Sunday, March 17, 2013

(Lent 5) Same old new thing

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

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On Wednesday afternoon,
I was at home at my desk working on this sermon,
thinking about today’s scripture readings proclaiming
that God is about to do a new thing in the world.
I got a breaking news alert on my phone, saying
at that moment some white smoke was spotted
coming out of a chimney on the Sistine Chapel.

I turned on the news, and watched the scene unfold.
Over a hundred thousand Christians stood in St. Peter’s Square,
believing that God was about to do a new thing in the world.
They were shouting, waving, chanting, crying.
And when the moment finally came,
and the announcement was made: “We have a pope”—
and said who it was,
and that he would be named Pope Francis—
the crowd was overjoyed. Truly overjoyed.
They believed deeply,
that what they were witnessing with their own eyes,
was God doing a new thing in the Catholic church,
and the worldwide Christian church.

I have to admit I was also moved,
as I watched Pope Francis step to the balcony,
and in a gentle, humble voice greet the people.
Before he granted the crowd his first papal blessing,
he asked them to do something for him,
to pray for him, in silence.
I watched him bow his head deeply toward the crowd,
as they prayed for him,
100,000 people in utter silence.
Even the talking heads on NBC kept quiet.
Then he pronounced his blessing on the church
and the world.

As I learned more about him,
I did get a bit of a sense that God might be doing something new.
First non-European pope in over a thousand years.
First ever from the Western hemisphere.
First from the Global South.
First Jesuit.
First Pope who took the name of Francis,
a saint associated with the love of nature,
peace, care for the poor, and a simple lifestyle.

By now, you all have read or heard,
that as an archbishop in Buenos Aires,
he lived in a small apartment in a poor part of the city,
instead of the bishop’s palace.
He refused his chauffeured limousine,
and rode public transportation to work each day,
and reportedly cooked his own meals.
His personal motto, in Latin is: “Miserando atque eligendo”
“Pitiable but chosen”

It was kind of an awe-inspiring break in my sermon preparation.

So I went back to my desk, and to these texts from
Isaiah, and Psalms, and Philippians, and John.
And I began to wonder how to fit that day’s historic event
into God’s story,
the story of a God who makes a way in the sea,
who makes rivers spring up in the desert,
who makes the poor farmers planting their last seed,
come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves,
who calls us his own,
who accepts our extravagant acts of worship.
That was a four-line summary of our four scripture readings,
in case you didn’t notice.

I began to wonder, how do we know God is behind these things
happening in our world—
whether elections in the Vatican,
or decisions made by some local church bodies,
or by those gathered at the MCUSA meetings earlier this week,
or any number of remarkable things that happen in our world,
like peace treaties being signed,
or trade agreements reached,
or the toppling of a dictator,
or the changing of some oppressive law,
or the cleaning up of a polluted stream,
or establishing a public green-way for bikes and pedestrians,
or you name it.

What are those things we can point to and say,
“God is doing a new thing!”
God is responsible for this new river in the desert.
God is tearing down this wall.
God is bringing about his will . . . on earth . . . now.

On what basis can we make such a claim?
We would like to believe it was God, and God alone,
who directed those cardinals to choose
the Archbishop of Argentina to be the new Pope.
In the days when most Mennonite pastors were ordained by lot,
we would like to believe that it was God alone,
who guided the hand that chose the special hymnal,
with the slip of paper inside.
We would like to believe, when we at Park View choose
new commission chairs, council members, and delegates,
as we will in the next couple months,
that it is God guiding that process.
We call it a discernment process.
We are discerning what God wants.
We would like to believe that over the last several decades,
when certain changes happened in the church,
that it was God at work bringing about that change—
it was God doing a new thing.
At least when we were on the side of that change that happened.
And many people pray for God to guide our presidential elections.
When President Obama was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012,
some claimed that God directed those elections,
to bring about his will.
Others may have thought God was asleep on the job,
or they didn’t pray hard enough.

As you see, it’s a little complicated to make such claims,
that it is God doing this, or doing that, in the world, or in the church.
Is it God,
or is it just a human political process
that we happen to feel good about?

I would imagine that God is, at least, mildly interested,
in who is sitting on the seat of the Bishop of Rome,
and leading a worldwide church of over a billion people.
But how can we even perceive,
underneath all those thick layers of history and tradition
and pomp and circumstance
and human-created rituals of election . . .
that God is responsible for having chosen Pope Francis?
How can we ever perceive, that in whatever is happening,
God is doing it?
_____________________

Well, let’s see what clues might come from today’s scriptures.

The prophet Isaiah, in chapter 43,
was speaking for the benefit of the Israelites still in exile.
He said, “Thus says the Lord—
the Lord who does this-and-this-and-this-and-this—”
and he describes what God did, eons ago, in the Exodus.
“The Lord who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior . . . ”
This is the Lord who is now speaking to you.
This Lord, who has this track record, says,
“Forget about the former things,
don’t even think about the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert . . .
I give water in the wilderness . . .
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.”

Isaiah was prophesying about a time when
rivers would run through the desert,
and the wilderness would have roads.
That is, when the people stuck in exile would no longer be stuck.
They would be free from being parched and starved and lost,
which is what eventually happens in any remote desert.
God would provide rivers, clear drinking water, roads, and maps,
and would bring them to a lush, green, settled, and safe place.
Isaiah had confidence that when that happened,
it would be God who had done that.
He knew that, because that is what God does.
From experience, from God’s track record,
from their own Exodus story as a people, Isaiah knew.
That is what God does.
God saves. God delivers. God redeems suffering.
It’s in the very character of God
to take what is broken, and make it whole,
to take what is lost, and bring it home,
to take what is separated, and reconcile it,
to take what is wounded, and heal it.

