Lent 5, Year C, 2016
Donna Joy

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

It seems to me that this morning’s readings speak about the importance of remembering. But there are a number of ways in which we can choose to remember. We all know of the tendency to remain stuck in the past, stuck in a particularly negative view of what has been. Sometimes people, communities, entire cultures can remain so stuck in traumas of the past it is hard to imagine a brighter future. It is hard work to crawl out of devastatingly bad experiences, and discover the power of God's love, comfort and peace moving forward.

Another way of remembering is to think times in the past through rose coloured glasses. Of course this means that we remember only the good times without recalling also the struggles, and the challenges that were also part of the story. This tendency is found in the Israelite people, as they travel the long and hard road through the dessert toward the Promised Land they start complaining about Moses and his leadership, remembering their lives in Egypt living as slaves as not really so bad. I think we often engage in this kind of remembering within the life of the church. Often when parishes are imagining their way forward, they remember the past in a rosy kind of a way: a time when Sunday schools were full of children, when pews were automatically full because going to church was an automatic instinct, and finances were stable. It seems that this focus on a rosy, unrealistic kind of a past serves as a block to envisioning God’s plan here and now and into the future.

This is one of the many reasons why I feel so blessed to have been chosen to serve as incumbent here at St. Peter’s where there is very little time and energy spent focusing on a perceived glory days of the past. Instead, there is tremendous time and energy spent on discerning the new things that God is creating here and now as we prepare to move into the future. Here at St. Peter’s God is creating new things through reaching out to our local community, sponsoring refugees, hosting a conference that allows people to reflect theologically on Physician Assisted Dying, preparing worship that feeds and nurtures people and empowers us for leadership and ministry... Certainly, particularly as we celebrate this parish's 60th anniversary, we remember God’s presence here at St. Peter’s in our past, and we allow this to become an important building block as we discern the new things God is creating in our midst today and into the future.

I think this is the kind of remembering that Isaiah is challenging in our first reading this morning. Here the Israelite people are in exile. They have lost their homes, their land, and their very identity is at risk. And as they remember the life they have lost, they are perhaps becoming so focused on what was that they are blind to what is yet to be; they are blind to the new thing that God is creating. And this is where Isaiah delivers that seemingly (at first glance) strange message, where he says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.”

Certainly at first glance this seems really odd, because God’s people have always been told that they are to be a people who remember. But I think the message here is that they (we) are not to remember in the way that the Israelite people are remembering. We are not to dwell on the past; focus on the past; get stuck in the past. We are, however, called to remember God’s promise to always be with us; to always lead us through the trials of this life; to always create something new, particularly in the midst of the struggles and the challenges. And in this way, Isaiah does offer a message of remembering as he says, “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior...” In other words, this God has opened up the mighty waters so that you may be led from slavery into freedom... this same God has promised to always create something new... this same God is creating something even as you experience this terrifying time in exile.

This morning's Eucharistic Prayer is one that has been approved by the Anglican Church of Canada, and is available for use as a supplemental prayer. I encourage you to pay attention to some of the remembering that is included in this prayer. Remember Hagar, who was driven into the wilderness, yet in that wilderness place she found hope in God; she discovered that even in that desolate and terrifying place God was creating something new. Remember Joseph, who was hatefully betrayed and sold into bondage, yet even in the midst of all that God creates astonishing new possibilities out of hatred and malice. And, of course, because it is so central to our story as Christians rooted in Hebrew Scripture, this prayer remembers God's promise to always create something new through leading the Israelite people out of slavery into freedom, and when this same people was exiled God wept with them and carried them home.

So, rather than remembering the past by either getting stuck in negative experiences of the past, or glossing over all that through rose coloured glasses, remember instead the God who has promised to be with you always, who has done great things for you in the past, and is in doing something great for you and with you even now.

Fast forward then to our Gospel reading for today, because it seems to me that this passage anticipates the climax of God’s plan to offer something new. It is this notion of newness breaking into a tired, old world that binds Second-Isaiah so closely to Christianity. What Isaiah is promising as the coming of a new thing, Jesus lives out in surprising new ways; Jesus embodies this promise of that which is new. Both Isaiah and Jesus proclaim the arrival of a new age, in the midst of oppression. (Isaiah in the midst of exile; Jesus in the midst of oppressive Roman rule.) Both of them explore the depths of oppression along with innocent suffering, and they suggest that God is creating something new.

This morning's story takes place within the context of a seemingly simple dinner party. This party takes place elsewhere throughout the N.T., and while the details differ from one telling to the other, in John’s Gospel there are five guests that we know of, and perhaps others who are not mentioned. These guests include:

  1. Lazarus (the embodiment of the ‘new thing’ which Jesus proclaims);
  2. Martha who, as per usual, dutifully and faithfully serves;
  3. Mary who pours perfumed ointment on Jesus’ feet then wipes it off with her hair which she has loosened (let down) – an unacceptable social act which could easily be interpreted as inappropriate. But – still - she chooses to honour Jesus in this way. Perhaps it is a gesture expressing gratitude, as only one chapter previously in John’s Gospel Jesus has raised her brother, Lazarus, from the dead. We simply do not know exactly her intention. What is clear is that she recognizes Jesus as one who needs to be honoured in the most extravagant of ways. Some scholars suggest that this ointment would have cost the equivalent of one year’s wages. Her honouring of Jesus is full and complete; she holds nothing back; she makes significant sacrifices for him; she takes risks in order to honour him in the best possible way;
  4. Judas who, of course, ridicules this woman for her extravagance in order to justify his own corrupt gain.
  5. Jesus, who is clearly the centre of this story, as we would hope he is ours.

As we reflect on this story, we are encouraged to remember one primary truth in addition to a number of secondary truths which follow. The primary truth here is that Jesus is the guest of honour, whose death and resurrection we will be remembering throughout Holy Week and Easter Weekend. In Jesus, God has offered something new; something new that reconciles us to God Himself; something new that has continued to become new throughout the ages; something new that continues to offer new hope and new life today, tomorrow, and the day and days after that.

And, with that first and primary truth remembered, we also remember that to be a Christian is to be committed to looking for God’s ‘new thing’, for the signs of reconciliation in a fragmented world where so much alienation appears. It is like those children’s black and white colouring books which you paint carefully with water and then hidden colours are revealed.

Being Christian involves looking at the world – the world inside ourselves and the world outside ourselves – and taking note of the difference between what is and what could be, and then recognizing that this difference is precisely where the signs of God’s new age may be seen. As we remember these ancient stories which speak of God always creating something new:

We remember Lazarus who embodies that gift of new life. As we remember Lazarus, we might ask how do our lives embody God's promise to always create something new out of the ashes of disappointment and despair. How do our lives embody forgiveness and healing and love, rather than hatred, brokenness, and resentment; hope rather than despair.

We remember Judas (poor, misguided, conflicted Judas) let us search deep within ourselves to find the Judas that exists within each of us; those places where we allow our own self centered agendas to prevent the breaking in of God’s new things.

We remember and are inspired by Martha – may our commitment to servanthood allow us to become channels through which God’s new creations may come to life (love, peace, forgiveness, justice, generosity...) Indeed, may the Martha within each of us allow God’s new creations come to life.

We remember and are inspired by Mary – may we worship Jesus with the absolute best of what God has given us to offer – each time we anoint each other, the church, and the world with grace, humility, courage, and compassion we anoint Jesus with the best that God has given us to offer.

In the midst of this fragile life we live; in the midst of all the disappointments, and challenges, and struggles, we remember that God is always with us; always creating something new. Let us be open to that great and glorious gift, and be channels through which it is made known to others.