April 7, 2019

Lent 5  April 7, 2019   Psalm 126, Isaiah 43:16-21, John 12:1-8,

Philippians 3:4b-14       We press on

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Paul has traded in all his prestigious credentials, honors, and accomplishments… for a share in the lowliness, suffering and death of Jesus. Forgetting what lies behind, the apostle says –  I press on…for the prize of the resurrection life in Jesus Christ…

The guy who once took pride in persecuting the Christian movement has met Jesus – and been transformed… Now even his knowledge of scripture – his zeal for tradition – his pride in his tribal heritage in Israel – his scrupulous living according to the religious law (interpreted by the sect most passionate for keeping all the letter of all the law, the Pharisees, of whom he’s been a proud member) – all this, he now counts as rubbish in the words of our translation – literally as poop in the original Greek words of the New Testament… What’s going on?

All he once considered ultimate’s now been left behind… Now he’s pressing on for the goal of the heavenly calling… and… Everything has become new now, the old has passed away, as the apostle wrote to us last week in 2nd Corinthians (5). Now if anyone’s in Christ there is a new creation.

Yet as we read on in Philippians and all his letters, it’s also clear… Paul never forgets all the scripture he’s patiently studied… His letters are filled with quotes and allusions from Israel’s scriptures. Scriptures now fulfilled in Christ, he believes, in ways he hadn’t previously imagined…. but –

His study of scripture’s never wasted… as now it’s applied in serving Christ.

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I’m no St Paul… But I can identify a little with the changes he’s been going through… I too am no longer the person I once was… All I once knew as an activist, lobbyist, organizer and party-hearty guy’s all in the past. Now like Paul, I press on and try to not look back…

Still… some of what I’ve learned in the past is probably still useful. Some of my past perhaps equips me to serve Jesus better…As I press on… to become all Christ calls me to become… Knowing – I’m nowhere near all the way there yet… But I press on to the prize of the fullness of life in God’s kingdom of grace. No longer who I was… because Christ has made me his own…

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As we celebrate and commemorate our church history this year – in Cataumet 250 years as a local church, 211 as a Methodist church – in Bourne 225 years as a Methodist church – this is a good time to consider God’s peculiar ways of holding our history and our future in creative tension…As…

God speaks a word through Isaiah saying:  Don’t remember the things of old – I’m about to do a new thing… I’m making a way in the wilderness, making rivers flow in the desert… and… God doing a new thing – paradoxically – is not a new thing. On one hand, what God’s doing is always truly new every morning… On the other hand, God’s been doing a new thing forever… Making new from the first verses of Genesis through the last verses of Revelation…

Sometimes God creates new realities out of nothing. More often it seems God makes new creation from our past. Sometimes God appears to be going against his own word – ‘Don’t remember the former things’ – as in Isaiah today we’re reminded of God making a way through the sea’s parted waters – washing Pharaoh’s armies away in the waves – and God giving water in the desert as Israel sojourns in the wilderness 40 years in the Exodus out from slavery on the way to the promised land. God says we should not remember things of old – yet – God keeps doing and saying things to remind us of things of old. So –

Maybe it depends on what we mean by remembering. Noticing – God likes to remind us of our past – but the remembering God suggests is never about nostalgia. Nor re-runs.

Psalm 126 reminds us of times in our history when God has richly blessed us. When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy….

Then it was said among the nations–the Lord has done great things for them.

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced…

The word of God reminds us often of God’s faithfulness in earlier days… But the psalmist isn’t wishing us back into bygone days…When we say and sing and pray the psalm we do so in expectation of new joys ahead. Even as we remember…tears and struggle will be required. As the psalmist prays –

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy

God uses our past to bless our future…our tears to make seeds sprout and grow… as we press on to the prize of our heavenly calling…

St Paul’s letter is a reminder that – along with all the joy and peace we find in Jesus – suffering, tears, and struggle also come with following Jesus. Jesus doesn’t ask us all to be martyrs, nor does Paul. When he’s talking about wanting to be like Jesus in his death he’s probably not being literal. Since earlier in this letter he says even though he’d be happier in heaven with Jesus – he’s pretty sure he’s more useful for Christ here on earth sharing the gospel. And lest we hear this cynically, like – everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die – remember –

