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Resolutions

(a meditation for December 31, 2017, the First Sunday after Christmas and New Year’s Eve, based on Ephesians 3:14-21)

“I’ve made my New Year’s resolution this year.” Or so said the man on the radio as I was driving down the road one day about this time of year; and he went on to say, “And it’s the same one I make every year: not to make any New Year’s resolutions!”

Now that’s noble, I remember thinking.  What better way to avoid not keeping a resolution for the coming year than not to make one in the first place!   Kind of misses the whole point of the thing, but even then I had to admit I did understand his thinking!  I mean, how many of us have made all these grand commitments to self-improvement on January 1st only to find our firm resolve slipping away long before the month has passed!  At least this way you’re guaranteed success; because if you promise nothing then you’re responsible to nothing!

Of course, if you think about it for very long you discover that idea doesn’t really hold water, either.  The truth is that we’re all responsible to something or someone: our families, our friends, the people with whom and for whom we labor; and certainly, as Christians, we’re responsible to God!   Bottom line is that we have obligations of one sort or another that extend to just about every facet of our lives; and every decision we make on a day to day basis (even something as seemingly but deceptively simple as how we eat or exercise) ends up saying something not only about ourselves and our own lives, but also about how we value and relate to those around us.  So we can avoid making resolutions; but the responsibilities and the relationships that inspired those resolutions will always be there!

So what are we to do about this resolution conundrum, especially today as we literally come to the brink of a brand new year?   Maybe the answer comes in changing how we think of this idea of making resolutions.  Rather than making promises we’re not at all sure we can or that we’re even willing (!) to keep, maybe on this last day of 2017 we should be seizing the opportunity for honest assessment of where we actually are in our lives, so that we might make a “mid-course correction” for the journey that awaits us in 2018.  In other words, we need to ask ourselves, how did it go last year, anyway?  Were there things we should have done differently?  How far off track did we find ourselves wandering from where we wanted to be and where we are right now; and how do we keep that from happening in the year to come?  Because it’s one thing, friends, for us to make a list of resolutions for a new year; but it’s quite another to be purposeful in finding ways that’ll make those resolutions a reality in our lives.

I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot as of late; and perhaps it’s because it’s been such a tumultuous year in the world around us that we’ve felt a bit “blown off course,” so to speak, or maybe it’s because even as I’m getting older, I feel like I’m heading in a direction that inevitably becomes busier and busier (which is not really the direction I was expecting to go!), but it seems to me that this kind of “mid-course correction” would be most appropriate for any of us as enter into a new year!  In fact, as I’ve been thinking on this I realize I’ve come up with three “resolutions” that might just help in getting us “back on course,” not only in the walk of life but the walk of faith as well.  So in lieu of a real sermon today, I’d like to take a couple moments to share those resolutions with you.

The first resolution I want to make for 2018 is to GIVE MORE.   You know, not only in having had not one, but two hip replacements this past year and my wife Lisa having to deal with surgeries and illness of her own, but also in walking with many of you in the challenges, struggles and unwelcome transitions of life, I was reminded once again of the truth that there is so much in this life that is completely out of our control.  Though we might, in our weaker moments, fear otherwise,  I’m here to remind  us all of the truth that none of what happens to us is contingent on how “good” or “bad” we are; the bottom line, folks, is, as Christ himself said, it rains on the just and the unjust.  But… by the same token there is no way that any of us could possibly earn or be deserving of the blessings of love, joy and insight we’ve received at the hand of God and in the care of God’s people; as much as we may try, there is no way we can even begin to live up to what we’ve been given in such abundance.  In the end, all any of us really can do is to try to live our lives faithfully in the midst of all of its myriad joys and struggles.

So be it resolve that we give more of ourselves to God’s movement and purpose as life, with all its unpredictability, unfolds before us; to be more “in the moment” where faith is concerned; to be intentional in recognizing that in every happenstance and casual conversation God’s Spirit might well be moving and we would best pay attention!  Also, we need to listen better and talk a whole lot less; and to be more aware of the opportunities that will arise to show God’s love and care in what we say and in what we do. Let us resolve in 2018 to give more of ourselves to God.

