New Year's Sermon
Since that September day, mistrust and fear of one another seem to govern the world. Everyone distrusts everyone else all around the globe.. It is our personal decision whether to take to heart the harsh idea of the ancient Romans that "a person is a wolf to others" or that word of the prophet Isaiah "Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid." This sermon is translated from the German. May the New Year be one of open arms, not clenched fists!
New Year's Sermon
By Martina Hofman-Becker
[This sermon from January 2002 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.dike.de/Missionarische-Dienste/Predigt_DB/P0201/p2002_10htm.]
"I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me; you were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4, 10-13)
"All that you do with words or works do in the name of the Lord Jesus and thank God, the Father, through him" (Colossians 3,17)
I write this sermon in the middle of October so it is intensely influenced by events in the US and Afghanistan's bombardments. What will humanity suffer up to the turn of the year? Will the fire flare up? Will the world community reverse the spiral of violence? I observe in me a germinating hatred of Americans that alarms me (and is not Christian). Our church administration was silent about the last bombardments. Even the pope didn't speak when it became really serious...
Writing this sermon and controlling my rage are not easy.
The longer I spent with the text, the more fascinating was its nearness to our present situation. The heartfelt openness with which Paul accepts the gift of money of the Philippians shows his joyful confidence amidst a depressing reality (prison, threatening death sentence). He rejoices over the gift and even more over the sincerity of the givers. Gratitude for the gift is expanded to gratitude for relationship and gratitude for life.
Paul is outwardly imprisoned and maltreated and yet inwardly free and full of vitality.
We imagine we are free and unattached and yet meander in the traps of earthly mammon.
The causes of recent violence are reflected in this "primitive Christian self-sufficiency". We become entangled in homemade cages of our dependence on possessions and become poor in our wealth. This freedom to serve and share demonstrated by Paul and the Philippians is lost to us. We don't understand the art of living in watchful humanliness even in prosperity. Anxious desire for security takes our breath and stifles our buoyancy.
The text in the Letter to the Philippians is a farewell letter and legacy to the community most loved by Paul in view of the threatening death sentence. Gratitude and acknowledgment of the gift to the community are prominent in the text. Gratitude for relationship and life in view of death arise out of gratitude for the donation.
Structure of the sermon:
1. Our present situation is depressing.
2. The evil seems to break free and become independent; we are paralyzed.
3. How can we become free, confident and alive?
4. Paul draws a picture of a happy relationship that makes him free and joyful in prison.
5. Can such freedom to serve and share also help us out of our entanglements of possession?
The New Year is free and without marks of happiness and pain, joy, mourning, sickness, fear, guilt and culpability. The New Year seems to me like an untouched field of snow on a glorious winter morning in which I consciously and carefully set my footsteps. I am almost afraid of planting my tracks in this great inviolate expanse. But if I want to reach my goal, I must venture a beginning. What will be the steps? The first steps will certainly be timid but then I will courageously go my way. What steps can and may I take in this New Year? What does God "expect" of me?
Two years ago, dear community, we all crossed the threshold to a new millennium that was exciting and special. Worry about the adjustment or changeover of our computers occupied us. Would they adjust in the new millennium? Now they are running and silent like all of us. None of us suspected at that moment that only two years later we would be quieter and (hopefully!) more reflective at the threshold of the year's transition. Much more worries us than the worry about our computers...
Abysses of human madness opened up before us the past fall, suddenly tearing our normal dreamy everyday life in a few moments. Appalled and shocked we look at the inconceivable measure of destructiveness and cold calculation that people can inflict on one another. Our Babylonian towers of power and prosperity collapsed overnight. The limits of feasibility mania are reached because we people inflict unspeakable suffering and burning grief on one another, not because God intervened as in Babylon of old.
Since that September day, mistrust and fear of one another seem to govern the world. Everyone distrusts everyone else all around the globe. Was that the first concrete form of globalization?
The bitterly terse knowledge of the ancient Romans comes instinctively to mind: "Homo hominis lupus est" - a person is a wolf to others. The thought sends shivers down my spine. Has nothing been learned in 2000 years?
Many anxieties occupy us this New Year morning. We wouldn't have come together if we didn't feel overwhelmed by these worries. Even if we look at the future with some foreboding, we share a certain hope that brings us together even in this hour, not an uncertain hope. The easygoing "Happy New Year" last night may have been more seldom or softer... As a Christian, I know myself deeply secure in God's hand in these days of suffocating contemplation of the future.
From this certainty, I can dare trust today. I can and will wish my friend "a good blessed New Year" and rejoice over everyone who said a word of blessing to me. Christians are not handed over defenseless to the rulers of this world. "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control" (2 Tim 1,7).
It is our free personal decision whether I or we take to heart the harsh idea of the ancient Romans as a motto for this next year or that word of the prophet Isaiah given to us as a watchword: "Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid" (Isa 12,2). This word is several hundred years older than the saying of the Romans. Its comforting effective power has spread over the whole earth in the course of the centuries. This word of Isaiah will comfort and strengthen many people today and in the course of this year, not only in this church service.
