Please look up these scriptures before reading it.
Isaiah 43:18-25, Psalm 32, 2 Cor 1:18-22, Mark 2:1-12
“I am doing a new thing”
My father became a Roman Catholic a couple of years back.
Blew … me … away.
The only regular Sunday services he had ever attended in my life were football games at RFK or baseball games in Baltimore.
One day he calls me and says, “I’ve been talking to a priest, I’m getting Baptized next month.” My father was fifty-five years old when he put his white robe on at the baptismal font, and now he goes to Mass every Sunday.
I had spent my whole life praying that God would reveal himself to dad, would touch his heart, and would win him over for Christ. And through Christ, my Dad did something new one day – he got baptized and became a Christian.
How typical of God’s seemingly paradoxical will that the son of a dozen generations of Southern Baptists would one day receive his believer’s baptism as a Roman Catholic.
Conversely, my mother was practically raised in the convent. It was the deepest wish of her parents that their children would all become priests or nuns. But not only did Mom not become a nun, she left the Roman Catholic church altogether.
But God showed her the Episcopal Church – and through Christ mom did something new one day, and she found home by another way.
The scriptures today speak of sin, confession, forgiveness, and spiritual healing. They speak loudly about how God has the power to do a new thing in our lives, to make us new beings, washed of sin and led Godward from our old ways.
The scripture today reveals to us something about God’s will. We see that instead of allowing us to remain paralyzed in whatever body of death that constrains us – God for God’s sake, gives us the Holy Spirit of True Love, and sets us free.
We’re a funny bunch, we Episcopalians. We’re absolutely wonderful in many ways, but let’s face it: we don’t talk much about sin. We don’t talk much about being saved from paths of death and destruction – at least outside the formal Sunday morning liturgy.
But isn’t that really what it’s all about? Isn’t the reconciliation of God’s lost lambs the heart of what it means to be a Christian? Isn’t this the New Life? Do we not share in the hope that what is wrong with the world will not last forever, and that one day God will reign over a world of pure love, joy and fullness of being? Do we not hope that God is real, God cares, and – in fact – God is doing something about all that’s wrong with the World?
If any of you have experience with Southern Baptists – you know that a deep awareness of personal sinfulness is essential to the process of personal salvation. A good Baptist will tell you that no one can come to fully appreciate the power of personal forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ unless he’s aware just how sinful and corrupt he really is outside of the grace of God.
If any of you have experience with Roman Catholics you’ll know how important it is to confess your sins. A good Catholic will tell you that it is one of God’s greatest signs of love and mercy that no matter how grave our sin against God or neighbor – we must only confess it, turn from it, and know that we will be forgiven by God.
Well I agree with them. They are both right.
I will testify to my own story, my own process of regeneration, and I will say that there did come a time in my life that I became particularly aware of my sinfulness. I became particularly aware that I was not a healthy person, not a fulfilled person, not the kind of person that I knew I could be. There came a time when I realized that I had strayed from the person that I knew deep inside was the real ‘me.’
The me that God made. The me that God loved. The me that God put his seal on, and gave his Spirit to as a first installment of the fullness of time and being.
There was a time when I became particularly aware of my own inner conflict, the spiritual heart saying, ‘yes,’ and the fleshly heart saying, ‘no.’ There was a time when I became particularly aware of the fact that I was no longer going anywhere good.
I felt frozen, stuck, trapped, held down, lost. I felt like I was walking with my eyes closed, my ears shut, and the ground beneath my feet was thick like mud.
As the Psalmist says, “My bones withered away… My moisture was dried up as in the heat of the summer.”
But then God did a new thing. God showed me a river, he pointed to a way. And then I knew. I prayed for release from my own guidance, and I asked that God take over.
I remember the first time I ever went to a priest and asked to make a confession. It was about 10 years ago. I hadn’t even known about confession in the Episcopal Church, but we have it. It’s not just on Sunday in the Eucharist, it’s on page 447 of your prayer book, and if you ever want to do it – it’s allowed. It’s good. It helps.
It was Christmas Eve, and I was going to be a LEM in the service. I met with the priest privately beforehand, and I spilled my guts. He pronounced that I was forgiven, that my old sins were over now, and that God still loved me. I realized the power of how Jesus died on the cross that I would never have to know true death, but only true life.
I threw up.
Yes, God does a new thing. God is the one who establishes us. It is upon the grace of God’s liberating work that we can begin to become real.
And from time to time, we have to admit to ourselves that we are simply stuck in the mud. We are caught in that world-wraught mindgame which Paul calls, “yes and no.”
We say “yes and no” to the love of God, “yes and no” to the love of neighbor, and “yes and no” to the love of ourselves as God made us to be.
We do need to confess this to our God and saviour. And moreover, we are blessed when we know that we will be forgiven, and not just forgiven but released – set free from that torturous trap of “yes and no.” And in our release we will more and more say ‘yes’ to love – withwhomever it may be.
Do you all know the story of Robert Smalls? He was a slave in South Carolina, way back before the Bush-McCain primary. Smalls was the trusted slave of a powerful naval officer, and was allowed to serve as the wheelman of the confederate ship Planter. The Planter was a good sized ship – armed with three large guns and four small cannon. It could hold a thousand men.
One night, in May of 1862, General Roswell Riply and his officers from the steamship Planter went ashore to a party in Charleston. Robert Smalls was left in charge of the ship.
While the General his officers were ashore, Smalls did a new thing. He shed the old clothes of a slave, and donned the new clothes of a citizen. He donned a captain’s uniform, and eased the ship away from its moorings. He gathered up friends and family, and he steered the ship out into the harbor. He passed beneath the terrible guns of Fort Sumter, and managed to reach the blockading Union fleet before being fired upon.
Smalls handed the ship over to the Yankees, received a minor bounty for it, and even returned a year later aboard an iron-clad ship to do battle in Charleston Harbor. When that ship took eighty hits and went to the bottom, Smalls was transferred to the Yankee-flagged steamer, The Planter. In battle, its white captain turned coward and hid in the coal bin, but Smalls led the ship’s gunners through to the end. He was made the new Captain of The Planter.
After the war, Smalls returned to South Carolina, where he purchased the plantation upon which he had been held in bondage, and he became a United States Congressman. Smalls was born a slave and died a Maj. General in the South Carolina militia, and a retired Member of Congress.
This is not just the amazing true story of a slave who freed himself when the chance presented itself. It is the story of a man who said, “yes” to his own freedom and the freedom of his family and friends, despite that loud and terrifying “no” which must have tugged on his fears so grately that night of his escape to freedom. It is the story of a man who symbolizes the human capacity to do amazing feats of courage, against all odds, for the sake not only of self, but of family, friends, and ideals.
He didn’t just run away. He went back and fought. He went back and took command. He went back and became a leader.
But Robert Smalls is mainly an example of the kind of person we can all be in our hearts. We can all get on that ship of Christ and cross over into something new. We can yield to God’s grace, and confess our old ways, and take part in the new creation. We can get out of our old clothes of slavery and vacillation, and put on the new clothes of freedom and affirmation in Christ Jesus. Amen.