January 12, 2020

“God is Doing a New Thing”

Mark 2:1-22

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

January 12, 2020


How do you respond when you see that God is doing a new thing?  Do you go “all in” and embrace the change? Or do you wait and see?  Or do you tend to resist?


A number of years ago, our church got on board with a strategic planning process called the New Creation Initiative.  Over three years, we were trained with a dozen sister churches from Oahu, Maui and Kauai to take a look at who we were and what God was calling us to be.  We were challenged to think about the nature of the church and we thought together about the ways in which we could become a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God.  We wrote our Missional Strategy, which provided us with our vision and mission statements.


It was exciting for me because I learned a lot in the company of colleagues.  The pastors of the churches involved would often meet ahead of the training for the church leaders, and we became close as we wrestled with the challenges of leading in a world where churches seemed to be losing their relevance.  Thinking about church anew energized us.  


The idea of church changed from a place where people could gather to get their spiritual food that would sustain them for the rest of the week to a people who were called together and sent into the world to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Our identity would be shaped by mission—being sent into the world.


We were given permission and tools to do church life in new and different ways.  Many churches reorganized their governing structures.  It was an exciting time.


But one of the questions that nagged me during this strategic planning process was how we dealt with our history and how we remembered and cherished the ways church had been meaningful for so many people.  At times, we teetered on the edge of bashing the church that had formed me and disrespecting the faith of my parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles, both biological and spiritual.  These folks and the church I grew up in loved me into a relationship with Jesus.  Could they have been so misguided in their understanding of church?


Well, I don’t think they were wrong.  God had indeed been present and active among them in all those years in the past.  Their faith and efforts had built a community of faith that nurtured thousands of people, and had blessed the neighborhood in which they lived and served.


But God was doing a new thing among us, shaping our understanding of church in a new way for this generation.  So I began to think of church in a different way, appreciating the past for all the gifts and graces it offered, but thinking anew about how we could be the people of God for this time and this situation we are in today.


Change is hard because we think that it means we’ve been doing things wrong, and that’s why it has to change.  And we don’t want to think that the old ways were wrong.  We don’t want to criticize our past, because that’s what made us who we are.  So we resist change, and we resist those who bring change.  We say to those with new ideas, “You don’t know how things run around here.  That’s not how we’ve done it.”  


When I read today’s Scripture reading, I realized that’s what was going on.  Jesus was gaining a lot of attention for his healing and teaching.  But then he was saying and doing things that were new, a reinterpretation of the practices of the past.  And it shook people up.


The Law of Moses and the practices related to keeping the law had been in place for hundreds and hundreds of years.  They had been given to the people of Israel to help them keep their covenant with God.  The practices were a cherished tradition, making them unique among other nations.  They had a relationship with the Lord that was based on grace and trust and God’s faithfulness to them.


James Hanson described how the Pharisees viewed the role and purpose of the Law: 

“The Pharisees, especially the more conservative ones, believed that God had given the law as a means of carving out a sphere of holiness and righteousness on earth -- the very presence of God on earth depended on it, they believed. The boundaries the law prescribed between sin and righteousness, clean and unclean, sacred time and space and profane, Jew and Gentile, and between physical imperfection and wholeness -- these could not be breached without profound damage to the social and religious order. And, occupied as they were by the Romans at the time, maintaining order was paramount. These are not trivial concerns… (James Hanson, Working Preacher commentary for January 10, 2016, www.workingpreacher.com)


The Pharisees took seriously their responsibility to interpret and keep the Law and its related practices.  It was important to live in response to God’s holiness and righteousness.  But when Jesus came, God was clearly doing a new thing.  Not that he was throwing out the old traditions, but helping people to see them anew and renew their relationship with the Lord.  Understandably, the Pharisees and other religious leaders felt threatened by Jesus’ presence and ministry.


It seemed that wherever Jesus went, exciting and new things happened.  I’m sure that the owner of the house and the crowds gathered to see Jesus were very irritated when four men dug a hole in the roof.  But they really needed Jesus to see and heal him.  I think Jesus was impressed by their creativity and resourcefulness, doing whatever they had to do to bring their paralyzed friend to him. 