The second resolution I want to make is sort of the flip side of this; for not only do I resolve to give more, I also resolve to COMPLAIN LESS.  That’s right… I said it!  Actually, I’m reminded here of the old joke you’ve probably heard me tell:  how many Congregationals does it take to change a light bulb?   And the answer is, CHANGE?   We can’t change that light bulb?  My grandfather gave that light bulb?  And besides, the old light bulb was just fine… we don’t need any new light bulbs in this church!

That’s a joke that applies in more ways than one!  I’ll make a confession here and now; sometimes change comes hard for me.  In the words of Paul Simon, “I seem to lean on old familiar ways.”   I like what’s comfortable and easy, and I don’t always want to see things move away from that; but you see, the problem with that kind of thinking is that life does not always flow in a way that’s comfortable and easy!  Life is always moving, always changing, always shifting, always creating a new landscape and offering up new challenges.   And truly, that’s now it should be; for that’s how the living God moves and works for the good.  Life is change, and in the end, we have a choice:  we can either be reluctant about change and grouse about it to the extent that we’ll miss its excitement and joy, or we can resolve to trust God’s leading us through the changes of our lives, and view it as the next good step of the adventure that the Lord is setting before us.  So be it resolved that we quit complaining about all the changes going on and… and let God lead us forward.  Let us rejoice that God is alive and moving, and has something wonderful in store for us as this new year unfolds!

And in that regard, finally, the third resolution I would make this year would be to PRAISE GOD ALWAYS.  There’s an old saying – I think it might have been C.S. Lewis who said it, I’m not sure – that “none are so unholy as those whose hands are cauterized with holy things; sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job.”   That quote has always hit close to home for me, because even as a minister, it’s very easy to lose sight of what it is I’m supposed to be doing; easy to become so consumed with the work of ministry that I get momentarily misplace, shall we say, my ultimate calling, which is to love and serve Jesus Christ our Lord as a pastor, as a husband and father, and as a man with all-too-human and occasionally quirky tendencies!

And unless I miss my guess, most of you can probably say the same thing!  Let me just say this outright:  in this year to come, we cannot let ourselves become so busy, so overwhelmed with all the minutiae of our lives that we I forget to praise God, and to do so with our words, our deeds and our very lives!  No matter what it is we say or do; no matter whether we succeed or fail in it; no matter how much we give of ourselves or how much less we complain about it, in all things the Lord needs to be acknowledged, or else it means… nothing.  Without praise and thanksgiving unto God, it’s just a job; it’s just a chore; it’s just another day.

So be it resolved that we praise God always; and in all ways!  At this time of the year more than any other, you and I must never forget that we are children of light, and that light needs to illumine everything we set out to do or to be as persons, as a people and might I add, most especially as the church.   Actually this resolution ends up the key to fulfilling the other two; for as you and I praise God with our whole hearts in the year ahead we will be moved to give more and what’s more, to complain less as we do; in the process we’ll discovering the true wisdom of life and living:  which is, as we’ve heard proclaimed this morning, “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

I really can’t think of what would make for a happier or more blessed new year… but I dare say it begins with our resolve to make it happen!

So let us pray for each other in making and keeping these resolutions and others as well, as we embark on the next part of our shared journey of life and faith.

Happy New Year, dear friends; and may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven

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(a sermon for  January 1, 2017, the 1st Sunday after Christmas and New Year’s Day, based on Ecclesiastes 3:1-13)

I’ll be honest with you:  as holidays go, I’ve never been much of a fan of New Year’s Day or Eve.  Frankly, from my perspective, the best thing New Year’s has got going for it is that it is not a religious holiday, and – this particular year notwithstanding – we don’t usually plan any special services!

