A New Chapter
Hello Chapel Family! How good it is to be here together again. The choir is back! The clergy are back and so are those in our community of faith who’ve been travelling! Upper class and grad students are filtering back on to campus. And there are the newest members of our family, whom we welcome with wide-open arms. Wherever life has taken each of you—physically and/or spiritually—in the recent or distant past, I hope and pray that the journey was a blessing. Sometimes the most blessed journeys are not the easiest ones, and if the road you have taken has been strewn with boulders, I hope that some grace has been the outcome for you.
I continue to give great thanks to God for this Chapel family. Each of us is here for a reason, and those reasons vary greatly, but the experience is similar. You have told me that you are here because you want to think while you believe and believe while you think. You have told me that you love the music. You have told me that you just want to sing. You have told me that you want to be part of a community of faith that doesn’t require a financial or time commitment—that you are at a moment in your spiritual life when you really need simply to be fed. You have told me that you love this space. You have told me that you love this University. You have told me that you want to be spiritually and practically challenged. You have told me that you love the people here. The common refrain under each of these perspectives and many more is this: you tell me that you feel accepted here, that you are accepted and cherished by God and accepted and welcomed by other persons here. I do not receive this news lightly. I thank God for it, because I think that at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is both radical acceptance and costly discipleship. I look forward so much to another year together, and with our newest family members too, to the hard work of discerning how to be faithful, and how to practice the gospel ethic of radical hospitality, especially in a time of such challenges to the gospel ethics of hospitality, and of neighbor love, and of anti-materialism (anti-thing-ism), and of simply loving. It is a new year, and therefore a new chapter in our corporate life. May God give us the faith and the grace to inscribe well the testimony of our individual and shared lives in the year to come.
Our passage this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans is wonderful and timely instruction for us on being a faith community of welcome and acceptance. The believers in the first churches in Rome were having real challenges with these things. He tells them to get past the differences in practice that they have. They don’t worship exactly the same way. They don’t live exactly the same way. Their interpretations of what their discipleship in Christ should mean for their social and political opinions are very different. Paul tells them that these things are a permanent fact, and they aren’t what matter. The practices of piety are up to the individual while the heart of the issue, and the heart of any Christian community, is a person’s relationship with God. There is room for differences, even the most significant, when the emphasis of the community is seeking closeness to God. One biblical scholar says of this passage, “It is tough to praise God when you are passing judgment on other people.” Indeed! Paul reminds the believers in Rome that they are not each other’s judge. Energy spent evaluating one another, sizing one another up and rendering judgment is energy taken away from praise, from gratitude, from love of God. We live to Christ, says Paul. We die to Christ. In the end, we who love Christ are answerable to God and Christ and not each other. Paul reminds us all that God has welcomed each of us, so who are we to deny anyone welcome? If we make ourselves judges of others on God’s behalf, we need to stop it right away. Paul had deep concern for the church in Rome because if they didn’t abandon their exclusivist ideas regarding theology, they would truly never be able to share in witness and ministry together to their city. We live to Christ. We die to Christ. We who love Christ are to live in grace with one another—for Christ, for each other, and for all the world.
We live in a world with so much disagreement, with so much rancor. Those of us who spend our days on Princeton’s campus are part of a university community with endless differences amongst its members, not least of which are differences of personal experience, identity, opinion, and belief. Paul’s teaching for us has me thinking about a ministry that each of us, wherever we are, might take part in as part of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. As with our spiritual ancestors in Rome, we can engage in a ministry of helping people to hear one another. We have our own opinions and beliefs and we must share them, but our real gift and faith practice may be in helping others simply to understand one another, to think about their perspectives. They may never change their minds and often that shouldn’t be the goal. Rather, we offer what Paul later calls “the ministry of reconciliation”. We can help reconcile people to one another, to have a bridge of appreciation, if not agreement. We can inhabit our faith in Christ by helping those he loves, which is all people on earth, to live respectfully and well together. In some places, religious differences devolve into segregation or violence. In this country, some say we have become two countries, so profound are the differences in political opinion. Our ministry of reconciliation can be to help all sides focus their words and deeds with our shared national values in mind, as in Rome, Paul told the believers to accept their differences and focus on their shared faith in Christ. My intuition is that this campus is going to have a year of especially vital activism from many camps on a variety of issues. How necessary will be our ministry of reconciliation! Some perspectives in our society are extreme, such as white supremacy, and so we strive to reconcile those who think this way with the gospel ethic of human equality. All of it would be challenging work for us, but such a profound testimony of faith.
Many people see January 1st as a good time to start something new, to set goals, to undertake a project. For me, who has spent all but two years of her life either attending school or working at one, these weeks are as much the start of a new year as New Year’s Day, with the same feeling of opportunity for starting a new effort. I’ve mentioned a ministry of reconciliation as a faith goal or intention. What others can you identify for yourself? Each new year is a new chapter in our lives that we get to write for ourselves. I actually wanted to title this sermon not “A New Chapter” but “A New Hope”, but that phrase is now permanently tied to the original (and in my opinion, the very best!) movie in the Star Wars series. But it really is a new hope that we get with the start of a new year—a new hope from the source and end of all our hopes, which is God. For what would you like to hope? Put another way, how will you live in hope this year?
Our text from Exodus concerns the beginning of the Hebrews’ great project of escaping slavery in Egypt and heading into the wilderness towards the Promised Land. God is moving, so the people need to be ready to go, too! It is always time to follow where God will lead—every day. A better land awaits, but we need to be prepared and willing to walk to it. The journey takes as long as it has to take, or as long as we make it take. I read a commentator this week who noted that the wilderness was made such an impenetrable maze to keep the people from ever going back! Indeed, sometimes we give up on a difficult challenge even though we know it is incontrovertibly right.
As we begin living in a new hope this year, let’s each think about where we are, and how that place might differ from a graced destination that God has in mind for us. Let’s think about how we can follow God, and thereby relocate our bodies (if need be) and our souls. What does “new life” mean to you? Where is God leading you, and how is God doing that?
How blessed we are just to have a new year, a new hope, a new chapter before us. How blessed we are to live in Christ, and in the palm of God’s loving hand. How blessed we are, like the Hebrews, to be supplied with bread from heaven for the journey. How blessed we are to have the fellowship of one another, faithful companionship on the road. No road worth taking is free of ruts and boulders, and so when they come let our refrain of praise simply be: how blessed we are.
www.workingpreacher.org, Exodus 12:1-14 by Casey Thornburgh Sigmon and by Anathea Portier-Young; Romans 14:1-12 by Audrey West.