This is a sermon I preached at Texas Lutheran University on September 16, 2013.
Let me begin with a confession. I am in love with big ideas. I am tempted to make the footnotes of this sermon longer than the sermon itself. There’s nothing wrong with big ideas, unless they become idols. That is often a fine line to walk and difficult to discern. Since the theme for chapel this year and the song “All Things New” are very close and personal to me, I am going to try and set aside my footnotes and speak from the heart.
Utah Phillips, the labor organizer, folk singer, storyteller and poet, once said that the most radical song you can sing is the one that you sing yourself. I have never recorded an album and only sporadically performed my music. I used to feel bad about that. I used to think that I had squandered a talent that God gave me. That is until I heard that quote from Utah Phillips. Music industry executives would prefer that music be turned into a commodity. I don’t have to get paid or sell records for my music to be legitimate. I sing it for myself, for those I am with, for its own sake, for pleasure, for beauty and for truth. That’s why it’s so radical to sing your own song.
My favorite memories of singing my own song are when my family lived in rural Bolivia. We made a practice of taking Sabbath on Sundays. We went to Mass on Saturday evenings and had all day Sunday to ourselves. We used electricity as little as possible, and each member of our family would decide on something they wanted to do that day together. We would play games, soccer, go to the park or tell stories. Almost every week we would spend time on the porch playing music and singing together. The kids would bang or shake something for a few songs before wandering off. Those were beautiful times that weren’t recorded or captured for posterity. I didn’t post about them on Facebook or Twitter. There are no pictures or videos to prove it. Only the moment itself, the memory and the people who shared it.
I wrote “All Things New” when I was youth minister at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Villa Park, IL. I remember I was alone in the sanctuary with my guitar. I might have been preparing for a youth service or maybe just enjoying the silence and atmosphere of an empty sanctuary. Perhaps you also know the feeling of a familiar concept coming to you, as if for the first time. Suddenly I was struck by the idea that God is a being that creates new things. That God is not a static ideal of perfection, but the dynamic Creator at work, interacting, transforming and even suffering with creation and its creatures. I was caught up as part of that new creation as I both experienced and longed for that transformative presence and encounter.
It wasn’t the first time, but I remember feeling a longing for a better world, for my own brokenness and the brokenness of the world to be made whole. Even now the idea that all things will be made new is beyond me. I can understand a new job, new car, maybe a new phone or even a new relationship, but “all things” seems beyond me. Yet, because I am in love with big ideas, I want to try and wrap my mind around this vision of the coming kingdom, the new creation.
I imagine the leap that the prophets of the Old Testament made to believe in and describe a world that seemed impossible. A world where you could build houses and live in them, plant vineyards and reap what you sow. Where the rich are humbled and the lowly exalted. Where the wolf and the lamb graze and lie down together. A world that seems distant and impossible. Yet for some reason, because of their encounter with YHWH, these prophets proclaimed a future in which God’s shalom exists fully among God’s creatures and creation.
So, I imagine a world where capitalism and democracy are not the end of history, but the cusp of something new and better, more just and righteous. I imagine a world where hunger is a fantasy, because of the abundance of creation and the compassion to share and take only what we need. I imagine a world in which the creativity and talents of every person can be engaged in meaningful, fulfilling, life-giving work. I imagine the resurrection of species we have driven to extinction. I imagine real sustainability, the kind that hurts, the kind that brings our faces, dripping with sweat, close to the dirt. I imagine impossible things. This is what I imagine when I try to wrap my mind around what “all things new” really means, but that’s because I am in love with big ideas.
This vision of God’s perfection is certainly, in some sense, what the prophets and the author of Revelation had in mind, but it is probably not the way that the new creation comes to us. I started a business, a socially responsible business to be exact, called Edible Lawns. It was a landscaping company that tried to overturn conventional wisdom about yards, plants and food production to help people create sustainable landscapes. We installed raised bed gardens, backyard chickens, native landscapes, rainwater collection and compost systems. But it wasn’t enough for me to try and start a business, it also had to solve the rest of the world’s problems too. So, I paid workers well above minimum wage. I also wanted it to become a worker-owned cooperative. We discussed what it might mean to provide job training to felons or employee undocumented workers.
In many ways, I saw Edible Lawns as a solution for our economic and ecological problems. That’s a heavy burden for a small business to bear. Over half of all businesses fail and those are the ones concerned primarily about making money. Add to financial sustainability the burden of ecological sustainability and economic justice and you have a steep hill to climb to success. Don’t hear me wrong. I love social entrepreneurs. They are doing amazing work and are part of the solution. They are moving us in the direction of shalom, wholeness and new creation, but they are not that glorious end in themselves.
What I have learned, later in life than I care to admit, is that it is not my job to save the world. It is not my calling, nor is it yours, to establish God’s perfect order in our lifetime, in our church, our neighborhood, our city, state, nation or the world. God’s new creation comes to us in more mundane, boring, everyday and difficult ways.
We all have our own flaws, our own personalities, our own sins. Mine is anger. I have been quick to anger and impatient with others for a long time. This is probably mostly related to my perfectionism. I usually believe that I have the answers, regardless of what the question is. I am impatient with others, because they don’t always see things my way. I assume this must be because they just haven’t understood me or maybe I didn’t say it loud enough. I make my own ideas and vision of perfection into an idol. And you see we’re right back to my love for big ideas.
It’s always the hardest with the ones you love the most, as my family will attest. I know that the new creation that God is working in the world is getting under my skin when I no longer feel justified about getting angry or frustrated or yelling at my kids. I experience this “all things new” when I choose patience when I’m frustrated, when I hear the needs of my kids rather than my need for order, structure or obedience. When I encounter someone I disagree with strongly and hear their deepest longings and desires in the very belief with which I disagree.
It’s a whole lot easier to love the world, than it is to love the person in front of me. It’s easier to love the idea of community or justice, than it is to really listen to and love my neighbors and brothers and sisters in Christ.
What if the way that God makes “all things new” is for us to live our everyday, ordinary lives in light of the kind of love that God has already revealed on the cross? Surely God challenges the Powers of this world through God’s sacrificial love and mercy. The problem is that in my zeal for justice and righteousness, even God’s justice and righteousness, I can demonize others and turn from the very love and mercy that overcame sin and death through a cross. God makes all things new in my life when that vision of a perfect world transforms me into a better friend, co-worker, husband and father.
Indeed, the “all things” that God has made and will make new is all encompassing and all-inclusive. The hardest part to learn is that it also includes the small things, the details of my life that I would rather keep from that transformative light. Therefore, my brothers and sisters let us step forward into the light and learn to love even as we have been loved. Let us not keep from doing good. Let us continue to stand up for the oppressed and against injustice BECAUSE of our great love for those friends and neighbors suffering under such injustice. Let us overcome evil with good. In doing so, we participate in that vision of the prophets and the author of Revelation of God’s final shalom in which all things will be made new. In doing so we make the reality of that kingdom present in our lives.
My missions professor in seminary had a wonderful definition of Christian mission, “People being transformed by people who are being transformed.” It is our job to be transformed by God, this happens as we encounter people, experience nature and see the world around us with new eyes. As we are transformed by the experience of God’s presence in the world, we, in turn, transform the people and the world around us. That is how God makes all things new.