Sermon for 7 Epiphany, Year B
Based on Isa. 43:18-25
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Newness and change ~ who needs it! Not me! Not us! Not our congregation! Isn't that the attitude we all-too-often find ourselves getting stuck in? Yet, newness and change are inevitable. Newness and change are indeed one of the constants in life ~ especially in our contemporary age, where changes come at us almost faster than the speed of light! Change and newness are, paradoxically, in constant tension with the truth of the author of Ecclesiastes who said: "There is nothing new under the sun." How do we acknowledge, live with, and celebrate this great paradox of our faith?
James E. Sargent tells the following story: "The old man sat down, picked up his pen and tried to write. Words came only haltingly. Sentences didn't form up at all. All morning he had gazed out the window. Usually he saw the front hedges and the tall pine across the street. But today he hadn't seen anything of the sort. He could only see his daughter as she stalked away from the house. It seemed like only yesterday that she had left. But it was a long time ago, a long, long time ago."
"He hadn't intended for the discussion to turn into an argument but it did. As much as he tried to reason she simply wouldn't hear it. He could sense that this might be the moment he had both anticipated and dreaded for years. She would have no more of his explanations, no more of his talk. She wanted to be on her own, away from the confines of the house, away from the all-too-predictable ways of the family. "I know what you'll say," she had often declared. "You always say the same thing." She hadn't dared challenge him as she was tempted to. "Why don't you say something different for a change?" But that was a little harsh even for her."
"He'd watched her leave. He'd said his last predictable word. Then he began to do as all parents do when children get angry and stalk out. He began praying for his daughter, that she would be safe, exercise wise judgment, take care of herself. And he prayed for himself as well, that he would be able to retain his sanity, that he would not become embittered, that he might, at some time in the future, have something different to say."
"She may never have kept track of the days, the months and years, but he did. Even after a few years he could remember. But his anger, once white-hot had abated. He now yearned to see his daughter again. What she couldn't know was that he had never stopped praying for her. He never stopped yearning to see her again. But would he say the same things again? Would there be nothing new to talk about around the family table? Would there be a moment's uncomfortable silence just before another argument?"
"The phone rang. He answered. At the other end of the line was that unmistakable voice, "Dad," she said, "I'd like to come home." Tears welled up in his eyes. She continued, "I know I have made mistakes and I hurt you terribly. But I'd like to come home." Tears spilled onto his cheeks."
"Of course you can come home," he assured her."
"But what about the terrible things I said and did to hurt you?" She had to be honest enough to say that she had been haunted by her words."
"Let's not dwell on what was said in the past. Let's not cherish the memory of what was done. Instead," he tried to say, "let's think about the new things that God will do when we get together again."
"The old man looked out of the window. He saw the trees, the hedge and he could imagine his daughter coming home again. Tomorrow she would be here. What new thing will come about? He could hardly wait."
This moving story of newness, change, restoration, and forgiveness, has parallels in our first lesson today. God's chosen people had grown indifferent towards the covenant and their relationship with their God. This had resulted in their Babylonian exile. Now the prophet speaks to them in that context, just when they were likely struggling with doubts about their God. The prophet gives them a word of newness and change, restoration and forgiveness. "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? I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins."
This beautiful passage is as equally true for us today as it was for God's chosen people living in Babylonian captivity. We too can and do become indifferent to God and God's ways. We too consequently suffer from various forms of exile because of our indifference. We ~ like God's chosen people, and like the father and daughter in the story ~ can become stuck and so intransigent that we become alienated from God and those whom we love the most. Moreover, our being stuck and intransigent robs us of many wonderful opportunities in our lives because we are unwilling to accept newness, changes, forgiveness and restoration. Life in exile stifles us; it rules out possibilities of new growth; of the enthusiasm and passion that are present in loving relationships with God and others.
Professor and poet, Gerhard Frost, puts it very well: "I'm of the old school, /and I'm against it!" /She said it with a toss /of her proud gray head, /and I knew the discussion was over. /I wanted to say, /"But, friend, you forget. /School isn't out yet. /Living is learning, /and learning is living. /It's sad to see you hunker down /and burrow in like that. /Our world is in trouble; /the good old days weren't /good enough, so now we must /re-think what we've accepted as true. /Please look again at all you've looked /at; there's more to be and to become."
That's exactly what the prophet is saying too ~ "there's more to be and to become." What more do we need to be and become in our lives as we consider the newness, changes, forgiveness and restoration that God invites us into? What do we need to stop remembering in order that God's "new thing" may take shape and flourish in our lives?
A few days ago, I visited a delightful 90-year-old gentleman in the hospital. We talked about nearly everything under the sun. In that visit, I sensed a deep passion for life in this elderly gentleman. He is still very much actively engaged in living life with zest and grace, awe and wonder. He is presently in the process of publishing his autobiography. His words of wisdom to me were: "It's never too late and you're never too old to learn something new." I hope and pray that each one of us are able to live with the same attitude as this 90-year-old.
Newness and change, forgiveness and restoration ~ who needs it!? We All Do! God is calling us all, as individuals and congregations, into God's new thing. God is calling us not to regard newness and change as threatening, evil, and destructive. Rather, God is calling us to stop remembering past ways of resisting newness and change.
God is calling us to stop being angry, defensive and intransigent towards God's new thing. God is calling us into new challenges, adventures, experiences and opportunities by questioning our comfort zones and false, misguided presuppositions; by being stretched in areas of our lives where we may have become indifferent or stagnant.
God invites us out of our exile of sin into the Promised Land of forgiveness and restoration. As we consider the power of God's transforming, new thing in our lives, may we go into this new year, new century, and new millennium with the following old Irish toast to the New Year: "Enough happiness to keep you sweet. Enough trials to keep you strong. Enough sorrow to keep you human. Enough hope to keep you happy. Enough failure to keep you humble. Enough success to keep you eager. Enough friends to give you comfort. Enough wealth to meet your needs. Enough enthusiasm to look forward. Enough faith to banish depression. Enough determination to make each day better than yesterday."
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