Good morning, Friends! Happy New Year! Welcome to 2021!
It always takes me a week or two to get used to saying the right number for the new year. I always make a mistake the first few times when I’m writing checks, or filling out an invoice.
I think that this time we’ve all been looking forward to the new year so much that we won’t have as much of a problem making the changeover. We’ve been longing for the new year, and hoping so much that 2021 will be better.
I know a lot of people in the last few months have been saying they felt that 2020 was a bad year, a year they wanted to get over with and forget as soon as possible.
I can understand that feeling, even though I don’t share it. A lot of things happened in 2020. Many of them were things we never imagined and never saw coming. I think in years to come, we’re all going to look back on 2020, and wonder how we survived.
So much fear. So much anxiety. So much anger at times. So much bitter division.
So many losses. I don’t think we’ve really understood at a gut level how many people have died, who might still be alive if it weren’t for the virus.
So much hardship, in so many different areas of life. Schools closed. Jobs and homes and businesses lost. I guess we’re all going to be glad to try and recover, to pick up and move on.
But before we say goodbye to 2020, I’d like to remind us that there were blessings for us last year, too.
Last year we all gathered here in this very place, and we prayed for Javier, that he would travel safely to Mexico and get his green card, and come back safe again. That time of prayer was very special in the life of Springfield. We don’t pray deeply like that often enough. And our prayer was answered. He made it, he came back safe, and he’s a legal resident of this country.
Before things shut down, we had a wonderful fish fry – we did better than we’d done for many years. We didn’t run out, but almost every scrap of food was taken and enjoyed.
There were times of great creativity last year, like at Easter when we couldn’t gather, and wanted somehow to share the joy of Easter Sunday, and remember the traditions of Springfield.
Tom Terrell came up with the idea of a time lapse video of the Flowering Cross, that we could share with people. It was beautiful, and more than 5,000 people watched it online.
Everyone who came here for our outdoor worship last summer and fall will remember the peace and stillness of those outdoor mornings, with Paulo’s music floating through the trees.
We had to cancel a great many things in 2020 – things we love to do and had planned and looked forward to. Many of us missed seeing family and friends, and had to put off trips and vacations.
I know that when things are finally safe, that I’m going to be much in need of a vacation – it’ll be nearly two years since I was able to take one. There’ve been so many weeks this year when I’ve put in all kinds of overtime.
All of our staff here at the meeting have been working so hard in 2020. No one has been sitting on their hands.
We’ve been blessed by generous, rock-solid support for the meeting, and we have reached out in all kinds of new and different ways. People have stayed in touch by phone and text and e-mail and social media, by cards and letters.
I know how grateful people are – especially our home bound members who have gone for many months without seeing you all. Your efforts to stay in touch have meant so much to them.
It just broke my heart last month, when I called one of our homebound members on the telephone. She’s been locked down since last March and confined to her room.
She said that for her, it’s been just like living in a prison cell. She said, “I feel sometimes like God’s forgotten me.” She said, “It just don’t feel like Christmas a-tall!”
That’s why it’s so important for us to reach out and stay in touch with each other.
My wife was talking this week with one of her friends back home. Her friend lives with her daughter, who’s a nurse, and you can imagine the strain they’ve been living with this past year.
But when the daughter comes home, sometimes after working extra shifts, every day, she calls an older neighbor who lives all alone next door, and asks how he’s doing. She checks in on him, so that every day, he knows someone cares. She runs errands for him, and picks up his medication, and puts it in all those little containers for each day, so it’ll be ready for him.
They have another neighbor, where the husband died of COVID early last spring. The wife and children were left, and the wife had a mental breakdown from all the grief and financial strain. All the people from the church got together and set up a schedule to bring meals to the family, because they just weren’t coping.
After a couple of months, most of the people in the church stopped helping. But all this time, our friend’s daughter has fixed a meal for the whole family, every Wednesday, and brought it over.
This is after working extra shifts herself at the hospital. After taking care of Joyce’s friend, her own mom, who lives with her. And this is after looking after her other neighbor, the old man who needs help with his medication, and checking in with him every day.
