New Year's in September
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 12, 1999

Readings

Genesis 1:14-19 The great lights to mark the days and seasons

And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth." And it was so. God made two great lights--the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the fourth day.

John 4:31-36 The fields are ripe for harvest!

Meanwhile Jesus' disciples urged him, "Rabbi, eat something."

But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about."

Then his disciples said to each other, "Could someone have brought him food?"

Jesus said, "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me, and to finish his work. Do you not say, 'Four months more and then it will be the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. The reaper is already drawing wages and harvesting the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may rejoice together."

Arcana Coelestia #37 The change of the days and seasons

The statement that the lights will "serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years" contains more secrets than can be presented at this point, even though in the literal meaning, there seems to be no secret at all. For now, I can say only this: When it comes to spiritual and heavenly things, change takes place both on the large scale and on the small scale, and is very much like the changes that take place throughout the day and the year. Changes throughout the day are from morning to midday, from then on to evening, and through the night to the morning. Changes in the year are similar, from spring to summer, from then on to autumn, and through winter to spring. These bring changes in the temperature and amount of daylight, and therefore in the fertility of the earth. The changes that take place in spiritual and heavenly things can be compared to these changes in nature. Life without change and variation would lead to sameness, and therefore to no life at all.

Sermon

And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth." (Genesis 1:14, 15)

Hello again, everyone! (Well, not quite everyone--there are several who could not be here today for our opening service.) It's great to be back, starting another year at our church. This will be my fourth year with you, and I don't know if you're feeling it, but I'm feeling that this year promises to be one of growth and change in this church. And in that spirit of change, I've decided to change the time that we celebrate New Year's to . . . today! Let me be the first to say, Happy New Year! (I considered throwing confetti at this point, but reconsidered when I realized that if I did, I'd probably have to clean it all up!)

Now this may seem to be a strange thing to do. But I experienced an even stranger holiday switch this summer. I was on my way to the Post Office in Middleboro, humming along with the church bells that were chiming out a melody, when I suddenly realized that here I was, walking down the sidewalk in my shorts and T-shirt on a hot July afternoon, humming "The First Noel"! When I got back home and told Patty about this strange occurrence, she said, "Oh yes, the church thrift shop is having a "Christmas in July" sale. So if their church can celebrate Christmas in July, our church can celebrate New Year's in September! And in fact, yesterday was Rosh Hashanah, which is the New Year on the Jewish calendar. So that's another excuse for celebrating the New Year at this time.

But the real reason I want to celebrate New Year's today is that in our church year, the New Year comes, not after Christmas, but in the fall, when summer schedules end and regular services and Sunday School start up again. This is the time that congregations gather together again and begin the worship, activities, and programs of the church year.

As we begin this new church year, then, let's take a look at where the cycles of seasons and years, months and days came from. We do not have to look very far; their origin is in the very first chapter of the Bible, in the Creation story--which we will be learning more about next week in our first Sunday School session. We read, in an expanded version of our text:

And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth." And it was so. God made two great lights--the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. (Genesis 1:14-16)

The very first thing to notice here is that the seasons and the days and the years are created by God. And God does not create things just for the heck of it, but in order to accomplish definite divine purposes. So why did God create the changes of the seasons and the days? Swedenborg helps us begin to answer this question when he writes, "Life without change and variation would lead to sameness, and therefore to no life at all" (Arcana Coelestia #37). That's a challenging statement! Sameness leads to no life at all? Let's think about it.

Here in the temperate zones, we're used to major shifts in the weather from the warmth of spring through the heat of summer, to the coolness of fall and the coldness of winter. And many of the plants and animals that live in parts of the world that have these major seasonal shifts depend on those changes to complete their life cycles. Deciduous trees renew themselves by dropping their leaves each fall and growing a new crop of leaves in the spring. Many mammals renew themselves by hibernating through the winter, giving their bodies a long, nearly complete rest, so that they can make a new start in the spring. Even the insects have life cycles adapted to the seasonal changes so that they winter over in cocoons or in underground nests, gradually germinating next year's hatch of new insects. And many of these plants and animals that are adapted to these great seasonal shifts cannot survive in the tropical climates, where there is not such a big variation in the seasons.

But what about those lush, tropical areas? They don't have the kind of seasons we do, and yet they seem to survive just fine in such "sameness." Yet even though their seasons may be more subtle, they still exist. In many tropical areas there is a rainy season and a dry season, and the plant and animal life is adapted to those variations. In some warmer areas of the world, there is a fall crop and a spring crop. The summer is too hot, and the winter too cool for the crops to grow well at those times. And the same variations of day and night exist in the tropical areas as in the more temperate climates. Everywhere, life depends on the variations of day and night, and of spring, summer, winter, and fall.

