Giving Thanks for a New Year

If we look closely at the world, we can see two timelines unfolding side by side, moment by moment.

First, you have the worldly timeline. We all know about that one. It’s the one that brings us headlines about bombings in Paris and in Bangladesh. It’s where we hear about mass shootings in Colorado Springs. It’s the timeline of hostile corporate takeovers and  the motto “He who has the money has the power and makes the rules.”

Of course, it’s not all bad. It’s the world of evolving technology and business as usual. It’s hanging out at the  movie theater and sending picture postcards from all over the world. It’s also the little stuff….dinner with our family, reading a good book, or walking the dog.

On this worldly timeline in the United States, we celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday. As a country, we took a day to focus on gratitude. We gave thanks for family, friends, freedom, food, and the many blessings of this life. Happy Thanksgiving!

The second timeline is what you could call the Kingdom timeline. Look at at the last few weeks to see what the Kingdom of God timeline is all about. Last week, we had Christ the King Sunday. Jesus told Pilate “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

That’s what the Kingdom of God timeline is about: bringing truth into the world, about bringing Christ into the world. It’s about spotting and tending and nurturing holiness in the world as we go about our day. It’s about inviting God into the dark spaces and the scary places. It’s about shining a light on anything and everything that brings love and life.  It’s about understanding that there is a whole lot more to the world than what we can see and hear and touch.

new-years-eve-1004535On this timeline, we are celebrating a New Year that is beginning today with the first Sunday of the Advent season. Today is a day that brings a clean slate and an opportunity to choose new directions and new ways of being. It’s a day for New Year’s resolutions—plans of how we can bring ourselves and the world closer to the Kingdom of God. Happy New Year!

On this first day in a new year, we hear the end of what scholars call an apocalyptic discourse. Here at the beginning, it seems as if our scripture is focused on endings. At least at the start, it uses a bunch of pretty scary words: distress, confusion, fear, and foreboding. As always, though, when we tackle these scriptures, we have to hang in and keep reading. Jesus says: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Redemption is drawing near. That’s definitely a Kingdom of God timeline statement. Redemption is the action of being saved from error, evil, and sin. But it also has a worldly connotation. Redemption is about clearing a debt. It’s about gaining or regaining possession of something once payment has been made.

Jesus tacks on a parable to this statement—about knowing that summer is coming because of the new growth that comes to “the fig tree and all the trees.” What the disciples know, but we probably don’t, is that the fig tree in scripture points to and references the coming of prosperity and peace of Israel and the reference to the other trees points to all of the other nations. It’s important to know this allusion—because it points to a better world that goes beyond the worldly timeline and references the Kingdom of God timeline.

Finally, Jesus tells us that we need to be on guard, and that we need to be alert and pray.  That’s the recipe for success: We need to believe in redemption. We need to look for signs of the coming of the Kingdom. We need to stay alert and to remain in prayer.

This is where we find ourselves as Christian people living in a secular world… The reality is that we are living on both timelines simultaneously. We are being pulled between worldly temptations and cares. We are being called to something more.

Our job, then, is find those moments when we can point to the Kingdom of God as it breaks through in the world. Our job is to help make it happen and to encourage it. Our job is to look for something that goes beyond our worldly expectations and make room for something extraordinary.

I was reminded of this very recently on a Netflix original television series called Master of None. In the scene I’m thinking of, the two main characters, Dev and Rachel, were having dinner in Nashville, TN at a rib joint. They had ordered way too much food, especially because Rachel was a vegetarian and Dev couldn’t decide which meat he wanted to try. 

Dev said, “Let’s look on the bright side… Maybe on the way home, we’ll meet a homeless person to give it to.” Rachel responded, “Or even better, maybe we’ll discover that Nashville has eradicated the problem of homelessness and we’ll have to throw it away.”

That’s what redemption looks like—it turns things on its head and looks at things in new and unexpected ways. It’s partly about having a vision and its partly about helping it to happen. The best thing is that redemption can start small. Just this week, I encountered it at least twice.

On Friday, my friend Judy wanted some company to brave the mall to return some clothes to a store. I agreed to tag along because, well, that’s what friends do—even on Black Friday, perhaps the longest and hardest day of the year for those who work in retail sales. We headed to this children’s clothing store—and were greeted by a friendly young woman who immediately jumped in and tried to find the right sizes and styles to replace the clothes we were returning. She was a dynamo.

As we finished the transaction, my friend said, “Thanks so much for all your help! We are off to find hot chocolate now.” This young woman said “You are so lucky! I love hot chocolate.” My friends immediate response, “Then we’ll bring you some…” The cashier looked startled, but said “that would be amazing.” And so we took off on our mission of mercy…and it felt great.

Last night, an email arrived in my inbox from the NextDoor online community. This is a social media site that brings together people who live in the same area into neighborhood groups so that they can share messages, offer items for sale and the like.  Let me read you this one fellow’s quick message to our Belmont community. He said: If you drive up Davey Glen and see a guy with a bike on a sidewalk ( not too far from Whispers Cafe) , please consider giving him a lift! I see him there often. He is not able to push his bike up the hill. Yesterday he was there waiting for a lift for three hours ( in such cold)! So if you see him and you have space for his bike, see you can help him out! (He lives just up the hill.)”  Now, I extend this man’s invitation to you… if you see this man, give him a hand if you can. You won’t regret it.

Here’s my point: Everyone in the world has opportunities to make a difference. Your platform and influence may be broad or narrow, your impact may be small or immense, but every time we have an opportunity to point to the light and we do it, it makes a difference. Every time someone offers us help and we accept it graciously, we become part of bringing grace into the world.

In this past week, we have celebrated gratitude in Thanksgiving and today we are pointing to the great opportunity that each new year brings. God has called us to be alert and to watch. God has promised us transformation and invited us to be part of it.

Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at the Church of the Epiphany, San Carlos, on December 30th, 2015. (Advent I, Year C)

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