Sermon: Reflecting on the First Year

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I am the Lord, your Holy One,
    the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
    who makes a way in the sea,
    a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
    army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
    they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
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 will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.
The 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,
    the people whom I formed for Myself
so that they might declare My praise. Isaiah 43: 15-21 NRSV

Isaiah was speaking to a people devastated by loss – of land, of freedom, of family and home, and of spiritual identity  – he spoke God’s words to them: “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?” Isaiah spoke prophetic words about the urgency of God’s dreams for the nation of Israel as builders of God’s dreams for all creation. Prophets foretold the future and they also interpreted the past. Isaiah viewed the Babylonian exile as just punishment from God for the spiritual blindness the Israelites had and their refusal to obey for God’s demands. The book of Isaiah includes common prophetic themes of God’s purpose, God’s punishment, and God’s persistent love… an intense and demanding relationship God offered these people chosen to be God’s own.  Woven through the books that make up Isaiah, written by different people and at different times in Israel’s history, is the prophetic belief that God’s will and purpose for creation cannot and will not be defeated. It’s the nature of God to always be doing a new thing to bring about the creation God dreams of. God’s dreams are not the nebulous and fleeting dreams of sleep but more like architectural drawings of God’s design for creation. In spite of the Israelite’s willful disobedience and spiritual amnesia, God’s persistence and resilience is demonstrated throughout the book of Isaiah, and as all scripture testifies, God has the last word.

Like the Israelites, the church is slow to learn and trust that the future, God’s purpose and dreams, has already been accomplished. Even saying that seems weirdly backwards, like watching a movie from the end to the beginning instead of from the beginning to the end. But as people of faith we have to (or we choose to) believe that God has already had the last word and signed God’s name on the final draft of history. The tricky part is living into God’s future. If we knew how to do it… we would. If we knew how to be ambassadors of God’s love and peace in all the world… we would. If we knew how to end hunger and alienation… we would. If we knew how to prevent prejudice and ignorance… we would. If we knew how to grow our churches we would. The tricky part of being a person of faith is living into God’s future, believing as Isaiah did, that God is always doing a new thing, and purpose is already accomplished.

I’m not a fan of change. When I was a child, and before I had chickens and knew that houseflies are an absolute pestilence on the land,  I described myself as a housefly. I liked to be at home, I told my family, I liked to feel safe and comfortable and to know my place. Now I think God was laughing in God’s sleeve at my childish response to the invitation to go outside my comfort zone.

I don’t believe that God knows every word before it’s on my tongue, as the psalmist so poetically wrote; I believe that God improvises when God’s plans and purposes are ignored or overthrown.  But God is always acting and doing… a new thing. On my first Sunday here, I sang a song from Fiddler on the Roof. “The first time I met you was on our wedding day, I saw scared (I was shy) I was nervous (so was I) but my father and my mother said we learned to love each other and now I’m asking you, Golda… do you love me?” Being an itinerant pastor and a Methodist congregation is like an arranged marriage. We’re afraid and shy and, as our District Superintendent Schuyler Rhodes said, “No one likes change and church people don’t like change the most.” But when tears are dried, and the boxes are unpacked, and the pastor has preached a first sermon, and the congregation is welcoming… maybe we begin to see that God is doing a new thing in us… and with us… and through us. Because God is always doing a new thing.

A parishioner once said to me, “I don’t know why the youth group can’t be like it was when I was growing up” and the reason is because the world isn’t the same as it was when that parishioner was growing up. The world doesn’t stay the same, and because of that [say this with me] God is always doing a new thing.

And yet… our roots are in God’s ageless and timeless design for the world… justice, peace, righteousness, love, and joy… and so our spiritual wellbeing needs to be grounded in ancient practices… practices like clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner, caring for the needs of the most vulnerable among us, welcoming the stranger, observing sabbath rest, forgiving sin, sharing what we have so that no one goes without, and loving each other as dearly as we love ourselves.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement (a reform movement within the Anglican tradition to call the church back to practices of personal holiness and social justice) had well, lots to say on the subject because he was so very wordy and methodical. But his teaching has been distilled down to three simple rules: Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God. Those three simple rules encompass what Jesus said are the two most important commandments: love of God and love of others. Today we’re welcoming new members into the life of our congregation, and they began this journey of membership in small groups, Wesleyan small groups, to practice those three (not so simple, one of the new members told me) rules: Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.

