One of my favorite activities each day is to get the mail. I love to get the mail. Oh, I know the sinking feeling of the VISA bill when it is a lot more than I expected, or the summons to jury duty. And I get as impatient as any one at the junk mail I have to sort through every day, or weary at the work represented in the mail. It seems there is never an end to forms that need to be filled out. But there is something about the mail I enjoy — I think I know what it is, too.
It's the sense of newness. Especially when I have been trapped in the doldrums, when everything seems "same old same old." It's the sense of something new: a letter from our daughter in Japan or one from our other daughter in college in Minnesota; an unexpected package; exciting news from friends; the newest magazine or book I've just requested; one of the many items our family orders from catalogues; or even the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes letter saying, if I have the lucky number, I have already won $12,000,000. I like getting the mail. It feels like something new is about to happen.
I like new beginnings: a new book or a new class; a new art project or a new car; starting a new job or repainting a room. There is a deeper new thing, too — a renewed spirit and enthusiasm after a satisfying vacation, Waking up to the singing of the birds as they celebrate a new sunrise, experiencing the mercy of God again and knowing that everything is going to be OK. A new thing.
A new thing is exactly what God promised to do for Israel in Babylon. You remember the Babylonian captivity. A whole nation driven away from home into a foreign country. A different language. Different customs. Different religion. Far from home. Disorienting, and disillusioning. The Psalmist recorded that the people of Israel sat down by the river Babylon and wept … wept against the day they used to sing songs to God. Zion songs. "How can we sing songs to God in a foreign land?" they asked.
But now God was about to do a new thing. "I will break down all the bars in Babylon. I will make a way in the sea. I will make a path in the mighty waters, I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" A new thing.
God doesn't leave us parched and dried up. God doesn't leave us without hope. God doesn't leave us without a way. "I will make a way 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," says the Lord." "I am about to do a new thing."
But what does a highway from Babylon to Israel have to do with us in 1999? What new thing is God doing today? How are we to understand it? One pastor I knew took this approach: he was the brand new minister at his first charge. "God is about to do a new thing here at the Second Church" preached the preacher. And the preacher changed the order of the bulletin. "Forget the former things," heralded the herald, and the church began singing new hymns that no one knew. "Do not consider the things of old" counseled the pastor, as he pushed the congregation to add a gymnasium, even though it was an older congregation. "I am about to do a new thing" he shouted from the rooftops, and three years later the new pastor left the church, muttering, "they just don't want to change."
But God is doing a new thing. Last spring I was watching TV. Actually I must have dozed off watching TV, because when I woke up a very animated, blond woman, power dressed for results, was talking about circles. I caught the last part of her spiel, something about the circles of behavior we get caught in. Bad habits. She made the motion — a circle with her hand — to illustrate our habits.
"We get caught repeating the same pattern, over and over again. "But," she interrupted herself, "you can stop the circle and get off. You can break the pattern and can begin a new one." And she stopped her arm in mid-air to illustrate stopping the circle of habit. "All you have to do," she continued, "is practice my program for 5 minutes each day and you can change your life." I broke the cycle, turned her off, and went to bed.
In the morning I woke up thinking about what she said; about changing patterns; changing habits that are self-destructive; changing harmful patterns of relationships; even changing church dynamics — about doing new things. And it made some sense. I thought about the cycle of violence that we see, often passed on from generation to generation.
I know of a church that quite literally drove out five ministers in a row — each time after four or five years, and each time finding an excuse to blame the minister. Who is going to have the courage to break that cycle and face the real problems within?
An abusive, uncontrolled temper leaves a child deep-down afraid, growling-dog-in-an-alley-at-night, afraid, until 25 or 30 years later that buried fear comes out in the same kind of abusive, uncontrolled temper against another young child. Someone needs to break the cycle.
"Just a few more minutes and I know my luck will change," thinks the woman at the tables, "just a few more minutes …" Where can she find the strength to stand up and walk away? A man stops at the bar on the way home from work for a couple of beers and doesn't leave for four hours. Who'll help him face his addiction? A nation rattles its nuclear swords and another nation rattles back. Who has the power to break that cycle?
If we could just get off the circle. Break the habit. If we could only do a new thing. A new thing is needed.
