Covenant for the New Year 1-1-17

There is a time for everything, Ecclesiastes tells us – a season to love and a season to hate. I don’t know when the season is to hate. I hope and assume it is a passing and short season. and I hope we are done with it. Jesus tells us something a little different, anyway in the passage that follows. He proclaims a new season – a season to love. Listen for the word of God for you for New Years’ Day.

 Matthew 25:31-40 At the appointed time the Promised One will come in glory, escorted by all the angels of heaven, and will sit upon the royal throne, with all the nations assembled below.  Then the Promised One will separate them from one another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be placed on the right hand, the goats on the left. “The ruler will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you blessed of my Abba God!  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world! For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you clothed me.  I was ill and you comforted me; in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then these just will ask, ‘When did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you as a stranger and invite you in, or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we see you ill or in prison and come to visit you?’ The ruler will answer them, ‘The truth is, every time you did this for the least of my sisters or brothers, you did it for me.’

January 1, 2017

Covenant: New Year

I went to bed early, New Year’s Eve 1968. I was grumpy and lonely. At 15 years old the week that I had been in Haiti had left me a bit shaken. Seeing young people in the hospital with tuberculosis and malnutrition had been jarring. That was reason enough to not care about staying up until midnight, but the truth was that my grumpiness had more to do with the crush I had on a girl who was on the trip with us and the fact that she did not want to be with me on New Years’ Eve. It was all confused in my head, but the truth is I was more concerned about who might or might not give me a hug or kiss at midnight than about the hungry children a few blocks from my hotel.

This passage from Matthew has given me trouble over the years because I remember moments like that and I know that I have so often not visited the prison, clothed the naked, fed the hungry. Jesus says therefore I didn’t do it to him and therefore I will be cast into the outer darkness. You may have noticed I didn’t even read the second part about the gnashing of teeth and such. That’s partly because it makes me squirm in my boots and partly because though the Bible often talks about such things – it almost never talks about anybody actually experiencing that hellfire, while it much more often talks about saints and folks being in the presence of God. Maybe there is a way I can be forgiven for caring more about that kiss at midnight than for my brother or sister in the hospital.

As you will see in your newsletter, I am planning on spending this coming month of January addressing the covenant we have with God and what that means in terms of the commitment that places on us – a commitment we would do well to put into our to do list beyond the first week of the year. The idea for this sermon series came from Good News Magazine, a magazine I often read but seldom agree with. This pastor from Houston, Rev. Kenneth Levingston, had a sermon in there that caught my attention.

He was warning against false gods in the sermon and made  list of false gods that I sensed he felt the liberal wing of the church was following – and I think he’s right, though I think the whole church makes these liberal mistakes. Specifically, he listed that we want “salvation without sacrifice; sanctification without submission; mercy and grace without truth and transformation; social holiness without scripture; and forgiveness without faithfulness.” My take on the error of our ways is probably significantly different from Rev. Levingston’s, but I felt it was worth taking time to think about each of these false gods and how they lead us astray.

Today, we have started with sanctification without submission. As you have seen and may have sensed, the prayer of John Wesley is a prayer of submission. It may even make you a little uncomfortable. The idea of sanctification may make you uncomfortable as well, in fact. When I became a pastor, one of the questions they asked me at my ordination was, “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” or as Methodists sometimes say ‘Are you going on to perfection?’ and many of the pastors cross their fingers behind their backs. (The question about perfection doesn’t get a laugh as did the question “Are you in debt so as to be embarrassed?” but it’s really it’s just about as laughable.)

Wesley believed along with many Protestants of his time that perfection in love was possible as a gift from the Holy Spirit. It could be instantaneous or something you worked on over time, but sanctification, becoming a saint, becoming perfect was something he really worked for. And he was pretty amazing – praying for an hour in the morning and in the evening and regretting in his old age that he couldn’t write more than 15 hours a day without his eyes hurting.

So look, my guess is that your New Year’s Resolutions do not include one about becoming perfect in 2017. A phrase about submitting your will to the will of God probably isn’t in there anywhere either. But if John Wesley and Ben Franklin aimed for perfection maybe we can aim a little higher than throwing away our accumulation of junk mail.

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to pray for an hour a day for another whole year- (half as much as Wesley did.) That makes me feel like more is possible though. Another thing this week that made me feel more is possible was the movie La La Land. I was blown away with the idea that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone did not know ball room dancing and tap dancing before this movie and that Gosling learned to play piano that well in 3 or 4 months.

I appreciate John Wesley’s brash claim that more is possible than we imagine and I also appreciate the humility he aims for in his prayer, “ I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt…” It is a powerful prayer, isn’t it?

Along with Wesley I invite you to reach high in your hopes and plans for the New Year. Set a goal for prayer along with other goals and more will be possible – for you and our world.

I stayed up til midnight last night to make sure I hugged my imperfect son and kissed my imperfect wife. It was a beautiful New Year’s Eve. I’m looking forward to a humble, fulfilling, and productive 2017. I wish you the best as well.

Communion Hymn: 2096     Rise Up Shepherd and Follow