Paul’s writing this letter from a jail cell. Philippians is one of four Pauline letters written from prison. In those days food was scarce in prisons. You could starve unless family or friends brought you food. Jail was hard. And Paul could easily have nurtured anger and bitterness toward those who imprison him… But as he says elsewhere in this letter – I have learned to accept chains and prison walls as yet another means of reaching people with the gospel of Christ. His imprisonment has made Christ known to many among his guards, tough soldiers… who now speak well of Christ because of him…

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Which reminds me of Nelson Mandela of South Africa…As a young man, leader of Spear of the Nation, armed-struggle wing of the African National Congress. Imprisoned 27 years, at first without even a bed – just a mat of straw – allowed only one visit and one letter every six months.

Mandela never changed his mind about the need for prolonged struggle for justice – and a complete end to apartheid – the brutal system of total segregation of the races – people of color denied any voice in the life of the nation. But Mandela kept up his spirits…He read, studied law, conversed with other prisoners and prison guards. He pressed on… Studied and learned Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch-white-minority-oppressors of the Black majority. Internal and international pressures were gradually making it obvious to those in power…change would have to come… either by violence or through negotiations…

Now Mandela’s skills as an advocate and negotiator proved useful… as he talked with prison authorities… Then higher level government officials…Eventually he was able to persuade the white minority government that he understood their history, their fears, their concerns… Finally he was released. Long difficult negotiations followed. He pressed on.

Mandela had to persuade not only whites in power, but also Black South Africans who’d suffered so very long under apartheid… Had to convince people on all sides that peace and democracy were possible… and essential…

He pressed on…And was elected president… with former president F.W. de Klerk as his vice president… Upon release from prison Mandela spent his first night of freedom in the home of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a fellow anti-apartheid activist, Archbishop of Cape Town. (Interestingly, I learned –  Mandela and Tutu were both educated by Methodist missionaries…Bishop Tutu’s parents and President Mandela’s wife Grace were Methodists too…)

And if you are wondering why I’m talking so much about South Africa? What’s this got to do with St Paul and pressing on to the goal?

Probably it’s because I’m seeing our nation and our church drifting into the same kinds of radical polarization South Africa’s suffered. Now lines of division are so often drawn in hard and fast ways. Those we disagree with so often are demonized, dehumanized – made to seem completely unlike us… Conspiracy theories abound… Hair-trigger responses fly on social media anytime anyone speaks or blinks… We have much to learn from the history of South Africa…

When he became President, Nelson Mandela asked Bishop Tutu to serve as Chairman of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu told Mandela, “I’m not qualified. I have no training in that sort of thing. All I know how to do is cry and laugh.” “That will be enough,” Mandela said.

I watched video footage yesterday of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission  meeting. Sure enough – hearing one man’s testimony of how he was tortured by the government, Bishop Tutu broke down sobbing. Put his head down on the table weeping. Later he apologized, saying ‘it’s supposed to be about hearing victims speak…not about me…’ After that he could often be seen biting his hand… to remind himself…. not to break down weeping…

And… He could also be seen laughing…even almost dancing for joy… whenever – as sometimes happened – enemies embraced and forgave each other…

Mandela had the same gift…I watched a video of him speaking at the 70th birthday of F.W. de Klerk, his predecessor as President and his first Vice President. Mandela was 88 at the time. He spoke first in Afrikaans, de Klerk’s language. Then in English he wished de Klerk happy birthday. Saying ‘you may think I’m almost twenty years your senior. But you would be forgetting – I had nearly thirty years of vacation on an island (a reference to his Robben Island prison years) – while you were working in the thick of it. So you see, we are in the same age bracket.’ Going on then to acknowledge they had many differences of opinion over the years, some expressed in public… But always they continued to respect each other…

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The prophets of Israel and the apostles of Christian faith remind us… the blessings of peace and freedom, and the good fruit of a harvest of justice… all depend on persistence in trusting God…

We sow in tears – as the psalmist reminds us…

And the tears of God’s people water the seeds of faith we sow in hope….

Life on earth has been like this since we left the garden… Will be till God’s new garden city descends to earth – and God’s river of life flows through the heavenly city – and the tree of life will bear fruit – and the fruit of the tree of life is for the healing of the nations.

We’re not all the way there yet.

But we will be – as long as…

We press on…

Thanks be to God.  Amen.