For the ancients, keeping track meant knowing the season and how it tied into essential life activities, when to plant and when to hunt. They also organized their ritual lives around this organic system of timekeeping, dates and hours, which worked, though irregularly, because one measure of time, the sun, is not in synch with the other measure, the moon. The latter is particularly an issue, as ancient religions set festivals to correspond to the constantly changing moon cycle. We see this in the movement of principles dates in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim calendars, though with moon worship now well behind us in the Christian tradition, our only changing feast is Easter, and we cling to that variation only because we wish to preserve the correspondence to the movable Jewish feast of Passover, one of the few ways we acknowledge that Jesus was an observant Hebrew reformer.
Technology, especially transportation technology that allowed for trade, drove the efforts to standardize timekeeping. The moving stars helped guide ships across the open ocean. Railroads needed timezones and accountants, alas, need fiscal years, and so the fairly random Western date for counting years has become the standard worldwide, though in truth this Christian dating itself, BC for before Christ and AD for Anno Domini, is off by three years, and most everyone who considers that era trips over the fact that, unlike in normal numbering, there is no zero. In truth, there are many New Years. The Jewish New Year, a lunar New Year, started on October 3rd. There is a Chinese New Year, also lunar, this year on January 28. Many churches think of themselves as operating on a school year, a time period that varies widely from region to region, before or after Labor Day which itself moves, but there is also the Liturgical New Year, the first Sunday in Advent when we switch to a new gospel and attempt to tell the story of our faith, though the arc of the story zigs and zags with feasts and other interruptions so that the narrative looks more like Sidney Crosby on a breakaway.
So today we celebrate one of the New Years, one that closes offices, tires accountants, and accounts for more than a few hangovers. Some will take a moment to reflect on the last year, and surely there were some good moments. I found a new call and you found a new pastor. We have great lay leaders and great spirit and passion and church attendance is up. Pearl Jam made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the poor little Cubbies won it all. Still, most of us will not look in the rearview mirror with any great longing.
Many made New Years resolutions. Maybe that is why some of you are in church! I’ll take it. The gyms will be crowded for the next month, returning to normal attendance by the time we celebrate dead presidents. I have abandoned the whole resolutions thing myself because I believe I can make a decision and make incremental changes in my life on any day, try to encourage you each week to make incremental changes in your life and the world around you, but I applaud those who still engage in the practice of making resolutions. You want to improve, have articulated, at least to yourself, what that improved life looks like and the steps needed to get there. You can do that on any day, but if you choose this day, good for you. Good luck!
When you go to that gym, or when you start that weight control program your doctor has been recommending, or start taking that class in water colors, you will have a goal in mind. The doctor, trainer or teacher will articulate the steps along the way, will articulate the benefits of perseverance, of learning from the successes and missteps of others.
Would that we approached faith in the same way.
Members of the fundamentalist heresy, and yes, I am willing to be articulate in saying that fundamentalism is a heresy, can tell you with certainty that the Holy Spirit was in the room, or more accurately rooms, when six companies of Church of England officials produced the Authorized Bible, now called the King James version, a translation solely intended to reinforce the hierarchical structure of the Church of England and to rid scripture of the taint of Calvinism, which is ironic since most of those who claim the divine inspiration of the King James while denying it to other translations are themselves theologically descended from those very same Calvinists that were the target of the translation.
Fundamentalists can be articulate about the Seven Days of Creation, the exact prayer you must say to avoid eternal damnation, and can tell you exactly who God hates, which happens to be exactly who those so-called Christians hate.
And progressives? We are far better at telling people what we don’t believe. That we are kind and open-minded makes it difficult for us to make truth claims, for fear that we might offend others, that we might be wrong. So we claim little and hedge even that.
To repeat the question I have asked in one form or another again and again, how has that been working out for you?
