The big ecclesiastical news this week, of course, was the election of a new pope– Habemus papam! And this pope from a new part of the world chose a new name for himself, new at least for popes–Francis, recalling the saint who lived in solidarity with the poor and the creatures of the earth. That is a hopeful sign, I think, and from what I’ve been able to tell from reports about the new pope’s words and actions this week, as well as from reports of his tenure as Archbishop in Buenos Aires, I am hopeful that he will be able to reach across the growing chasm between rich and poor and to bring the Vatican into a place of more integrity, at least in regards to its finances. I do not expect married priests or same-gender marriages or women priests in the Roman Catholic Church anytime soon, but I wish our brother Francis well. He will need all the wisdom, strength, and compassion from God he can get.
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” God says through the prophet Isaiah. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Isaiah was prophet in the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon some 2500 years ago, but these words ring down through the centuries to us today in the church–the United Church of Christ as well as the Roman Catholic Church. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says of these verses that they are “that most remarkable of all texts, that we should not speak until we decide if we trust it.” (Cited by Kate Huey in Weekly Seeds, 3/17/13) For such a prolific scholar to single this text out as “most remarkable of all texts” should give us pause. “We should not speak [it] until we decide if we trust it.” Do we?
Isaiah has indeed remembered the former things–God’s bringing the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and through the waters of the Red Sea, leaving horse and chariot, army and warrior to drown. God formed this ragtag bunch of former slaves into a people, marked by God’s love. God led them safely through the deep waters across the Jordan River, into the Promised Land. And now here in the exile, where their souls have been wounded, cut off from home and culture, they have almost forgotten who they are. [This, by the way, is why most of what we know of Hebrew scriptures–the Torah, the law–was pulled together and written down during the exile–so that all the generations wouldn’t forget who they were, and Whose they were.] Here in Babylon, it was all too easy to buy into the values of the culture around them, to worship the gods whose images and temples were all around them, whose customs reinforced another way of living.
But here is God, not only promising to make a way through the desert back home, but to “do a new thing.” Don’t even remember the former days, of glory or of judgment, God says. Even now the new “thing” is springing forth– do you not perceive it?–new things like making rivers in the desert, infusing all creation so that the jackals and ostriches pay God homage.
“Let go of the past and its pain,” God says to Israel. How about that for a Lenten discipline? “Let go of the past and its pain.” (Margaret Aymer, cited in Huey, op cit.) Might you do that in your family? Might we do that as a nation? Move on from the pain and humiliation and anger from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and even entertain the possibility of looking at the world through a different lens? “Do not remember the former things,” says God. “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” What former things in your life might you let go of, and what new thing might god be doing in your life?
And what about in church? For some of us, the “former things” were packed sanctuaries almost every Sunday (and absolutely on Christmas and Easter), overflowing Sunday Schools, people vying for positions on the Church Council. But we are getting farther and farther away from those times. We look around and see fewer families with young children and more and more, admittedly remarkable, gray-heads. What’s happening to our committees and boards? Who’s going to chair the Snowball Bazaar? John C. Holbert suggests, “We are like those who define madness; we do the same things again and again and expect different results.” (Patheos, 2/10/13)
….Which is why, of course, we are in the process of “re-thinking church.” How can we let go of the past, while still honoring it, and truly be open to the new thing God is doing? For it is God who will do it. It’s tempting to think that it’s simply a matter of our coming up with the right set of by-laws, of creating a structure that will revitalize us, but Brueggemann reminds us that this newness is not something we can generate ourselves. We can only receive it. (Ibid.) God is doing this new thing. In some sense, we just need to get out of God’s–and our own–way.
So there is no need for fear. God has been with us when we’ve passed through deep waters before, when we’ve wandered in the wilderness, even when we’ve tried to turn our backs on God, God has not abandoned us. Bruce Epperly [Adventurous Lectionary, 3/17/13] reminds us that there’s a reason the rearview mirror in our cars is smaller than the front windshield. We need to be facing forward, not backward. We need to be opening ourselves up to God’s guidance, taking the time to listen, to discern, to trust, to welcome God’s “new thing” that even now is springing forth.
Dare we speak this text–”Behold, I am doing a new thing.” Have we decided that we trust it? Or, as someone has asked, “Have we practiced a meager economy of expectations?” (Huey, op cit.) What about great expectations?! Again, Brueggemann tells us–”Biblical faith is geared to the future. It moves always to God’s coming miracle that pushes past old treasured miracles and old suffered judgments.” God is with us, not only in the glory days of the past, but also in our present, and in an utterly new future. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark