The Hope of New Beginnings

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, December 10, 2017

With yesterday’s snowfall, it feels like winter is upon us. Even though it doesn’t officially arrive until the solstice on December 21. I actually like winter. I like shoveling snow, the invitation to shovel Zen-like, methodically and mindfully. I like to imagine the winter falling upon us, the way the snow does, bringing a change of pace, bringing quiet to the land. I like how winter makes one glad to come indoors, to get warm and be cozy; how this season invites a quieter, more interior way of being for a while.


Can you imagine living in the tropics, where the seasons don’t change much and the days never get particularly long or short? Some of you might say, “Sure, I could go for that!,” but don’t you think that the changing seasons we have here are good for us? My spiritual life is so tied up with the seasons and their dance of light and dark; their ever-changing invitations to us, to draw in and to reach out, to be active and to be contemplative. I felt this last Wednesday at Vespers, here in the dark; I felt the deep blessing that this season offers, its invitation to watch and wait.

Earlier this week, I was talking with a trusted colleague about my ministry, and he asked, “What is wanting to emerge?” I loved his question, which is such an Advent question. It made my heart glad to think, “Hey! New things can happen! I don’t have to constrained by the past. I can do things differently, can try on new ways of being.” This made me happy and hopeful, and these words from the prophet Isaiah, which are at the top of the order of service today, came to mind: “Behold, I will do a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19).

These Advent days, and these winter months, are a good time to sit with our selves, to take an accounting of our lives, to ask, “Am I spending my life the way I want to? The way I ought to? Are there things that need to change?”

Sometimes we think of change on such a large scale that it seems daunting and impossible. “What can I do to change the world?,” we wonder, as if that’s a reasonable task, as if it’s all up to us. Wouldn’t a better question be, “What difference do I want to make today?” Do you ever ask yourself, “Are there patterns of behavior in my life that aren’t helpful, things I want to stop doing? Are their practices that are good for me and those I love, that I want to take on?”

Some of you have told me about the ways you’ve changed your lives. Like the day you decided to stop drinking, and how that has made such a difference. Or when you decided to seek counseling, or start going to the gym, or coming to church. I am in awe of the capacity you have, to take what you have been given, which can include some tough things; and do your own work, and, day by day, transform those hard situations into lives that are good, and a blessing to others. It is a privilege to hear your stories, to bear witness to your courage and your resilience. You give me hope. 

Helen Keller, who knew something about struggle, said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” In this season that invites us to have hope, isn’t the place to look for it right here, in the stuff of our lives? In our capacity to change and grow, to make a fresh start; as the gospel says, to go home by another way.

I’m not saying we do this all on our own. I need help from teachers and companions and the leadings of the Spirit. I am convinced that new beginnings are always possible, that we do have the power to change; that we have more agency and power than we imagine. What if you started channeling Isaiah and the Holy and started saying, “Behold, I am about to do a new thing!”

There is plenty in our contemporary culture that encourages us to be passive; to see ourselves as spectators and consumers, to be sheep-like, herd-able;, a number, a statistic, part of the crowd. No wonder people feel hopeless!

But that’s not who we are! Or what we are meant to be about. The UU minister Victoria Safford articulates our calling so well; listen to what she says:

“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — 
not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; 
nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; 
nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges; 
nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ 
but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, 
the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, 
the place of resistance and defiance, 
the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is
and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; 
the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — 
and we stand there, beckoning and calling, 
telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”

Isn’t this what we are trying to build, in this church and in our particular lives? A place of truth-telling, a place from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, where you find joy in the struggle?

This is the mystery and the promise of faith, that if we meet God anywhere, it is right here, in the beauty and in the mess of our lives. In the stuff of this good earth. It’s why we are drawn to stories of light shining in the darkness, of consecrated oil that, against all odds, doesn’t run out, of the Holy One coming to earth and being born in a humble stable—because we need to be reminded of the pregnant possibility that exists right here—in these bodies, in these humble and holy places, in this moment and this day that we have been given.

Our job is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope. I’ve made copies of Victoria Safford’s words so you can take home with you today if you want. These days, it’s so important that we be hopeful. That we keep faith and spread good will. So please remember that you always have a choice. You have agency. You have the power to make a change, to make a new beginning. You don’t have to be bound by your past. 

Take a moment now to be still. Close your eyes if you will. Take a deep breath, and ask, “What is wanting to emerge in me?”

What is wanting to emerge?

My spiritual companions, let us hear the invitation to come home to ourselves. To make room for what is unfolding. Let us hear Lynn Ungar’s invitation not only to the Maccabees, but to us as well:

Come down. Try to remember
of domestic faith -- the pot
set to boil, the bed made up,
the table set in calm expectation
that when the sun sets
we will still be here.

Come down and settle.
Unlearn the years of hiding.
Light fires that can be seen for miles,
that dance and spark and warm
the frozen marrow. Set lamps
in the window. Declare your presence,
your loyalties, the truths
for which you do not expect to have to die.

It would take a miracle, you say,
to carve such a solid life
out of the shell of fear.
I say you are the stuff
from which such miracles are made. (Lynn Ungar, “Chanukah")

I say you are the stuff from which such miracles are made.