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Thursday, March 25, 2010

A New Thing

Lent 5, Yr. C
Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

In 1987, when I was fresh out of seminary, my father gave me my first computer, an all-in-one Compaq with a little screen, eerie green type, and the capacity to do basic word processing and data storage and to run a few games. I think he particularly wanted me to have it because he was confident it would make sermon-writing vastly easier. While I appreciated the gift and had fun with the games, I was unconvinced about the benefits for preaching. I had a method that worked very well, thank you, and involved nothing more than a yellow legal pad, a pen, and skill in deciphering lots of arrows and scratch-outs. My big leap of faith had been switching from my college-era manual typewriter to an electric one for producing the actual manuscript, though I still kept the manual around—and do to this day—just in case the power went out. I trusted the computer, but my whole mental process of writing was linked to my paper and pen method, and I couldn’t imagine any different approach; I’d always done it that way.

The shift didn’t happen overnight. I began by using the computer instead of the typewriter to print out my final draft. Then I realized that when typing the text, if I came up with a better word or phrase, I could try it out on the spot, and change it back if the new version didn’t work the way I wanted. That led to more and more editing…until gradually I realized that I might as well write the whole thing on the computer. Eventually not just the mechanics of my method but my entire way of relating to the process changed, as I embraced the freedom of being able to add and delete and move sections around, compare versions, quickly write a dozen half-formed thoughts and then more carefully turn a few of them into complete ones. After about a year, I accepted that while the old method was fine, my dad could see what I hadn’t, that it was time for a new way.

Today’s readings all speak to us of new things: new hope, new faith, new thinking, new ways…new life. We tend to resist change even when we know we need it; we’re even more reluctant if we believe the status quo is fine. We so easily lull ourselves into believing that “we’ve always done it that way” means we always should do it that way. Change requires courage, openness, and trust, so that we can allow ourselves to imagine that the future might hold even greater things than the past.

The children of Israel always have given a central place to remembering the past that formed them: God leading them out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. That journey made them, transformed them, became the story that shaped them. Centuries later, conquered and forced into exile in Babylon, they were in danger of forgetting who they were as God’s beloved. The words we heard today in the reading from Isaiah came to those people, cut off from their home, lost and rootless. The passage begins with a reminder of God’s great act in the Exodus, even starting in an active, present tense—“who makes a way in the sea”—as a statement that the same mighty Lord still is at work. And then, as soon as everyone remembers, begins to feel a stirring of that familiar identity, the security of the way it’s always been, God says, “Forget all that! I’m doing something new!”

You can almost hear the people saying, “What? But the old way was working fine! Well, maybe not perfectly fine, but okay. So maybe we could just tweak things a bit...” But God’s proclamation is clear: “The past was great, but you need to let it go; today is a new day.” This was not like solitaire, in which God would deal out the same cards in a new order; this would be a whole new game. This went beyond the mechanics to the very heart of their relationship with the Lord.

Paul, Mary, and Judas, in today’s epistle and gospel readings, all express aspects of this same challenge to let go of their old life and thinking and embrace God’s new ways. Paul’s new thing went as deeply as his name; he who once had been Saul, righteous believer and persecutor of the Christians, became a new man in Jesus Christ, forgetting what lay behind and straining forward to what was to come. Judas wanted so desperately to hold onto what he knew, what was familiar, what he thought could give him security. Mary put all her heart into this new relationship, lavishing perfume worth a year’s salary on this man who was changing everything, turning all they’d ever thought they knew inside out and upside down. Even in the background of the story are those who are being made new: Lazarus, brought forth from the dead—you can’t get a much more dramatically new thing than that!—and Martha, whom Jesus scolded for properly serving him rather than impudently sitting and listening to him like her sister.

I’m not suggesting that we need to toss out every bit of our individual and communal life and start from scratch…although maybe I should, since that’s what the people fleeing Egypt and the disciples following Jesus did. My tale of the computer accurately reflects that I’m generally cautious by nature and hew to what has worked well in the past; you’ll rarely find me in the “early adopter” category.

On the other hand, I know that we need to be on guard lest we slide into complacency, or into rootlessness, or into forgetting who we are. We have to remind each other to be alert for God’s voice, and then pay attention when someone has a word to speak to us. Among ourselves, we must encourage those who listen quietly in prayer, those who share their dreams and visions, those who want to jump in and try something different, those who—out of their experience and wisdom—remind us who and whose we are, for it’s only as all those gifts and more are expressed that we’ll discern a call to a future that’s even greater than our past. And then, when God does call us—in our personal lives, in our church, in our world—we need to listen up!

For the Israelites in exile, for Paul, for Mary and Judas and Martha and Lazarus, there was no going back, only forward…and only God could lead them. God was doing a new thing, and whether it terrified or delighted them, there was no denying what was happening. What about us? Will we come home from lost and lonely places like the Israelites, or proclaim a vision of hope like Isaiah? Will we share in Mary’s extravagant love? Will we be transformed like Paul, not just in the mechanics of how we act, but in our very way of being? Will we let go of the old, familiar ways and give ourselves to God’s new thing, full of possibilities and new life inspired by God? Will we follow Jesus to the cross and beyond, to a new dimension of love greater than any we could’ve possibly imagined?

“I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord. Do you perceive it?

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