We are just about seventeen and a half hours into the New Year. How are you feeling about the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017? Perhaps you feel relief, perhaps trepidation, perhaps excitement, perhaps dread, perhaps something else. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day may feel tremendously significant, but of course, they are rather arbitrary. There is nothing innately wonderful or horrible about a sequence of 365 days (or 366, as the case may be). There is nothing inherent in the moment that divided 11:59pm from 12:00am last night. The earth revolved around the sun, but the point that we mark as the end of one calendar year and the beginning of the next is chosen by a set of historical coincidences. Nevertheless, New Year’s Day marks a moment for looking back and taking stock, and looking forward and making plans.
There is something of a societal consensus that this year has been an especially difficult one. A popular trend on social media involves the juxtaposition of two images of the same actor, with the words “Me at the beginning of 2016” and “Me at the end of 2016.” For the first image, you choose an image of an actor looking fresh, youthful, and joyful – perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio at the beginning of the movie Titanic. For the second image, you choose an image of the same actor looking defeated, bruised, and worn – for instance, an image of Leonardo DiCaprio bleeding, battered, and covered with ice in The Revenant. These images point to an overwhelming sense that 2016 has left many of us feeling battered and bruised, disillusioned and disappointed. We have faced not only the 2016 Election, but Brexit, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and celebrity deaths including some of the great icons of pop music who broadened our understanding of gender and sexuality. Has this year been worse than others? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, many of us come to this day weighted down and worn out by what has felt like an unending onslaught of bad news.
In this transitional moment, the liminal space of New Year’s, the scripture readings offer a broader perspective. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” the writer of Ecclesiastes declares, before setting forth fourteen pairings detailing the variety of seasons we might find ourselves in over the course of our lives. “A time to be born, and a time to die,” it begins, declaring up front that our lives are bounded by those two momentous days. Then it goes on, setting forth pair after pair: “a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up,” and so on and so on. This text invites us to a certain equanimity, urging us to hold lightly the vicissitudes of personal and social circumstance. It doesn’t ask us to be passive or dispassionate about the situations we find ourselves in, but it does remind us of the temporary nature of those circumstances.
Of course, we can and should wonder what it means for scripture to say that there is a time to kill, a time to hate, a time for war. Is the writer telling us that these things are part of God’s plan for humanity and our lives? I certainly hope not. The God I know is not a God who causes or desires violence and suffering, but rather a God who, in great love, works in us and through us to bring healing and reconciliation out of the great harm we humans do to one another. Perhaps, then, this passage points us toward the perspective that, no matter what trauma or joy a season brings to us, it is only a season, something that will not last forever. It urges us to savor the sweet times in life, and to endure the bitter, knowing that God is present with us and faithful to us.
As we reflect on the past year with this sense of equanimity, and the fleeting nature of time, perhaps we can see with clearer vision those shifting seasons, and the ways that God was faithful to us in times of building up and times of tearing down, times of weeping and times of laughter. We can see the ways that God carried this congregation as we concluded our time at 2504 Broadway and began our life in this physical space. We can see the ways that God carried us through times of mourning and times of celebration in our own individual lives — through births and deaths, marriages and divorces, illness and healing, addiction and recovery, unemployment and employment. Perhaps we can see that God has been faithful to us even in the times we have not been faithful to God, the times when we as individuals or as a society have been selfish and small-minded, choosing hatred over love, war over peace, tearing apart over sewing together.
As we look toward the new year, the scripture reminds us that there are things within our control, and things outside our control; we likely cannot choose whether it will be a time for war or a time for peace, a time for mourning or a time for dancing. We can choose, however, whether we build up or tear down, whether we keep silence or speak. It challenges us to hold time lightly, knowing that painful seasons will come and go. And at the same time, it challenges us to be discerning, courageous, and faithful, as we choose how we will live with integrity in each season.
While the text from Ecclesiastes offers counsel for living in the chaos and changeability of this world, today’s other texts offer a broader perspective, reminding us that ultimately time is in the hands of God. God is drawing us to herself, toward that day when everything will be set right and all of creation will be made new and filled with God’s glory.
The Gospel text from Matthew 25 is perhaps a difficult one to hear. We Protestant Christians believe that we are saved by God’s grace and love, not by our good works or abstention from sin. So when we hear of God dividing the compassionate from the cold-hearted, praising the former and cursing the latter, it is jarring – are we not all sinners forgiven by a loving God? Nevertheless, texts like this one that speak of God’s judgment have something to say to us, especially as we reflect on the past and set intentions for the future. This text reminds us that God’s love and forgiveness are not the end of the story; we are loved and forgiven and sent out to be God’s people in the world, loving and blessing others as Christ has loved and blessed us, and God is waiting with bated breath to see how we will choose.
One commentator notes that the virtuous ones in this parable are shocked to hear of their own good deeds: “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?”, they ask — they don’t remember, because the pattern of God’s love and mercy has become their way of living, so familiar that they do it instinctively, reflexively, without a second thought. As we stand on the cusp of a new year, this text calls us to reflect on the times we have failed to extend God’s love to our neighbors, and to commit afresh to growing in faith, so that God’s ways of love pattern our lives and our days. We are called to give food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, to visit the imprisoned, and we are called to make those acts of love and justice so integral to our faith and life that when God commends us, we can barely recall our acts of kindness, so habitual they are, so woven into the fabric of our daily living.
As we stand on the brink of this new year, how can we rededicate ourselves and our time to God? How can we grow in faith so that the God who loves us freely and abundantly is filled with joy at how we share God’s love? No matter what seasons this year might bring, how can we choose to live out our faith in acts of justice, compassion, courage, and grace?
Perhaps the next 365 days will bring times for weeping, for mourning, for breaking down and tearing apart. Or perhaps they will bring times for laughter, for dancing, for building up and sewing together. Regardless, though, we can trust in a God who takes on flesh and dwells among us — a God who enters fully into the human experience, sharing in the sweetness of life and the anguish of loss. A God who gathers the disciples and us around a table where all are welcome and breaks the loaf and pours the cup and offers us bread for the journey and forgiveness of sins. No matter what the coming year holds, may we never forget that God walks with us, sending us to be messengers of God’s peace, gathering us at the Table of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.