Granted, it is kind of nice to just be able to stay home and just “chill out,” as it were, especially in the wake of all the activity that surrounds the Advent and Christmas seasons.  But mostly, I’ve always thought of New Year’s Eve and Day as a time for restaurateurs, champagne vendors, and partiers to do their thing – which is fine, and in fact, I spent a great many New Year’s Eves in my younger days playing music (and making good money) at those parties (!) – but these days I must confess that my biggest challenge on this holiday is whether I can stay awake long enough to watch the ball drop on Times Square!

But all that said, given that the beginning of a new year does traditionally seem to be a time for reflecting on the past, present and future, even if this isn’t a Christian holiday, per se, it is good for us as people of faith to not only reflect on the ways that God has met us and led us in the year just past, but also to look to the horizon for the advent of God in the year ahead!  Today is actually the perfect time for us to renew our hearts to the truth, as echoed in the old hymn, that God has been “our help in ages past, our hope for years to come;” to pray for peace on earth and for the “day of God [to] draw nigh in beauty and in power.”

Perhaps I spoke too soon; maybe New Year’s should be a liturgical holiday after all!

Actually, I suspect that as most of us look back upon 2016, we’ll recall a very eventful year; one in which there was indeed “a time for every matter under heaven.”   We’ll remember times of joy as well as times of sorrow; times of ease and contentment mingled with those of struggle and uncertainty.  I know that’s certainly been true for me this year, as it’s been for so many of us.  It’s the stuff of life “as we know it” filled with moments teeming with great and utter joy; and yet, we’d be less than honest if we didn’t acknowledge that there’s been also some grief and despair along the way, and times in which we’ve learned what it means to “bear one another’s burdens” in very real and cogent ways.  And I don’t have to tell you that this has been the year that we’ve all had a front row seat to the spectacle of a nation and world in turmoil!  But even with all of that, I dare say that in the presence of Jesus Christ and by the movement of God’s Holy Spirit we are also discovering that “it is well” with our souls.

That’s the thing about the passing of time: everything in life – the good and bad, easy and hard, joyous and painful – seems, sooner or later, to have its time.  I think that’s why in getting ready for this morning I was drawn to that familiar passage from Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal…”

Now I know that for a lot of us, just hearing those words evokes memories of the ‘60’s, and the music of the Byrds (or Pete Seeger, if you are a purist!); and they represent unending hope and our dreams for the future. It’s the message that the seasons do roll along and times passes, but things do change for the better.  Fear notdespair not (!) – for everything has its time.  And yet, when we read this passage of scripture in its context, that’s not exactly the message that comes through! In fact, the words of this text actually come of sounding a bit dark!  There’s “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance… a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing… a time to love and a time to hate.” Everything that’s good and desirable about life and living seems to be connected to that which is inherently bad!  And then, after this litany of all the good and bad “times of our lives,” there’s this: “What gain have the workers from their toil?”

In other words, yes, there is a time for everything:  a time for work and maybe a time for vacation; a time for making twelve car payments and twelve too many mortgage payments; and yes, there’s time buy the groceries and to debate politics and to take in a couple of football games.  But where does it all lead, and what good comes of it?  I’m reminded of a very old “Peanuts” comic strip in which Sally, jump rope in hand, is crying her eyes out; Charlie Brown rushes to her and says to his sister, “Why are you crying?”  To which Sally answers, “I was just standing here jumping rope, and suddenly, it all seemed so futile!” Quite honestly, sometimes we get the same feeling!  After all is said and done (and for 2016 at least, it all really is said and done), the question remains: what in the world does it all mean?

Understand that the book of Ecclesiastes was written as a wisdom teaching regarding the truth of human life.  Taken as a whole, it’s a very direct and profound warning against putting one’s security upon that which is created by human intent and ego.  It was written after the Babylonian Exile, an experience that had taught the Hebrew people that life was never meant to be an uninterrupted walk in the park!  In fact, one commentator I read has actually accused the writer of Ecclesiastes as being “the ultimate cynic,” and I have to say that there’s some truth to that.  “Vanity of vanities,” says the Teacher, something he says 38 times (!) through the course of this book.  “All is vanity,” a very blunt message to anyone who would only look at life through rose colored glasses.

