Monday, January 12, 2009

A Fresh Start

A sermon by Rev. Gregory H. Ledbetter | January 11, 2009 | First Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon Texts: Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11

Ah, it's still early enough in the year to exult over this new flip of the calendar … How's the new year going for you? Is it anything in the way of a fresh start for you? New steps? New directions? New learnings?

It is stunning how many people have expressed gratitude for the conclusion of 2008. A truly difficult year for many people. And of course, the realities of 2008 and many years before that continue to bedevil so many places on our planet … places of great need and horrific violence. September 18th is the next Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah … I think the whole world prays that the awfulness in Gaza and Southern Israel ends LONG before their next flip of the calendar page.

Sometimes a new year is a time for new learnings. For instance, I've already learned in this new year that following is a proper, intelligible, grammatically correct sentence … please listen carefully, because I don't to have to repeat this: "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." I repeat that this is a proper, intelligible, grammatically correct sentence. The fact that the word is an antonym creates this rather peculiar syntactical possibility. Here's what it means: THE buffalo FROM Buffalo WHO ARE buffaloed BY buffalo FROM Buffalo ALSO buffalo THE buffalo FROM Buffalo. OR … more plainly: Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community also happen to intimidate other bison in their community. Well … just make sure you get the right number of "buffalo's" in there or people will have no idea what you mean.

We live by so many calendars … the academic calendar—the school year … that's a pretty dominant calendar in our home and in many of your homes … the liturgical calendar … liturgical nerds like Angela and me get pretty hot and bothered when thinking about the liturgical calendar … the seasons of the year are another way we mark the passage of time, though gorgeous days like yesterday make it a little difficult to remember which season we're in. Observant Jews not only live by the Gregorian calendar, but also by the Hebrew calendar … it is, by this way of measuring the years, the year 5769.

We have just entered 2009 and it seems it was just yesterday that we were all giddy and jumpy over Y2K … and next year it will be a whole decade since that event.

It still amazes me how much power the simple turn of the annual odometer can have for people … for us. Even though there's a certain arbitrariness to the movement from one year to another, it still spells a remarkable amount of hopefulness for people … the hopefulness of new beginnings and a fresh start.

T.S. Eliot, the poet of "endings and beginnings" said in his poem "Little Gidding":

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

Beginnings … it's a spritely, optimistic word. It reminds one of spring and things popping from the ground and buds bursting …

Dorothy Day has long been one of my personal saints. She was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the early 1930's and a patron saint of just about every movement where social justice and acts of compassion and mercy are joined together. Dorothy Day was a journalist who watched the horrible effects of the Depression on the people around her in New York city. This is how she described the time and the people:

We were in the third year of the depression. Roosevelt had just been elected President. Every fifth adult American—twelve million in all—was unemployed. No smoke came from the factories. Mortgages on homes and farms were being foreclosed, driving more people to the city and loading them onto the already overburdened relief rolls. In New York long, bedraggled bread-lines of listless men wound along city streets. On the fringes, by the rivers, almost every vacant lot was a Hooverville, a collection of jerry-built shanties where the homeless huddled in front of their fires.

But Dorothy Day goes on to say:

An air of excitement, of impending social change, with the opportunity to implement our social ideas, buoyed up all who were young and had ideas. We met, we talked endlessly, feeling that this was the time to try new things.

Endings and beginnings … Dorothy Day helped found the Catholic Worker movement which helped lift up the plight of working men and women. In a time of horrific unemployment, it was a movement of great hope for many. In her book from which I've just read that describes the Catholic Worker movement, she titles the first section of the book: "Beginnings are always exciting." It may not seem like much to you, but that simple phrase has always stuck with me … "Beginnings are always exciting."

It's a phrase that seems to speak of so much of life, so much of existence … life is, it seems, an endless series of endings and beginnings, stops and starts. To wistfully close a beloved novel is a certain kind of ending … but then there's excitement of a new novel, a new story, new characters and setting and dilemmas and possibilities.

Yesterday felt like that kind of day. Scouring our hillside, scrubbing the windows, pilfering our closets … all done by a joyous and enthusiastic company … it was a wonderful way to begin a new calendar year together. As we tore away 30 years of overgrown junipers, clearing the front hillside for a new landscape, it almost had the feel for me of a mini-groundbreaking of sorts, as well, back-breaking. While I can grumble and grouse when trees come down, there's something within me that thrills at the possibilities and the hopefulness of a clean slate, a blank page, a bare hillside pregnant with opportunity and possibility.

I am not alone and we are not alone in this feeling. Even ancient souls, ancient writers could get misty-eyed and wax eloquent over the grand excitement of new beginnings and the great hopefulness of a fresh start.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

These words are the Biblical writers' way of speaking, not only imaginatively and poetically of earth's beginnings and humanity's beginnings … these words are the Biblical writers' way of speaking, not only imaginatively and poetically of EVERY NEW BEGINNING … EVERY FRESH START.

As our ancient ancestors in the faith pondered these words, they weren't thinking in any way scientifically or even historically … what they had in mind especially were the first four words and what those four words meant for each time that followed each ending: "In the beginning … God." It was the most powerful affirmation they could make about their lives and their faith … that God was present in each new start that came on the heels of endings of all kinds … quiet closures and towering tragedies. In every beginning that followed every ending, they took each new breath in each new day in the presence of the one whose very words and whose very breath had brought them into being.

