January 14, 2024

"New Year, New You, New Lump?"

1 Corinthians 5:6-8; 2 Corinthians 3:18

Last week, you may remember, I connected New Year's resolutions with the idea of self-loathing. Someone suggested to me after the service that self-improvement isn't necessarily bad, especially if one's intent is becoming better. I agree. Maybe the word "resolution" is what I struggle with. It sounds so definitive- I resolve to always do the following until the day I die!" Then, when those resolutions fail, we beat ourselves up over our failures. So, perhaps a better way to look at improving ourselves can be by saying we intend to do something better or differently.

As a new year dawns upon us, many intend to do better in some part of our lives- hoping to change certain habits, take better care of ourselves, etc. I looked up resolutions for 2024 and found a "Top Five" list online. Any guess as to what the number one intention is for most people? One source I found online listed the top five resolutions for 2024 for people in the United States/. According to Statista.com, with 60,000 Americans recently surveyed, the following intentions for self-improvement made the top five:

  1. Save more money  59%
  2. Exercise more 50%
  3. Eat healthier  47%
  4. Spend more time with family 40%
  5. Lose weight  35 %

How do you get those intentions to stick? Researchers said telling people your plans helps because sharing goals may make you more successful at reaching them. So then, if you have an intention for this year about yourself, I invite you to share it with your neighbor.

My intentions for 2024 include eating healthier. We just got a juicer, and I've tried having a protein fruit shake for lunch once or twice a week for a meal. In addition, I want to improve my overall health by losing weight and getting to the Y more often. Those are my intentions regarding my physical self.

I often focus on the physical part of me but neglect the spiritual part. That changes this year for sure, as I'll be taking a sabbatical beginning in April. I'll be away from ministry for three months to focus more on my spiritual intentions. My spiritual director will assemble a weekly guide to follow- helping me pray, read, listen, and contemplate regularly. By doing this, I hope to draw more and more toward the likeness of Christ.

Yet, when I think about life as a Christian, it isn’t just at the dawn of the new year that I should look at my intentions for living out my faith. For Christians, trying to change or alter ourselves to be like Christ is a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year. Paul speaks of that change we work for in 2 Corinthians 3-18, which says, "18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit." Theologian Leighton wrote, "God loves us the way we are, but too much to leave us that way." Following Jesus, looking at and struggling to live out his teachings, has challenged and shaped me over the decades to become the follower I am today. I still have a long way to go, from one glory to another to another, etc. Through God’s love expressed in the Messiah, I’m not who I was and have yet to become who I indeed shall be. Thanks be to God.

The Apostle Paul wrote those words and experienced a dramatic change in his life. God brought him closer and closer to living in Christ. His experience of being changed from glory to glory made him want to share that intention with his congregation in Corinth. 1 Corinthians 5:6-7 says, "Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Paschal Lamb has been sacrificed." Jesus is the new leaven to be enfolded into the dough of faith. The congregation in Corinth no longer had to rely on the law- the commandments alone. The Messiah changed that forever. Christ changes the dough through his love, teachings, sacrifice, and rising. Christ raises our dough and makes us more and more like him.

Paul is telling the church to remove the old leaven, which stands for the old law, and replace it with the new leaven of Jesus. The unleavened bread reference is also a reference to Passover when unleavened bread was the only thing the Israelites had time to make as they left Egypt for the Promised Land. Paul says the only leaven the Corinthian church needs is Christ, the paschal lamb whose sacrifice can forgive sins and whose teachings we are called to follow so that the congregation at Corinth may become new lumps of dough. Christ is the only needed ingredient in the unleavened bread, making that new lump into the bread of sincerity and truth.

So, as Christians, our job is to be new lumps, free from the other covenants, molded and shaped by the teachings of Jesus so that we can be more and more Christ-like each day. Is there possibly a top 5 list of teachings of Christ we can put together that we can aim for in 2024 and beyond? Yes.

Matthew 5-7 holds the mother lode of Jesus' truth. His sermon on the mount lists those who are blessed and therefore important to Jesus- the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who try to change the world working for justice, mercy, purity, and peacefulness, and those persecuted for Christ's sake. Jesus then speaks against anger, lust, oath-taking, revenge, loving enemies, humility, forgiveness, greed, and judging others.

In Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul says, "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma." So, rather than make resolutions once a year to be better people, we as Christians try our best to be "New Lumps," more Christ-like every day. To mold this into a top 5 list is a bit difficult. But here, as I see them, are the priorities Jesus wants us to have in life so that we can be made into new lumps of dough - Christians who are more and more like Christ, our Messiah.  

Here are five intentions to try to live into for 2024. Focusing upon any ONE of these five areas will help the world and enable us to become more Christ-like.

  1.  Work for God's justice. Care more for people in need because they are blessed and important to Jesus; therefore, they should be important to us. What does this entail? Here are a few examples. Reach out and help those who are poor. Give regularly to the Little Free Pantry or the Ashland Community Food Bank. Support local organizations like OHRA or St. Vincent de Paul. Come swing a hammer, paint a wall, or build a fence when we begin the Habitat All-Faith home in Ashland. Help one family move into their forever home. Support a global charity that helps lift people from the grip of poverty. We have supported a child through Compassion International since we married 36 and ½ years ago. We've helped at least five people grow from young children through adulthood, supporting them with basic needs, school education, and faith guidance. Support those working to bring about God's justice upon the earth- the missionaries, the social justice workers, the ones who challenge the powers of the day with Christ's actions. The church's session voted last month to give specific funding to a Presbyterian mission worker in Israel. He is working to bring about reconciliation and peace between Palestine and Israel, following the call of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Choose to give alternative gifts at birthdays and Christmas. A gift of a flock of chickens to a developing country through the Presbyterian Giving catalog or Heifer International can make a difference in someone's life. image - J
  2. Turn from hatred. Being angry with another person, seeking revenge, hating the other- Jesus warns us of the dangers of anger and hatred, of judging others. Hatred and bitterness can destroy relationships.17th  Century Anglican theologian William Law wrote, "If I hate or despise any one person in the world, I hate something which God cannot hate, and despise that which God loves." Is there someone in this world you hate or despise? Jesus tells us to pray for them and to see them as God sees them. Is there someone you judge due to their appearance, politics, or country of origin? Sometimes, I hear that little voice in my head when I see someone or hear someone with markedly different views on the world, and I begin to imagine all kinds of judgmental things about them. 14th-century theologian Thomas a Kempis wrote, "How rarely we weigh our neighbor in the same balance in which we weigh ourselves. "Judgment, which springs from hatred, keeps us from focusing on the log in our own eye, instead paying attention to the speck in our neighbor's eye. Dough imagel - H with a circle slash
  3. Be humble. This teaching of Christ keeps us from greed, lust, or swearing false oaths. Being humble means recognizing our sinfulness and regularly trying to place others and their needs before our own. A wise Christian once said, "Humility is nothing else but true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one really is." The difficulty with humility, as I have said before, is that once you have it and know it, you can lose it. Dough image - pretzel
  4. Focus on forgiveness-Jesus speaks about forgiving others for their sins when teaching the disciples to pray in Matthew 6:12-15,  saying, "If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Is there a person or persons whom you need to forgive whom you can contact over this next year? German theologian Corrie Ten Boom wrote, "Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hate. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness." Dough image - cross
  5. Love others. Focus every day on the great commandment- "to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind and with all of your strength, and love your neighbor as you love yourself." (Mark 12:29-31) All of Jesus' teachings are found in this great command from Jesus. I am part of a men's group that meets seven times in seven weeks during Lent and Advent. We begin each time together, reciting this great commandment. It helps us live into this intention to love. Dough Image - Heart

I remember when our family first came to my last call in Fort Bragg, CA. We loved going to a specific pizza parlor in town regularly. When the kids were young, the servers would bring each of them a lump of pizza dough to play with while we waited for our food. They both worked with their hands and made various things- animals, letters, little mini pizzas, while we awaited our yummy pizza. This morning, you can shape an intention with God, using your hands, connecting to God's Spirit in you.

Theologian Eugenia Price wrote, "If Christ lives in us, controlling our personalities, we will leave glorious marks on the lives we touch. Not because of our lovely character, but because of his."  So today, you can head back to the long tables in the narthex to make the shape you intend to focus your faith on. Let that new leaven of Jesus change you from the inside out! Your creations will then be baked, and you can consume them during fellowship. As you prepare to consume your bread, ask God to help you live out this new spiritual intention daily. Tell God of your intention to make that change in your own life. Then, you'll be a new lump! God be with us, new lumps, each and every day, as we are changed more and more by Christ's ways and more and more into his likeness to be new and different people. Alleluia! Amen.