January 3, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Most years, we celebrate the start of a new year with fireworks and gatherings with friends and family, but of course, this year because of the pandemic, things were a bit different. We had to forego our normal activities, and watch firework displays virtually on our laptops and TVs. Not only were our celebrations muted this year but few people have been much in the mood for the normal tradition of making New Year’s resolutions. In years past, we may have resolved to try to structure more family time together, or learn how to watercolor paint, or finally clean out the garage but during the pandemic, we had nine months of time to work on improving ourselves and frankly, we aren’t looking much better now than when our global lockdown began.
Of course, even in a good year, our New Year’s resolutions rarely last long but usually we blame their failure on the many distractions that consume our time. In 2020, however, we were forced to recognize that even when we were stuck in our homes for months on end, we still didn’t manage to become the people we think we should be. Forced together time didn’t change our families into Hallmark card versions of ourselves; and having no where to go each day didn’t give us the motivation to finally write that great American novel. It just meant we stayed in our pajamas longer. Change is hard, and the fact is that we are not as much in control of who we want to be as we would like to think. Just resolving that we are going to be a better person this year doesn’t mean that in 12 months we will be that person. Will power is a limited resource that is easily depleted and not easily renewed and so for most of us, change will at best come in fits and starts and be incremental. Any resolutions we made at the beginning of the pandemic back in March likely failed because the reality is that it isn’t external circumstances that are preventing us from becoming the person we think we should be as much as it is our own inability to really control who we become.
This is bad news if we are judging ourselves by the standards of society. My social media feeds are filled with ads for weight loss programs and exercise regimens suggesting that Facebook believes that if I would just get off my duff I could exchange this useless flabby body for one that I can be proud of. And Google tells me that if I just sign up for an online master class, I can change myself from a couch sitting potato head into an artistic prodigy. (Can you be a prodigy if you are over 12?) There are life coaches who promise to help you turn your life around, books on how you can form better habits, bullet journals and planning apps to keep you on track, and voices from every corner whispering — “You can be better than this if you would just make a little effort.” And so we try — we make our resolutions and then when we fail to become triathlon winners who play violin at Carnegie Hall on the side, we despair at our pitiful inability to change.
I am not suggesting that we give up trying to improve ourselves because an annual reminder to live a healthier life is a good thing. I would suggest, however, that there is a more important resolution that we could make this year than any resolution in which we pledge to try to change ourselves for the better. I propose that this year, we resolve to allow ourselves to be changed. What would happen if this year instead of saying “I resolve to change this about my life or that about my life,” you said instead, “I am not as much in control of who I become as I think I am and so this year I resolve instead to allow myself to be changed for the better by those around me, by my friends, my family, my neighbors, and especially by my God?”
I suggest this because a quick trip through the Bible will show you that God doesn’t value people on the basis of their ability to change themselves into better people but rather on their willingness to be changed into instruments for good. Moses killed a man in a fit of temper and was hiding out in Midian when God said, “You are the man for me” and in spite of Moses’ doubts, Moses acquiesced to God’s plan and allowed himself to be changed by that call. Jeremiah didn’t wake up one day and say, “This year is the year I resolve to become a prophet and I will work to become the best prophet the world has known.” No, God came to Jeremiah and in spite of Jeremiah’s conviction that he was too young for the job, Jeremiah reluctantly allowed God to change the course of his life. Paul literally had to be struck blind to turn him from what he thought his life should be to what God believed it should. And do you think Mary thought the perfect life for her was that of an unwed mother of a very unusual child? No, any resolutions the people in the Bible made for themselves about how they thought their life should play out were usually wrong-headed and misguided because God doesn’t look for people who think they are in control of their own lives; God can’t use people who believe that they know what’s best for themselves. God needs people not who are working hard to change themselves but who are open to being changed into what is best for God and the world. God needs less resolve from us and more flexibility!
The gospel of Matthew tells the story of magi coming from the east to visit the toddler Jesus in his home in Bethlehem. Matthew includes the narrative of the visitation by the magi to foreshadow one of the most dramatic changes that is to come to the infant Christian church: the admission of Gentiles into the company of the faithful. When the apostles first began the church, they thought that they knew what the ideal church should look like and resolutely developed a strategy to bring their vision to reality. They traveled to the synagogues in which they grew up and tried to convince their fellow Jews to embrace a new life in Christ. Soon, however, pagans and Gentiles began to learn about Christianity and wanted to be part of the new church. You would think that it would be exciting for those early apostles to have newcomers flocking to their services, but as the numbers of Gentile Christian wanna-be’s increased, the apostles’ anxiety increased. Those first followers of Jesus were afraid that if they let Gentiles into the church, the Gentiles would bring all of their novel ideas and Gentile ways into the community and before long, the church wouldn’t be the church as they had envisioned it becoming.
God had to make it clear to the apostles that God didn’t need followers who were resolved to become the perfect church of their imagination; God needed followers who were open to God’s prompting and willing to be changed by new ideas; who were willing to be flexible as they welcomed strangers into their midst.
When my son, John graduated from high school, we in the church made a video for him and Neal McDowell to play as part of our senior recognition ceremony. In the video, members of the congregation shared advice on how John and Neal could best navigate their new lives in college and to this day 16 years later, I can still remember the best of those offerings. Amanda Butts peered into the camera and she said, “I have one word for you: adjust. If your roommate leaves their clothes all over the floor — adjust. If the work load is harder than you thought — adjust. If you don’t get on the team — adjust. No matter what happens — adjust.”
So too, what God wants from us is a willingness to adjust, to be flexible to new ideas and experiences, to take a moment to listen to those who differ from ourselves, to let go of preconceived ideas about the way the world should be, to give up our certainty that we know what is best for ourselves and open our hearts and lives to God’s vision of who we might be.
For the year 2021, I propose that this be our resolution: instead of resolving to change this or that about ourselves, we resolve to allow ourselves to be changed for the better by those around us, by our friends, our family, both our neighbors and strangers, and especially by our God.