The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 3, 2022
The Fifth Sunday in Lent is an invitation to gratitude and adventure. The readings invite us to embrace God’s future while honoring the past. God is our help in ages past, and also our hope in years to come. God is constantly doing a new thing, and God’s new thing builds on God’s past faithfulness. God makes a way – and in the past made a way – where we perceive only dead ends and failure. God works in our world and our history, taking us beyond our self-imposed limits to entertain and embody new possibilities for faithful service. Guided by Christ’s vision, we keep our eyes on the prize, constantly moving ahead. Faith tends towards a type of chaos, an iconoclasm that pushes us beyond our institutional structures. But innovative faith needs to be balanced by honoring tradition and discovering the order that enlivens and inspires. How will this innovative and imaginative faith inspire hope to respond the apparent unsolvable issues of our personal lives and our time, whether we consider our own fallibility and pain or the realities of war, incivility, climate change, racism, and so forth?
Isaiah proclaims that God is about to do a new thing! A new way is being made, made possible by God’s liberating actions. The One who has delivered the children of Israel in the past will deliver them again in the future, bringing them from captivity to freedom, from the heaviness of the past to the openness of the future. God is taking the initiative and presenting new possibilities to a people who, like their parents in Egypt, see no way forward. God’s way forward will include the non-human as well as human creation, as God embodies God’s own “green new deal” to heal the planet.
“Behold I do a new thing” is an important message for most churches to hear. Most churches are in the spiritual wilderness and don’t see a clear pathway ahead. We are trying to breathe new life into church following COVID, maintain high quality hybrid worship, while encouraging the well to return physically to church. We struggle with budget deficits, shrinking memberships and attendance, and aging congregations (although ironically, the Medicare generation has returned to church, while many members with young families attend on Zoom or not at all), and are tempted to stop right where we are and continue as long as we can with little hope for revival. Some have given up entirely, waiting for the day when their financial resources will be depleted, and they will be forced to close the doors. We struggle between tradition and innovation, and past and future. The church has been a tail light, to quote Martin Luther King, and God wants it to be a headlight, illuminating a new positive future for itself and the world. Our way forward takes us beyond the past, even the positive past, to God’s creative future.
Our success will not depend primarily on our programs and initiatives but our response to God’s unique initiative for our communities, given their histories and hopes, and our current post-Covid, divided and uncivil nation, and war time status. Today’s scriptures invite us to spiritual disciplines that open us to God’s provocative possibilities for the future. God calls us to be a headlight aimed at the horizons of Shalom and reminds us that even small and struggling churches can be vital and missional, if they open to God’s new thing. Saving one soul can save the world, and any congregation can be a world-saver.
Psalm 126 promises joy and celebration after a season of mourning and despair. The hopeless are finding new hope. Something new is happening. Within the concrete, and sometimes negative, limitations of our histories, God is delivering us from bondage and presenting us with a lively and new future.
In the passage from Philippians, the apostle Paul challenges us to go forward in faith with eyes on the prize of companionship with Christ. Faith is not backward-looking, nor does it rest on its laurels. Paul had accomplished much in his zealous youth; he was at the top of his profession. But then God invited him to something more – to a living relationship with a living God. Everything before his encounter with Jesus, Paul says with more a little hyperbole, is rubbish compared to where he is going. Paul is not jettisoning his past. His rhetoric cannot dismiss his youthful ardor as in Judaism. In truth, Paul would not be here as apostle to the Gentiles, straining toward the goal, if he hadn’t been there, a zealous Jesus leader, committed to preserving the purity of his faith. His moving forward depends on his past just as our moving forward as congregations depends of the commitment of those who have gone before us.
Still, Paul challenges us to keep our eyes on the prize. Healthy faith – abundant living – looks ahead, and is inspired by visions of the future, grounded in the accomplishments of the past. There is always “more,” a far horizon that beckons us – new mission, new forms of worship, new political challenges, new ways to articulate the faith and serve the world.
The Gospel reading portrays two essential facets of love. Perhaps, the pastor might include the passage from Luke 10:38-42, also involving Mary, Martha, and Lazarus to place Mary’s act of love in a wider, more holistic perspective, describing two sides of faith, the active and contemplative, the quotidian and the ecstatic. In both passages, Martha is serving. In the Luke passage, she ensures that the guests have appropriate hospitality. Although Martha tends to become too task oriented and anxious – she wants things just right – her service is essential to the evening and makes Mary’s attentiveness possible.
We need people concerned with brick and mortar, and we need mystics and imaginative thinkers. They are the yin and yang of congregational life, spirituality, and our own maturity in the faith. Martha pays the bills, so Mary can love extravagantly. We need housework and romance in a relationship and consistency and mysticism in the church and our personal lives. There is a time for building the infrastructure and insuring institutional well-being for the long-haul, this is Martha’s gift, and there is a time to throw caution to the wind, Mary’s contribution. Perhaps, in their own spiritual growth, Mary will become more earthly-minded and Martha more imaginative and mystical.
Mary’s extravagance reminds us that we have enough to be generous in time, talent, and treasure. She gives without limit, and we can too, finding ways to balance fiscal responsibility with generosity and support of our citizens with welcoming of refugees from Ukraine and South America. We can rejoice and feed the hungry, we can have fun and be socially responsible. In fact, passionate and joyful people energize our social outreach.
The challenge is to find the creative synthesis of order and novelty, security and abandon, quotidian and transcendent. The whole earth reflects God’s glory and in response, even brick and mortar can be windows into divinity. Behold, God calls us to something new, and our novelty in this time and place is grounded in God’s novel inspirations throughout history and embodied in this present moment.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 60 books, including PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; and 101 SOUL SEEKS FOR GRANDPARENT