The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday after Christmas
December 30, 2018
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
It’s too bad that we all know the first few words to this great Scottish poem by Robert Burns, and then mumble through the rest of it on New Years’ Eve. It’s powerful little poem, asking us, “is it right that old friends and old times should be forgotten?”
In a world fixated on the future, it seems that we’ve all answered this with a collective, “yes.” We are busy planning, making resolutions, thinking about the next step, the next move, the next job, the next house, the next campaign, the next election. How much of our lives are spent in preparing for the future rather than living in the present, rather than reflecting on the past?
I feel this pull even in the church. There are programs to plan for next year. Ash Wednesday is not far away now, Easter is always coming. The pledge campaign is always coming. I’ve been working on this new church building since January of 2013, and it seems that for the last six years I’ve been living in this weird, future world. Yes, there is much to be gained out of careful planning for the future, but something is lost if we do not take care for our old lang syne.
Today and tomorrow, before you head out to your New Years’ Eve party, I ask you to stop and reflect. Sit down in your prayer chair, which I hope you have, and ask yourself a few questions. Who are the people that you have lost this year? What are the relationships that you’ve gained? What are the memories that you’ve made? What regrets do you have, what gratitude do you still have to offer? Before you make a resolution for 2019, did you follow through on your resolution for 2018? Take a moment to stop and think about this old lang syne that God gave us.
This kind of reflection pairs perfectly with the Gospel of John from today. John’s Christmas story has no angels or shepherds or wise men. No, John gives us this beautiful poem on light and dark, and on life, and most of all, it’s a poem about grace.
In only the way that John could put it, he says, “from God’s fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Indeed, that’s what John’s gospel is all about. It’s about a God who makes water out of wine, who restores the Samaritan woman, who heals the blind man, who even rises from the dead. John’s whole gospel is about God’s fullness, and from that fullness we all receive grace upon grace.
We ought to think back on the grace we have received as a church community, too – we buried one parishioner this year, our beloved sister Sherry Godden. We gathered in this place to give thanks for the grace of God in her life. There was a grace even at the graveside service – Sherry is buried not more than 100 feet from another one of our beloved sisters, Dolly Renton. Two women who sat near other in church for years now rest together for all time. We could say that’s coincidence, I say it’s grace.
On Ash Wednesday, God graced us with hundreds of cars for Drive-Thru Ashes. I remember the thrill, the grace of seeing the first construction trucks arrive, of them shutting down Spring Cypress Road to deliver that giant crane, the grace when we signed the steel beam that now stands above the altar. We’ve celebrated our last Easter, our last Christmas in this place. Somehow, despite our best efforts, despite hurricanes, mold, lightning strikes, and everything else, this building still stands. Talk about grace.
I look back on my own ministry this year, a year in which, I too, have received grace upon grace. You know, when you are in the process of becoming a priest, everybody tries to scare you out of it with their church horror stories. About parishioners who sabotage clergy, about Vestry meetings gone wrong, about loneliness and sadness. It’s our own version of hazing. But they never tell you about the grace upon grace you receive from being in this privileged ministry. This year I’ve prayed with you in the hospital, I’ve celebrated your wedding, I’ve brought communion to your home, I’ve shared meals with you, we’ve laughed great, big, belly laughs. Truly, I have received grace upon grace. And this has been the work of God.
Grace is the unmerited, unearned, undeserved gift of love from God. And what I have learned is that the more I receive and the more I’m grateful, the more I receive again. This is not some sort of prosperity gospel, in which we can substitute money for grace. No, this is about a God who piles on more love than I could ever imagine; the same God who transforms gallons upon gallons of water into wine, who transforms five loaves and two fish into a banquet for thousands. And for me, this love has been made manifest in the conversations I’ve had with you, the tears I’ve shed with you, the laughter, the disagreements we’ve had. From where I stand, we have received grace upon grace.
Now, there is always a temptation in the church to think that things can only go downhill from here. That things are so good now, that the other shoe is bound to drop. It’s a skewed form of nostalgia, to hang on too tightly to what we have, believing that the grace we have received is the only grace we will ever receive. That God will only give us so much and no more. All too often, I’ve seen churches collectively refuse to believe in what the Gospel of John says about Jesus, “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” It shocks me, to this day, to meet Christians who choose self-righteousness over humility. Who choose self-aggrandizement over generosity. Who would rather trust in themselves than in the hands of a gracious God. Who would rather be stingy with what they have than to give back in the same extravagant way that God has given to us. I’m still saddened when I refuse grace both for myself and for my neighbors.
My own Christian life, my own ministry in this church has taught me that John was right. A gracious life is the only life worth living. This has been light shining in my life. A life without the receiving and the giving of grace is a cold, brutish existence.
As we move on in John’s gospel, past this poem on light and dark, we will read that Jesus performs seven signs, seven miracles. But at the end of John’s gospel, John writes, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.” That’s me, and you. That’s John, talking about the things that Jesus has done for us. We could not even begin to remember all the wonder that God has done for this church, for everybody you know, for everybody who has ever lived, and for that we are grateful.
Returning now to that old Scottish poem – God our oldest acquaintance, surely has not forgotten us. I trust that in 2019, God will give grace us again because God will live up to the auld lang syne. For God, the auld lang syne is how God created us, loved us, redeemed, us, rescued us, gave us more than we could ask or imagine. When you’re toasting and singing the chorus of that great old song on midnight tomorrow night, close your eyes and for a moment, imagine that it’s God speaking to you.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
Come now for one last cup of kindness in 2018, in this auld lang syne. Approach this altar, this sacrament with gratitude for all that God has given you this year. Drink from this cup of kindness, of God’s kindness, and be grateful for God’s grace upon grace.