God is always on mission,
always at work in the world, in order to save and heal and restore,
so God is always doing a new thing.
But it’s the same thing God has always been doing,
from the beginning.
It’s the same . . . old . . . new . . . thing.

So when Isaiah looks around and
sees healing,
sees salvation,
sees reconciliation,
sees redemption,
see rivers and roads in the desert—
whether in the present or the future,
Isaiah is utterly confident of what he’s seeing.
This is God at work.
Doing a new thing, once again.

Now . . . was there some human political process at work
that eventually brought exiles home,
and saw Jerusalem rebuilt,
and brought salvation to their community?
Absolutely. Highly political.
There happened to be an Israelite in a high place
in the Persian empire in the 5th century BC.
Nehemiah worked his way up to be the king’s cupbearer,
a position of close intimacy with the king,
someone the king had to trust absolutely.
That is why Nehemiah managed to be appointed
to the governorship of Judea.
That is why he was able to solicit the king’s full support
for him to go back and oversee Jerusalem’s reconstruction.

So yes, there were human plans, human processes,
maybe even human intrigue at work.
But . . . because the end result of those human interactions
would be restoration, and salvation, and reconciliation,
Isaiah could look and see—with the eyes of a seer, a prophet—
and attribute those coming events to the hand of God.
God will make a way in the wilderness.
God will make a river run in the desert.
God will do it.
Because that is what God does.

Isaiah surely did not know God would use a savvy Hebrew
high in the king’s court.
But had he known . . .
he would have been no less convinced it was God that did it.
It was God who put Nehemiah in that time and place.
_____________________

That’s how the psalmist perceived God, as well.
We read Psalm 126 in our call to worship,
where the poet says in full confidence—
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
What makes him so sure?
Because, as he says a few lines earlier,
The Lord did it before.
We were lost and hopeless in times past,
and God restored us,
“our mouths were filled with laughter,
and our tongues with shouts of joy.”
Even other people saw us and said,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”

It’s completely within God’s character and God’s history,
to bring freedom to the captive,
to bring fruitfulness to the barren.
The psalmist wasn’t forcing God’s hand by saying so.
He wasn’t necessarily even saying,
“I guarantee it’s going to happen again.”
But he was affirming,
when it does happen,
when the sowers of seed come back carrying sheaves of wheat,
it will be God who did that.
_____________________

The apostle Paul is singing the same song,
in our reading from Philippians 3 today.
He first ticks off a list of his merits, his qualifications.
A Hebrew of Hebrews, born in a good tribe, a Pharisee,
zealous, righteous, blameless.
He had credentials by birth,
and by what he accomplished in his deeds.
It would have been very impressive to his audience.
He was someone who had “made it.”
But he said, this is nothing, nothing at all, garbage, in fact,
in comparison to what God has done, in Christ,
for me and for the world.
He’s saying,
I’ll take my standing in Christ, any day,
and walk away from everything I’ve done,
because it isn’t me doing it. It’s God’s doing, in Christ.
I’m running the race, for all its worth,
straining forward to reach the goal, he said.
But I can only do this, because God has a prior claim on me.
V. 12: “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
Paul was simply recognizing
that even our most impressive accomplishments,
when they are aligned with God’s purposes in the world,
can be attributed to be the work of God.
_____________________

And the wonderful Gospel story from John also points out,
that God has an agenda beyond our own,
God is doing something new,
that is sometimes hard for us to perceive.
When that high-priced anointing oil was wasted on Jesus’ feet,
when it could have gone to feed the poor,
or other worthy causes of social justice,
it made no sense to Judas,
and, I might add,
I believe Judas was speaking for all the disciples here.
It wasn’t just because he wanted the money for himself.
For such extravagance to be poured out on Jesus,
at that time and place, made no sense whatsoever,
in terms of the human economy.
But in the economy of God’s kingdom,
the high worship of God
that Mary was expressing with her daring act,
had even greater value,
in contributing directly to this new thing
that God was doing in the world,
The other disciples just hadn’t caught up with it yet.
_____________________

So, about Pope Francis.
Did God choose him?
Is God doing a new thing in the church and the world?
Well, I think it very well could be.
We will have to wait and see.
But I do believe this.
If, as a result of the papacy of Francis I,
the Catholic church, and other Christians everywhere,
including us,
begin to be more concerned about caring for the poor . . .
if there is any greater humility in the church . . .
if there is any reconciliation between parts of the church
that are now alienated from one another . . .
if there is any less abuse of power by those in high places . . .
if there is any advance of the cause of peace in this world,
between nations and between religions . . .
if there is any greater respect and dignity given
to those who are now oppressed, downtrodden, or outcast . . .
then I believe we will be able to say,
“That was God who did that!”
Because that is what God does.

But even saying that, is to say that we have a part to play.
Because God carries out God’s mission with human instruments.
Whether God uses righteous heroes and pillars of the church,
or flawed, but willing followers of Jesus,
or devout persons in other faith traditions,
or even persons who are part scoundrels . . .
if there is healing, if there is reconciliation,
if there is restoration, and redemption,
and salvation happening, anywhere . . .
it is because God is doing a new thing.
We know that,
because we’ve seen it before.
It’s the same old new thing.

Our God is making all things new.
Our task, like Isaiah’s, is to be a seer.
To see what God is up to,
and proclaim it,
and participate in it.

May it be so for Pope Francis.
May it be so for the leaders of MCUSA and Virginia Conference
and Park View Mennonite Church.
May it be so for each one of us,
as we walk toward the future God has in mind for us.

“This is a day of new beginnings.”
Let us sing that together, in our hymnal, #640.

—Phil Kniss, March 17, 2013


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