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From One Foundation to New Creations

by Rev. Felix C. Villanueva

“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? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”      Every time I hear these words, I feel challenged to look at the things that cause anxiety in my life and try to put them in proper perspective.  You see, this text comes from what scholars call the “Second Isaiah.” This prophet writes during the worst moments in Israel’s history. Most, if not all of Israel’s brightest, most powerful and influential people have been taken into exile and made captives by a powerful empire.  Their identity as a nation has been shattered. Their hopes and dreams seem to have vanished. All seems to be “doom and gloom.”

     Today, as in the days of Isaiah, we live in anxious times.  From the economy to racial and gender discrimination, we seem to join in with those who seem to proclaim that there is not enough and that we better watch out for those who don’t look or speak like us.  Recently, a friend of mine shared with me a conversation she had with a lifetime member of the United Church of Christ. This individual was concerned by the fact that the UCC is welcoming too many people from other denominations into our fold.  The argument was that by doing so, we are “watering down” our identity as a denomination.  In my book, that sounds a lot like “denominational purity.” In addition, it seems to me that although this individual has been a lifelong member of the UCC, this person doesn’t seem to know that as a denomination, we don’t have a set theology or worship style.  Sometimes we forget that the “all” in “That all may become one,” includes everyone!
                                                                                                                       
     As you can see, anxiety is present even as we open our doors to people who might come to us from other denominations.  Anxiety is also present in our local congregations as we struggle with our budgets and for some, as they struggle to keep their doors open.  We are anxious about our present and our future.  What is most challenging for me is that we, who call ourselves Christians and who are supposed to be bearers of hope, more often than not, join in with the rest of the anxious voices.  “There is not enough! There is little hope!” we say. Yet, in the midst of anxiety and despair Isaiah raises a voice of hope that rings true to us today. 

     What I find most interesting about this text is that Isaiah has just asked the people to remember the past and how God has been present with them from the beginning. Then he says, “Don’t remember the former things or consider the things of old.” Quite a contradiction, don’t you think? Actually, I don’t think this is a contradiction at all. For me, faith and hope are always about the future, but our future is based on God’s faithfulness in the past. My guess is that what Isaiah’s warning meant was for us not to get stuck in the past, but to remember that if God was faithful then, God will be faithful in the future. The truth is that no matter how hard we try, we cannot re-live the past, but we can draw strength, faith and hope from it. Isaiah calls his people, and each of us to let go of the past and to focus on a future of hope, renewal and life. Isaiah’s message is that what God is about to do is greater and better than what God has done in the past.

     The Apostle Paul picks up the same theme in our New Testament reading.  There a few words and phrases that jumped at me as I read the text:  “new creation,” “reconciliation,” “ambassadors,” “now is the acceptable time.”  Like Isaiah, Paul believes that we need to have hope.  Hope provides the transformational energy we need to become a “new creation.”  Think for a moment about the last time you were anxious or afraid. I suspect that most of the decisions you made during that time were based on survival.  And that’s perfectly natural. Psychologists tell us that when we feel threatened we respond in one of two ways: we either fly or run away; or, we stay put and fight.  Both responses are fueled by our sense of self-preservation.

     However, the texts this morning, challenge us to a new response.  In the midst of anxiety and fear, we should be hopeful.  If we want to be a beacon of hope in our Conference, Associations and at our congregations, we must first become new creations.  The questions we should be asking ourselves are: When someone walks through our doors, when someone hears us speak, do they hear a message of hope? Or, do they hear a message of desperation.  And, when we speak a message of hope, do we believe what we are saying? Are we genuine?

     One of the challenges of becoming people of hope is that as Paul says, “everything is made new.”  This means that we might start looking at our approach to ministry from a new perspective.  You are familiar with the definition of insanity: “doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results.”  We tend to believe that if we do more of the same things and work harder at them we might get a different result.  But logic will tell you that you will only get more of the same thing.

