Sermon Text: Fresh Start
I hope you’ll do yourself a favor some time. If you get a chance, go to a naturalization ceremony. If you have to take a day off work, if you have to skip school, if you have to drive a distance, just do it. Watch people become new American citizens. It’s an amazing thing. You will find it worth your time.
Nine days ago, I attended a naturalization ceremony at the county courthouse in downtown Binghamton. My friend Carl Wright, a member of St. Mark’s, came to the U.S. from England more than 30 years ago. On February 14, he became a citizen. His wife Laura was there, and so was Laura’s daughter Amanda, and Amanda’s guy Joe. Kathy Lasicki was there, and so was I.
It was astonishing. We were in this big courtroom, and there was a judge, the mayor, the County Executive, and other officials. And there were 44 people from almost 30 nations around the world. There were 44 people who have come to America from Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. They came from China, Argentina, Pakistan, Hungary, Haiti, Japan, Iraq, Bosnia, the Philippines, the Netherlands, Morocco, Spain, Kenya, Romania, the Sudan, Germany, and more.
And they came here for a new start. It was an amazing thing to see. Every one of them had a story, a journey, a struggle. Every one of them wanted a new home here. Every one of them wanted a fresh start.
Now, I’m a sentimental sap. When the 44 stood up, raised their hands, and took the oath of citizenship together, my eyes filled with tears and my throat got lumpy. Because I’m such a dignified guy, I got myself back together. Until the end of the ceremony. All the new citizens were invited to the front to stand together with the judge. And they stood there, some smiling broadly, some crying, and all of them treasures. So of course, my throat clogged up again and my eyes were full of tears.
They now have a new start, a fresh start. And you really need to go to one of these ceremonies. You will no longer take being an American citizen for granted. It will inspire you and move you. Put it on your to-do list, your bucket list.
Last week, I said the Bible argues with itself. We have a small argument in today’s story from Matthew. It’s about Moses. The Gospel of Matthew gives a fresh start, a new start, to Moses.
In the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, Moses did not get a happy ending. You know that Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt and their bondage. And you know that he led them for forty years in the wilderness. He dealt with keeping them safe and fed, and he dealt with their constant complaining.
But the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, says that God would not let Moses enter the Promised Land with them. Moses had made a small mistake years ago. And God would not let it go.
So Moses died on a mountain outside the Promised Land, and God buried him.
But the Gospel of Matthew gives Moses a fresh start, a happy ending. Moses is raised to life on another mountain, the holy mountain of transfiguration. He’s alive and he gets to see this new, greater prophet of Israel, Jesus. I like that ending for Moses a lot better. He got a fresh start. Apparently, it’s never too late — not even for Moses centuries after his death!
It’s never too late for a fresh start. At least one of the 44 new American citizens I saw at the courthouse was a pretty old guy. It’s never too late for a new start.
Lent begins in three days, on Ash Wednesday. Lent is all about a new start. Psalm 51 is the Psalm for Ash Wednesday, with its words, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” A new start. A fresh beginning. Change.
Now, I sometimes read science books, because I was not very smart in science as a kid, and I hope to keep learning. I came across a passage of science that strikes me as beautiful poetry as well as accurate science. Listen to this:
The atoms of our bodies never cease coming and going. It makes sense to think of ourselves as persistent patterns, always in flux. Change is a permanent feature of our existence.
That scientific poetry says a new start is always possible. Change is a permanent feature of our existence. It’s never too late for a fresh start.
Another piece of science writing has stayed with me. Listen to this one, by a primatologist:
The success of our species is tied to the fact that we carry the inventiveness and curiosity of young mammals forward into adulthood. We have been named 'Homo Ludens,' the playful ape. We play games until we die, we sing and dance, and we add to our knowledge by reading nonfiction and taking adult education courses.
It’s never too late. A new start is always possible.
Those brand new citizens I admired prove it.
Moses in Matthew’s Gospel shows it.
And Ash Wednesday calls us to it.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”