Old Dogs and New Tricks

There’s an old saying to which most of us can relate. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” As much as I want to consider myself a rather youngish old dog, I have to admit that even I can relate. Not that I swallow it hook, line, and sinker; but I have to admit that the hesitance I see in myself and my peers when it comes to learning new things, does indeed make us look bad.

Before I go further with this line of thought, however, let’s look at the readings for today, the fifth Sunday in Lent.

Isaiah 43:16-21
Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Philippians 3:4b-14
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Our Meditation for today

Now, back to teaching old dogs new tricks. . . I am not convinced that those of us in the second half of life are incapable of learning new tricks, contrary to what younger folks might think. It’s not so much that we can’t learn new tricks. It’s just that we don’t want to learn new tricks. We simply don’t want to take the time and trouble necessary, or even the risks involved. You see, what if we truly do want to learn a new trick and find that we can’t? Now, that would be a catastrophe, right? In order to avoid such a risk, we’d best not try. Hence, we give the impression that we cannot learn new things. It happens all the time, which doesn’t mean it is the right or healthy thing to do. Our readings today make that painfully evident.

Isaiah reminded his readers of old tricks God did that were a major part of their history, the escape from captivity in Egypt. Then Isaiah told them that God was getting ready to do some new tricks, and they best learn them now, rather than dwelling in the past, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

This week we celebrate not only the fifth week of Lent. We also celebrate the life of St. Patrick. St. Patrick was certainly an individual who had to learn new tricks. Kidnapped when he was a teenager by pirates, he was taken to Ireland and sold as a slave. He worked as a shepherd and a farm hand. These were new skills for him, as he’d been raised in a family of means. He also learned about getting along with the Irish people. He learned the ways of the land, the language, and the customs.

He also learned that if he were going to keep his connection with God, he would need to pray daily. Every day he prayed and it gave him time not only to talk to God but to listen for what new thing God would want him to learn. Every day, he heard God’s message, “The sea awaits you. The sea awaits you.” Then the day came that changed everything, “Your ship awaits you. It’s time.” Patrick perceived God’s direction. God made a path through the wilderness for young Patrick who walked it two hundred miles to the sea. There, he boarded a ship that took him back to England, where his family embraced their long lost son. Patrick re-acclimated to life in England. He went to school, continued his relationship with God, and became a cleric himself.

He never stopped praying daily. He never stopped listening for the next new thing God had in mind. It came, “It’s time to look ahead. I have a new thing for you, Patrick. Go back to Ireland.”

Patrick followed the path God made for him once again through the wilderness back to Ireland, this time not as a slave; not as a farm hand or shepherd. This time he went as a missionary. He perceived in new ways, conventional and un-conventional what God wanted him to learn. This time, it was to convert the entire country to its own unique brand of the Irish Catholic faith, a brand new trick. Patrick mastered the trick because he was not distracted with his past as a slave. He had long forgiven the pirates and his slave owners. He carried no old grudges. He put the sins of the past behind him and strained forward to do the new thing God called him to do.

God knows that if we’re not careful, we can become preoccupied with things of the old, with people we haven’t forgiven, old grudges we continue to carry. We can become preoccupied with sins we’ve committed, for which we have never forgiven ourselves. We can become preoccupied with things we no longer have. We can worry about what others think of us and worry what is to come. And so we keep ourselves in the old times. Isaiah says, don’t do that. There’s a new thing coming that is calling us to learn new tricks, new perspectives. It’s time to walk in the new way.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians considered how people evaluate themselves and others. The old way was using standards like possessions, money, prestige, success. Or as in Paul’s case, how much money and possessions he had lost, or how many times he had been arrested, beaten and imprisoned. Paul had learned from God the new way for evaluating behavior, decisions and life. For Paul there was only goal now, one standard by which to evaluate life and that was to be called by Jesus as his own.

Before Paul, there was Jesus, the number one trickster in town, always flaunting a new way, a new perspective on life, the never ending challenge to think anew. Jesus is sitting at the table in the home of his beloved friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany. This is same home where Mary listened at the feet of Jesus, leaving her sister to all the preparations for dinner. This is the same Lazarus Jesus had raised from the dead. Some of Jesus’s most powerful and intimate moments happened in this family home. In today’s reading, we witness it again.

His hosts have cleaned, cooked and set the table so that when Jesus and his disciples arrive, all is in readiness. As they sit for dinner, Mary quietly slips into another room and brings back a flask of an exquisite expensive essential oil from the flower of the Nard.

You may not be familiar with Nard. Nard is a flower of the valerian family. Valerian is an ancient herbal healing remedy still used today in many ointments, supplements, oils and pharmacology. It is an herbal ointment used to sooth the body, heart and mind, and as Jesus reminded them, to anoint the dead at burial.

I doubt that Mary thought about the essential oil of Nard as a burial anointment. I am confident that when she bought the perfume, she made her decision to spend a year’s wage out of love. Not money, prestige, or status. It was love. She’d learned a new way of making decisions. Her new standard for behavior and decisions was a loving commitment to Jesus, to be called by him to be his own.

In the moment she opened the flask and generously poured the priceless potion over his feet, the aroma of love filled the room. She gently cleaned the dust and dirt from his feet, massaging the healing soothing essential oil into the dried and cracked skin. Then she loosened her hair to wipe the excess oil from his feet, so that now her hair gleamed and carried the scent of the perfume. All sat in silence, stunned and moved by the ritual of love.

Then the spell was broken. Judas with his old way of evaluating life decisions harshly criticized Mary. He could not comprehend her perspective. He had not turned his face forward to the new way.

Immediately, Jesus corrected him, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus had called Mary to be his own, and out of that love, Mary of Bethany had attained the goal by which she would be known through the ages. She had learned the new way; she perceived it, indeed.

We have one more week of lent to turn our face to Jerusalem, to witness and experience the way through the wilderness that God prepared for Jesus and for us to walk.

Once we arrive in Jerusalem one week from today, Palm Sunday, it will be time with Jesus to turn our face to Golgotha. He will want us to strain forward just a bit, to find a new way through the wilderness of our life and death to the cross. He will want us to perceive something new this time around.

Walk in prayer. Listen. Smell the oil of the Nard. Drink the living waters that God has prepared. Forget the old ways, what lies behind; instead strain forward to the goal for the only prize of any value: the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Trust this, and you can learn any new trick God has up his sleeve.