Sunday, March 21, 2010

(Lent 5) Make way for the way-maker!

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

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There are two reasons
why the message in the scripture readings this morning
is a hard message to swallow.
1. We’re Americans.
2. We’re Mennonites.
Well, not all of us,
but the majority of us here today fit both those categories.
And that’s a bad combination
if we’re looking to be inspired by today’s scripture.

So let me tell you what it is about being American and being Mennonite
that make these texts difficult.
And then we’ll look at the texts themselves.

Americans have a reputation for being inventive, clever,
finding a way around any problem.
We call it “American ingenuity,” and we’re proud of it.
Our values are shaped by sayings such as,
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
“Sweat plus sacrifice equals success.”
Americans admire, without exception,
persons who make their way in the world by themselves,
against great odds.
We say they “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
We admire people with an independent spirit.
That’s what made our country what it is today.
American frontiers-people could never have pushed westward
without it.
California and Oregon might not exist today
except for these strong, ingenius, risk-takers.
People who could make things happen.
We look up to the movers and shakers among us.
This is an American value for which I’m grateful.
I am indebted, and you are indebted, in many different ways
to the ingenuity and creativity and “can-do spirit”
of millions of Americans, past and present.

Okay, so what is it about being Mennonite?
Well, Mennonites are also great do-ers.
We believe firmly in “faith in action.”
We go to great lengths,
and make significant personal sacrifice,
to put our faith into action and service,
put our faith into “shoe-leather,” so to speak.
We have a cultural heritage of being hard workers,
with an amazing work ethic.
We have a faith heritage
of choosing to go into hard and dangerous places to serve.
“To know Christ truly, we must follow him in life.”
So goes an old Anabaptist saying.
We believe that all disciples of Jesus are called
to take up our cross,
to make the sacrifice,
to do whatever it takes,
to demonstrate our faith to the world.
We Mennonites are steeped in a faith tradition
that majors in ethics,
in doing what is right.
It’s a tradition I am incredibly grateful for.
I can say in all honesty and integrity,
that I’m proud of this faith tradition.

But it does create a bit of tension for us,
if we’re looking to be inspired by today’s scripture readings.

Because in today’s texts, we are not the ones who make a way.
We are not the ones who make things happen.
We are not the ones who,
through some American ingenuity,
or some Mennonite work ethic,
earn anything in terms of God’s favor, or God’s blessing.

Let’s take a look at them, briefly, one by one.
If you have your Bibles, you might want to page along.
I don’t often refer to all four lectionary readings in my sermon,
but this time I was struck by this strong thread
that seemed to run through all these texts.

First, Isaiah chapter 43.
The prophet tells his people that God, Yahweh,
is “the one who makes a way.” [v. 16]
Referring to the Exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt,
the prophet reminds the people that they did not escape,
God delivered them.
It was not by the strength of horses or chariots,
armies or warriors. [v. 17]
All of those, when confronted by Yahweh the way-maker,
simply lie down in defeat.

And the people Isaiah is speaking to now,
are once again between a rock and a hard place,
in exile in Babylon.
And the Lord says, through the prophet. [v. 18]
You thought the Exodus was great? Forget it!
Forget the old days!
Wait till you see the deliverance I’m working on now.
I am about to do a new thing.
I, the Lord your God, am about to make a way . . . again.
A way in the wilderness.
A river in the desert.
It will be so great,
the wild animals will praise me,
even nasty, sheep-stealing jackals will honor me for it.
I will do it.
So that you, the people I created for my pleasure,
will praise me.
It’s not going to be about you. Sorry.

And then we heard Psalm 126.
This is all about letting go of our need to make the way,
to manage the outcome.
It’s about remembering that God is the great way-maker,
the great restorer.
This is a psalm for people in the desert,
who are all out of water.
And there is nothing they can do to change that.
If there is going to be any restoring,
any refreshment or renewal,
it’s going to be God doing it.

The other day someone told me about hearing this text
explained by a pastor from a famine-stricken part of Africa.
The experience of drought and famine and starvation in Africa
brought to light a deeper meaning in this text I had never seen.
Where it says,
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves . . .
it never occurred to me what this might be referring to.
The African pastor said he knew.
In a time of severe drought,
it becomes a test of faith,
whether you take your last bag of beans,
and cook and eat them,
or plant them.
Those who were carrying seed to sow,
were weeping because they were taking the last remainder,
and choosing not to eat them and satisfy present hunger,
but to plant them,
trusting that rain would come.
Those with such a radical willingness to let go . . .
to release control over the outcome,
will come back rejoicing, carrying sheaves,
the psalmist said.

Then we had Paul’s letter to the Philippians,
chapter 3, starting with verse 4.
This one hits close home to Mennonites,
or anyone else who values their history and genealogy,
and family and faith traditions.
Paul reads down a list of all the gifts of his heritage—
all the strengths that come from being part of a people
with a strong communal identity,
strong religious tradition,
and a rigorous system of ethics.
These are like Paul’s family jewels,
the treasures of his tradition.
They are to be celebrated and valued.
But Paul says . . . “Rubbish!” Rubbish!
Compared to the surpassing value
of what God has done for me, through Christ,
purely by grace . . .
what I have accomplished as a righteous man of faith
is like . . . nothing.
In fact, he says, what I intend to strive after from here on out,
is to be like Christ,
in laying down his privilege and power,
to be like Christ even in his sufferings and death,
so I might be like him in his resurrection.
It’s a life-changing revelation to Paul, the righteous one,
the Pharisee,
the do-er of good,
the follow-er of the law.
Paul realizes he is not the one who makes the way.
God, in Christ, is the way-maker.

