding waves,
The God who summons horses and chariots and armies--
they lie down and then can’t get up;
they’re snuffed out like so many candles:
“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
rivers in the badlands.
Wild animals will say ‘Thank you!’
—the coyotes and the buzzards--
Because I provided water in the desert,
rivers through the sun-baked earth,
Drinking water for the people I chose,
the people I made especially for myself,
a people custom-made to praise me.
At this point, most of the people who had been taken away from Judah had probably died. The hearers of these words were primarily the children and grandchildren of that first generation of exiles. These people didn’t know what life was like back in Jerusalem - their homes, communities, families were all in Babylon.
So I have to imagine that when Isaiah in this passage talks about God doing something brand new, about God marching in and pulling the rug out from underneath the Babylonians, about God - in essence - taking God’s people on a journey home reminiscent of the Exodus - where the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years - that such news wasn’t met with universal shouts of joy and celebration. I have to imagine that there was a whole mix of emotions, including a great deal of fear and uncertainty accompanied those words as they wondered what in the world was about to happen to them.
The words in Isaiah call back to when God first delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, when God had parted the waters to allow them to cross on dry land. In that story, whenever there was a need - God filled it. When they were in need of food to eat, God sent manna and quail. When they complained of thirst, God had Moses strike a rock and up sprang forth water for them and all the animals to drink. It was God who made a way for them in the desert, it was in that story of the Exodus when the covenant between God and the people was fashioned, when they - in essence - became God’s people.
The hearers of the Isaiah passage would have picked up on that reference - they would have known the Exodus story and understood that just as God saved the Israelites from slavery, formed them into a new kind of community before entering the Promised Land, so too would God deliver them from their captivity, remind them of whose they are, and bring them back to Judah.
So what in the world does that have to do with innovation?
God knew the needs of the people. God’s presence, care, and provision was with them throughout their exile until the time was ripe for them to return home. God payed attention to what they needed and met those needs through new and creative ways - a road in the desert, water from a rock -- and so much more throughout their history. God came to them in ways that no one had ever seen before - and we know, too, of how God came to be with us in the person of Jesus and the story of his birth, death, and resurrection - and this new way of God relating with humankind. God meets us right where we are, in the way that we need to see and experience God.
In that same way, we seek to be aware of the needs of our community and our - and the way that those needs change from generation to generation. If our call is to serve the community, we have to be in tune with what’s going on around us and how we can best meet those needs, how we can best show God’s love to others, how we can best be the hands and feet and body of Christ in and around our community - with the people God has placed in our lives.
There are churches across the United States who are asking and struggling with those same questions - of what it means to be the church in this time and in whichever place they are. Some churches have figured something that works for them - like Simple Church in Grafton, MA - which is a new church started by a United Methodist minister - and is centered around a weekly meal they share on Thursday evenings. There are no bulletins, and there are no pews, but they have a big table or two or three. During each gathering, they sing, they pray, there is a brief reflection on Scripture before people talk about the passage together as they eat dinner. They sell artisan bread to supplement their revenue and volunteer at a local farm for much of their food - and are starting pizza church in the fall for youth. They felt call to meet the need of folks who wanted a faith community but found Sunday mornings difficult to attend, or who found it difficult to encounter God during a traditional worship setting.
Or even right across the bay in Portland, where HopeGateWay over the years has stumbled into a relationship with the African immigrant community - with many folks from Burundi and neighboring countries - who are seeking asylum in the states...and because they have formed relationships with so many individuals and families, it has changed the way they worship on Sunday mornings, with a greeting in English and in French, incorporating music and dance traditional to those cultures, and setting up ministries for folks to practice their second language skills.
There are churches that are experimenting with hosting coworking spaces or coffee shops in their buildings, churches that offer hikes in the woods as their primary worship gathering, churches that have parties in laundromats and serve food from a food truck and host block parties, churches that meet in bars and hand out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to homeless individuals in parks.
But it all stems from being aware of the needs of the people they were called by God to serve, and trusting that God would be with them in this new thing, that all they needed to do was to be faithful and that God would take care of the rest.
It can be scary, though, trusting God in the new things God is about, because the old ways - even if they are harmful - are comfortable and familiar. The Israelites knew this as they left slavery, and I’m sure the Israelites in Exile felt similarly as they got ready to go back to Judah - Ben wrote these words on his blog this week:
That’s the thing about Egypt, we know that it’s worse, but we also know it. Sometimes, it seems easier to turn and head back for the way things used to be, then spend another day wandering the trackless arid wastes, waiting for an as-yet hypothetical Promised Land….
The Promised Land is threatening. We often do not want to grow, because growth exposes us. Our old ways may be bad ways, but at least we are competent in them. We always start as toddling beginners when we learn a new way to be human, we always make mistakes, we will always have our fundamental incompetence exposed when we start over, yet again.
Change - growth - the Promised Land -- can be hard and scary and difficult even as they can be exciting and exhilarating...because through it all God is with us, present as we try new things, as we make mistakes, as we live more fully into being the church God has called us to be as we serve the people around us God has called us to serve. God holds us as we try and fail and try again to meet our neighbors where we are, as we look to be the church for this time and this island.
Now I’m not suggesting we scrap Sunday morning in favor of worship at a different time, or replacing our choir with a liturgical dance troupe, but what I am suggesting is that we have conversations about what needs we as a church can meet on this island that are going unmet. Who are we being called to reach - and what are we doing that isn’t working as we look to serve those around us. This may be challenging in that as the only church on the island, there is a breadth of spiritual needs that can be hard for one community to fill on a Sunday morning - but I believe there is a blessing in that. Take music, for instance. Some prefer the old hymns, some prefer a guitar, some prefer singing a capella, some prefer more contemporary worship music, some enjoy singing songs in different languages and learning new music. Balancing all that out is challenging - but, if we’re trying to meet the needs around us - we incorporate those different styles of music, trusting that if it’s not a song that feeds me….I know it feeds someone else here, and that there will be a song, maybe during the service, maybe next week, that will help me encounter God.
Or perhaps there’s something else for us to step into as a church - some way for us to meet the needs of folks on this island that incarnates - that shares - God’s love in a way best suited for our community. There’s fruit that could come out of the amazing conversation the church convened at the end of August around resources and needs for those struggling with addiction and on the journey of recovery in our island, and how we come alongside those who need a positive community of support. There’s fruit that could come out of the needs of families on this island, for whom Sunday morning in our culture is often a challenging time to come to worship. There’s fruit that could come out of the farm around the corner and fact that so many people on this island know how to can and preserve and make these amazing things from scratch - having a kind of farm to table ministry that intersects with our food pantry and meals in homes and fellowship with one another.
God says “Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?”
Be alert, be present...I’m about to do something brand-new.
That’s our job -- to be present. To be aware. To look at the needs around us and invite God to show us where and how to be the church in the midst of who and what we see. And to be faithful in that process...and to trust God with the rest.
We seek to be in tune with the changing issues of our community and world and strive to serve the needs around us. God is always doing a new thing in our midst. And so, we try to incarnate the Gospel for this time, for this place, and for this people. May this be so with us as we follow God out into the world - God who does something new each and every day. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the Chebeague Island United Methodist Church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two dogs, and soon will expect a new addition to her family. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the chuch community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.