“Behold, I make all things new.” - Revelation 21:5
This is one of the last things God, in the Bible, says. God’s ultimate promise is that all things will be made new. The Revelation sums up what this is all about in the idea of a “new heaven and a new earth.” St. John understands what God is saying in a dramatic, comprehensive way. The last chapter and a half of Revelation plays this out as a new Jerusalem, new robes, new life is played out for John. It’s sort of delightful when he gets a golden measuring stick to measure the gates and walls of the new city [Rev 21:15-21]. Maybe we’ve read the story too many times, so we think we know it. I can hear you, “yeah, yeah, yeah, it all sounds lovely.” But that’s not the point. The point is that it is NEW!! No one’s ever seen anything like this “new Jerusalem” before!
When you stop assuming that you know what’s in the Bible and actually start reading it, it’s rather startling what’s in there. This is as true for pastors and religious professionals as it is for you, my good friends. When you read this little story at the very end of the Bible and go back to the beginning, you start to see that God has been making things new the whole way from Genesis to the Revelation. From Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah and the prophets [to name a few] to Mary, John the Baptist, Jesus and St. Paul the consistent story is that God has been making a new world. And the equally consistent story is that humans have been resisting. How’s all that “new” been working out? It's not a stretch to see that God is making new things and humans keep saying, “well, maybe not so new…”.
Admittedly, I like the idea [maybe] of you being new. Me? I just need a little buffing up. I’ve come to see that most of us, if not all of us, only want to be improved and improved is a way sight different from new. I understand. Improved means improved – we don’t change the essence of something, just make it somehow better. New? Well, new is… new. Unless, of course, you’re a slave or abused or downtrodden [to use a sort of Biblical word] or forgotten or starving or broken [I suspect you get the idea]. But that sort of new can be pretty scary to those of us who only want the world improved. What frightens you about God’s new? Go ahead and say it out loud, at least to yourself. What part of yourself don’t you want changed? In “church-speak,” we like to say that we “hold part of ourselves back from God.” We work to keep God from touching the parts of ourselves we don’t want changed, we don’t want to lose control over. New sounds good in the Bible, until we slowly start to understand that all this time God has been talking to us.
“Behold, I make all things new.”
Change is traditional. That sounds like a crazy statement, doesn’t it? Generally, we think of change as the very antithesis of tradition. But it’s true. The most traditional thing in the world is change. The earth is in a constant state of flux; always moving, shifting and reshaping. Humans, too, are constantly changing. We are constantly experiencing the world and subtly [and, occasionally, not so subtly] changing and adapting to it.
It’s probably for these reasons we resist change so much. We experience the dynamic movement of the world, of our bodies, of events outside our control to such a degree we want to bring order and control. We feel like the world is chaotic and out of control. We want control. We think we need control to make sense of the world. Yet, change is the most traditional thing we experience.
Churches tend to think of themselves as “traditional” institutions. We like to think of ourselves, to present ourselves, as unchanging. When we use the word tradition at church, change is not one of the things that comes to mind. True, the Gospel doesn’t change, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever,” [Hebrews 13:8] and God is always steadfast. But the parts of the Gospel that speak most powerfully move around. The ways we experience the Gospel, the ways it shapes our lives moves around because of who we are, where we are and the situation of our lives. It’s true, “Jesus is the answer.” But what’s the question? And that question seems to move around a bit more than we think it does.
When we worship there is only one, maybe two things we do on a Sunday morning that the Apostles would recognize. Specifically, the Words of Institution at Holy Communion [In the night in which he was betrayed…] and maybe the Lord’s Prayer [but probably not in the exact form we know it] are about the only things early Christians would recognize. Everything else is different. Everything else has changed over time so we can hear the Gospel speak in our lives. Change is traditional. Even in church.
We live in a dynamic world that can be deeply unsettling. Often, we feel out of control of the situation around us. We all know that feeling of just wanting everything to go back to some special time in the past, some time when it felt like nothing ever changed. But change is the most traditional thing in our experience. In this, Jesus promises to be with us no matter where we are, no matter what happens and no matter what goes on in the world. Jesus’s promise is that he makes and ever-changing world safe because he is there to go through the change with us. Because change is traditional.
I’m in Alexandria, Virginia with Rebecca Karcher and Makayla Tedder for a conference on electronic/digital ministry and communication. We got here early and went in to Washington to see the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Both are fabulous museums, both are examples of everything that modern museum is supposed to be; interactive with artifacts and technology. They don’t simply show you old things, they immerse you in a story. The story each place immerses you into is not an easy story to listen to. The story of African-Americans in the United States and Jewish people in mid-20th century Europe is hard to hear and see.
A lot of stuff leaps out at both places. For me, these included these: it’s really easy for humans to dehumanize other humans. Frighteningly easy, in fact. It’s really hard for humans to recover from these things. Really hard. It’s hard to know that the sort of things you see in these museums lurks in the hearts of humans. Somewhere, in the depths of the souls of human beings, lurks the ability to deny the humanity of other people. When that happens, it’s really ugly in almost indescribable ways.