If we think further about Swedenborg's statement that "Life without change and variation would lead to sameness, and therefore to no life at all," we realize that change is part of the essence of life. Consider it. What is the difference between a rock and a kitten. Yes, the kitten is a lot warmer and fuzzier! But even more basic, a kitten grows and changes over time, whereas a rock stays mostly the same. In fact, things that are not alive are characterized mostly by erosion and decay, whereas things that are alive experience not only erosion and decay, but growth and development. That is what makes them alive rather than dead.

Even in a relatively stable adult animal or human being, there is constant change as long as life continues. There are the gradual changes in our bodies that take place as we mature and then age. There are the weekly and daily cycles of labor and rest, sleep and wakefulness, eating and eliminating wastes. There is the moment-by-moment cycle of breathing in and breathing out, and always the constant, rhythmic beating of our heart. Without these, we cannot continue to live. On an even smaller scale, within our bodies there are those amazing processes of the blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to each cell in our body, and carrying away the waste products that are no longer useful. Some cells are dividing and multiplying; other cells are dying and being reabsorbed. Change, renewal, and growth are the constant companions of all life.

Yet as astounding and unfathomable as this intricate, living web of nature is, there is an even more astounding and unfathomable level of life. For as Swedenborg tells us, every type of change, growth, death, and rebirth that we see in the world of nature around us and within our own bodies is an expression of still more amazing processes of change, growth, death, and rebirth that happen within our souls, and in our communal life with one another. It is not only the life of plants and animals that depends on constant change, but also the life of our souls and our communities. If sameness in the world of nature leads to no life at all, than sameness of spirit would just as surely lead to spiritual death.

This can be both an unsettling teaching and a comforting one. On the one hand, we humans tend to be more comfortable with sameness--with our usual paths and our usual routines--than we are with continual change. Change is scary. Change means we can't do things the way we're used to doing them--that we have to learn new ways. Change means that things will never, ever be the same again. And our tendency toward nostalgia causes us to look back and think that the way things used to be is better than the way they are now. If only things could have stayed the same as when I was growing up, and everything was wonderful and carefree! (Of course, they weren't very carefree for our parents!)

And yet, that is not the way life is. And it is good that it is not the way life is. Because just as with plant and animal life, sameness leads to deadness. We are not the same as we were when we were children, or teenagers, or young adults, or middle aged. And it is good that we are not the same. Because we have grown. We have grown in our understanding of the world and the people around us, and that means we can treat both the world and our neighbors better than we did when we were younger and less understanding.

We have grown through difficult experiences of facing sickness and death among our families and friends; we have grown through struggling with personal and financial difficulties, through struggling with our parents, our children, our brothers and sisters, our friends, our lovers. And because of that growth, we are able to weather hardships and setbacks that would have crushed our younger selves. We are also able to help others through their pain and their struggles in ways that our younger selves could not have done.

And as we look back at the ways we have grown through our life's spiritual summers and winters, our spiritual days and nights, our faith tells us that as our life continues on from this point, we will continue to grow through all the pleasures and the pain, all the sorrows and the joys that our life still holds in store for us. For we know that it is God who has created us to be living, changing beings--beings that do not just sit there like a rock, gradually weathering away, but beings that change and grow through every new and different circumstance that we encounter.

It is in that spirit that I invite you to celebrate with me this New Year that we are now beginning together as a church. Just as each of us individually goes through our spiritual summers and winters, our spiritual days and nights, we together as a church experience our times of lying fallow and wintering through the slow times, and our new springtimes of growth and renewal. As individuals, we can each look back at our lives and see the growth that has taken place through it all, and look to the future with faith that God will bring about new growth in the life ahead of us. In the very same way, we as a church can look back at the times of struggle and the times of renewal in our church, and see the ways we have grown as a community of faith. And we can look forward to this new year, and all the years to come, with faith that through our present and future labors, God has a rich harvest of spiritual growth awaiting us--a harvest of growth in love and wisdom; a harvest of new kindness and new ways of being of service to one another and to our community.

"Do you not say, 'Four months more and then it will be the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. The reaper is already drawing wages and harvesting the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may rejoice together" (John 4:35, 36). Amen.

Music: In the Meadow
Bruce De Boer


 
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