Sermon: Something New

25 March 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
March 25, 2007

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Something New 

Isaiah 43:15-21
Philippians 3:4b-14

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Have you ever tried to get someone to try something new?  I remember the first time my parents brought home a pepperoni pizza, and I thought it was so nasty that I refused to touch it.  Now I wish I didn’t like it so much!  My children turned up their noses at all kinds of new things that they now love – from French toast to crab legs.

My Berkeley youth and young adult groups always enjoyed hiking, but when I first began ministry in Orinda (which is just the next town over) I was shocked at how students in that lovely green valley would rather to go to the mall or stay inside with a video game.  It was unbelievably hard to talk them into even a short walk in the hills that were right outside their door, much less get them up to Grizzly Peak, where you could see gorgeous views from the Golden Gate Bridge to Mount Diablo.  They didn’t even want to go on retreat with the church at Yosemite, because they had never tried camping.  But it’s just human nature, isn’t it?  We just prefer to stay within our comfort zone. 

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that so many people say that they choose a church, and stay with a church, because it’s a place that makes them feel “comfortable.”  Familiar places and familiar people and familiar activities all give us comfort.  Habits and traditions give us a sense of security.  New things make us uneasy.  In so many ways, a church, or any religious community, is a place where traditions are maintained.  That’s why churches like ours are so attractive to brides.  The tall white steeple, the old pipe organ, the beautiful woodwork with bright, clear glass windows – it all goes so well with the long white dress.  Tradition is, in many ways, what the life of faith is all about.

So what in the world is this prophesy saying to us today, here celebrating our 250th anniversary, where Isaiah writes, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing”?  Don’t remember?  Is he kidding? Those words are as shocking to us today as they would have been back then.  After all, each Sunday we read scripture that was written no less than 1900 years ago, and we each month listen to pastors at the altar say, “We REMEMBER that on the night of his betrayal, Jesus took the bread and broke it…”  Remembrance is what we are all about in this place, and it was a huge part of what Jewish worship in Isaiah’s time. 

During the Exile, simple synagogue and home worship had replaced the priestly tradition of pilgrimage and animal sacrifice at the Jerusalem temple, because it had been destroyed by the Babylonians, who had conquered them in 487 BC.  Religious leaders had been busy writing most of the Old Testament during the Exile, and worship by then was all about remembrance.  The Seder meal, especially, which is the origin of our communion, was designed to keep those memories of the Exodus from Egypt alive for a people that were seeing history repeat itself, in the Exile in Babylon.  Once again, the Hebrew people were displaced, and once again, they needed the memory of God’s saving acts in the past to help them hold on to hope that some day they might go home again.

So what is Isaiah driving at when he says, “Do not remember the former things?”  After all, Isaiah begins this passage with a reminder that it is the Lord “who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.”  This is a remembrance of the Exodus.  What in the world could be wrong about remembering the greatest act of deliverance in human history? What could be wrong about us, in our church today, remembering our proud heritage and honoring the saints of the past? 

I think the answer to that question is in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  It’s hard to imagine anyone who valued his religious tradition more than Paul did.  As he reminds us at the beginning of the passage, he had a very proud heritage – as a member of the tribe of Benjamin, his bloodlines were pure; as a Pharisee, his reputation for righteous living was unquestioned.  Before his conversion, he was a prosperous and educated citizen of Rome with what we might consider, even today, an impressive resume.  We make a mistake if we distance ourselves from him, if we allow ourselves to think of Paul as a stranger from a strange land, as an Orthodox Jew from ancient Tarsus.  If we want to understand Paul, think “his people came over on the Mayflower” or “Deacon of the Congregational Church.”  His background and religious devotion made him a person to be admired by those he was trying to reach with his letter to the church at Philippi.

So the upright and decent leaders of that church must have been really shocked when he recounted his impressive resume and then said, “I regard everything as LOSS because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake, I have suffered the loss of ALL things, and I regard them as RUBBISH, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him …”   The King James Version translates “rubbish” as “dung,” because the Greek word is the one used for animal excrement, but also for the dregs of liquor and the kind of rancid meat scraps that were fed to dogs.  “Rubbish” doesn’t really begin to describe the kind of offense Paul would have given to his readers here – you could imagine, perhaps, a word that might translate better today, but it would have to be bleeped out of our TV broadcast.

Paul is resorting to an extreme exaggeration here.  He was not saying that their most venerable religious traditions were filthy, but that by COMPARISON to what God was about to do, this NEW thing, the amazing and glorious past was just so much rubbish.  In other words, the biggest danger of remembering the past is that it stays in the past.  If we’re not careful, the great, historic miracles of Holy Scripture fade into a kind of mystical memory, and no one could imagine anything like them being repeated today.  We might teach our children Sunday morning that God parted the Red Sea and led the people on dry land to freedom, but then we sit down to Sunday dinner with them and state flat-out that we can’t imagine how we will be able to raise enough money to add a new bathroom to our parsonage.  Faith means not just remembering what God did in history, but also looking forward with great hope for the miracles that God will accomplish in the days to come.  That’s the whole point of having a religious culture of remembrance – not to dwell on the past, but to be inspired for the future.

Paul says “this is one thing I do: FORGETTING what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, he was always pressing on to the NEXT goal, the next call of Jesus Christ for him, which you can see if you ever look at those little maps at the back of your Bible – where the journeys of Paul swirl all across the Mediterranean.  He was not one to rest on his laurels.  Thank God that Paul had such an exciting vision of the future that kept driving him onward on a mission of evangelism – otherwise, our church might not be here in Brookfield today. 

I believe the biggest challenge before us, in this 250th anniversary year, is not how we will celebrate the past.  Our church historians are planning some exciting events to help us remember, including the dedication of our beautiful memorial quilt today.  The real challenge is how we will face the future, and move into it with confidence that the God of Abraham and Isaiah and Jesus Christ is ready to help us do a “new thing” today.  “I am about to do a new thing;” Isaiah says.  “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.            

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