But… here’s the thing; life might not always be wonderful, but it’s not all bad, either; it simply moves on. You see, as any people borne of a rural culture understand, time here is seen as cyclical, without beginning or end.  There’s a time to plant, a time to pull up what is planted, then a time to plant again.  One of the stories that we love to tell in our family is about our nephew Joshua, who’s all grown up now, but when he was little was a farmer’s son with a way of thinking and speaking that belied his years.  One winter night I was dispatched, as I always was in those days, to take all the kids to the movies; and as we were driving along the potato fields that line the roads up there, my son makes the comment that he really loves to see the snow covering all the fields.  And to this Joshua replies, “Well, you know, Jake, when I look at those fields, all I see is seedtime and harvest, seedtime and harvest!”

I nearly drove off the road, I was laughing so hard; but, you know, he was right!  In life, there is this constant movement from seedtime to harvest, from winter to spring, around and around.  And there’s nothing that you or I do or not do that changes that!  Likewise, people are born, people die; there are going to be wars just as there is will be peace; and yes, people live and move through the seasons of their own lives.  In short, life happens; life goes on, and we really have very little to do with it.  The task of creating and shaping life belongs to God and God alone.

I realize that to think of life this way is a bit depressing!  But the question from Ecclesiastes is a valid one: what gain have the workers from their toil?  Perhaps the answer to that question is already there in the words of the Teacher: “I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with,’ he says.  God “has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to the end.”

So, it’s not simply about life proceeding in some long, boring, repetitive fashion.  It’s not simply about there being a time for every purpose under heaven; it’s that there is a right time for every purpose under heaven; a right time to speak, a right time to stay quiet, a right time to tear things apart, a right time to put things back together.  There’s a right time to mourn, and, yes, a right time to dance!

What’s the old saying?  “Timing is everything?” Some of us, I’m sure, can tell stories about an occasion where we said or did something unexpected, but perhaps for reasons we can’t begin to understand it was the perfect thing to do or say in that particular moment; or else, we’ve struggled to figure out if “the timing’s right” for whatever we’re planning, even if hesitating results in a missed opportunity!

Well, Ecclesiastes tells us that timing is everything, but time, the right time is in God’s hands rather than ours.  What we’re given is a sense of past and future, and the ability to learn from what’s gone on before even if we don’t know how our particular story is going to come out.  We’re given the gift of faith, which enables us to respond to all the “times of our lives” with courage, joy and with an inner assurance (however tentative sometimes) that whatever happens, happens at the right time.  I like what William Willimon says about this:  he writes that it “would be wisdom always to know the right time.  But Ecclesiastes says that it is greater wisdom to face the facts, to accept our finite creaturely status… [and know] that the seasons of [our lives] are held in God’s hand, and [that] by God’s grace, it will be well.”

In other words, it’s all part of the plan; and, friends, it always has been.  Whether we’re talking the birth of a baby in a manger, or the cross itself, God’s presence and saving love has always come to us with perfect timing; as scripture so often puts it, “in the fullness of time.”  And in grace, God continues to meet us and lead us along the movement of time, guiding us in all the timely (and untimely) actions of our living.

With the beginning of a new year, there will be much in the coming months that will certainly come about because of our effort and hard work; but the truth is that so much more will happen by God’s leading and grace.  I would suggest to you this morning that this is the key to a truly happy new year, one filled with the awareness of God’s perfect timing in your life and living; it will certainly make a difference for us in the year ahead.  As Frederick Beuchner once wrote about a particularly difficult time in his life, “I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, [life] opened up onto extraordinary vistas. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye.  Eating lunch with a friend.  Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window.”  Truly, writes Beuchner, “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hidden, always leaving you room to recognize him.”

Beloved, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven;” and so it will be in 2017. In whatever happens around us, to us and for us in this year that’s now just beginning to unfold, I pray may we always recognize God’s presence and love within it all.

And may we give thanks to God as we do.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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