God is doing a new thing! That is what we want to talk about today. It is the theme of the passages for this fifth Sunday of Lent. There is a Jesus story which plays in the background is this theme: Six days before the Passover, Jesus is invited to a dinner in his honor at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The resurrected one, Lazarus, is specifically mentioned as a guest at the table. But the dinner doesn’t turn out to be a very happy one. In one week, Jesus will be crucified. His friends don’t expect it, they avoid talking about it. Yet they know that this is a crux time, a turning point. They are all tense. The Pharisees have started to plot to kill Lazarus because his new life is attracting too much attention. During dinner, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil. Judas, the bookkeeper, explodes with indignation about the “waste.” And Jesus turns this loving act to a discussion of his death. This is what no one wanted! All of this was not going as planned. Anger, sorrow, fear – they were palpable guests at this dinner.
We are not going to unpack that story today. But we need to name the anger, sorrow and fear which are uninvited guests at some of our gatherings. They are the guests no one wants. But the only way around them is through them. Jesus knew it. Isaiah knew it. And so did Paul.
Most of the time when I read these Isaiah passages, I am excited. I love the image of the new thing, the new creation God is making. This section is the most popular resource for the New Testament writers, too. They saw such strong parallel between the release Isaiah was announcing and the freedom Jesus brought. So why do we talk about these hopes for new dreams? Why do we talk about the dashed dinner party just two weeks before Easter?
Jesus knew that the way forward was through anger, sorrow, fear – and death. Yes, a somber note, for sure. And I have hesitated to sound it. But there we have it. A lot has to end, many things have to die, in order to reach the other side.
This is not new news to God the innovator. It isn’t new news to any people who do the work of innovation. The ones who resist are those who just want the next better thing without the pain of ending the old thing. Us. The consumers.
Innovation is one of the hottest terms in the business world today. Everyone wants to innovate. The makers and open source people argue with the proprietary, make-a-buck business structure, true. But both want to be innovators, to be acknowledged as innovators.
But what does it mean? What I found is that the term has been pretty much co-opted by the business world. The online Business Dictionary has this: Innovation is the process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay. To be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need. [http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/innovation.html] As consumers, we have become trained to look for and want what’s new, best, fastest, more convenient, or more fashionable, and to tire of products quickly. Soon our spaces are stuffed with replaced things, without letting go of the old version. That’s why Goodwill does such good business. And Marie Kondo is teaching us how to get rid of stuff that no longer makes our hearts sing.
So today Jesus’ life story both tickles our yearning for the new and better, while at the same time facing us with a fact: Innovation comes through endings, and even death.
Isaiah tells the people: do not remember the former things. Put them completely out of your minds. This sounds so wonderful. Our minds take us quickly to all the painful memories, all the hard work, all the disasters and oppression and we want to open our arms to this new thing.
Do not remember former things, though, means to forget the good and the bad. Is Isaiah saying, “forget all the stuff that you did in your past that got you into captivity – idolatry, greed, pride, etc.” or “forget all the mighty acts of God from the past that were pretty awesome like the Exodus from Egypt because what’s coming up is even better?”
Both, I think. Forget your old ways that take you away from God. And forget what you think would be the perfect solution, just like the one in the past. It isn’t going to be like that. Yes, stop ignoring God. And yes, God is going to do what you don’t expect. And even though it may not look like it, it is good. Have hope.
This week I have been spending time with June Roisom and her family. To set the context, one of the first things I try to do on Monday is to read the Scripture passages from the lectionary for the coming Sunday. Last Monday I read: God is about to do a new thing!” With this on my mind, I heard from Donna that June was in her last days or hours. With this verse in my head, I went to see June. And so my thoughts took me a whole new direction.
June. I met her eighteen years ago when I came to Mt. Tabor. She and Bill (and it is almost impossible to think about them not together!) were pillars of this church. Bill was part of the “Church Home Committee,” and took care of the flowers, especially the roses. He and June brought flowers into the church every Sunday morning – the lobby, the Parlor, even the bathrooms, were remembered with flowers. June was part of the Women’s Association. She was a spokesperson for the very successful building campaign which saved this building from being abandoned. Bill and June came to the Wednesday night dinner and Bible Study, where June’s lemon meringue pie was the first thing to go, no matter that it was dessert! Both Bill and June served on the session and were key parts of the leadership of this church.
Now June is 95 years old. She survived a devastating stroke 16 years ago and has not been to church services much since then, though her life has been colorful and eventful apart from us. Why do I say this? Most of you don’t know June Roisom. And she is such an important part of the foundation of who we are as a church. And now, after sixteen years away, we don’t know her.
When I am 95, a generation from now, no one here at that time will remember me. That is a fairly safe assumption. If the building stays on its current trajectory, there may be a picture of me on a wall or in an Annual Report, or something. My name will be in the book of pastors. But no one will have known me. It is humbling. But it is also a whole new way of opening up the future. None of the future is dependent on finishing my story.
This is freeing news. God is ultimately the innovator who will create the new future. The relief is that it is not my problem. And it is not your problem. The future of this church is not my problem, or yours. What is our “problem” is a fairly simple thing. It is to love the people God has put in our circle. Businesses want to be innovators. They want to have the shiniest new thing that will entice the consumer world to come and buy their product. It will make them successful, sometimes wealthy. But I have heard too many stories of successful innovators who still are not fulfilled, happy, living meaningful lives, at peace.
Sometimes we get caught in our story. We can’t see out of it or around it. Here Isaiah is asking the people to get out of their story. Forget it. Do not remember it any more. Their story has them trapped as losers, oppressed, forgotten, abandoned. Or they may be just waiting for God to send them another Moses, to take them out of their troubles. Neither story takes seriously the need to love the ones in our circle.
Jesus, at dinner with his friends, let them know that he would die. And that they should still love each other extravagantly, as Mary had demonstrated. God is doing a new thing. Yes, death will be part of that. But nothing grows without a seed falling into the ground and dying. The topsoil we value is simply the result of hundreds and thousands of years of things dying. They die and are transformed into something life-giving. Life could not go on without these daily deaths.
This is one of the reasons why obituaries tell such beautiful stories. They are an attempt to remember what the person who has died has given or done to make this world, place, family, business what it is today. It is a way of making sure that in this moment this person counts. It is a way of loving the circle of life.
Jesus is going to die. We will face that reality on Good Friday. Jesus died two thousand years ago. And, I think, Jesus still dies daily. He, too, was called to forget the former things – the glory of heaven – and to live with us on earth – in this particular circle of life and love.
In the end, the great Innovator is God, the creator. And we can rely on that. Rest. Just pay attention to the person, the task, totally unique moment right here right now. The future? God is the Innovator.
And so maybe we end with the background story of Mary. She didn’t care about the value of the ointment as an investment in the future. She just loves the one she is given to love, no regrets, nothing held back. Mary leaves nothing unsaid in the face of Jesus’ impending death. Would that we all poured ourselves out, gave all we had, held nothing back not just from Jesus, but from the circle of our lives, whom God so loves.