In our first reading in the book of Isaiah, “Thus saith the Lord, ‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 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?’”
We are on a spiritual journey, you and I. A journey of the Spirit. When did it begin that point that got us to this sacred space, on this day at this hour in this second, now? Of course, liturgically, for many of us we can say it began a little over four weeks ago on a Wednesday when we went to another holy space and someone made the sign of the cross on our forehead with ashes saying, “From dust you came; and from dust you shall return.”
A few days later we were with John the Baptist, that wild man, raised by wolves, coming out of the wilderness, the desert. And he said, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord in the wilderness.”
Did it begin there? I hope not. I don’t like to think that we begin in the dry place, in the desert, in the wilderness. I prefer to begin at the beginning at happier times. And I like to remember them. It’s good to remember.
I remember my childhood, raised here in Washington, D.C., raised in the sixties. What an exciting time to be growing up. I remember the fervor, the marches. I remember all of that.
But I also remember playing with my friends. I remember good times with my family driving to the beach, going down to the wharf, eating crabs, spending summers at the farm at my grandparents’ place in North Carolina. After doing chores in the morning, having languid summer afternoons on the porch sipping lemonade, playing with the farm and all my playmates who were relatives, cousins from the dozens, yes dozens, of aunts and uncles. I remember those times, good times, good family times. And it’s good to have those memories, because I may not always have them, and there’s something about memory that is unreliable.
There are other things I don’t remember. Of course any prosecutor or defense attorney knows that you don’t just rely on people’s memory. Our memory plays tricks on us. We remember things that did not happen. We recall things that did not occur.
I don’t know if we can trust memory when I forget so much. And there are things about growing up that I’d rather forget. I’d rather forget the family strife and the fights. I’d like to forget the neighborhood fights. I’d like to forget some things in the sixties, the assassinations of some of my heroes. I want to forget about the Vietnam War and how that took many of my friends and relatives lives right out from under me. And I want to forget things about the Civil Rights Movement. I want to forget Birmingham, the bombings of those children. I want to forget Selma and Cicero. I want to forget segregation and racism, those incidents in my life that scared me, it seems forever, visions of things done and left undone that comes across the vista of my mind searing all the memory that’s left of them. I’d like to forget, but I can’t forget.
Who can forget slavery and segregation and oppression? I, my people, cannot forget anymore than the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who still say once and again, “Never forget. Never forget.”
Is that why the prophet says, “Do not remember the former things, the things of old?” Of course we should not remember them, but it’s hellish not to remember. Just recently I saw a film, a movie that came out this weekend, called “Momento.” The protagonist in that movie Momento has a problem on his hands. It begins with him holding the life of another man in his hands. What will he do? How did he get to that point? Where did it all begin? We don’t know. He doesn’t either. We see what he does remember is that his wife was brutally attacked and murdered, and he was hit on the head from behind, and ever since that time he has no short-term memory. He can’t remember things past ten minutes. So in this hellish existence he is able to survive only by taking constant Polaroid snapshots of things and writing notes on them. Snapshot: This is where I live. Snapshot: This is the face of my friend. Snapshots. Writing notes to himself and tattooing important messages and clues to how he got there on his body, so that he could remember.
Memory is good. Why would God say, “Do not remember the former things”?
Perhaps because of people like my friend Martha, let’s call her Martha. My wife and I see her about once a year, along with other friends. And we have a good time at Martha’s. She’s an old woman now who barely gets out. We eat dinner. We have a party. Someone plays the piano. We gather around in the living room overlooking the lake that is outside of that house. And in that recalling and that time of memory and merriment of song singing, Martha begins to remember Jack—Jack her beloved husband. And she goes on and on about stories of Jack. And we look around the room and we see that Jack has never left. His mementos are there, the military regalia, his favorite chair, the books on the end tables that have not been moved. And we realize that that living room is not a room of the living. It’s a museum of the dead. Nothing has been moved. She must remember. And we realize that in remembering, she has not moved on. She has barely left the house since Jack died. And Jack died twenty-five years ago.
“Do not remember the former things,” the prophet says. But I don’t think he means not recalling or forgetting what we can gain from the past, but literally, not re-membering, putting back together again, not re-living the past, so that we cannot see the hand of God in the now.
Is that the way it was for the people of Israel? In that first reading in Isaiah 43, we call it the Book of Second Isaiah, it was written in the sixth century before Christ when the Hebrew people were in captivity. They were in a wilderness, a desert again in Babylon. And there by the rivers of Babylon they hung out their lyres and their lives. Sitting by the river, their life draining away from them, pining away about Zion, Jerusalem, Oh, if only we could live back there, remember the days when…. And pining away their lives by the river, they were wasting their lives.
And the prophet proclaimed, “Do you remember,” says the Lord, or do you recall “when I lead you out of captivity and Egypt, and there you stood before the Red Sea, the raging waters in front of you, and behind you breathing down your neck are your captors. You have no where to go, but I made a way out of no way. I made a way in the river, and you crossed it. Did you forget that?”