Our original human sin is fear, the intersection of a finite animal and an extraordinary self-awareness. This fear drives us to hoarding and tribalism and rigidity, to attempt to control what we cannot control, all things against which Jesus pushed back. We create stories to justify our hatred of other humans, making them less, claim dominion over a planet we did not create but that we seem destined to destroy. But if we are predisposed to negativity and fear, we are also gifted with an outwardness, a desire to create and love and transcend, to embrace existence. It is to this self, this outward self, that the good news speaks when it calls on us to love, to serve. That is the muscle we must exercise.
Even in the middle of the scripture story filled with nationalism and written to justify the privilege and power of priests and kings, transcendence erupts again and again. We may be officially non-credal, but in reality we have a creed, those words of scripture that we see lived in Jesus, spoken by the prophet. Do justice, the radical justice of God which is not informed by human systems of retribution. Love kindness, the kindness and love that cares for those who are hungry and poor, that visits the incarcerated, the opposite of the perverse Social Darwinism that is at the heart of our social and economic order. Walk humbly with your God, for you did not call yourself into being and had no control over whether you were born into privilege or poverty, into a loving home or a hell hole of abuse.
This is saying something. This is making a truth claim. We must dare to say that any value system that does not meet the tests of expansive justice, loving kindness and humility is wrong and is corrupting.
That one child can be born into poverty and never have the opportunities of another child born into wealth is wrong. The idea that everyone who is poor deserves to be poor is laughable, for the hardest working people I’ve met in my life have been poor by the standards of our age. Yet we allow the narrative that ties poverty to laziness to continue, and watch as the social safety net is destroyed, as the affirmative action designed to help children born into poverty compete on a level playing field is undermined and vilified. We mumble and we go along, whimper when we lose.
I was hungry and you fed me. Seems pretty articulate.
Jesus is not an anything-goes mumble-mouthed liberal. There is wrong and there is right. It just isn’t the right and wrong preached by those who so often use his name.
The time has come for us to take back the name of Jesus, to reclaim the title of Christian, and to speak the truth with love. The Third Reich happened because nice people didn’t want to upset anyone, figured it couldn’t be that bad, wanted to be good neighbors and not talk politics.
Love requires action. A church that is more worried about the building and the past than about those at the margins deserves to close, for the Holy Spirit has left the building.
Nor is it enough that we give handouts to those in need in our own community, for the evils that are destroying lives know no borders, are seldom local evils, and decisions made in the statehouse in Augusta, in an office building on K Street, in a skyscraper in Manhattan, have the power to destroy lives right here. Focusing only on our own community is not only its own form of tribalism, it is also ineffective.
From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.
God does not need our praise. God needs our courage and our action. Courage like Elijah. Courage like Amos. Courage like Paul. Courage like an un-credentialed rabbi who was willing to pay the ultimate price. And courage like thousands of faithful servants of love, generation after generation.
God needs you to have the courage to figure out what you believe, to have the courage to articulate that belief even if it makes people uncomfortable, the courage to live like you believe it. And that is going to take work, prayer and study and conversation. What does it look like when the sick have access to healers? Not just the wealthy sick, the insured sick, but all of the sick, even the mentally ill that our society has abandoned. What does it look like when a covenant exists between law enforcement and the communities they serve, when there is accountability, when the extrajudicial executions stop?
It is exactly our job to be articulate about the kingdom of God that Jesus announced was already breaking into the world. It is exactly our job to think about economic justice, just as Jesus and the prophets did. It is also our job to pray, to attend to our spiritual life, for in that moment of Spirit and truth we will find the words to articulate a vision of a better world where God’s will is done.
And here’s the thing. God will meet you in that moment of courage, will surround you with others who are committed to justice, kindness and humility, millions here and around the world who follow not the gun-toting angry white Jesus, but the broken brown-skinned healer with love enough to defeat the grave.
Be articulate. Articulate what you believe. Speak it into the world. Dare to claim the name, to speak the words of Christmas. God is with us. God is with us.