GREAT EXPECTATIONS, GREAT DISAPPOINTMENTS
A sermon delivered by the Rev. Brian J. Mason
to the First Universalist Unitarian Church in Wausau,
on Sunday, January 6, 2019.
Micah 6:7-9 – Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
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Being my first sermon of the new year, I feel a sense of obligation to address the occasion. However, I must admit that I find New Year’s celebrations a bit cliché. In my mind New Year’s parties are very much like Cinco de Mayo or National Drink Wine Day in the U.S., which is to say that I am convinced people will use just about anything as an excuse to party and eat and drink too much. In high school and college, I would usually tag along with a few friends to a New Year’s party and very much come to regret that decision when I woke up on January 1st. I will not go in to the reasons why I regretted attending those parties, as indulging in some personal details is unbecoming to the office of the minister; and besides, I now stand about 10 feet above contradiction at the moment, which is why you’ve given me the title and robes.
I am happy to report that for nearly a decade now I have spent New Year’s with my family, enjoying games and laughter and top-notch fellowship. Still yet, I do enjoy a few of the clichéd New Year’s thing; for instance, I love watching the ball drop in New York City. It is very much a tradition in my life by now, in the same way the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade must be on in the background as I prepare the turkey for the oven. Most of the New Year’s Eve chatter and musical performances are obnoxious to me, but I love when the camera pans over the sea of people jammed like sardines into Times Square. Everyone looks so happy, even when it rains, as it did last year.
I love to count down as the ball drops and imagine all those New Year’s resolutions being thought and whispered in that very moment. And when midnight finally strikes in the Central Time Zone, where I usually spend every New Year’s Eve, I have, for the past decade, begun each year with a kiss from my wife. My teenage self is very jealous of this fact as I spent most midnights in the late-90s and early 2000s watching others kiss.
But what would New Year’s be without a resolution? There are the ubiquitous resolutions that top many peoples’ lists; things like quitting smoking or cutting back on drinking top the charts; so does going to church, eating better, and working out more. But every year breweries, distilleries, and smoke shops stay healthfully in business; the lines at the fast food drive-thru is just as slow as they’ve always been; there are always unused treadmills and dumbbells at the gym; and the pews at the front of the church are always vacant.
Every December 31st, millions, maybe even billions of people employ symbols of change and renewal: from New York City to Edinburgh, and Tokyo to Sydney, there are fabulous fireworks displays; we pop corks on bottle after bottle of champagne and shine bright lights on dark nights; we resolve to change, to be more patient or wholesome or mindful, yet things around us stay mostly the same.
It’s as if we expect the New Year’s excitement and hope to flow directly in to our personal and collective circumstances. But the newspaper is just as grim on January 1st as it was on December 31st; our boss is just as obnoxious; our kids just as messy; our laundry still overflowing; our government just as ineffective; and our minister’s sermons just as boring as the year before.
We know this is the case, don’t we? We know we have a powerful tendency to fall short of our own goals, but this doesn’t stop us from making resolutions, and it never will. After all, it’s quite human to fail; nobody would learn a thing at all if this weren’t the case.
Celebrating the New Year has been around since at least 45 B.C.E. And following Pope Gregory XIII’s commissioning of the Gregorian calendar in the 1570s, people have been celebrating January 1st with tremendous zeal. But New Year’s isn’t like Christmas or Easter, it isn’t accompanied by the return of the light or the birth of God, nor does is welcome spring’s rebirth and renewal, or Christ’s bodily resurrection. So why do we celebrate it?
The dawning of the New Year marks no change in circumstances, really. It is, when you peel away all the hoopla, just a marking of the march of time. But it’s hardly a trivial holiday, at all; what lends magic to this season is that it symbolizes humankind’s ability to undergo transformation in a world so seemingly resistant to change.
The hope of this season is that you resolve to dare yourself to go somewhere different. This season calls you to begin where you are, but to take yourself and your life someplace new.
