God's Work in Our Time, April 7

God’s Work in Our Time

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill United Methodist Church; April 7, 2019

 

Yesterday was my birthday.  I have birthday cake with green frosting to share with you at coffee hour.  I like parties, and the challenge of baking odd cakes, so I remember many of my past birthdays, and there have been a lot of them.  Time keeps on keeping on, and the birthdays seem to add up.  The rest of the days add up also.  Time passes; we age; if we’re lucky, or smart, we also grow.

 

Today's scripture texts are not static.  They speak of the passage of time as an aspect of the truth they seek to uncover.   When you restored our fortunes, O God, we were like those who dream.  Then our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy!  We remember what happened in the past, O God, that we were joyful because of your goodness to us.  We can therefore extrapolate from that truth to our feelings and experiences today and decide to trust that you will not forget us or desert us now or in the days to come.  The Psalm concludes with hope for the future: May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  This is a deliberate decision to claim hope even in the midst of sadness, precisely because God has been good to us in the past. We move fluidly from past to present to future in the course of only six verses.

 

In the gospel story, Mary anoints Jesus not for the present, but for what will happen in the days still to come.  Likewise, in his words to the Philippians, Paul weaves together his reflections and memories of his life in past years, his current self-assessment in faith, and his hopes for who he will be in the future.  Isaiah's words speak explicitly about the relationship between former times and today.  Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:  18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  Isaiah introduces God as the one who has acted powerfully in the past – the reference to horse and chariot hearkens back to Egypt’s chariots, destroyed at the Red Sea –  only to have God then say, 'Move beyond the past; I'm doing something utterly new now for the future.'

 

I draw attention to these words in scripture that acknowledge and even celebrate the passage of time because we tend to think of faith and scripture as static.  The cultural perception of the Bible is as a rule book – ideas and concepts set down centuries ago which are absolute and unchanging.  Many people in our world, even many who are not regular church-goers, still revere the Bible as an important icon of standards which should be upheld in society.  It is not uncommon for neighbors to speak of their sense of the importance of the Bible as the source of our shared moral foundation in this country.  Connected to the claim of ethical norms is the idea that from the Bible we glean our theology, our understanding of who God is and always has been.  Once we figure that out, we can then incorporate that understanding into our basic grasp of the world and not wrestle with the concept again.  I often encounter people who will initiate a conversation with me about their faith only to end it quickly by saying, 'Well, that's what I learned from my grandmother when I was eight, so that's what I believe.'  Goodness!  If we stopped learning about cooking food when we were eight, we’d be living on boxed macaroni and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Other people decide to keep an open mind about God and faith through confirmation class when they were thirteen, only to then decide they have it all figured out and need not think about any of it again.  Confirmation is a step in the life of faith, not a graduation from church!

 

In contrast to the idea of a static God and an unchanging word, the Bible itself is dynamic, always addressing newness in our lives even as the words themselves are ancient.  The God to whom the Bible bears witness is the Holy One who makes all things new, who continues to speak to the people, who comes to live among the people in real time in the person of Jesus, and whose ongoing action and power we continue to witness among us, even until today, in the person of the Holy Spirit.  The God of scripture is anything but stolid and static.  God invites the people, over and over, not so much to live by rules but to walk with God, to move forward in covenant relationship with God by our side.

 

Here in Catskill our church is changing.  We are doing major work in the next six weeks. 

 

When we finish the church will be altered.  The work on the roof will not only repair what has been damaged, but will also, eventually, restructure the drainage from the roof so the repairs will last.  In order to do this, we have undertaken a capital campaign, and we are receiving gifts and pledges that we once thought were impossible.  We had the courage to believe that God might do a new thing among the members and friends of Catskill UMC and that’s what’s happening.  The work on the roof will begin in about a month.  The money to make that work possible will come in, from us and from others who appreciate the ministry we do here, over the next month, with some coming in over the next few years.  Those funds are given now for both the past and the future work of Jesus Christ among us here in this place.

 

God is doing a new thing among us here this Spring.  We have embraced the change that is happening to our beloved building; most of us are even excited about it!  Ideas are harder to change even than complex drainage systems.  Things we learned in high school or college about what's important in life or what truth really is are things we're often pretty stubborn about changing.  But life changes.  New voices are heard; new experiences alter our understanding of what really matters.  A healthy faith is a flexible faith, a faith which allows new experiences to tweak the truths of God we once thought unalterable.  If you once learned that our God is an angry God, ready to inflict harsh punishments on sinners for offenses against the holy law, it's worth a second look – at scripture and at the world around you to see if that understanding still holds true.  If you once stood your ground on the declaration that the Bible is a dusty old book that has no relevance to your life today, but now recognize that people whom you respect have found meaning in the Bible, maybe it's time to let go of your prejudice against scripture and take a second look.  If the faith that you learned in Sunday School told you that there is only one right way for Christians to understand what's right and what's wrong in the world, yet your experience in life has exposed you to faithful people who honestly differ in their take on the gospel, it may be time to reread the gospels for yourself, or to figure out when you could be part of a Bible study.  We can make it happen, and it would be a good thing for a group here in Catskill to get to know scripture more deeply.

 

Last week’s word from the Apostle Paul, from 2 Corinthians, declared, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!   Are we ready to embrace a new way laid out before us by the Spirit of God?  We take comfort in our faith, especially if it has been ours for a long time.  We love the songs we sing that we know so well we’ve memorized the words.  But if everything is made new, day by day, in Christ, then we’re challenged to take on new thoughts and new songs.  If our response to a new idea is simply, 'Well, I know what I believe so I don't have to engage in this conversation,' then we are selling our faith short, individually and for the community.  God says, Do not remember former things.  Behold I am doing a new thing; do you not perceive it?  God does new things with our lives, with our faith, with our hearts, but only if we are willing to be part of the newness.  When is the last time you changed your mind about something in your life of faith?  When is the last time you allowed a new experience of God's power in the world to alter your understanding of who God was asking you to be?  God is continually doing new things, opening up new pathways for service and love.  May we each and all be open to the newness God offers, today and in the days to come.  Amen.

Isaiah 43:16-21

16Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.

19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Psalm 126  (UMH 847)

1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

2Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy;

then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”

3The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

4Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

5May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

6Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, 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

9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

 

John 12:1-8

12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”