What is also shocking is the near-absence of the church in both stories. Yes, both African-Americans and European Jews will find strength in their religious communities and, yes, individual Christians will act in courageous ways to live out their faith. As an institution, the church is frequently silent.
Part of the purpose of a museum is to help us learn from the past. We may have ignored the pain of others in the past, we may even have caused some of it. But we don’t have to be those people. The church is the carrier of a story of people who are changed by the story of Jesus. The forgiveness of Jesus helps us find our humanity and the humanity of everyone else as well.
Part of the story of these places is the hope of “Never again.” That’s the same hope in the forgiveness of Jesus. We can be new people. We can see other people as, first, human beings valued by God. We may have missed it in the past, but each day holds the promise that the church, that each of us will be able to see the God-given humanity of all people. And we will be willing to work for that vision.
Every now and then, we all have a chance to come across something that has the power to change everything about the way we think and act. A couple of years ago I met this guy in London, Sam Wells. Sam is the senior pastor [vicar] of the famous church, St Martin-in-the-Fields. St Martin’s has a famous music program; but in London the church is even more famous for its work with the homeless, the addicted and some of the most troubled in the city. When I got home I was talking with a friend and said, “I met this great guy, Sam Wells.” My friend said, “I know Sam! He wrote a great book. You should read it.” I finally got around to reading that book, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God [Wiley, 2015] this year. It is not an exaggeration to say that this book has reshaped how I think about the church and being a Christian.
Here’s the essence of what Sam has to say. We spend too much time and effort trying to “fix” things. At the heart of things, when Christians spend too much time trying to fix things we don’t have enough time [or energy] to discover the power of God already and always present in the world. Even Jesus, Sam argues, spent most of his life and ministry being with people. It’s only after being with people did he begin to act. When we spend time with people we can help them discover their God-given strength and learn more about our strength [and weakness]. When we start with the attitude of “fix it,” it reveals a certain arrogance and more than a bit of lack of trust in the power of God. The attitude of “fix it” leads to ultimate exhaustion.
We’ve tried to turn some of our ministry toward being with people [and with God]. The essence of “Open Doors” is simply allowing our great building, our holy space, to be with people – to pray, to meditate, to enjoy the beauty of the space. The first step in our assistance ministry on Tuesdays and Thursdays is to listen and pray. Our volunteers have spent hours listening to people, praying with people, being with people.
Being with people can be exhausting – to put it bluntly – particularly when you do it alone. But trying only to fix things is even more exhausting and frustrating. It only, fully and completely, reveals our deepest inadequacies.
If I could ask for one thing from you it would be this: come and be with us. Come and be with us and help us be with our city this year.
A long time ago [32 years ago, to be precise] I worked for the FDIC [Federal Deposit Insurance Corp – the government group that insures your bank deposits]. I was getting ready to go off to seminary in the fall. Late in the summer, my boss took me to lunch and bluntly asked, “Why do you want to do this seminary thing? We have a good job waiting for you here.” I’ll admit, it was tempting. I liked finance, I liked banking and it was a very long time before I would earn as much money as a pastor as the FDIC offered me as a starting salary. I can still remember that conversation, and I still remember what I told my boss. “Being a pastor is the last, great renaissance job in the world. It’s the last job where it’s ok to be interested in anything and everything.”
A mistake, a huge mistake, I believe the church has made over the past several hundred years is that we haven’t been interested enough in the world around us. We’ve limited conversations about God and Jesus to, at best “spirituality,” and we’ve cut ourselves off from all sorts of interesting and vital conversations. When was the last time you heard a conversation, a really helpful conversation, about biology, genetics or relativity in church? Yeah, me neither. When was the last time we really wrestled with what it means to be a church in the center of a city [or, the center of anything]?
The story of Jesus of Nazareth is a story about how God is intimately connected with the world. When you read the Gospels, you see that Jesus is in the thick of the world. Jesus is born and he lives a real, connected life. He loves people. People love Jesus. People hate Jesus. Jesus gets hungry and grumpy and tired and happy. You can read about how Jesus is patient and then impatient with the world around him. Jesus knows joy and pain, he feels acceptance [sometimes in the most unlikely places] and experiences rejection [sometimes, again, in the most unlikely places]. Jesus wasn’t about a program or an initiative, he was about living an authentic, God-centered life in the world. Jesus doesn’t separate himself from the world, he plunges directly into that world. Once, Jesus said that he didn’t come condemn the world, but to save it. [St. John 3:17]
I’m interested in what these things mean to us. I’m interested in what it means to be a church-type person who’s interested in the world around us, our city and the people in it. I’d like to think again about a lot of things I don’t talk about on Sunday mornings [which is probably a mistake]. I’d like you to think about them with me. We might find that church can be the most interesting place in the world ["in" being the operative word].