So This Is the New Year – 11/21/21

Perhaps because of my advanced age, New Year’s Eve has lost some of its luster.  No longer to do I plan or attend elaborate parties, often not even staying up until midnight.  But one thing that has never changed is my desire to make resolutions.  What has also never changed is my inability to follow through on them.  There is a song that I always think of at the New Year by a band named Death Cab for Cutie.  The first line of the song is, “So this is the new year.  And I don’t feel any different.”  So often we plan to make a change, but when the time comes to make that change our commitment dissipates.  And we go back into old patterns because we can, because they are comfortable, because they are easier than doing the work of change.

You may feel I am getting ahead of myself by giving a reflection on the new year.  But in Christian circles, the church year begins with the first Sunday of Advent.  In a sense, our new year begins next Sunday. The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word for “coming.”  And while we typically think of advent only in terms of the weeks leading up to Christmas, in the broader sense advent refers to the emergence of something of significance.  Perhaps more than any other time in my life, these last two years have raised my awareness of the need for such an emergence, not only in my own life but in the life of our society.  I and maybe some of you need to move from a hope for change to the emergence of a real shift, a recognition of the power we possess to make that shift and a commitment to exercise that power.

In our text for this morning, we are introduced to Ezra.  Ezra was facing significant trials as he sought a new beginning for himself and for the people of Israel.  Ezra was a priest while the Jewish people were returning from their exile in Babylon.  And he became the man appointed by the king of Persia to help restore Jerusalem after the devastation it suffered.  The book of Ezra indicates he led a group of 5,000 exiles back to Jerusalem after being commissioned by Persian authorities to investigate the conditions there, to see whether they were consistent with Jewish laws that leaders among the exiles considered authoritative.  Ezra brought with him a copy of the law, authority granted by the emperor, donations for the temple, and permission to use Persian state funds as needed.

The first thing which the returning exiles needed to embrace a new beginning was to restore things which had been damaged.  They begin by restoring the altar of the temple, placing the new altar on the foundation of the old.  They restored their spiritual practices,  began again to practice their sacred festivals.  They were determined to restore all of the previous sacrificial rituals which they were unable to practice in their exile.

It was after an initial group of the exiled Jews returns and the temple is rededicated that Ezra arrives.  He has a long and perilous journey to arrive back at Jerusalem.  When he arrives, he learns the people had lost their identity.  They had fallen into practices not in keeping with the law.  The struggling community in Jerusalem had lost its distinctiveness.  We read Ezra tore his garments, pulled hair from his head and beard, and “sat appalled.”  But after he takes this time to express his anger and disappointment, he prays.  He weeps.  And as the people witness Ezra’s action, they to make a new covenant to embrace a new beginning.

We see from the story of Ezra that distractions, that setbacks, that roadblocks are part of our journey to a new beginning.  But it is the push through these roadblocks as we seek to achieve a new beginning which matters.  There may be many reasons that we need a new beginning, to return from a form of exile back into a meaningful connection with our spirituality, to once again feel a sense of community, to let go of pain from ways in which we have been exiled, to live the life we have always hoped for or that we once experienced and have lost.  Maybe, like the Israelites, we experienced a displacement, a trauma, and we never really recovered from it.  Or maybe we have just become complacent.  But there is always an opportunity for a new beginning.

The problem with new beginnings is that we often encounter obstacles.  And our ability to continue on the new path we take often depends on how we react to those obstacles.  While the Jewish faith faced significant challenges during the exile, they responded in a powerful way to these challenges.

From the calamity and difficulty of the exile came a faith that could survive and prosper in any nation or circumstance.  And this encouraged them when they encountered struggles to rebuild the temple.  People who were living there when the exiles returned discouraged them, made them afraid to build, and bribed officials to frustrate their plans.  But in their commitment to a new beginning, they persisted.  Rebuilding a temple, rebuilding a sense of connection to their spirituality, could not happen without breaking through these obstacles, without clearing some of the burdens which had weighed them down.

But this new beginning was met with mixed reactions.  We also read in our text for this morning that not everyone celebrated the laying of the foundation for a rebuilt temple.  While many shouted with joy, many also wept.  Those who had seen the former temple, those who still held images of what once had been, were more overcome with sorrow over what had been lost than filled with joy over what may come.

Years back I was much heavier than I am now, so I made the decision to lose the weight.  And over the course of a year, I lost about 40 pounds.  I realized the only way I may be able to maintain what I had lost was to get rid of some things.  Kathy and I went through my closet and bagged all of the clothes which fit me when I was larger to donate.  I didn’t want a fallback.  They reminded me of the person I used to be, and I needed to make room for new things which fit the person I was now.  And I knew if I held on to those clothes it would be easier for me to fall back into old habits.

What I have come to see for myself, and what I see in the story of Ezra and the those returning from the exile, is that if we have a real recognition that we can’t go back the commitment for change becomes easier to sustain.  There are many things that we hold on to because to truly let them go would be too uncomfortable.  Truly letting go of our anger, our hurt, can also make us feel like we are letting go of our power.  Truly letting go of expectations we once had or things we loved but no longer exist as they once were means acknowledging we may never experience them again.  And while we don’t want to hold to those things, we also fear what will happen if we let them go.

As I mentioned, our theme for Advent this year is “Making Room.”  As we begin a new church year together, and as you as a community move toward a new time of being together, we need to feel different and to be different.  In January, we will vote on what is next for NCC.  My hope is that these next weeks of Advent will be a time when we make room for what is next for us both as a community and individually.   Over the course of the life of this church, expectations have been born, some met and some unfulfilled.  Relationships have been formed, some which remain strong and others which have fallen into disrepair.  In order to make room for what is next, we may need to let go of some of what we are holding on to.

Ritual is to me an important way to mark a transition, to name a moment when we choose to move forward under a new framework.  As we enter this new year in the Christian church calendar next Sunday, I offer a ritual to mark this time in our individual lives and in the life of this community as each of us seek to make room for what is next by letting go of some of the burdens we have carried, put off some of the obstacles which have stood in our paths and thereby make room for something new which may emerge.

This is drawn from a Jewish tradition called Tashlich which means “casting off” in Hebrew.  This ritual is typically performed on the first day of Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish new year.  It involves symbolically casting off our burdens by tossing pieces of bread into a body of flowing water. Just as the water carries away the bits of bread, so too are our burdens symbolically carried away. Tashlich originated during the Middle Ages and was inspired by a verse uttered by the prophet Micah: God will take us back in love; God will cover up our iniquities, You will hurl all our sins Into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19).

During our time song of response, I invite you participate in the ritual of Tashlich as we prepare for a new church year together.  You are invited to approach the table with the bowl of water which symbolizes cleansing and healing, pick up some bread crumbs that symbolize those things we need to cast off, and then sprinkle the crumbs upon the water.  Should you wish, you may wish to say the Rabbinical prayer written on the card in front of the bowls.  “Divine One,  I am ready to let go.  May I release myself from all the ways I feel I have missed the mark. May I stop carrying the baggage of my disappointments. As I cast this bread upon the waters, lift my troubles off my shoulders. May I know that the past is over, washed away like crumbs in a current. Open my heart to blessing and gratitude. Renew my soul as the dew renews the grasses.  Amen.

May this ritual mark not only the beginning of our new year, but a new year in which we not only feel but are different.