16th Street NW in Washington, DC, north of the White House and to the Maryland State Line, is sometimes referred to as the street of churches. There are Catholic and Orthodox churches; synagogues and a Christian Science Reading Room; just about every variety of Protestant churches you can imagine, as well as gathering places for people of a variety of beliefs. 16th Street is also a meridian from which surveyors in the 1700’s and 1800’s measured the distance between north/south roads. It is an important street for so many reasons. It is an anchor in that city.
One of the churches along 16th Street, just north of Black Lives Matter Plaza, is Foundry United Methodist Church. Established over 200 years ago, it is a church that is in the forefront of issues facing the city and the country. As with many other churches, this Lenten season at Foundry was marked by the use of daily meditations written by members of the congregation. This year, all participants were asked to base their writings on Isaiah 43, which reads in part:
But now, this is what the Lord says –
He who created you, Jacob,
He who formed you, Israel;
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
and because I love you,
I will give people in exchange for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you . . . .
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 wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
This passage was chosen so that the writers could contemplate on what it means to be called to hope after two years of pandemic.
Not surprisingly, there were as many interpretations of Isaiah 43 as there were authors. Among the daily reflections were commentaries on letting the congregation do the hoping for us when we can no longer hope for ourselves; on the power of God’s name; on the belief that awareness is the “new thing” to which we are being called; on the fact that things are better even though we’re not there yet; on the need to look for the new; and the need to let go of the normal.
Others have also used Isaiah 43 as a Lenten text. In “A Way Other Than Our Own – Devotions for Lent”, Walter Brueggemann, a well-known Old Testament scholar, reflects on Isaiah 43 for the fifth Thursday of Lent. Dr. Brueggemann focuses on Isaiah’s insistence that we are to be unafraid. The unafraid, which according to Dr. Brueggemann we become when we are baptized, are open to their neighbors; are generous to the community; act compassionately and in mercy; and are committed to social justice. (“A Way Other Than Our Own”, p. 61). Being unafraid sets us free to confidently do God’s work here and now.
For me, Isaiah 43 is one of the clearest statements of God’s love for each of us. We are precious and honored in God’s sight. We will not drown even in fierce waters. Blazing fire – even the fires of hell – will not harm us. We are not trapped by the past but can revel in the present and look with confidence to the future. We are not to fear anything for God has redeemed us. We are loved. We are saved. We are a part of the “new thing” that God created and continues to create.
But what about the many people who are trapped in fear; who are unable to see that God is willing to make the wasteland green and lush for their benefit; who are convinced that they are of no worth? Most of all, for everyone who believes that they are unloved by others and perhaps most especially unloved by God?
On Palm Sunday this year, our reading of the Passion Story was enhanced by singing verses of the hymn, “My Song Is Love Unknown”, interspersed throughout. As far as I’m concerned, one of the most achingly beautiful and meaningful lines of any hymn occurs in the first verse: “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.” To whom does this speak? It speaks to all who believe their sins are too great, their faith is too small, their very existence has been forgotten. To all who have dysfunctional families and whose children end up in foster care. To all who question who they are. To all suffering loss and grief. To all who are ill. To all whose lives have been upended by Covid. To all who feel sad, overworked, underemployed. To all who have felt, at some time, that they are alone. To the unloved and the unlovely. Essentially to all of us. Yet we are assured that, unlovely as we might be, in God’s eyes we are loved and lovely.
As we move through these next few days of Holy Week, when at times all may seem lost and there is no love only hate, it may be wise to think on the words of Isaiah, as did the members of Foundry United Methodist Church. Just as their church is anchored on a meridian, their faith is anchored in the words of the prophet Isaiah who assures us that we are loved by God, our God who has promised that all will be new.