This has been an amazing year for me. I didn’t welcome the new thing God and the Bishop called me to… and yet it has blessed me beyond measure. You are an amazing congregation, and I’m in awe of how you practice your faith through what we Methodists call the “Works of Mercy.” We are a congregation gifted and graced for the work God is calling us to. The Sanctuary Team is preparing a safe haven for an immigrant family; the Adams Hall Dream Team is meeting with city leaders to learn about affordable housing and zoning restrictions; the Finance and Staff Parish Relations Teams work together to care for and fund the needs of our staff, and our congregation, and our mission in the world; the Trustees build and paint and fix so that our campus is a spiritual home for us and a beacon of welcome to the neighborhood; the Worship Team and the Tech Team and our Musicians and our Sunday hosts and ushers guide us with songs and prayers and words and soulful rituals; Fun and Fellowship and the CATCH Team and the Congregational Care Team and the Prayer Group and keep us connected and caring for each other; our United Methodist Women is changing the world; and our Church Council helps keep us on course.  Vacation Bible School, Carol Choir, and Christmas and Easter Music Camps are ministries that welcome and bless children and families. Sierra Service Project, and the Legacy Project, and Dungeons and Dragons are ways we work and play and care for youth in our church and our community. It isn’t possible for me to mention all of the ways our congregation is serving the church and the world… but all these acts of kindness and mercy and justice are helping to reveal God’s coming Kingdom. (Once when I called the United Methodist Pensions and Benefits office with a question, the person I was talking to said to me, “Marylee, if no one else has said this to you lately, thank you for what you do.” I cried. I thought maybe ministry in two little rural northern California churches went unnoticed… but someone at the Conference office in Sacramento saw it and thanked me.) So Napa Methodist Church, if no one has said this to you lately, thank you for what you so beautifully do. Thank you. You are the hands and feet and heart of Christ in the world.

I am humbled and challenged by all the ways you do good. I think this new thing God is doing is challenging us to grow strong in practices of personal holiness. John Wesley (if only there was a kickback for every time I mention his name!) called practices of personal holiness “Means of Grace” ~ spiritual exercises that draw us closer to God’s love and kindness and mercy. (An obvious reason to draw closer to God’s love is to be able to love others as God loves you.) In Wesley’s day, in order to come to the gathering of all the church, he required that everyone be part of a small group (called a class meeting) to be accountable for how they were practicing their faith (those three simple rules) with the purpose of (John Wesley’s phrase) “watch over one another in love.” Wesley believed that Christianity without accountability was mostly good intentions.

Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God. I think the tricky one of the three simple rules is staying in love with God. The first two we can pretty much do on our own. We can take pride in them, be recognized for them, and feel accomplished. But staying in love with God – and another way to say this is just to let God love us – is not a matter of “doing” it’s a matter of “being.” Being in God’s presence can be a challenging practice. What does it mean to “just let God love you”? It’s telling yourself, “I am God’s beloved child.” It’s having faith that nothing you do or don’t do can stop God from loving you. It’s noticing all that delights you and fills your soul and saying, “Thank You God.” It’s being still and quiet, and thinking about God, and listening for God.  It’s singing and praying and gardening and anything else that feels sacred and helps you feel connected to God. We need small groups to help us grow in faith and to learn to share our faith. We Methodists are modest people, and we don’t like to call too much attention to our spiritual practices… but we need to learn to talk about them, especially with people who are yearning to know God and longing for a spiritual home. All of us need to be watched over in love so that we are practicing three simple rules: Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God. It’s humbling to be a preacher, to address the congregation as if I have some knowledge or insight to share with you. Sometimes I hope I do. Sometimes I just hope that I don’t fall on my face. Pastors are shaped by congregations, by you sharing your lives, and by what you model for us, and how you pray with us and for us, and by how you watch over us in love.

Sometimes the loss of what we hold as dear, or sacred, or familiar, brings with it, as Isaiah prophesied to the Israelites, “A way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Sometimes when we let go of the past we can see the new thing God is inviting us to. This morning we’re invited to do a Ritual of Forgiveness; to let go of old hurts, old regrets, old grudges, and take hold of Isaiah’s words:  “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 give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to My chosen people, the people whom I formed for Myself.” When we embrace the new thing God is doing we can find… God.

At the end of the song where Tevye asks Golda, “Do You Love Me?” she tells him, “I suppose I do” and he admits, “And I suppose I love you too.” Happy first anniversary, dear Napa Methodist Church. I love you.

And now as we begin a time of prayer, let’s open our hearts and minds to One who is always doing a new thing. Amen.

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