In Philippians, St. Paul, a man with a 21st Century ego and emotional baggage to spare, is offering what appears to be a New Year’s sermon to his congregation in Philippi; in it he encourages his listeners to “Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, [and to] press on toward the goal” (3:13-14).
Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal.
How many of us actually forget what lies behind? What lies behind is what we fight about; what lies behind is what we shout about when the money gets tight; what lies behind is what we talk about with our therapists; it’s what causes us to drink too much and forsake our own best intentions. Every major world religion has a lot to say about the past and our tendency to dwell in it. But the true test of any faith is whether we are brave enough to let joy and hope overcome anxiety and fear. And the only way to do this is to start where you are.
The Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes:
Start where you are. This is very important. Meditation practice is not about later, when you get it all together and you’re this person you really respect. You may be the most violent person in the world—that’s a fine place to start. That’s a very rich place to start—juicy, smelly. You might be the most depressed person in the world, the most addicted person in the world. You might think that there are no others on the planet who hate themselves as much as you do. All of that is a good place to start. Just where you are—that’s the place to start.
The curious thing about change or personal growth is that there’s never going to be the “right time.” There will always be something you can think of to put off doing the hard work of looking deeply into your life, especially in to those dark, shadowy places within us. It may never feel like the right time to change or heal, or to ask for forgiveness. But the truth is, there is only now. Hiding behind the excess and clutter in our lives is a simple, sacred humanity waiting to be acknowledged. In the closing stanza of William Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” he writes:
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
As people of faith we are called to be fully awake; to be beacons of light in darkness so deep. We are called to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, because in the end, the world cannot change unless we change first.
Ask yourself what burdens you are carrying into this new year. What grudges or unfinished business are you holding on to? What worries or sadness do you carry with you from the past? I’ll acknowledge that maybe I’m the only person here who is in need of forgetting something. What is in your hearts and minds is your business, though I’m always here for you should you wish to talk. If you are like me, you have a few things you can let go of. You can put something down, you can forget what is behind you, you can bid farewell to a burden, you can say adios to a bit of your ego and pride. This isn’t easy, and I’m not suggesting it is.
It’s quite natural to worry about what might happen if something were to actually change. You might worry whether you will be strong enough to accept what comes; will you be brave enough to stand firm in the face of mounting pressure? You might worry whether it will be worth the risk in the long run, if the prize merits the sacrifice.
To forget the past and strive forward to what lies ahead is a fearful gamble. But so much of life is just like that: love and marriage, parenting and friendship, and anything worthy of care and devotion is a risk with no guaranteed reward.
I remember watching my daughter take swimming lessons a while back. At first, she would cry and reach for the side when her instructor told her it was time to try floating. But after a while she trusted her teacher enough to take a risk. One morning she laid back in the water as her teacher held her head and back above the water. Her teacher calmly told her to breathe and then she bent down and whispered in her ear, “Be brave.” And slowly the instructor pulled her hands away and like magic the water held her afloat.
I can think of nothing better than to repeat those two words: Be brave.
The New Year gives us an opportunity to behold our imperfections in new light. Failures, unlike mistakes, are repeated steps in the wrong direction, things that add up over time, and have the ability to alter the course of your life, and the lives of people around you. To forget what lies behind isn’t to pretend as though nothing ever happened. It is to learn from one’s mistakes and failures; to forget what lies behind is to grow more fully into our humanity.
The celebration of the New Year gives us a chance to take what has been and transform it into something new; it teaches us that it is never too late to begin again; it teaches us that even when we fail, we’re not a failure; it teaches us that even when our relationships fall apart there is more love somewhere; it teaches us that death is not the end, and that love finds us and follows us far beyond the grave.
The wisdom of St. Paul’s letter is this: do not be thrown off balance by the enormity of the heartache in this world. When all else fails remember the prophet Micah’s words: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. This church needs you; your fellow citizens need you; and the world itself needs you.
So, while the year is still new, start where you are, strive forward to what lies ahead, and press on toward the goal. The world will not change until first we change ourselves.
Amen. I love you. Happy New Year.