Isaiah 43:16,18-19
Matthew 17:1-9

The other disciples woke that morning, as on most days, not knowing what to expect from Jesus. Just when they thought they had him figured out, he’d do something that would leave them all scratching their heads and wondering if they’d made a big mistake in trusting him with their lives.

Recently for example, they’d had a wonderful, heady run—standing by as Jesus made the blind see, the lame walk, the mute speak and the maimed in body and heart whole again. They marveled when he fed the four thousand with just seven loaves and a few fish. They gloated when he told off the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Surely, they thought, Jesus was destined to overthrow them all—the Temple authorities and the Roman occupiers—and they’d be right there with him, sharing in his power and glory.

But then Jesus started talking about suffering and denial and betrayal and death. Death, death, death: He seemed obsessed with it. The disciples had just about had enough.

So, when Jesus woke up Peter, James and John and told them to take a walk up the mountain with him, they just looked at each other and shrugged, as if to say, “What now?” But pride and curiosity got the best of them, so they stumbled out of bed and followed him, leaving the others behind.

When they reached the top of the mountain, it happened: Jesus was transfigured, his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming dazzling white. Then Moses and Elijah appeared, talking to this blindingly radiant Jesus! Oh, his teachings had impressed them and his miracles had dazzled them but, surely, there had never been a moment like this; certainly, this glorious private event was the prelude to public triumph and earthly power.

         Peter, in a rare understatement, says, “Hey, this is a good place to be. If you want, Lord, I’ll set up some tents so we can stay here.”

You see, they thought this was it, especially after what came next: A voice from heaven telling them to listen to Jesus, calling him God’s Beloved. Glory, glory, they thought. Our God is doing a new thing and this is it! Let’s just stay here and bask in it!

We know, of course, how wrong they were. We know, reading the gospels and looking back, that the real new thing—God’s triumph of love over death, and the further embodiment of God’s love in Christ’s Spirit-filled church—was yet to come. Certainly one of the messages of the story of the Transfiguration is be careful not to mistake the flashy thing that happens for the real thing God is doing.

And so, my new dear friends, as I come to you today, Transfiguration Sunday, as your new settled pastor, I want to declare two things:

One: Our God, the God of new things, wants to do a new thing here at First Congregational Church of Amherst, Massachusetts; indeed, God already has begun doing that new thing, and

Two: I am not it.

The Strategic Plan—exciting as it is–is not it; nor is an Elected Leadership Team. The ministry teams, a new web site and a new music director won’t be it either.

But even as I come declaring those two things, I also come, newly ordained but not quite settled, asking three things of you:

One: As we begin our life together, I ask you to put your trust not in me, not in a strategic plan or in your wonderfully gifted and deeply devoted lay leaders, but in God—the God who wants to do a new thing in us; and

Two: As we make our way down from the mountaintop experience of new beginnings and fresh starts, as we set about doing the exiting but sometimes scary work of re-creation, and the fulfilling but sometimes long and hard work of transformation, I ask you to join with one another and with me on a journey to newness; and

Three: Even as we are trusting God to do a new thing in and through First Church, I ask that you, individually, also open your heart to the God of new things so that God can do new things in and through your life. I ask you to believe that God is working in your life even when you can’t see it; I ask you to embark upon your own journey to newness and to stick with it, even when it feels as if nothing is happening.

You see, that’s the thing about newness: We tend to think that it’s an instant, momentary kind of thing. But as I read the scriptures and think about history and my own life, it seems to me there usually is a time lag between a mountaintop experience, a liberation, the appearance of a charismatic leader or a personal epiphany and the actual new thing—a social or spiritual movement, revolution, or growth that results in real, lasting change.

And it is in that very lag time—time filled with waiting and working, following and hoping, struggling and doubting—that the new thing actually happens. You see, this new thing is not something we do. Oh, sure—we should lay the groundwork, we should be open to the movement of the Spirit, we should try to keep the faith. But this new thing is something God does—in us, and to us, and through us—constantly revealing God’s identity as the God of new things even as we are continually made and remade in God’s Spirit and by God’s grace.

But we don’t always recognize it. This is why the God of new things so often has to say, “Hey! Hey you! I’m doing a new thing! Can’t you see it? Do you not perceive it?”

Wrapped up in the details and demands of our lives, absorbed in the things we can see, jaded and bruised by the hard knocks of life, we can forget that our God is the God of new things. We can fail to see, to perceive, that God is doing something new. Maybe we believe our circumstances are too extreme, too hopeless, for second, third, new chances. Or maybe we don’t fully understand just how God does these new things and so, like Peter on the mountaintop, we get attached to dramatic events and concrete results, forgetting that God’s ongoing work is often slow and sometimes imperceptible.

