Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 17 Sermon: What Jesus Does: Makes Us New

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. 24Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

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There was a show on MTV when I was growing up that I think is still on the air called the Real World. Do you know about it? MTV would get a bunch of people to live together with the cameras rolling all the time. With the way tv works nowadays, it doesn’t seem so revolutionary, but for a while at least, MTV, for all its faults, was offering a slice of real life to anybody who would watch. While we were afraid to talk about difficult issues like sexism and homophobia and abortion and addiction, the Real World put those issues right in front of our faces, so we couldn’t miss them. And each episode started the same way.
This is the true story... of seven strangers... picked to live in a house...work together and have their lives taped... to find out what happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real...The Real World: North Decatur.
So North Decatur, let’s get real for a minute. I’ve been your pastor since June 20, which means I’ve been here for something like five months. And whenever you get a new pastor, but especially when you get somebody a little, well, different—and I think that’s a fair characterization of who I am—folks can start to get a little nervous, a little uncomfortable. I mean, who is this guy? In our system, in the United Methodist system, you don’t even get to hire me, you’re told who you are going to get, and that can add to the tension, because I’m figuring out who you are, and you’re figuring out who I am. It’s a little like an arranged marriage, don’t you think? That is to say that there’s love there—but it is love that was chosen for us, rather than love we chose ourselves.
And as somebody who is thankful he got to have a say in just who it is I ended up marrying, let me tell you that I know it can be hard when there’s a change in pastor. The apple cart gets upset a bit. Some toes can get stepped on as we once again get used to figuring out how to walk together. I hope you are as happy as I am in all of this, but I don’t care who you are, in this kind of arrangement, things can be a little dicey sometimes. I dare say it has the potential to be more dramatic than seven strangers, picked to live in a house.
I just want you to know that this kind of peril is nothing new, and it’s not unique to the church. Change. Is. Hard. No matter the circumstance, change is hard.
You know, the writer Anne Lamott is quoted as saying “There are three things I cannot change. The past, the truth, and you.”
That quote reminds me of the old story. A little girl noticed that every time her mother cooked a roast she chopped a piece off the end of the roast before putting it in the oven.  Intrigued, she asked her mother why she did this.
“Well to be honest, I do it because that’s the way my mother always does it” came the reply. “I’m sure she must have some good reason for it.”
At the next family gathering, the child decided to satisfy her curiosity. “Grandma, why do you always chop the end off the roast before cooking it?”
“Well to be honest, I do it because that’s the way my mother always does it” came the reply. “I’m sure she must have some good reason for it.”
A week or so later the little girl was visiting her 90 year old great grandmother. She explained that mummy and grandma always chop the end off the roast before cooking it, but couldn’t remember why. Did she know?
“Ha!” said Great-grandma. “Imagine the two of them doing that! Why, I only cut the piece off because my pan was too small!”
Change is hard, whatever the reason, even when it is necessary, even when the things we are changing are things we do just because we’ve always done them. But this is not a sermon about how hard it is to change.
Let me back up and say that, you may be surprised that in a sermon series about Jesus, we’re retreating back to the Old Testament. After all, Isaiah himself says, “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind,” and when we’re talking about Jesus, I mean, I just don’t know of anything more “former” than the Old Testament. Jesus says throughout the Bible that he came to fulfill the law, that he came doing a new thing, so it may seem a little unusual to hear a sermon from Isaiah when we are talking about Jesus this month.
There’s a temptation in life, I think, and especially in the life of faith, to discard the old and focus only on the new, because, for one thing, there is so much pain in the old. If I start asking you to think too long about what it was like to grow up, or about some of your most vivid memories of your past, it won’t be too long before you feel the lump in your throat that comes from remembering deep pain, or from being reminded that a loved one is gone, or some such unpleasantness. So we hold on to the newest fad, hitch our wagon to the first horse that comes our way that looks capable of taking us from our problems into some perfect future. Forget the old, we say. Let’s look forward.
But this is not a sermon about embracing the new at the expense of the old, for when the prophet Isaiah says that the former things will not come to mind, he doesn’t throw out all the old—he just moves past the pain, the heartache that has come before, the frustration that in spite of hard work, in spite of generous hearts and good intentions, things still didn’t seem to work. That’s not what God discards; that’s what God redeems! Newness doesn’t mean the decimation of the old, but the celebration of it! I mean, Isaiah’s whole premise is that when God does something new, you’ll hear the surprised giggle of a hundred-year-old person more often than not, because God’s newness doesn’t supplant the old, but it redeems the old. The stories we tell in church, after all, are old, old stories. The story we tell at Easter every year is not a new one. We tell it in new ways, and perhaps it means new things for us, but it is not a new story. So, no, this is not a sermon about “out with the old and in with the new.” There’s nothing Christian about that.
This is not a sermon about any of these things. I will tell you what it IS about. What it is, like any good sermon, is a sermon about God, for while it is true that I can’t change the past, the truth, or you, the good news is that God doesn’t expect me to. That’s God’s job, which is a good thing, because it is one of God’s primary attributes that when you stand in the presence of God, you are made new. This is what God does all the time. I hope you haven’t been misinformed about what we are doing here, because Christianity is not about all of us coming together and deciding to be nice to each other and giving a little money here and there. It is not, as the pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber sometimes calls us mainline religious folks, an Elk’s Club with the Eucharist, a Neighborhood Association with Communion thrown in. Following Jesus is not about any of these things. Following Jesus is about being made new, about standing in the shadow of the God so powerful even death couldn’t keep him down, and recognizing that to be a disciple of Jesus is to be willing to accept the transformation that comes from the grace of God. There’s nothing you can do to earn it, and you certainly can’t do it on your own. You just have to receive it, which seems awfully easy, and would be, were it not for the little problem of my own pride. And yet receiving is all we have to do.
God is making all things new, but God isn’t encouraging us to get stuck with a passing fad. Making things new is actually the opposite of grabbing hold of a fad, if you ask me, because the process of making things new is different from the process of making new things. Do you understand the difference? I, for one, am thankful for this subtle distinction, for it means that God is not done with me yet. God isn’t going to slough me off, cast me aside for a newer, better model. God is making me new, taking what already is and finding ways to use what already is in the service of God. I have a role to play. I can’t pretend that somebody else will come along and be better. God is making ME new, so I’d better jump on board and get right with God, because there are incredible things coming.
And it is wonderful, but it can be hard to see sometimes. Even with this promise of a new heaven and new earth, even as we sit in the shadow of the empty cross, it can seem hard. But this is not a cheap sermon, and we do not worship a cheap God. So take heart. Put down some roots. Don’t despair when the seeds don’t sprout right away. They’re putting down a network of roots, deep and wide and strong enough to support years of growth. And if you keep tilling the soil of your faith, of our faith together, one day, you’ll walk into the field and notice a sprout, and then another, and it won’t be long before you’re standing in a field that just last season seemed cracked and barren and beyond redemption, confronted with acres and acres of green.

You’re not done when the seeds sprout, of course. Somebody’s got to tend to the plants. But you don’t have to do it alone is all I’m saying. And the God who makes all things new thinks, with a little help, you’re up for it, and isn’t that something. Isn’t that something?

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