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Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14

Revelation 1.4-8

Party Like It’s New Year’s Eve

(Counting Our Blessings)

Last Sunday after Pentecost

Very often on the first Sunday of Advent, which is next week, we talk about how it is the beginning of the new church year.  The seasons of the church year – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide and Pentecost – begin their cycle once again next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent.  But it never really occurred to me until earlier this week that if next Sunday is New Year’s Day in the church, then the Sunday before must be New Year’s Eve!  Right?  And what do we do on New Year’s Eve?  Well, these days, we go to bed early, but with the recent time change it feels like we’re already doing that.  New Year’s Eve is also a time to consider to the year ahead, and at our Congregational meeting later this morning, we’re going to do some of that as well, discussing and voting on a budget that will be one of the tools we use to do mission and ministry in 2022.  And we’re going to hope and pray that 2022 improves on 2021 in terms of what you and I are able to do together.  But before we can make any resolutions, and before we can begin looking ahead to the next year, whether it is the ecclesiastical yar or the calendar year, it’s also important to look back to understand where we’ve been together in the past year.  And it certainly has been a year, almost two years in fact, that taught us a few things about who we are as a congregation.  What have we learned about ourselves, and what might that mean for us going forward?

Our scripture lessons this morning are similar to each other in that they are both visions of glory.  Both describe a future that is firmly rooted in the past and both are filled with a kind of hopefulness that is built on trusting God.  Revelation brings us the familiar verse, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come.”  Notice how the past, present and future are commingled with one another: the one who is and who was and who is to come.  So I’ll take my cue from the Bible’s last book and look to the past as a way of peering into our future.

If it is New Year’s Eve on the church’s calendar, it is Thanksgiving Sunday on everyone else’s, so my look backward this morning is colored with gratitude in so many respects.  First, as we noted on our very first Sunday back together in the beginning of May, during the time our United Church of Chester remained quarantined and worshiped exclusively online, we did not lose anyone to Covid.  Several of us came down with it, but all our precautions and care kept us safe and well and alive.  Remember the haiku, “We isolate now / so when we gather again / no one is missing.”  Admittedly, we have lost two members of our church family since we’ve come back together, and it’s likely at least some of us have lost a family member or a friend to Covid – I know I’ve lost two - but still I think as a congregation we have reason to be grateful that we got through it.  Of course, the pandemic is not over, and we cannot let down our guard, as tempting as it may be.  But even if this were the only positive of the year behind us, it would be more than enough reason to be thankful.

I think we can also be grateful that, in a difficult year, we maintained our material support of the church.  Just think:  we have not passed the offering plate since March of 2020 and yet we have been able to preserve a vital and vibrant ministry through it all.  Some of you took care of your offerings electronically, some of you mailed them in, and a delightful number stopped by the church office in order to keep your pledges current.  Even though so much of everyday life was effectively put on hold, you all found a way to keep us moving forward.  The fact that we can present a balanced budget as you’ll see in a few minutes is due in no small part in our collective diligence in following through with our commitments to our church.  And I need to add, this is not the experience of every church, because being restricted to remote-only worship for a year plus has hobbled more than a few congregations.  So feel free to give yourselves a pat on the back during today’s budget meeting, you’ve earned it.

Still, I understand it’s not fair to compare ourselves to other churches, because every congregation has its own unique set of circumstances.  When John wrote the Revelation, he understood this all too well, and we get a hint of his method in this morning’s New Testament lesson.  The salutation in chapter 1 begins, “John, to the seven churches that are in Asia,” and offers a general word of greeting to them all.  But beginning with the second chapter, John gets very specific and offers detailed, site-based words – some are words of encouragement, some are words of correction - to each of the seven churches individually.  He commends the church at Ephesus for weeding out false prophets.  He encourages the church at Smyrna, which is mired in poverty.  He has mixed words for Pergamum, a church that, while holding a steady faith, has allowed some questionable teaching to seep into its ranks.  He commends the love and patience at Thyatira, but calls out a false teacher by name.  He rebukes the laziness of the church at Sardis and commends the witness of the Philadelphia church, though they have a small and limited ministry.  And he worries about the church at Laodicea, whose witness is timid, sluggish and lukewarm.  John knows his churches in Asia Minor, and gives each one the encouragement or the correction it needs.

And what was true in John’s day is true in ours as well.  We cannot compare our church with another.  We all have different strengths, we all have different challenges, we all have different responses to those challenges.  But that doesn’t prevent me from appreciating and being grateful for the ways we have navigated the pandemic so far, and it certainly never precludes my bragging about all of you – or at least humblebragging about all of you, when I get the chance.

So I won’t compare congregations.  But I do have a keen concern for my clergy colleagues, not simply those in the UCC but across denominations.  I am concerned because, like so many of the other helping professions, clergy have been under enormous pressure in the past twenty months.  Some of my colleagues have left their churches for new congregations.  Some have taken early retirement while others have just up and left ministry altogether.  Some have crashed and burned.  One church I know well is on their third interim since the pandemic began.  Times have been turbulent for many of my sister and brother clergy.  Which makes me all the more grateful for you.  For your patience as Karli, Mari and I have tried to implement novel ways of navigating this new reality.  For your flexibility as we continue to discover what works and what does not.  For your grace as we make mistakes and for your kind words when things work out right.  For your partnership in creating and maintaining a God-centered community of like-hearted people.  For your ongoing commitment to doing ministry within and far beyond these four walls.  For being the church in challenging times.  This Thanksgiving season, this New Year’s Eve in the church’s life, my backward look  has reminded me of the many blessings God brings into our midst; and my forward look suggests that we are capable of doing more, of making a difference and changing lives for the better.  This Thanksgiving season, this New Year’s Eve in the church’s life, I am grateful for all this and more.  I am grateful for you.

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