God is doing a new thing—

but it can be hard to perceive and hard to believe

when we’re stumbling through the wilderness of our lives—hungry and tired and uncertain, so miserable that, as with the liberated children of Israel, slavery in Egypt—or the slavery of addiction, domestic abuse, soul-deadening work or the way things used to be—starts to look good.

God is doing a new thing—

but it can be hard to perceive and hard to believe

when the road is hard and the change we hoped for doesn’t come; when relationships grow distant; when our plans don’t work out; when a loved one dies too soon; when all our hard work comes to naught; when we’ve lost a job and can’t find another one; when our children keep making the same mistakes; when the powers that be are designed to keep things just the way they are.

God is doing a new thing—

but it can be hard to perceive and hard to believe

when we’re trying to change centuries of scriptural misinterpretation; when both church and state reinforce unjust systems and age-old prejudices; when other people refuse to see things differently.

God is doing a new thing—

but it can be hard to perceive and hard to believe

when there’s yet another suicide bombing in Iraq; when daily acts of oppression and violence sabotage peace efforts in Israel and Palestine; when policies of divisiveness, war-mongering and greed attract votes; when nooses appear in the schoolyards, offices and locker rooms of African-American men.

God is doing a new thing—

but it can be hard to perceive and hard to believe

               because sometimes it takes a very long time.

But God is working and, in the end, the new thing God has done is not a thing that happens, some dramatic event. Rather the exciting thing that happens is the product of the newness that has occurred, the outward result of an internal process of re-creation.

God’s new thing is who we have become in the process of waiting and trusting and working with God: a new creation, transformed by the ever-new love and grace of God’s Spirit.

I’ll leave you with a couple of examples from my life:

First: God did a new thing in my life through—dare I say it?—the search-and-call process. Today you see me here as your new pastor, and a week ago, a few of you saw me ordained into Christian ministry. But my call to First Church and my ordination—those are not the new things God was doing.

Yesterday I received a letter from a good friend that quoted an email I had sent him last July. It said, in part:

Please pray for me generally as I continue to navigate the search-and-call process. I know my profile hasn’t been out there that long, it’s summer, I’ve never pastored a church before, God is in control, etc., etc., but . . . hey, this is hard. At least I’m finding it harder than I expected. Some days I’m fine, my faith is strong, my patience is steady, I’m really getting into the trust thing, my confidence level is decent, and some days . . . not.

What I didn’t know in July, and wouldn’t begin to understand until November, was that God was doing a new thing in my life, using my sometimes weak faith, my openness, my surrender and even my impatience to transform me into someone better prepared to pastor a church and to minister to God’s people.

I didn’t perceive it, and sometimes I couldn’t believe it, but God was doing a new thing—because that’s who God is.

And here I am.

The next story demonstrates, I think, how our faithfulness and our willingness to let God do a new thing in and through us can also help open the door for God to do new things in other people and situations.

As some of you know, I was raised a fundamentalist—the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of preachers who considered their church the one true church. So, when I left Texas for college and, a year or so later, left that church, my parents left me—withdrawing their love and their financial support.

It was a hard time.

Years later, when I was in Washington, D.C., and my parents and I had brokered a truce of sorts, I unintentionally caused another rift. I had written a glowing article about a fight over one congregation’s decision to call a woman as pastor, and it made my Dad furious. He wrote me a long letter saying he couldn’t believe I thought women could be preachers. He quoted lots of scripture, and ultimately he threatened to disown me all over again, quoting Joshua saying, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

It was a hard time.

If, at any point in the 25 years or so since then, you had said to me, “Vicki, I believe God is doing a new thing—actually, lots of new things.” If you had said to me, “God is doing such a major new thing that one day your Dad will sing at your ordination”—well, I would have strongly suggested that you consult a mental health professional.

But God was busy doing what God does—lots of new things.

Because, as some of you know, my Dad sang a solo at my ordination service last Sunday. Not only did he sing as the proud father of a just-ordained woman, but he sang a new song as if he’d known it his whole life.

So, that’s what I mean when I say that our God is the God of new things—not the ordination or the singing, not the poignant but fleeting moments, but the long-term changes in me and my Dad and our relationship that allowed God to transform us and to do something new and wonderful.

And so as we here at First Church come down from the mountaintop of exciting moments to walk together through the Valley of Lent, with its promise of transformation and renewal, let us remember:

Our God wants to do new things in us and through us—as individuals and as a faith community. The new thing is not me or a strategic plan or new structures, but how we respond to it all—how we open ourselves anew to God’s Spirit and let God use something new, someone new to transform us and make of us a new creation.

Let us work together with one another and with the God of new things so that as individuals and as a church we might become agents of God’s newness in our world.