Why do we people always trust the power of evil so much and not the power of the good? Only because the evil is louder and appears uncanny to us? One can repay evil with evil or seek to overcome it with good (Rom 12,21). We need only believe in our good possibilities, trusting the good entrusted to us by God.
We come from Christmas and have all celebrated the feast of Jesus Christ's birth. But do we also believe that God wanted to be born in our world and in our hearts? If God defenselessly hands himself over to this world in the form of a little infant, can we think so cheaply of ourselves? Don't we have a supportive liberating message to counter the dark powers of this world, the only message that can break the spirals of violence?
God intends that we become the mangers of the Redeemer of the world. This is his exaction or expectation on Christmas.
The ancient Romans died off sometime or other. Their "Pax Romana", the hollow peace pressed by force of arms, has not redeemed the world. We contemporaries will not bomb peace into existence. Peace can only grow where the peoples favored by nature with good conditions of growth and life understand this as stewardship over God's good creation entrusted to them by God and not their merit.
When will we really learn in the New Year to build our Babylonian towers more humbly! When will we begin to refer the word "civilized humanity" to our fellow persons and not only arrogantly and haughtily to ourselves! When will we stop speaking of the first, second and third world! Only through genuine rethinking can we realize that something new can grow against all seemingly negative signs.
The evil is powerful, loud and visible. The good is quieter, moderate and more modest. Nevertheless the good is stronger, more lasting and more resistant. Will we succeed in making this visible in the New Year? Will we Christians learn to show, live, proclaim and radiate our strong and certain hope against all the signs of fragile human power structures?
No society can survive in the long run without "religio" or bonds to good binding rules of community (the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff distinguishes survival as a species and survival as a family). People seek and need a counterpart, an orientation for interpreting meaning, setting values and determining goals, a religion. The philosopher and peace-prize winner Jurgen Habermas declared very objectively: Only religion has long given differentiated expression to moral feelings.
What makes this "religio", this anchoring to good habits, so convincing for philosophers? What is so positive is the law of love - that almost sounds na´ve - from which the God-fearing person trusting God lives and acts. This is the certainty of being God's beloved and valuable creature. Whoever knows him or herself beloved by God cannot think cheaply of him or herself or act cheaply.
The sermon text for this New Year's Day tells of a person who could feel great warmth and sincerity for his fellow persons. Paul sat in prison in Rome amid great privations given a threatening death sentence and wrote a letter of thanks to the community in Philippi with whom he knew himself warmly and closely united:
"I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me; you were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.
I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving except you only; for even in Thessalonica you sent me help (or money for my needs) once and again. Not that I seek the gift; but I seek the fruit which increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am filled, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen."
Paul shows his joy over a gift of money sent to him by Epaphroditus in the name of the community so openly and warmly that these words 2000 years old shine forth and move us.
His letter demonstrates something of the burden of well-lived interpersonal relations. It leads us in our meditation on this New Year's Day on humanity's survival in the third millennium when the greed of individuals can concretely threaten the possibilities of everyone. A community here lived out the happiness of sharing.
The Philippians were worried about Paul who had fallen into distress in Rome because they knew they were united with him in God's great love that he once proclaimed to them. Now they joyfully give to him what they didn't need, beyond the necessities. Paul answered them plainly and openly. Through this response, the gift above its welcome material value became God's gift.
He writes: I feel from your sincere care for me that life goes well for you. Not only because you can now share but because sharing is your heartfelt need. From a distance, I experience how your heart draws from a fountain where living joy in sharing arises.
He writes: "I don't say this because I suffer want. I have learned to be abased and to abound." Paul doesn't devalue the gift of money. His distress is much too obvious. However the loving care of his community that he kindly accepts is even greater than the welcome donation. Now he is certain that his work of proclamation had borne fruit. The message of the living Jesus Christ arrived in the community that gladly cared for its apostle, not only out of its imposed duty.
Joy in sharing, buoyant life together, being free from the fear that we could become poorer through sharing - wouldn't that be a liberating resolution for the New Year?
Sharing would be liberating because we understand that we can experience more abundance in sharing than in possession and receive new freedom with every renunciation, not only because everyone will suffer want on the earth in the long run through our avarice and because we grievously feel the limits of our feasibility mania. Greed makes people poor, fearful and uncertain. May we accept lightness and vitality!
We are locked in pressures, agitation and dependence. Still the greatest wealth of a person is measured in the things that he or she can confidently renounce (according to a Buddhist teaching, the truly rich person can lose all he has without sorrow).
Outer and inner security will be the great theme in our country in the next year. Let us be honest: We will not feel more secure through more controls and protective measures. We will only become free of fear where we entrust good to one another. Many will rightly say this is an exaction. May God exact and expect much from us in the New Year! We should trust our good possibilities . God shines through all trust that we give to one another. Amen.
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