Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 28, 2004

St. Agnes

(Based on Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126:1-6; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11)

"Remember not the events of the past."

Remember not? What an amazing thing Isaiah has God saying! This is preposterous! Remember not? Forget the past? For an Israelite --- and for us who are called to be the new Israel --- the idea is unthinkable.

We are held together as a people by our common memory. Our creed commemorates the foundational events in our story. In the Eucharist we celebrate together we become one by remembering. We recall Jesus' offering of himself to the Father and to us.

What can Isaiah be thinking of?

We need to go back to the community for which he is writing, to their situation. They are a people in exile, a people who have lost everything. Their holy city, Jerusalem, has been ransacked. They have lost access to the holy Temple which was their center.

There is great spiritual risk in their situation. The risk is that they will remember all too well! The risk is that they will look back at all that gave them spiritual comfort, and see only what they have lost -- and risk losing touch with what gave it all meaning in the first place. They risk losing touch with the God who is still with them. The same God who grounded it all, a God of the present, working as always -- but working now in their darkness and pain.

Isaiah is not telling the people not to remember. He is taking them beyond the recent things they have lost, to the deeper memory of who God is. A god who is always present, always walking at their side. A god who is 'doing the new thing' at this very dark hour.

This is an important challenge for us as church today. But also potentially a rich gift. As a church we are passing through a very dark hour.

Some in our midst look back in a nostalgic way to a time when the Catholic church was king of the hill. There were bunches of 'vocations'. We had Sisters in all our schools and hospitals. Our church was looked to for moral guidance even by the outside world. We even had a Catholic president!

Such people are inclined to look back and cry "Woe is us." They whine over spilled wine.

Others look back on that past glory in the light of our recent shame and conclude that it was all a sham. They are dis-illusioned -- because for them it now appears to have been only an illusion.

Both these forms of memory of the past miss the point. They don't go deep enough in their memory.

For if the church that is passing away -- or has already passed away -- was worth anything in the first place, that fact was a gift. The glory was to be found, not in numbers or prestige or influence, but, as Paul puts it, to 'the power flowing from Christ's resurrection.'

Paul, too, looks back. He remembers all that he had placed his faith in, and what does he see? He calls it all "loss," "rubbish." If we are not to sugar-coat the Greek expression, he sees it all as manure.

He has been converted. Transformed. All the externals on which he relied previously -- his credentials as a practicing member of the Pharisees, his reliance on adherence to the letter of the Law -- no longer have the same meaning for him. He now knows that his justification is not his doing but God's gift. The "new thing" is happening -- Now!

And the same experience is taking place in our Gospel story. Those tired old representatives of the old order, the scribe and Pharisees, try to get Jesus into their sad old games of canonical casuistry: "what's the best interpretation of these writings?" and all he can see is a woman in front of him being shamed.

He compels them to look into themselves and they cannot face what they would have to look at there, so they just drift away. There is no bond left among them now that he has rejected the game that brought them together. Each one drifts off until we are left with the only present that counts: a woman in pain and a Lord who looks on her, not in condemnation but in compassion. Everything else is window-dressing. This is the new thing that is happening.

And so to us. What about remembering? We dare not forget. We dare not block out. We dare not turn away from our church's shame and humiliation. Our healing can only come from acknowledging our sad state. But we are called to remember, to open our hearts and our eyes to find the Lord who still walks with us. The Christ who has grasped us and will not let us go.

Let us sit and be still before that God. And listen to chapter 43 of Isaiah, which some commentators have called his most beautiful poetry. It is no accident that in their moment of agony it begins with "now."

Now, thus says the Lord,

who created you, O Jacob, and formed you, O Israel:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the water, I will be with you;

in the rivers you shall not drown.

When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned;

the flames shall not consume you.

For I am the LORD, your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your savior.

I give Egypt as your ransom,

Ethiopia and Sheba in return for you.

Because you are precious in my eyes

and glorious, and because I love you.

Fear not, for I am with you;

from the East I will bring back your descendants,

from the West I will gather you.

I will say to the North: Give them up!

and to the South: Hold not back!

Bring back my sons from afar,

and my daughters from the ends of the earth;

Everyone who is named as mine,

whom I created for my glory,

whom I formed and made.

It is I, I the Lord;

there is no savior but me.

It is I who foretold, I who saved;

I made it known, not any strange god among you;

You are my witnesses, says the Lord.

I am God, yes, from eternity I am He;

There is none who can deliver from my hand:

who can command what I do?

Hear then, O Jacob, my servant,

Israel, whom I have chosen.

Thus says the Lord who made you,

your help, who formed you from the womb:

Fear not, O Jacob,

the darling whom I have chosen.

I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground,

and streams upon the dry land;

I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring,

and my blessing upon your descendants.

Fear not, be not troubled:

did I not announce and foretell it long ago?

You are my witnesses! Is there a God

or any Rock besides me?


* * * * * * *

Post-note: When I arrived at the sacristy at St. Agnes yesterday with my homily in hand, I discovered that deacon Royce was scheduled to preach! The result is that you are the first 'listeners' to the homily you have just read. Having worked on it, I just had to inflict it on somebody! Thanks for being such good sports.