Well, forget about it. I’m about to do a new thing. You’re in the desert now, but I will make a way in the wilderness. I will make a river in this desert. I will make a way out of no way. Can you not perceive it? the Scripture says. Well, frankly, “no Lord, we cannot perceive it.”
It’s hard to see a new thing happening when the pink slip is on your desk and you have a mortgage and a family to feed. It’s a hard thing to see a new thing happening when the results of the biopsy come back and it’s cancer, and you’re facing a hell of chemotherapy. It’s hard to see a new thing happening when you’re running out of the schoolyard because many of your schoolmates were wounded or slain in yet another shooting. It’s hard to see a new thing happening when the same bad, same old, same old things continue to happen here in the desert, in the wilderness. We don’t want to be here. God, you have abandoned us. You have left us in the wilderness. No, we cannot see a new thing.
And yet, the wilderness is a funny metaphor in the Scriptures. Yes, it means desolation, in the Old Testament and the New. But the very deserts that have no life in them are also the source of spiritual refreshment. The same wilderness that the Hebrew people were living in the forty years was also the place where they met God in the most powerful way. In that wilderness that Jesus was led into after the high point of his baptism, in that desert, yes it was a place of temptation by the devil, and no food and all depravation of life, but it was also the source of his spiritual refreshment.
The desert is a place of deprivation, but it’s also a place of surprising spiritual and natural wonder and abundance. One desert ecologist once said to his class, “people who don’t know what to look for in the desert think it’s empty while actually deserts are teeming with life.” For those of you who have been in the southwest, or you’ve seen southwestern art, you will see in the midst of that landscape of desert, you will seeing blooming flowers, magnificent cacti, those delicate manzanita, and occasionally after a storm, a stream in season. Vast tracks of sand that at times of the year look like an image of wasteland burst forth with color after thunderstorms. The message of the desert is a stark and dreary place, but what looks like death and emptiness can bring forth life and fullness, if you can see it.
Just yesterday, many of us were at a marriage retreat, rather a day-long workshop on the Joyful Marriage. And the leader of the workshop told us that the single most important thing a married couple can do is to dream a big dream. And he had us for several minutes meet in couples and dream with your partner of where you want to be ten years from now.
But at the break, a couple came up to the leader and said to him, we can’t do that exercise. You see, we don’t think we have ten years. We’re old. What hope is there for us?
And he began to tell them the story about Sarah and Abraham in the Old Testament. Sarah ninety years old, no future, childless, barren. And the messengers of the Lord came to her and said, “Do not live in the past, Sarah, I’m about to do a new thing. You’re going to be pregnant.” And Sarah laughed. Not a good thing to do. Apparently the angels of the Lord said, “You’re laughing at us?” (and it’s not good to laugh at angels) And she said “I’m not laughing,” And they said, “Oh yes you did.” “No I didn’t.” And they had a little argument. But she laughed. And then Dr. Warren, the workshop leader, told about his father who was ninety-two years old. His father, after a seventy-year marriage, Warren’s mother and his father’s wife had died. And the elder man wanted to die himself. In fact, he called up his son, and he gave a date, and he said, “I believe that the Lord is going to call me away on that day.” Dr. Warren forgot about it, but he said later that day he got a phone call and it was his father. And he said, “Son, it doesn’t appear that the Lord is going to take me away today. Maybe there’s something else God has in mind for me. In fact, I’ve been sitting here thinking that I think God wants me to be married again. And Dr. Warren, of course he’s a son, he was taken aback by that, and he said, “Why do you want to get married?” And he said, “Two reasons: one, I’m incredibly lonely; but secondly, I’ve got to do something about this powerful sex drive.”
Guess what? He got married again. And the last year and a half of his life he spent in happiness because a flower had bloomed in his desert.
Now, God is doing a new thing. Can you perceive it? You can’t stop it. It’s inevitable, for God is making a way out of no way.
I’ll leave you a final story about the house we used to live in in New Jersey. At the end of every thunderstorm my basement would start getting filled up with water. It was uncanny. We couldn’t stop the water. It came literally through the walls, that mortar and that brick. And we’d have somebody patch it up sometimes. It was seminary housing and we kept calling the seminary to have someone come and fix it, and they’d do a new plastering, they plug another hole. And then the water would come from another place, and finally they got an engineer who was an expert at such things. He saw the problem. He led me upstairs and he pointed me out my front winder, and he said, “You see that street over there?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “What’s the name of that street?” I said, “That’s Canal Street.” He said, “that’s right. A hundred years ago that was a canal, and that canal is running right under your basement. And whenever it rains and the water table rises, that subterranean water comes up in your basement. You can’t plug that up.” What he suggested was that you open up the cellar, and build a little trough in the floor and just let the water run through it. Well, my employers did that, and it’s a funny thing to see in that otherwise dry basement, to see that water flowing through after a storm.
I wanted it to remain dry, but I couldn’t stop the water. And you can’t either. God is making a way out of no way. God is putting water in deserts. God is doing a new thing, and we can’t stop it.
It’s happening now.
The future begins now.
Can you see it?
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.