This homily was preached on January 6, 2019, as part of the multigenerational Fire Celebration service to mark the new year.
Happy new year! Let us rejoice and be glad in this day, this moment, this year of promise. Let us marvel at a sky full of stars at night and of one particular star during the day. Let us give thanks for this place, these people, a community learning and growing together.
I say this with the full awareness that there are some messed up things in the world, ranging from the microscopic germs we are fighting off in our bodies to disagreements with other people, to extreme weather brought about by climate change, to a government shutdown that leaves federal employees and especially contractors and small businesses that depend on them in economic uncertainty. We humans have a lot to clean up. There are forces out there telling us that the world cannot be fixed, that we might as well roll over and let exploitation and despair take their course. As people of faith, we must resist those forces.
E. B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, once said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
I am here to tell you that we can do both. In fact, we should do both. Giving thanks for what is moves us forward to what can be. We strengthen our resolve when we know that the arc of the universe is long, when our imagination soars to the horizons of time, and also when we can count blessings in the here and now. The forces of evil hate it when there is joy amidst the struggle to resist them. Gratitude and joy give us energy to continue caring for one another and ourselves, to continue witnessing for justice, to continue building families and communities for peace. We are strong enough to hold, at the same time, the knowledge of all that needs saving and improving and restoring, and also the knowledge of what is hopeful and positive and life-giving.
You may have seen the article “99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear in 2018,” by Angus Hervey on the blog, Future Crunch. This article collects stories from reliable sources that were reported throughout the year.
Optimistic stories don’t always show up in the headlines. Yet positive stories are extremely valuable. When we get good news, we can find out what’s working and resolve to take those strategies into the future.
UNICEF reported that 25 million doses of a new cholera vaccine were administered globally, and preparations began for the largest vaccination drive in history. South Africa, home to the world’s largest population of people living with HIV, revealed a 44% decline in new infections since 2012, according to an article in the Telegraph. The blog Undark reported that the global rate of new HIV infections has been falling since 2010. Though HIV is on the rise in some parts of the US, rates are decreasing in much of Africa, Western Europe. and the Asia Pacific region.
There were several places in the world that made advances for LGBT rights this year, including Costa Rica, India, Lebanon, and Pakistan. Scotland decided this year to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights into its state schools curriculum.
Environmental news had some bright spots as well. Deforestation in Indonesia fell by 60%. The United Nations said that the ozone hole would be fully healed over the Arctic and the northern hemisphere by the 2030’s, and the rest of the world in 2060. In central Africa, the population of endangered mountain gorillas was reported to have increased by 25% since 2010. The United States set a new record for coal plant closures this year, shuttering 22 plants in 14 states.
These are just a few of the hopeful stories from around the world listed in the article. I know that 2018 was a difficult year for many of us. We lost loved ones, we lived through disasters and setbacks, we witnessed disappointing behavior from people who held our trust. We need to face our challenges, and yet we also need to square up with progress, opportunity, and the love that runs through it all. Now we have a chance to turn the page.
There are things we are ready to leave behind about the last year. We are releasing health challenges, disappointments, grudges, and griefs, adapting from those experiences to face the future. We are releasing apathy and cynicism, ready to resist the powers and principalities of evil. Let those things go! Leave behind the things that block our ability to feel gratitude and hope. Move past the thought-patterns that create barriers to compassion and solidarity. We are releasing attachment to habits that wear down our own humanity and that of others. We might make some mistakes, or slip back into old patterns. But we are in the process of becoming. We can build on what is going well, because some things are going well. Let us take responsibility for our choices, and let us do better in the bigger picture.
I notice that the good news stories from 2018 all begin in the past. The statistics go back ten or fifteen or twenty-five years. One of the ingredients to progress, it seems, is to take the long view. We make a change and commit to it, even when it is not glamorous, even when the improvements need a very large ruler to measure them. Let us strengthen our resolve by looking at the big picture, past the pop-ups from the 24-hour news cycle.
Another thing I noticed about the good news stories is that almost all of them were achieved by people working together toward a common goal. The positive stories about world health came about because researchers, doctors, nurses, policy makers, and family members worked together to save lives.
We need communities to sustain the changes that will outlast our lifetimes. We need communities where we can teach and learn throughout our lives, passing skills both up and down through the generations. We need communities to comfort us in sorrow and encourage us during our challenges. Let us strengthen our resolve by returning to community, sharing our time and resources, and renewing our covenants.
One more thing about the 99 good news stories: they were unimaginable at some point. When the President of the United States in the 1980s would not use the words HIV or AIDS, we did not imagine we would get to this place of widespread treatment. Cholera, coal, and ozone depletion seemed unstoppable, and to be sure we still have work to do, but now we know that despair does not have the last word. It took imagination and courage to overcome these forces.
Transforming the world through the power of love takes creativity and daring. Let us strengthen our resolve with imagination, gratitude, and beauty. Let us revel in our capacity for wonder, and let us keep moving forward.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.