The Name of the Book is “Opportunity “
Paul Edwin Ellis Jackson
University Congregational Church
January 3, 2016
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Isaiah 43:18-19New International Version (NIV)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17New International Version (NIV)
“We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.”
― Edith Lovejoy Pierce
A few Sundays ago Robin preached on the Gospels and how we are all writing the Gospel anew ourselves. Each time we act out of Christian love we are adding sentences and exclamation points to the Good News. Each time we embody one of the teachings of Jesus we are putting a new paragraph in our version of the Gospel. When we recall one of the parables and use it to teach someone in our lives the moral nugget therein, we are indenting the paragraphs and formatting the text of our Gospel. We, each of us, are writing our own Gospel each day that we are alive. Here, in the present moment, is when we write the Gospel best.
But how do we do this when we can’t get to the present? How do we write the Good News when we’re not so sure we’re worthy of Good News? What about those of us who are stuck in the past? The prophet Isaiah tells us that we are to “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Our ancient prophet to the people of Judea is still speaking wisdom today, isn’t he? And while he was writing to an ancient people who had been through the worst parts of the Exodus and he was wanting them to forget the misery and humiliation they had been subjected to, don’t his words ring true today? So while our Jewish family from old had been startled by the parting of the Red Sea and their fear of traveling through the desert, they were being reminded of this so they could remember that the New Exodus was even more divine—was even more life-affirming. They were looking at a life of slavery and endless drudgery and had been given new life and a new way to see the past. New lenses through which to look at their story. They would not have their new lives if they had not left Egypt. They had to go through their Exodus to gain their new lives.
I remember once when I received a new prescription on my eyeglasses after I had gone a number of years without an eye check-up. My eyesight had declined somewhat, but because it happened gradually I was unaware of the change. Until I put on that new prescription. I remember standing outside in awe as I was able to make out the detail in the trees, they were so green and I could now see individual leaves where before I had just seen a green blob. It was stunning. But I would have never experienced that if I had not gotten new lenses with which to see. Viewing our past is similar. If we are looking at old events with unhealthy eyes, then we might not be seeing what really happened.
Here are some signs that perhaps you are viewing things from your past in an unhealthy and possibly destructive manner—perhaps you need a new prescription!
1) Do you embellish the past? When the truth about a past event just doesn’t live up to your expectations, or if it doesn’t make for a good story, we might find ourselves embellishing things that have happened. A childhood injury becomes much more dire than it really was, or our role in a heroic sporting event was much less. I actually have a trophy from when our team won first place in basketball. That’s the truth. I was on a first place basketball team when I was in Junior High. What I’m omitting is that it was awarded during the year I had a severe bout of walking pneumonia and did not play in a single game. But because my name was on the roster, I got a trophy. You get the picture. I can claim that I was a basketball superstar. I don’t, because that’s not important to me, but you can see how this might be tempting in certain situations.
2) Do you ignore the past? This may seem like an easy way out, but it’s not very healthy for us. We must acknowledge the bad events in our pasts if we are to face them and move on from them. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself reminded of whatever past event affected you at the worst possible times. This one often takes some professional assistance so if you think you are hiding from something in your past; find a counselor or therapist who can help you face it.
3) Do you romanticize the past? Humans have an amazing propensity for self-delusion. The statistics on people who return to abusive relationships to only have the abuse continue are staggering. These people are romanticizing the past. They might think: “It wasn’t all that bad, she didn’t manipulate me that much” or “He didn’t mean to hurt me and he promised he’ll never do it again and we have so much fun together when he’s not angry—I should go back—it’s better than being all alone”. Call this what it is—if your relationships bring out the worst in you (and others) don’t let fickle human emotions make what is toxic look like treasure and tempt you into returning.
There are more of these: Denying our pasts, imitating our pasts, inheriting our past, but they all share a common theme: Not dealing with a past event that keeps us from moving forward—from making positive changes in our lives. And while I’m talking mostly about individuals, I think institutions are often subjected to the same thing. Even churches. When a church cannot forgive itself of past mistakes, when it cannot take an honest look at its errors or tragic circumstances, when a church cannot look at its past with clear eyes and simply acknowledge what occurred, then that church has a difficult time moving forward. It remains mired in the past, unable to propel itself into a future of hope and love. And a big part of moving forward is thinking about how we write our story of our past for others. If we are constantly dredging up old hurts and perceived wrongs in front of people who are reading our story for the first time, well how does that reflect the Gospel? How is that Good News?
In roughly year 57 of the Common Era, St. Paul writes to a church in Corinth suffering from just this very malady. The burgeoning church in Corinth was suffering from financial and political woes. It had become mired in its own worries and had forgotten its very reason for being: A proclaimer of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul writes to Corinth and says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” To me, Paul is telling us “the old that has gone” is the old, selfish desires of a self-centered life. The “new that is here” is the inner changes that occur when our thoughts and ambitions are no longer centered on ourselves, but on the bigger world—on the Beloved Community of Right Relationships that Jesus taught about.
That is the Good News. That is the Gospel that each of us is writing, each day that we claim to be Christians. It has nothing to do with doctrine and dogma and everything to do with building the Beloved Community of Right Relationships right here and right now. Each day of our lives are blank pages on which to write our interpretation of the Gospel. Your interpretation of the Gospel is probably different from mine and that’s okay. The more I work with these texts, the more I find that interpretation matters much more than we have ever been led to believe. And the responsibility to be good interpreters lies with each of us.
Edith Lovejoy Pierce, the 20th Century poet and pacifist wrote these words: “We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.” As you complete the sacred of task of turning the pages of your calendar or day planner and begin to fill your hours and your days with the responsibilities and tasks and duties of your life, make sure to make a little time for play. Make sure to make a little time for worship and prayer and meditation. Make sure to plan a little time for your family and your friends. Each page you fill in your calendar reflects the life that you live. These three hundred and sixty some pages extending before us in 2016 are pages of opportunity. Myriad opportunities for us to better build the Beloved Community. Is there a mission or outreach that fills you with passion? An idea that inspires you to action? Let’s get together and flesh it out. We should be a community of 300 plus ministries. Each one of you active in our shared ministries and passionate about the ministry that lights your fire—the thing that ignites within you the spark of light and love. Is it working with our homeless community? Robin and I can hook you up with the right resources! Is it helping our communities’ poor families? I can think of a dozen places for you to serve off the top of my head. Do you have a desire to help more with our Hygiene Pantry? We can get you in touch with the people who will put you to work. Do you want help young gay and transgendered people navigate this complex world that often doesn’t seem to give them a break? I got you covered! Reach out to me and Robin in the coming days and we will find you a place to serve.
The days that stretch ahead of us this year offer plenty of opportunities for us to write the Gospel and to maybe get it right. The coming days and weeks and months offer us so many opportunities to better live in Right relationship with one and another. I’m grateful for this church and this congregation and thank God for the opportunities that lie before us in the coming New Year.
Please stand if you are able and sing the traditional tune, Auld Lang Syne.