Jan 3, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
It is a tradition upon the arrival of January 1st to make resolutions concerning desires for improvement in the coming year. And it is nearly as dependable a tradition for columnists, commentators, and preachers to pontificate upon the tradition of making resolutions. I would feel somehow remiss then if I didn’t weigh in on the resolution-making custom in this first sermon of 2016.
I don’t know how the practice of making resolutions on January 1st began, nor do I know when it began, nor who began it. (I didn’t promise that I’d research this custom; only that I would pontificate on it and since my dictionary assures me that “to pontificate” is “to talk pompously”, I feel assured that pontificating doesn’t require any real knowledge of the subject about to be pontificated upon.) Anyway… at some past time in history, however it came about, people decided that the first day of the new calendar year was a good day for turning over a new leaf. Back in November and December the end of the year loomed ominously over us weakening our resolve to make changes in our lives since “there’s not much time left anyway,” but then, come January 1st, time mysteriously refreshed itself and now stretches endlessly before us again. Once again, we have a whole year to lose those pounds or tighten our abs and the wealth of days instills a belief in the possibility of our efforts coming to fruition.
Of course, we know that the New Year is only an artificial reckoning — that every day can have a full year of fresh days before that day comes round on the calendar again — yet New Year’s Day becomes significant because it provides an important marker by which to measure progress. Human minds like to be able to quantify progress and it is simply easier to tally the results of a resolution when you begin it first thing on the morning of January first then it is when you start on say, August 14 at 3:29 in the afternoon. In the latter situation, if people asked, “How long have you kept your resolution to quit annoying your spouse?” you’d have to say, “It’s been 52 days, 3 hours and… wait, no 53 days, 2 hours… or is it 49 days…. Oh, I don’t know because I keep forgetting when I started.” Eventually, having lost track, you’d just give up because when we can’t measure our progress, we don’t feel as if the progress is real.
As human beings, we think and talk about progress a lot. The country’s GDP must always be growing or economists get nervous. If a new app isn’t updated at least once a year, techies flood the app developer’s website with complaints. As individuals, we graduate from elementary school, then high school, then go to college or get a job, and work to climb the ladder, earning more, saving more, and learning more. We like to think that we are moving forward in a linear progression and that our progress can be measured because when we can’t measure our progress, we don’t feel as if the progress is real.
One year, my sister Sandy decided to lose some weight and thought it would be more interesting if we worked as a team so she suggested the following plan:
“Each of us will receive 5 points for every 15 minutes of exercise we do, 10 points for every pound lost, 5 points for every glass of water drunk, 10 points every time you resist a temptation, and when we collectively reach 3000 points or some pre-determined amount, we’ll throw a party.”
I was tempted to say, “This is a great diet plan. We’ll be so busy keeping our spreadsheets we won’t have time to eat.”
Sandy’s method, as complicated as it was, recognized the human need to mark progress, even if (or perhaps especially if) it is progress that comes in very small increments. Maybe it is this need to tick off our movement toward a goal that is one of the primary reasons that the Christian faith often feels so difficult to maintain. If we find it hard to lose ten pounds without giving ourselves an entire year of days as yet unsullied by defeat and without marking every ounce lost on a chart or rewarding ourselves points for even the simplest accomplishment of drinking a glass of water, how can we ever hope to accomplish the things of Christ which are ever so much bigger and so much more nebulous? Think about what kind of spreadsheet you could create to tally your progress on the goals set forward by Christ:
5 points for every word of hope you speak to impoverished people
5 points for every time you combat injustice
10 points when you successfully comfort the broken-hearted
15 points when you love your enemy
Even if you were to eliminate the goals of social justice and focus on only the personal, who among us can really claim a steady forward march toward being the person Christ calls us to be? Paul describes the Christian life as one marked by genuine love, hope, patience, hospitality, empathy, humility, forgiveness, and a persistence in the good. These are not objectives easily tracked on a calendar. The very idea of graphing our progress toward humility feels inherently contradictory. (Can you imagine a group of people throwing a party to celebrate their achievement of personal humility?)
Christ didn’t call us, however, to live a life that is always looking to the future and measuring our progress toward that far off goal; Christ called us to do what we can in the moment in which we find ourselves, living for today and for the people around us right now.
When Jesus was born into our world, the gospel proclaimed that Christ had come to dwell among us — the Word had “pitched its tent” with us, the Greek literally says. God is with us, living among us, right here and right now.
And when Jesus called the first disciples, he didn’t say to Peter and Andrew, “Ok, we have two weeks to find 10 more disciples, and by the end of the month, I want us to have healed 30 lepers and saved 42 sinners. I’ve got a five year strategic plan in place, and we need to stay on target.” Jesus’ eyes were not on some far-off prize marking progress on a spreadsheet, but his eyes were on the dreams, the hopes, and the needs of the people in that very place and that very moment. He blessed children who interrupted his teaching; he turned aside on his path to help a grieving father; he stopped in the road to cure a blind man; he headed off to dinner to eat with a tax collector he had spotted in a tree. Jesus’ disciples were constantly frustrated by these side-trips and interruptions thinking that they were detracting from Jesus’ progress in his mission but Jesus, who measured life differently, proclaimed that those interruptions were his mission. It was not where he was going that ultimately mattered but how he attended to the needs of those around him at that moment in that place because his name was “Emmanuel — God with us”.
Paul Farmer, an internationally recognized doctor who battles tuberculosis and other communicable diseases around the world spent many years trying to help Haitian families who struggle not only with illness but with the persistent poverty that causes much of their disease. The problems of Haiti are complex and entrenched, so much so that when asked once what disease caused the death of three members of a Haitian family, Farmer said simply, “They died of Haiti.” Nevertheless, Farmer lives among the people he treats, loving them and advocating for them as a daily presence. He described his work in Haiti with a jubilance that defies our desire for quantifiable progress. He says, “… I have fought my whole life a long defeat… I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing.” (as cited in Tracy Kidder’s “Mountain Beyond Mountains.”)
Certainly, Farmer hopes that one day health care can be extended to all people but in the meantime, he will find joy in helping those he is with in that moment in that place even if by any quantifiable standard, he is losing the battle. Christ calls us to measure our lives not by standards of human progress, or by things which can be quantified – pounds lost or dollars earned or even the number of souls saved — but by how present we are to those around us in this moment, today, right here and right now.
At the beginning of 2016, as we make our resolutions to improve our lives, may we turn our eyes from some faraway goal to focus on this moment, right here and right now. May we not worry about whether we are winning or losing some large abstract battle but concern ourselves only with the ways in which we can make a difference right here and right now. May we resolve not to be better people at the end of 2016, but resolve to be compassionate and faithful right here and right now. May we resolve to follow the one who is called Emmanuel, God with us.