And finally, we have this amazing Gospel story, John 12:1-8.
I could go any number of directions with this story.
It’s rich with possibilities.
But I’ll pick up on this thread running through these readings.
Jesus’ disciples were always trying to be the way-makers,
and as a result, often getting in Jesus’ way.
Judas gets the black mark in this version of the story,
but it’s clear from the other gospels,
Judas was only saying what the others were thinking.

Pouring out this costly ointment
was plain and simple . . . a ridiculous waste.
Their resources were few.
They had a lot of work ahead of them,
if they were going to be successful at helping Jesus
pull off this victory over the Roman oppressors.
Even selling it and giving money to the poor
made a lot more sense.
At least doing that
would solidify their support among the masses.
How was pouring all this money on the feet of Jesus
accomplishing anything helpful at all?

But God the way-maker,
operates in a different kind of economy.
There was something in this act of worship
and over-the-top gratitude,
that had great value in God’s economy.
It’s not that the poor don’t have important needs.
They do. God knows.
Meeting human need is part of God’s agenda, and ours.
And it always will be.
But God the way-maker was looking at the larger picture here.
The disciples needed simply to let go of their desire
to manage the process and control the outcome.
They needed to step aside,
and make way for the way-maker!

So this is what I found running through the scriptures today.
Two realities living in tension with each other.
On the one hand,
our common human temptation to seize on our agenda,
and do whatever it takes to make it happen—
hard work, ingenuity, determination . . .
even craftiness or deceit, if necessary.
On the other hand,
our calling as God’s people,
to yield ourselves, utterly and completely,
to the God who makes a way in the wilderness,
the God who causes rivers to spring forth in the desert,
the God who transforms the last of the dry seed
into an overflowing crop of grain,
the God whose economy operates on different principles,
the God who can turn crucifixion into resurrection.

In these texts, and I dare say, in our lives today,
we are caught in the middle of this tension.
Between making a way for ourselves,
and yielding to God the way-maker.

I can imagine,
if you stop to reflect on this for a bit,
you can identify where this tension is showing up
in your life right now.
And it is a tension.
It’s not all one or the other.
We are not called to give up everything,
and stop trying.
We are not called to laziness.
Faithfulness requires discipline.
It requires rigorous effort and hard work and accountability.

So what this means for us
is that we have to do some discernment.
We must pray.
We must reflect and consider and consult with each other.
We must discern whether our time and efforts and energy
are working in collaboration with the Holy Spirit,
whether they are in synch with
the way that God is making in the wilderness,
the springs that God is pushing out of the desert sands,
the new life that God is creating from what has died.
Our whether it’s just our agenda that we’ve latched onto.

I think one of the clues that often shows up,
is how much anxiety we’re taking on.
If it’s a way that God is making,
and we’re just collaborating,
we’re probably much more at peace,
there is a lot more joy in our efforts.
But if we are the ones trying to make a way,
if we are taking on too much of God’s work,
and trying to make things happen on our schedule,
then I think it’s pretty predictable
that we’re carrying around a lot of anxiety.
It’s a real joy-stealer,
taking responsibility for God’s work.

I’ll tell you, being perfectly candid,
this is where it hits home for me.
We pastors can be some of the worst offenders,
when it comes to feeling responsible for God’s work.
After all, we’re constantly being told that our work is God’s work.
So much so,
that it’s easy to start feeling lots of anxiety over
whether the church is growing in numbers,
or meeting its budget,
or even . . . staying together.
As if . . . the future of the church is in our hands.
We have to keep reminding ourselves
that the church is not our project.
God called it into being.
Jesus Christ is its head.
And it is God’s mission (God’s way)
that gives the church its only reason to exist.
Sometimes, as leaders,
our job is to keep from getting in the way of God.
To encourage all of us in the church,
to release our petty agenda,
to step aside,
and make way for the way-maker.

There’s a lot of brokenness in the world,
and it’s a constant temptation for those of us who see it,
to think we are responsible for fixing it all.
Restoration is God’s agenda.
Salvation . . . of human souls and human systems . . .
is God’s work, in Christ.
God is making a way.
Our responsibility is to be attentive to what God is doing around us,
and to collaborate . . . to work in synch with . . .
and just to make way, for the one who makes a way.

Maybe there is a particular area of brokenness
you are wrapped up in right now . . .
wrapped up tight . . .
and you are full of anxiety about it.
Maybe its brokenness in your life,
in your family,
in the world,
or brokenness in the church,

We need each other in the church to help
discern what to hold on to, and what to let go of . . .
discern when I’m trying to make my own way,
and when I’m making way for the way-maker.

We invite you once again to a time of reflection and confession.
In the blue folders in the hymnal racks, are tiny pieces of paper.
Today let them represent the area of brokenness
with which you are striving, or full of anxiety about,
or trying to make your own way through.
You can write a word or phrase or sentence on them,
or they can stay blank and be a symbol of this brokenness.
You are invited to bring them to the healing waters of God,
symbolized by this bowl of water, near the foot of the cross.
And let go of them, let them float away on the water.
And in so doing, make way for the one
who makes a way in the wilderness,
who brings forth springs in the desert sand,
who produces abundant sheaves in times of drought,
who creates new life where there was death,
new beginnings, when we reach the end of the road.

As you come, we will sing again “God, fill me now.” [STS 63]
With each refrain we say,
“Here before you now; see, my hands are empty.
God, fill me now with you.”
At the conclusion of the confession,
we will joyfully break out into a song of assurance, [HWB 640]
This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on,
time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone.
And the song ends with the words, “Our God” . . . not us, but . . .
“Our God is making all things new!”

—Phil Kniss, March 21, 2010

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