Sermon, March 13, 2016

“I Am About To Do a New Thing: Do You Not Perceive It?”  
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
March 13, 2016   Fifth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 126; Isaiah 43:18-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

“I am about to do a new thing,” God says through Isaiah, and in the Book of Revelation God says through John of Patmos, “Behold, I make all things new.” God says to forget the former things, leave behind what was of old, and trust and praise.

God is about to do a new thing. That is what God does. God explodes a new universe into being, God takes the particles of the big bang and spins them into spheres and galaxies, God takes old stars that have burned out and makes new stars, God takes a 500 million year old lifeless earth and breathes life into it, God takes old things that have died and been composting all winter and raises spring gardens from them, God takes people who have grown old in heart and brings new love into their lives, God takes a community that has grown weary and discouraged from struggle or conflict, like the children of Israel captive in Babylon, and restores their fortunes so that their mouth is full of laughter and their tongue with shouts of joy.

God is always about to do a new thing, we can count on that, it happens every day, every moment. “Now it springs forth,” God says, “do you not perceive it?”

That is the question. “Do you not perceive it?” That is what makes all the difference.

It is possible to go through this life and not notice what God is doing, or to take it for granted. God is the force of love and life and light. God is the force of healing and forgiving and reconciling. God is the force of compassion and empathy and mercy. God is the force of generosity and lovingkindness. God is the force of transformation and resurrection. The force that we call God is constantly present, creating and renewing our world, and yet we can close our hearts and minds and not perceive it.

A man named Saul did not perceive it. His perception was materialistic and legalistic. He was proud of the status he had from his family and tribe, he was proud of his purity and zeal as an upholder of tradition. He earned his righteousness by obeying the laws of his society and religion—they were the force that mattered to him most and that he obeyed. Saul would have said that God was behind the laws, but it was not the God who proclaimed, “I am about to do a new thing.” Saul’s God was intent on preserving the status quo, a God who was predictable and controllable and kept safely in place.

Saul was on the road to Damascus where he intended to persecute and kill Christians. Suddenly he was thrown to the ground by a force of light. God was about to do a new thing through Saul, and turn him into the Apostle Paul.

Saul was temporarily blinded, and when the scales fell from his eyes his perception had changed completely. He could perceive God’s new things springing forth through the Spirit of Christ within and all around him. He perceived what true righteousness was, not being made right by tradition and rules, but by the force of Christ’s love flowing through us that makes all things right.

It changed his entire value system. He said, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More 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 and be found in him.”

Paul perceived that what matters is where we come from, not in the sense of tribe or church or school or any position of power or wealth, what matters is where we come from inside, spiritually. If we come from a place of being in Christ and Christ being in us, we will come from that part of us where the force of God’s Holy Spirit rises like a spring of living water. Then what we do and say will naturally serve the new, creative thing God is always trying to do. Paul urged us to value living from that place of Christ within us above all else in life, and strive for it with all our strength.

We need to be prepared, though, to be considered wrong or crazy by others when we live from that place. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, was someone who perceived the new thing God was doing through Jesus. She opened herself wide to Christ and was transformed, she became a pure channel for that living water to flow from her heart into the world, and others attacked her for it. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet in one story, and Martha complained, but Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better part. Mary poured thirty thousand dollars worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet in today’s story, and Judas rebuked her, but Jesus defended her again.

It is important to notice that by the world’s legitimate standards both Martha and Judas were absolutely right to complain. Martha was doing good, hard work in the kitchen and could have used Mary’s help. Judas was doing great things helping widows and orphans and the sick and people in poverty and people who were outcasts. He could have supported a large family for a year with what Mary poured out on Jesus’ feet in an instant and wiped up with her hair.

Martha and Judas were right, and Mary was right, too. If we are going to let God do a new thing, we need to let go of the old “either/or, my way or the highway” attitude. We need to let go of our judging mind that is so quick to suspect heresy or wrong-doing, that is so afraid of change. The traditions of the past are beautiful and worthy of honor, the work in the kitchen or among the struggling, needy people in the world is absolutely right and essential, and so are the new things that God is doing and the new ways that the Holy Spirit is moving us to do them. What we do matters, and what matters much more is that we do everything coming from a place of perceiving that God is at work in both the old and the new, and allowing God to expand our sense of what is possible and right.

God is doing a new thing here in this church. It is springing forth. Do you not perceive it?

Look at the children energizing this sanctuary in the first part of worship, and look at the children’s area downstairs with its new cozy corner of carpet and cushions for reading and working on the floor, and all the new books they can read there. Caring for children is an old thing in this church, and God is doing a new thing with it, doing it in new ways. Do you not perceive it?

Listen to the music. This church has a long, proud history of music, we have been hosting the Palm Sunday Choir Festival for fifty years, and now God is doing a new thing, with new energy and enthusiasm rising. Can you perceive it?

Look at the steeple and clock, old things made new, and this year the Trustees will be having much of the outside of our buildings painted. Look at the vestry, the floors made new and now thanks to many different people the bulletin boards are filling with new life. God is doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?

Look at the Diaconate. Thanks to your generosity the Deacons have been able to increase dramatically the amount they give to people in need, and they have created the position of Care Coordinator to make sure we continue the quality of assistance we offer. God is doing a new thing! Praise God!

Look at the Board of Mission and Social Action and all they have been helping us do to support refugees from the other side of the world and to enhance the life of children in this church. Look at their Community Dinners and the many generous donations the BMSA makes to organizations. This congregation has done much for the town, region and world in the past, and look, God is doing a new thing!

The Diaconate and Board of Mission and Social Action are working together to help God do what may be the biggest and newest thing here, which is to become experts in healthy communication so we may have the most beloved community we possibly can. This is absolutely essential to any congregation that intends to let God do new things, because new things are challenging, change is controversial, and we can expect to have among us the same kinds of disagreements that Judas and Mary had. We are learning how to go through conflicts in such a way that we become closer and stronger as a congregation as a result of the process.

What is most important in all this is to see that it is not us, it is God, it is Christ, it is the Holy Spirit that is doing a new thing. It is a miracle of resurrection that God is working, and our job is to open ourselves to it and throw ourselves into it the way Paul did. He said of the resurrection God was working through him, “Not 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. Beloved, 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, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Let us perceive the new things that God is doing here and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal of fulfilling the dreams and aspirations that have come to us as our heavenly call.

Let us pray together in silence, inviting God to keep doing these exciting new things within and around us as individuals and as a church…