Saturday, January 03, 2009

Later that Same Year: Meditation for New Year's Day, 2009

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13
3:1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

3:2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

3:3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

3:4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

3:5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

3:6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;

3:7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

3:8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

3:9 What gain have the workers from their toil?

3:10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.

3:11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

3:12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live;

3:13 moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

Psalm 8
8:1 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.

8:2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.

8:3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;

8:4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

8:5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

8:6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,

8:7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,

8:8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

8:9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Revelation 21:1-6a
21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

21:2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

21:3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;

21:4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

21:5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."

21:6a Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Matthew 25:31-46
25:31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

25:32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

25:33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

25:34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

25:35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

25:36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

25:37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

25:38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

25:39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

25:40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

25:41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

25:42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,

25:43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

25:44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'

25:45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'

25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

It took me a few days to realize these are good words for starting off the new year. They are the lectionary selections for New Year's Day, but if we're past that by a day or two, what does it matter? It's still the new year, and we don't need to be so wed to the calendar that the observance itself has to end when the 24 hours is over. After all, it's still Christmas!

But these are challenging words to start a new year with; judgmental words, even. "To everything there is a season" already violates our sense of time: we don't want things to be seasonal, we want them to be occasional, and the occasion to be right now, if we need it; and later, if we don't need it right now. We don't want time to come in order, unless it's tax time coming only once a year, and Christmas coming only once a year, but then only because we don't like taxes, and we start Christmas earlier and earlier, and the sooner it's over the better! Then there's that funny part that, as we get older, Christmas and taxes and whatever else we look forward to but don't really, seems to come faster and faster and more and more often. We've really kind of broken the seasons, in fact; literally as well as figuratively. Long out of school as most of us are, our lives are still ruled by school holidays: summer, then Christmas break, then the Easter holiday, then summer again. But the seasons mean less to us than to farmers. One season just means we run the A/C, the other just means we run the heat; and in between the most agricultural practice we follow is whether to mow, rake, or shovel. There is no rhythm to our seasons anymore, except the rhythm of shopping (Christmas, especially after Thanksgiving Day) or school (summer, the afore-mentioned holidays).

Just to think that "To everything there is a season" is already to put ourselves out of primary position, out of first place, out of the driver's seat. We don't want to be in charge (who wants the responsibility?), but we want to be in control. So to everything there is a season, when those seasons and those things suit us, and serve us, and please us. Otherwise, away with them, please!

But the Preacher doesn't give us that. He puts us out of control, but recognizes how disturbed we are by that. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun! This is the beginning of wisdom:

I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.
Now there, at least, is a change: eating and drinking and working are not punishments and drudgeries, they are pleasures we all should enjoy. Easy enough to remember during these holidays (unless you are the one in the kitchen all the time! Been there, done that, own the franchise!). God, we are assured, has made everything suitable for its time. And when things are not suitable, is that God, too? Or is that human beings, trying to play at God? Is the basiliea tou theou a place where no one works and everyone eats without labor? Or is it a place where everyone enjoys their food and their drink and their labor, too? But that labor serves everyone, not just those who claim to be in control of the system; until they are not.

That, too, is a meditation for this new year.

We have a sense of the past and the future in our minds, Eccelesiastes tells us, yet even with that we cannot seem to see beyond the present, or to think beyond our own needs. And that brings us to what I'd always thought were the harsh words of Matthew, the parable that revolves around the painful and fearful question: "Lord, when did we see you?"

I don't know if Matthew even meant to add the emphasis on "see," but I inevitably do. It makes these words so plaintive, this question so freighted with despair, that it breaks my heart everytime I read it. So when I read these words as part of the New Year's Day lectionary, I had to hesitate. I had to hesitate a few days before I could say anything from them. And then I realized these words don't have to be said at all, that these words could be a blessing on another year, a statement of Christology, even, that could start the year off in ways new and unexpected and as a blessing. Because what does this story say? It says, as Leonard Bernstein once wrote, that God is the simplest of all. And that all you have to do, in your everyday life, in your quotidian existence, in your daily efforts of labor and eating and drinking, is to see your brother, your sister, hungry, naked, in jail...and do something for them. Anything. A little thing. A meal; a cup of water; a visit. And doing that for them, you actually do it for God. Imagine that. How simple is it? You spend your time looking for God, looking for something to fulfill your days, to satisfy your needs, and there it is beside you the whole time, and what's asked of you? Almost nothing. What does it take to serve God? Almost nothing.

"Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee," Augustine famously said; and somebody took off with that and called it a "God-shaped hole" in us that we must fill, and that became exclusionary and the favorite hammer of the fundamentalists with which to prey up on the rest of us, and for a long time I couldn't make peace with Augustine because of it, and I just rejected the idea outright. And then, just yesterday, just a day or two ago now, I understood. It isn't that we have this hole, this lacking, this emptiness that only "God" can fill. It is that we have needs, wants, desires, which are bottomless: and there are good ways to satisfy them, and less good; and even bad ways. And the fullest satisfaction, we can call "God." So that Christ is both the teacher, and the teaching. And the teaching is that we can simply find God, in simply seeing others as human beings, too. Which brings us to what John saw, on the island of Patmos: the new heaven, and the new earth; and the new Jerusalem, where God lives with all the people. All the people who are God's people.

It is to hard to see it, isn't it? War widespread and spreading; famine created largely by failures in distribution; diseases rampant that don't need to be; people oppressed because those with power find it easier to be oppressive than humane. It is so easy to start another year in judgment, and to use these words like a cudgel, to lay about against our opponents and our enemies and in trying to destroy them to simply make more of them. It is the task of killing the hydra, and we never think to kill the body instead of hacking at the heads.

To everything there is a season; and this is the season of reassessing, and reconsidering. This is the pause we allow ourselves, to consider what courses we have followed, and what courses we could choose, if only we would be wise. It is really very simple, and it really does all come down to this: God has made everything suitable for its time. When you see someone in need, whether it is great need or small, you see the Christ, the Anointed One: you see God. And you have your chance to serve the Messiah. And the new heaven and the new earth and the new Jerusalem where God dwells with all the people, is a vision of here and now, not the sweet bye and bye. If God has put a sense of past and future into our heads, but we still cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end, why can't this be true? Why can't the Revelation speak of the continuing present, one continuing for nearly 2000 years? Why should this year be any different from the last, except that we start it off with new eyes, seeing through new hearts, serving with new joy? What are we that God is mindful of us, and yet God has put us in charge of all this? It is a wonderful responsibility. It is a great joy. This is the day the Lord has made; and the year; and the lifetime; and the whole of creation. Rejoice and be glad in it.

Happy New Year. Allow every season its time; allow all your time its, not your, purpose. Look for the Christ. He is easy to find. And help him. It's all you have to do, to serve him. What could be a better way to start the new year, than that?

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