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2 Corinthians 5:16-17
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Or so says the philosopher behind the book of Ecclesiastes, the same guy who gives us another not-so-uplifting mantra that entered the mainstream: All is vanity.
Bear with me, if you will, for a brief tangent on biblical interpretation. the bottom line of which is this: Bunk.
Don’t get me wrong: I take the Bible very seriously. And I’m not one who believes we can just pick and choose from the Bible, hanging on to the good parts and throwing away what we don’t like. But neither am I one who believes that every word is literally true, or that we can determine the godly position on this issue or that by plucking out a particular verse and using it as a weapon to make a point or to denigrate certain kinds of people.
I consider the Bible to be a library of stories and beliefs and instructions written over thousands of years reflecting the perspectives of various writers coming from different personal and historical situations. It is God’s story and our story. And I take it as a whole. When there are contradictions, I measure them against the consistent messages and themes. I consider the arc of the one grand story—the story of a creator God who will stop at nothing to woo and love and heal and restore and bless and live in holy union with her redeemed and sacred creation. And, as a Christian, my one hermeneutic is Jesus. Which is to say: My understanding of any one part of the Bible is based on how and whether it fits with the life and ministry and message of Jesus.
Which is to say, of the philosopher’s “nothing new under the sun” pronouncement: Bunk.
It seems to me the poor guy was having a bad day, or a whole string of very bad days. Perhaps he had just been through a bad break-up. Or Israel’s stock market had crashed. Or he was suffering from depression.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad his perspective is represented in our scriptures. I know, from my own experience, that feeling stuck is entirely natural and normal. That thinking things will never change is not unreasonable. That depression is a medical condition, and discouragement a reasonable response to the evil in the world, the disappointments in our lives, and the mortality of our bodies. Having those feelings enshrined as holy writ helps me, when I am having a bad day or week or year, to know that my feelings aren’t blasphemous, that I’m not a bad person for thinking that way.
In other words, the feelings are authentic. But the resulting proclamation? Not so much.
And how can I say that?
By looking at the rest of the Bible. By seeing that the arc of our history with God is all about newness, and second and third and ten-thousandth chances, and redemption, and transformation, and recreation, and being born again and again and again. By looking at the newest, most radical and unexpected thing of them all—God in human flesh—and how he was constantly turning things upside-down, challenging convention, calling people out of their hopeless, same-old-same-old ruts, and leading them to new life.
It turns out there is something new under the sun! It turns out God is not finished with us yet; the God whose powerful, unending, extravagant love is forever making a way out of no way is never finished with us. It turns out that God’s light shines brightest whenever bleak circumstances—the undeniable and increasingly constant signs of climate change, for example—tempt us to say “game over.” Because, with God, the game is never over.
Yes, I realize this can be a hard sell. I know it can be really hard to trust that God is doing a new thing when our unemployment stretches on and on, when every day brings more bad news for our fragile planet and vulnerable people, when both the injustices of racism and the fragile cluelessness of white people seem never-ending, when we don’t know how we’re going to pay this month’s bills, when sanctuary goes on and on and on with no clear end in sight.
It can be hard to trust that God is still speaking and still at work when the depression grows deeper, when the relationship feels ever more strained, when we see our children and other loved ones making the same mistakes over and over and wonder if they can ever grow and change, when our care-taking is wearing us out and we know that our loved one’s condition will only get worse, when we have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, when we are so, so tired, when the love of our life has died, when we feel that our best days are over, that our glory days are behind us, when we’re so afraid of what the future will bring, when it seems that every last ship has sailed, when we feel we have no future.
All this is, more or less, where the children of Israel were when the prophet Isaiah spoke God’s word to them:
Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a NEW thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Which is to say: Sure, take a moment to remember what I did for you way back when. How I brought your ancestors out of slavery and through deep waters. How I surprised you with a love that you never saw coming. How when you hit rock bottom, I was right there beside you, and I lifted you up. How your depression finally ended. How time and again I heard the cries of my people for justice and raised up leaders in love and resistance. How the culture that once condemned you for who you and who who loved are now celebrates who you are and who you love. How you took a leap of faith and then everything fell into place. That time when you did something you never thought you could do. How you beat the cancer. How the people of this church walked with you through good times and bad.
Go ahead, remember the glory days. Remember that thing that happened to you that was so amazing you almost couldn’t believe it. Remember when you were young and your whole life was ahead of you.
But don’t get stuck there. Don’t get so nostalgic for the past that you miss what God is doing right now. Don’t get so fixated on the good old days that you miss the blessings of this present moment and fail to live toward the promises of the future. Don’t let the ship of newness sail without you.
It may feel like this is a pep talk. The exiles who had finally been told they were free to go from Babylon may have heard Isaiah’s words as more happy talk than fact.
Which is why we call it faith. We first have to make room in our hearts for possibility. We have to be willing to imagine that things can be different. When every reasonable response to what is happening in the world includes the word “despair,” we have to speak the word “hope.” Which is why following Jesus has less to do with believing something than with turning around and walking in a new direction, putting one foot in front of the other, day after day after day.
Our African American siblings in faith speak often of God as one who makes a way out of no way. In fact, there is an entire section of the National Museum of African American History called “Making a Way Out of No Way.” Here’s what the introductory panel says:
“How do you make a way out of no way? For generations, African Americans worked collectively to survive and thrive in the midst of racial oppression. Through education, religious institutions, businesses, the press, and voluntary associations, black men and women created ways to serve and strengthen their communities. They established networks of mutual support, cultivated leadership, and improved social and economic opportunities. They also developed a tradition of activism that paved the way for social change.”
In the midst of the evils of segregation, Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the National Council of Negro Women, said “America can be changed. It will be changed.”
That was not a pep talk; that was a worldview. It was, and is, a choice. It was, and is a way of life. It was a statement of faith and resolve and commitment and solidarity. It was the product of a life based on faith in God’s abundance and a trust that God was doing a new thing.
The culture of fear would tell us that the way things are is the way they will always be. That there’s not enough to go around. That, as the president said on our southern border the other day, “Our country is full.”
Oh, please. Our country is only as full as our hearts are closed.
We who live in house of the heart, the heart of God, know there is room at the table for everyone, and that there is more than enough food and housing and health care and community and justice and hope and peace to go around when we share what we have.
We know, because we know how God has changed us. We know, because in Christ, we are a new creation. We know, because, like Paul, we have thrown away our privilege for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus in the least, the lost, and the left-out, in the oppressed and rejected and would-be deported.
Behold, beloveds: Our God is making a way out of no way. Our God is doing a new thing. It is springing forth even now.
Do you see it?