     Being a people of hope begins by understanding who we are and why we are here.  At the Conference level that means looking at the reasons why our office was created in the first place.  So many times, organizations tend to forget why they were created.  If renewal has not been made part of its “ethos,” eventually the organization will become a bureaucracy whose goals are maintenance and survival.  Its mission and sense of purpose take a lesser priority.  I am not saying that that’s where we are as a Conference office. As a matter of fact, I know that our Board of Directors, together with our Conference staff has been hard at work at providing a clear vision for our ministry together. What I am saying is that if we are not careful and we don’t continue to reflect on our mission, we could easily end there.

     This is not only true at the Conference level.  It is also true at the local congregational level.  A congregation, whose main goals are maintenance of facilities and membership, has lost sight of its vision and mission.  During this year’s UCC Vitality Event, the Rev. Michael Piazza reminded us that the church’s main goal is not to meet the individual needs of its members. Being church is not about consuming the best products, but about serving others. He said that we don’t go to church to feel good, but to be equipped.  He used the New Testament illustration of Jesus sending his disciples out.  In other words, church is not an end in itself, but the beginning of our missionary work.

     Church is the place where we practice the Good News, our training ground, so to speak.  I find it fascinating that we often speak about “going to church” or about what happened “at church today.” The challenge with that concept is that in doing so we identify church as the sum of what happened in the sanctuary one hour a week, rather than who we are as a community of faith. If I recall correctly, Jesus did not commission his disciples saying, “Go into all the world and gather for an hour a week in a large room apart from everyone else.” No. Instead, he sent those on the inside to love and help those on the outside. Church is going out into the community and the world to transform it with God’s love!

     To become a new creation, we must re-examine and re-evaluate who we are and whose we are.  We are a church with one foundation; that is the Risen Christ!  We are energized by the fact that God’s creating energy is active among us and that the Holy Spirit breathes within us winds of faith and hope. And if Christ is our foundation, then our ministry together should reflect Jesus’ life and ministry. Again, the apostle Paul sheds some light as to what that looks like. We are to be a source of reconciliation and ambassadors of Christ’s love.

     As I read the Gospel stories, I notice they all have something in common. Jesus is presented to us as someone who cared for those around him. He connected with those in need and made sure that those who were marginalized and ostracized were given a place at the table and in the community.  What I find most striking is the fact that the only individuals Jesus had problems with were those who thought that because they were religious, could exclude others, discriminate and spread religious intolerance around. 

     Marcus Borg talks about the fact that, in its inception, Christianity radically changed the social order. The new community Jesus inaugurated would be characterized by compassion for everyone, rather than compliance with ritual codes; by radical inclusivity, rather than hierarchical exclusivity; and by inward transformation rather that outward ritual.

     We live in a time of rampant individualism. As the Church we need to stand for the value of community. At a time of intense consumerism, we insist it is not what we have, but how we treat one another that counts. At a time of growing isolation, we remind our nation of its responsibility to the broader world, to pursue peace, to welcome immigrants, to protect the lives of hurting children and refugees. At a time when the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, we insist the moral test of our society is how we treat and care for the weakest among us.  We are to be fearless in our witness and in our proclamation of God’s all-inclusive love!

     We are one people, all children of God. Ethnicity, economic class, or gender, do not matter. The Apostle Paul says that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).  To those that limit God’s lavish love, to those who see themselves as morally upright, the Gospel of Matthew says that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (5:45). Whether gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, “this” or “that,” in the Book of Acts, Paul quotes a pagan poet to affirm that every person is God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28).

     If Christ is our foundation and we are the United Church of Christ, then we should be a refuge to those who are in need. We should be a friendly place where everyone is accepted and welcomed; a place where language and cultural diversity are celebrated, not frown upon; and a place where we listen to the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit as it moves and touches all of us. If Christ is our foundation, then we should be the place where God’s language of love is truly spoken and lived.  This is a love that knows no barrier and that makes no exceptions.

     If Christ is our foundation and if we are a new creation, our congregations, our Associations and our Conference should be places of hope, encouragement and good will. We should together join in the struggle for justice, regardless of the consequences.  If we are a new creation and Christ is our foundation, then we should be a place alive with the Holy Spirit!

     We are God’s new creation.  Whenever we are or wherever we are, we have been called to be ambassadors of Christ, messengers of the Good News!

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