I bring you greetings from The Episcopal Church. We’re engaged in God’s mission through about 7000 congregations in 16 nations – in Taiwan and Micronesia, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, as well as the United States. Since the early 1800s our formal name has been the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, and all across The Episcopal Church we celebrate this last Sunday in Epiphany as World Mission Sunday. It is a reminder that we are meant to be partners in God‘s mission everywhere. Our task is to share in building or renewing the world God intended at creation, a society of peace with justice, a world of shalom.
That future new world is echoed in every aspect of God’s creativity. We have heard that message several times already this morning. Isaiah tells us of God’s insistence that the past does not define the future: ‘don’t look back. I am doing a new thing, and it is already coming to reality, if you will only look and see.’ Paul reminds the Corinthians that God’s word is always “yes” to the future, to a new possibility, even if human beings sometimes equivocate. When Jesus heals the paralytic, he insists that this man’s past does not define his future.
Looking back may be what most defines our human condition. We are a species that tells stories; we can reflect on history. Think about the history right here – the United States and Korea fought a war on this peninsula, only a few years after another war with Japan. Some people in each nation only remember that past, but our churches continue to work toward peace. That work of peace-making is about the new future we can imagine together.
God’s future is always radically open. When creation begins, in the first story in Genesis, God speaks and creation starts to emerge. Creation is a process: God says, ‘let there be light,’ and light is separated from darkness in the first great stage of creation. Creation continues, as earth and waters, stars and planets, the plants of the earth and fish of the sea and terrestrial animals are created – in great diversity. Eventually human beings emerge, also in the diversity of male and female, and are told to care for what has been created. The creative cycle reaches its climax in a call to rest and reflect on what God has done. Sabbath is an opportunity to tell the story – and to realize that creation is not finished.
That sabbath pause for rest and reflection bears fruit when we remember that God continues to be creative. God is always doing a new thing. We are free to see that new and open possibility, or we can choose not to see it. But partnering with God’s creativity is only possible when we let go of the past.
Isaiah was speaking to a people looking back at the pain of their past – torn out of their native land and sent into exile as hostages and refugees. Their perspective made it hard to find hope. The prophet is challenging them to remember that God is always creating new possibilities.
Paul is doing the same for the people of Corinth, encouraging them to recognize that Jesus is God’s great YES, that always God is proclaiming possibility and hope, and that it is our choice whether or not to look into that coming future.
The paralytic has friends who can see a different future, which is why they bring him to Jesus. They live in faithful expectation of a new possibility for their friend. Jesus draws that man into a new future when he says that what has bound him to the past – his sins – are no more: ‘the past is behind you, now turn around and face a new and different future, filled with hope.’ The religious authorities protest that only God can do that work – and they are right. The tension lies in who might be God’s partner in the work of the future.
A new future of peace and healing begins in acknowledging the destructive acts and errors of the past, and then turning toward God’s radically open future. Last week our group visited Hiroshima, heard the history of the city’s destruction by an atomic bomb, and saw some of the results. We also experienced Hiroshima’s current focus on global peace-building. The pain and violence of many generations are bound up in that city’s history, through wars involving Japan and China, Korea, Russia, and the United States, dating back well into the 19th century. We visited a memorial to the 20,000 Koreans who died in the bombing, a memorial that has its own awkward history, once kept outside the walls, but now a part of the national memorial. Today people in each nation are working to set aside the past, to redeem it toward a very different future, a future in which human beings set violence aside and study war no more. The city of Hiroshima is leaning into that healed future.
From Hiroshima we traveled to Sendai, where people are still struggling to discover a new future after last year’s earthquake and tsunami. The NSKK is partnering with others who are trying to open that future for people who have lost family members, homes and jobs, and often most of their town or village. God’s partners are going to the temporary houses to offer comfort – listening to stories, sharing tea ceremonies, discovering ways to help people feel more fully human again, and to know that their own creativity will help to open a new future. Those who have experienced such disasters can begin to feel like the paralytic – the disaster is so overwhelming that only that part of the past can be remembered. It can feel like life has always been hopeless, and no other way of living can be imagined. But the survivors have friends who know there is hope for a different future, and they are willing go to unusual ends to help them find hope, even tearing off the roof to bring their friend into the presence of the one who says “yes” to life.
In one village, we met a Filipina woman, married to a Japanese man for more than 30 years. She has been teaching English in that village for most of those 30 years, and gathering her sisters from the Philippines in a supportive community. After the earthquake and tsunami, most of their husbands lost their livelihoods – fishermen no longer had boats or access to the sea, businesses were destroyed, and there were no jobs. Amelia has gathered a group of women and organized training for them. Her class of six will graduate soon, to become licensed care givers for the elderly or their own family members. She speaks passionately about her work, recognizing that it is a privilege to help others put their gifts to work in serving others. She is herself a witness to an open future, filled with new life.
Jesus’ friends are meant to be partners with God in that open future. We remember and acknowledge the past, but we don’t hang on to it. God sets the past free in the instant it’s created – who are we to let it define the future? Safety does not lie in the past. Life, even when it seems risky, lies in that open future, even though we may not yet know its details. God IS doing a new thing. Stand up, take your mat, and walk into that future. And invite the world – and your friends – to go with you.