“See, I am doing something new!”

Listen to mp3 file
5th Sunday of Lent, Year C: March 21, 2010
Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126:1-6; Phil 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

At the Sunday morning Mass, I felt that I should ignore my prepared homily text from the evening before and instead trace a different theme. Something new, indeed! This is a transcription of what I said, with some tidying up of grammar and word choice.

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“See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” It is a curious message that we hear from the Lord in this first reading, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah—because, where it begins, it is recalling the events of the past; and then it says, “Remember not the events of the past.” Well, that’s helpful! What’s going on?

These words in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah are addressed to the People of the Israel at the time that they are being held in captivity in the exile in Babylon. And so these words, first of all, point them back to the great works that the Lord did in rescuing them from Egypt in the Exodus, approximately 700 years earlier. He recalls how he made a path for them through the Red Sea; and how for them he destroyed Pharaoh’s army that was pursuing them. And yet it seems that if they would remember that too fixedly, too strongly, then they would be stuck in only remembering the past. And he wanted to remind them of it in order to call vividly to their minds now the deeds that he had done—the deeds that characterized him, that showed who he was—but to tell them that he was about to do something new, something that would surpass these deeds of the past. Before, he had opened a way in the sea; now, he would make a way in the desert. He would bring them back from exile, back to the Holy Land from which they had been taken.

To remember the past was something that they needed to do, in order to gain confidence and hope that the Lord would rescue them. But to not remember it too strongly, to hold it lightly, as they then focused on the present and the future, in order to see what the Lord would do for them now—this was also something they needed to do. “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not. See, I am doing something new!”

All of the readings that we hear today have something to do with this movement from the past to the future. And it is a very appropriate message for us during this season of Lent each year, when we consider the theme of repentance—since repentance means turning. It assumes, in an almost physical way, that we have been pointed in one direction—internally, in our thoughts, in our feelings, our values, our choices; and then externally, in all the ways that those internal elements work themselves out, in our words, in our actions of all kinds. And the Lord says: Repent. Turn from where you were pointed, inwardly and outwardly; turn towards the new path that I will open for you.

What is it that lies behind us, in our past—individually or collectively? Surely, in some ways, we identify with the woman who was caught in adultery. In her case, as the Pharisees say, she was caught in the very act. Perhaps, at some point in the past, we were caught in some sinful action; or perhaps we never were. In the case of this woman, surely this one act did not stand alone in her past; surely there were other acts similar to it. Surely behind those acts were certain wounds, certain desires, certain needs that she had tried to meet through turning to these sinful acts—tried to numb, tried to get something that she wanted or needed. All of this was in her past; as it may be in ours. And in the Gospel reading, it had brought her to the point at which she was in danger of having her life brought to an end—literally, physically, through stoning by those around her.

But Jesus does something new. He does not condemn her. He does not excuse her either, because that would leave her in the bondage that she had been in before. But instead, he says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” And he opens for her a different path: Don’t go down this path that you have been on, this path of sin and suffering and hurt; turn and go down a new path that I open for you, in myself.

That is one aspect of the past that we may need to not remember too strongly, but instead to accept the Lord’s forgiveness truly and deeply, and be ready to begin on his new path.

For St. Paul, his past held something different. He had had an outstanding record of holiness and achievement within the Jewish religion in which he had grown up. And shortly before the passage of this second reading, and in several of his letters, he recites all of the different things that he had been or done. And yet, out of all those things that could be admired by others, and that he himself had valued greatly: when he met Christ on the road to Damascus, he discovered that there was something far greater. He discovered, in fact, that some of the things that he used to be proud of had been great mistakes. But, even compared to those things that really were great, he saw that there was something greater, that he needed to turn toward in his life. And even now, writing to the church in Philippi a few decades after his conversion—even with those accomplishments, those journeys, all that preaching, his suffering for Christ; with all of that in his past—he still says, “I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” With so many good things in his past, to remember and to be grateful for, and to inspire him to trust the Lord more, still he turns from there and looks to the future.

St. Paul may be writing this letter from one of his imprisonments. He may be being held in prison in Rome in his first imprisonment there as he writes. And he may well realize that those times when he was in danger of losing his life through martyrdom were comparatively easy. But now: would he stay true? Would he continue to trust the Lord during his time in prison? I have often seen the quote from Flannery O’Connor: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.” And St. Paul is probably in this situation in reverse: to simply have been killed would have been easy; but to live? To continue to live, in his case, perhaps in prison? Would he have the strength to continue and reach that goal? Would he persevere? He had received so much already; but would he stay faithful and reach the goal and the great promise that had been made to him, of the resurrection? “Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”

This parish has a tremendous history, as we know: in some ways stretching back to 1640; the two earlier building locations; this location for almost 200 years; this chapel building for most 100 years. And the history continues. There are some things to be ashamed of, like the woman caught in adultery; and many things to be proud of, and to be grateful to God for. And yet, it is necessary to hold those things lightly: to draw lessons from them of trust in God, and yet to be ready for what God may have in the future. “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” What new work may the Lord want to accomplish in and through this parish? What new thing does he want to do?

And in each of our lives, we can look back and see the things that we are ashamed of and desperately would want to change; and we can see those things that we are proud of or grateful for, and very much want to remember. But in both cases, the Lord invites us to a new path: Do not hold too tightly to the things of the past, but be ready to listen to my voice now. “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

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Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 3:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

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