Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | January 2, 2022
Whatever happened to New Year’s Resolutions? They used to give us something to think about during the first few weeks of January. This year – I’m going to exercise more – take up a new hobby – actually write those thank you notes. That was then. This is now – I’m going to keep an adequate supply of face masks and try not to get sick.
One way to look at resolutions is to imagine them as a pathway to success. What I do empowers me to become the person I want to be. Or hinders as the case may be.
Our actions reveal our inward being. At times we might do something, say something or act in a certain way and we think, “That’s not who I am.” The act goes against the grain of our soul. We try somehow to get back to our true self, or the self we would hope for as our true self.
These thoughts have all been swirling around one statement from our readings this morning from the first chapter (verse 12) of John’s story of Jesus – “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…”
The story is set up by the idea that God reveals God’s self in the person of Jesus. It says that no one has ever seen God – but Jesus being close to the heart of God shows us what God is like. Simply stated – God is like Jesus.
If we are to “resolve” anything a good place to begin is to think about the people who have taught you along the way. Not just your teachers in the formal sense, but the people from whom you have learned something important about life.
Ask yourself, “What am I about?” and then think about who has helped you define yourself – who has been part of God’s process of empowering you to becoming the best person that you can be?
What am I about? This is a question I’ve been pondering my whole life. I’m still working on the answer. When I was young, I decided to “accept” Jesus and as life went on I decided to follow him. That journey has led me to various places in geography, mind and spirit. I’ve met many people along the way in person and through their writings who have influenced me and who I converse with in real life or in my imagination.
When I meet with challenges or challenging people, I try to ask myself, how do I respond to this as a person of faith. What does it mean in this situation or with this person, to be a follower of Jesus?
In the early days of Christianity being a follower of Jesus was not about following a correct set of beliefs. It took a few centuries before people decided to settle on Christianity as a belief system. Church councils agreed on creeds, like the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. Then what happened was that Christians started killing other Christians for believing the wrong way.
I tend to think God is bigger than that. God is bigger than our ability to imagine. My primary task is to remind people that it is as we give and receive love that we touch upon God’s purpose for our lives. And I try to remind people to live their hopes and not their fears because they/we are held in holy hands by a love that will never let us go.
My guiding philosophy these days is along the lines of “live and let live – love and let love.”
If someday I stand before the Creator and hear, “You got it wrong,” then all I can say is I tried to err on the side of love, mercy and grace.
As we go through life, we receive advice along the way – some of it welcome and some of it not so much. People tell us what they think we need to know for our own good. Some people discover truth as wisdom by listening and heeding wise counsel. I want to be that person. Some people discover the same truth as the experience of the shipwreck of their life when it comes crashing against the hard rocks of reality. I don’t want to be that person.
One bit of advice for which I will forever be grateful came through a three-month program called “Clinical Pastoral Education.” Many hospitals in the U.S. offer this program for people training for ministry. The basic premise is to learn the art of listening.
I signed up for the program toward the end of my seminary training. The hospital was called St. Joseph’s and it was run by the Roman Catholic Church. The director of the program was a Unitarian Universalist minister named Ward Knights. There were only five students in the group – me and four nuns. I wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?”
What I experienced from the people in the program and the other hospital chaplaincy staff was a deep sense of care and concern for me as a person and non-judgmental acceptance. That might seem like fairly basic stuff, but it was eye-opening for me. I came from a religious system that made clear divisions between those who were saved and those who were unsaved. The whole point of that system was to get the unsaved over to the saved side. Because that’s what Jesus did.
But what I began to see was that how Jesus went about his mission was simple. He basically went around and listened to people. Sure, he was a teacher, but his teaching came from a deep well of understanding of people that came about because he primarily listened.
It was a profound relief to simply learn how to listen to people. That listening was in and of itself and important ministry. To listen with no agenda at hand; to listen without waiting for an opening or hook on which to proceed with a convincing argument. Simply to listen.
The day I was to go out on my assigned ward and begin listening to people, one of the Roman Catholic Priests took me aside and said, “Don’t try to save anyone. Just remember that Jesus has already done that.”
That was a burden lifted. That simple bit of advice has stayed with me through so many situations. Especially those where the great temptation is to try to jump in and Do Something! Because what good are you if you can’t do anything to make it better!?
If God is the author of salvation, whatever that term may imply, then God is the giver of that gift. God is the one who determines what that gift means. I’ve come to believe that God’s determination is, by whatever measure we apply, generous and more generous than our doctrines and dogmas would allow.
There was a program I used to listen to on BBC radio called, “My Teenage Diary.” Well-known people came on the show and read from what they wrote as teenagers and they talked about what advice they might give to their younger selves.
If you are still in your teens, what advice might you give to your older self?
Knowing what I know from this vantage point, what might I say to my younger self?
When I asked this question to the children in McGrath a couple of weeks ago, I got some interesting answers. I would say to my younger self –
Be happy and enjoy your life because your life is going to be an amazing adventure.
Don’t be afraid to fall in love – your heart will get broken and you will break a few along the way, but love will win out and you will be happy.
You will be a dad to three great individuals; you will be a granddad to five great individuals; you will always be the little brother to your siblings.
You will have many great friends along the way.
Don’t worry so much about what other people think of you, don’t take yourself too seriously and keep your sense of humor because it will get you through the tough times.
You will travel the world and live in exotic foreign lands.
You will study and learn to your mind’s delight.
You will have some interesting jobs – shoeshine boy, dishwasher, waiter, bus driver, lumber jack, fire fighter, paper boy, janitor and church minister.
You’ll make some mistakes, but you recognize stupid mistakes for what they are, so the mistakes you make are nothing from which you can’t recover. Learn from your mistakes and learn from the mistakes other people make.
If you want to avoid the end-of-life regrets, then don’t be afraid to take risks. It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all.
Practice the virtue of forgiveness. Grudges will only weigh you down.
Take care of yourself, set healthy boundaries, take some time off on a regular basis
If you want to know the meaning of life you will find it in this: love yourself, love others and love God. Life is more journey than destination and love is what matters most.
So, for this year I may indeed make a few resolutions –
- To listen and learn.
- To be kind.
- To affirm the dignity of others.
- To live my hopes and not my fears.
And to keep a face mask in the car. Amen.