We have a few people like that here in our meeting. You’re helping, more than anyone can imagine, in the most difficult times we’ve ever known.
I want to bless you all, for every phone call you make. For every meal you bring. For every card you send. For everything you do, to reach out, to share what you can, to care for others, to pray, to listen and to bear each others’ burdens.
It may seem like insignificant work, but it’s not. I only see and hear about a small portion of it, but it’s all known to God. And people thank God for what you do, and praise God for helping them through, because of the things that you do to reach out.
So, thank you, and bless you, for all that you’ve done this past year!
To start the new year, I want to read one of the Psalms for us. The Psalms are always good for us, but this one in particular is about hope. This past year has felt dark and discouraging a lot of the time. For some people, I know it’s brought them to the edge of despair.
So, hope is what we need. And hope is what this Psalm offers.
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the Lord!
Hope is such an important thing for us to hold on to during these difficult days. The new year always feels like a time of fresh hope.
We feel that we’re starting over again, that we’re turning to a fresh page, a new leaf in a new diary. We can write whatever we want on it, and we don’t have to go back to the old days again.
A new year feels like a fresh gift, an opportunity to do better, year full of fresh possibilities for us. We make resolutions to change our lives. Our prayers take on fresh meaning. A new year always feels like a good thing.
Sometimes it’s easier to understand something by looking at its opposite. For example, hope is the opposite of despair. Despair doesn’t just mean giving up, it means we think that no one can help us, not even God. Despair is giving up on ourselves, on our friends, on our community, on the system, and giving up on God.
It’s feeling like we’re beyond God’s reach, beyond God’s love. And you know, that’s why despair is so wrong. Because nobody is beyond the love of God.
We need to know that, deep down, and never forget it. No one is outside God’s reach. No one is ever forgotten by God. And our job is to live that way, to live it for ourselves, and to live it for each other.
That doesn’t mean that we all aren’t sometimes discouraged or depressed now and then. Things go wrong for everyone. But hope means that even at our lowest, we still hang on, and we have a reservoir of faith and trust that God will help us.
Hope is also opposed to fear. Of course we’re afraid. We’d be stupid, not to be. But the cure for fear is always trust, and the discovery that even though we’re afraid, we still have something good to cling to and hope for.
Hope is not denial. We’ve seen a terrifying amount of denial this past year. I’ve been so angry at people who deny and pretend that anything is happening, who won’t wear a mask, who literally party like there’s no tomorrow. They’re in complete denial, and they’re not only endangering themselves, but everyone around them.
They remind me of one of my favorite relatives, a great-aunt of mine who was a social worker. She saw all kinds of human sickness and misery, but she used to tell me, “God never told nobody they had to be stupid!”
Hope is not being stupid. It’s not hiding your head in the sand. It’s not wishful thinking or fantasy.
Hope is about reality. But it’s saying there is a deep reality, a reality where God is with us.
We still have to do our part. We have to use the best of our knowledge, the best of our scientific and medical understanding, the best of our care for ourselves and each other.
But hope says that in the darkest of times, there is still God. Every day, we look up, we dig deep, and we ask God to help us make it through today.
Hope says that even though we fall, we get up again. Hope says that we keep reaching out, because Jesus is by our side.
Hope says that darkness is not the last word. God, who created everything, who said, “Let there be light!” is still shining for us.
Hope means saying yes, when so many things around us seem to be saying no. Hope means that we trust God, even in difficult times.
Today’s scripture says, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord!”
So much of last year was a year of darkness and fear. This coming year, we still have a whole lot of big challenges. But may this coming year also be a year of hope.
A year to keep on loving.
A year to pray.
A year to reach out.
A year to lift each other up.
A year to know that one day, we will sing God’s praise here again.
A year to hold on to our faith.
A year to be strong, in spite of everything.
May God be with us, in this year to come.
May we remember Jesus, in the darkest of days, and remember his love and healing, his power to calm the storm, his power to take a little and use it to feed a multitude.
May we take fresh steps this year, and may we work to build up God’s church, and reach out in Jesus’ name.
Whatever small steps we take, whatever small gifts we can give, whatever prayers we offer, may God be with us.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.