And even more irritating and alarming to the religious leaders was Jesus’ pronouncement that the man’s sins had been forgiven.  Only God could forgive sins.  Who was Jesus, that he would be able to forgive?


Not only did Jesus pronounce forgiveness, but he healed the man.  He could walk again!  Healing was not only physical, but relational and spiritual.  Jesus knew that the man needed forgiveness—not because he was paralyzed, but because all people need to repent and be forgiven.  Jesus knew that that’s the healing he needed first.  The physical healing was good, but the man was a spiritual being too.  And yes, Jesus did have authority to forgive sins.  God was doing a new thing.


Jesus called Levi, a tax collector, to follow him.  And then Jesus proceeded to have dinner with Levi and his tax collector friends, and “sinners,” those who were not religious and clearly didn’t follow the Torah.  Tax collectors were not ideal candidates for becoming students of a rabbi.  They were despised because they had essentially turned on their communities to work for the Roman Empire.  They often collected more taxes than the Romans required because they could, and they were rich.


But instead of seeing unclean and undesirable people who should not be part of the faith community, Jesus saw people who needed grace, people who needed to be in relationship with God, who needed to be drawn back into the community of faith.  Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (v. 17).  God was doing an old thing by extending God’s blessing of Abraham, but God was also doing a new thing in Jesus by welcoming those who had been excluded from the community of faith and who needed healing in their relationship with God.


Jesus also changed the way people thought about spiritual practices, like fasting.  There was an appropriate time for fasting.  You don’t fast when there’s a wedding and the bridegroom is present.  When the bridegroom is taken away, a rather unlikely but terrible event, that’s the time to fast.  Jesus didn’t want people to just go through the motions of doing spiritual practices like fasting just because of tradition.  Think about the reason for fasting.  The timing will sort itself out if we understand the reason we fast.  


Forgiveness and healing, who should be invited to come into the kingdom of God, how to live one’s spiritual life through disciplines and practices—Jesus wanted folks to see these things anew and connect them more with God through them.  God was doing something new, and this new thing required new containers, new forms, new wineskins.  Notice that Jesus didn’t say to throw out the old garment that needed patching.  Just use the right kind of patch, not an unshrunk piece of cloth.  He didn’t suggest that the old wineskin with the old wine was no good.  Just realize that new wine is still fermenting, and it needs a new wineskin that will stretch and expand with it.


God is doing a new thing, but it doesn’t mean the former things God had done had no meaning.  The challenge is for us to embrace the new while appreciating the traditions and practices that brought us to the present.


I’ve shared what we’re trying to do with our Intergenerational Activities with people outside our church.  And while many are intrigued by our new approach to learning, some cannot understand how we do not have Sunday School.  I try to gently explain that Sunday School was very effective in its day, but we are in a new situation.  We’re trying to deliver the same lessons about Jesus that many of us learned in Sunday School in a new way, through conversation and interactions among learners of different generations.  


This week, I was writing my annual report, and as I looked at the many things we’ve done together as a church, I gave thanks to God for our congregation’s openness to trying new things—not for the sake of being innovative, but because we want people to be drawn into a relationship with Jesus Christ.  We’ve experimented with a number of initiatives, like children’s activities and a Facebook page.  While we don’t know where this will all go, it is our attempt to be faithful and to follow God’s lead into new areas of ministry and new ways of doing ministry.


It wasn’t easy for Jesus to introduce new ways of living in relationship to God.  As we continue to read the gospel of Mark, Jesus will face more and more opposition and resistance.  And yet, we can see that his ministry is a continuation of the relationship God had begun with Abraham, Moses, and Israel.  Our challenge is to see our story continuing this thread, but also being open to new ways of living in relationship to God.  There will be resistance, just like Jesus experienced, but our part is to keep focused on what God is doing, and to join in that ministry.


God is doing a new thing through Jesus.  Can we see it?  Can we join God’s mission?  Let it be so.