Now, I don't believe that five minutes a day with the latest self-help program on TV will do it. Not make a real change. Changed hearts. Changed lives. Changed attitudes. Changed churches. But God, my friends is doing a new thing! God is making a way in the wilderness.
I know a church. A friendly church. A church that likes itself a lot. But my image of the church had always been that of a church with all of its chairs facing inward, facing each other. Yes, it is a friendly church. People genuinely like each other. They are good to each other. If someone is sick you can bet someone will bring them a pot of soup. When there is a funeral, the women and lately, some of the men will put on a nice dinner. When one of the families moves to the retirement center, people visit them. This is a warm, friendly church where people like each other.
That is, until an outsider came along and suggested they ought to arrange their chairs a little differently. Instead of sitting all the time in a circle, facing each other, it was time to turn the chairs around and be just as friendly to those who weren't a part of the circle. It was hard. It was uncomfortable. People wondered if maybe their friendly church was being invaded by people not so friendly. Some people grumbled that the stranger was meddling in their friendly church. But the church accepted his challenge. They did it. They re-arranged the chairs. And it worked! People came in from the outside and were made to feel welcome! People who were slightly different felt somehow comfortable, so they stayed. People who had needs and concerns began to feel like this was a church that cared about them, so they stayed on. You see God was doing a new thing.
Not anything as easy as listening to the woman on the television for 5 minutes a day. Not at all. Because, you see, the new thing God was doing — is doing, is death. In the Gospel lesson Jesus went to dinner at his friend's home. Lazarus was there; so were Martha and Mary. People were still celebrating the fact that Jesus had raised Lazarus. Most of the people were celebrating, because some of the religious leaders were jealous of Jesus and were plotting to kill him. But this was a party. Martha was serving, everything going well, just like a party should … until in walked Mary and did a new thing. An unheard of new thing.
She poured her most expensive perfume all over Jesus' feet so that the whole room smelled of perfume. Then she wiped his feet with her hair. What an outrage! What a waste of good perfume! What a waste of money. What an insult to the men! Why not at least give the money to the poor? But God was doing a new thing. God knew that the only way to break the cycle of self-destruction, the cycle of violence, the cycle of habit, the cycle of death, was to die. The only way new life could happen was out of death. The new thing that God was doing was bringing new life out of death. And Mary anointed Jesus for his burial.
Nothing has changed. The new thing that God is doing among us, the new life that is springing forth in our world — the places of hope, the places of renewal, the places of reconciliation, God's new work still begins with death. Jesus' death. And our death in him. Nothing else is radical enough. Nothing else goes deep enough. Death before life. Death to the ego before life to the spirit. Death to pride and self- promotion before life in grace. Ask any alcoholic. They will tell you, it wasn't until they came to the end of their strength, until they gave up trying to fix themselves, until they died, that they found life. And if you think that death is only for those who are down-and-out, then you don't understand God's new work. Don't be fooled. God is doing a new thing.
It may seem small, but to me it spoke volumes. I was in one of those nasty arguments with my wife when neither of us could admit fault. I was absolutely sure of my rights, but so was she. I was convinced she was wrong, as she was convinced I was wrong. She was upset because I was supposed to go to her concert — which, by the way, was exactly the same night I was to preach the final regional Lenten service at the First United Methodist Church in Trenton. Hadn't she given me weeks of notice? Didn't she tell me the date far enough in advance?
"But surely you know that I have meetings on Wednesday night during Lent. How can I go to your concert when I'm preaching?" "But you know that I've been planning this for so long. You know how important this is to me?" "So my work isn't important?" "Well, at least you could have checked your calendar." "But you never have concerts on Wednesday nights. Why should I think you would this time." "Well, if you weren't so busy, you'd help me with some of the work I've had to do for the kids lately." "You think what I do is not work?" The conversation didn't make a lot of sense after that and I won't bore you with it. But here was the new thing.
As I complained about the litany of things I had done around the house lately, while she was so busy with her job, Mary broke the cycle. "Bill, you must be proud of all that you do. You do a lot. Thank you."
That did it. She broke the cycle. She did the new thing.
My friends, God is doing a new thing. Can you see it? Do you believe it? Will you live it?