I think that helps explain why the very early morning that is just being tinged by the first light of dawn is so sacred for me and for many of us. The last couple of winters, Jan and I started many mornings looking at the webcams at a couple of Sierra Nevada ski area. We love to watch the snow pile up and the ski season begin. But what we found most captivating was watching day dawn over these frozen mountain peaks … the darkness giving way to the blushing promise of the sun and a new day.

In many ways, each and every new day is like the first day of creation … formless void and darkness that await the invigorating and life-giving breath of God … dark, watery chaos that awaits the gentling and sculpting hand … thick, baffling darkness that awaits the lightening by a wisdom that peels back the darkness … pierces the darkness … baffles the darkness with light.

Our Advent journey of December, our candle-lighted celebration of the incarnation and our star-studded Epiphany … all speak of the light being kindled in the darkness and they all have their roots in this first of God's great creative acts … of separating the light from the darkness … the naming of day and night … the awareness of morning and evening … the hallowing of these solar and lunar movements of each day… and each of these latent and appropriate expressions of beginnings and endings … of old endings and new beginnings.

In the still very advanced date on the Hebrew calendar of around three thousand, seven hundred and sixty, a man named John came bursting from the wilderness with all of the wild zeal of an ancient prophet of Israel. We are led to understand that John is Jesus' cousin. I have a cousin like John … a wild hair of a man who, though he is a very conservative Christian, looks for all the world like an aging hippie or a Harley ridin' biker dude.

Jesus' cousin John bursts from the wilderness preaching a harsh message of change … I'm not sure that he actually coined the phrase: "Change you can believe in", but that was pretty much his message. Actually, it was something more like: "Change or die!"

The gospel of Mark, you'll recall, has no birth narrative, no Christmas story, no angels, no wise men, no Inn for there to be no room at the inn at. Mark travels light and lean and fast and begins the gospel with the advent of Jesus' ministry. And that ministry gets a jolting jump-start with the appearance of John who is as dangerous as a downed line in a storm. Mark says: John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But I've always liked the way the Cotton Patch Gospel tells it. This is the musical based on the Cotton Patch translations of Clarence Jordan. In the Cotton Patch Gospel, John the Baptizer cries out: "Tell me … who warned you to flee from the fury about bust over your heads? You've got to reee-shape your lives!"

John may sound a little "cracked", but let's remember that it is the cracks and the cracked things that sometimes best let in the light of God.

And the message may sound harsh … foreboding … punishing and brutal … but you know what? It hit a common vein with the people who heard it and they showed up in droves to express their need and their desire to make a change … to create an ending to what had been and to open themselves to a new beginning … a fresh start. Like our hillside, in the act of submitting to this baptism of repentance, people who came to John allowed the old to be stripped away so that something new could come … so that God's ever-creative and ever-creating nature could express itself once again in them.

If we are to speak of God as creator, then who's to say that God isn't still creating … still imagining … still speaking God's creative Word in as grand and audacious ways as first described in the first story of creation? With our baptisms and in each and every re-affirmation of our baptisms, we are yielding ourselves to God's new start, God's new day, God's new creation within us that is mirrored in God's new creation in the world all around us.

In our final Welcoming and Affirming conversation later today and in our vote two Sundays from now, we are making a powerful affirmation that God is still creating, that God is still imagining, that God's final word has not been spoken. We who might wish to put a period in God's creative sentence may wish to reconsider and place, instead, a comma, a divine grammatical indication that God light and word and goodness will still continue to break forth in ways that are both familiar and radically and breathtakingly NEW.

At the heart of all of this creative juice and joy and energy is this simple truth: God loves us each and us all so very deeply … God loves and takes joy in all of God's creation from the greatest to the least. And consistent with God not being a "once for all" creator, but a creator whose timeline and possibilities for creating are infinite, God's greatest joy, one could argue, is offering to us fresh starts and new beginnings. A chance to re-enter in the imagination of our minds and the imagination of this time of worship, the cleansing and saving and reshaping waters of baptism.

It's God's gift to us … that though what we see in the mirror looks very much like the old, within it can be a brand-new day … the Spirit of God that brooded over the shapeless void on the first day of creation seeks to brood over our new beginnings, seeks to enter us again, anew, afresh and offer to us a fresh start.

You may remember the prophet's cry from that dark, somber first day of Advent some seven weeks ago … the anguished, yearning cry of the prophet Isaiah who said: "Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down."

Perhaps the most beautiful and yet overlooked part of the description of Jesus' baptism is that this new day of Jesus' life and ministry is the ringing answer of God to Isaiah's cry. When Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

In submitting to a baptism of repentance, the heavens are torn open and the Spirit of God is set loose. And with the Spirit comes this great word of God's esteem, not only for Jesus at his baptism, but for all who submit and re-submit themselves to the cleansing and saving and reshaping waters of baptism.

With the Spirit comes God's word of love for you and for me and with that love the invitation and the means to be made more nearly into the image of God and the expression of God's love.

We gather this morning to remember our baptisms … baptisms as a result of decisions we made or that were made for us … all valid, all real. And we gather to be reminded of God's great love for us each and us all, a love that we remember in that ancient story of our first creation … and a love that is renewed and refreshed with each baptism and each remembrance and renewal of our baptisms.

Today, on this day so early in a new year, we join in praying for the heavens to be torn open once more and the Spirit of God to fall upon us … and indeed, upon all earth, that we may ALL be remade into the image of LOVE.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Melt me … mold me … fill me … use me.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.


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