“Behold, I am doing a new thing! Do you not perceive it?”
It was the Sunday Mayor Ray Nagin was to be in worship with us. But by then the mandatory evacuation of our city was underway. It was 1 year ago, August 28. It was 8:45 am. Though the lights were on, the sanctuary was dark with that kind of eerie ominous yellow darkness that is always the prelude before a hurricane. There were only a handful of us there: Billy, Robyn, Kim, Rich, Victor, Eileen, Caroline, Pushpa, Roy, Shirley, Todd, me. We shouldn’t have been there. By Sunday morning, it was absolutely clear that everyone needed to leave. So we gathered in a circle. We held hands. We had prayer. I invited everyone to look around at the sanctuary. To soak up its beauty. To stamp that image upon their memory. To hold that thought. To never let it go. For we did not know what the next 24 hours would hold, the next week, the next month. If we would ever see the sanctuary in quite the same way again.
And then we said goodbye. Robyn and I locked everything we knew how to lock, turned off everything we knew how to turn off–the computer, the coffee pot. We made signs for all the doors encouraging evacuation. As I closed that Pitt Street door, I had to laugh at Robyn. She probably used a whole roll of tape to attach that sign. The whole church might get blown away, but that sign and that door would still be standing! We said goodbye, truly believing that we would be back in 2 or 3 days.
How could I know, that 2 weeks later, standing in the small chapel at First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, that Kim and Lyle would bring to me broken pieces of brick from our steeple tower which had fallen into the roof of the sanctuary and tumbled like a pile of rubble across the front entrance. How could I know that 1 year later, the sanctuary would still be closed, its windows covered in plyboard, its interior still scaffolded, the pew cushions still stacked in the parlor, the dust settling from months of construction, a long painstaking restoration proceeding at a snail’s pace.
How many times have I wished we could go back to the way things were–that I could snap my fingers, and the steeple be restored, that I could blink my eye, and the organ would be fixed, that I could wiggle my nose and the doors reopen. But we cannot go back to the way things used to be. For this is the way life is. This is the way God has set things up since the beginning of time. This is one of the lessons of the Garden of Eden. Remember how when Adam and Eve left the garden, there was an angel positioned at the gates with a flaming sword turning in every direction, in such a way that they could never go back. This is how God has created life. In such a way that it is impossible for us to go back. For ours is a God who is always calling us forward, out of the past and into the future—without knowing in advance what the future will be.
But, oh how we wish we could go back! I think of the man who was given the job of painting the white lines down the middle of a highway. On his first day the foreman congratulated him on a job well done: he painted 6 miles of white lines. The next day he did not do so well. The foreman noticed he had painted only 3 miles of white lines. The following day was even worse: less than a mile. When the foreman asked the man why he kept painting less and less each day, he replied “Every day I keep getting farther and farther from the paint can.” Did it never occur to him that he could carry that can with him? So many of us live our lives this way. We want to go forward, but we keep going back to the place from which we started. Has it never it occurred to us that there is something we carry within us down the road that keeps us moving forward. What is it that something?
On the first Sunday back after the storm, in October, we reopened for worship. The city was still dark, silent, deserted–a ghost town. We had no idea whether anyone would come. We were fairly certain there would be only a few who could. We arranged the altar here in the Fellowship Hall. We put about 12 chairs in a circle. I imagined holding hands and singing Kumbaya. 12 people came. Then 20. Then 50. And kept coming and coming. How the room filled and has been that way ever since. Filled, not only with people, but filled with something more powerful than any storm on the horizon. Something with us, something within us that keeps us keeping on—forward, into the future. There is a name for it: Hope.
It has been said that “Hope is stronger than memory” (Kennon Callahan). As strong as is our desire to go back, hope is what beckons us forward. Albert Einstein once put the same sentiment in these terms: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” For knowledge is limited to all we now know. But imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know, even the unimaginable. Can that be true? Or as John Claypool once wrote, “What we have been and who we are now are never the sum total of what we can be.” Think about that for a minute. In your heart of hearts, do you believe that Rayne’s best years are over and done with? Do you believe that New Orlean’s best years, her golden glory years, are past and gone? What about your life? Do you believe that your best years are over and done with? Or do you believe that the best is yet to be? That hope is stronger than memory? That what we hope for the future gleams even brighter than what we remember from the past?
I think that’s why I have always loved the story about Jesus at the wedding in Cana of Galilee when Jesus turned the water into wine. Didn’t he know that the water was meant for the elaborate ritual cleansing ceremonies required by the ancient religion? How were the people going to fulfill their religious obligations without that holy water? This is the way things had always been in the past. And here Jesus went and turned it into wine? And good wine at that! The wine steward said, “Most people serve the good wine first, and when everybody is drunk, then they pull out the cheap wine. But you have saved the best for now.” You see, this is not just a story about what a great miracle worker Jesus was. This is a story about what a great miracle worker Jesus is! This is what God is still and always doing for us, here and now, and in every moment we live—calling us out of the past and into the future. Saving the best for now.
That’s what our scripture lesson for today is about. It was written during one of the most terrible times in Hebrew history–the Babylonian Exile. For decades the people had lived as slaves in foreign country far from home, separated from their families and friends. Life would never be the same for them again. Any one from New Orleans can identify with that sense of loss, that heartache and homesickness for things the way they used to be. It was to these broken-hearted, homesick people that the prophet Isaiah was saying, you cannot go back to the way things used to be. We cannot live in the past: “Remember NOT the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing, do you not perceive it? Even now it springs forth!”
This is the promise of scripture, that in the very same moment we relinquish the past, that we let go of the way things used to be, that God will bring forth something new that will be even better than it was before. This is God’s way of setting us free from the past. This is God’s way of saying, you ain’t seen nothing yet. If you thought the Exodus was awesome, if you thought King David was great, if you thought Solomon’s Temple was the best ever, hold onto your hats and buckle your seat belts, for I have saved the best for now!
And he was right. As history would show, in that very moment, unseen to their eyes, God was at work shaping the historical events that would lead to the liberation of the exiles, their return to Jerusalem, a new beginning, a new temple, a new covenant, a new people, a new Jerusalem. Indeed, this is the promise of all of scripture—that ours is a God who is at work in every moment calling us out of death and into life, making all things—most especially broken things—new. This is the final vision of John in the Book of Revelation: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth…for the former things had a passed away…and the One who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.”
Last Friday, when I was coming back from my morning run, only 3 blocks from home, just one block off Napoleon, I heard a church bell ringing. I thought I recognized the sound of that church bell ringing. It was not the sound of St. Stephen’s. It was not the sound of St. George’s. I felt like a mother who knows her baby’s cries from all the others. It was Rayne’s bell peeling. How could it be our bell? Wasn’t it still buried under the rubble of our fallen steeple yet to be excavated? And yet I was sure of it. I ran faster. It seemed to propel me forward. The closer I got to home, the louder the ringing was.
When I got to the house, I called our construction site manager, and he confirmed that it was our bell. Later, when I got to work, we were told to ring it some more in order to test it. So we did. We got a phone call in the office from one of our neighbors who was ecstatic to hear our bells ringing. Steve Buddie told me 8 people stood out in front of the church to listen to it, including a woman who was crying. Maybe it meant to them the same thing it meant to me when I heard it ringing like Christmas Day, ringing like Easter Sunday, ringing like it was somebody’s wedding day as if it was saying to me, do not give up hope! Hope is stronger than memory and imagination is more important than knowledge and who we have been and who we are is not the sum total of who we can be. “Remember not the former things. I am doing a new thing!”
“Behold, I make all things new!”