Merry Eight Ladies Dancing Day! Happy New Year! Welcome to two thousand twenty-three. If you’re writing checks or putting the date somewhere, it may take a few times to remember that three in the year.
We stand on the cusp, the brink, the dividing line between the old year and the new. It’s a good time to look in both directions, back and forward, like the ancient Roman two-headed god Janus, for whom January is named. According to Wikipedia, Janus “is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings. [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/janus.]
This cusp, this doorway between years, is a good vantage point to stand back and assess. How was the past year? And where are we going in the new one? This is where many of us critique past practices and make New Year’s resolutions to do better: start that diet or exercise program; read all those books; clean out that closet; organize our lives; give more of time, talents, and treasures; become the version of ourselves that resembles the angel on this shoulder as opposed to the devil on the other one.
So how was 2022 for you? This is a moment to remember the losses and give thanks for the lives of those we miss: family and friends who passed on or moved away, maybe a job or relationship that ended. In our congregation we grieved the passing of Bob Bakke, Dona Snow-Miller, Dorothy Sale, and Pauline McCurdy. Some of us had our own losses. We celebrate the gifts of those lives and the joy that they brought us. We grieve. We are changed, we hope for the better, for having had those people in our lives. So we carry their light forward with gratitude by remembering them and living into the gifts that they shared with us.
The writer of Isaiah seems to be doing such an assessment in the passage we read today, giving thanks for all the ways in which God has been present to God’s people:
I will recount the gracious deeds
and praiseworthy acts of the Sovereign One
because of all that God has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that God has shown them according to God’s mercy,
according to the abundance of God’s steadfast love. [Isaiah 63:7]
This is a moment to give thanks to God for bringing us through another year, for helping us navigate the obstacles and challenges. Surely the people of Ukraine are giving thanks that all those rockets didn’t land on them, that people from Poland or the US or many other countries provided assistance. The people experiencing famine in Ethiopia count their losses but also give thanks that somehow, so far, they have managed to keep going. The people of Buffalo came through a racially motivated mass shooting at a grocery store, and most recently lost 39 souls in an unprecedented winter storm. They grieve, and they give thanks for making it through. They help each other along the way. Search teams went door to door checking on people who had no heat. Snow plows worked overtime. A barber kept his shop open through Christmas for anyone stranded in his neighborhood. Over 30 people ended up spending Christmas there together. They ate Hot Pockets from the vending machine. A few of them got a haircut. [https://www.npr.org/2022/12/26/1145546293/buffalo-barbershop-takes-in-the-tired-hungry-and-cold] A pastor kept his church open—literally broke the auto-lock feature on the doors—to care for those stranded in the storm. He sent out volunteers on snowmobiles to rescue people and bring them to the church. [https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2022/12/30/buffalo-pastor-snowstorm]
God became their savior
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but the Holy presence that saved them;
in God’s love and pity God redeemed them;
God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. [Isaiah 8b-9]
Sometimes that Holy presence looks like a volunteer on a snowmobile willing to give someone a ride out of their frozen apartment, or a barber who decides to stay open on Christmas and serve Hot Pockets. Sometimes God looks like us, caring for and helping each other and all those around us. It looks like tuna casserole dropped off on the porch or rides to doctor’s appointments or meals served at Community Lunch. It looks like a card to someone who is struggling, saying, “I see you, and I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time.” It looks like sponsoring an Afghan refugee family and helping them get their feet under them in a new country.
So we look back at 2022 in gratitude, and then we turn to 2023 and look forward in hope. We take the gifts of before and move them forward into the world that is coming.
Psalm 148 is a psalm of ecstatic praise to God. Everything is invited to praise the Creator.
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!
Kings and queens of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together! [Psalm 148:9-12]
As I try to imagine how a mountain or a fruit tree or a bird gives praise to God, what I come to is that they give praise by being their best authentic selves. The mountain is high and beautiful, the fruit tree blooms in the spring and bears fruit to feed everyone in the fall. The bird sings its heart out.
Rulers look out for the wellbeing of their people. Time Magazine chose Volodymyr Zelensky as Person of the Year. [https://time.com/person-of-the-year-2022-volodymyr-zelensky/] When Russia invaded in February, he refused to abandon his office, both literally and figuratively. He sent out daily media posts to reassure and inspire the Ukrainian people. And he has been bold in asking the rest of the world to step up. If he dreamed small and asked for a little, he may or may not get it. But he dreams big. He frames this Russian invasion as a threat to democracy all over the world.
Life is not always as we dreamed and hoped it would be. This is surely not what Zelensky had in mind when he stopped playing the president in a TV show and actually became the real president. In another example on a more individual level, journalist Judy Woodruff has a son who was born with spina bifida. He had a shunt implanted to drain excess fluid from his brain. When he was 16, it was time for routine surgery to replace the shunt. But somehow the surgery went sideways and he ended up in a coma. When he came out of it, he was not the same and would never be the same. He and his family grieved for the loss of the life they had expected him to have. And then they got to work creating the life that he does have. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2022/12/29/judy-woodruff-pbs-newshour/]
While most of us may not have suffered such enormous setbacks, all of us know what it means to watch a dream change or disappear. We grieve what can no longer be. And then we create what is still possible. We live into our best possible selves in our best possible scenario. Maybe that looks like eating Hot Pockets in a barber shop over Christmas with strangers, or setting up 24/7 care for your son in a group home, or fighting for every square inch of Ukraine. Maybe it looks like a beautiful mountain, a bird on the wing, a fruit tree bursting with fruit.
Paul Hawken is an environmentalist who looks at climate change and finds what is possible. He sees that the world is changing, that we are losing species and experiencing more extreme weather and disasters on a whole new scale: wildfires, heat waves, floods, bomb cyclone snowstorms. And he just says, “How can we solve this?” So he assembles all these smart people to think and try things and write about it and share with others their expertise and their hope for a way to live on this changing planet such that all can thrive. This feels like the epitome of Psalm 148: live with hope into a vision of the world where the mountain can be its beautiful, thriving self; the wild animals have an ecosystem that allows them to thrive; the birds have insects and fruit to fuel their songs of praise. So Hawken writes these books, like Drawdown, about ways to draw down our climate footprint; and Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation. Like Volodymyr Zelensky, he doesn’t dream small. He says, “What would it take to transform the whole world back into an Eden where all people and all creatures and all of creation can thrive?” He and his collaborators aren’t just talking about driving less or eating organic. Yes, those things matter, but there’s so much more. They tackle a huge range of topics: oceans, forests, wilding, land, people, the city, food, energy, and industry. The category on people looks a whole lot like social justice to me. It emphasizes listening to Indigenous wisdom about how to live in harmony with the earth. It talks about education for girls, including education about and resources for reproductive choices. It talks about racial justice, clean cook stoves, women, and food. And the book ends with tips about how to take action and connect to the work of living into the vision of a thriving planet.
2022 is behind us. We grieve the losses and give thanks for God’s presence with us, seeing us through. Now we look forward with hope, praising God and resolving to help all of God’s creation sing God’s praises, not in Eden, but in the world as we have it now. May this be a year of many good things moving us ever closer to our best and most authentic selves, serving God with hope and praise. Amen.