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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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In with the Old, Out with the New

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: new, change, challenge, disturbing, unsettling

April 3, 2022 • The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Saint Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome

 Text: Isaiah 43:19a: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

There is something very unsettling about today’s readings. It is almost as though they were sent along just as we were getting a little complacent about Lent, just as maybe we were quietly giving up on that Lenten discipline we had so eagerly launched off on back on Ash Wednesday.

What was it for you, by the way? Was it giving up something, or maybe taking on something—or maybe just giving up the idea of taking on just one more thing? What sort of discipline did you choose for this season of preparation, the sort of preparation that involves repenting and reconciling?

I recently learned that one of the towers of the cathedral in Rouen, France—that beautiful facade that Monet painted so many times in so many different casts of light—one of the towers of that amazing place is known as the “Butter Tower,” simply because they raised the money for it by selling indulgences to people allowing them to have butter during Lent. I wonder how much money we could raise here, selling you permission to have butter, cream, during Lent. I mean, you all give that up, don’t you? You don’t?

Well, there goes the tower project.

Each of the teachings we heard this morning can be heard as assuring, or as disturbing. Maybe because we are living in the midst of dangerous days, I am managing to hear the assuring words as somewhat unsettling. 

Downtrodden, exhausted people have long heard those words of the prophet Isaiah proclaiming God’s new creation as the best possible good news. Heaven knows we sense a need to be re-created, to be re-newed. 

But when you think of all the new things we’ve experienced in recent years, it’s enough to wonder how much we really want to welcome the idea of yet another new thing. Two years ago now, Covid was a new thing. Lockdowns were a new thing. Keeping apart, and wearing masks, and not being able to see each other’s faces—all of that was a new thing. 

And while the pandemic got us to do some new things, let’s face it—the experience hasn’t exactly been reinvigorating. The things we have learned to do, and the things we have learned about ourselves, those are important and good; but the cost of those new things was high in the extreme.

More recently, the new thing has been the catastrophe of an ongoing war in Europe, one that still threatens to expand ever wider. It has been the disaster of ten million people fleeing their homes to escape a pointless and criminal war of aggression—four million of them now in other countries. It has been the very real threat that peace in all of Europe, that prize so diligently worked toward for nearly four generations, might be shattered by another authoritarian bent on dominance and threatened by democracy.

I am not sure I’m up for one more new thing. 

Of course, the sort of thing Isaiah is talking about isn’t a novel virus or a new war. A new war is really only just the most recent expression of the oldest human virus, that same diseased idea of settling conflicts with violence that led Cain to kill Abel. 

No, what Isaiah is talking about is the idea that God is not yet done working in the world—that we have not yet seen the last of God’s new ways of bringing about renewal and restoration. The limit of our imagination is only the beginning of God’s creativity. 

Saint Paul saw this. He saw that the way God had worked in the world, a way that once had been very new—the idea of a chosen nation, the creation of a covenant code that drew up the laws for a relationship between us and God—he saw that that new way had become old. 

He saw that it had become replaced by something totally new—something so profound that it swept away all that had been brought into place by the old ways. It was so dramatic that it changed the way our relationship with God worked, changed the whole way our salvation was worked out. It was now a question not of law, but of faith—not of our capacity to obey, but of our capacity to believe.

The people around Jesus, too, saw this. They saw that God was doing something new in the world. They were astonished by a lot of what they saw happening around Jesus. They didn’t entirely understand it, and they weren’t sure always what to make of it. 

But they understood something new had come into the world. Lazarus was still alive. And he wasn’t the only prisoner of death who had found life again. Sick people, outcast people, despairing people, rejected people—people who had known all of the little deaths we deal each other, all of them came alive again when Jesus engaged with them. They were so renewed in hope that they wanted other people to have the same experience, and they brought others to him. It was a very new thing, one that turned hopelessness and fear into dignity and possibility.

There was something else about what was new about Jesus, something that we hear people saying around him again and again. They lived in a world stocked with religious institutions—the temple, the Pharisees, the scribes, the high priests. It was all an enormous apparatus, something that seemed to want to claim for itself the power of God—because it controlled the way that faithful people had access to God. That apparatus defined what obedience to the law meant.

But they kept saying about Jesus—he seems to have authority. Where did he get this authority? Who gave it to him? A new teaching—and with authority! That was the new thing.

And it was a very new thing. It was what confounded all the easy answers and simple solutions. Yes, Judas, of course it’s good to give so that the poorest will be given help. But as the people in the Gospel story today hear, it’s not the only good thing. It’s not even necessarily the greatest good. Giving back thanks to God, engaging in the discipline of gratitude, also is something good in itself—if only because when we do it with all our hearts, it leads us on to other, higher acts of compassion.

So here is the question for our last lap of Lent. Is it just possible that God is doing something similar right in the midst of our own lives, our own moment?

Look around. Some of our deepest truths are suddenly trembling beneath our feet. Some of the institutions we thought were of course solid and certain have suddenly been shown to be hollow and broken. 

Here in Rome we live in the very epicenter of the idea of religious institutions—and none of them seem nearly as permanent, or as perfect, as we once thought they surely were. Just like the people around Isaiah, just like the people around Jesus, we are being confronted with the emptiness of what we thought was real, and the fragility of the goodness we thought was enduring. 

But that is exactly the condition in which God acts. These are exactly the moments—this is exactly the moment—that we need to be alert and alive to the new thing that God is doing right here, right now. 

Whatever it is, if it’s anything like the new thing in Isaiah’s day or the new thing in Paul’s day, it is certain to challenge us with a difficult choice: to hold on to the structures and the traditions that first brought us to faith, or to follow where God is calling us to go, do what God is calling us to do, be the Body of Christ God is calling us now to be, renewed, reconciled, and reimagined. 

I can’t claim to know what that new thing is. But I am sure that there is an Easter coming. And I know there is no empty tomb without there first being a cross. Jesus is always doing unexpected things—things that outrage and disrupt and break down and transgress. Crazy things. New things. 

In the midst of all our worry and exhaustion, in this moment of all moments when it feels like we just can’t even anymore—right in the midst of that, a new thing is springing forth. Don’t expect it to be comforting; expect it to be challenging. Expect it to demand something of us. And expect it to open our graves. Amen.